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 criticized and dismissed as meaningless because ‘normative’. It required no great semantic skill to show that ‘values’ lurked in the shadows of even the most sanitiZed ‘scientific’ statements: there were, in fact, no normativer neutral or non-theoretical descriptive statements (or ‘protocol sentences’, as earlier posr— tivists had termed them)” Worse still, there turned out to be no ‘Iaws’ of olitical behaviour. None—not even the oft- WERE and Duverger—could pass muster under positivist criteria.20 . . _ In the philosophy of science, meanwhile, the critics of p031- tivism had carried the day, and by the mid—19703 all but the most die—hard positivists had conceded defeat. Asked by an interviewer in 1977 what the main defects of positivism had been, A. J. Ayer replied: ‘Well, I suppose the most important of the defects was that nearly all of it was false.’21 Among the many false claims that positivism had made—and that behav— iouralists had borrowed—was the oft—heard chestnut that one cannot derive ‘ought from is’. As it turns out, however, it is not only possible but actually quite easy to perform this pur- portedly impossible feat.22 Beholden as it had been to one particular philosophy of science, behavioural political science’s fortunes could not but be affected adversely by the demise of positivism. It would, 19 C. Taylor, ‘Neutrality in Political Science’, in Philosophy, Politics and Society, 3rd ser. (Oxford, 1967), 25—57. ‘ . _ 2” See J. Farr, ‘Resituating Explanation’, in T. Ball (ed), Idioms of Inquiry (Albany, NY, 1987), 45766. 21 B. Magee (ed), Men of Ideas (New York, 1978), 131. 22 See G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘On Brute Facts’, in J. J. Thomson and G. Dworkin (eds), Ethics (New York, 1968); J. R. Searle, Speech Acts (Cambridge, 1969), ch. 8. 48 Whither Political Theory? however, be wrong, or at any rate one—sided and simplistic, to suggest that the resurrection of academic political theory can be traced exclusiVely to the declining fortunes of philosophical positivism and the allied decline of behaviouralism. Another factor which must figure in our explanation is what Alasdair MacIntyre termed ‘the end of the end of ideol- ogy’.23 From the mid~196os on, it became abundantly clear that ideology had not ended, nor was it likely to; on the con- trary, new political movements—among students, blacks, women, anti-war activists, and othersiwere raising new ques- tions and setting new agendas. However haltineg and raggedly, first-order theorizing was being done in the streets and in classrooms.24 From the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 to les evéne‘ments of May 1968 in Paris (which very nearly toppled the Gaullist government), old orthodoxiesiincluding the end-of—ideology thesis itself—were being questioned and unmasked as ‘ideological’ in their own right. In 1972 the editors of the distinguished series Philosophy, Politics and Society—in whose first number Laslett’s obituary had appeared—acknowledged that we were never right to think in terms of such pathological metaphors, and it is clear in any case that they are no longer applic— able. It has now become a commonplace that both the intellectual movements prevailing at the time of our first introduction [in 1956], in terms of which it looked plausible for sociologists to speak of “the end of ideology’ and even for philosophers to speak of ‘the death of political theory’, were themselves the masks of disputable ideological positions.25 Any explanation of the revival of political theory would also have to include an account of the political consequences of a particular conception of the relation between social sci- ence and political practice—not in the abstract, but (to use a ‘ phrase once frequently hurled against academic political theo— rists) in ‘the real world’. The war in Vietnam, although unde- clared, was real enough. It was a war not only fought by G15 23 A. MacIntyre, Against the Selmeages of the Age (Notre Dame, Ind., 197I), ch. 1. 2“ J. Miller, Democracy is in the Streets (New York, 1987). 25 P- Laslett, W. G. Runciman, and Q. Skinner (eds), Philosophy, Politics and Society, 4th ser. (Oxford, 1972), 1. Whither Political Theory? 49 but, more importantly, ‘managed’ by experts. Called ‘the new Mandarins’ by their critics and ‘defence intellectuals’ by their defenders, their claim to expertise was grounded in an instru- mentalist and positivist view of social science and its relation to political practice.26 Wm policy science—an aspirauon which can be traced'back to Saint—Simon and Comte in the nineteenth century—was dealt a decisive if erha s not mortal blow b th U ' tes’ experience in Vietnam. But what has this to do with the rising fortunes of academic political theory? Just this: Vietnam raised anew and brought to the forefront exactly the sorts of normative questions that political theory was supposed to address—questions about the rights and duties of citizens, about one’s obligation to fight for the state, about just (and unjust) wars, about active and passive resistance, and related matters.27 History having some connection with biography, and vice versa, I would like to pause briefly for an autobiographical aside about how I came to be an academic political theorist. To put it bluntly, I got into this line of work not so much because I was enamoured of philosophy or the history 0 ideas but because of the war in Vietnam. From the age of 12 until my junior year in 1965 I was certain that I wanted to be a physicist, and most of my education had been directed to that end. My interest in history and phiIOSOphy was largely restricted to the history and philosophy of science. I called myself a positivist, regarded Russell and Ayer as my heroes, and felt somewhat superior to thOSe lesser minds labouring in lesser vineyards. I was, in short, insufferable. But what a difference a war makes! The prospect of having to choose between going to Vietnam, going to Canada, or going to prison concentrated the mind wonderfully. The more I found out about the war, the more I believed it to be both misguided and unwinnable. Besides, it was being fought by the poor, the black, and the uneducated, few of whom had 2‘5 See my ‘American Political Science in its Postwar Political Context’, in J. Farr and R. Seidelman (eds), Discipline and History (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1993), 207—22. 27 See M. Walzer, Obligations (Cambridge, Mass, 1970), and Just and Unjust Wars (New York, 1977). (I / \f d h 50 Whither Political Theory? student deferments. That I, then a student at the University of California, did have such a deferment seemed unfair on its face. Conceding the point, the Selective Service agreed to end student defennents and inaugurate a lottery system. In the meantime, I thought, I might help to redress the unfairness by enlisting; but this would also make me complicit in a war that seemed patently unjust. Having never before faced a deep moral dilemma I had few, if any, resources upon which to draw. What should I do? Where do my duties lie? Should I support my government even when I think its policies mis- taken and misguided or, worse yet, patently evil? Is there something like a duty to resist? I did not know what to do, or own how to begin to think, about such troubling questions. So, swallowing my pride, I enrolled in a seminar in political Antigone, Plato’s Apology and Crito, Calvin and Luther and Locke, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Camus, and Martin Luther King (who was then still very much alive and active, and not yet the safely dead martyr he has since become). Our discussions the nightfihad a special urgency for many of us. That semi~ nar and those discussions did not make me decide on a course of action, although they did help to clarify the thinking that went into that decision.28 As it turned out, my interest in political theory did not end there; it grew, it got deeper, and it became my vocation and life’s work. But enough of autobiography. I mention my own experi- ence only because it was not, I suspect, unique—nor were such experiences unrelated to the revival of political theory through the 19703. There were, in addition and closely related to the anti-war movement, the earlier and concurrent civil rights and women’s movements.29 Political theory pros ered t the ex at it dealt with real po itical problems and the movements that raised and addresse t em. 11 emp a31zing M 'the role of such extracurricular activities, however, I do not 28 Other friends made different decisions. Two of their names are now engraved on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. 29 S. Evans, Personal Politics (New York, 1979). ) Whither Political Theory? 51 mean to deny or denigrate the very important contributions being made within the academy. Political theory received a notable boost in the early 1910s with the publication of John Rawls’s A Theor 0 Justice handedly revived political theory, I do not want to exaggerate Rawls’s importance, considerable though it was, and is. But I do believe that his thinking about justice had a special impor- tance and appeal for those who had lived through, thought about, and participated in the civil rights and anti—war move- ments. Despite its aWesomely abstract formalismsethe ‘origi— nal position’, the ‘veil of ignorance”, and the resthawls’s theory was nevertheless closely connected with real—world poli- tics. It dealt incisively with pressing questions of rights, duties, and obligations; with the justification of civil disobedience; and, with his wholly original enquiry into intergenerational justice, he spoke to the concerns of the fledgling environmen- tal movement.30 .u Althoughfior rather perhaps because—Rawls’s theory was subjected to a good deal of critical scrutiny, commentary, and attempted refutation, its publication and reception proved to be an important factor in the revival of political theory within the academy.31 Another, albeit rather different sort of impor- tance must also be ascribed to the historical enquiries of Peter Laslett, John Pocock, Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and others among the so-called ‘new historians’ of political thought; to the critical t eory of Jurgen Habermas and the revived Frankfurt School; to the role of Ronald Dworkin and ot ers in renewing interest in philosophy of law; and to Michel Foucault’s important studies of the institutions (pris- ons, clinics, asylums) and other means by which modern men and women are constituted and disciplined. The revival of political theory that began in the early 19703 30 J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass, 1971), 284793. Cf. R. I. Sikora and B. Barry (eds), Obh'gotions to Future Generations (Philadelphia, 1978); E. Partridge (ed), Responsibilities to Future Generations (Buffalo, NY, 1981); P. S. Wenz, Environmental Justice (Albany, NY, 1988), ch. 11. 31 See B. Barry, The Liberal Theory ofJustic-e (Oxford, 1973); N. Daniels (ed), Reading Row]: (New York, 1975); R. Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York, 1974). 52 Whither Political Theory? was also aided by the appearance of new journals specializing in the subject. The first of these was Interpretation, a journal with decidedly ‘Straussian’ leanings launched in 1970. This was followed a year laterithe same year that saw the publi- cation of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice—by Philosophy and Public Affairs, a journal dedicated to the proposition that issues of public concern often have an important philosophical dimension. The new journal’s editors wrote that Philosophy & Public Affairs is founded in the belief that a philosoph- ical examination of these issues can contribute to their clarification and to their resolution. It Welcomes philosophical discussions of sub- stantive legal, social, and political problems, as well as the more abstract questions to which they give rise. In addition, it expects to publish studies of the moral and intellectual history of such prob- lems. The aim of this new journal, its editors concluded, was to bring the ‘distinctive methods’ of philosophy ‘to bear on prob- lems that concern everyone".32 These new journals were joined in 1973 by Political Theory, a journal generally devoted to the sort of political theory done not by philosophers but by those who plied their trade within departments of political science. To review the contents of back issues of that journal is to see how political theory began to be revived and reshaped from the early 1970s on. The first issues were devoted largely, though not exclusively, to the analysis of political concepts such as ‘power’, ‘liberty’, “equal- ity’, ‘interests’, even ‘politics’ itself. By the mid-19703 interest had shifted toward Rawls and justice, Habermas and critical theory, Marx and nee-Marxism, and other topics. One way of reading these old tea-leaves is that by the mid—19705 or there- abouts theorists had ceased to play the part of handmaid, conceptual clarifier, or ‘underlabourer’ to the larger discipline of political science, and that political theory was well on the way to developing an identity of its own. ” But this breaking-away went unrecognized and unappreci- ated Within many departments of political science. In a 1982 editorial, the then—editor of Political Theory, Benjamin Barber, observed rather peevishly that 32 M. Cohen, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (1973), I. Whither Political Theory? 53 Political philosophy continues to flourish within the discipline of political science—for which the discipline remains curiously ungrate- ful. For a number of years now, political theory panels have out- drawn all others at the American Political Science Association meetings by two to one, and various theory subgroups . . . continue to multiply . . . At the same time, political science seems to have lost its bearings with declining membership in the professional associa— tions and the lost sense of purpose following the demise of the posi- tivist project as conceived in the early 19603 The discipline of political science would serve itself well if it . . . paid heed to the mes- sage found in the numbers to which it purports to pay homage.33 Exactly what “message” was to be found in those growing numbers Barber did not say. But one was led to infer that political theory was back, and bolder and more popular than ever. 2.4 TOWARDS THE FUTURE As measured by Barber’s criteria, academic political theory continued to flourish through the 19805 and shows no sign of abating during the closing decade of this century. This turn of fortune is, no doubt, well deserved and long overdue. But this turn towards prosperity and respectability is also troubling in ways and for reasons that I find difficult to articulate in any satisfactory way. Lacking any better way of saying it, let me be blunt in stating a strong and growing suspicion: political theory’s new—found pride may presage a fall. Indeed, I see political theory following much the same tra’ector 711?: Mm tWt political theory might meet with a similar fate. Several signs, it seems to me, are too obvious to miss. [The fi’rst troubling sign is to be found in political theory’s increasing isolation from its own subject-matter, which it sup- posedly shares with political science—namely, politics. A fig; $9 and closely related sign has to do with the growing pecialization and professionalization of political theory. A 33 B. R. Barber, Political Theory, 10 (1982), 491. 54 Whither Political Theory? third danger signal is to be found in political rists’ increasing preoccupation with questions of method tech- nique. And a fgggi sign is discernible in our penc ant for engaging in methodological and/or metatheoretical disputes. We are, in short, becoming the sorts of creatures we once crit- icized. Let me say just a bit more about each of these worries] The best and most rofound olitical theories have been summit ofgisis. And in today’s world there are crises aplenty. But if one takes the table of contents of successive issues of Political Theory as any indication of where political theory is or might be going, one is bound to wonder what is even remotely ‘political’ about political theory. Even the most careful reader might not suspect that there was a world outside its pages, afflicted with problems unprecedented in scope and severity. One would not know, for example, that there is an environ- mental crisis of global proportions that raises troubling ques— tions about the rights of, and our duties toward, future generations.34 One might instead infer that there is something called the crisis of ‘the constitution of the subject’ or of the ‘body’ and ‘desire’. Strangely self-absorbed crises for strangely self-absorbed times. Amidst real destruction—economic, envi— ronmental, ethicaliwe engage in deconstruction. One does not have to be a ‘Straussian’ to say of much of modern acade- mic political theory what Leo Strauss once said of behav— ioural political science: ‘One may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is amused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.’35 The isolation of political theory from politics doubtless has a good deal to do with the dynamics of professionalization in the American academy. Political theory shows every sign of ceasing to be a vocation and of fast becoming a ‘profession’, with all that this entails about the division of labour, the spe- cialization of functions, and the like. Already we ‘theorists’ have ‘our’ specialized organizationsithe Foundations of 34 The sole exception is a short note by B. Bandman, ‘Do Future Generations have the Right to Breathe Clean Air?’, Political Theory, to (1982), 95402. 35 L. Strauss, ‘Epilogue’ to H. J. Storing (ed), Essays on the Scienti c Study of Politics (New York, 1962), 327. Whither Political Theory? 55 Political Thought group and the Conference for the Study of Political Thought—and a lengthening list of ‘our’ journals, including History of Political Thought, Journal of Political Philosophy, and Studies in Political Thought. And we have ‘our’ panels and round tables at the American Political Science Association and other professional meetings. Such specialization is not altogether a bad thing; it has its advan~ tages, but also, and no less importantly, its disadvantages. Professionalization is a little like moving to the suburbs: one is less likely to be mugged; but one is also less likely to meet new people and more likely to talk only to people like oneself. Pretty soon, the suburb becomes its own little self-contained worl safe, secure, famili , friendly, and utterly predictable. In I 69 Sheldon Wolin riticized behaviouralists for their ‘methfimmeir preoccupation with refining their methods of measurement, statistical techniques, and the like, while giving short shrift to pressing political problems.36 Now, a quarter-century later, the same criticism might well be lev- elled against many political theorists. We do not, to be sure, do very much measuring (although some of us do apparently keep a careful count of attendance at APSA political-theory panels); but We do, of necessity, interpret texts. And so some of our methodological disputes tend, perhaps understandably, to rage around methods and techniques of ‘reading’ or textual interpretation.37 Historical ‘contextualists’ dispute with ‘textu— alists’ of various stripes, while postmodernists turn every- thing—wars, revolutions, gender relationsiinto ‘texts’ to be deconstructed. The latter seems to have gained some ground of late. Some have welcomed this development, while others, myself included, hava doubts and reservations aplenty. The former view is well represented by William E. Connolly, the Very able former editor of Political Theory. He points with pride to ‘young scholars [who] present exotic imports such as . . . deconstruction, dialogical analysis, genealogy, or inter- textuality, as if these orientations were part of an ongoing conversation semewhere or other”.38 That ‘somewhere’, as it turns out, is not any politically pertinent site but is confined 3‘5 S. Wolin, ‘Political Theory as a Vocation’, APSR 63 (1969), 1062—83. 37 See Ch. I abOVe. 3“ W. E. Connolly, Political Theory, 17 (1989), 4. 56 Whither Political Theory? to an increasingly inbred, self-important, and self-absorbed academy. Postmodernism and other ‘exotic imports’ are not without their value, of course, nor do they want for critics. John Scarle, for one, has said of deconstruction that ‘This is the kind of philosophy that could give bullshit a bad name.“9 One need not be as nasty as Professor Searle to have reserva~ tions about this particular import. One can even appreciate its initial appealgat least in France, where the lycée system has long dictated not only what the canon is to consist of but what each of its constituent texts ‘mean’, sentence by sentence and word by word. If as a student I were told that—on pain of failing the baccalauréot examination—there is one and only one way to read or interpret Rousseau or Balzac or Victor Hugo, then I, too, would rebel. And if I had been taught, as French university students once were, that ‘structure’ fair tout—that meaning (and much else) was structurally (over)determined—then I Would no doubt deconstruct and talk about ‘the free play of signifiers’ and such like. But I am not a Frenchman, nor did I receive a French education. Nor, for that matter, did most self-styled postmodernists among American political theorists. Which is why their way of approaching political theory has an ethereal, free-floating quality that makes it ideal for an esoteric academic hot~house but ill suits it for engagement with a world full of real politi- cal problems. For my part, I confess that postmodernism, or at least the version transplanted into the American academy, strikes me as remarkably unworldly, not to say profoundly a— or anti-political. Indeed, it seems to be a kind of intellectual autism which leads those thus afflicted to fantasize that they can dispense with discipline and remake the world in their own image. Their logic would appear to lend itself to succinct syllogistic reformulation: I have the pOWer to interpret texts as I like; all the world’s a text; ergo, the world is within my power. Right; and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. But this is not the place to criticize postmodernism, post- structuralism, deconstruction, or any other particular perspec- tive. My aim here is not to say where political theory should 39 J. Scarle, ‘On Deconstruction’, New York Review, 30 (1983), 74—9. Whither Political Theory? 57 not go, but where it might and perhaps should go as we pre~ pare to enter the twenty-first century. I therefore want to con- clude on a more positive note by briefly tracing three possible and complementary routes that we might follow into the next century. First, I believe that political theory can, and should, return to its rightful role. That role is not to ape the latest fad fro Frankfurt or Paris, WW Eviewmg, ammo @in it happens, we students of political theory are especially fortu- nate in having at our disposal an extraordinarily wide‘and rich range of sources. The greatest of these is, I believe—and I am well aware of the arguments against this contentious claim—the tradition of Western political thought itself. Warts and all, it is the most valuable source upon which We have to draw. If you ask, why draw upon such a flawed source?, I can only answer: because there is no other—and certainly no per— fect—alternative There exists no Archimedean point outside our world, no Cartesian cogito, no ideal observer’s vantage- point from which to perceive and pass judgement on our world and its inhabitants’ actions and practices. We can only work with, and on, materials already at hand. It is ironic, to say the least, that, as some Westerners increasingly ignore, deny or denigrate their heritage, many non-Westerners are eager to appropriate what they can from our tradition of indi— vidual rights, of freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and the like. No doubt they have something to learn from us; but so, I think, do we have a good deal to learn from them and their aspirations—and from their attitude toward political theory, which they take to be of immediate and immense importance. This brings me to my second hopeful route into the future. An otherwise sympathetic reader might concede that (say) the Chinese are faced with crises worthy of theoretical reflection, but that we are not so situated. Setting aside the comfortable but questionable assumption that we are as democratic as can be, there remain a number of crises which academic political theorists have, as yet, failed to recognize as worthy of theoret- ical attention and treatment. One that I mentioned earlier—— MW 58 Whither Political Theory? that interconnected series of actual and potential disasters that often goes under the name of the environmental crisis—raises a whole host of questions to which we have so far paid scant attention. It raises questions about who we are and where we belong in the order of nature; about our obligations to other people, including the members of other cultures and unborn future generations; about our conceptions of private property and profit; and about the strengths, shortcomings, and limita- tions of our institutions and of the moral, political, economic, and religious traditions that we have inherited from thinkers long dead. And this we need to do not merely because these matters are interesting to a few odd~ball theorists, but because they are of pressing importance to all of us, as moral agents, as citizens, and as political enquirers.“ This is ‘first—order’ the- orizing with a vengeance. My third route to the future is concerned with the last of these roles. To put it simply, the questions of political theory are too important to be left to those who call themselves, or are conventionally classified as, political theorists. We theo— rists have no corner on wisdom or insight. If we are to speak knowledgeably about and intervene intelligently in the crises of our time, we will need at least some of the sensibilities of those among our fellow political enquirers who are conven- tionally classified as ‘empirical’ political scientists. We‘and I do not use the ronoun li htlyfiare in desperate need of each others’ talents, techniques, and sensibilities. But if We are to get together, then we must OVercome a number of old obsta- cles, many of which are legacies of the older behaviouralism and of the anti-behaviouralist reaction. Old rifts are not bridged easily or without effort. But let me suggest one possi- ble way of shouting across, and perchance bridging, a long- standing divide betWeen two camps which have more in common than they might otherwise suspect. The conventional curricular division of labour assigns to theorists the task of tracing and accounting for ideas, ideals, and beliefs, and leaves to empirical enquirers the task of describing and explaining the actual behaviour of political 4" See R. E. Goodin, Green Political Theory (Cambridge, 1992); Wenz, Environmentai Justice; R. Eckersley, Environmentalism and Poiiticai Theory (Albany, NY, 1992). Whither Political Theory? 59 agents. This division of labour suggests that there are two quite separate domains, one of thought or ‘theory and the other of action or ‘behaviour’, each of which can be. charac— terized without reference to the other. But. this picture 15 patently false. [The agent who holds certain beliefs is not separ- able from the agent who acts. In fact, his or her actionsare not even describable without reference to his or her beliefs, and vice versa. Thus the hope of devising a science of political ‘behaviour’ was every bit as misbegotten as was a detached ‘history of political thought]. And this, as we so often see, is a truth more readily recognizable if we look to the past. As Alasdair Maclntyre reminds us, There ought not to be two histories, one of political and moral action and one of political and moral theorismg, because there were not two pasts, one populated only by actions and the other by theo— ries. Every action is the bearer and expresSion of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorismg and every expression of belief is a political and moral action. It is only because of the peculiar ‘habits of mind engendered by our modern academic curriculum’, he adds, that we have arrived at the mistaken belief ‘that ideas are endowed Wlth a falsely independent life of their own on the one hand and political and social action is presented as peculiarly mindless on the other’.41 Thus the ‘ideas’ or ‘beliefs’ studied by the the- orist and the ‘behaviour’ studied by the political seientist are not two things, but one. A _ ' Let me give a brief example of how this might work in practice. Consider the concept of interest, which (along per- haps with power) is surely one of the central notions in the social sciences generally, and political science in particular. Political scientists and other social scientists and historians typically explain why someone acts as they do (or did) because they have or seek to satisfy certain interests. letflhat an actor takes t e in his or her interest de ends 11 .on beliefs about what is and is not good for or beneficial to him or her. warmt to be in onc’s interest depends upon one 5 ideas about what uma ' ing cons1sts 0 an w at is require to bring it about. An these be 1e 5 can e we] or 4‘ A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind., 1981), 58. 60 Whither Political Theory? ill-fouMmmne_ can, that is, hold mistaken beliefs about what is (not) in one’s interest. (This of course comes as no surprise to anyone who has read and reflected upon the exchange between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Book I of Plato’s Republic.) Bumtaken or no, political actors interpret their situation in the light of these beliefs and i eas, and act accordingly. The sociather- prets or explains that behaviour" flying)ng that the actor had certain interests—Le. h ' ' out what is good rowan-42 Thus ‘ideas’ or ‘beliefs’ are inse arable from ‘behaviour’, and province of the political theorist and the latter that of the political scientist. To appreciate this interdependence is to pave the way, perhaps, for a rapprochement between political ‘theory’ and political ‘science’. 2.5 A CONCLUDING RETRACTION In this spirit, then, let me conclude by reiterating and then withdrawing my earlier distinction between first- and second- order theorizing. The distinction is standardly made between those who do political theory and those who simply study or talk about it. In its most vulgar form, this amounts to a varia- tion on the old chestnut: ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ In its more sophisticated form, the first— and second—order distinction demarcates betWeen actors and observers, or, to ut it articular subject-matter and its scholarly study. Even so, this more sophisticated statement of the distinction fails to do justice to what we do—or try to do—as students of political theory. And Why? Because, I believe, the distinction cuts in the wrong direction. The relevant distinction is not between first— and second-order but between first— and second-rate theoriz- ing. We are not only scholars and students of political theory, but citizens interested in and concerned about the polity and the wider world in which we live. We therefore have reason to ‘2 See my ‘Intcrest-Explanations’, Polity, I2. (1979), 187—201. Whither Political Theory? 61 think critically and systematically—in short, to theorize— about that world’s problems, possibilities, and prospects. This is a job, or a vocation, in which we not only want but badly need to excel, or at least to do as well as we possibly can. We therefore have reason to consult, to draw upon, and to appro— priate—though not simply to imitate or slavisth duplicatei the thinking of first-rate theorists. And this we do not because we are second order’ but because we are second-rate and try— ing to do better. This does not, I hasten to add, mean that“ one must agree with those from whom one appropriates. Far from it. One can learn more from a first-rate thinker with whom one disagrees than from a thinker who simply ratifies or reinforces what one already believes. That is why conserva- tives should read Marx, and Marxists should read Burke. And that, no less importantly, is why ‘empirical’ political scientists should heed what ‘normative’ theorists have to say, and vice versa. What this amounts to can, I suppose, be restated by bor- rowing Wendell Berry’s distinction between two types of learning: learning about and learning from.43 Too much of modern education is concerned with learning about—that is, with acquiring ‘information’. But education generally—and the study of political theory in particular—is not merely a matter of acquiring information, of “learning about’ some sub- ject or other; it is, more importantly, a kind of learning from—of wrestlin with and criticall a ro riatin , alterna- twe perspectiVes that com licate and enrich one’s view of assumptions and conceptual schemes. And that, surely, must be foremost among the reasons for periodically reappraising the value of an intellectual inheritance whose value is forever in question and open to a variety of different interpretations and assessments. 43 W. Berry, ‘The Loss of the University’, in Home Economics: Fourteen Essays (San Francisco, 1987), 79. no r "’1‘ bah-7 7L"? ...
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Terrence Ball -- Whither Political Theory - Reading for 1-18-2012

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