Michael Forster’s critique of key hermeneuticists

I’ve just read Michael Forster’s bitingly critical account of leading hermeneuticists, in The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy. You can download a pre-proof version here.

Forster downplays the importance, originality and/or quality of writers like Schleiermacher, Hegel, Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer, and praises the contributions of Ernesti, Herder, Schlegel, J.L. Austin, and Quentin Skinner.MichaelForster

Forster argues that much that is good in Schleiermacher’s writings isn’t new, and much that is new isn’t good. Hegel’s influential contributions are ‘dubious’ and, on closer inspection, ‘misguided’. Dilthey’s position is often ‘naive and unsatisfactory’. Heidegger’s contributions are largely ‘unoriginal’ and their value ‘greatly exaggerated’. What is distinctive in Gadamer is ‘misguided and indeed baneful’, and in places ‘woefully inadequate’.

Forster praises Ernesti’s Institutes, which ‘makes many points which can still be read with profit today’. Having now read Ernesti – who I’d never heard of – I agree with Forster. (You can read Ernesti here – also downloadable as a PDF.) For example, on pp. 63-4 Ernesti notes that if we are interpreting a text in another language, we should first try to grasp how that language was generally spoken, then consider the author’s own idioms – a standard idea in Cambridge-School interpretations in the history of political thought, which recognise that we need to understand the linguistic conventions of the day, but that we must also bear in mind that authors sometimes break with these conventions. That said, I don’t believe Forster is right that on pp. 70-1 of the Institutes, Ernesti says that the parts of a text must be interpreted in light of the whole text. (I have much more I could say about the desperately unclear idea of a hermeneutic circle, but I won’t get into that now.)

Forster supports J.L. Austin’s idea of ‘illocutionary force’, and Quentin Skinner’s application of it to textual interpretation. My own view is that there are better ways of capturing this idea, but Austin’s and Skinner’s basic points are legitimate and useful.

Foster is refreshingly blunt about what is good and bad in the hermeneutic literature. He really doesn’t hold back. In the early twentieth century, he writes,

real progress in hermeneutics more or less comes to an end in Germany, and indeed in continental Europe as a whole, it seems to me (in keeping with a precipitous decline in the quality of German philosophy generally at the time).

I wonder what kind of reception Forster got when he moved from Chicago to Bonn earlier this year! The above comment is something I won’t be quoting when I give a paper on ‘The Irrelevance of (Straussian) Hermeneutics’ at a conference on Leo Strauss at Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s old university, Marburg, on July 19.

Mouth opens and words come out

i-have-nothing-to-sayOne of my pet dislikes is news reports without any newsworthy content. This is particularly common in sports reporting: a sportsperson often says exactly what you would expect, and the journalist dutifully reports it. The title of such reports might as well be ‘Mouth Opens And Words Come Out’.

Here are two recent examples from the BBC website.


Mouth Opens And Words Come Out Champions Trophy: Jonathan Trott hopes England are peaking (21 June, 2013)

England men’s cricketer Jonathan Trott stuns the world by saying ‘I hope we are peaking’, and amazes us with his desire for it to be a ‘great’ summer for England. Winning the final of the Champions Trophy against India, states the controversial cricketer, would be the ideal preparation for the Ashes series against Australia later in the summer. (England lost to India.) ‘We deserve to be in the final’, adds Trott. Strong words!


Mouth Opens and Words Come Out Lions 2013: Sam Warburton Wants Series Won In Second Test (27 June, 2013)

British Lions men’s rugby captain Sam Warburton astonishes the known universe by suggesting that, having won the first game of the three-game series, it would be better to clinch the series by winning the second game rather than losing it. Battling his ‘nervous excitement’, which surely no rugby player has ever felt before, Warburton unexpectedly suggests that the Australians ‘are great competitors’ and will ‘come out firing’.


I honestly can’t see anything in either story which is actually worth reporting. Of course I completely understand why reporters write such stories: there’s a big appetite – from people like me – to see updates about sports we follow; many sportspersons don’t actually say much worth reporting; and there’s a limit to how much investigative journalism a reporter can do about sport.

Still, I’d love to see a website which is split in two: stories with Actual News, and stories which just involve Mouths Opening And Words Coming Out.

Rejection letter for Hobbes’s Leviathan

Read a spoof rejection letter for Hobbes’s Leviathan at Paul Sagar’s extremely funny blog, ‘Rejection Letters of the Philosophers’. The blog also features spoof rejection letters for Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. Superb stuff.

Powerpoint Tips #1: stats, tables and graphs

obesity slide

Argh! Too small.

In the comments on my post about conference annoyances, no one mentioned bad Powerpoint presentations, curiously. Yet lots of us have sat through Powerpoint nightmares with graphs and tables which are too small to read, statistics reported to six decimal places, or key findings covered in a milliseconds.

Eva Lantsoght offers some excellent tips on how to make technical presentations accessible to the audience. Her overall message, in effect is:

(a) we should think about what our audience needs to understand technical information, and

(b) the presentation should move slowly enough for our audience to understand it.

My only criticism is with some of her sample slides, where some details are too small. Default settings on stats programmes produce graphs which look OK on paper but are hard to see on Powerpoint.

So, we can add a third point:

(c) the information needs to be large enough to be seen and hence understood.

In case this sounds too self-righteous, I’m well aware that I’ve broken all of these rules at various times!

TV bullshit and its effect on clear thinking

There’s a mild kind of bullshit which is common, entirely understandable, and produced by many of us, including me. But it’s insidious, and I’ll suggest that it might contribute to bigger problems.

Bullshit as Harry Frankfurt characterises it – in contrast to Jerry Cohen’s notion of bullshit – involves phoniness, indifference to truth. (See my earlier post for a comparison of Frankfurt’s and Cohen’s notions of bullshit, and some examples.)

In my view, bullshit is a matter of degree, and a mild form of Frankfurt-bullshit can often be found on TV, especially at the start of programmes.

Here are two recent examples from British television. The first is from top chef Michel Roux Jr., or rather, from whoever wrote the words which he read out at the start of the programme:

There’s nothing I’m more passionate about than what, how and why we eat and drink. … Something I’m obsessed by, just as you are, is a phenomenon that has literally taken over the world: baking. We’ve gone cupcake-crazy!

(from Food and Drink, episode 2: Baking, BBC2, 11 February 2013)

I love Michel Roux Jr. – I admire him, his cooking, his ideas, his personality, and I get a genuine buzz when he’s on my TV screen. But these comments are hard to swallow. Is there really nothing he’s more passionate about than why we eat and drink? Has baking really taken over the world? Have we really gone cupcake-crazy? Of course not, and Michel Roux Jr. doubtless does not think so either. He said these things, I assume, to create a nice, warm, positive, exciting, inclusive start to the show.

My second example is from Marcus du Sautoy, an Oxford professor, in a programme about measuring time:

Our modern day lives are completely driven by precise measurement. … Today, we can build clocks which lose one second in 138 million years. And now there are plans for a clock accurate to within one second over the lifetime of the university. What is it that drives us to such extremes of ever great precision? Why do we feel the need to quantify and measure, to impose order on the world around us?

(from Precision: The Measure of All Things, episode 1, BBC4, 10 June 2013)

Of course, our lives are not completely driven by precise measurement, and many of us do not feel the need to quantify and measure. But imagine that Professor du Sautoy had instead said: ‘Why do some people feel the need to quantify and measure, to impose order on the world around them?’ Clearly this would be a bad way to start the programme: rather than focusing on humans’ relationship with precise measurement, it would sound like a psychological exploration of why some people feel a bizarre need to quantify and order everything.

So, these over-generalisations are entirely understandable: they are an attempt to draw viewers in, make the programme seem important, in an accessible introduction. I’d probably do the same thing. In fact I’ve used similar tactics on this blog, implying that Derrida might be full of bullshit when I knew all along that I’d only be discussing one passage from Derrida which I didn’t even think was bullshit. As Harry Frankfurt says at the start of On Bullshit, we all produce bullshit; and there’s a slight whiff of bullshit to what I did there.

Nonetheless, while such mild bullshit is understandable, the problem is that it is also found in contexts where clarity and rigour matters. Consider these book titles:

  • Why Americans Hate Politics
  • Why Americans Hate Welfare
  • Why Americans Hate The Media
  • Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War
  • The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race
  • Why Americans Don’t Vote
  • Why Americans Still Don’t Vote

Wow! Poor Americans. Apparently, you all hate politics, welfare and the media. You all choose war. You can’t think straight about race. You don’t vote. And you still don’t vote.

My tongue is in my cheek, of course, but there’s a serious side to this: we can’t explain attitudes in the USA if we assume that all Americans hate politics, all hate the media, and so on.

Yet I often see this kind of overstatement in student essays. Similar overstatements crop up in academic studies of voting, as Patrick Dunleavy shows in his chapter in A New Handbook of Political Science. Richard Rorty, a prominent political theorist, often talked vaguely about what ‘we’ think. It’s very easy to make such mistakes – again, I know I do this too.

These aren’t examples of Frankfurt-bullshit: they are conceptual overstatements. But my worry is that the mild bullshit of TV programmes might contribute to these conceptual overstatements. I don’t have evidence for this – can anyone point me to any academic studies? – but my suspicion is that as we grow up, we learn to think in part by hearing how others speak, and mildly bullshitty conceptual overstatements that we often hear on TV can thus foster a looseness of thought that leads to non-bullshitty conceptual overstatements by academics. Mild TV bullshit isn’t the only cause: these errors were made long before TV! But the result is erroneous talk about what ‘Afghans’ think, how ‘the French’ behave, how ‘women’ and ‘men’ differ, and so on.

In short: however hard we try to get away from our upbringing, these older ways of thinking often sneak back in. My fear is thus that the mild bullshit of some TV programmes can sometimes have damaging longer term effects.

Spam comments revealed

One thing I like about this WordPress blog is that WordPress automatically filters out spam comments submitted to entries on this blog. I get about 10 a day, and they go straight into a spam folder.

But some of these spam comments are so funny I had to share them with you. Here are five of my favourites – mostly submitted, bizarrely, to the blog entry on whether we should say ‘I’ or ‘we’:Spam

  1. A suitable shirt or T-shirt and dress trousers will be for almost all start dancing classes. Hand gestures range from obnoxiously rude to polite ones.
  2. Numbers have meaning and are usually an easy task to latch on. You need to hear you believe us is the best in the world that you wish to devote each single waking moment to create our organization better still.
  3. Such attorneys have a team of lawyers, divorce process coaches and financial experts as well. Using grocery store, tend to be many numerous sections.
  4. Carrots can keep your stools softer on top of that larger. Do not just ignore these signs quite possibly pass them off as mere coincidences.
  5. Tenting is one of the most inexpensive way get pleasure from a Spain time. The location should be in a shielded and riots inclined zone.

So, the lessons from these spam comments are as follows:

  1. Wear clothes when dancing.
  2. Numbers have meaning.
  3. Grocery stores have ‘many numerous sections’.
  4. Carrots soften your stools.
  5. When camping in Spain, pitch your tent in a riot zone.

Now you know!

Sean Connery as Socrates: the greatest film never made

In 2001, there were reports that Sean Connery was to play the lead role in a film about Socrates (see here and here).

The film never got made – an absolute tragedy, as we never got to hear Sean Connery saying lines such as “So, Thrasymachus, you’re saying I’m a false witness?”

When Foucault says fouc-all: Part 2

Part 1 suggested that there were serious problems with Foucault’s definition of ‘governmentality’ in Security, Territory and Population lecture 4. Although his use of the term in later lectures is fairly coherent, his initial definition moves between a thing which he does not describe clearly (governmentality), a process or the result of the process (governmentalization), and how it works (a type of power).

In short, two components of Foucault’s ‘definition’ are not really part of the definition, and the key component of the definition is unclear. If you did not already have a sense of what Foucault meant by governmentality, I suggested, you would probably not understand the definition at all!

Yet little trace of these ambiguities is found in much of the secondary literature. The aim of Part 2 of this post is to show how unreliable the secondary literature can be as a guide to Foucault. This is consistent with similar work I’ve done, mostly unpublished, on how unreliable the secondary literature can be as a guide to Habermas. (The published part of that research is here.)

Here is how I tested these problems with the secondary literature on Foucault. I copied and pasted the first component of Foucault’s definition into Google. This produced 71 hits. I ignored blog entries, forum posts, Wikipedia, and so on, and examined just the 17 published sources. I don’t know how representative this is, and clearly it’s missing most of the key players in Foucault scholarship. But it gives a fascinating insight into just how relaxed some scholars are at dealing with Foucault.

What did I find?

None of the authors explicitly criticises Foucault’s unclear and inconsistent definition. In some cases this is unsurprising: we don’t always criticise things we think are wrong, because to do so would deflect our readers from our main argument. But the paucity of explicit criticism about Foucault here troubles me.

Eight studies quote all or part of Foucault’s definition but say little or nothing else about governmentality to help readers. Six are authors who quote all three components of the definition (Nickel, Besley, Niesche, Castro-Klaren, Halle, Amos), and two are studies which sensibly quote the first component of Foucault’s definition only (Baert & Carreira da Silva, and Ericson & Haggerty). I’m confident that one couldn’t read any of these eight sources – almost half of the sample – and understand what governmentality is. I’m not even sure how well all of these authors understand it.

Six studies (Langley, Rose, Heath, Nettleton, Saraçoğlu, and Bennett) rightly focus only on the first component of the definition, but to a greater or lesser extent, each of those eight studies then misleadingly conflates governmentality with government – either Foucault’s notion of government, as a type of power, or a more orthodox notion of government.

In other words, if my reading of Foucault and of these secondary studies is correct, then 14 of the 17 studies don’t really say what governmentality is and/or conflate it with something else.

Foucault books governmentality

In my view, only three of the 17 studies depict governmentality in a way that seems both true to Foucault and in a way that readers could understand: Lipschutz and Fitzsimons, who quote all three components of the definition, and Pyykkönen, who only quotes the first. Each writer succeeds by fleshing out the initial definition in a useful way.

Another striking feature of these studies is that almost none of the authors fleshes out the meaning of governmentality by engaging with what Foucault says elsewhere about governmentality; in particular, references to later lectures in Security, Territory and Population are conspicuous by their invisibility. Lipschutz and Fitzsimons are the two main exceptions – and I suspect it’s no coincidence that they are two of the authors with the clearest account of governmentality. Relying so heavily on secondary studies is a dangerous approach, as some secondary studies are unreliable. (I’ve found something similar in the Habermas literature.)

So, what lessons can we learn?

(1) Definitions can be hard to understand. They may need to be fleshed out with clarifications, examples, and further distinctions.

(2) If an author does not do that herself, we may need to do it for her.

(3) We may learn more from how an author uses a term than how she defines it.

(4) We should be wary of taking an author’s definitions at face value.

(5) The secondary literature may not be a critical guide to the primary literature.

(6) The secondary literature may not even be a good guide to the primary literature.

Minor annoyances at conferences and seminars

Here are a few things which often cause frustration at conferences and seminars:

  • People sitting in the front row who ask questions so quietly that no one at the back can hear them.
  • Chairs who give speaker a rousing introduction which ends with the chair reading out the title of the speaker’s paper – only for the speaker to immediately contradict the chair by giving a paper with a different title.
  • Questions in threes.

Please add more below!

Cognitive corruption in Parliament

Philip Hensher, writing in the Independent, gives an important and unusual take on corruption. He’s discussing the ‘charade’ by which some MPs accept money for making Early Day Motions: these MPs know that Early Day Motions achieve nothing, yet imply otherwise. Hensher states:

When innocent outsiders are given the impression that something is being done for them, it hardly matters whether they have paid any money or not. They are being wilfully deceived. Corruption does not start with the handing over of sums of money.

I don’t know about ‘innocent’ outsiders, and I don’t agree that it ‘hardly matters’ whether or not they’ve paid money. But the more important point is Hensher’s penetrating comment that we shouldn’t restrict the idea of corruption to exchanges of money.

He’s discussing what I have called ‘cognitive corruption’ – the distortion of judgement. This was once a fairly common notion of corruption. For example, Thomas Hobbes often talks about corruption in terms of failures of reason, e.g. a judge not seeing that accepting a bribe will lead to a state of nature, or inappropriate passions, e.g. a judge feeling sorry for a defendant and ruling in the defendant’s favour – being corrupted by pity, as Hobbes puts it.

envelopeHensher is discussing something different: being corrupted by faulty information. Here, the corruptor is the person who provides the faulty information. Hensher’s point is that MPs who accept money for making Early Day Motions are corrupt in two senses: they distort the judgement of someone (cognitive corruption) who then gives them a bribe (political corruption).

Obviously, what matters most in these cases is the political corruption, but it’s important to realise that political corruption happens for a reason, and one reason is cognitive corruption. And in these case, let’s be thankful for the cognitive corruption, since the bribers are wasting their money on something which isn’t going to affect policy.

A simple way to improve definitions

We can help our readers understand an idea by contrasting it with a related but different idea.

One example, which I’ve already quoted here, is from the start of Stephen Darwall’s book Welfare and Rational Care:

[Welfare is] the good of a person in the sense of what benefits her. This differs … from what a person herself values, prefers, or takes an interest in.

Darwall is distinguishing objective and subjective welfare, and focusing on the former. Making the distinction explicit helps us see what he means.

In my earlier post about ‘non-definition definitions’, I criticised Isaiah Berlin’s lack of clarity over positive liberty. But Berlin is much clearer about negative liberty. One reason is that he distinguishes it from ability: if I cannot understand Hegel, this is a lack of ability, not a lack of negative freedom, because no one has stopped me from understanding Hegel. Further differentiation of these ideas would help: for example, Berlin is not explicit about whether negative freedom and ability are two separate things, or whether negative freedom is one kind of ability. But what he writes certainly gives us a better sense of what he has in mind.

A third example comes from Anita Sarkeesian’s fascinating analysis on the Feminist Frequency website, uncovering subtle and not-so-subtle stereotypes about women and violence in video games. The second video of Sarkeesian’s three-part series (warning: graphic scenes involving violence against women) is here. At 10 minutes 40, when Sarkeesian discusses ‘violence against women’, she states that she means violence which is

linked specifically to a character’s gender or sexuality. Female characters who happen to be involved in violent or combat situations on relatively equal footing with their opponents are typically exempt from this category because they are usually not framed as victims.

The video at this point shows two women fighting each other in a typical Streetfighter-style fighting game. That isn’t violence against women as women; it’s just violence which involves two people who happen to be women but could have been any gender.

By contrasting her notion to a different notion, Sarkeesian helps us understand what she is and isn’t discussing. It’s a simple but effective way of helping our readers see what we are focusing on.

The professionalisation of academia: is it bad, all things considered?

Les Back, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, has written an important post criticising two things: the view that intellectuals must be academics, and the damage that the professionalisation of academia thus does to intellectual life.

I’ll sidestep Back’s focus on intellectuals outside of academia, but I do want to dissent somewhat on three of his points about the professionalisation of academia.thinker

(1) He rightly bemoans the tendency to equate ‘being an intellectual’ with ‘having an academic job’ – in Edward Said’s words, ‘something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five’. Following Said, Back also rightly criticises (2) over-specialisation, and (3) excessive risk-aversion.

I sympathise with each point. But it’s important to see the other side too.

(1) Before the RAE/REF really kicked in, there was relatively poor accountability and meritocracy as regards UK academics: many were in effect paid by taxpayers to not do much research and, in some cases, to not do much teaching either. Things are hardly perfect now, of course, but we shouldn’t think that there was a golden age of intellectualism where UK universities were filled with academics thinking super thoughts and doing brilliant teaching.

(2) We do need specialists. Indeed, we need a good balance of specialists and generalists. Generalists often draw on specialist research, and specialist criticisms of generalist work often help to advance the debate. Like Back, I’d prefer to see more generalist work, but I suspect there’s more inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary thinking than there used to be.

(3) We do need some risk-aversion. Indeed, we need a good balance of risk-avoiders and risk-takers. Risk-takers often build on careful, ‘normal science’ research done by risk-avoiders. Like Back, I’d prefer to see more risk-taking research, and there’s a danger that the PhD and the early years of an academic job inculcate too much risk-aversion. But we shouldn’t pretend that everything is now ‘normal science’.

I’m not pretending that things are perfect now – far from it. Much of my own work, indeed, involves risk-taking efforts to challenge excessive specialisation. But I think that there are lots of people like me now, and lots more high-quality specialist and risk-averse research than there used to be – and in my view, a far lower proportion of people paid by taxpayers not to think or teach.

Sorry, that’s not a very nice thing to say. Sorry too that my empirical comments above are unsubstantiated, and that I’m imprecise about what a ‘good balance’ means. For now, I just want to make sure that the debate is well-rounded.

When Foucault says fouc-all: Part 1

Foucault’s definition of governmentality is widely quoted but rarely criticised. Yet as I argue in Part 1 of this two-part post, Foucault’s definition is unclear and inconsistent.

This is not a major problem, because his later account is fairly clear and coherent. What is a problem, I suggest in Part 2, is that many scholars are not explicit about Foucault’s initial unclarity or inconsistency, presenting the definition as self-explanatory, and often confusing its components. My aim is not so much to chide Foucault as to warn uncautious readers that many interpreters of Foucault may not have read him closely enough. The same is doubtless true of me, of course, and I welcome efforts to correct my interpretation.

In lecture 4 of Security, Territory and Population, Foucault gives a definition of governmentality with three components.

By [governmentality] I mean three things:
1. The ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means apparatuses of security.

This is not very clear. My guess is that if this is the first and only thing you read about governmentality, you’ll struggle to grasp what it involves. The last two-thirds of this sentence is about the kind of power which governmentality allows, and only the first third says what governmentality is – the ‘ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics’ that allow a particular kind of power to be exercised. But I’m not sure what that means.

Foucault thinking governmentality

I don’t want to sound too critical of Foucault: definitions can be hard to understand. The problem, as we’ll see in Part 2, is that Foucault’s interpreters often present this component of the definition as if it is self-explanatory: very few follow it up with the clarifications, examples or distinctions that we need to understand it.


KKV’s strategic error in Designing Social Inquiry

In 1994, Gary King, Robert Keohane and Sidney Verba (‘KKV’) published their seminal book Designing Social Inquiry. It was very controversial, perhaps intentionally so, because of the claim that

our main concern in this book is making qualitative research more scientific (p. 18).

This led to a backlash from many qualitative political scientists.

KKVI believe that the substance of KKV’s book points to a different and less controversial argument. They start to make this argument at the very bottom of page 4:

All good research can be understood – indeed, is best understood – to derive from the same underlying logic of inference. Both quantitative and qualitative research can be systematic and scientific.

But they then move on to a less relevant issue: historical research. That’s not really the point.

This is what I believe they should have said next:

All quantitative and qualitative researchers fall short of the ideal to greater or lesser extents. It happens that the logic of social-science inference is often more developed in quantitative research, but this book will use examples of good and bad practice from both qualitative and quantitative research.

This is consistent with the book’s content; it would just have required some different examples.

This message is less controversial – and perhaps the book would have been less widely read as a result. But people might have paid more attention to some ideas which have, alas, generated less debate. For example, I think that more weight should be placed on KKV’s very important ideas about uncertainty, which have greatly influenced me (see this blog post and this article of mine) and which I see as fundamental to all empirical research – even empirical research which does not see itself as social-scientific (see this blog post and this article of mine).

Important caveat: the suggestion I have made about what KKV should have said is still controversial: not everyone thinks that there is a unified logic of inference in social science! I’m just saying that if that is KKV’s view, they may have been better off framing the idea differently.

Noel Malcolm interview on the new edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan

Listen to an 18-minute interview with historian Noel Malcolm, covering his awe-inspiring new Clarendon edition of the English and Latin versions of Leviathan, Hobbes’s best-known work of political philosophy.

Malcolm starts the interview by summarising his new views about why Hobbes wrote Leviathan (from 2.35 to about 4.50). Malcolm’s analysis, alongside exciting research by historian David Scott, is giving us new ideas about why Hobbes wrote Leviathan, which may in turn cast new light on some of what Hobbes meant.

Malcolm also gives a stimulating account of Hobbes’s views on religion (from 9.00 to 15.15).

Noel Malcolm

Malcolm briefly discusses an important question: should philosophers be historians? Malcolm says no, but gives two reasons why philosophers nonetheless benefit from historical research. First, a philosopher may claim that a particular argument (say, Hobbes’s account of the relationship between liberty and authority) was made for philosophical reasons, when the argument may actually have been intended as a  contribution to a local political debate (from 8.10 to 8.35, and from 16.15 to 16.35).

It’s not clear to me, though, that this objection will trouble philosophers. Malcolm would need to show that a scholar can misunderstand Hobbes’s argument if she misreads his intentions. There are places where this is true and places where it is not, and unsurprisingly Malcolm doesn’t go into that kind of detail in the interview.

Second, Malcolm notes that words may not mean what we think they mean, and we may need to place them in their context if we are not to be led astray (from 16.00 to 16.15). One example, which he touches on earlier, is ‘atheist’, which had different meanings in the 17th century to now. That strikes me as a much stronger reason why philosophers should read work by historians.

One issue which is not discussed, unsurprisingly, is whether historians should be philosophers. That is a question I explore in an article I’m currently writing.

Help needed: ‘work, live, fight, die for the republic’

Years ago I think I read a definition of civic virtue as ‘the willingness to work, live, fight and if necessary die for the republic’. But I can’t find the source of this quotation. I thought it was in Bernard Crick’s introduction to his edition of the Discourses, but I can’t find it there. Searching on Google hasn’t thrown up the answer either.

Does anyone know the source?

Thomas Paine meets William Blake

Here’s a marvellous dramatisation of a fictional meeting between Tom Paine and William Blake, from Jack Shepherd’s play In Lambeth, aired on BBC2 in 1993. It’s acted brilliantly, with Mark Rylance as William Blake, Lesley Clare O’Neill as Catherine Blake, and Bob Peck as Tom Paine. I love the way Peck combines Paine’s native Norfolk accent with the American accent he would have picked up in the 1770s and 1780s.

The whole thing is 40 minutes long, spread over five YouTube clips (below). There’s more to the original than these clips, actually. Nudity at the start was removed for the upload to YouTube, and I’m pretty sure that when I first saw this on TV in 1993, Blake told Paine that he couldn’t have revolution until there’d been revelation, which I didn’t hear on the YouTube clips.

If you only listen to a bit, choose the end of part 3, from 7:15 to the end (9:40).


Would John Rawls have been submitted for the REF?

Since the mid-1980s, UK university departments have undergone periodic reviews of research quality. The current process is called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), replacing the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). As part of these reviews, academics submit four pieces of published work (fewer for early career researchers), to be graded by members of an expert subject-panel.

One complaint I’ve often heard at conferences is that the great political philosopher John Rawls didn’t publish enough to have been submitted in the RAE or REF, if he’d been at a UK university. The implication is that (a) if Rawls couldn’t make the REF, then the REF is a joke, and (b) the REF undermines our ability to write pioneering, systematic studies.

Now, there may be some truth in (b). But I don’t think that (a) is right. I’m attaching a list of Rawls’s publications, from Samuel Freeman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Rawls.

It shows that Rawls produced an entirely respectable number of books and journal articles.

'Look at how much I wrote last year.'

‘Look at how much I wrote last year.’

True, Rawls might have had a few difficulties if there’d been an RAE covering the years 1978-84, when he ‘only’ published one article and two book chapters. But the article was in the Journal of Philosophy, a leading philsophy journal, and one of the book chapters was a Tanner lecture, an extremely prestigious publication.

And we shouldn’t ignore the counterfactual: if Rawls had known that he was required to submit four articles by 1984, it wouldn’t have been hard for him to amend his publication strategy accordingly. Might this have slowed down his efforts to write pioneering, systematic studies? It’s possible, although from his list of publications I can’t see that the effect would have been too troubling.

To use the ugly language of UK academia, then, John Rawls was eminently ‘REFfable’.

When is a definition not a definition?

We often think that we have defined a term when we haven’t. Consider David Richards and Martin Smith’s ‘formal definition’ of ‘governance’, in their book Governance and Public Policy in the UK:

‘Governance’ is a descriptive label that is used to highlight the changing nature of the policy process in recent decades. In particular, it sensitizes us to the ever-increasing variety of terrains and actors involved in the making of public policy. Thus, it demands that we consider all the actors and locations beyond the ‘core executive’ involved in the policy-making process.

This tells us what governance highlights, what it sensitizes us to, and what it demands we consider. It doesn’t tell us what governance is.

Fortunately, this conceptual flaw doesn’t undermine Richards and Smith’s fine substantive analysis. The same cannot be said for Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, one of the most destructive essays ever published in political theory. Berlin’s lack of clarity weakens his own claims and has led many people astray.

For example, when he introduces ‘positive liberty’ at the start of section 2, he writes that it ‘derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master’. That tells us what positive liberty derives from, not what it is. This error is repeated by Charles Taylor: positive liberty ‘resides …  in collective control over the common life’. Again, this does not tell us what positive liberty is, only where it resides. Note, too, that Berlin and Taylor depict the idea differently – a direct consequence of the unclear and inconsistent definitions of positive liberty in Berlin’s essay.

Here are two examples of much clearer definitions. The first is from the start of Stephen Darwall’s book Welfare and Rational Care: welfare is ‘the good of a person in the sense of what benefits her. This differs … from what a person herself values, prefers, or takes an interest in’.

The second example is from the start of George Tsebelis’s book Veto Players:

In order to change policies … a certain number of individual or collective actors have to agree to the proposed change. I call such actors veto players. Veto players are specified in a country by the constitution … or by the political system …. I call these two different types of veto players institutional and partisan veto players, respectively.

Beautifully clear – a model for all of us.