The Skillful Self: Liberalism, Culture, and the Politics of Skill

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9780739123348: The Skillful Self: Liberalism, Culture, and the Politics of Skill

The Skillful Self: Liberalism, Culture, and the Politics of Skill presents a political liberal theory of cultural participation and the goals of cultural policy in contemporary pluralistic democracies. The ideal of cultural participation, which many regard as central to the self-conception of modern constitutional democracies, is often subject to the distorting influences of state perfectionism, paternalism, consumerism, and ideology. These distortions and the problems they raise are intensified by the forces of social, cultural, and economic globalization.

Using the tools of contemporary liberal theory,The Skillful Self develops an approach to the politics of culture that focuses on the concept of skill and its place in a liberal conception of the self. Support for this approach is derived from the work of Nussbaum and Sen, who make a conception of human capability basic to their views of public policy and the design of political institutions. But the politics of skill modifies the capability approach by characterizing the central human functional capabilities as functions of the skillful self. The final chapters of the book describe the competences of the skillful self, elaborating a new typology of skills and explaining why basic institutions are obliged to promote them. To make the role of skill in the central capabilities explicit in this way is not to invoke the perfectionist ideal of a culture of skill, but rather to focus on the structural role of skill in a nonperfectionist conception of truly human functioning, and on the social conditions of individual capability viewed as a function of skill.

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About the Author:

John Stopford, PhD, is a philosopher and writer.


Skillful Self is an excellent introduction to many contemporary theoretical debates in political theory. Stopford's strength as an author is to place the reader among the debates of contemporary political theory, to bring the reader along Stopford's dialectical back-and-forth development to his own conclusion. At the same time, the book crucially advances the debate over cultural poltiics by arguing that liberal principals of justice must be rooted in a richer conception of the self than what we find in the homo economicus model. (Review of Metaphysics)

This is a book or remarkable breadth and depth. It sets out an examination of political philosophy that spans the North Atlantic, and it shows that in the depths of the common conception of government there is an unattended area that gets filled badly if it isn't filled well. Generically it's called culture, and what John Stopford specifically pleads for is a culture of skill. It's all done in a style that is both brisk and incisive. (Albert Borgmann, The University of Montana; author of Real American Ethics; author of Holding on to Reality (1999))

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