it was my political commitments that led me to choose political theory as an academic discipline. Theory is a very special field because it provides a license to do something that academics generally are not supposed to do: that is, defend a political position in the classroom and in the learned journals...Without that license to move back and forth, to write and talk inside and outside the academic world about the political questions that interested me, I don't think that I could have survived either as a student or as a professor.--Michael Walzer.
I don’t wholly agree...if it means that political theorists especially have such a permit. Indeed I think we need to be more careful than many other social scientists, because often the standards of evidence in our research are unclear. We only sometimes venture falsifiable empirical hypotheses, we only sometimes engage in philosophical syllogism-construction, we only sometimes engage in historical archival work of the sort that allows the documentary record to bear us out or not. That makes it too easy for us to slip back and forth between theory and mere editorializing in defense of our normative priors. I admire Walzer’s own ability to move back and forth while still making real theoretical advances, but I think there’s a lot that one needs to be careful about in general.--Jacob Levy.
Alerted by Jacob Levy, I read Walzer's auto-biographical essay from which I have quoted above. In his post, Levy offers many sensible criticisms of the piece when conceived as a survey, so I don't have to focus on that here. Levy is also critical of of Walzer's two-fold idea that doing political theory offers a "license to do something that academics generally are not supposed to do: that is, defend a political position in the classroom and in the learned journals." But Levy's criticism is rather narrow (it's focused primarily on the methodological weaknesses of political theory as a foundation for articulating normative commitments). I find both Walzer's and Levy's stance surprising from the vantage point of the history of political thought (both of them acknowledged masters of that genre). Let me explain why.
As Fred Beiser reminds us in his majestic book on the German Historicist Tradition, Max Weber famously argued that due to the advanced (intellectual) division of labor, we cannot expect value-consensus in advanced political economies. In the class-room, professors, therefore, cannot be expected to offer the kind of moral education that was taken for granted, say, in eighteenth century Scottish universities or the kind of Bildung familiar from Humboldtian German universities. If we value, say, our students' intellectual development and their capacity for individual judgment (that is, if we try to teach them as future citizens of a democratic polity), we ought to prepare them for the complexities of the modern world by offering them analytical tools, scientific skills, and a wide exposure to a variety of normative traditions and political-historical exemplars. One way we do so, is to introduce political/moral perspectives into the class-room which make some alternatives to the status quo subject for discussion (or entirely invisible, etc.). Yet, in my experience, many students resist more obvious political stances adopted by professors anyway, so attempts at political indoctrination tend to backfire.