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Terrence Ball -- Whither Political Theory - Reading for 1-18-2012

Terrence Ball -- Whither Political Theory - Reading for 1-18-2012

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Unformatted text preview: 5-‘coAJ 0 At’ Faun-A 1'6. I’burf [L’AM Reappraising Political Theory r3; Pct-6h»- ' 8 ‘l 3 (WI/u} flaws and fallacies—which are notorious and legion—but to show how it pops up in quite unexpected places and is embraced by thinkers apparently unaware of its power and pervasiveness in American culture. I illustrate this claim by looking afresh at three thinkers—John Rawls, Gerard O’Neill, and Richard Rorty—all of whom would, I suspect, disavow my redescription of their respective projects. My aim here, however, is not to identify their intentions but to show how a redescription in cultural or, if you like, ‘mythic’ terms may call attention to and illuminate certain aspects of their work in ways that they might not recognize or agree with. No author isgor can be—aware of all possible sources of or influences on his or her thinking. Nor can one be aware of all the affinities that one’s work might have with that of others, past and present. Nor, for that matter, can any author foresee all possible implications of any line of argument. And It is both daunting and humbling to reflect on the fact that th1s stricture also applies to the author of the present work. 2 WHITHER POLITICAL THEORY? 2.1 INTRODUCTION [The periodic reassessment and reappraisal of the value of what we have inherited from thinkers living and dead is always undertaken from the vantage-point of our own time and circumstance. We reappraise in the light of problems we encounter or choose to emphasize. And we do so with some sense of where We, as students of political theory, have been and hope to go; My aim in this chapter is to say something about where we have been, are now, and might yet go. To supply any sort of forecast for the future direction and condition of political theory is always dangerous, if only because predictions about changing human thoughts, actions, and practices are notoriously unreliable and almost always wide of the mark. One need not be a Hegelian to appreciate the point of Hegel’s warning about the dangers inherent in attempting to go beyond the world one knows and inhabits: Whatever happens, every individual is a child of his time; so philoso- phy too is its own time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as absurd to fancy that a philosophy can transcend its contemporary world as it is to fancy that an individual can overleap his own age, jump over Rhodes. If his theory really goes beyond the world as it is and he builds an ideal one as it ought to be, that world exists indeed, but only in his opinions, an unsubstantial element where anything you please may, in fancy, be built.‘ A warning well taken by the wise and prudent. Hegel’s warning notwithstanding, there is another adage that might apply to the present case: fools rush in where angels (and even Hegel) fear to tread. So, having set off on I G. W. F. Hegel, Philos0phy of Right (Oxford, 1967), I 1. 4o Whither Political Theory? what some might think a fool’s errand, I propose to proceed in the following way. Believing that the past and present may be the best guides to (though not necessarily predictors of) the future, I shall begin by retracing some of the steps taken by political theory and its critics over the last three decades. Second, having said something about where we have come from, I want to say where I think we stand now. And, third, I want to hazard a few half-educated guesses about where we might be headed. Before beginning, I should say I do not claim or pretend to speak for anyone but myself. Many, perhaps most, of my fellow political theorists would tell the story differently and someistraussians, say, or Marxists, or postmodernists—will doubtless take eXCeption to what I haVe to say. And their objections should surely carry considerable weight. But I pro- pose to call the shots as I see them, and to speak autobio- graphically where it seems appropriate to do so. 2.2 THE WAY WE WERE From the mid—19505 until the early 1970s or thereabouts, it was de rigueur to celebrate (if you were a ‘behaviouralist) or to lament (if you were a ‘theorist’) the ‘decline of political theory’.2 In 1953 David Easton announced the end of political theory as it had been and, in a way that might bring the blush of embarrassment even to the cheek of H. G. Wells, predicted the shape of things to come. A ‘normative’ political theory concerned with the structure and proper ordering of ‘the state’ was at last being superseded. The ‘systems’ approach dis- carded the concept of the state and bracketed, if not eschewed altogether, any merely normative concerns. Henceforth ‘the political system’ was to be pared down and seen in proper perspective, as one of several ‘sub-systems’, each having its own characteristic ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’.3 This, needless to say, was a language far removed from the idioms in which political theorists had been accustomed to speak. 2 A. Cobban, ‘The Decline of Political Theory”, Political Science Quarterly, 68 (1953), 321737. 3 D. Easton, The Political System (New York, 1953). Whither Political Theory? 41 Easton was not, of course, the only critic of ‘norrnative’ or (as it was sometimes called) ‘traditional’ political theory. A veritable chorus of critics soon appeared.4 To their voices were added those celebrating the ‘end of ideology’, at least in the West.5 The major social problems had, it seemed, been resolved, or were at any rate well on the way to being resolved. A widespread normative consensus was said to per- vade the Western democracies, and the United States in par- ticular. The American ‘consensus historians’ showed that it had aIWays been thus, and that the dreams, schemes, and the- ories of ‘utopian’ thinkers and ideologues Were bound to come a cropper in an essentially pragmatic culture.6 Unable (or unwilling) to forgo at least a scholarly interest in the unortho- dox and the utopian, political theory was tarred with this very brush. Among the first to note, if not to celebrate, the passing of Utopian thinking were, unsurprisingly, political theorists themselves? It was in this climate tha Peter Laslett ‘ toned, ‘For the moment, anyway, political philosophy is dead.’8 (A curious kind of death, this; but then political theory is a curious kind of vocation.) And even those unwilling to write its obituary r out to lament political theory’s precarious position. @rfiawd Politics and Vision with a lamentation for t e near- ead: In many intellectual circles today there exists a marked hostility towards, and even contempt for, political philosophy in its tradi- tional form. My hope is that this volume, if it does not give pause to those who are eager to jettison what remains of the tradition of 4 See e.g. R. Dahl, ‘Political Theory: Truth and Consequences’, World Politics, 11 (1956), 89—102. For an overview of earlier disputes and a more recent survey, see, respectively, J. P. Euben, ‘Political Science and Political Silence’, in P. Green and S. Levinson (eds), Power and Community: Dissenting Essays in Political Science (New York, 1970), 3758; and J. G. Gunnell, Between Philosophy and Politics: The Alienation of Political Theory (Amherst, Mass, 1986). 5 E. Shils, ‘The End of Ideology?’, Encounter, 5 (1955), 52—8; D. Bell, The End of Ideology (New York, 1960). 6 See R. Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians (New York, 1969), 44446- "'-7 J. Shklar, After Utopia (Princeton, NJ, 1957); G. Kateb, Utopia and its Enemies (New York, 1963). a; 8 P. Laslett, ‘Introduction’ to Laslett (ed.), Philosophy, Politics and Society, Ist ser. (Oxford, 1956), p. vii. C 42 Whither Political Theory? political philosophy, may at least succeed in making clear what it is we shall have discarded.9 And what was about to be discarded, on Wolin’s subsequent telling, is a pearl beyond price whose value only real swine could fail to appreciate. commen ._ -_ wer o essimistic. Some, such as (Isaiah Berlin mild that political theory could not die, at least while its parent—politics—lived. Both, howevor, prefaced their accounts with apologies, albeit assertive ones. In 1960, some four years after Laslett’s obitu- ary appeared, Plamenatz wrote: Even in Oxford, which more perhaps than any other place in the English—speaking world is the home of political theory or philoso- phy, it is often said that the subject is dead or sadly diminished in importance. I happen to have a professional interest in assuming that it is still alive, and as likely to remain so as any other subject as long as man continues to be a speculative and enterprising animal. I do not think that I am biased; I do not think that I need to be. The importance of the subject seems to me so obvious, and the reasons for questioning the importance so muddled, that I do not look upon myself as defending a lost or difficult cause.lo At about the same time, Isaiah Berlin, in a similar spirit, began an influential essay on the fate of political theory with a question. ‘Is there’, he asked bluntly, ‘still such a subject as political theory?’ Before going on to answer affirmatively, Berlin voiced an oft-heard suspicion that his opening question had posed so directly. ‘This query, put with suspicious fre- quency in English-speaking countries,’ Berlin wrote, ‘questions the very credentials of the subject; it suggests that political philosophy, whatever it may have been in the past, is today dead or dying.’11 Both Berlin and Plamenatz went on to deny that political theory was dead, or even moribund. Who then is, or was, right—those who warned of the death orat any rate the imminent demise of political theory, or those who held that political theory was not dead and could 9 S. Wolin, Politics and Vision (Boston, 1960), v. fl“) J. Plamenatz, ‘The Uses of Political Theory’, Political Studies, 8 (1960), 37 ‘1 I. Berlin, ‘Does Political Theory Still Exist?’, in Philosophy, Politics and Society, 2nd ser. (Oxford, 1962), 1. Whither Political Theory? 43 not die? I want to suggest that each, in their own way, was entirely right. To put my point in paradoxical terms: political theory was in some quarters dead or dying; and yet it could not die. . We can resolve the paradox if we begin by drawing (and later withdrawing) a provisional distinction between first- and second—order theorizing. First-order theorizing arises in con— nectlon with the activity of attending to the arrangements of one’s society.12 so long as people live together in communi- ties, fundamental questions will inevitably arise. No commu— nity can long exist without addressing and answering, at least provisionally, questions of the following sort. To begin with, there are questions about justice and fairness in the distribu- tion of duties and resources. What is due to whom, and in what order? Questions about offices and authority are also likely to arise: who is to resolve issues of common concern— all the members of the community, or only a few? If the lat- ter, which ones and how or by whom are they to be chosen? There are, moreover, questions about conceptual-cum-political demarcation: by what criteria shall we distinguish between matters that are political or public and those that are non- political or private? These, in their turn, give rise to questions about grounds and justification: where do the aforementioned criteria come from and on what basis might they be justified (or criticized, for that matter)? Or consider questions about punishment: what shall we do with dissident or deviant mem— bers of our communityktolerate, exile, or eXecute them? And then there are, of course, questions about the extent and limits of obligation: does every able-bodied citizen have an obliga- tion to fight and perhaps die for the state, if the survival of the state should seem to require it? The list could continue to grow, but the point is perhaps clear enough: the questions in which political theorists are interested are precisely those which any civilized community must address and attempt to answer. The greatest political thinkers—an Aristotle or a Hobbes, saykhave tried to elabo~ rate theories on the basis of which such questions can be (re)framed, addressed, and perchance answered in a coherent, ‘2 Cf. M, Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics (London, 1962). 44 Whither Political Theory? comprehensive, and systematic way.13 But, however magnifi— cent or mediocre the minds of those who wrestle with ques- tions about the proper ordering of society, the fact remains that political thinking or theorizing is in this sense an impor— tant, indeed a necessary, activity. Therefore Plamenatz and Berlin were right to suggest that political theory—understood as first-order theorizing—could not die, and a more recent commentator is quite correct in deeming it indispensable.14 By contrast, much of what passes for olitical theor . It consists largely, though by no means exclusively, of the ctivity of studying, teaching, and commenting on the ‘clas- ics’ of political thought. If first-order theorizing is well-nigh immortal, second—order theorizing is eminently mortal. It can die or disappear—or at least be discredited, discounted, or ignored, as happened in many departments of political science during the heyday of behaviouralism. Political theory, as prac- tised in political science departments, was relegated to a kind of limbo, or living death: the worst kind. Many who practised second-order theorizing were made to feel unwelcome, and some were even encouraged to ply their trade in the more congenial setting supplied by departments of philosophy or history. , So, returning to the paradox posed earlier—how could political theory be both dead and alive at the same time?—we can now see that the paradox was only apparent and its reso- ution really quite simple.LThose who, like Laslett, announced the death or imminent demise of political theory were speak- ing of it as a specialized academic discipline within depart- ments of political scienceflas second-order theorizing, in other words] And they were at least arguably right in suggest- ing that political theory in this sense was in mortal peril, if not dead already. But Berlin and Plamenatz were no less correct in suggesting that political theory—understood as first~order ‘3 Political theorists disagree over whether there are ‘perennial questions’ or whether these questions change over time. My own view is that the ques- tions themselves change, in part because the concepts constituting the moral languages or idioms in which the questions are framed have historically mutable meanings. See my Transforming Political Discourse (Oxford, 1988). ‘4 A. MacIntyre, ‘The Indispensability of Political Theory’, in D. Miller and L. Seidentop (eds), The Nature of Political Theory (Oxford, 1983). Whither Political Theory? 45 theorizing—was neither dead nor dying, nor could it be. That activity is indeed indispensable. As it turned out, howaver, all reports of the death of (acad— emic or second~order) theory proved to be premature if not perhaps wholly unwarranted in the first place. By the mid- I97os academic political theorists were wont to quote Mark Twain’s remark upon reading his own obituary. ‘The reports of my death’, Twain cabled to his distraught editor, ‘have been greatly exaggerated.’ What had happened? How and why was this academic Lazarus brought back from the dead? firm? 2.3 THE REVIVAL OF POLITICAL THEORY SeVeral explanations, all partial and none entirely satisfactory, help to account for the revival, indeed the astonishing resur- gence, of academic political theory since the late I97os or so.15 The explanation often given is that political theory has prOSpered as, and because, its nemesis, ‘behaviouralism’, fell on hard times. Although an adequate history of the ‘behav— ioural revolution’—and the larger history of political science of which it is an important part—still remains to be written, it would, at a minimum, haVe to include an account of the rise and demise of its philosophical foundations.“5 although behaviouralists were wont to draw a sharp distinction between philosophy and science, discarding the former in favour of the latter, behaviouralism was in fact deeply dependent on a par- ticular philosophy_positivism. For it was from positivism— or, as it was more commonly called, Logical Positivism or Logical Empiricism—that behaviouralism borrowed f its key cate cries andmfim alists, this Borrowin to k hree 1m ortant fo 5. First] as an account of meaning, logical positivism ‘5 See B. Barry, ‘The Strange Death of Political Theory’, Government and Opposition, 15 (1980), 276—88; and D. Miller, ‘The Resurgence of Political Theory’, Political Studies, 38 (1990), 421737. ‘5 See J . Farr, ‘Remembering the ReVOlution: Behaviouralism in American Political Science’, in J. Farr, J. S. Dryzek, and S. T. Leonard (eds), Political Science in History: Research Programs and Political Traditions (Cambridge, 1995), Ch. 8, ‘7 See Euben, ‘Political Science’. {hr- MM '7. 46 Whither Political Theory? distinguished three sorts of statements: ‘synthetic’ statements of empirical fact (‘The cat is on the mat’ was a favourite); ‘analytic’ statements of logical necessity (‘All bachelors are unmarried males’); and a residual catch-all category of ‘nor~ mative’ utterances that neither describe some state of the world nor state logically necessary truths, but serve only to express attitudes, feelings, preferences, or ‘values’. this theory of meaning in its turn supplied the basis for an ‘emo- tivist’ theory of ethics which holds that ethical utteranccs are cognitively empty and meaningless; they are merely (in A. J. Ayer’s colourful if slightly salacious term) ‘ejaculations’, expressive of nothing, save, perhaps, the speaker’s subjective preference or state of mind. Thus the utterance ‘Stealing is wrong’ says nothing at all about the world, nor anything about relationships of logical entailment, but in rely expresses the speaker’s disapproval of stealing. And, hII' as a philoso- Lphy of science, positivism provided criteria for demarcating between science Wt any pmmabout meaning and method. There can be a science of politics just as surely as there can be a science of chemistry or physics, provided that its statements are cognitively meaningful (i.e. synthetic) statements of ascer— tainable empirical fact and that its explanations conform to the requirements of the deductiveknomological (D—N) model. According to the latter, we can be said to have explained some phenomenon X if and only a statement describing X (the explanondum) is deducible as a conclusion from premisses con- taining one or more general laws, along with statements of initial conditions (the expianans). Philosophical positivism served, so to speak, a normative or regulative function for behaviouralism in that positivism defined for behaviouralists what ‘science’ isHand what politi- cal science ought to be, if it is to be a science. First, political seience ought to distinguish between ‘facts’ and ‘values’. Second, it should be ‘empirical’ instead of ‘normative’. And, third it ought to be explanatory in the aforementioned sense. fienuinely scientific explanation, according to positivist cri- teria of explanatory adequacy, depends on the discovery and 13 See e.g. J. D. Moon, ‘ he Logic of Political Inquiry’, in F. I. Greenstein and N. W. Polsby (eds), Handbook of Political Science (Reading, Mass, 1975). Whither Political Theory? 47 deployment of timeless universal ‘laws’. Because most ‘tradi- tional’ political theory did not conform to positivist criteria of cognitive meaningfulness and explanatory adequacy, it was dismissed as unscientific or, at best, pre-scientific and there- fore destined to be superseded in due course. But in the hands of behaviouralist critics, the positivist’s scalpel cut both ways, wounding those who wielded it. It soon became clear that virtually all of what passed for ‘empirical’ or ‘scientific’ political science did not conform to those p051- tivist criteria on the basis of which political theory had been criticiz...
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