Cognitive corruption and deliberative democracy

I’m heading to California for a conference on corruption, to give a paper called ‘Cognitive Corruption and Deliberative Democracy’. I gave a version at the European University Institute, Florence, a couple of weeks ago.

Hermosa_BeachAbstract: This paper defends deliberative democracy by reviving a largely forgotten idea of corruption, which I call ‘cognitive corruption’ – the distortion of judgment. I analyse different versions of this idea in the work of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bentham and Mill. Historical analysis also helps me rethink orthodox notions of corruption in two ways: I define corruption in terms of public duty not public office, and I argue that corruption can be by and for political parties. In deliberative democracy, citizens can take off their party hats and may be more influenced by the force of the better argument than is likely in electoral/party democracy.

History of Political Thought teaching this year

I’m very excited to be teaching history of political thought again this year! This time we’re covering Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, the Federalists/Anti-Federalists, and Bentham, with half-hour mini-lectures on corruption, gender, methods of interpretation, parties, public opinion, religion, and tyranny/totalitarianism. In the first half of term there’s also practical exercises e.g. how to deal with ambiguity in texts (applied to Machiavelli), and how to break down and analyse arguments philosophically (applied to Hobbes). We do other exercises in seminars, e.g. how to use historical evidence (applied to Rousseau), how to apply modern conceptual frameworks (applied to the Federalists/Anti-Federalists), and how to draw contemporary insights (applied to Bentham). It’s a wide-ranging module which I love teaching. This year my TAs will be Caroline Ashcroft (Cambridge) and Max Skjönsberg (LSE), who are both giving two of the mini-lectures, with Sarah Wilford (KCL) returning to give two other mini-lectures.

Here’s a two-minute video of me summarising the module:


Thought experiments: scientific parallels

I’ll be giving a controversial paper at two conferences: the American Political Science Association (Sept 1-4, in Philadelphia), and the European Consortium on Political Research (Sept 7-10, in Prague).

My paper draws parallels between thought experiments in political theory and philosophy, and controlled experiments/comparisons in the natural and social sciences. Some of these parallels have been noticed before, by people like Frances Kamm, Tamar Gendler, and (in the book on political theory methods that I’m editing) Kimberley Brownlee and Zofia Stemplowska. But no one I’m aware of has taken advantage of the powerful toolkit that social and natural scientists have developed. I thus use ideas like internal and external validity, controlled comparison, omitted variable bias, interaction effects, spurious correlations, testable implications, and parsimony.

This helps us see better how to do thought experiments, and how much we can learn from them.

Thought ExperimentOf course, some readers will be more interested in my broader claims about the relationship between political theory and science. But note that I don’t equate the two: there are parallels, but also important differences. By contrast, I do argue elsewhere that some textual interpretation is essentially scientific: we often ask empirical questions (like what Locke meant by ‘rights’ or why he wrote what he wrote), and scientific ideas are the best tools we have yet developed for answering such questions. (See here for the most explicit version of the argument, and here for the most details account of what a scientific approach to textual intepretation involves.)

This isn’t really what’s going on in political theory thought experiments – which are, furthermore, only one part of political theory, and a part that many authors don’t use. Nonetheless, this casts some light on what some philosophers of science mean when they discuss ‘naturalism’, defined here as philosophy and science being ‘continuous’.

Although I’ve been thinking about and teaching some of these ideas for many years, my paper was written quite quickly, and needs more work. In particular, I cannot yet say how widespread the problems I discuss are.

The paper is here. Any comments and criticisms would be much appreciated!

My top 10 Hobbes articles

On the European Hobbes Society website, I’ve posted a list of my top 10 Hobbes articles. It’s open for comments there if you want to suggest your own list, or challenge any of my suggestions!



The methodology of political theory: can political science help?

I’m in the Netherlands to give a paper tomorrow to the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs at Leiden University (at their campus in Den Haag/The Hague).

Because the audience will mainly be empiricists, I’m talking about what political theorists can learn from political science (and a bit of the reverse).

The first part of the talk will summarise my past work on history of political thought. In five articles and book chapters, I’ve implicitly or explicitly argued that much textual interpretation can benefit from scientific ideas.

The second part of the talk is more speculative, as it’s on something I’ve only been working on for a few weeks (although I’ve taught the key idea for nearly a decade). I’m going to extend France’s Kamm’s insight about normative thought experiments being like scientific experiments, and see what else we can take from the analogy.

Assuming the ideas about thought experiments are not demolished tomorrow, I’ll be giving a more polished version of this argument at APSA in Philadelphia and ECPR in Prague in September.

Causality symposium at King’s College London

What does it mean to say that X caused Y? How do philosophical ideas of causation relate to the practice of social science, and vice versa? We discussed such questions in a day-long symposium in the Department of Political Economy (DPE) at King’s College London on Saturday April 30th. The event was organised by DPE PhD students Irena Schneider and Matías Peterson. In attendance were PhD students studying political economy, political science, political theory, philosophy, and economic history, from KCL, UCL and the LSE. I chaired the event, which was kindly funded by the King’s Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Centre (KISS-DTC).

A kCausalitySymposium5ey insight was that we can easily be the slaves of an idea of causation if we do not think about ideas of causation – and that means ideas, plural. There are several different ideas of causation, each of which has weaknesses. And different social-science methods sometimes use different ideas of causation. If we knew more about different ideas of causation, we might not be so quick to reject some social-science methods.

We read the following texts:

Session 1, 10am-11:30am

Philosophical notions of causation

  • Mumford, Stephen and Rani Lill Anjum (2013). Causation: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1-84.

Singular versus general causation

  • Hitchcock, Christopher (1995). “The mishap at Reichenbach fall: singular vs. general causation”, Philosophical Studies 78.

Session 2, 12pm-1:30pm

What can a statistical model say about causation?

  • Holland, Paul (1986). “Statistics and Causal Inference”, Journal of the American Statistical Association 81 (396).
  • Pearl, Judea (2012). “The causal foundations of structural equation modeling”, in Handbook of structural equation modeling, ed. Rick H. Hoyle.

Session 3, 3pm-5pm

What can qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) say about causation?

  • Lucas and Szatrowski (2014). “Qualitative comparative analysis in critical perspective”, Sociological Methodology 44.
  • Ragin, Charles (2014). “Comment: Lucas and Szatrowski in critical perspective”, Sociological Methodology 44.






I still don’t understand this!



‘Methods in Analytical Political Theory’ sent to Cambridge University Press

Marthe Donas, Le Livre d'imagesI’ve now sent the manuscript of Methods in Analytical Political Theory to Cambridge University Press.

Each chapter gives ‘how-to’ advice, explaining how to use the method or approach being discussed.

The lineup is as follows:

  1. Introduction: a ‘how-to’ approach (Adrian Blau, King’s College London)
  2. How to write analytical political theory (Robert Goodin, ANU)
  3. Thought experiments (Kimberley Brownlee, Warwick, and Zofia Stemplowska, Oxford)
  4. Reflective equilibrium (Carl Knight, Glasgow)
  5. Contractualism (Jonathan Quong, USC)
  6. Moral sentimentalism (Michael Frazer, University of East Anglia)
  7. Realism (Robert Jubb, Reading)
  8. Realistic idealism (David Schmidtz, Arizona)
  9. Conceptual analysis (Johan Olsthoorn, KU Leuven)
  10. Positive political theory (Alan Hamlin, Manchester and King’s College London)
  11. Rational choice theory (Brian Kogelmann, Arizona, and Gerald Gaus, Arizona)
  12. Interpreting texts (Adrian Blau, King’s College London)
  13. Comparative political thought (Brooke Ackerly, Vanderbilt, and Rochana Bajpai, SOAS)
  14. Ideological analysis (Jonathan Leader Maynard, Oxford)
  15. How to do a political theory PhD (Robert Goodin, ANU, and Keith Dowding, ANU)

The book should be out in 2017.

Talk at NCH: ‘History, Political Theory and Philosophy: Different Questions, Different Answers?’

On Tuesday March 22 I’ll be talking to the History of Political Thought Society at the New College of the Humanities, on ‘History, Political Theory and Philosophy: Different Questions, Different Answers?’

I’ll be arguing that while historians, political theorists and philosophers often end up asking different questions, many of their tools are the same. Historians have in effect won the battle to get political theorists and philosophers to think historically and consult historical research, but political theorists and philosophers need to do more to convince historians to think philosophically and consult philosophical research. This can be a valuable means even to primarily historical ends!

Time: 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm. NCH Bedford Square

Location: Drawing Room, New College of the Humanities, 19 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3HH. (N.B. Someone will need to let you in, so if possible please arrive by 6.30.)



Visiting Professor at Charles University in Prague

The Charles University

From Wednesday I will be spending a few days as a Visiting Professor at Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in the Czech Republic and one of the oldest in Europe.

I’m working hard while I’m there:

Wed March 16: lecture on ‘Passions, Corruption and the Maintenance of Institutions:
From Machiavelli to Today’.

Thu March 17: seminar on ‘How (Not) To Use History of Political Thought/Philosophy for Contemporary Purposes’.

Fri March 18: Hobbes seminar. Part 1: ‘Interpreting Hobbes Philosophically and Historically: Different Questions, Different Answers?’ Part 2: discussion of my chapter on ‘Reason, Deliberation and The Passions’ in the just-published Oxford Handbook of Hobbes.

Sat March 19: ‘Academic Essays’ workshop for students and staff.

(Details here.)

I will also see two Mozart operas (Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte), in the Prague Estates Theatre – where Don Giovanni was premiered in 1787.

Let me know below if you have any suggestions about where I should go or what I should do/eat/drink. I’ll be back in Prague again in September for the ECPR conference so can tick more items off the list then!

Call for Papers: Methods in Political Theory, at ECPR General Conference, Prague, 7-10 Sept 2016

Keith Dowding and I are organising at least seven panels on Methods in Political Theory at the ECPR General Conference in Prague, 7-10 September 2016. Details are below.


The deadline for paper abstract submission is 15 February 2016.


In order to apply you need a MyECPR account ( This is free if your university is an ECPR member institution. Then upload a paper abstract. Feel free to contact me ( or Keith Dowding ( if you have questions about your abstract or anything else.



Disappointing (non-)response by Arthur Melzer to my and other people’s criticisms

Perspectives on Political Science16 of us wrote reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the June and October issues of Perspectives on Political Science. Melzer has now written a 10,000-word response. Unfortunately, he did not engage with most of the reviews. His wording is curious:

In the space allotted me for rejoinder, it would clearly not be possible to reply to each of the essays individually, and it would be unbearably tedious if it were. Most of the essays, at any rate, stand in no particular need of reply.

I’m not sure about any of those three claims!

For what it’s worth, my review made the following points:

  • Melzer misinterprets, or interprets partially, some evidence about esotericism, e.g. in Machiavelli and Rousseau;
  • Melzer is not clear about whether contextualist/Cambridge-School interpretations are esoteric;
  • Melzer works with a straw man when he discusses “strictly literal” readings, as opposed to esoteric ones;
  • Melzer does not respond to the most important critiques of Strauss’s methodology.




CSI Cambridge: history of political thought as detective-work

UPDATE: This article has now been published, in History of European Ideas 41:8 (2015), pp. 1178-94.

My paper ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’ has now been accepted by History of European Ideas. The paper uses a detective analogy (following Collingwood and others) to give practical principles for textual interpreters on how to draw plausible inferences from incomplete, ambiguous evidence about what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote.

david-caruso-csi-miamiI used a different analogy in the versions of this paper I gave at York, Reading, Durham, KCL and Kent in 2010-2012, but that analogy was too controversial to get published, and I only make it explicit in a forthcoming chapter in Winfried Schröder, ed., Reading Between The Lines (de Gruyter, forthcoming). But those who read between the lines of the current paper will see what I’m really arguing. For what it’s worth, the different analogy was also present in the original version of my ‘Anti-Strauss’ article, but the referees rightly made me take it out. Still, it’s there implicitly. My critique of Strauss has always been a vehicle for far more important ideas.

Here is the abstract of my History of European Ideas paper:

This paper offers practical guidance for empirical interpretation in the history of political thought, especially uncovering what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote. I thus seek to fill a small but significant hole in our rather abstract methodological literature. To counter this abstraction, I draw not only on methodological theorising but also on actual practice – and on detective-work, a fruitful analogy. The detective analogy seeks to capture the intuition that we can potentially find right answers but must handle fragmentary evidence that different people can plausibly read in different ways. Placing the focus on evidence, and on combining different types of evidence, suggests that orthodox categories like ‘contextualist’ and ‘Marxist’ too often accentuate differences between scholars. This paper instead highlights core principles that unite us – ideas that underpin good textual interpretation across all ‘schools of thought’.

The use and misuse of history of political thought for contemporary purposes

I’m giving a paper on how (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes, at the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought on Monday Oct 26, and at the Exeter Politics Department seminar on Wednesday Nov 4.

My paper praises scholars like Julia Annas, Michael Frazer, John McCormick and Quentin Skinner, for successfully using the history of political thought to ask new questions or offer new answers. But I also criticise scholars like John Dunn, Raymond Geuss and Quentin Skinner for overstating what we can learn from the history of political thought, or for not engaging sufficiently with contemporary issues or authors. Such overstated claims, indeed, risk damaging our efforts to draw contemporary insights from history of political thought, if political theorists or philosophers look at failed efforts and conclude that it is not worth studying history of political thought.

I gave an earlier version of this paper at the Institute of Historical Research in February 2015. But I did not have a paper to circulate then – now I do.

If you want to read a copy of this paper, please email me at Adrian.Blau {at} Comments and criticisms welcome, however critical!

Abstract: We lack methodological principles for how to draw contemporary insights from historical texts. As a result, many efforts to do so have failed – more than most people realise. One key principle is to get historical authors right, by reading them accurately, and by improving their ideas if needs be. This can help us challenge false claims to historical authority, debunk parochial contemporary explanations, ask new questions, or suggest new answers. The second main principle is to get contemporary authors and issues right. This is where scholars err most. Some scholars fail to demonstrate a gap in the literature, over-generalise, misread contemporary authors, underestimate the complexity of contemporary issues, or use outmoded ideas: just as history of political thought can liberate us, so too it can constrain us. Overall, I suggest, some of the boldest claims for the contemporary value of history of political thought come from scholars whose own contemporary insights are not as convincing as they think. Far from highlighting the contemporary relevance of history of political thought, this risks making it look irrelevant. A less disdainful approach to contemporary political theory and philosophy is vital.

A bit of Bentham comedy

I did my second standup comedy routine in July, on Jeremy Bentham – here is a short clip.

I particularly enjoyed this performance because Bentham’s body is kept at UCL, where the set was filmed; there’s a cheery rivalry between UCL and my university, KCL.

Adrian Blau Bentham standupHere is a link to my first set, about Benjamin Franklin, from May 2015.

The next of these ‘History Showoff’ standup comedy nights is on 7 October 2015 at the Star of Kings pub in King’s Cross; I shall be enjoying this as a member of the audience only! See here for more details and to book tickets, which cost £6.60; profits go to charity.

Symposium on Arthur Melzer’s new book on esoteric philosophy

I’m part of a symposium of reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the journal Perspectives on Political Science (vol. 44 no. 3, 2015). This is a two-part symposium, with Melzer responding to the reviews in the second part, in the forthcoming issue. The first part of the symposium has contributions from a variety of authors:


  • Francis Fukuyama drives a further wedge between Strauss and silly criticisms of his alleged effect on US foreign policy;
  • Michael Frazer asks if some philosophers writing about esotericism actually did so esoterically;
  • Adrian Blau challenges some of Melzer’s evidence as well as what appear to be false dichotomies between esoteric/non-esoteric and literal/non-literal readings of texts – click here for a summary of my views and a copy of my article;
  • Douglas Burnham questions the idea of ‘historicism’ and asks how well Nietzsche fits this category;
  • Rob Howse questions Melzer’s evidence about the relationship between persecution and esotericism;
  • Miguel Vatter makes further distinctions between types and aims of esotericism;
  • in separate pieces, Norma Thompson, Catherine/Michael Zuckert, Larry Arnhart, Roslyn Weiss, Grant Havers and Peter Augustine Lawler each develop different aspects of the account of ancient versus modern esotericism/society.

How to do history of political thought

Interpreting textsHere is my draft chapter on how to interpret texts, for a book on methods in political theory that I’m editing for Cambridge University Press.

I’m keen for comments – however critical! The only problem is that I need comments by August 1st if possible, as I’m submitting the book manuscript on September 1st. Sorry for the crazy deadline.

I’m particularly keen to hear from current graduate students (MA or PhD), or advanced undergraduates, as that is who the chapter is aimed at.

Even if you’ve never met me, I’d love your criticisms and suggestions! Please download the article and email me at Adrian.Blau [at] – thanks!

Laughing at history

Here’s a video of my standup comedy routine, for the second ‘History Showoff’ comedy night, at the Star of King’s pub near King’s Cross on 27 May.

The following people or things were harmed in the course of this routine:

  • AmericansAdrian Blau at HistoryShowoff2
  • Canadians
  • Montesquieu (“completely mediocre in every way”)
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • the truth
  • my reputation

My next set is on July 9th at the Bloomsbury Theatre near UCL (details here). Tickets cost £6.60 and profits go to charity.

My review of Arthur Melzer’s new Straussian book on esotericism

Here is a pre-publication version of my review of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago, 2014).

MelzerBookMelzer’s book is the best defence of Straussian esoteric interpretation yet written. It’s more plausible than anything Strauss wrote, in my view. But Melzer overinterprets or overlooks evidence, and does not provide support for some of Strauss’s most questionable esoteric techniques. He only addresses weak criticisms of Strauss, ignoring writers like John Pocock and George Klosko (and me), and he sometimes contrasts Straussian interpretations with caricatures of other approaches.

So, Straussians should not think that this book proves Strauss was right. Nor should critics of Strauss claim that no one wrote esoterically. In short, everyone interested in esoteric writing should read this book. Melzer’s online appendix is also a wonderful resource, collating comments about esoteric writing throughout history.

N.B. The final version of my review – with tiny corrections to be made – will appear in Perspectives on Political Science later this year. Melzer will respond in the same issue, or another issue.

UPDATE: here is an overview of the first part of the two-part symposium of Melzer’s book, and a link to the journal.

My review of Sharon Lloyd, ed., ‘Hobbes Today’

The journal History of Political Thought has published my pretty critical review of Sharon Lloyd’s edited book Hobbes Today (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

HobbesTodayReviewing this book led me to write a paper on how (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes (see here). While reading the book, I felt that some chapters used Hobbes well, some needed to make changes, and some did not convince at all. More generally, many authors seemed too keen to claim that Hobbes is still relevant. Instead of trying to show that Hobbes is relevant today, authors needed to test this claim – to ask how relevant he is. That would have allowed a more nuanced analysis of Hobbes’s contemporary relevance. The current book simply fails to convince – or so I argue in my review.

Empowering students to be critical

Students often struggle to criticise what they read: many feel that they are not qualified to do so, or not knowledgeable enough.

I try to empower my students to be more critical. Yesterday, I sought to plant this intuition by using the analogy of Hobbes’s state of nature, where the weakest can kill the strongest while they sleep. So too with essays: even students with little experience or knowledge can criticise what they read, because even the cleverest writers leave gaps in their defences.

Killed in his shleep

Killed in his shleep

Hobbes himself recognises this: most ordinary people can spot some errors of reasoning (Elements of Law chapter 5), and even ‘the ablest’ can draw ‘false conclusions’ (Leviathan chapter 5). Hobbes, indeed, is one of the ablest at producing false conclusions!

Now obviously, it doesn’t go far enough simply to give students this intuition – that brilliant scholarship can be criticised, just as strong people can be killed in their sleep. We should also show students how to do this, and give examples of good and bad practice. But hopefully the above analogy will help to give some students more confidence to be critical.