Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Levy's Theory vs. Philosophy Opus

Jacob T. Levy's long promised essay on political theory and political philosophy is finally up. And it's great. To be sure, it is, as he says, "a little meandering, inductive rather than deductive, and impressionistic rather than precise"--but that just means it reads pretty much like everything I post here. The theoretically and philosophically-inclined inhabitants of the blogosphere (Matthew Yglesias, Micah Schwartzman, Chris Bertram, Lawrence Solum, and so forth) will no doubt soon be all over it, and rightly so; it's a really nice essay, full of great little observations. I take issue with a few of his claims, but let me do so by way of personally situating myself as best I can into his categories.

Generally speaking, what Jacob says about theory--that it aims for richness rather than rightness, that it willfully embraces its dependence upon and employment of various more-or-less unexplored ethical or political intuitions, that it does not prize definitiveness, that it appeals to a "lower" as opposed to a "higher" level of abstraction in its arguments (history rather than epistemology, for example), and so forth--all very much describe myself. My published work--ranging from the Anti-Federalists to Confucius to Charles Taylor to J.G. Herder to Mormonism--is clearly much more a product of breadth than depth; I truly do want to cast a "wider net in the history of ideas" rather than search for the "best-developed version of a philosopher's core arguments." The question which Jacob suggests theorists so often ask of the political philosophy they encounter ("What's the point?") is my question. So, according to Jacob I'm a theorist, right?

Wrong, or at least partly wrong. Jacob's analysis is incomplete, which he admits right from the start, when he states that "I'm going to emphasize Anglo-American political theory and political philosophy...[since] adding the Anglo-American/Continental distinction to the mix makes matters more confused still." Why is that? Because, he continues, "political theorists are typically more open to Continental approaches than are political philosophers, sharpening the institutuional differentiation...[while] among Continental practitioners, the theory-philosophy distinction is less sharp than it is among Anglo-American types." I think there is a lot of truth to what he says--clearly, there are certain theorists (like myself, I guess) who talk and think in what can only be called a "philosophical" way--but it needs to be teased out a little, if only to figure out why I (and so many other theorists who employ hermeneutics and other elements of Continental philosophy in our writing) have turned out more "philosophical," in a particular sense, than our professional approach and attitude might otherwise suggest.

Jacob writes that "political theorists ordinarily receive their PhDs from, and ordinarily teach in, political science department," whereas so-called political philosophers receive their's from philosophy departments and teach in philosophy. He goes on: "Given the structure of American doctoral programs, this means that a political theorist and a political philosopher-- even if they have complete overlap in their core interests-- will be differently trained. The philosopher will almost certainly study formal logic, very likely study ethics and moral philosophy broadly....and study at least some topics from philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaethics....[while the] theorist may well take statistics and/or formal theory (i.e. rational choice and game theoretic mathematical models)....as well as study one or more of American politics, comparative politics, and international relations in some depth, and may also study American or comparative constitutional law." So far, so good. But Jacob's description doesn't hold very well from those American universities where the Continental philosophical tradition (particularly but not exclusively the aesthetic-metaphysical German tradition of Hegel, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, and so forth, as opposed to the Marxist and Frankfurt critical theory schools, though there are obviously a lot of deep--though contested--connections between the two), which its preoccupation with issues of being, intentionality, interpretation, nihilism, and modernity, have taken root. In such universities, the graduate student in political theory--like I was, at Catholic University of America--will likely get a fair dose of international, comparative and American politics, but along with that, rather than having various topics in methodology, analysis and statistics hammered into one's head, the Ph.D. student may well have been required to read Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, Richard Rorty, Hannah Arendt, along with Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, and maybe Juergen Habermas and Paul Ricoeur too. With the exception of Arendt and Habermas, all of these people are obviously philosophers (Foucault and Ricoeur are difficult cases, but for their own complicated reasons); they are all asking deep questions about (or critiquing others' questions about) such traditional concerns as truth, reality, consciousness, history, morality and so forth. In this way, the aspiring "political theorist" will be obliged to familiarize herself with what Jacob described as the province of the philosopher: "some topics from philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, epistemology and metaethics." But what one would not get from these particular philosophers is, as Jacob put it, the drive to be "parsimonious" in one's use of such topics. On the contrary, engaging with these philosophers (and their romantic, medieval and even ancient forebearers) is likely instead to lead one to the conclusion that the strict argumentation of the Anglo-American philosophical school depends to an unfortunate degree upon a certain unconsciousness about the broad and problematic historical and moral ontologies which their arguments must presuppose.

It might be easy to just say that Jacob left out "postmodernism," but that wouldn't exactly address the point. For one thing, I'm not talking about all "postmodernism" (fortunately, kooks like Jean Baudrillard are mostly absent from the programs I'm describing). For another thing, it doesn't explain the attraction. After all, why would any political thinker (or teacher of future political thinkers) bother with postmodern thought in the first place, if the aim of such ideas (as they are so often stereotypically depicted) is to compromise the ability to define and describe (much less argue about and change) political bodies, or any kind of collectivies, in the first place? Let postmodernism settle in the humanities where it can break up texts, not communities, right? Well, the reason, as Stephen K. White has I think amply demonstrated in a couple of wonderful books (see here and here), is that such ideas, properly understood, can turn political thinking to a different, deeper notion of "responsibility" and "care"--not the kind implied through a rigorous analytic argument which weighs duties and conditions, but the kind which situates ones acts to a sense of being itself. Of course, many postmodernists would dismiss such metaphysical talk, but it cannot be denied that even in trying to overcome traditional metaphysics, it is this body of ideas which enable real thinking about the point of metaphysics in the first place. Consequently, I'm not surprised to find that many of the political theory programs which have most internalized this tradition are at religious--perhaps especially Roman Catholic--universities, though of course that's a not an iron-clad rule (Stephen White, for what it is worth, now teaches at the University of Virginia). Even in those programs where Ph.D. candidates don't read Heidegger, there are many more where they teach graduate students about Kant and Hegel (and by extension, about Rousseau and Hobbes all the rest) through that prism, with the result that "justice" and "interpretation" or "plualism" and "objectivity" appear in the same sentences. As one member of my dissertation committee put it, this sort of concern goes back to the Continental tradition; whatever their faults, he said, at least "the German philosophers still cared about truth." So if you're religious enough or communitarian enough (another debatable, though I think in this case appropriate, term) or postmodern enough to want or to hope that or just wonder whether or not politics can be truthful as well as "normative," then this is the way to study political theory. (Of course, there is also still another side to this dynamic, affecting those who receive an explicitly religious education in political philosophy, often centering on themes like natural law, but that's pretty much separate from the role of Continental philosophy I'm considering here.) Even if all this only partially describes one's graduate training (for, of course, Rawlsians and Continentalists can and do work side by side), the result is going to be an approach to political theory which is distinctly "philosophical"--one which asks big moral and/or metaphysical questions about the history of ideas, about the possibility for action and meaning and so forth, as well as employing them for the sake of "richness."

There's a lot more which could be said here; obviously hauling the Continental philosophical tradition into the discussion results in something more multifaceted than simply an additional, more ontologically sensitive approach to theorizing about government and community. But if nothing else, it perhaps provides a kind of supplement to Jacob's fine post. Would that more of us political theorists and philosophers had as good and confident a grip on what we're doing as he.