Genealogical Solutions to the Problem of Critical Distance: Political Theory, Contextualism and the case of Punishment in Transitional Scenarios
(2021) Res Publica
In this paper, I argue that one approach to normative political theory, namely contextualism, can benefit from a specific kind of historical inquiry, namely genealogy, because the latter provides a solution to a deep-seated problem for the former. This problem consists in a lack of critical distance and originates from the justificatory role that contextualist approaches attribute to contextual facts. I compare two approaches to genealogical reconstruction, namely the historiographical method pioneered by Foucault and the hybrid method of pragmatic genealogy as practiced by Bernard Williams, arguing that they both ensure an increase in critical distance while preserving contextualism’s distinctiveness. I also show, however, that only the latter provides normative action-guidance and can thus assist the contextualist theorist in the crucial task of discerning how far certain contextual facts deserve their justificatory role. I prove this point by showing how a pragmatic genealogy of the practice of punishment can inform the contextualist’s reflection about the role this practice should play in a transitional scenario, i.e. in the set of circumstances societies go through in the aftermath of large-scale violence and human rights violations. © 2021, The Author(s).
Contextualism; Genealogy; Methodology; Political theory; Punishment; Transitional justice