Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 3: Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner was, and is, one of my intellectual heroes. He was, and is, the most vital speaker I have heard. He has an energy that makes the ideas and the people come alive. His written words have a similar effect. But it was as a lecturer that he inspired me; indeed, I didn’t read much that he wrote until I was a graduate student.

I owe Skinner a particular debt because he inspired me at a time when I was already losing my new-found love of history of political thought. I had just switched subjects, to study politics. My holiday reading list included Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics, which I found about as inspiring as A Short History of Essex, and John Dunn’s Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, which has to be about the worst introduction to political theory that undergraduates have ever been encouraged to read. (It’s not that it’s bad: it’s not bad, actually. But it’s not that good, in my opinion, and it’s not well written, in anyone’s opinion, and I don’t think that it teaches you much about what political theory is or how to do it.)

Nor was I very inspired by most of the lectures I then sat through (and often, slept through), or the teaching I had for my Plato to Locke course. Then Skinner’s lectures started. He seemed to be one of the few History lecturers who put effort into his lectures. Some of his colleagues spent 8 or 16 lectures meandering through a book they had written, but Skinner knew what he wanted to say, his lectures had energy and direction, and the intellectual content was superb.

Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner

Skinner is equally well known for his methodological writings; much of my own ongoing methodological work involves supplementing and amending Skinner’s. But strikingly, his lectures were largely implicit about method. I think all he said, too modestly, was that there was a historical style of analysing political texts with which his name was associated.

Nonetheless, his method influenced me significantly: I simply imbibed this approach to history of political thought from his lectures and those of his colleagues.

I’ve never really understood the bile that some people have for Skinner, and I believe I have good intellectual reasons for defending him; but I am well aware that I am emotionally biased, because like many people, Quentin Skinner inspired me to do what I now do.

Here’s an hour-long lecture of Skinner on Machiavelli’s Prince. Enjoy!

Advertisements

Against the royal ‘we’? All those in favour, say ‘I’

At school, many of us were taught not to say ‘I’ in writing.

I disagree. Or should that be ‘the present author disagrees’? And that is part of my objection: avoiding ‘I’ can end up sounding pompous.

One example comes from the historian J.G.A. Pocock, on p. 3 of his book Politics, Language, and Time:

The present author, who seems to himself to have been concerned in this transformation from an early stage, here brings forward a number of essays designed to illustrate its character.

This is Pocock, in a book he has written, describing a transformation he was involved in, talking as if he is someone else!

Another example involves the royal ‘we’ – for example, ‘we believe that Jones is wrong’, or ‘we now turn to a second claim’. This is how monarchs often talk: ‘we thank you for your kind message’. To me, this sounds pompous.

The Queen waving

Of course, there are times when ‘we’ is right. For example, in an academic article you might describe Jones’s errors and say ‘we have seen that Jones is wrong; but are these errors fundamental?’. And you really mean ‘we have seen’ here: if you have made your case correctly, then you and your readers will indeed have seen that Jones is wrong.

But unless you are writing with a co-author, many other uses of ‘we’ sound odd, such as ‘we believe that Jones is wrong’. You and who else?

Saying ‘I’ also makes clearer when an argument is yours. This is particularly important in student essays, where good criticism leads to higher marks. If a student has made her own criticism, saying ‘I believe that Jones’s view is simplistic’ makes clear that the argument is hers; saying ‘Jones’s view can be criticised as being simplistic’ is ambiguous.

Avoiding ‘I’ is probably a leftover from a time when academics presented their work as impartial and objective. Apparently this style goes back to ancient Roman historians. But we no longer need to pretend to be objective. Far from it: it is often vital to note when an argument is subjective. Even in firmly scientific studies, we often make subjective judgements and should say so, e.g. ‘this evidence seems unreliable’ or ‘I suspect the interviewee was trying to mislead me’. Scientific judgement is personal.

Style is also personal, though, and I fully recognise that if you have spent years avoiding ‘I’, it may feel awkward and ugly to use it. But if you are nearer the start of your writing career, then you need be told that you are allowed to say ‘I’, and in many cases you should do so. In our opinion.

Stop, start, continue: getting feedback before a course finishes

Here’s a way of getting useful feedback on a course before formal feedback forms are circulated in the final week of term. I normally do this about halfway through a term.

I got this tip from my colleague Cathy Elliott. The approach is widely used in business/management circles. I’ve adapted it for a seminar context, but it can easily be done in different ways, e.g. electronically.

  1. Circulate three pieces of paper, one marked ‘Stop’, one marked ‘Start’, one marked ‘Continue’. The sheet marked ‘Stop’ is for students to write down things about the course which they would like to stop or have changed. The sheet marked ‘Start’ is for things that they want which aren’t currently being done. And the sheet marked ‘Continue’ is for things which they like and want to continue. Obviously, these categories are not perfect, but they work pretty well.
  2. Ask students to put a tick beside previous suggestions if they agree with them, and a cross if they don’t (or nothing if they don’t have an opinion). This will give you a sense of the number of students who feel a certain way – otherwise, you just get a list of suggestions with no idea about how many people agree or disagree.
  3. Don’t start all of the sheets in the same place: this slows things down.
  4. The sheets should go round at least twice, to make sure that people who wrote on them at the start have a chance to put a tick or a cross beside later suggestions.
  5. This takes up to ten minutes, depending on the size of the group. I start the actual seminar after about five minutes,and let the sheets continue to circulate for the first few minutes of the actual seminar discussion. It’s not ideal, but otherwise I feel one loses too much of a 50-minute seminar.

Here’s an example from a second-year undergraduate course in research design (click to enlarge):

Start feedback sheet

The second point, which is hard to read on the above scan, says not pushing people to participate – some just have nothing to say 🙂 . A fair point! Interestingly, the above students disagreed on what kind of group interaction they wanted, but appeared to agree that the format I was using wasn’t right. All of the students found it hard to digest one method we covered on the course: process-tracing.

This kind of feedback helps me to improve things before it’s too late. Sometimes, if I disagree about a proposed change, or if nothing can be done, I can explain why. But any kind of interim feedback session shows students that one cares about their views.

Simon Usherwood of Surrey University uses a similar approach, using PostIt notes. I might try Simon’s version of this method too in the future, to see if it works better or worse for me.

Does anyone else have useful tips on getting feedback partway through a course?

Is Derrida full of bullshit? Part 2

Part 1 outlined two notions of bullshit: Harry Frankfurt’s notion of bullshit as phoniness or indifference to truth, and Jerry Cohen’s notion of bullshit as unclarifiable clarity.

We saw too that Cohen claimed – very naughtily, without references – that there is a lot of bullshit in Derrida. Such sentiments are quite widespread.

I’m only going to look at one passage by Derrida which has been called bullshit by Brian Leiter, a prominent philosopher who is bitingly critical of Derrida on his excellent blog, Leiter Reports. Leiter has a deliciously acerbic approach to ‘frauds and intellectual voyeurs who dabble in a lot of stuff they plainly don’t understand’. Leiter is a Nietzsche expert who reserves special vitriol for Derrida’s ‘preposterously stupid writings on Nietzsche’, the way Derrida ‘misreads the texts, in careless and often intentionally flippant ways, inventing meanings, lifting passages out of context, misunderstanding philosophical arguments, and on and on’.

I’ll focus solely on Leiter’s 2003 blog entry, ‘Derrida and Bullshit’, which attacks the ‘ridiculousness’ of Derrida’s comments on 9/11. This came from an interview with Derrida in October 2001. Here is an abbreviated version; you can see the full thing on p. 85 onwards of this book.

… this act of naming: a date and nothing more. … [T]he index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this ‘thing’ that has just happened … But this very thing … remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about.

9/11 turned the world upside down. Or at least 45 degrees to the side.

9/11 turned the world upside down.
Or at least 45 degrees to the side.

So, is this bullshit, on the Frankfurt and/or the Cohen notions of bullshit? I would say no. I take Derrida to be saying the following.

We often repeat the name ‘9/11’ without thinking much about it. But the words we use can be very revealing. Why do we try to reduce this complex event to such a simple term? Because the event is so complex we cannot capture it properly. Precisely by talking about it in such a simple way, we admit that we don’t really understand it.

If I have understood Derrida – tell me if I haven’t – this explanation is surely wrong. I’d guess that in most cases we call such events by a name, usually a place or a thing. For example:

  • Pearl Harbor, the Somme, Gallipoli, the Korean War
  • the Great Fire of London, Hurricane Katrina
  • Watergate, the execution of Charles I, the storming of the Bastille
  • Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez

My guess is that we are most likely to use a date where we cannot restrict an event to a place or name:

  • Arab Spring
  • (May) 1968 riots
  • the 1960s
  • Black Tuesday, Black Wednesday

But my guess is that such names are rarer: places or things are usually more identifiable.

So, why was 9/11 called ‘9/11’, ‘September the 11th’? My guess is that it would usually have been called ‘the attack on the Twin Towers’ except for the fact that there were two other locations: an attack on the Pentagon, and a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I’m also guessing that ‘9/11’ had a ring to it because of the shop ‘7/11’. If the attack had happened in just one location on February 9th, we’d simply refer to the place.

I might be wrong. Other explanations will be gratefully received. But if I’m right, it suggests that Derrida’s explanation is a bit pompous, and probably wrong, but it is not Frankfurt-bullshit, because it is not attempting to deceive anyone, and it is not Cohen-bullshit, because it is not unclarifiably unclear.

There’s a deeper point here, about method. Philosophers and literary theorists often ask questions which are essentially empirical. Derrida’s question is empirical: what explains the name ‘9-11’? To answer empirical questions, it is best to use a scientific approach – for example, looking at more than just one possible explanation. In the fortnight that BlauBlog has been active, this is a point I’ve already made several hundred and fifty times.

Derrida, however, does not think like a social scientist. As a result, his explanation only seems plausible because he has not considered the alternatives.

In short, what Derrida said is crap, but not bullshit.

Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 2: Stuart Corbridge

Stuart Corbridge is now a silver-haired Professor of International Development at the LSE (below left), but I still think of him as an intense, clench-fisted firebrand (below right) whose style I tried and failed to emulate when I started lecturing. (It took me a while to find a style I’m comfortable with – more relaxed, more humourous, not so stern.)

            

I still remember Corbridge’s presence, the inspiring way he lectured. I don’t remember him influencing my ideas as much. He did, I think, try to warn me away from methodological individualism, by linking it to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ comment. I loathed Thatcher and felt less keen on methodological individualism for a while. Eventually, though, I saw that I could accept methodological individualism without endorsing Thatcher.

Ultimately, Corbridge’s main influence on me was as a role model. Some young men wanted to be James Bond; I wanted to be Stuart Corbridge. And now I am, except with more jokes, less fist-clenching, and no such thing as society.

Make the verb work, not the reader

Marx saw labour as the essence of what it means to be human. But that’s no reason to make our readers work hard to understand what we write.  With careful editing, we can usually communicate difficult ideas fairly clearly.

Here’s an example of an unnecessarily labour-intensive sentence, from the start of Isaac Balbus’s 1984 article ‘Habermas and feminism’. If you can read this sentence without wanting to punch something, well done.

The effort of Jürgen Habermas to reconcile the manifest tension between his assumption of a commitment to ideal speech that is inherent in communicative competence, on the one hand, and his awareness of the heretofore ubiquitous counterfactual status of anything even approximating ideal speech, on the other, has culminated in an evolutionary theory of communicative competence.

Ouch.

Why is this sentence so hard to read? Because it starts at the end. Until the final clause, you literally do not know what the sentence is about.

All Balbus needs to do is turn the sentence around:

An evolutionary theory of communicative competence has resulted from Habermas’s efforts to reconcile the tension between two things: his assumption of a commitment to ideal speech that is inherent in communicative competence, on the one hand, and his awareness of the heretofore ubiquitous counterfactual status of anything even approximating ideal speech, on the other.

That sentence still makes me want to punch something. But not quite as hard.

As with an earlier post of mine, the key is to make the verb work. Celia Elliott’s excellent guide offers lots of tips about how to do this, and lots of examples.

Is social science useful? Roundtable at King’s College London, 14 June 2013

I’m co-organising a roundtable on ‘Is Social Science Useful’ at King’s College London, featuring some prestigious speakers from KCL, UCL, the LSE, Ipsos MORI, and UPenn (the University of Pennsylvania).

Here are the details.

Is Social Science Useful?

King’s Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Doctoral Training Centre (KISS-DTC) Roundtable

June 14, 2013, 4.30pm – 6pm

Room K2.31 King’s Building – followed by drinks at ‘Chapters’, 2nd floor, Strand Building

Social science research is increasingly judged on its ‘usefulness’ and ‘practical relevance’, beyond its intellectual and theoretical contributions. But how useful is social science? Could it be more useful? Are there costs in pursuing usefulness? This roundtable will feature eminent social scientists and practitioners with diverse views about these important issues.

Philip Tetlock is the Leonore Annenberg University Professor in Democracy and Citizenship at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He has published widely on political psychology, especially on bias and prediction in politics and public policy. He is the author of the award-winning book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?

Alena Ledeneva is Professor of Politics and Society at UCL. She works on corruption, economic crime, corporate governance and the informal economy in Russia and other postcommunist countries. Her books include How Russia Really Works (2006) and Can Russia Modernise? (2013).

Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey is Reader in Political Science at the LSE. She works on the interplay between interests, ideas and institutions in legislative politics, trade and monetary policy, and political rhetoric. Her most recent book is Deliberating American Monetary Policy.

Patten Smith, is Director of Research Methods at the Research Methods Centre of Ipsos MORI, one of the UK’s largest research companies. He is the author of ‘Survey research: two types of knowledge’, which explores the divide between the kinds of knowledge held by survey experts in research agencies and in academia. He is currently the Chair of the Social Research Association.

Nick Butler is Chair of King’s Policy Institute. Between 2002 and 2006 he was Group Vice-President at BP and has since worked as a Senior Policy Adviser at 10 Downing Street. He is the author of The Future of European Universities: Renaissance or Decay?

To attend, please sign up at the Eventbrite page: socialscienceroundtable.eventbrite.co.uk

For any questions or queries about the event please contact: Adrian.Blau@kcl.ac.uk

Address & directions:

King’s College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS

Organised on behalf of the KISS-DTC Regulation cluster themes: ‘Regulation, Governance and Politics’; ‘Work and Organisations’; ‘Markets, Firms and Competitiveness’.

 

Impostor phenomenon

I ran a session for PhD students yesterday on ‘Impostor Phenonemon’.

  • Do you suspect that you got where you are by luck or by fooling people?
  • Do you feel that you don’t deserve your success?
  • Are you worried that you will be uncovered as a fraud?

These feelings are very common. They are more common in women than men, but they flourish in academia – for both women and men.

Curiously, the only one who secretly feels like an impostor is the woman in the middle

Curiously, the only one who secretly feels like an impostor is the woman in the middle

There’s a test you can take to see how much of an impostor you feel. The test is not very good. For example, question 10 (‘It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments’) also tests how British you are. And the scale for answers is odd: points 2 to 4 on the five-point scale are about frequency (‘rarely’, ‘sometimes’, ‘often’) while points 1 and 5 are about truth (‘not at all true’, ‘very true’).

Still, the figures are in the right ballpark, at least for me. I got 61 yesterday, but I think I would have got 78 during and soon after my PhD. Both results fall short of full impostor phenomenon (80 and above): I would answer ‘no’ to the three questions at the top of this thread.

Nonetheless, I used to worry that my work was very obvious and that anyone could have done it if they wanted. When I said this to my mentor, he said:

90% of academics worry that they are charlatans and the other 10% are.

Those numbers are wrong: there are academics who don’t worry that they are charlatans and certainly aren’t. But it was good to hear that other people have the same fear. Indeed, yesterday’s session on Impostor Phenomenon was partly about showing PhD students that these feelings are normal, they are common, there is no need to suffer in silence, and there are ways forward.

Here are a few tips we found in yesterday’s session. (Please add your own in the Comments section!)

  • If you’re worried about whether your work is good enough, ask for more feedback: maybe your supervisors just haven’t told you. Of course, maybe your work isn’t yet good enough – as with many PhD students! That’s common, and fixable.
  • It’s normal to spend time on something that turns out to be a dead-end. We don’t always know that in advance. Don’t blame yourself for ‘wasting’ this time. But do talk with your supervisors if you are worried that you might be going down a dead-end.
  • We can feel inadequate if we constantly compare ourselves to the best.
  • Get a support network of other PhD students; use social media to find them if needs be.
  • Feeling like a charlatan/impostor is not purely psychological: it can depend on your context, which you can change.

And there are other things you can do to mitigate feelings of being a charlatan/impostor.

Importantly, these feelings can actually be fruitful. Some academics think they’re great when they’re not; your self-doubt can push you to do better. Some academics don’t like having their work criticised and may never hear the suggestions that lead to better work. It’s good to be nervous that people may spot problems with your ideas: it means you don’t already assume that your ideas are right.

I don’t think we usually give enough guidance on what it feels like to do a PhD. I’ve looked at six books on ‘how to do a PhD’, and it’s striking that only two of them say much about the psychology of doing a PhD: Harriet Churchill and Teela Sanders, Getting Your PhD, and to a lesser extent Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh, How To Get a PhD (5th edition). (The best book for the thesis itself remains, in my view, Patrick Dunleavy, Authoring a PhD.)

And finally, it’s worth stressing that these feelings are often most intense among undergraduate students who feel out of depth at university. But I’ll discuss that another time.

An odd portrait of Thomas Hobbes

Weird Hobbes portrait

A rarely seen portrait of Thomas Hobbes, from Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.

It’s from 1676, when Hobbes was in his late 80s.

Is Derrida full of bullshit? Part 1

Why is there so much bullshit in politics? Does a particular kind of bullshit flourish in French philosophy?

These are questions which have excited lots of academics in recent years, partly because they are fascinating and important questions – but mainly because it allows us to swear in public.

Academics discuss two key ideas of bullshit. (I’m working on a third, but it’s not ready yet.) The first and most famous comes from Harry Frankfurt’s famous essay On Bullshit. The essence of bullshit, for Frankfurt, ‘is not that it is false but that it is phony.’ The bullshitter may or may not deceive us, or intend to deceive us, about the alleged facts. ‘What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise.’ In short, the essence of Frankfurt-bullshit is phoniness, indifference to truth.

Frankfurt’s essay is great fun, but quite frustrating, not least because of the woeful lack of useful examples. The example Frankfurt discusses at greatest length, a comment by Wittgenstein, is not obviously bullshit, even for Frankfurt. He could have mentioned politicians who evade questions. ‘That’s not the real issue, the real issue is why my opponents are doing such-and-such.’

Apparently Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, often bullshits like this. For example, when asked whether two players would be fit for a game, and wanting to keep his opponents guessing, he replied ‘I know what you just asked, but I was so mesmerized and dazzled by your voice right there. You have got a great voice. I lost my train of thought.’

I used to bullshit when I started teaching and didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t understood a question. ‘It’s interesting you should ask that, because Aristotle says something similar …’, I might say. Then I could talk for a minute in the vain hope that my students would not spot my phoniness and my inability to answer their question.

GM-BS

The second idea of bullshit comes from Jerry Cohen, whose essay ‘Deeper Into Bullshit‘ defines bullshit as ‘unclarifiable unclarity’. Whereas Frankfurt-bullshit focuses on the mental state of the bullshitter, Cohen-bullshit focuses on the bullshitter’s output. Someone may be entirely sincere in what she says, but may still come out with something which is unclear and cannot be made clear.

Staggeringly, even Cohen doesn’t give useful examples. His only specific example, by Etienne Balibar, is probably not bullshit: it actually does make some sense, as Frankfurt himself points out in his response to Cohen in the book Contours of Agency.

Worse, Cohen feels free to make airy accusations about bullshit flourishing in French philosophy: ‘what I have read of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva leads me to think that there is a great deal of bullshit in their work’. Yet Cohen gives no references. Perhaps he was intending to do so before his untimely death. If not, I’m afraid we should not hesitate to describe Cohen’s comment as lazy and unscholarly. If he has read enough of these writers to see ‘a great deal of bullshit in their work’, then he should give us some examples. A claim as important and critical as this needs to be backed up.

Given Frankfurt’s and Cohen’s notions of bullshit, is Derrida full of bullshit? I will answer this in Part 2.

Academic clichés, part 1: Janus-faced

Academics use a very narrow range of metaphors. One of the most clichéd is ‘Janus-faced’. Janus was a Roman god who looked to the past and the future, and academics often use ‘Janus-faced’ for anything which points in different directions. You can see hundreds of examples on this Google Scholar link, and this one.

It’s a neat enough metaphor, and it serves its purpose: when you read it, you know what the author is saying.

But aside from being very hackneyed, it’s a pretty empty claim, because in one way or another, most things point in different directions. Politicians sometimes listen to citizens and sometimes ignore citizens. Janus-faced! Great art can make deep points, but it can also be nice to look at. Janus-faced! Cars can help us get somewhere quickly, but they can also slow us down if we get stuck in traffic. Janus-faced! Janus-faced!  Janus-faced!

So many things point in different direction that I could have got ‘Janus-faced’ into the title of every article and book chapter I have written. For example, my paper ‘Hobbes on Corruption’ could have been called ‘Hobbes and the Janus Face of Corruption’, arguing that for Hobbes, corruption can benefit people in the short-term but not in the long-term. I’d bet that most people in most academic departments could rewrite most of their titles similarly.

Please submit your own suggestion for rewritten titles below!

Here are a few titles to get you started:

Dr Seuss, The Janus-Faced Cat in the Janus-Faced Hat.

James Watson, The Janus-Faced Helix.

Charlotte Bronte, Janus-Faced Eyre.

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Janus Face of Dr Jekyll.

Joseph Heller, Janus-Faced Situations.

Charles Dickens, A Janus-Faced Tale of One City.

 

Who knows? Uncertainty in qualitative social science

I’m looking for your help: I need references which discuss the idea of uncertainty in qualitative research. Probably in social science, but maybe history.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make.

When we tackle empirical matters – how many people have HIV, why the dinosaurs went extinct, how democratisation affects economic growth, and so on – we can never know the answers for certain. (I’m not thinking about prediction, by the way, but about description or explanation of things in the past or present.)

In quantitative social science, this idea is standard: it’s central to statistical inference. But I don’t know how much it’s been discussed in relation to qualitative research, aside of course from debates over Bayesian research. I have looked . . . but I haven’t found much.

The place of uncertainty in qualitative research is something I tried to theorise in an article in History and Theory. I argued that when we study historical texts, we often ask empirical questions, such as why Machiavelli wrote what he wrote, or what Mill meant by ‘harm’. We can’t know the answers for certain, but often we should indicate how confident we are in our findings. This reminds us that we are not telling our readers what happened: we are telling them how strong we think our evidence is.

Reporting uncertainty in qualitative research is thus subjective, whereas in quantitative research it is objective (at least, where the indication of uncertainty is part of statistical significance).

But can anyone tell me who has written about uncertainty in qualitative research, whether in social science or history?

uncertainty in qualitative research

My ideas about this issue have been greatly influenced by Gary King, Robert Keohane and Sidney Verba’s Designing Social Inquiry – see especially pp. 7-8 and 31-2 of chapter 1. Unusually, they depict uncertainty as a core feature of science. This is a crucial idea. It took me years to grasp what they were getting at, but I now agree.

However, King Keohane and Verba actually say very little about what uncertainty involves in qualitative research, as Larry Bartels notes. This is surprising, given that their book is meant to be precisely about what quantitative researchers can teach qualitative ones. When I wrote my article, I had to do much of the thinking for myself (helped by Collingwood, by Keynes, and of course by many actual examples of good and bad practice in substantive research).

I’m now interested in writing a paper about uncertainty in qualitative social science. Of course, the idea is widespread: for example, it’s implicit in any discussion of triangulation. But do you know of people who have theorised the idea and/or discussed its place in qualitative research? (Again, aside from Bayesians.) Can anyone point me to some references? I’d be very grateful – thanks!

Help needed: Aristotle to Machiavelli

Years ago, I read something about Machiavelli’s intentional misquotation of Marsilius of Padua’s intentional misquotation of William of Moerbeke’s unintentional mistranslation of a comment by Aristotle.

I haven’t been able to track down the original source for this claim, and I may well have misread or misremembered it.

Can anyone help me out?

Is replication just for scientists? Part 1: thought experiments in philosophy

Natural scientists are big on replication. When one lab reports an important finding, other labs try to replicate it. If they can’t, as with Fleischmann and Pons on cold fusion, you have a problem.

Social scientists are getting bigger on replication. Leading social science journals now require authors to upload empirical datasets. But in practice, replication is rare, as Andrew Gelman notes. Replication is still not widely expected – and besides, there are far fewer social scientists than natural scientists.

What about political philosophy and history of political thought? I’m not sure how much replication has been discussed in these areas, except in empirical areas e.g. experimental philosophy. (Let me know if you have references about replication in other areas of philosophy! I’m not thinking about such things as checking someone’s logic, of course.)

This strikes me as an important issue. Indeed, much of my work – and much of this blog – is about showing the intellectual links between philosophy, history and social science.

This post will thus address replication in philosophy. Part 2 will cover history of political thought.

A common tool in political philosophy is thought experiments. Is it worse to kill someone than to let someone die? This is a hugely important moral question. It is also a hugely complex moral question. How do we approach such difficult problems?

Nietzsche: is it worse to kill someone or to make them stronger?

Nietzsche: is it worse to kill someone or to make them stronger?

One method used is thought experiments. Is it worse to intentionally drown a child if one wants to get its inheritance than to fail to help the same child if it slips in a bath and starts to drown? This is Frances Kamm’s example – see p. 18 of Morality Mortality, volume 2. And there are many similar examples: Nozick’s experience machine, the ticking time-bomb scenario, Jim and the Indians, trolley problems, and so on.

My suggestion is that philosophical thought experiments are actually easier to replicate than almost any natural or social science research, provided the thought experiment is outlined clearly enough. You simply think through the experiment as described by the author, and see what your intuition/answer is.

Sometimes you reach the same conclusion. Sometimes you don’t, as with Frances Kamm’s retort to Peter Unger – see p. 13 of Morality, Mortality, volume 2.

Sometimes you question whether your intuitions are reliable. This may be because you reject the nature of many of these thought experiments, as with Robert Goodin – see pp. 8-9 of Political Theory and Public Policy. Or it may be because you think your own intuitions have been primed by previous thought experiments, as Mike Otsuka discusses – see pp. 109-10 of his 2008 paper in the journal Utilitas.

Sometimes you re-run the thought experiment with a different model, e.g. different order or different frames. Otsuka does this in the paper mentioned just above.

And sometimes – perhaps most importantly – you re-run the thought experiment with different variables. For example, if one adds uncertainty to the ticking time-bomb scenario, even many people who initially advocated torture become less willing to do so. I use the ticking time-bomb scenario with first-year politics students as a way of getting them to think about thought experiments in terms of variables.

Replication with different variables is also important in the social sciences. My favourite example is Daniel Treisman’s 2007 paper in the Annual Review of Political Science. He attempt to replicate many well-known cross-national analyses of corruption, and finds that small and reasonable changes to the independent variables often alters the results (see pp. 222 onwards). This challenges the reliability of the data and the models. It’s strikingly similar to the way that Otsuka questions our intuitions and alters the model (see above).

Replication matters, and it’s pleasingly common in philosophy, at least in relation to thought experiments.

Was Shakespeare a schoolteacher? How sloppy are some journalists?

Several people have been claiming that Shakespeare spent a few years working as a schoolteacher in Titchfield, a village in Hampshire. The claims have some plausibility and may be right. But I’m interested in how sloppily the BBC reported the story. The BBC makes it sound like a definite finding. Surprisingly, the Daily Mail newspaper is more even-handed, as we’ll see. And the claims about Shakespeare make some interesting intellectual errors in their own right.

Shakespeare

(more…)

What is it like to be Leo Strauss?

Last year, I published a critique of Leo Strauss. Strauss was an important and influential thinker who is controversial in two ways. He’s a conservative, and may have influenced many neoconservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations. I don’t care about that. What I do care about are his historical interpretations, especially his claims that writers like Plato and Machiavelli hid secret messages in their texts using odd techniques which Strauss often seems to have been the first to spot. I have no problem with the idea that some people have written esoterically, but I do doubt the particular claims that Strauss makes. Near the end of my paper, I wrote a little satire, mimicking Strauss’s approach and parodying his style to ‘prove’ that Thomas Hobbes hid secret messages about the music of Beethoven – even though Hobbes died 91 years before Beethoven was born. While writing the satire, though, I suddenly saw what it might have been like to be Leo Strauss. I had been finding lots of astonishing parallels between Hobbes’s writings and Beethoven’s music – it was starting to get freaky. And suddenly, a thought started to flash into my head: ‘Is it possible that Hobbes was actually writing about Beethoven?’ I didn’t even finish this thought: of course, Hobbes could not have been writing about Beethoven. But that moment showed me how easy it is to read too much into a mere coincidence. Strauss and his esoteric bookshelves, by Adrian Blau And this is where Strauss goes wrong. There is a natural human bias to look for evidence which fits one’s ideas, or to interpret things to support one’s ideas. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. If you think you don’t suffer from this … well, I’m very happy for you, but you’re probably not going to be the next Sherlock Holmes. Scientific methods arose in part to counteract biases such as confirmation bias. Scientists shouldn’t just look for evidence which fits their theories: they should question their evidence, test their theories, compare different explanations, and so on. If he had applied such principles, Strauss would not have made many of the claims he made. What is it like to be Leo Strauss? I can’t say for sure, but one brief moment, I might just have known.

Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 1: Stefan Collini

I was lucky to have been inspired by some brilliant lecturers and tutors as an undergraduate. This blog gives me the chance to thank them publicly. I have also thanked some of them in person, but since I left Cambridge I have not had the chance to thank Stefan Collini, who gave me the single best lecture I received as an undergraduate, on J.S. Mill. It was a superb combination of telescope and microscope. I have tried, and failed, to do the same with my own lectures on Mill since then.

Here’s a six-minute video of Collini explaining why the arts and humanities matters. (Click here if the video doesn’t work.) It’s typically concise and incisive. I don’t agree with everything he says, but that is a matter for another time. For now, I’m just happy to remember lectures which were well-prepared, clear, thoughtful, rigorous, and stimulating.

‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’ (George Orwell)

George Orwell was a clear and concise writer whose famous essay ‘Politics and the English language’ offered six rules of thumb for clear and concise writing. One of these rules is: ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ Yet this rule is surprisingly wordy. ‘Cut every word you can’ is shorter. ‘Cut every cuttable word’ is shorter still, but uglier. ‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous’, adds Orwell.

Orwell cut 2

Here’s a nice example of wordiness from John Dunn, Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Cambridge. Dunn regularly has his wicked way with the English language, producing a large family of unwanted words.

At the start of his classic 1969 book on John Locke, Dunn writes: ‘The claim that the account given here of Locke’s argument in the Two Treatises of Government is “historical” implies that its status depends upon the adequacy of its identification of Locke’s own meaning.’

This it, literally, verbose – too many verbs. The 33-word sentence has four verbs (‘given’, ‘is’, ‘implies’, ‘depends’) and probably needs re-reading to be understood.

Here is what Dunn could have said: ‘This account of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government is historical: it seeks Locke’s meaning.’ 14 words: clear and concise. And nothing important has been cut.

Did Hobbes think that reason is the slave of the passions?

Many writers have argued that for Thomas Hobbes, reason is the slave of the passions. I think this is seriously misleading. It’s misleading of Hume to have argued that reason is the slave of the passions. And worse, it’s misleading to ascribe the view to Hobbes. Or so I argue in my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes, ed. A.P. Martinich and Kinch Hoekstra (forthcoming, 2013).

I’ll post a link to the article when it’s ready.

Welcome to the blog!

This blog is about politics, philosophy and history — and how to do them well, in terms of thinking, writing and teaching.

I’m more interested in how we think than what we think: this blog will not contain a lot of party politics or ideology!

I was an undergraduate at Cambridge and did my PhD in Oxford. I’ve taught at Oxford, at Queen Mary University of London, and at Manchester. I’m now Senior Lecturer in Politics at King’s College London.

I did my PhD in political science (elections), spent some time on political philosophy (democracy, Habermas and rationality), and now concentrate on history of political thought (Hobbes, and methods of interpretation). But I am still interested in all of these fields, and I plan to publish more in each of them.

I’ll cover many of these issues on the blog. Enjoy!