Friday, May 26, 2006

John Gray on Martha Nussbaum's latest

There's an interesting review in The Nation of Martha Nussbaum's latest work, Frontiers of Justice, by John Gray (via 3 quarks daily). It begins with the following provocation:
It is difficult to think of a time when liberal political thought has been as remote from political practice as it is today. There are many reasons for this situation, including the near-complete rout of liberal forces by the right. But a part of the reason lies in the development of liberal thought itself. Liberal thinkers, in the universities where they have retreated, appear to believe their main task is to specify the basic liberties of individuals and the principles of distribution for other social goods, in the conviction that once these have been identified they can be embodied in law and interpreted by courts. In this now conventional view the principles of justice can be derived from an underlying moral consensus that is embodied in modern democratic societies, and since these will be principles that all reasonable people can accept, there will be no possibility of radical political conflict. No doubt there will still be some need for political activity, but not in order to protect liberal values. Liberal values will not be at risk, since they will be enshrined in law.

and it ends with this:
In a curious convergence liberal theory has given up on politics at a time when liberal values have become marginal in practice. Instead of trying to understand the forces that shape political life--as John Stuart Mill did in his writings on socialism and nationality, for example--contemporary liberal thinkers have constructed a legalistic edifice from which politics has been excluded. Nussbaum is aware that this rickety structure shuts out a great deal that is important, and in Frontiers of Justice she tries to let in some light. If she achieves less than she might it is because the giant shadow of Rawls stands in her way.

Has liberal theory reached a dead end? I don't know enough about current trends in liberal theory to comment confidently, but from what I know I think I'm with Gray on this: it seems much liberal theory has become too distant from the consideration of existing political reality, assuming too uncritically the existence of nations and states in forms that no longer seem plausible and focusing too much on very parochial debates. (Do we need more sociology and comparative politics in political theory?)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Summer Reading in Political Theory

Crooked Timber had an interesting open question a while back: What are some of the geat articles (not books) in the political theory over the past 20 years for some ambitous young geek who wants to read political theory on the beach? So I'm asking the question. Link

Friday, May 12, 2006

Political Concepts Syllabus

I've posted the syllabus for my Basic Political Concepts course here, which, enrollment permitting, I will be teaching this Fall. Any comments are greatly appreciated!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Aristotle's Politics: Critical Essays

There's a BMCR review here of a new book of essays on Aristotle's Politics, edited by Richard Kraut and Thomas Skultety. As it's common with most such edited volumes, the articles seem to be rather disparate in focus and approach. (The authors range from John Cooper to Josiah Ober, Dorothea Frede, and Malcolm Schofield, which, though generally within the mainstream of Ancient Philosophy scholarship, are quite disparate in philosophical and historical orientation). Nevertheless, all the authors try to assess the applicability of Aristotle to contemporary political thought; these are not mere antiquarian articles.

What struck me about this volume (at least judging from the review) was the extreme disparity of judgments about the applicability of Aristotle's thought to modern society, coming from experts that are broadly within the same tradition. Some thought Aristotle was a totalitarian; others, a radical democrat; yet others, that his thought served the narrow interests of a class; some stressed virtue ethics, others a kind of Aristotelian "pluralism;" some asserted that Aristotle had nothing to offer the modern age; others that September 11 makes Aristotle relevant to the dialogue of civilizations that we ought to be having. (No, seriously).

Is this a symptom of the inmense richness of Aristotle's thought, the radical indeterminacy of all interpretation that goes beyond pure textual clarification and minimal historical contextualization, or a problem with the question of "what is Aristotle's thought good for today"? Are we condemned to say that Aristotle's thought can give support to a variety of radically incompatible positions? (Of course, we could also say that some of these positions are radically wrong. My first candidate would be Schofield's vaguely marxist-inflected accusation of Aristotelian "racism" towards the barbarians). And what would be the point, I sometimes wonder, of enlisting Aristotle in one or another cause (or casting him as the enemy of one or another cause)? I do not have much of an answer to these questions, but it seems to me that they sometimes cast some doubt on the enterprise most of us are engaged in.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Fellow platonists,
I'm looking for support for an argument I'm trying to make, namely, that Plato wrote his dialogues as intellectual exercises for the reader (whether a member of the Academy or any reader). They are written, in other words, not to communicate positive knowledge but to help the reader to come to grips with a particular problem him/herself. Would anyone have suggestions about authors that make this argument? I know of Szlezak, who argues that Plato wrote esoterically for didactic (not political) reasons, Stanley Rosen talks about the dialogues as "educational games", Arieti thinks the dialogues may have been written to advertise the Academy, Sayre argues the dialogues are written for instructional use (in "Plato's Literary Garden"). Am I missing big ones?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

How much time should it take?

Via The Valve, two posts on the historical trend toward longer and longer periods of graduate training: in the 60s, it used to take 4-5 years past the BA; it now may take up to 11 years. The comments in the post in the Valve are also pretty interesting. Commenters mostly explain this trend as a result of the saturation of the market: since there are few jobs anyway, doctoral students draw the process out, trying to get a very good dissertation in the process, something really publishable. I tend to agree (it fits with my experience); what do you think? And how long is too long?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Linker on the theo-cons

Damon Linker, a Michigan State PhD political theorist, and onetime editor of First Things, is now coming out with what can only be called his expose of the Christian conservative intelligensia (he was never a part of the gang long enough to call it a defection similar to Fukuyama's recent break with a different movement). A preview article is out now in the current issue of the New Republic. One interesting quote:

All of the participants in the First Things symposium--it was called "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics"--permitted themselves radical rhetoric...

All of the participants in the First Things symposium--it was called "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics"--permitted themselves radical rhetoric. Robert H. Bork denounced the nation's "judicial oligarchy" for spreading "moral chaos" throughout the land. The Catholic theologian Russell Hittinger asserted that the country now lived "under an altered constitutional regime" whose laws were "unworthy of loyalty." Charles W. Colson maintained that America may have reached the point where "the only political action believers can take is some kind of direct, extra-political confrontation" with the "judicially controlled regime." And in a contribution titled "The Tyrant State," Robert P. George asserted that "the courts ... have imposed upon the nation immoral policies that pro-life Americans cannot, in conscience, accept."

But it was Neuhaus himself who did more than anyone else to push the tone of the symposium beyond the limits of responsible discourse. In the unsigned editorial with which he introduced the special issue of the magazine, Neuhaus adopted the revolutionary language of the Declaration of Independence to lament the judiciary's "long train of abuses and usurpations" and to warn darkly about "the prospect--some might say the present reality--of despotism" in America. In Neuhaus's view, what was happening in the United States could only be described as "the displacement of a constitutional order by a regime that does not have, will not obtain, and cannot command the consent of the people." Hence the stark and radical options confronting the country, ranging "from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution."