[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: Classic problems

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jun 4 22:57:31 UTC 2005

John Gray: Classic problems
The Times Literary Supplement, 41995.4.28

     Terence Ball. REAPPRAISING POLITICAL THEORY Revisionist studies in the
     history of political thought 310pp. Oxford: Clarendon Press. £35
     (paperback, £12.95). - 0 19 827953 1.

     It is a commonplace that practising politicians find little that is
     helpful or enlightening in the work of contemporary political
     theorists. Has this always been so, merely illustrating a familiar
     contrast between the leisurely pursuit of an illusion of order in the
     theorist's study and the pell-mell of accidents and emergencies that
     are the stuff of everyday political life? Or does the manifest
     marginality of political theory tell us something about recent
     political theorizing? Terence Ball leans towards the latter view,
     citing the discipline's "increasing withdrawal from the world and its
     tendency to turn in on itself and to concern itself with esoterica
     spawned and nurtured within its own hermetically sealed hothouse".

     Yet in the course of Ball's wide-ranging, deeply thoughtful, often
     entertaining and always refreshingly readable book, the reasons for
     the declining political resonance of political theory are hinted at
     rather than expounded systematically, and he seems to retreat from a
     radical critique of the subject as it has latterly been practised. Is
     it not the hegemony within political theory, over the past generation,
     of an American liberal project dedicated to supplanting politics by
     law that most plausibly accounts for the subject's dwindling
     relevance? In all of its varieties, from the libertarian rights theory
     of the early Nozick to the egalitarian theory of justice of the later
     Rawls, this latter-day liberal project is culture-bound and indeed
     parochial in its innocent dependency on a peculiarly American faith in
     law. In expressing the deep-seated American illusion that intractable
     political conflicts can be arbitrated, or domesticated, by recourse to
     legal procedures and institutions, the species of liberalism that has
     dominated political philosophy in recent years cuts itself off from
     the longer history of political thought, and of liberalism, in which
     this legalist project of neutering political conflict by appeal to law
     has always been seen to be utopian. This Americocentric liberalism has
     little, if any, salience in other parts of the world, where the
     political agenda is governed not by individualist conceptions of law
     and rights but by the need to work out terms of peaceful coexistence
     among different communities. Is not the capture of political thought
     by a shallow and impoverished form of liberal individualism, whose
     tacit project is the destruction of the political realm as a site for
     public deliberation on the common good, and which denies the primacy
     of the craft of politics in achieving and renewing a modus vivendi,
     the root cause of the apparent political irrelevance of recent
     political theory?

     Terence Ball's object in Reappraising Political Theory is to reaffirm
     the interest and relevance of political thought by advancing a reading
     of its central canon that is methodologically pluralistic and
     problem-oriented. It is pluralist in holding that no single
     interpretative strategy can capture the meanings of any political
     text, and problem-driven in maintaining that the most productive and
     illuminating interpretation of a text will depend in part on the
     nature of our interest in it. According to Ball, neither the radically
     historicist, "contextualist" readings favoured by Quentin Skinner and
     others of his school, nor the approach developed in literary theory by
     the now archaic New Criticism which reads a piece of political theory
     as a timeless text in regard to which authorial intention and
     historical context are irrelevancies, can claim unique interpretative
     validity. Without in any way endorsing the nihilism about meaning
     expressed in deconstructive critical theory, Ball insists that the
     task of the interpretation is at once inescapable and inexhaustible,
     because its goals vary as our interests change. This eminently
     sensible and pragmatic view sets the tone for much else in the book.
     Throughout, Ball is concerned to defend a stance of balance and
     moderation against radical criticism of the Western canon in political
     thought. So judicious and indeed so successful is he in this project
     that even a careful and sympathetic reader could finish the book
     wondering how it is that political theory in recent decades has in
     Ball's account of it come to be a hermetic discipline, in which
     political theorists talk principally to each other. For it is plain
     that, though practising politicians find little of sustenance in it,
     the public cultures of Western countries are increasingly animated by
     the anti-political doctrines of American liberalism which have set the
     agenda in political philosophy for a generation.

     Ball discusses the "classic texts" of political theory the writings of
     Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, and the two Mills, for example in a way
     which not only affords a new perspective on them but also provides an
     arrestingly fresh vantage point from which the enduring dilemmas of
     political thought can be reconsidered. In part, Ball is concerned to
     defend these thinkers against the charge of being "dead white males",
     from whom nothing significant can now be learnt; and, at times, there
     are in his book faint echoes of Harold Bloom's project of defining a
     Western canon against "multicultural" criticism. Here, Ball perhaps
     takes too seriously an intense but ephemeral and fundamentally
     frivolous local debate. The struggle between curricular
     multiculturalism and the conservative redefinition of Western
     intellectual traditions has little relevance outside the American
     academy, where it expresses local anxieties about "multiculturalism",
     ethnicity and American cultural identity rather than any more
     universal issues. More particularly, that debate does not reflect any
     genuine Western intellectual engagement with non-Occidental cultures,
     but instead the project of appropriating them for a contemporary
     Western, or American, discourse of race and gender. It is difficult to
     see how this debate could be of deep interest to anyone outside the
     United States.

     In fact, Ball's main arguments are not directed to this debate, but to
     the far deeper subject of the continuity and enduring importance of
     the problems which these writers addressed. He finds in Machiavelli,
     not the uncompromising exemplar of modernity imagined by followers of
     Leo Strauss, among others, but a thinker committed to an attempt to
     revive in the idea of virtu an archaic, possibly Homeric conception of
     "role-specific excellence", or arete an idea which has little in
     common with either the Christian or the Ciceronian-humanist
     conceptions of virtus, or any modern notion of virtue.

     Machiavelli's anachronistic project of reviving and giving a modern
     political use to an ancient moral category suggests to Ball some
     intriguing questions as to why the changeability of ethical ideas has
     been so inadequately grasped by philosophers, and so much better
     understood by novelists and playwrights. The mutability of moral
     notions, and their considerable cultural variations, have subversive
     implications for the view of philosophical method that underpins the
     recently dominant "analytical" school of political philosophy,
     implications which Ball does not systematically explore. The
     "analytical" school sees itself as engaged in an enterprise of
     clarification and elucidation; its investigations are based on the
     products of "our" linguistic and moral intuitions. The result is an
     "analysis" of such "concepts" as "justice" and "the person" and a
     casuistic dissection of rival "principles" of equality and liberty.
     The historical particularity and political formation of the discourses
     which issue in these "intuitions" and "analyses" along with their
     uncritical reproduction of the norms of liberal culture, in particular
     that of the United States, are suppressed by a method that reifies
     changing discursive practices and treats them as the unhistorical data
     of reflection. By neglecting conceptual change in this way, analytical
     political philosophy cannot avoid ending up as a conservative apologia
     for liberal culture. A subject animated by such a project may not have
     much of a future.

     Ball develops interesting speculative analogies between Machiavelli's
     search for a "political alchemy", in which modern political cultures
     are reinvigorated by ancient virtues, and Robespierre's cult of Roman
     civic virtue. He also compares Ayatollah Khomeini's vision of an ideal
     Islamic order with the Moral Majority's attempt to revive patriarchal
     family values. On the folly of all these projects, Ball echoes Marx:
     "if indeed history repeats itself, it does so the first time as
     tragedy, the second time as farce". The lesson that we learn from
     Ball's account of Machiavelli is that our current moral vocabulary,
     and the conceptions of virtue it expresses, may well be confused, or
     even, as Alasdair MacIntyre argued in After Virtue, incoherent; but we
     cannot hope to escape our condition by reverting to any earl-ier, and
     supposedly simpler, form of moral life.

     There is much else in Ball's rich and profoundly learned book that
     repays close study and careful thought, notably a fascinating
     reinterpretation of Hobbes read in somewhat Saussurean terms as a
     theorist of parole, of language in use, rather than of langue in which
     the loss or lack of shared meanings is seen as the most fundamental
     source of political conflict and breakdown. Hobbes sought to restore
     fixed meanings by conferring on the sovereign the authority to cleanse
     language of dangerous indeterminacies. Ball sees Hobbes's positivistic
     project of a sanitized language as a warning to us today, in that we
     are familiar in a way that Hobbes could not have been with regimes
     which seek to close the conceptual space within which dissenting
     thought can occur. This is a reasonable concern. In our current
     circumstances, however, a different concern seems more urgent that the
     hegemony within the public culture of an essentially indeterminate and
     at the same time absolutist discourse of rights will further deplete
     the resources of common understanding and make the political
     negotiation of a modus vivendi still more difficult to achieve. The
     paradox of our present circumstance, which Ball's reappraisal of
     political philosophy perceives but does not resolve, is that the
     ruling liberal orthodoxy in political philosophy now provides the only
     terms in which political practice can be conducted and yet at the same
     time it destroys the political realm as a public space in which we can
     come together in a fragile consensus on the life we hold in common.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list