What follows are a series of ruminations…
During my first year of graduate school, I fell under the sway of an existential crisis that I am sure hits most students of political thought: was I a political theorist or a political philosopher? Was it “better” to be one rather than the other? I had to know the difference – my self-conception depended upon it!
But of course it didn’t and, I am glad to say, it no longer does in any serious sense – by which I mean, I simply do what I do and the matter only comes up when these terms are thrown around by those to whom the difference seems to make a difference. Not I, any longer.
I have, however, begun to think of another series of categories – categories I suspect actually do make a difference of a sort. Before I lay these out below and in a series of follow-on posts, let me first see if I can make sense of what may have prompted the graduate school experience. I sense a valuable lesson.
Our business – producers and consumers of concepts – is in some senses a peculiar one. We are beholden, in the final analysis, to good reasoning and nothing else. The data of our argument are propositions; their “confidence interval” is coherence. No two propositions can stand in close proximity that express internal weakness. The whole argument will ultimately collapse. If you can avoid that, you have likely offered a good argument – good job!
If what I’ve just said makes some sense, maybe we can further make some sense of the fledgling thinker’s existential crisis: if a political theorist is different from a political philosopher, then that means they trade in different kinds of arguments and/or ways of making them. Surely, if I am to do one or the other well, I need to know which I am doing and how it is done. Thus, I must be cognizant and fluent in the method!
Now, as far as that distinction is concerned, there is not much there there. I think the most that can be said is that some programs seem to think there is a difference – it is rare for philosophy departments to hire political theorists trained in poli sci departments. But good educators and mentors rarely make the distinction. Reading Rorty is just as valuable as reading Gutman. End of story.
…but this issue of method is an important one, I think. Actually, I am convinced of it. In my brief experience – or maybe I’m just reflecting the preoccupations of my own work – major disputes about big ideas come down to how one got to the conclusion being offered. This matters. For example, though Rawlsians become quite agitated with me at times, I insist that A Theory of Justice cannot be even close to the final stop on the road to a just society. It is inconceivable that we can reach that place without taking seriously the facts of history. (Ironically, Rawls himself seemed to think something like this – it is zealous followers that seem to want to make his work a matter of philosophical doctrine.)
On my view, problems are like pictures, and they come to look slightly differently depending on what frame you put them in – and, as I’m sure most agree, some pictures look best in some frames rather than others.
So, I want to be a good framer of problems and I think some frames must be better than others for some pictures. The kinds of pictures I have in mind are usually ones from socio-historical warzones depciting the casualties of which are blacks, women, gays, immigrants, and the poor, generally. I think the frame of Kantian ideal theory typically is both too thin as well as too dominating to serve as a good frame: it seems to offer no room for any other concerns than those that refer back to its own metaphysical commitments. However, that is by no means to say, other pictures can’t or don’t look good in that frame.
I’ve gotten to thinking about this lately because I was trained in what is typically termed the analytic tradition and that tradition, indebted to Kant, consistently struck me throughout graduate school as inappropriate for the philosophical images that concern me, as described above. Yet, to this day, I am continuously drawn to some of its best features. A commitment to analytic rigor (that is to say, diminished reliance on evocative language or arguments that are merely evocative without ultimately leading to a conclusion that can be agreed upon from outside the realm of feelings); restraint in unnecessarily jargon laden language (I’m thinking of you, Lyotard); and attention to argumentative construction – a workperson-like commitment to placing propositions and premises in their right order. What is a “right order”? – one that saves the reader from guessing what the components of the argument are.
Yet, despite my training (sometimes, in spite of it, maybe), my commitment to non-ideal problems pulls me in a distinct direction(s). I think this is necessarily so. To do non-ideal theory, one must be sensitive to the resources provided by many perspectives. As of late (maybe the last year), I’ve been strongly drawn to the virtue ethics tradition. Reading this literature has been a fresh air – imagine that! Thinking about actual people, in all their glory and ugliness within a moral theory. The draw for me, in a general sense, has been the re-introduction of agents who are both flawed and improvable, and the improvements might best be identified by studying the flaws.
But let me return to an above sentence: one must be sensitive to the resources provided by many perspectives. I think this is right and a good way to do political thought. But, if you find this view commonsensical, then you obviously have not been trained (or maybe you are simply not beholden to) the analytic tradition. All traditions have their dogmatists, but I’ve continuously been surprised by the amount of push-back one can expect to get when disagreeing with these folks. I often wonder if they live their lives as they argue their arguments. I find it hard to imagine. If so, a sad state of affairs.
So let’s think about that statement. What would it mean to argue one’s arguments in a manner reflecting the way one lives one’s life? This is dangerous territory, for we surely want to hold on to some core claims as simply non-negotiable, and such a view threatens to be deconstructive of values.
And yet…and yet…