Monday, April 18, 2011

FLG Isn't A Political Theorist

...but this seemingly innocuous passage gets his hackles up:
[Nancy Hirschmann] argued that our ability to do political theory will be enhanced through attention to politics--to facts and to the real world. Political theory that is engaged with particular circumstances, according to Hirschmann, produces better, more precise political theory. (It's hard to argue with this--it's so Aristotelian.)


Withywindle said...

Why, precisely?

LibertyAtStake said...

Or, perhaps, Stoic - as it begins everything with a full appreciation of what is.

"Because the Only Good Progressive is a Failed Progressive"

FLG said...


Long story short, which already you probably guessed, time horizons.

When I hear an academic talk about facts, what I hear is data. When I hear them talk about real world, I hear relevance. And in fact Emily mentioned those two specifically:
"She talked about the contemporary irrelevance of political theory at the moment on several levels: to students (for instance, investment bankers) and to political science (with its emphasis on quantitative methods)."

I prefer meaningful to relevant. Relevant is more relativistic. It's about something being relevant to a specific person or persons at some time or place. Meaningful, at least how I understand the concept and use the word, is more universal. Even if a meaningful gesture only happens between two people, say a parent and child or a husband and wife or even two friends, that meaning of that gesture should be readily apparent to other human beings regardless of time and place.

Relevance is something entirely different. To return to the specifics of political theory mention. Let's say at elite schools most kids want to be investment bankers. Okay, then, political theory is largely irrelevant to them. It doesn't provide directly relevant skills. Perhaps it provides more general skills, like critical thinking or tighter arguments or more persuasive writing, but no directly relevant skills for their potential day-to-day job.

Where political theory offers meaning is in the examination of normative questions surrounding how societies ought to organize themselves. FLG is willing to say the importance of this question would be immediately apparent to almost any human being whoever lived. It's not merely relevant to some specific individual or groups of individuals in some specific time and place with some specific goal. Trying to make political theory relevant to students intent on investment banking is a futile endeavor.

Likewise, getting to the facts issue, most of the time for academics, facts means empirical data. What is most meaningful is often the hardest to measure. How can you measure love or loyalty or honor, etc? Instead, you measure what is easiest, which may be relevant, but isn't often meaningful. Moreover, empiricism places the focus on the short-term.

Don't get FLG wrong, he likes data. He uses hard data all the time. But political theory shouldn't try to become relevant or empirical. But most of all, it shouldn't get bogged down in the present particulars. Now, you can look at particulars without looking at present particulars, but endeavoring relevance means looking at present particulars.

This should not be the primary goal of political theory, at least in this outsider's opinion.

The Ancient said...

A mild dissent.

When I was very young, before the Flood, I worked in a small government office that had a somewhat novel function, and we were generally regarded as very good at what we did.

One day, half a dozen professors from the Harvard Department of Government came by to ask questions about how our office operated. The meeting took the better part of two hours, and in the end, was a complete waste of everyone's time.

No one on the other side of the table knew enough about government or politics in the real world to understand what we were saying. They couldn't absorb the data.

(I should add, we weren't exactly philistines. Almost everyone in our office had been or would be associated with a university, and later, elsewhere, I was the person inevitably delegated to talk with Sam Beer whenever he dropped by. So we weren't defeated by a language game.)

FLG said...


How much of that do you attribute to the professors never having worked outside of academia?

I guess what I am saying is that I think much of the problem with academics vis-a-vis the real world is that they are in academia and have been their entire life. Academia, the hiring process, the office life, much of everything is different in very important ways from the real world.

Withywindle said...

FLG: I'm not sure the lady's words mean precisely the stuff you dislike; this independent of the truth value of your own argument. I think your theoretical vocabulary is idiosyncratic--"meaning" and "relevance," for example. My own take would be that one should build from circumstances, and that the most valuable theory builds from and applies to enduring circumstances. I wouldn't equate interest in particulars with lack of curiosity. It's an interesting question as to whether an Aristotelian or a Platonic world-view lends itself more to intellectual laziness; much as I love ragging on Platonists, I'm not sure I'd add that sin to their tally.

The Ancient: I wonder if you'd have had better luck with historians.

Anonymous said...

FLG - guess who rang our house last evening?

James O'Keefe.

Am not joking.

Mrs. P

The Ancient said...

FLG --

All of it. (In fairness, there were boatloads of professors who had real political experience -- although it was almost entirely assigned PR.)

Withy --

Maybe some specialist in the Byzantine endgame.

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