Epic Blog Symposium/Party at Jacob’s place. BYOB.

Jacob Levy has a blogspheric symposium on Nancy Rosenblum’s On the Side of Angels. This is very interesting stuff — the book is about the virtues, or lack thereof, of political parties.* A lot of really, really smart people are participating, including Andrew Rehfeld**, Melissa Schwartzberg, Patrick Deneen, Henry Farrell, and Mara Marin, as well as Rosenblum herself (natch) and Jacob Levy (double natch).

But the posts I look most forward to are Nadia Urbinati’s. She’s my favorite Mill scholar, and you all know how much I love Mill, better known as the most sensible political philosopher ever (with the possible exceptions of Gerry Cohen, see below, and Raz). Her Mill on Democracy is an utterly brilliant book.

And so we come to Urbinati’s first second post, which is, of course, fascinating. She offers an argument for the necessity of parties to representative democracy. The meat is as follows:

The seed of the democratic character of representation germinates from the paradox that although a representative is supposed to deliberate about things that affect all members of the polity, she is also supposed to have a sympathetic relation to a part (the part that votes for her). In substance, a relation of ideological sympathy and communication between the representative and her electors is necessary and can occur only because political representation excludes legal mandate and is not a contract. The sympathetic relation of the representative to the part that voted for her is and must only be a matter of opinions or ideas, an informal and thus not authoritative kind of relation. This means however that the representative is not politically autonomous from her electors although she must be legally autonomous. Party is the political link of interdependence between citizens and elected representatives.

In democratic politics, representation is not “acting in the place of somebody,” but more precisely, being in a political relation of sympathetic similarity or communication with those in the place of whom the representatives act in the legislature (from here citizens’ quest of representativity comes). The assumption of this (idealized or ideological) kind of sympathy (which is the foundation of the advocacy aspect of representation) is reflected in the statute that regulates how the deputies vote in the representative assembly. Except in clearly specified cases (which pertain to decrees, not laws), the voting record must be made public. Electors need to know what the representatives do and say and how they vote in the assembly because they need to compare representatives judgment to their own judgment.

That a political representative is required to share her ideas only with her electors, not with the whole nation as a homogeneous body, entails that representation is itself a denial of plebiscitarian and populist democracy (a homogeneous identification of the body politics with one leader). Indeed, in order to acquire the moral and political legitimacy to make laws for all it must articulate pluralism but not superimpose an unreflective unity over an indistinct mass of individuals. It is thus important to make clear that representation is a process of unification not an act of unity that erases pluralism. As such, it presupposes and fosters pluralism, one that is not a mere social given but a political construction made by free citizens in their conflicting divisions or sympathetic alliances. Representative democracy is based on political parties and partisanship.

I’m not sure that I agree that this kind of pluralism necessarily requires parties (see my comment to the linked post), but it’s an idea worth chasing down.

Another worry about this argument: suppose, then, that it came about that pluralism went away? Imagine that all of a sudden, everyone reads, say, Theory of Justice and becomes totally convinced by it, such that there are no real substantive (rather than instrumental) debates anymore about the meaning of equality or the extent of necessary redistribution. Does this mean that (representative) democracy is actually threatened or weakened? Urbinati seems to be working with a kind of agonistic conception of democracy, where pluralism must exist and democracy must be continuously working to unify (without homogenizing) the different elements in society. That is, at least, what I take from the assertion that pluralism “is not a mere social given,” and from the notion that representation “presupposes and fosters” as well as reflects pluralism: that there’s something good about pluralism as such — that it would be bad not only if politics imposed homogeneity on the populace, but if it came about independently too. This is, I suppose, a very (very, very) Millian position to take. But is it a little too strong?


Crooked Timber also has a book happening, in the form of Gerry Cohen’s new book on Rawls, Rescuing Justice and Equality.

Sadly, they are being really strict at CT about participating in the discussion unless you’ve actually read the chapters at issue. Which is great, except I don’t have time. But I have checked out and monopolized Stanford’s one copy of the Cohen book in the hopes that perhaps I’ll find the time to read at least some of it and participate there.

Jacob’s symposium, on the other hand, includes extensive summaries of the relevant material, so you can participate even without having actually read the book! Advantage: Levy.

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* This coming from a man who regularly votes straight party-ticket. But that’s purely a matter of economizing on information costs.

** As Jacob notes, Rehfeld is the author of an extremely controversial paper, Offensive Political Theory, which seriously questions the appropriateness of the role of political theorists in political science departments.

Edit: Andrew tells me that the linked version is an old version, and has sent me the newest. I haven’t gotten (or requested) permission to excerpt from the new version, so unless it shows up online elsewhere, my dear readers will have to be satisfied with what’s here.

Second edit: the updated version is on his web page. Because I am lazy, the quote is still from the old version.

He goes so far as to describe his enterprise as follows: “calling on theorists to shore up their ranks, kick the humanists out, and stop their whining about remaining where have no right to be, this article is meant to be offensive in both senses of that word.” It turns out, however, that the kind of work I do is still allowed, even on his “offensive” argument, so I can endorse the paper with a joyous heart:

Political theory is not a homogeneous enterprise, and we can parse it into its constituent parts and ask the question about each kind. Indeed, I think it is useful to distinguish 5 different kinds of theory: analytical, explanatory, normative, exegetical/hermeneutical, and historical (history of ideas). (Arguably “critical theory” and “feminist theory” form a sixth and seventh kind, but I think it more usefully is divided among these five sub- fields.) Further complicating the matter is that these kinds of theory are not mutually exclusive, and some of the more prominent theorists of the last 20 years (e.g., Hardin, Holmes, Nussbaum, Rawls, Sunstein, Dahl, Okin, etc.) would resist firm categorization into any one of these categories. However, most theorists do work primarily, if not exclusively, in a few of these areas, so these distinctions are of some descriptive value.

My own view is that most of what is considered analytical and explanatory, and some of normative political theory fit fully within the description of political science just demarcated: these kinds attempt to study how power is or could be used over people, in a way that presumes discovery of a world independent of the observer, and is animated by avoidance of false beliefs rather than a desire to hold true ones. By contrast, exegetical/hermeneutical and history of ideas is most often at odds with the enterprise of political science for two reasons. These approaches tend to take authors and texts, rather than political phenomena, as their objects of study; and second (though less regularly) they proceed not with a view to reject false beliefs, but rather by a desire to affirm true ones. Importantly, studies that treat ideas or texts as causal political phenomena and attempt to make that link are surely political science because they fit as an explanatory mode.

Of these modes of political theory, history of ideas is perhaps the one that is most contentious since many such theorists, following Skinner and others, believe that ideas matter and engage in historical analysis in an attempt to show how ideas have influenced the political world. By our own criterion of demarcation this would appear to count, especially when animated by a spirit of skepticism (avoidance of false beliefs) rather than a spirit of affirmation (holding true beliefs). But to the extent these studies attempt to show how ideas influence politics, I would classify them as “explanatory” theory rather than historical treatments: they seek, for example, to explain how it is that Locke’s view of property has infiltrated from his time to ours in the political sphere.

But, quite frankly, in much of this historical literature the causal linkage between “ideas” and “historical events” is usually dogmatically asserted as high faith that “ideas matter.” In this case historical analyses of ideas that are limited to the linking of ideas themselves by showing, say, the similarity of Locke’s conception of property to the American capitalist experience are confusing correlation with cause and by doing so display their preference to believing true claims rather than avoiding false ones. To the extent these histories of ideas seek instead to explain the causal and not merely correlated similarities between one era and other, in an attempt to falsify their linkage and influence, they should fully count as political science because they concern how power is exercised over people in a broadly scientific way. And, for those that do not, this is perhaps why “persuasive writing” is valued more in these other humanistic inquiries than is “persuasive evidence.”

However, I don’t have the faintest what to make of the distinction between avoidance of false beliefs and affirming true beliefs. Is there a Bayesian in the house?

(It seems to me that political science also needs theorists in part precisely to consider the questions that he so daringly considers.)

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13 Responses to “Epic Blog Symposium/Party at Jacob’s place. BYOB.”

  1. Greg Says:

    Paul, would you comment a bit (here or in another post) about why Cohen makes your list of sensible political philosophers?

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    1) The early Marx work, especially the debate with Elster on functional explanation and his analysis of same in the big Marx book is brilliant and, in the latter case, spot-on.

    2) The work starting with If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich (and I gather continuing to the new book) is among the most (if not the most) compelling egalitarian critiques of Rawls, and particularly of the difference principle.

    3) The self-ownership work, and the work on the relationship between property and coercion, is likewise one of the strongest critiques of Nozick — and something that all my libertarian readers really need to pay attention to, since it challenges their whole system right at the roots.

    4) The ideal/non-ideal theory stuff, primarily “Facts and Principles,” while part of the general critique of Rawls, also makes a huge, important, and compelling contribution to the literature about the relevance of empirical facts to normative claims.

    As I find each of those massively important lines of argument broadly convincing (with detailed defenses to be deferred for specific requests), I tend to think that he’s rather sensible indeed. (I can’t back the luck egalitarian stuff, though. Anderson, IMO, blew that right out of the water completely.)

  3. Matt Says:

    I guess I’d disagree with almost all of these- I tend to think that Elster gets the clear better in the debate with Cohen on functional explanations. Cohen’s book on Marx is good, but I think Elster takes the wind out of it for being “scientific”. (This makes sense of Cohen moving from a ’scientific’ to a distinctly normative approach, I think.) I think that “If you’re an egalitarian…”, while an interesting book, is a bad account of Rawls and that the account in it is one of the most completely refuted arguments in philosophy. See, for example, papers by David Estlund (Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity an Cohen’s Critique of Rawls), a couple of papers by Andrew Williams, Normal Daniel’s chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Rawls, Josh Cohen’s “Taking People as They Are?” (in P&PA), KC Tan’s “Justice and Personal Pursuits” in the Journal of Philosophy, Samuel Scheffler’s “What is Egalitarianism?” in P&PA, and Samuel Freeman’s “Rawls and Luck Egalitarianism” in his _Justice and the Social Contract_, as well as the chapter on the second principle of justice in his book _Rawls_. It’s a serious argument, but I don’t think there’s anything left of it after these papers.

    Cohen’s position in his later philosophy is essentially Platonistic and ituitionistic. That doesn’t seem “sensible” to me- it’s at best a sort of ad-hoc balancing of intuitions. I don’t think the “facts and principles” stuff stands up at all, either- it seems quite confused to me, and also deeply unappealing, at the level of meta-ethics. (It’s, as I mentioned, a Platonistic view requiring an unpleasant sort of intuitionism.) Given this I don’t find his later stuff very good at all- it’s not practical (Platonistic views rarely are, after all), of no use to politicians (even less than Rawls, since much of what he requires cannot, in a pluralistic state or a liberal state at all, but legislated w/o leading to the gulag), and dependent on a deeply implausible and unpleasant luck egalitarianism. It’s luck egalitarianism all the way down, too. So, while I think he does as good as one can reconstructing Marx, Elster showed what was wrong with that, and there’s really nothing left over.

  4. Greg Says:

    You don’t really have much of a problem with 3 though, do you Matt? Along with 4 (though I think his “Facts and Principles” stuff to be deeply mistaken, it’s nonetheless clearly very important) it seems to me to be his greatest contribution to the discipline.

    Paul, I guess I take issue with 2 for (partly) the same reasons that Matt does. It’s become much clearer to me with RJ&E that Cohen’s really misunderstood or ignored parts of Rawls in ways that really cripple his critique. I’m thinking of the basic structure objection and the ideal/non-ideal stuff, where it’s not clear to me at all that he’s even talking about justice, or at least that he needs to do a lot more in showing that Rawls wasn’t.

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    Huh, can’t really engage all those points here, especially since I haven’t read the new book, so I don’t know what he’s done with the basic structure objection (which I always found the most convincing part of the Rawls critique). But I want to mention the Elster debate, which I’ve been looking into a lot lately. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Elster gets the better of Cohen or not, but he certainly doesn’t get the clear better.

    Elster has this, frankly, bizarre position that functional explanations can never fly in the social sciences, because of his commitment to methodological individualism — but there’s really nothing underneath it. Functional explanations in the social sciences can work even if we think that ultimately social phenomena are explainable in individualistic terms. The idea runs roughly and in extremely loose form as follows: there are aggregate-level incentives: societies as a whole can have institutions that make it more probable that each of a large number of individuals will have good reason to engage in a certain kind of behavior. Institutions that create their own support — that bring it about that large numbers of individuals will have an incentive to support that institution — will for that reason have an increased probability of persisting. With that, we can have in specific cases a form of natural selection for social institutions (with many, many complicated implementation details) that is perfectly consistent with a commitment to methodological individualism.

    Elster just gets it totally wrong when he tries to eliminate functional explanations out of a commitment to methodological individualism.

    Of course, he has other arguments, too, and this is a blog post and not a paper, but most of them seem pretty feeble too. For example, he makes a lot of hay about the fact that there’s one single feedback mechanism in biology (reproductive adaptation) and numerous in the social sciences… but that’s a contingent fact about the development of social theories — it’s in principle possible (and many have tried) to articulate general accounts of social change that rely on one or a small number of generally applicable reproductive mechanisms.

  6. Matt Says:

    Greg- I tend to think that 3 is a problem, too, though in a different way. I do think that Cohen does a pretty good job of showing that, even if you take self-ownership seriously as an idea, it doesn’t lead to Nozick’s conclusions. That’s useful. But, I tend to think that self-ownership in this sense is something to be mocked rather than worked in another direction as I don’t think it’s a plausible moral ideal at all (and that the line of thinkers who reject it, from Hume to Kant to Rawls are all right to do so.) Worse yet, this opened up the silly line of thought of the “left libertarians” like Otsuka and Steiner, one of the worst and most silly set of positions in political philosophy.

  7. Jacob T. Levy Says:

    Matt, I don’t think you can causally attribute Steiner’s view to Cohen’s work. They’d both been at their respective projects for a long time before 1994/95 (Essay on Rights/ Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality), and Cohen gets a “special debt of thanks” along with a few other people in Essay, but his arguments don’t figure very prominently in Steiner’s book. (Cohen has no more entries in the index than does Henry George, who is a perfectly viable alternative source for the position, and a lot fewer than Nozick.)

    And I think Steiner’s later stuff in left-libertarianism is really derived from the Essay, not from Cohen.

  8. Matt Says:

    Jacob- I didn’t mean to attribute Steiner’s view to Cohen! I don’t think that Cohen is properly thought of as a “left libertarian”, either- there’s nothing very libertarian about his work. My point was only that Cohen’s work on self ownership helped revive the bad idea, and that this in turn helped give a false plausibility to left-libertarianism. (Steiner might be less influenced by Cohen than I thought, as you suggest, but I suspect he’d be less read if Cohen hadn’t worked on self-ownership.)

  9. Jacob T. Levy Says:

    “I suspect he’d be less read if Cohen hadn’t worked on self-ownership.”

    Yeah, that’s right. I think Essay is a smart and important book, but it was (to my mind) weirdly unknown for a while, and it only seemed to become better-known as the (Cohen-influenced) “left-libertarian” school gained prominence in the ’00s.

  10. x. trapnel Says:

    Paul – I don’t read Elster that way at all, though there are some quirky bits to his philosophy of social science, and I haven’t read his revisiting of Nuts and Bolts (though I attended some of the lectures during its reworking). I take Elster to be saying that functional explanations are only legit if you can actually identify the aggregate-level reinforcement mechanisms that you’re claiming generate the stability. Talking about something being functional for a society as a whole is so nebulous as to be meaningless. I take Jack Knight’s “Institutions and Social Conflict” to be an extended argument about the difference between good-but-general accounts and bad-and-general accounts, within this overall framework.

    Glancing at Elster’s review of Bourdieu makes me think I’m right in my take, though I’m willing to be corrected. At any rate, it’s the *right* view, and I came to it from reading Elster and his self-conscious disciples, so that’s close enough for me.

  11. Matt Says:

    I think that X has the right reading of Elster. Another (somewhat similar, but only somewhat) critique of Cohen’s use of functional explanation in his Marx book can be found in Michael Rosen’s excellent book _On Voluntary Servitude_.

  12. Paul Gowder Says:

    This is actually quite helpful to me, those two refs: thank you, X & Matt.

  13. Matt Says:

    My pleasure. Rosen’s book is extremely interesting even though I’m not sure if I agree with all of it. (I think he’s wrong, for example, on at least some of his discussion of Rousseau, and think that Fred Neuhauser’s account is better there.) But, it’s very interesting in general. (I think the government department at Harvard was extremely wise to hire him!)

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