[This piece was co-written with and co-published with Joshua Miller [here]--ES]
The most dazzling example of co-authorship is Paul Erdős, who co-wrote more than 1400 papers in mathematics with 485 collaborators. (What is your Erdős number?) To do this, he became functionally homeless: "His modus operandi was to show up on the doorstep of a fellow mathematician, declare, "My brain is open," work with his host for a day or two, until he was bored or his host was run down, and then move on to another home."
In the sciences, co-authorship is normal. In the humanities, it is uncommon. In philosophy, it is almost non-existent. (See chart.)* Yet philosophy is not without famous co-authors (e.g., Marx and Engels). What's more, some monographs ought properly be considered co-authored, like John Stuart Mill's collaborations with Harriet Taylor Mill: "when two persons have their thoughts and speculations completely in common it is of little consequence, in respect of the question of originality, which of them holds the pen."
There is little scholarship on co-authorship in philosophy, but a steady trickle of blog posts suggests that there is interest and anxiety on this point. (Helen de Cruz, Mark Zelcer, Robert Paul Wolff,
Co-authorship in the sciences is ideally ruled by two rules rooted in a particular sociology of labs and research groups. First, co-authors contribute to the scholarly endeavor for a piece of publishable scholarship by planning, executing, or analyzing the results of some sort of research. Second, co-authors compose the written portion of the research, either collectively or through some division of labor.
Both of these ideals are violated, of course—there are plenty of massive multi-authored articles where scholars receive token authorship (gift authorship) or someone who made substantial contributions is not credited as an author (ghost authorship.) In that way, these are "endorsed" norms, not the "enforced" ones: violations abound and are even legitimated as common practice in some "big science" research areas. But this remains the practical ideal.
2. Why is co-authorship deprecated in philosophy?
Professional philosophers collaborate, usually through disputatious conversation, but usually not in a way that counts multiple thinkers as the author of a single paper. We are also much less likely to cite our peers than the agenda-setting papers in our sub-fields, especially as a part of a generic literature review. (See Kieran Healey's data.) It is more common for close collaborators to co-edit than to co-author: for instance, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum famously created the "capabilities approach" together without co-authoring any of their foundational papers. They did, however, co-edit the seminal volume, The Quality of Life in 1993.
So while we do not imagine ourselves to be lone geniuses communing with the ancient canon, it is the case that many philosophical papers are projected as manifestos of a single principled thinker. Indeed, philosophers are particularly prone to a kind of "subauthorial collaboration" that is formalized in lavish acknowledgements in the text or an early footnote. (Cronin, Shaw, La Barre, 2003)
David Lewis, who understood philosophical politics as well as anybody (recall), comments on this kind of "ghost" authorship in his paper, "Causation as Influence:":
"This paper mostly presents the latest lessons I've learned from my students. Under the customs of the natural sciences, it should have been a joint paper, the coauthors being (in alphabetical order) John Collins, Ned Hall, myself [David Lewis], L.A. Paul, and Jonathan Schaffer. But under the customs of philosophy, a paper is expected to be not only a report of discoveries but a manifesto; and, happily, the five of us have by no means agreed upon a common party line."**
Yet analytic philosophers often imagine themselves by analogy to the natural and social sciences, and American and continental philosophers increasingly emphasize the collaborative nature of our enterprise. Why, then, do we not use co-authorship more?
One obvious reason is the relative paucity of grants and research support compared to the natural and social sciences. Without an incentive to adopt the lab or research group model, most working philosophers are not members of a funded research unit with reporting requirements. Rigorous research is understood to support 'research-led teaching,' and so the single-author model is based primarily on the single-teacher model. We should thus expect the introduction of larger private grant-making institutions, like the Templeton Foundation and the Berggruen Institute, and public European grant agencies, to usher in an era of increasing research group size in philosophy, and the more frequent co-authorship.
We expect that new collaborative technologies will decrease the costs and difficulties of collaboration to the extent that philosophers will more often overcome them, even without any increased funding or benefits. Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, and simple Microsoft Office sharing, versioning, and commenting will all tend to ease the speed with which scholars of all varieties—including philosophers—create collaborative documents. Social media, chat programs, and email ease collaboration over distance to replicate the proximity by which labs and research groups co-compose.
Lastly, we might think of philosophical research as long-shot bets (Langhe and Schliesser, 2017) that explore concepts, methods, or techniques that may be generally applicable. As such, it will be difficult to trace any particular result in the world back to a paper or monograph, and it is preferable to have many such long-shot bets rather than focus the efforts and attention of a highly skilled research team on sequential elaboration of just one of these gambles. It will generally be better to encourage idiosyncratic work done by individuals and small teams in hopes that one of those bets pays off. In the age of increasingly easy collaboration some enduring, virtual small research teams will emerge without, hopefully, fully displacing lone wolfs and disputatious research groups.
3.What norms of co-authorship might philosophers embrace?
If philosophers do adopt co-authorship norms, which ones should we adopt?
We should start with the ideal of recognition of actual contribution to the research and knowing participation in the composition. Co-authorship should never be merely "honorary" inclusion for a member of a team or department who contributed to neither the research work nor the writing endeavor. However, the division of labor in some disciplines has the result of producing co-authored pieces where some credited contributors don't even understand the paper they have helped to produce. Should we extend co-authorship to a student assistant who writes the literature review for a piece of research without understanding the rest of the paper? Should we accept co-authorship for a paper whose conclusions we do not endorse, if we supplied the formal modeling or computer code that underwrites it?
Our current professional ideal is consensus. On this ideal all authors must give credence to every jot and tittle of the work, even if their confidence varies slightly. Co-authorship in philosophy is stricter because philosophers can and should endorse all the claims, arguments, and conclusions of the paper. Papers can be thus be co-authored in philosophy when two or more researchers find a common interest, discuss it at great length, and truly co-compose the entire paper, contesting each argumentative move and turn of phrase until agreement is reached. As such, it should be very unlikely to see large groups of co-authors writing together, given the difficulty of producing such an exacting meeting of the minds, and we even look askance at philosophy papers co-authored by three or four scholars.
Another possibility is that philosophers working on closely-related research might try to divvy up the tasks in a field of research around some question such that only one or a few of the authors of a work understand the whole thing, while others are credited for their contributions without being "first" or "lead" author status. This requires trust in each other to handle sections of the paper that address relevant issues from their sub-fields; perhaps a paper that is 12,000 words long is written in two halves, with only the introduction and conclusion truly a joint project. On this ideal, co-authors retain to right to veto truly abhorrent claims made outside of their assigned sections, but only by threatening to dissolve the partnership. Otherwise, they can only register objections and hope to be heard.
A third possibility would be to follow the norm in law courts, where empaneled and en banc judges issue both dissenting opinions or in some cases join the majority in parts of their decision but not others, perhaps affirming the result but not all of the methods used to arrive at it. In such cases, a minority might dissent vehemently, while the court is understood to have rendered the opposite verdict: that minority dissent is clearly a separate research project in philosophical terms. They are not understood as co-authors of the majority opinion but as co-authors of a distinct opinion which did not win a majority of support. The more instructive question is what to do when judges affirm parts of the main decision but not all of it, and by analogy, situations where co-authors affirm parts of a research project but not all of it. Can it be possible for one of the co-authors to "sign on" to parts 1, 2, and 4 of a paper, while dissenting from arguments found in part 3 and in the conclusion? For example, in the past one of us has used a footnote to signal an alternative position from the one arrived at in the body of the paper.
A fourth possibility is majority voting. Bright, Dang, and Heesen (2017) argue that scientific work should aggregate researchers' judgments. Claims and propositions should be made in a paper that receive the assent of the majority of the authors. One might well find oneself outvoted in some cases, and this would be fine so long as there was agreement that voting had not produced a contradictory or logically incoherent set of claims.
A fifth possibility would be a kind of deliberative dictatorship: a lead author could write a paper, assign sections for others to compose, and bounce ideas off of possible co-authors. At the conclusion, all participants who agreed with the final product could sign on as co-authors, while dissenters could produce their own dissenting papers to be published alongside. This is related to proposals that might allow peer reviewers to receive more recognition for their work as initial gatekeepers.
Could all of these modes of co-authorship flourish in philosophy? Are some of them inimical to the discipline?
4. Philosophers should co-author more of our work
Given the fact that some forms of collaborative recognition do exist, why suggest co-authorship as an alternative model for philosophy? Let's start by dividing the reasons for co-authorship into roughly epistemic and roughly ethical categories, even if this is a division that is easily collapsed. Co-authored papers may simply be better for having multiple composers, readers, and researchers attached to them. The division of epistemic labor will often lead to better-written, more carefully crafted, or simply more copious publications: many minds make light work.
At the same time, co-authorship is partly about recognizing the contributions of our peers. In that sense, it is ethical. This is a weaker defense of co-authorship, since there are alternative methods for providing recognition. If a paper issues from a conversation with a colleague or a good objection raised at a conference or blog post, we philosophers would normally expect to mention that in a footnote, not to grant the colleague or objector co-authorship status. Philosophy papers are sometimes imagined to be the record of the thoughts or analysis of a single agent, and group agency seems much more difficult in these cases because we are so rarely in anything resembling agreement. We are rarely of a single mind, ourselves, so this is no big impediment, but this also ignores the fact that one can commit to a written product while having varying confidence in its disparate elements.
But there's a significant ethical claim that might recommend co-authorship: the ideal of scholarly friendship. Co-authorship can be a way to channel professional philosophical relationships in productive ways, a norm for guiding conversations and arguments towards shared, potentially overlapping projects. There is independent reason to believe that shared projects are an intrinsic good tied closely to well-being. (Korsgaard, 1992) Thus we should, if possible, prefer to share the tasks associated with philosophical research with others, not just after publication but throughout the scholarly endeavor. Philosophical co-authorship is desirable just because philosophical friendship is desirable.
Shared projects are possible both between equals and between mentors and students. As such, co-authorship is a way to encourage productive collaboration within departments and with undergraduate and graduate students. In the pedagogy-first model of much philosophical research, departmental colleagues at most small schools should not co-author their research because this leads to overlapping areas of interest and knowledge. A department with only a handful of philosophers should instead hope that its faculty have as little in common as possible, even if they must share governance of their department and spend their careers working side-by-side. But if co-authorship underwrites philosophical friendship, then even a maximally pluralistic department should seek opportunities to co-create research, actively seeking agreement and shared methods, research areas, and conceptual terrain.
Like friends, co-authors need not agree on everything.*** Finding some method for adjudicating those disagreements is important, but philosophical writing can encompass these minor dissents or majoritarian procedures, just as our departments do. The key is that the commitment to co-author—like the commitments of friendship—is a commitment to resolve disagreements using whatever methods are available. Friends do not obsess over decision-procedures, though we adopt them to ease tensions for the sake of shared projects. The same should go for co-authors.
Like friends, co-authors need not be equals. We see in the sciences that co-authorship allows a kind of scholarly mentorship, and in philosophy graduate students first experience intense collaboration for the first time while writing their dissertation with a senior scholar. We even acknowledge that this is akin to co-authorship by treating dissertation advising as something close to co-authorship for some professional purposes.
More of this sort of mentorship should be encouraged. The practice of learning from another scholar does not end when a philosopher receives a PhD, and probably we shouldn't pretend that it does. Perhaps newly-minted PhDs aren't yet ready for the full burdens of a research program, or perhaps they would benefit from mentorship when they move on to a new research program. Or perhaps not: perhaps this would end with more domination by senior scholars, as the division of labor creates permanent hierarchies. But it's not as if our current, academic political economy is hierarchy-free.
A final reason is merely accuracy: our authorial norms give a false idea of our practices to the rest of the academy. We should consider revising them to align ourselves with our fellow academics. Let's not pretend that scholarly productivity metrics are irrelevant or that Deans do not look askance at our publication records compared to other disciplines.
* Despite the best efforts of some of the authors of this post!
** The quote and suggestion comes from Christopher Hitchcock, who offered it as a comment to an older post on philosophy coauthorship at New APPS.
*** We are indebted to Andrew Corsa's and Eric Schliesser's unpublished research on Margaret Fuller's ideas on friendship and magnanimity.
If Dickens had been merely a comic writer, the chances are that no one would now remember his name....What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once. Any writer who is not utterly lifeless moves upon a kind of parabola, and the downward curve is implied in the upper one. Joyce has to start with the frigid competence of Dubliners and end with the dream-language of Finnegan's Wake, but Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist are part of the trajectory. The thing that drove Dickens forward into a form of art for which he was not really suited, and at the same time caused us to remember him, was simply the fact that he was a moralist, the consciousness of ‘having something to say’. He is always preaching a sermon, and that is the final secret of his inventiveness. For you can only create if you can care. Types like Squeers and Micawber could not have been produced by a hack writer looking for something to be funny about. A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea. Dickens is able to go on being funny because he is in revolt against authority, and authority is always there to be laughed at. There is always room for one more custard pie.
[Dickens's] radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘Behave decently’, which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, ‘an expression on the human face.’ Orwell (1939) "Charles Dickens"
One of the great joys of reading Orwell's Essays, is to encounter his engagement with fellow writers (Mailer, Swift, Kipling, even Wodehouse, etc.). For, one of Orwell's great gifts is to articulate the political horizon, as it were, of the literary persona behind others' books in a sympathetic and critical fashion even though he may well disagree intensely.* Orwell simultaneously connects this persona to an image of the historical context of the author (e.g. in explaining why Kiping's outlook is pre-Fascist, "Kipling belongs very definitely to the period 1885-1902"), the history of English literature as seen by Orwell, and the then present political-literary context. Dickens then comes to stand for a permanent possibility, an exemplar, of a certain kind of (literary) social critic: the moralist. This moralist is characterized early in the essay,
every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane...Useless to change institutions without a ‘change of heart’ — that, essentially, is what he is always saying.
If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A ‘change of heart’ is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.
A lot of professional, political philosophers are moralists in Dickens's sense, without the comedy or vividness. That is, they would like the existing institutions to live up to the ideals inherent in them and wider social norms.** Unlike Dickens, they often seem happy to coerce others into living up to these ideals. In fact, once you have been alerted to this -- and I forgot who first got me to notice it -- liberal philosophers (my friends) endlessly prattle on about legitimacy, which is just another way of saying coercion is justified. But, as Orwell points out, Dickens is superior to my friends because (i) Dickens embraces a substantive ideal of the good, "radiant idleness," and (ii) he understands that the underlying problem with the status quo is something fundamental:
There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’.
On (i) Orwell does not need Leni Riefenstahl to remind him of the significance and pull of aesthetic visions (he uses Blake's poetry to make the point).+ What he recognizes, however, is that the liberal-moralist, too, requires it. And this points to the major void of much liberal reflection: because so much of it is formal and not substantive, it is incapable of presenting, let alone endorsing, a common aesthetic good and this puts liberals on the defensive when her ideals need to be mobilized.
On (ii) Orwell is no friend of Dickens's ideal; he reminds the reader that the vision of such idleness is grounded in "£500 a year," that is propertied-rentier income and, so, founded on the coercion needed to protect and stabilize property. But Orwell's more fundamental critique of this vision is its lack of "intellectual curiosity," including its lack of interest in machines, which, Orwell hopes, will create a progressive future if properly embedded in systematic change. (Some other time I'll return to Orwell's engagement with Swift on this very point.) But this (as it were) bright future has to accommodate itself to enduring human need and longing.
Now, Orwell, writes from the perspective of "shrinking world. The ‘democratic vistas’ have ended in barbed wire." (This from, "Inside the Whale" the 1940 essay on Mailer's Tropic of Cancer.) That is, liberalism's first great retreat. Regular readers know, I think that we are now experiencing the second great retreat. The retreat may not be halted by casting about for an aesthetic ideal worth having, but I wonder if it is a possibility.
To lock yourself up in an ivory tower is impossible and undesirable. To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer. We feel this dilemma to be a painful one, because we see the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is.--Orwell (1948) "Writers and Leviathan."
Liam Kofi Bright ignited discussion on Facebook of a (fairly) recent paper by (BHLer) Bas van der Vossen. This paper argues for a normative conception of the division of labor, between "consumers," that is, "activists," and producers, that is, political philosophers (19), of political philosophy such that pure specialization between them should be maintained:
for precisely those academics that work on politically relevant topics, most prominently among them political philosophers. For them, the university should become more like an Ivory Tower, not less.... the problem with these [political] activities is that they encourage us to think about ourselves in partisan terms. And this is incompatible with our academic professional responsibilities.--Bas van der Vossen (2015) "In Defense of the Ivory Tower: Why Philosophers Should Stay Out of Politics" (1-2)
Before I get to his main argument, I want to note, first, that throughout his paper Van der Vossen equivocates among (i) 'working on politically relevant topics' and (ii) "those who are serious about thinking through political issues" and (iii) being "paid to think about politics." (On (iii) he notes that political philosophers do not have a monopoly and he also lists "sociology, political science, economics, gender studies, psychology." (2)) By this I do not mean that (i-iii) are not synonymous in the strict sense (they are not). Rather, there are quite a few sciences (genetics, climate-science, epidemiology, civil engineering, IT, etc.) that are politically extremely relevant, but that are not, in the first instance, about thinking about political issues (although, interestingly enough, it does happen). Because Van der Vossen ignores those latter sciences he can escape having to think about difficult, hybrid contexts where the distinction between consumer/producer is not so easy to draw. In what follows, where necessary, I distinguish between policy relevant research and research about politics and political issues.
Second, Van der Vossen's paper presupposes non-trivial commitments about the good life: "Many people stay out of political activism and they do just fine. Activism is not a necessary ingredient of a good life." (18) One need not be an elitist, a Republican-thinker, or a follower of Hannah Arendt to see that appealing to what "many people" do and that they are doing fine is an odd standard. The paper is also oddly complacent about the status quo (b) "many people in even the healthiest democracies around the world are not politically active and, in the grand scheme of things, these democracies seem to do just fine." (19) Even if this were true (when the paper was published in 2015 [i would reject this]) a cosmopolitan, political philosopher may take an interest in the health of transnational political subjects and promote these via transnational activism.
Third, and this is more important, Van der Vossen takes for granted that the bridge between consumers and producers of political philosophy can be bridged without the producers being politically active. His is a magical theory of dissemination; if you produce it, it will be consumed. This may be true for (lots of) highways, but it is rarely true otherwise. While there are many different ways in which the gap can be bridged between policy relevant research and politics, a key way is by way of what Merel Lefevere and I call aggregators. Aggregators are distinguished researchers, whose professional function is, in part, to act as an interface between research and policy. There are many different kinds of aggregators (journal editors, science policy-advisors, science-journalists, etc.) and not all of them maintain active research profile or need to do so. But because cutting edge research is often extremely complex/subtle it is important that some of the best researchers are also aggregators. In practice, these researchers-aggregators often have high prestige within the field (think of Singer, Pogge [sic], Nussbaum, Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve, Norman Daniels, etc.). (This is not the place to explore all the tricky issues pertaining to this class of researcher-aggregator, especially if they deviate from professional consensus and advocate their own views, but recall this post.) In some grant-driven environments, researchers are, in fact, expected by the grant agency to play some role as an aggregator or actively disseminate their research.
That he misses the very issue becomes clear when we turn to his argument (which he has helpfully summarized):
(1) People who take up a certain role or profession thereby acquire a prima facie moral duty to make a reasonable effort to avoid those things that predictably make them worse at their tasks
(2) The task of political philosophers is to seek the truth about political issues
(3) Therefore, political philosophers have a prima facie moral duty to make a reasonable effort to avoid those things that predictably make them worse at seeking the truth about political issues
(4) Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues
(5) Therefore, political philosophers have a prima facie moral duty to avoid being politically active (17-18)
Aggregators clearly violate the conclusion of the argument, But one could accept all the premises of the argument, even its conclusions, and still see a need for aggregators in practice. That is, (5) is at best a defeasible duty. It becomes defeasible for two interesting, interdependent reasons: (a) research is esoteric, and so requires expertise to navigate; (b) political activists lack time to explore and master an esoteric realm.
In addition, it is, of course, also an empirical question if aggregators really become worse at their research. (This is not to deny that Van der Vossen draws on rich empirical research on the effects of partisanship and also about motivated reasoning and rationalization--including work by Dan Sperber that I happen to be reading this week, too.) I bet the most admired 20th century professional economists -- by other economists -- were Samuelson, Arrow, Friedman, and Keynes.* While the first two cultivated a decidedly technocratic image, it's hard to say they stayed out of politics--they certainly functioned as aggregators in the sense I use the word. Would they have been better at their craft if they stayed clear of policy relevance? That's hard to imagine. Their biases animate their research. Would they have been even better researchers if they stayed clear of policy and the role of aggregator? That's a tricky counterfactual. I am not confident it can be answered.
So, far I have pretended to accept all his premises. Regular readers, who may discern a skeptical strain in these Digressions, may suspect that I would hesitate at (2). But, for the sake of argument, I accept it. As it happens, I think there are also aesthetic goals of research that are not properly captured by 'truth.' (Not unlike Marcus Arvan I think there are also excellent reasons to think that there are other very respectable, epistemic and moral goals of research that may have to be balanced.)
But I close with a final objection that is directed at the way Van der Vossen cashes out premises (3-4). For, he thinks that biased research is incompatible with the pursued of truth. That is, he conflates unbiased (and partisan) research with truth-apt research.** As the previous paragraphs make clear individual researchers are part of a larger epistemic process in which motivated reasoning may well have some use. In fact, this theme is a feature, not a bug, of the law, which is an adversarial process in which the conflict between motivated reasoning, advocacy, helps uncover the truth. Obviously, academic research is not fully analogous with that (and being lawyer-ly is, in an important sense, inimical to a proper, collaborative research ethos). But if we think of research as a community-activity, then we can immediate see that's compatible with individual bias--as long as these individual biases contribute to a social, epistemic process that is truth-conducive. (Regular readers will recognize in the previous sentence my interest in combating biases -- purportedly truth-apt status quo and hierarchy biases -- with other biases in research.) That is, the process requires mechanisms and filters that help to transform the biases in truth-conducive activity. There is a nice formal (see here for useful discussion) and empirical literature on the role of diversity in research, when it is or is not apt. [So, I am certainly not saying that all individual biases are good!] So, for (4) needs to be rewritten as follows:
(4+)Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues unless the research institutions in which we operate are designed to prevent our biases from undermining the epistemic process.
I started this post with a quote from Orwell. Throughout his writings, Orwell discusses the problems of partisanship and its relationship to (artistic) integrity (recall, for example, this post; and here). And he discerned that we should not conflate partisanship and group-think with all political activism. That is to say, he recognizes that party-politics and group-enforced ideology do corrupt (he was primarily interested in writing, but his arguments carry over easily to research). But the answer to this need not be political quietism or withdrawal into the ivory tower. The problem is party-politics and ideologies.
For, there are lots of ways one can be politically active in which one's research (artistic vision) need not be undermined at all. Sometimes this is due to functional role (e.g., recall the stuff above aggregators above). But sometimes is due to the fact that corrupting elements can be avoided. This is most clear in advocacy work on single issues (death penalty, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, basic income, human rights, racism, etc.). The researcher can be uncompromising in her single-issue advocacy and maintain her integrity. (Grant me the distinction between single-issue and systemic ideology.) Often this generates a kind of lack of moderation, even fanaticism in the name of truth. While there are problems with that, these are political problems not research problems.
When you walk through a town like this--two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in--when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The people have brown faces--besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone. And even the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil. Sometimes, out for a walk, as you break your way through the prickly pear, you notice that it is rather bumpy underfoot, and only a certain regularity in the bumps tells you that you are walking over skeletons....
All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more important the work they do, the less visible they are. Still, a white skin is always fairly conspicuous. In northern Europe, when you see a labourer ploughing a field, you probably give him a second glance. In a hot country, anywhere south of Gibraltar or east of Suez, the chances are that you don't even see him. I have noticed this again and again. In a tropical landscape one's eye takes in everything except the human beings. It takes in the dried-up soil, the prickly pear, the palm-tree and the distant mountain, but it always misses the peasant hoeing at his patch. He is the same colour as the earth, and a great deal less interesting to look at.
It is only because of this that the starved countries of Asia and Africa are accepted as tourist resorts. No one would think of running cheap trips to the Distressed Areas. But where the human beings have brown skins their poverty is simply not noticed. What does Morocco mean to a Frenchman? An orange-grove or a job in government service. Or to an Englishman? Camels, castles, palm-trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass trays and bandits. One could probably live here for years without noticing that for nine-tenths of the people the reality of life is an endless, back-breaking struggle to wring a little food out of an eroded soil.--George Orwell (1939) Marrakech
Yesterday morning, while watching my son and his friends sell lemonade and cookies to raise money for the Grenfell Towers victims and the Royal Free -- a refrain they repeated all morning long, most effectively when they would corner a passer-by ready to climb up to the Heath -- on the South End, I was reminded, because I checked my email absentmindedly on my phone, that a promised tenure and promotion letter is due in two weeks; at once I recognized the foolishness of my intention to finish two overdue papers -- both in late stages of draft -- before I go on holiday this Friday (which becomes the de facto deadline for that tenure letter). After our lunch, we went to Daunt's to buy him a book, and there, while browsing, I noticed the Penguin edition of Orwell's Essays. I checked the index, and marked that "Reflections on Ghandi" -- an essay I blogged about admiringly, twice, in fact, [and here] -- was the last one. The collection lacks an editor and while I puzzled over my previous lack of curiosity about his other essays, my son called me from the sales counter; he was ready for me to pay for his selection. I grabbed the Essays and was secretly relieved when my son informed me he was too tired to frisbee and insisted on reading his book.
These days tourists still go to starved countries, but while for Orwell, "people with brown skins are next door to invisible," now the locals and their skin colors are noticed. I wouldn't say that it is the main purpose to return home from holiday in a packed, charter flight hungover while a kid is crying for the tablet in the row behind you, but we should not ignore the frisson of informing the neighbors, after some obligatory remarks about the shocking ways children are prostituted, that they lack sanitation and have too many babies, that we have a proper work ethic, and so on. (If you protest, my dear reader, that you would not be caught dead in a charter, I remind you of the pictures you posted on Instagram of yourself and your healthy friends enjoying a hearty meal after a day's volunteering in a dusty, crowded refugee camp.)* As Orwell puts it (in his remarkable essay, "Antisemitism in Britain,") "we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil."+
Orwell's Marrakech is about what it's like be an imperial master on the edge of the precipice, which is represented by the Senegalese soldiers, French citizens, who march by a "long, dusty column, infantry, screw-gun batteries and then more infantry, four or five thousand men in all, winding up the road with a clumping of boots and a clatter of iron wheels." At that point there is,
one thought which every white man (and in this connection it doesn't matter twopence if he calls himself a Socialist) thinks when he sees a black army marching past. "How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they tum their guns in the other direction?"
It was curious, really. Every white man there has this thought stowed somewhere or other in his mind. I had it, so had the other onlookers, so had the officers on their sweating chargers and the white NCOs marching in the ranks. It was a kind of secret which we all knew and were too clever to tell; only the Negroes didn't know it. And really it was almost like watching a flock of cattle to see the long column, a mile or two miles of armed men, flowing peacefully up the road, while the great white birds drifted over them in the opposite direction, glittering like scraps of paper.
Orwell's point is not to deny that colonial empires are gained through military force. But, rather, to insist that empires are kept through a master-servant ideology in which the imperial rulers dehumanize the conquered in various ways [invisible work; mass-anonymity; seen as animals; etc.], and makes him the enforcer of his own chains. Orwell assumes here the power of (the propagandist's) education and military drilling. (I am probably not the first to notice that the characterization of totalitarianism in 1984, owes something to his experience of being on the empire's side in colonial rule.) Orwell's faith in the power of education is not infinite--it's a matter of time before the game is up, and the guns are turned--but he does not underestimate it either. But beneath the facade of virile, imperial strength, he reveals a quiet terror, so manifest today in America's behavior toward its blacks and the Europeans toward its 'non-natives,' that the tables will be turned.
In context, Orwell is not much interested in the phenomenology of the oppressed even though he is capable of generating sympathy for them. He does not make the leap into Ellison's perspective, avant la lettre. It's not because he is incapable of writing from perspectives other than his own (-- I will return to his treatment of passive helplessness in "Inside the Whale"), after all the essay starts with an imaginative interpretation of the behavior of flies.** But Orwell's topic is to chart a certain psychological void at the heart of "modern civilization." Orwell exhibits colonial mastery (with the rhetorical trick of making visible that which he claims stays invisible) in order to make expressible set of experiences that survive the fall of empire as such.
That is, I suspect dark skins may be noticed by tourists now because of the end of direct military rule. But our military and technological superiority has not ended. So, the relationships of subordination and superiority have not evaporated (merely displaced), and the dark skins encountered abroad are inevitably, it seems, tracked with narratives that extol our (non-existent) moral superiority over them.
The surge of fondness for closed border-walls is a sign of fearful weakness--not merely a wise recognition of limits, but a retreat. The desire to keep them out, is a collective admission of our terror that the game is nearly up and we'll be treated the way we raped and killed them.
I looked up from Orwell's essays, my mind uneasily shifting to the morning's scene with the happy children singing and dancing selling the fresh lemonade and delicious, sprinkled cookies and (ahh) brownies, and just then I refuse to finish my train of ideas. For, after we had installed ourselves at the cafe, I glanced furtively -- guiltily aware of my prior lack of interest -- at the title of of the book I had bought for my son, who was reading it hungrily; it was David Walliams' The World’s Worst Children 2.
I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same ward. Listen to me, therefore, as you would if I were talking to myself. I am admitting you to my inmost thoughts, and am having it out with myself, merely making use of you as my pretext.--Seneca, Letter, 27.
I was re-reading Emerson* and trying to figure out why, despite finding regular nuggets of insight and wisdom in his essays, his authorial persona is so grating to me. Take for example, the following paragraph, which is the third one in the opening essay, of his first collection of his Essays:
This human mind wrote history, and this must read it. The Sphinx must solve her own riddle. If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. As the air I breathe is drawn from the great repositories of nature, as the light on my book is yielded by a star a hundred millions of miles distant, as the poise of my body depends on the equilibrium of centrifugal and centripetal forces, so the hours should be instructed by the ages and the ages explained by the hours. Of the universal mind each individual man is one more incarnation. All its properties consist in him. Each new fact in his private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done, and the crises of his life refer to national crises. Every revolution was first a thought in one man's mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era. Every reform was once a private opinion, and when it shall be a private opinion again it will solve the problem of the age. The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible. We, as we read, must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king, martyr and executioner; must fasten these images to some reality in our secret experience, or we shall learn nothing rightly. Emerson (1841) History
Emerson's underlying metaphysical commitments -- as expressed in the first sentence(s) of the essay, "THERE is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same." -- are familiar enough from the Plotinian, Idealistic strain in Spinoza and Leibniz; they are expressed, with a kind of overflowing urgency, which echoes the emanation from the divine, that ought to be appealing. For, unlike those worrying types, who, in the face of One and Unity, despair that any particular individual is ephemeral and fleeting and only perceive the risk of dissolving into the one and only acosmic substance, Deus sive Natura, which has metaphysical umphyness, Emerson grasps that each of us has, thereby, direct access to everything including the whole of history.+
As an aside, for all the aura of elitism that Emerson often displays, this is a truly democratic thought. He expresses it in a lovely image: "all that Shakspeare says of the king, yonder slip of a boy that reads in the corner feels to be true of himself. We sympathize in the great moments of history, in the great discoveries, the great resistances, the great prosperities of men;—because there law was enacted, the sea was searched, the land was found, or the blow was struck, for us, as we ourselves in that place would have done or applauded." Each of us can be a hero and our greatness and heroicism can be expressed in infinite number of ways. (Emerson certainly is capable of taking the thoughts of girls seriously, but it is notable that his favorite image of possibility is boyhood.)
Be that as it may, much of the time this direct access to infinite thought has to be triggered by or mediated through encounters with others. And Emerson's writings are dense with allusions and references not just to the familiar Eurocentric canon of philosophy and religion; he assumes an encyclopedic, universal library in his audience. I find this endearing and his urgent even hectoring call to make our individual experience the touchstone of all we encounter inspiring.
Of course, Emerson understands the risk -- endemic in Whiggish history -- , that all we encounter in our engagements with others is the familiar self; that we become disaster-scene-tourists, who ends up reassured with the familiar contours we see in the mirror each morning. But Emerson's writings call us to new possibilities: every revolution was first a thought in one man's mind.
And this, not the hectoring, is, I sense, the trouble. Emerson is so enthralled by the creative possibilities inherent in us -- the Romantic cult of pre-meditated, divine creativity --, and so right in demanding of us complete, sympathetic identification with those we encounter in history and books "there is properly no history, only biography....every mind must know the whole lesson for itself,—must go over the whole ground," that he does not allow that, quite often, the revolution comes first and that thought plays catch up. By this I do not mean to hurl at Emerson a romantic-fascistic decisionism; rather I merely alert us to the equally familiar experience that so many of our reasons are post hoc interpretations of others and ourselves. (I have been reading Sperber and Mercier's The Enigma of Reason--more about that some other time).
Seneca captures something of this last fact by artfully displaying himself as a vulnerable authorial persona. Like a clever magician he pretends to give away a secret: that he is self-medicating and that, in this vulnerability, he is no better than his audience. Death is necessary for us all, after all. But he also needs his audience, not to receive his gifts, nor to have spectators to his vulnerability, but to occasion, as it were, the articulations that follow the re-cognitions.
We have identified four recommended actions which we believe to be especially effective in reducing an individual's greenhouse gas emissions: having one fewer child, living car-free, avoiding airplane travel, and eating a plant-based diet. These suggestions contrast with other top recommendations found in the literature such as hang-drying clothing or driving a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Our results show that education and government documents do not focus on high-impact actions for reducing emissions, creating a mitigation gap between official recommendations and individuals willing to align their behaviour with climate targets. Focusing on high-impact actions (through providing accurate guidance and information, especially to 'catalytic' individuals such as adolescents) could be an important dimension of scaling bottom-up action to the transformative decarbonisation implied by the 2 °C climate target, and starting to close this gap.--Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas (2017) "The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions" Environmental Research Letters, Volume 12, Number 7 [HT Ingrid Robeyns]
A few years ago, because of the research of (my former BNI co-blogger) Ingrid Robeyns, I became aware of the fact that cutting edge climate science was putting demographic controls back on the political philosophical agenda. The previous sentence also reflects a bit of parochialism because there are places (e.g., China) where it never went away. But because (i) the Nazis had made eugenics disreputable, (ii) welfare states require a steady rise in working age populations (to pay for generous pensions, insurance, child-care, etc.), and (iii) economists quietly assumed that technological improvements would help solve any demographic problems (related, say, to Malthusian over-population), demographics were a subdued presence in the political philosophy of cold-war and thereafter liberalism.*
I wrote 'back' in the previous paragraph because the more I read, the more clear it is to me that for all the major theorists in the history of political philosophy and political economy through the middle of the twentieth century (recall this post on Berkeley's racialized eugenics), the control of populations is a crucial theoretical factor because (a) famines are very disruptive (and morally bad); (b) soldiers are needed for the military; (c) a growing, able population is good for the economy (and taken as a sign of proper functioning institutions); and (d) in the Platonic strain, desirable characteristics of the ruling elite ought to be bred for (in addition, to, of course, some mixture of (a-d)). One reason why Foucault's bio-politics made such a splash is that he revived the study of some of these characteristics from within the tradition.
Wynes & Nicholas base their claims about children on a 2009 article, "Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals," Paul A. Murtaugh and Michael G. Schlax. While there is plenty to say about the modeling done here, today I focus on how we can see the effects of the anxiety produced by (i-iii) in the rhetoric and policies of Wynes & Nicholas and Murtaugh & Schlax. In both articles, when it comes to population control, the focus is on "reproductive choice" of individuals which are treated as "individual lifestyle choice." Amazingly, neither article even mentions the various subsidies and tax credits that the governments of rich countries give to promote having some children (often within marriage). The only tax that Wynes & Nicholas mention is a "carbon tax on food commodities."
If one is skeptical about massive norm/life-style changes (no flying and changing diet) and one is interested in promoting policy, and one is convinced we're heading for environmental catastrophe absent such policy, then, when reading Wynes & Nicholas, population reduction and living car-free are the low hanging fruit. As it happens, the car-free universe is suddenly all the rage for three technological reasons: first, due to improvements in AI, self-driving cars are on the horizon, and these are going to be safer and operated more efficiently; second, cheap electric cars are now within planning reach; third, due to software developments, car sharing is becoming insanely easy and cheap. Because in most cities space is limited (and expensive), these will make car ownership suddenly very unattractive economically and life-style-wise. This is why futurologists are predicting that the value added hub of transportation will shift toward Silicon Valley away from traditional car-towns.
As an aside, Stephen Davies has been alerting me to the growing bubble in car-loans and securitisation of these. The risks of this bubble has been getting some media attention already (see here). What has not been fully grasped yet, I suspect, is that, even leaving aside that bubble, in light of the developments of the previous paragraph, at some tipping point the second-hand-car market will collapse in value. And this means that a whole segment of the financial sector's business plans and collatoral will be worthless. I have seen no evidence that the stress-testing that financial institutions have been doing includes a collapse of the car-loan market.
To return to the main argument, a car-free-world is within reach.** Of course, "until the emissions associated with desired services are reduced to zero, population will continue to be a multiplier of emissions." And here is where the trouble starts. For enviornmental do-gooders destroying liberal welfare states, which (recall) require growing populations, is politically unattractive for two connected reasons: the welfare state is popular and in line with moral (Rawlsian) commitments and cutting benefits is politically hard to achieve. As it happens, (as Malthus already noted), as a population becomes wealthier and women are educated fertility goes down; this is why (leaving aside immigration) population has been growing slowly or even stagnating in many wealthy countries. The combined effect can be quite dramatic (as Japan, where the population is shrinking, is revealing). But because women are very educated and not very fertile in rich countries (you can play around with the OECD data here), the environmentally desirable big population gains can only be had elsewhere (again, I only became aware of something like this argument since 2013 through unpublished work by Ingrid Robeyns--this paragraph and the next few are not intended to do justice to the details of her unpublished arguments, but the musings were inspired by them).
With cars taken care off, controlling the fertility of primarily poor (and if the latest hope of technocratic-liberalism, President Macron, is to be believed, uncivilized) women becomes the central policy relevant factor that can help prevent environmental catastrophe. One need not be a feminist or have some sense of how ordinarily imperialism plays out to recognize that this is a recipe for many moral disasters (e.g., forced sterilizations/abortions, murder, taxes on children, etc.).
Of course, as noted, education is another factor driving down fertility (there is also evidence of this in sub-sahara Africa). So, in the short run, expect a lot more activity and publicity surrounding programs promoting and lengthening girls's and women's education in poor places. This has the nice feature of fitting a lot of pre-existing (Enlightenment and Feminist) emancipatory doctrines. (While this reduces fertility, populations with better human capital also aids economic growth, so the effect will not be only pro-environment.) Have the affective (sic!) altruists gotten on board yet?
Yet, Spivak famously reminds us (in her criticism of Foucault and others), that our "standardizing benevolence" (90) is particularly dangerous for the 'subaltern' who we take to be aiding (from our enlightened self-interest). Not to mention (recall) that some of the worst, enduring cultural conflicts originate in hegemonic powers imposing their views of civilized gender relations on savage others. There are no risk-free choices here (if there ever are)....
One of the most exciting intellectual moments of my career was my 1948 discovery of Knut Wicksell's unknown and untranslated dissertation, Finanztheoretische Untersuchungen, buried in the dusty stacks of Chicago's old Harper Library. Only the immediate post-dissertation leisure of an academic novice allowed for the browsing that produced my own dramatic example of learning by serendipity. Wicksell's new principle of justice in taxation gave me a tremendous surge of self-confidence. Wicksell, who was an established figure in the history of economic ideas, challenged the orthodoxy of public finance theory along lines that were congenial with my own developing stream of critical consciousness. From that moment in Chicago, I took on the determination to make Wicksell's contribution known to a wider audience, and I commenced immediately a translation effort that took some time and considerable help from Elizabeth Henderson, before final publication.
Stripped to its essentials, Wicksell's message was clear, elementary, and self-evident. Economists should cease proffering policy advice as if they were employed by a benevolent despot, and they should look to the structure within which political decisions are made. Armed with Wicksell, I, too, could dare to challenge the still-dominant orthodoxy in public finance and welfare economics. In a preliminary paper, I called upon my fellow economists to postulate some model of the state, of politics, before proceeding to analyse the effects of alternative policy measures. I urged economists to look at the "constitution of economic polity," to examine the rules, the constraints within which political agents act. Like Wicksell, my purpose was ultimately normative rather than antiseptically scientific. I sought to make economic sense out of the relationship between the individual and the state before proceeding to advance policy nostrums.
Wicksell deserves the designation as the most important precursor of modern public-choice theory because we find, in his 1896 dissertation, all three of the constitutive elements that provide the foundations of this theory: methodological individualism, homo economicus, and politics-as-exchange. I shall discuss these elements of analytical structure in the sections that follow. In Section V, I integrate these elements in a theory of economic policy. This theory is consistent with, builds upon, and systematically extends the traditionally accepted principles of Western liberal societies. The implied approach to institutional-constitutional reform continues, however, to be stubbornly resisted almost a century after Wicksell's seminal efforts. The individual's relation to the state is, of course, the central subject matter of political philosophy. Any effort by economists to shed light on this relationship must be placed within this more comprehensive realm of discourse.---James Buchanan ("1986 Nobel Lecture") The Constitution of Economic Policy
l have quoted the first three paragraphs of Buchanan's Nobel lecture. In what follows I focus on the second paragraph. So, let me just say about the first paragraph that while there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the charming opening vignette nor the significance of Wicksell to the history of public-choice theory, one can also recognize in it Buchanan's rhetorical and political savvy to know that his Swedish audience will be pleased by the praise for their compatriot (himself an important influence on Swedish economics). Buchanan's sometime collaborator, Gordon Tullock (who gets a mention in the lecture), was notably absent from that stage and was not known to exhibit such savvy. One may even say that it is consistent with the best insights of public-choice (and Tullock deserves praise for this [recall]) that opportune expressions of praise are, alas, an ineleminable part of the politics of academic recognition and credit.
In addition, Buchanan signals the importance of leisure and serendipity, which is the loveliest consequence of life's uncertainty. I go beyond the text by suggesting that the conditions that make serendipity possible are leisure, a scarce resource itself rooted in structural features of a political economy, and well-prepared minds--it's not just anybody that wanders around the old Harper library.
On the third paragraph it is worth noting that Buchanan self-consciously and explicitly placed a part of his own research as belonging to political even contractualist philosophy. This is, in part, a consequence of one of Buchanan's central advances over Wickell's position. Wicksell took, to simplify, the most important constitutional and institutional constraints as given whereas Buchanan recognized that one could also theorize, with the tools of an economist, about "the choice among rules or constitutions" and, in so doing he utilized "a veil of uncertainty" in order "to facilitate the potential bridging of the difference between identifiable and general interest." In the lecture he makes clear that some of his moves are structurally analogous to, and in part conceptually indebted to, Rawls. (This also helps start to explain yesterday's point about the Kantian roots of public choice.) Some other time I return to explore the differences and affinities between Rawls's "veil of ignorance" and Buchanan's "veil of uncertainty" (regular readers are familiar with my interest in Rawls's engagement with Knightian uncertainty--Buchanan was the student that carried Knight's program forward into intellectual maturity).*
Okay, let's turn to the second paragraph. Buchanan is clear that his is a normative project. And while there is plenty to criticize in public choice with the tools of philosophy, what philosophers can learn from his project has not been fully assimilated. For I think his claims here can be decoupled from his commitment to "methodological individualism, homo economicus, and politics-as-exchange." What follows is a bit abstract and, for the sake of brevity, non-polemical (so without some juicy examples). I rewrite the key claims here as follows:
That is, too much policy-relevant, and ethically salient, philosophy assumes that the conditions under which the uptake of our ideas takes place is irrelevant. This is so despite the very sophisticated traditions of theorizing about the context-sensitivity of assertion (e.g., De Rose). Obviously, the previous sentence is an exaggeration in two senses: first, philosophers are (recall) increasingly willing to apply, reflexively, ideas about inductive risk (Douglas), epistemic injustice (Fricker), and epistemic violence (Dotson) to the norms and institutions of philosophy itself. Second, philosophers have become very interested in non-ideal theorizing as is evidenced by the interest in, say, feasibility constraints (I link to Brennan's work because Brennan himself is influenced by public choice). But non-ideal theory is, as of yet (correct me if I am wrong), not yet context-specific theorizing.
The last sentence of the previous paragraph may generate anxiety about relativism. A lot of my philosophical friends want to make general or invariant claims. While I do not share such anxiety, I think we can tame the anxiety if we follow a version of the third key claim:
That is, we should analyze and make explicit the political and social conditions under which we speak as normative and theoretical authorities and model the possible uptake of our proposals. For, by doing this we do not undermine the validity of our claims; rather we allow these to be progressively adapted, if necessary, to further salient conditions. That is, by engaging in this modeling exercise we became adept at recognizing and making explicit the factors that are salient to our practices. This last can then feedback into a process of mutual criticism and learning and so make our theorizing less fragile to hidden assumptions.
Of course, the proposed modeling exercise is not needed if we only speak to each other, or if we don't care about what our words do.
All absolute governments must very much depend on the administration; and this is one of the great inconveniences attending that form of government. But a republican and free government would be an obvious absurdity, if the particular checks and controuls, provided by the constitution, had really no influence, and made it not the interest, even of bad men, to act for the public good. Such is the intention of these forms of government, and such is their real effect, where they are wisely constituted: As on the other hand, they are the source of all disorder, and of the blackest crimes, where either skill or honesty has been wanting in their original frame and institution.I.III.4
So great is the force of laws, and of particular forms of government, and so little dependence have they on the humours° and tempers of men, that consequences almost as general and certain may sometimes be deduced from them, as any which the mathematical sciences afford us.--David Hume "That Politics May be Reduced to a Science."
At first glance, Hume is defending here a species of republicanism. But Hume's lines here were also taken to be the founding text of a normative, research program of institutional design ('wise constitution'), which takes itself to create institutions in which the incentives are such that it is in the self-interest of even bad people to promote the "public good" including ones distinct from Hume's republican commitments. This project is historically associated with a careful reader of Hume, Madison, who wrote that "if men were angels, no government would be necessary" (which echoes Spinoza's Political Treatise 6.3: "if human nature were so constituted, that men most desired what is most useful, no art would be needed to produce concord")+ and philosophically with a range of thinkers from Kant's race of "devils" all the way to Buchanan and Tullock's public choice theory. As Kant puts it in Perpetual Peace:
The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent. The problem is: "Given a multitude of rational beings requiring universal laws for their preservation, but each of whom is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them, to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intentions."
A problem like this must be capable of solution; it does not require that we know how to attain the moral improvement of men but only that we should know the mechanism of nature in order to use it on men, organizing the conflict of the hostile intentions present in a people in such a way that they must compel themselves to submit to coercive laws. Thus a state of peace is established in which laws have force.
In fact, Hume need not be taken to be defending republicanism. All he is saying that republicanism would be an absurdity, in the sense of an internal practical contradiction, if one assumed that "the particular checks and controuls, provided by the constitution, had really no influence." That is, Hume is saying that even republicanism -- a normative program -- presupposes that it is empirically true that humans are responsive to systematic incentives and interests. (I leave aside here, to what degree and in what way Hume actually embraced a normative/empirical distinction.)
In the right contexts this empirical fact, that humans are responsive to systematic incentives and interests, allows one to deduce "consequences almost as general and certain" as "any which the mathematical sciences afford us." Here Hume connects his program for political science to his great program for the "science of Man" in the Introduction of the Treatise:
We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men’s behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures. Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science, which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension.
Throughout Hume's philosophy he argues that his science is foundational to and more useful than the other (mathematical-empirical) sciences and just as (epistemically) secure.* So, given the tight fit between Hume's "That Politics May be Reduced to a Science" and Hume's Treatise, it stands to reason that this essay gives us a glimpse of "the examination of...politics...which will compleat" his Treatise (as the Advertisement to the Treatise promised.).
So far so good. Now consider the opening passage from Spinoza's (posthumous) Political Treatise (in the old Gosset translation with minor corrections):
3. And, certainly, I am fully persuaded that experience has revealed all conceivable sorts of commonwealth, which are consistent with men's living in concord [homines concorditer vivant], and likewise the means by which the multitude may be directed [multitudo dirigi] or kept within fixed bounds. So that I do not believe that we can by meditation discover in this matter anything not yet tried and ascertained, which shall be consistent with experience or practice. For men are so situated, that they cannot live without some general law. But general laws and public affairs are ordained and managed by men of the utmost acuteness, or, if you like, of great cunning or craft. And so it is hardly credible, that we should be able to conceive of anything serviceable to a general society, that occasion or chance has not offered, or that men, intent upon their common affairs, and seeking their own safety, have not seen for themselves.
4. Therefore, on applying my mind to politics, I used certain and undoubted reason to offer demonstratios [certa et indubitata ratione demonstrare,], or to deduce from the very condition of human nature, not what is new and unheard of, but only such things as agree best with practice. And that I might investigate the subject-matter of this science with the same free spirit [animi libertate] as we generally use in mathematics, I have laboured carefully, not to mock, lament, or execrate, but to understand human actions; and to this end I have looked upon passions, such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and the other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties, just as pertinent to it, as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere, which phenomena, though inconvenient, are yet necessary, and have fixed causes, by means of which we endeavour to understand their nature, and the mind has just as much pleasure in viewing them aright, as in knowing such things as flatter the senses.
(Reversing Spinoza order of presentation we may say that) Spinoza self-consciously sets out to offer a pleasing science of man. In this causal science there is no room for moralizing about original sin and other purported defects of human nature. Rather, Spinoza treats the passions as (hidden causal) properties of human nature from which effects can be deduced. Spinoza denies that his conclusions are original; rather they conform to existing practice. While Spinoza does not explicitly say his conclusions are as secure as other natural sciences, his choice of contrast class (meteorology) suggests he is not setting the bar beyond reach.
In fact, (moving to the third paragraph) Spinoza is explicit that he is merely conforming to, and perhaps systematizing, practical know-how [praxi -- a term that he repeats through the passage] available to (use Mandeville's term) the crafty politician, who according to Spinoza knows how to direct the multitude. (Unlike Adam Smith, who distrusted such craftsmanship, Hume praises it--recall his high praise of De Witt's ability to "manage" the Dutch and maintain a "spirit of union" or concord.] Spinoza explicitly draws on comparative institutional practices found in [historical] experience [experientiam omnia civitatum genera]. I have labeled such comparative institutional analysis, Socratic Political Theory (recall; but see, especially, this post on Ursula Le Guin and this one on Thomas More.) Such analysis is rooted in empirical experience, but itself normative (because focused on the "public good" -- Spinoza puts it in terms of "living in concord" -- and developed around, what Weber later called, ideal types of particular institution frameworks).
As an aside, I have intimated here (and elsewhere) that Hume that Spinoza would have read Spinoza's Political Treatise. This does not preclude the reality that Hume and Spinoza read the same sources (Machiavelli, especially, but also More and Bacon).
Let me wrap up. In the title of this post, and above I noted that Buchanan (a student of Knight) and Tullock's public choice theory is one of the modern heirs of this (Spinoza-Humean) Socratic political theory.** This fact is less surprising if we remember that as late as 1964 the reality of Socratic political theory kind was explicitly presupposed -- in the context of cold war rivalry -- by the Chicago economist (and also a student of Knight), George Stigler, and made conceptually possible the proper competence of the economist as such; "consists in understanding how an economic system works under alternative institutional frameworks." (Presidential Address to the American Economics Association; recall this post.) Needless to say, the contemporary mainstream economist lacks such competence nor wishes for it. If Stigler is correct, then in our life-time, a Kuhn-loss has taken place in front of our eyes. That is to say, public choice represents a vision for political economy that is rooted in older intellectual traditions. How to sort the traditional elements from the modern innovations is the topic for a series of future posts.
SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.
The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.
One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Obama as “a snob” for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.
“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation.'--Nicholas Kristof (feb 15, 2014) The New York Times.
Periodically the New York Times reflects on the lack of public intellectuals among academics today (see also here; and here; here, etc.). I ignore to what degree the true public intellectual is ever an academic (yes, I have heard of Habermas). When one reads through the pieces the Times devotes to the issue, academics are castigated for a recurring list of ills: esoteric specialization and professionalization, writing in inaccessible, turgid prose, and lack of relevance. Sometimes, too, it's noted that society may be anti-intellectual. But the pieces never note that the main reason for the decline of the public intellectual is The New York Times (and its sibling mainstream media) itself.* And by this I do not mean, leaving aside the few columns of true news reporting, the fact that its pages primarily seem to be devoted to documenting the life-styles and passing thoughts of the wealthy and famous.
First, the definition of news/newsy that newspapers use is the central obstacle to the participation of intellectuals in the public sphere. News is (a) that which dominates the headlines in the latest 24hrs cycle; (b) what the editor thinks it is. (It's possible that (a) is conceptually and temporarily prior to (b).) This means that rapid responsiveness is the central quality any would be-public intellectual must possess. Now (as Twitter reveals) plenty of smart people are good at fast thinking and, with practice, fast writing. So, rapidity is not the main problem, although the focus on news does screen out thoughts that may have to germinate. Rather, the main problem with the focus on news is that only news-responsiveness is worth publishing. This means that any space for public intellectuals is essentially reactive.
This last point entails that nearly all intellectual work that appears in print is opportunistic. That it is opportunistic is clear from the fact that the stuff that makes it in print recycles (policy/conceptual) stances that were known prior to publication (or promote their forthcoming books): any problem X can be solved by a fairly narrowly constrained list Y, including more markets, better families, less pollution, more racial awareness, more education, more surveillance powers to the state, less democracy, more conservatives in higher education, and, of course, less academic specialization, etc.
Second, and related, because one has to be responsive to the news-cycle, the public intellectual has to be policy-prescriptive. News means there is an urgent problem. Urgent problems require decisive solutions; they do not leave much room for critical analysis, for strategic, long-term thinking, for the weighing of evidence in the service of multiple scenarios, for the diagnoses of underlying symptoms, etc. Newspapers and media don't want to give space to unprovoked-by-news editorials explaining the limitations of existing policy, the likely downside risks short of the apocalypse of the status quo, or some interesting fact about the culture that remains interesting eighteen months from now. So, the would be public intellectual must have a nose for news, be either over-confident in her solutions or alarmist (or both). Undoubtedly, that makes for great entertainment. By contrast, a public intellectual culture requires a willingness to return to topics and themes ahead of the news. Newspapers cultivate such a culture for a reading public, or it does not exist.
Third, the (for profit) mass media are chasing the lowest-common-denominator-eye-balls. In practice, this means that pieces have to be short (between 550-800 words) even though, with the migration to online, space is really not a consideration anymore. This entails that between the first paragraph hook and the forceful conclusion, there is barely any space for analysis, argument, and evidence that might support either. In addition, the permitted vocabulary and sentence structure are appropriate to high school level. (Yes, I need to give you something to quote.) That politicians may speak at fifth or sixth grade level may be smart politics. That newspapers are increasingly following their example is a major barrier to public intellectual life. As Kristof's passage reveals, subordinate clauses get eliminated, and single sentence paragraphs become the norm.
The previous paragraph should not be confused with questions about readability. Love and respect copy-editors. They greatly improve any work that comes their way (including the rejected ones). Simplicity of expression is not the enemy of complex thought.
Fourth, newspapers love controversy and traffic, and so become irresponsible in their-unwillingness to curate their comments section. As many have noted this means that writing for the public means exposing oneself to abuse and various threats, which, in turn, encourage others to send private threats. The lack of curation means that any topic will be hijacked by parties interested in promoting themselves or their causes. What self-respecing, would-be-public intellectual wants to be the mere (Malebrancheian) occasion for others to mouth off?
So, when the Times recycles the meme of the disappearing intellectual, ask it to look into the mirror or tweet this blog post (which is under 1000 words).