Monday, July 11, 2011

Does the History of Political Thought Matter?

(Most of this was written months ago, then allowed to gather electronic dust. But the occasion is right to post it, since today is the first lecture of my yearly "Political Philosophy and International Relations" course). 

It’s that time of the year again: time to teach my course on the history of political thought. My approach is fairly traditional; in my classes we tend to read old books by “canonical” thinkers – Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and so on. Though I flatter myself that I present their arguments as sympathetically as possible, attempting to extract what is interesting and intellectually fruitful in their works (but really, you should ask my students if you want an unbiased opinion), I do not claim to go much beyond a standard canon of basically male, basically “Western” (whatever this means – more on this later), thinkers. I also teach a course in contemporary political thought, where we read similarly canonical thinkers, if of more recent vintage: Foucault, Habermas, Arendt, Rawls, Nozick, and so on, most of them people who thought that the history of political thought matters considerably. I spent way too many years working on a dissertation on a single dialogue of Plato which I consider to be a great neglected masterpiece  (the Statesman, mentioned many times in this here blog; this is the basis of my first book, which will be published soon enough), and have published work on ancient political thought (Plato and Cicero, mostly). Much of my research has been, loosely speaking, commentary: attempts to explicate other people’s arguments and put them in context. That is the way I was trained, and it is what I know how to do best. So you would expect to hear that I think we can learn something from old books; otherwise, why spend so much time reading them?

But I am not a historian; indeed, I would probably make a lousy historian. I have little tolerance for real archival research, and less of the historian’s sense for organizing masses of sometimes intrinsically boring material into compelling stories. I also find playing around with abstract ideas much more intellectually rewarding than the historian’s attention to particularity, and often feel more intellectual kinship with defiantly ahistorical rational choice modelers than with the sort of people who produce the deeply contextualized, “thick” scholarship common in my field. (If that makes me a bad person, so be it. It’s a matter of temperament, not necessarily intellectual conviction. Accidents of history turned me into a sort of historical scholar rather than a mathematician). Ultimately, I am more interested in thinking with Hobbes or Plato than in thinking about them; I get easily bored with genealogies and intellectual lineages, and I dislike the faint odor of antiquarianism clinging to attempts to overly contextualize the works I am interested in (why care about something that is entirely past?).

Moreover, the objections to the sort of activity I engage in on a regular basis are pretty obvious: sure, Plato and Hobbes and Hume had many bright ideas, but to the extent that their ideas were good, wouldn’t they have been incorporated into our common knowledge already? Physicists don’t need to read Newton, after all, and they certainly do not learn much from Aristotle’s physics (save for a catalog of errors). So why read books that, even if they contain some good ideas, also contain rather large amounts of questionable nonsense? Can’t we say that we have learned something over the last two thousand years? So does the history of political thought matter?

I suppose the question is not, in general, very interesting. The history of political thought certainly matters to some people in some circumstances and for some purposes. Some people just enjoy reading old texts and find value in them, just like some people enjoy studying giant crabs or butterflies, and in the grand scheme of things both activities have a civilizational value apart from the rewards they bring to their practitioners (though there is, of course, always a political and economic question as to how many resources societies should dedicate to the study of crabs or ancient texts, a question I will ignore right now). The more interesting question, from my point of view, is: if the history of political thought matters to you, why does it matter? What is it that you think you can accomplish by reading old books? What do you learn through studying the history of political thought that you cannot learn better by doing something else? Here a “map” of the various positions and their quarrels is perhaps more useful than a general argument for one or another position. So, (with apologies to XKCD), here it one attempt (click for larger image):

A bit of commentary. In the far North, one finds the Talmudists of the Highlands of Strauss. Some of my teachers came from here, and I know some of the customs of the land (though I don't live there anymore). These people think that there are some political problems that are enduring and perhaps inherent in the human condition; that these problems are supremely important; and that some of the old books of political thought have solved them, or at least have raised the truly important questions, or perhaps developed the right sorts of methods for addressing the important questions, even if they sometimes disagree about which of the books are true, and which questions are important. Moreover, they think that one can only learn to appreciate these “special” questions and answers by deeply immersing oneself in specific books; the pedagogical experience of learning through the book (and not merely being told a summary of the conclusions) is essential to achieving understanding. You have to work through the subtleties of Plato’s Republic to really understand these truths; one cannot truly understand them by reading the cliff notes version of the Republic. From this point of view, the context of these books is, though helpful in order to understand the structure of particular arguments, or the nuances and allusions that are so evident in these texts, ultimately unimportant: the texts speak to us across the ages, and do not remain rooted in their contexts. Since the problems with which these texts deal are enduring, there is no reason to think that there is something anachronistic in treating them as contemporaries.

Now, this is actually a very old view of why certain old books are important, perhaps the oldest of all. It is ultimately a sort of religious view, in which wisdom is to be found in books (perhaps including the book of nature). If we can only identify the right books, and read them properly, we shall achieve genuine understanding; and the task of the contemporary political thinker is at best a sort of “Talmudic” commentary, elaborating and applying the true principles found in ancient texts to the different circumstances of human life today, and at worst a sort of recovery operation whenever important principles and insights have been covered up by the errors of later generations. So long as we believe that human nature (however defined) remains (relatively) constant, and that the constraints that such nature puts on our “political” life are in fact important, it makes sense to believe that earlier thinkers have in fact discovered the important solution to these problems. And we might come to think that since some books are old and have been considered by many people to be rich sources of wisdom, that it is precisely these books that are likely to contain the true insights – the “classics” in the canon. This view, in other words, is especially concerned with the possibility of a canon.  

I know that this sort of view might strike many people as silly when stated in this way. But there is something to be said for it: it has the merit of treating ancient texts not as the benighted products of stupid people, but as potential sources of valuable knowledge, and really, to some extent the proof is in the pudding. (If you have, like I have, spent enough time with a “classic” text, you may eventually find that there is wisdom in it). Yet it still remains implausible. For one thing, awareness of the sheer contingency of the preservation of ancient and not so ancient texts should shake any notion that the classic texts are precisely those that contain important questions and true insight. It is only sheer accident that we have any of Plato or Aristotle’s texts (most of them in fact vanished for long centuries at a time in the West), and there are vast libraries of ancient texts that have quite simply vanished; we barely know the names of the books they contained. For another, it is not clear why the canon should contain “Western” books and not, say, Chinese books. After all, if the fundamental problems of human life are such that they are likely to have been solved already, they could have been solved elsewhere, unless there is perhaps something about the specific circumstances of say, fourth century Greece that made people at the time especially likely to solve such problems. (After all, fourth century Greece is just as different from modern society as fourth century China; and our knowledge of ancient Greek is about as good as our knowledge of ancient Chinese, i.e., worse than you think; ancient languages, despite the superficial familiarity that translations give us, still remain on occasion stubbornly difficult to parse, as should be evident to anyone who has tried to read Thucydides in the original Greek). But most importantly of all, the classic texts contradict each other; if the Greeks are right then Locke and Hobbes are wrong. So at best all that one could say is that the work of the scholar is a fight against the forces of forgetfulness or perversion that threaten the hard-won wisdom of the ancients, or perhaps the reverse, a rearguard action against the always possible return of the repressed falsehoods of the ancients. On this view, the scholar should be the champion of the truth; and the truth is threatened by forgetfulness of the right books.

Across some high mountains to the south we find people whose view of the old books is in many ways diametrically opposed to the Talmudists of the Highlands. These are the peoples who inhabit the Skinnerian plains of Contextualism. Such people also share a passion for understanding the texts of the past; but their appetite is more indiscriminate, and they disclaim the relevance of such texts for making much sense of our current conditions. The inhabitants of the Skinnerian plain believe that the great texts emerged from very particular historical contexts, and mostly speak to that historical context; their mission is to show how what they thought emerged from very specific, and very different, historical contexts, and is hence of little use or value for understanding the present situation. The inhabitants of the Skinnerian plain delight in claiming that the “abstract” arguments of people like, say, Hobbes, are really very particular interventions in very particular debates about the civil war, and were not really “intended” to speak to us across the centuries. They not only believe that the context matters for understanding a thinker, but that it is practically all that matters.

Yet this view has an odd consequence: only a misappropriation or misunderstanding of the past can make the past truly relevant to us; when we debate about this or that earlier thinker, we are only debating with ourselves. Truly understanding the past renders the past sterile for current debates; to render it relevant is, in a sense, to overlook so many important differences in context that we simply misunderstand these people. At best, the texts of ancient thinkers are data for large-scale narratives of historical change.

One should acknowledge that the contextualists are in fact right that particular thinkers emerge out of specific historical contexts and that important aspects of their arguments can only be fully understood by placing them in context. But in their enthusiasm, sometimes they contextualize too much. They leave these thinkers stranded in the past, and give us little reason to care about them; the more we care about context, the less we care about substance. We thus lose the trace of the absent interlocutor.

Some people thus migrate from the lands of the contextualists to the rugged hills where the Indifferent Tribes inhabit. Having been convinced that the past is past, and the thinkers of the past are wholly bound to their contexts, they figure there is nothing to be gained from studying them. If the arguments and discussions of the past, despite their superficial resemblance to modern arguments, are truly different from ours, then what is the point of trying to extract useful lessons from them? The contextualists rebuke them: how can you understand current debates without understanding their history? But the Indifferent Tribes have a good reply: it is important to understand the history of a conversation, if the interlocutors remain constant. But the contextualists have shown that the thinkers of the past are not in any important sense our interlocutors; to ignore them is as necessary and useful as ignoring the conversations that took place in this auditorium for a very different conference.

Appeals to the past, they continue, are at best appeals to authority and statements of affiliation, but not really useful in thinking about current problems. It may be true that we need to know some history for understanding our current problems; but this history will often not go back to the Greeks and the Romans. (Do we need to know the entire biography of a person to engage with them meaningfully, or their entire genealogy? Not really.) And at any rate it is unclear what kind of history is needed for understanding our current political predicaments; unless we have strong reason to suspect that certain political thinkers have been highly influential, we might think that the influence of dense treatises is slight and unimportant; and the history we might be interested in, even if some thinkers have been influential, might well be the history of misinterpretations and misappropriations, not the true meaning of some particular author. So the Indifferent Tribes profess indifference to past texts; while these texts might be neat, the history of political thought is not, ultimately, extremely important for current debates.

Their neighbours to the east are perhaps more tolerant. Though indifferent to context and “true” meaning, the Tomb Raiders of Analytia regard the past as a vast ruined storehouse of argument, many of which would not easily occur to us precisely because our context is so different. So there is something to be said for engaging with the past, though for such tomb raiders it is ok to proceed in blithe disregard of context, just picking and choosing what arguments are interesting, and which ones seem true. Scholarship in this vein (like that of Gregory Vlastos or Terry Penner in the case of Plato) tends to be highly sophisticated about the interpretation of specific texts, but little interested in the overall debates in which these classical arguments were set. They think of these arguments like they think of any other argument – things to consider in their own right, with little regard to whether they come “from oak or rock,” as Socrates says in the Phaedrus. (Socrates was the first tomb raider, they might claim, if they were moved much to appeal to authority). So they take seriously the thinkers of the past, but they do not experience them as participants in a highly structured conversation about problems that have evolved historically. They claim that engagement with past thinkers strengthens and challenges their own views, but only insofar as these past arguments can be cast in the most sophisticated modern languages, including sometimes the language of formal logic. But this challenge and refinement occurs at the expense of a (sometimes) highly impoverished understanding of the many artistic dimensions of these old books and their pedagogy.

Two other peoples exhibit similar understandings of how one should relate to these old books, though they are more mindful of contexts, if for different reasons. Up on the Northeast corner we find the Orchard of Ancient bookfruit. These are people (I count myself a resident on most days) who think that the value of the ancient books lies not in the fact that they are true but that their views are intellectually fruitful: we read them because we can endlessly appropriate and adapt their ideas in various ways. For such people, it matters little whether the specific views of Hobbes and Rousseau on the state of nature are true, for example, but the fact that they provide us with powerful conceptual vocabularies capable of structuring modern debates in anthropology and political theory to this day. Reading Hobbes and Rousseau, on this view, is important because they provide the best introduction to these vocabularies – to ways of framing and thinking about a particular problem. The very richness of the books in which these views first emerged makes them ideal instruments both for teaching and for further reflection. But in order to learn this vocabulary properly, we have to understand the contexts in which it was forged, and the whole range of problems to which it was applied; hence the history of political thought matters.

I suspect there is something mildly implausible about this view; we do not become more competent speakers of English because we know ancient Anglo-Saxon. But even if the idea that we need to study the generative books in order to study the derivative books (and this is clearly not the case in Physics, or Biology, or Psychology, or in many other disciplines), not every book matters equally. Generative books are necessarily few and far between; most books are derivative rather than generative and thus are of only “historical” interest. The historian may trot out in response the old commonplace about how those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it; but though this is occasionally true, it is also irrelevant. Unless there is some reason to think that in the absence of these books, we would have a tendency to regress or that reflection on political thought is progressive, it would matter very little whether or not particular views and arguments are randomly forgotten. And on this view, at least, the task of the scholar is reasonably well defined: it is to bring out constantly the generative richness of these old texts, and prevent their ossification as sources of thought (their fossilization into mere “classics,” mentioned but not read, or read but not engaged with, turned into a storehouse of platitudes).

Down by the Southwest corner, by contrast, we find the pearl divers of Arendtia. These divers think, like the Tomb Raiders, that the great tradition of political and philosophical thought is a great ruin. The key aspects of that tradition are no longer plausible and convincing – its structure has collapsed. But within this ruin, there are great thoughts – not just argument – and great insights that are more or less applicable in our current condition; pearls among the ruins. (The metaphor of pearl-diving is Arendt’s own, though I don’t remember exactly where she says it). These are thoughts and insights that our current condition threatens to hide – we tend to forget them, or we misunderstand them for reasons that lie in our current historical situation, and indeed in our current neglect of certain old concepts. This idea is clearly indebted to the Heideggerian concern with the forgetfulness of being, and it is shared in some way with the Talmudic Highlanders. The pearl-divers are thus also concerned with explanations of how the tradition of political thought has sometimes hidden fundamental insights about the nature of politics; not every insight is to be found in the classical texts; sometimes the deeds of actors need to be studied as well. So not every thinker contains hidden pearls. Some are simply rotten oysters.

Slightly north of them, we find the inhabitants of Macintyria. These people believe that there have been many traditions of political and ethical thought, but some of them are still live traditions. These are incommensurable, and we are interested in them because we cannot but belong to some tradition; we learn to think ethically and politically by learning a specific vocabulary and a way of thinking. We learn from the foundational texts, but not only from them; a tradition of ethical and political thought is a live project, developed by a number of people over much time. We can still be Aristotelians (and some people proudly think of themselves in this way, just as others call themselves Marxists).

In the great harbour south of the Talmudic Highlanders we find the Genealogical Pirates and the inhabitants of Berlinia. Though their temperament is extremely different, both are concerned with the tracing of lineages. The genealogical pirates believe that by unmasking the bastard origins of influential ideas they thereby open a space for truth or freedom. Their chief delight is to show how ideas that may appear natural and noble were at one point neither obvious nor noble; their concern is not that ancient texts might have had wisdom, but that they spread falsehood and mystification, or support unacknowledged forms of domination. Genealogy thus typically looks at neglected texts by minor authors (e.g., the Foucault of Discipline and Punish). But genealogical argument is necessarily limited. The contingent origins of particular ideas, while able to shake any certainties about divine revelation, cannot say that these ideas are not true or insightful; at best, genealogical argument can displace certain questions (though not always very permanently or very effectively) in favour of other (presumably more important) questions (e.g., we cease to ask about the legitimacy of power and inquire about the mechanisms of power).

Some of the genealogists settled in Foucauldia, where they grew old and developed a more mellow outlook on the past. Here they found that the history of political thought, though it did not disclose views that would be of universal import (for the genealogists, like the contextualists, think context is everything, or at least a lot) are nevertheless exemplars; they are worth admiring, even if they cannot be replicated (consider, for example, Foucault’s treatment of the Greeks in the later volumes of the History of Sexuality). It is also worth contrasting the genealogical pirates with the Unmaskers of Marxia; the Unmaskers are also interested in showing that certain ideas are neither natural nor noble, but behind them they always find the same thing: the history of class struggle. The history of political thought merely confirms, for them, the fundamental pattern of history; it illustrates, but does not, ultimately, enlighten. It can at best serve to predict the future.

The Berlinians, by contrast, delight more in noble lineages. But they are also concerned with showing how particular ideas get transformed in harmful ways; the blood goes bad. Here we may take Isaiah Berlin’s discussion of positive liberty as an example: Berlin thinks that the idea of positive liberty was not, in itself, very different from the idea of negative liberty. But its development tended to proceed along undesirable dimensions; and the practical consequences of ideals of liberty were ultimately undesirable. Yet it is always hard to know whether ideas truly are responsible for bad consequences, or merely cover them up.

Finally, a few words on the peoples of the anthropological islands (which I also like to visit on occasion). For the peoples of these islands, the history of political thought does not reveal a single important value, or a single important idea that contains “the truth.” On the contrary, it reveals that a plurality of ideas – in fact, a great number of ideas, some silly, some wise – have been entertained by political thinkers. (I think that people like Justin E. H. Smith would come from here, if they were concerned with the history of political thought specifically rather than with the history of philosophy more generally, but these anthropologists tend to be rather self-effacing and not prone to methodenstreiten). The mission of the anthropologists is to catalog this diversity, like real anthropologists, whose purpose is to classify and understand the myriad possibilities of human organization and culture. Understanding this diversity fully may give us a better picture of the possibilities and errors open to human thought, but it certainly does not directly affect anything we may think about current debates. 

Where are you located? What other possibilities are there?


  1. A. Yoksas4:25 PM

    I started my journey with a highlander who left that place in search of pearls on the Arendtian coast. His talk of the highlands seduced me, but I didn't know, at that time, why he left that place like he did.

    So I visited the highlands and learned a bit of Straussian kung fu. It would prove useful, but I didn't stay long. They are a wise people, but quick to burn heretics.

    For a long time, I drifted on the Great Hermenutical Sea that separates the Skinnerian Plains and the Anthropological Isles. When I started lecturing, I became a fruit picker. Indeed, I think the safest thing to be as a teacher is a fruit picker. We can show our students how to look for the best fruit and we can use our long reach to pick them the best fruit.

    I have to admit that I also engaged in piracy from time to time. You almost have to when the department calls upon you to teach Nietzsche. What amazed me is how much a little knowledge of the great books can net you on the high seas. I could have made a fortune as a pirate.

    But my journeys on the Hermenutical Ocean has led me to places both great and small. Surely you have heard of the Republic of Frankfurtistan? It is probably the closest thing we can come to the now defunct Grand Hegelian Empire. This is the place where world-historical events are still possible, and this is what sets them apart from the pirates. Many a dreamer has gone there. Few, if any, are heard from again though, so I try to avoid it.

    And I also landed on the Isle of White(Hayden White), right off the Skinnerian Plains. What sets them apart from the plainsfolk is their belief that the classics have a universal teaching that transcends context. To them, these are pieces of political rhetoric that can teach us about how to teach and discuss grand ideas. It isn't the truth of the philosophy that is important. It is the imagery and rhetorical strategy that is important to see. For these reasons they have been cast out of the highlands under the charge of being literary critics, and were grudgingly accepted as refugees by the Skinnerians.

    This is one of the lands I sat upon when writing my dissertation, but not the only one.

    I also spent some time on the Great Wall of Niebuhr during the Bush Administration. It's barely there now, just a shell of what it once was. It's a reminder of a time when the history of political thought was seen as a bulwark against the naïve optimism of the social scientists. Many a legend once manned the battlements on that wall, like Hans Morgenthau and E.H. Carr.

    It's still a matter of debate whether Morgenthau and Carr defected to the other side or if they were captured. All I know is that the wall was abandoned some time during the Cold War, when scientists started speaking in equations rather than words. This made anyone who studied words (like us) de facto idealists until quantitatively proven otherwise. I think I saw Taleb poking around these ruins on his way to the Indifferent Tribes.

    Today, I find myself diving for pearls, just like my first undergraduate professor. Maybe I'll find something, but if all I find is a rotten oyster, I'll move on.

    I hear Berlinia is good this time of year.

  2. Hi Marquez,

    Long time lurker here, thank you for this great blog post.

    I'm a really young guy who definitely doesn't know as much as you do about these thinkers, or at least doesn't understand them as deeply, but I'm just wondering if the genealogists are automatically correct? Because, anthropologically speaking, and from the view of cultural evolution, all human phenomena are the result of descent--as a matter of course--and the sustained existence of any human phenomena, be they political formations, intellectual schools, cultural institutions, family types, typologies of state and so on, has to do with their reliance on ideas that unify and differentiate the society and constrain the landscape of possibilities, at least in the very long term. We're just twigs on a tree whose roots lay far back in the mists of time.

    But otherwise I do believe in intellectual fruits. Different thinkers are like multicolored lights that illuminate and refract facets of our present reality that may never be noticed otherwise.

    1. Hi ryukendo kendow,

      In a sense they are right - you are right that all ideas can be traced back trhough their genealogy - but the point of the genealogical methods is typically to say, or to imply, that the genealogy of some ideas discredits them (or ennobles them). (Consider: tracing the genealogy of religious ideas is sometimes held to discredit them).