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!



‘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.)

RSVP: joanne.paul@nchlondon.ac.uk


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 (http://ecpr.eu/Login.aspx). This is free if your university is an ECPR member institution. Then upload a paper abstract. Feel free to contact me (Adrian.Blau@kcl.ac.uk) or Keith Dowding (keith.dowding@anu.edu.au) 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’.

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] kcl.ac.uk – 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.

How (Not) To Draw Contemporary Insights From The History of Political Thought

I’m giving a talk this Wednesday (25 February, 5.15 – 6.45 pm) at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU (Large Conference Room, Senate House, north block).


How (Not) To Draw Contemporary Insights From The History of Political Thought

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 of course to get historical authors right. We can distinguish here between reading them accurately, and improving their ideas. Doing this can help debunk parochial contemporary explanations, it can help us ask new questions, and can even 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, construct sweeping simplifications of the contemporary picture, misread contemporary authors, or base their critiques on outmoded ideas. A particular concern is a historical version of the naturalistic fallacy, where instead of moving from is to ought, scholars move from was to ought. 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 far less convincing than they think. A less disdainful approach to contemporary political theory and philosophy is vital.


Rawls without glasses

Rawls without glassesI just found this unusual picture of John Rawls, without the glasses he typically wore.

The photo, provided by Mardy Rawls, his wife, is from the book Justice, Political Liberalism, and Utilitarianism: Themes from Harsanyi and Rawls, edited by Marc Fleurbaey, Maurice Salles, and John Weymark (Cambridge University Press, 2008, ix).

P.S. Can anyone point me to a video or audio recording of Rawls speaking? I realise I’ve never seen/heard him in action.


Rawls (from van Parijs) smallUPDATE (same day): I just found another picture of Rawls without glasses (c. 1969), courtesy of his wife and his son, this time on the front cover of Philippe Van Parijs, Just Democracy: The Rawls-Machiavelli Programme (ECPR Press, 2011).



‘Big Thinkers’ event at KCL tomorrow (13 November 2014)

There’s still a few spaces left for an event tomorrow on ‘big thinkers’ (Marx, Derrida, Hayek) and how they can be applied in empirical research.

The main speakers are Alex Callinicos, Vivienne Jabri and Mark Pennington.

I’ll also be talking on the use and abuse of these thinkers in empirical research, including misreadings and arms-length usage of Habermas and Foucault.

The talk is run by the KCL social-science Doctoral Training Centre. The talk is mainly aimed at PhD students but all are welcome.

To register please click here.

Big Thinkers: Exploring Important Theorists of Social Issues

Karl Marx, Jacques Derrida & Friedrich Hayek

13 November 2014, 2:00 – 6:00 pm

Franklin Wilkins Building 1.71, Waterloo Campus

This afternoon event will involve three 30 minute presentations in which KCL academics will present key conceptual ideas from a major social theorist of specific value to their work. A question and answer session will follow each talk and there will be refreshments and a talk to provide ideas and advice on using big thinkers in your own research.

The schedule is as follows:

2:00 – 2:15 – Introduction (Gerhard Schnyder, Management, KCL)

2:15 – 3:00 – Marx (Alex Callinicos, European & International Studies, KCL)

3:00 – 3:45 – Derrida  (Vivienne Jabri, War Studies, KCL)

3:45 – 4:15 – tea/coffee

4:15 – 5:00 – Hayek  (Mark Pennington, Department of Political Economy, KCL)

5:00 – 5:30 – How (Not) To Use Big Thinkers (Adrian Blau, Department of Political Economy, KCL)

5:30 – 6:00 – Roundtable

6:00 onwards – drinks/refreshments

Gadamer’s God-awful account of science

I’ve just finished my chapter for the book of the Reading Between The Lines conferenceGadamer Truth MethodMy chapter included a critique of Gadamer’s account of science, in his book Truth and Method and elsewhere.

I argue that Gadamer makes deeply misleading claims about what science involves, and does not reference any practising natural or social scientist; as far as I can tell, Gadamer’s most recent reference to an actual scientist was from someone writing 98 years before the publication of Truth and Method. Oh, and Gadamer misquotes this scientist and treats him as far more naive than he was.

But many commentators simply repeat Gadamer’s caricatures or pass over them in silence. This might actually be more troubling than Gadamer’s naughty scholarship.

My question is: can anyone point me to a good critique of Gadamer’s account of science? So far, I’ve only found five people who criticise any aspect of his account of science:

  • pp. 226 and 236 of Dieter Misgeld’s article in the journal Philosophy of Social Science, from 1979;
  • pp. 168-9 of Richard Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (1983);
  • the opening chapter of Joel Weinsheimer’s Gadamer’s Hermeneutics (1985) – this is the most powerful critique but still leaves Gadamer largely unscathed;
  • p. 4 of Georgia Warnke’s Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason (1987); and
  • p. 158 of Robert D’Amico’s book Contemporary Continental Philosophy (1999).

If you can point me to any other references – preferably in English! – I’d be most grateful. Thanks!

Robert Dahl (1915-2014)

Robert Dahl has passed away, aged 98.


Here are five things that stand out for me in Dahl’s work.

  1. We don’t have democracy, we have polyarchy (see Polyarchy, 1971).
  2. The parts of the US constitution which are the least democratic are the parts which are the hardest to change (see How Democratic is the American Constitution?, 2002 pp. 154-5).
  3. ‘In a rough sense, the essence of all competitive politics is bribery of the electorate by politicians’ (A Preface to Democratic Theory, 1956 p. 68).
  4. ‘My commitment has been to democracy, to liberty, and to a kind of equality …. [E]conomic institutions for me … are seen as quite instrumental; it’s like choosing a Ford or a Toyota, where I have about that much emotional investment in one or the other, whereas I have a deep emotional investment in the nature of the political system and the sort of freedoms that exist in it’ (in Ian Shapiro and Grant Reeher, eds., Power, Inequality, and Democratic Politics, 1988 pp. 158-9).
  5. Dahl’s definition of power was more or less right. Steven Lukes’s vastly overrated critique confuses Dahl’s concept of power and how Dahl studied power. There’s no reason to reject the former just because of the significant problems with the latter.

And here are four points about how Dahl studied democracy:

  1. ‘I have always tried to formulate what I’m doing … in the form of a question. Most of my books open with a question in the first paragraph. … This technique so focuses the mind on what’s to follow that I’m astounded when other people don’t use it’ (in Gerardo Munck and Richard Snyder, eds., Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics, 2007 p. 136).
  2. It helps to combine ‘the normative and empirical aspects of democracy … in a single theoretical perspective’ (Democracy and its Critics p. 6).
  3. Dahl’s case for democracy, in Democracy and its Critics, is both negative and positive – negative, because despite democracy’s flaws the alternatives are worse, and positive, because it involves a commitment to moral equality. This is better than the Churchill defence, which is too negative.
  4. Revealingly, Dahl called the book Democracy and its Critics, and tries to make his critics’ case as strong as he can, rather than attacking caricatures or weak versions. Compare Benjamin Barber, who prefers to go for the straw jugular.

In an interview published in 2007, Dahl said:

the writers who had the most impact on my thinking were people with whom I disagreed, but who were more than worthy political opponents. They were giants, and because they were giants they set down a challenge I could struggle with my entire life [e.g. Plato, Marx, Schumpeter]. … I think of it as an imaginary dialogue. The most productive dialogues are not adversarial in the sense of trying to win points, like in a tennis game. I think of it as dialectical in the Platonic and Hegelian sense. I start here, my adversary is over there. I move over a little bit, then they move to a new position, and so forth. Conversations like that are rare. When you have one, you come out of it feeling great (in Gerardo Munck and Richard Snyder, eds., Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics, 2007 pp. 116-9).

I believe that most of the key developments in democratic theory in the last 30 years have come from philosophers, not political theorists. But political theorists like Robert Dahl, Jane Mansbridge and David Beetham are exceptions.