Wednesday, October 11, 2006

History of Political Thought: What's it Good For?

The conversation by Don and ‘Cheerful Hobbist’ below (see this post), as well as a number of conversations in recent weeks, has raised the question of why one might want to study the history of political thought (or whatever one wants to call it), how one should approach this study, and what use one might, or should, make of it. Since studying the history of political thought is what I (allegedly) do -- and what I've spent the past 8 years or so of my life doing, or trying, preparing, or pretending to do -- this question seems worth pursuing to (and for) me.
First, antiquarianism. I hear this bandied about as a dirty word -- surely, it is said in many of these sorts of conversations, studying the history of political thought must be or do x if it is not to be 'mere' antiquarianism. Well, what's so bad about antiquarianism? What, exactly, is the argument against x when one says that x is a case of antiquarianism? I can think of a couple of ways to interpret this -- both of which are no doubt reductive, but here they are. One is that to charge something or someone with antiquarianism is to say that it is not useful; the other is that to make the charge or wave about the term is to state that you find something uninteresting. The former begs the question: useful for what? As for being uninteresting -- well, I think that's very much in the eye of the beholder; one man's antiquarianism is another's dazzling work of historical reconstruction/retrieval. I think that charges of 'antiquarianism' are better reformulated as quiet comments that work x doesn't tell us what we happen to want to know -- which leaves us with the job of explaining what we want to know, and why.
CH offers several answers for why studying the history of political thought might be valuable -- though not all of them are necessarily arguments for exactly the same sort of historical knowledge or inquiry. Some seem to me to call for a study of historical development -- of the reception and influence over time of ideas, theories, larger modes of thinking. This is rather different from what the Straussians claim to do; and it is different from at least some versions of 'Cambridge historicism'. In discovering the roots of our own ways of thinking, or ideas which continue to be used in contemporary thought and argument -- or, going in the opposite direction, of tracing out the impact over time of a thinker's work as interpreted and used by others -- it is not clear that the intention(s) or intended meaning(s) or actual conscious convictions of the thinker(s) in question are really necessary to accurately reconstruct. The question remains: why should I care what Hobbes or Hume or Hegel meant to mean, or meant to their immediate contemporaries?
This question also seems to remain unanswered by another use for the history of political thought that emerges from CH's and Don's discussion -- namely, simply drawing on past thinkers for their arguments, because they articulate these particularly well, or offer particularly strong ones (what has been referred to, in some conversations among participants in this blog, as the 'smart cookie' approach -- the idea that it's worthwhile to read [some] past thinkers because they were really smart, and so made points which can still enrich our thinking about various topics).
The 'smart cookie' approach does suggest one line of argument for why we might want to try to recover (as best we can) what a particular thinker or group of thinkers actually thought. This is that, if these thinkers really did possess great insight into particular questions, and developed theories that are more sophisticated or comprehensive or powerful than what most of us are capable of, then it would seem desirable to recapture as much of their insight as we can, which means recovering their actual views, rather than the (possibly simpler or shallower) constructions others (including we ourselves) put on their views: if Hobbes, say, really is a smart cookie -- and I know that I'm a less smart cookie -- I should be pretty eager to figure out what Hobbes actually meant to say. On the other hand, if we are confronted with the work of a thinker who has been influential and in whom we perceive considerable intellectual power, but who appears to us to make arguments that are absurd or misguided, or the significance or meaning of which is simply obscure -- then a historical inquiry into how and why they came to propound these views may help us in understanding them, taking their arguments seriously, and getting more from them.
Thinking about why I tend, in many cases, to (try to) do the history of political thought, several reasons, not yet discussed, occur to me. First is that I simply find this stuff interesting -- including the question of what particular thinkers were actually trying to say, and why. Another has to do with expanding one's intellectual reach. This is, in a way, a sort of reverse of the goal CH mentions (and connects to Quentin Skinner) -- the idea of liberating ourselves from the hold past thinkers have on us. Studying past thinkers is, for me, one way of escaping the hold of my own assumptions and those of my milieu, of being confronted by a very different mind, from a very different time, than my own. On the other hand, it can also be a way of clarifying my own views by finding, not necessarily their antecedents in terms of any process of historical development, but their affinities to the views of earlier thinkers -- who have, it's safe to say, seen deeper and farther than I. Coming -- insofar as I can -- to understand or enter into another thinker's thought is thus a way of increasing self-knowledge. It does so, first, by pointing to the limitations of my own outlook -- as well, perhaps, as its strengths, or at least what is different about it from the view of others, and thus what I, perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, perhaps unconsciously, believe and care about. Second, though, it can also furnish a perspective that i find convincing or attractive, and seek to work into my own thinking (with whatever modifications I feel the need to make on it); encountering a sympathetic but distant outlook can help to draw out and refine my own views. Even if I am using, or appropriating, the other thinker's ideas, I still think I benefit from having them be that other thinker's idea -- something outside of myself, different from my own views, to which I can react.
Another reason why I think I'm attracted to the history of political thought is somewhat harder for me to articulate, since it has less to do with my personal experience than my conception of the nature of politics and political thinking -- or, rather, a conception to which I think I might subscribe, but have not thought through fully. But here's a stab at articulating it. (I think) I think that politics and political theorising are necessarily historical -- that they exist in and apply to historical moments, and that one cannot fully understand the meaning or assess the insightfulness of a political theory unless one sees its connection to history. One can of course evaluate political-philosophical theories apart from any historical experience, in terms of their coherence, or the validity of certain of their assumptions which are not historically dependent. Still, political theory, even if it uses the techniques of philosophy, is concerned with politics, and society more generally; and these are subject to historical change. Political philosophers may seek timeless truths about politics; but they also, in many cases (and perhaps more often than they discover timeless truths) wind up producing sharp insights into the experience of their own world.
Yet these insights, while they are about and based in particular moments of history, are not limited to them; for the experiences of different periods have much (though not everything) in common. Thus, to take a theme from my own work: it seems to me valuable to look at past thinkers' attempts to grapple with the experience of political violence -- particularly what one might call ideologically-inspired violence (violence inspired or justified by visions or theories of the way the world [be it the material world or the spiritual] is or should be)-- and to puzzle out how liberal democracy might, or must, respond to such violence, in thinking about this problem as we encounter it. To be able to understand, derive insight from, evaluate and where necessary modify or reject the responses of earlier thinkers to these problems involves understanding them historically -- how the circumstances, pressures and resources, as well as assumptions and favoured beliefs, of their times shaped what they thought and said -- and also determining how our own experience is similar to, and how it is different from, these earlier periods.
This is (meant to be) a case for approaching past thinkers historically, and also trying to recapture their insights; I'm not sure, though, whether it explains why we should be so concerned with what these earlier thinkers actually thought. Ultimately, I do think that that sort of inquiry rests on the simple pleasure and sense of discovery and enrichment that comes from encountering, being puzzled by, and coming to better understand another mind. In this sense, the old metaphor for the history of ideas as a conversation -- and one in which we are not merely interested in hearing ourselves talk -- does, for all its problems, seem attractive to me.


Cheerful Hobbist said...

A brief-ish post, since I've been online for too long now - I agree with a great deal of this, particularly some of the intrinsic rewards (both in terms of enjoyment and in terms of the revision or challenge to one's own, limited views) that the study of the history of political thought provides. There may be some important extrinsic reasons too - and Josh begins to get at these in his remarks that political philosophy is historical (against this, I am now especially curious to read Don's blog on ahistorical methods). I can't go much farther than Josh did, but I do want to push this point: that everything--our concepts, our languages, our terms, our social practices--are historical *all the way down.* I think if we accept this, and think through its implications, the study of past political philosophy becomes necessary for the correct appraisal of our present arguments, not just (as I've suggested before) for clarifying debates that are semantic or anachronistic (e.g. two different uses of the concept "right" that then occasions a later debate), but to fully apprehend the intellectual-historical world which we inhabit, as ambivalent heirs.

I wish I could go further in articulating what I'm getting at here, but I'm thinking of the contributions of, say, Wittgenstein (later) and Charles Taylor to my understanding of philosophy (and the criticism of analytic philosophy when it relies on ahistorical concepts). To feel at home in--to really inhabit--the language game of political philosophy (a language game with great consequences, oftentimes) it feels necessary to know how the previous moves have been played (and hence, both how they were understood by their participants *and* the subsequent use and misuse of them). But, this should all be obvious, I suppose, if we have an interpretive and reflective concept of human agency, especially intellectual agency, and don't imagine that positivist methodologies of science will (or, at least, will any time soon) deliver us a good alternative to that hermeneutic task.

Sean said...

Various debates in contemporary political philosophy strike me as conductible without much knowledge of their historical antecedents. Tell me if this is a counterexample to your claim that "everything... is historical all the way down": Nozick elaborates an entitlement theory of justice and makes some claims on its behalf, and then others, exercising greater acuity and analytical rigor, show that it has undesirable consequences that Nozick did not consider (e.g., mothers have property rights in their children [Okin 1989]) or desirable consequences that he denied, such as the compatibility of equality of resources with the right of self-ownership [Cohen 1995]). My ahistoricism amounts to this: given sufficient command of the English language and sufficient cognitive abilities, one can assess the validity of [much of] Cohen's and Okin's criticisms of Nozick by reading Nozick, Cohen, and Okin's respective works and one need not read, for example, Locke or others who have written on property rights. (I insert the qualifying 'much of' in brackets because one wouldn't understand the sections in which Cohen assesses Tully's interpretation of Locke, for example.)

Obviously I think one interested in property rights should read Locke, for various reasons, but I am doubtful that one of those reasons is that "everything is historical all the way down". On which points (if any) do we disagree, CH?

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