Wednesday, April 16, 2003

More Theory and Philosophy

The story so far: Matthew Ygelsias has commented on Jacob Levy's original post and my response to it, and now Jacob has added some additional comments of his own. (Jacob is also, by the way, continuing to refine and update his original post, so read it through if you haven't yet; as I said below, I think it clarifies a lot of things very well.) Let me also throw out one follow-up observation.

Matthew suggests that the division I described between that group (the majority?) of political theorists who are trained as "political scientists," and those few (the proud?) trained in a more philosophical way, a division which I identified as arising from whether or not a particular program has opened itself up to the "continental" or "German" or "postmodern" body of philosophical ideas, actually reveals something pretty profound about how philosophy has come to be taught taught at English-language universities. He thinks, however, that what my distinction reveals can be stated more simply. He writes that this difference "is normally stated in terms of a division between Anglo-American and 'continental' philosophy, but that's misleading....Rather, I think what you're looking at is the anti-historicism that's been adopted by most English-speaking departments as part of the quest to put philosophy on the secure path of a science." I think Matthew's exactly right, only it's necessary to think carefully about what he's right about. What does it mean, for instance, to "put philosophy on the secure path of a science"? It means, I suspect, something very close to what I said before: that the philosophical truth which is aimed at via patterns of inquiry which aspire to "science" is a truth which requires "a certain unconsciousness about the broad and problematic historical and moral ontologies which [such] arguments...presuppose." Now, my personal philosophical biases lead me to look to what is (or at least what I think is) a real counter-point to that definition of truth, a "counter-Enlightenment"/romantic challenge that insisted, in one way or another, in thinking about the ontological and metaphysical dimension of moral and political matters. This particular challenge I (and many others, first and foremost Charles Taylor) see beginning with Rousseau and (some of) the German idealists, continued through Nietzsche and Heidegger, and in to 20th-century hermeneuticists, communitarians and postmodernists. Hence, when I speak of the "continental" tradition, I have something pretty specifically continental (i.e., German) in mind. But of course, there are also plenty of thinkers--many of whom consider themselves "political theorists"--who do this same sort of thing, only they go to medieval sources to rediscover "moral realism," or maybe (like Matthew suggested about Michael Sandel) they go all the way back to Aristotle. So really, as much as I like my position along this divide, it's broader than any single philosophical tradition. Matthew's point about "anti-historicism," fully understood, is probably closest to getting it right than any other possible description. The heart of the dispute, in the end, is whether or not you believe philosophical arguments should be (or can't avoid being) historically embedded. If you don't, than there's no reason to think about what might have been lost from this or that tradition, morally or otherwise, since of course you still have the argument right here. If, on the other had, you do believe arguments need a home if they are actually going to have a point, than one way or another, you're obliged to work out, historically, what your preferred argument's home is, or ought to be.

This leads me to two quick final points. First, this helps to underline what I said before about how religious (in particular Catholic) universities seem to often be more open teaching their doctoral students in politics along the latter route than other schools; after all, what could be a greater motivation for taking history seriously than the possibility that God might have had a hand in it? Second, Matthew's reframing of the issue also furthers Jacob's claim that the Straussians are odd ducks here; for of course, they follow the second route in the sense of wanting to appreciate the history of philosophy, yet they insist that they're doing is the real "anti-historicism."