Let’s get it wrong

6 02 2017

November 8, I snapped: something fundamental in me, something I thought I knew, I did not.

Now, the consequences for the country—and, perhaps, the world—of electing a poorly-informed, thin-skinned, D-list celebrity are dire: ‘malevolence’ and ‘incompetence’ are fighting for descriptive supremacy of this GOP-administration-on-meth.

Just in case it wasn’t clear what I thought about all of this.

But there’s also the personal, intellectual side, and here the unpredictability is more promising.

As I’ve mentioned, I followed respected Americanists in understanding the 2016 elections, in particularly, their understanding of historic trends and of the polls. It was reasonable to do so, and for that reason, I don’t regret it. They, and by extension I, got it wrong, and that sucks—hard—but they were wrong on the margins in one of those exceptions in which the margins matter. Such error requires reconsideration, not the wrecking of an entire model (although how much reconsideration is for them, not me, to decide).

No, what I regret is that I only followed those respected Americanists, and discounted my own abilities as a theorist.

I’m not a great theorist—too much the syncretist to toss out something truly original—and goddess knows I’m not a great academic (haven’t published anything in years). But I am a pretty good theorist, and I let my failings as an academic blind me not only to my own skills as a theorist, but also to the insights that political theory and the humanities can bring to political phenomena.

I’ve tried to hold the line for political science and the social sciences generally as sciences, that is, as forms of inquiry into the human subject and human systems, but I’ve never considered political theory scientific. I (and not a few other theorists, I’d guess) cede the contemporary empirical observations to the quants and to those who follow closely Congress or the parties or the policy process, and let their regressions and outlines guide me in my judgements of the course of modern American politics.

Okay, this sounds snarky, but I don’t mean it to be: instead, I’m telling on myself for not having the courage of my own disciplinary convictions. I think quantitative analysis is useful, and limited, and that past is often, although not always, prologue, but when it came time to taking seriously what theory—what an analysis of rhetoric, of what may be animating partisan declarations, how various actions may be interpreted, how this fits, or doesn’t, with what Americanists were saying—I. . . didn’t.

I don’t know why. This may be due to the distance so many (although not all) political theorists have traditionally held themselves from contemporary politics, to the low esteem for theory everyone not a theorist has for the field, to the fact that I’m currently engaged in a project which has my head in centuries past—and I think all of that’s true.

But it’s also the case that I had inklings, anxieties, about this election that I dismissed. Now, the main reason for that dismissal is that I have anxieties about everything, so I work (to varying degrees of effectiveness) to dial it all down so I don’t find myself curled up under my bed with gin and the cats. But I also knew our social fractures were not just figments of my neurosis—see my various entries regarding ‘loaded dice’—and I didn’t collect those fractures into any kind of coherent skepticism of the ‘this is fine’ narrative.

Why not? Maybe because it’s all too impressionistic, reeks too much of Peggy Noonan’s ‘vibrations’ or comes off as political woo: the quants, after all, have the sharpness of their predictions (even as the best of them warn us of the fuzziness on the margins) and offer beguilingly ‘scientific’ understandings—proof! evidence! facts!—of electoral politics. Abashed by my own field’s meager offerings of ‘interpretations’, I was suckered into forgetting that ‘voting behavior’ and ‘party politics’ are themselves not the whole of politics.

Again, I don’t blame them for my willingness to follow and, again, I won’t stop listening to them. But I will return to what political theory can do, what I can do, and try to make sense from here. It will be, of necessity, more tentative, smaller, and much messier, but may offer the kind of clarity one can only find amidst the tumult.

This whole frigging place will be down to the ground

2 09 2015

I’m teaching Weimar this semester.

Two months ago—a month ago—I didn’t know that’s what I’d be teaching, but once I hit on it, I thought Yessssss!!

This is actually the 4th version of my Politics and Culture course. The first one, based on women and human rights, was terrible; the second one worked well, but after teaching it a few years, I got bored and redid the syllabus; the third version was okay, but it never quite came together, and I was never fully comfortable with the course.

So, time for yet another revamp.

My first thought was that I’d use Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail. While I had a few issues with their argument (as I had with the Nussbaum book I used for v. 2), I thought the book would work well for the course: it’s well-written, and, importantly, it had the kind of big theory that was missing from one of the books (Banerjee & Duflo’s Poor Economics) I used in v. 3. The students in that course responded when I gave big-sweep historical lectures, so I figured Acemoglu & Robinson’s big-sweep historical analysis would go over well with them.

Except: I couldn’t figure out what to use as an adjunct to the text. Why Nations Fail is all about political and economic development, and while (political) culture plays a role in their argument, I still wanted to round out the course with something else.

Only, I couldn’t figure out what that something else would be. I’d spent a fair amount of time over the past few months looking over my books and pulling one, and then another, and then yet another off the shelf, but I couldn’t settle on one. Then, at some point in mid or late July, I was peering idly at my history books, and I scanned across Richard Evans’s Third Reich trilogy.

Huh, I thought. Then, Yesssss!!

My first thought was The Coming of the Third Reich, then I thought, The Third Reich in Power, but then I went back to The Coming.

Weimar. Perfect. It’s politics and culture galore, is a subject which I’d been reading about off and of the past coupla’ years, and, most importantly, it was something that I was immediately excited about.

I was not immediately excited about Why Nations Fail.

And that’s when I remembered the lesson I keep forgetting: teaching something I’m dutiful about is a pain; teaching something I’m excited about is a gas.

It also helps to teach something which is more rather than less in my wheelhouse. I certainly have interests in political and economic development, but I’m not a political-developmental economist: I’m a theorist, and I want to know how and why ideas move people to act. Material conditions absolutely matter, but they are not determinative; I’m interested in that great gauzy space beyond the material, and how that works out in actual political life.

So why wasn’t I teaching that? Why was I abandoning something that I think also matters? Why wasn’t I taking theory—and politics—seriously?

Weimar gives me a bit of everything; hell, the glory of Weimar as a teaching subject is its too-muchness: economics and diplomacy and monarchy and fascism and liberalism and communism and violence and art and theater and so much promise and in the end, too much peril.

I’ve only taught one session so far (the class meets on Fridays), and we won’t really get into Weimar until the third week, but the students seemed into it. They might not know much about Weimar, but they certainly know something about what came after—Nazis on the march do tend to get one’s attention.

Anyway, I don’t know if this course will work or not, but really, I think it will. And I think the students will end up digging it, too.

In any case, it certainly can’t go any worse than the Republic itself.

She blinded me with science

17 02 2014

When to let go and when to hang on?

This is one of the conundrums ways I’ve come to interpret various situations in life big and small. I don’t know that there is ever a correct decision (tho’ I’ll probably make the wrong one), but one chooses, nonetheless.

Which is to say: I choose to hang on to the “science” in political science.

I didn’t always feel this way, and years ago used to emphasize that I was a political theorist, not a political scientist. This was partly due to honesty—I am trained in political theory—and partly to snobbery: I thought political theorists were somehow better than political scientists, what with their grubbing after data and trying to hide their “brute empiricism” behind incomprehensible statistical models.

Physics envy, I sniffed.

After awhile the sniffiness faded, and as I drifted into bioethics, the intradisciplinary disputes faded as well. And as I drifted away from academia, it didn’t much matter anymore.

So why does it matter now?

Dmf dropped this comment after a recent post—

well “science” without repeatable results, falsifiability, and some ability to predict is what, social? lot’s of other good way to experiment/interact with the world other than science…

—and my first reaction was NO!

As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t trust my first reactions precisely because they are so reactive, but in this case, with second thought, I’ma stick with it.

What dmf offers is the basic Popperian understanding of science, rooted in falsifiability and prediction, and requiring some sort of nomological deductivism. It is widespread in physics, and hewed to more or less in the other natural and biological sciences.

It’s a great model, powerful for understanding the regularities of non-quantum physics and, properly adjusted, for the biosciences, as well.

But do you see the problem?

What dmf describes is a method, one of a set of interpretations within the overall practice of science. It is not science itself.

There is a bit of risk in stating this, insofar as young-earth creationists, intelligent designers, and sundry other woo-sters like to claim the mantle of science as well. If I loose science from its most powerful method, aren’t I setting it up to be overrun by cranks and supernaturalists?


The key to dealing with them is to point out what they’re doing is bad science, which deserves neither respect in general nor class-time in particular. Let them aspire to be scientists; until they actually produce a knowledge which is recognizable as such by those in the field, let them be called failures.

Doing so allows one to get past the no-good-Scotsman problem (as, say, with the Utah chemists who insisted they produced cold fusion in a test tube: not not-scientists, but bad scientists), as well as to recognize that there is a history to science, and that what was good science in one time and place is not good in another.

That might create too much wriggle room for those who hold to Platonic notions of science, and, again, to those who worry that this could be used to argue for an “alternative” physics or chemistry or whatever. But arguing that x science is a practice with a history allows the practitioners of that science to state that those alternatives are bunk.

But back to me (always back to me. . . ).

I hold to the old notion of science as a particular kind of search for knowledge, and as knowledge itself. Because of that, I’m not willing to give up “science” to the natural scientists because those of us in the social sciences are also engaged in a particular kind of search for knowledge. That it is not the same kind of search for the same kind of knowledge does not make it not-knowledge, or not-science.

I can’t remember if it was Peter Winch or Roger Trigg who pointed out that the key to good science was to match the method to the subject: what works best in physics won’t necessarily work best in politics. The problem we in the social sciences have had is that our methods are neither as unified nor as powerful as those in the natural sciences, and that, yes, physics envy has meant that we’ve tried to import methods and ends  which can be unsuitable for learning about our subjects.

So, yes, dmf, there are more ways of interacting with the world than with science. But there are also more ways of practicing science itself.

We just have to figure that out.

We might as well try: We do what we’re told, told to do

5 08 2012

Libertarianism and anarchism are necessary adjuncts to any theory, but as theories themselves, they are shit.

Now, if I were as clever as Nietzsche, I could leave it at that: the man knew that aphorisms are so much more delightful—for the writer of them, at least—than their elaborations.

But I am duller than the mad German, more (if only fitfully) dutiful in extending my pronunciamentos into argument.

Still, I am in an aphoristic mood, so allow me to miss the dot-and-cross of explanation in favor of elision and leap and speculation: after all, even political theorists have to play.

And so, declaration upon declaration, a piling up standing in for the more consequential lock of link by link:

I had stated previously that no theory of politics which cannot take account of how we humans are deserve the name of theory; I may even have used the term political science fiction.

And, alas, as much affection as I hold for anarchism, it is as fantastical as libertarianism in its approach to human being. If libertarianism can’t think of value beyond liberty, anarchism cannot imagine the irreconcilability of interests. Libertarianism conceives of humans as adults emerging fully formed from the mud, anarchism sees us instinctively in communion. They see the state, the corporation, as the obstacles to our true selves, the heavy gate locking us away from utopia.

In short, libertarianism is too small in its understanding of humans, while anarchism would have us floating above the ground. One thinks too little of humans, the other, too much; neither knows what to do with coercion.

And there’s the rub: there is no human polity without coercion, no human congress at all, so any political theory which is to direct us has to take coercion’s measure, calculate how to deploy and constrain coercion in a manner most congenial to that theory’s purpose.

Neither libertarianism nor anarchism is fitted to such calculations. Libertarianism falls into hysterics at the merest whisper of coercion, imagining itself Mel Gibson’s William Wallace rasping out “Freedom!” as it is gutted by the king’s men, while anarchism, too, imagines that if it gets rid of kings and bosses it gets rid of coercion. They share the delusion that if only individuals or the people were left alone, that if the state and the corporation were to disappear,  power and interest would disappear with them.

Forced to toil in service to real theory, however, these adjuncts serve a real purpose. Libertarianism reminds one of the massive accumulation of coercive power in the state, and how easily that state may justify to itself any use of that power; if one cares at all the liberty and integrity of the individual, it is good to have a counter-valence to the state. Anarchism remembers that these same individuals and the communities in which they live are capable, often more capable, than is the central state in providing, or at least arranging the provisions, for themselves.

To put this more simply, when serving as a minor chord in a major theory, they are forced to reckon with elements they would otherwise dismiss, and by this reckoning they provide a leavening necessary to the continued functioning of that theory. Their resistance creates breathing room that theory in its denseness would not otherwise provide.

Libertarianism and anarchism, then, are honorable resistance fighters, but it is best if they rarely, if ever, defeat what they resist.

We might as well try: stuck in the middle with you

19 07 2012

We’re a mess, a mortal, biological, social mess.

Now what?

Now. . . nothing. Or something, or everything—take yer pick.

I stated in the last post that any serious theory of human being has to take into account some basic facts about us, but having taking those basics into account does not lead in any particular moral or political direction. You can believe we’re m-b-s and believe in God (or not); hold to socialist, capitalist, fascist, monarchist, republican, and even many versions of libertarian beliefs; love, hate, or be indifferent to your fellow humans; love, hate, or be indifferent to the material and social conditions in which we live.

One could, for example, see our mortality as reason for despair, and seek release from life’s arbitrary limits, or see these limits as a reason to cram as much living in as one can while one can. (As an absurdist I both despair and seek to live—a change from my previous existence as a self-destructive depressive, in which I couldn’t even lift myself up to despair.) Mortality might lead him to a belief in the afterlife, and her to make sense of life on this earth as it is, and them to do both.

Some revel in our carnality, others are disgusted by it; some seek to augment our physicality, some to escape from it, some ignore it, some resign themselves to it; many, I’d guess, feel all of these urges over any given period in time. Sometimes our bodies are just bodies, other times sites of moral interrogation and feats of the will. We tend to and fret over our bodies, their shapes and sexualities and appetites and frailties; we boast what our bodies can do and bewail its insubordinations. We are and are not our bodies.

As for our sociality, well, that would seem to lead more directly to a particular politics, but outside of those who think we’re hatched as adults into our Randian lairs, every political ideology has some sense of the social and its own way of arranging our relationships to one another as humans. Anti-politics, too, as a view of the social, whether as something to be abandoned for a shack in the wilderness, or embraced in a particularistic way as a hedge against incursions of power—to which I can only say: good luck with that.

So what’s the point of laying out the ur-ontology if it doesn’t lead anywhere? Because it places us somewhere—and somewhere is a place to begin.

If you want to make sense of us you can’t skip over the elements of us. I’ve no beef with brain-in-a-jar philosophy, but if you want that to illuminate anything about us as people, you’ve got at some point to put the brain back in the skull, and then attach that skull to a body which requires food and water and other forms of care, which forms in turn depend to greater and lesser extents to the people and stuff around that body.

And if you want to develop a political theory of and for us, you have to understand how our limits and potentialities and requirements and desires under the basic conditions of our mortality, biology, and sociality create and constrain our possibilities. James Madison noted, famously, that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary”; since we’re not angels, but humans, we need a politics for us as humans.

You’d think this would be obvious, and in many ways it is, particularly when it comes to theories of our selfishness, but we also like to overlook the obvious when it’s convenient to do so, e.g., when it comes to global warming or the necessity of clean water to life. And in the US we have a weird relationship to the social: we tend toward friendliness and u-rah-rah and we have politicians who offer paeans to “communities coming together”, but talk about any kind of obligation we may have to one another or “taking a village” or “we’re in this together” is considered by many to be polarizing or pinko-talk and demeaning to the individual.

This attitude makes no sense: Capitalism requires social relationships, and forges those which work best in it, and scarcity is certainly a key component of basic capitalist theories. And social conservatives—well, duh, social—too often throw themselves to the floor wailing whenever someone points out that how we are social is matter of legitimate debate.

Anyway, I’m neither a capitalist nor a conservative (tho’ I do have a conservative temperament), so I’ll let them work out their own theories. The point is, is that nothing I’ve said so far about our basic conditions necessarily goes against any theories they may have.

Soon, however, very soon. . . .

Wait just a darned minute!

23 06 2011

Matt Yglesias:

In my experience as a professional political pundit, the study of political philosophy doesn’t get you very far in terms of illuminate real controversies even relative to other branches of philosophy.

I was going to go all umbragy, but then I remembered: he’s right—professional political pundits rarely bother to go very far into the study of political theory in ways which would help to illuminate real controversies.

Modern thought(less): Rambling preamble

26 04 2011

Thoughtlessness is a marker of modernity.

That’s a big, vague statement, leaving “thoughtlessness”, “marker”, and “modernity” all undefined. What I’ll be attempting to do, then, in goddess knows how many posts, is to unvague these terms, to ask if there is something about modern thoughtlessness which is distinct from prior/other moments of thoughtlessness, how mindfulness is connected to thoughtlessness, and whatever the hell else pops into me wee little mind about modernity.

Dmf asked how the project on the dawning of modernity is coming along, to which I can only respond: still coming. There will be connections made, however. I’m almost sure of it.

Anyway, since this is the pre-amble, here are a few pre-liminary statements (subject, of course, to revision):

1.We are not yet beyond modernity.

2. Following (1), what is called “post-modernity” is actually a critique of modernity, such that “post-modernity” is a misnomer.

3. Modernity has its own history, such that features which are prominent in one period in one period may be marginal in another.

4. Following (3), some features of modernity may be emergent and/or may disappear over the course of modernity.

5. The role of science, in terms of method, subject, and results, matter in the shaping of modern thought.

6. Modernity has become inseparable from capitalism.

7. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation were crucial in the development of modern thought.

8. Rights-based individualism is an emergent phenomenon and varying property of modernity, that is, the connection between individualism, rights, and modernity must be interrogated, not assumed.

9. Rights-based individualism and capitalism are connected to the phenomenon of thoughtlessness.

10. Mindfulness, as an emergent goal of rights-based individualism, deepens rather than overcomes the phenomenon of thoughtlessness.

Some of these hypotheses are commonly accepted, others, less so, but I wanted explicitly to mark off the ground where the digging will start.

Furthermore, I don’t know that all of these statements will hold up, or that others won’t emerge as more pressing or plausible. These are, at this point, simply educated hunches.

Two other points: One, I was captivated some many years ago by the concept of the palimpsest, so I’m sure I’ll work that in somehow. The hard part will be making sure I don’t mislead myself in my eagerness to deploy the concept.

Two, it is worth mentioning again that this discussion of modern thought is of a specific, European-based phenomenon. I reject the notion that European history comprises the whole of world history, and in writing these posts make no claims about other histories or forms of contemporary thought in the world.

In any case, why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t. I simply want to make sense, and it seems to me that spelunking into intellectual history is one way to do so.

We’ll see.