U.S. Intellectual History Blog

To Raise the Level of the Debate: Political Theory and Intellectual History

Last week I read Albert Hirschman’s 1977 study The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. A miracle of compression and lucidity, Passions ends with a line that I might begin intoning as a mantra each time I sit down to work on my dissertation: “This is probably all one can ask of history, and of the history of ideas in particular: not to resolve issues, but to raise the level of the debate.”

Hirschman calls his study a history of ideas, and it certainly is that, but it also has been recognized by the American Political Science Association with the Benjamin E. Lippincott Award as “a work of exceptional quality by a living political theorist that is still considered significant after a time span of at least 15 years since the original date of publication.” Not needing to put a firm label on it, I think it is nonetheless worth using Passions to return to a question Ben posed here on the blog last October—what is the relationship between political theory and intellectual history? What do the fields share, and where do they diverge? And perhaps, as the field of intellectual history continues to rejuvenate, how can intellectual historians open new channels to political theory and draw more from it? How can we engage with it and with political theorists to raise the level of our debates?

The latter is a question I’d particularly like to explore over the course of this year and, practically speaking, that means that I’m going to try to blog some of my responses to classics like The Passions and the Interests and chart what I learn from them as I read/re-read them. Below the fold is a brief list of some of the books I have on my list (like L. D., I’m feeling in a looking-ahead mood). You’ll notice a lot of the books are, like Passions, brief: an extremely admirable trait among political theorists, and one I certainly do not share. Most are also interpretive rather than system-building in intent—closer to intellectual history. At any rate, please (please!) make suggestions, observations, critiques!

A list of some possible titles to be read/re-read:

  • Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests; Exit, Voice, and Loyalty; The Rhetoric of Reaction
  • John Dunn, Democracy
  • Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract
  • Adolph Reed, Du Bois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line
  • Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury
  • Louis Hartz, Liberalism in America
  • Bonnie Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner
  • Peter Bachrach, Theories of Democratic Elitism; “Two Faces of Power”
  • Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers; Our Declaration
  • Corey Robin, Fear
  • Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices
  • Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy
  • Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism
  • Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness
  • Aziz Rana, Two Faces of American Freedom
  • Jason Frank, Constituent Moments
  • Alex Gourevitch, From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth
  • Elizabeth S. Anderson, “What Is the Point of Equality?”
  • Patchen Markell, “Anonymous Glory”
  • Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things
  • Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social;
  • Robert Dahl, On Democracy; Who Governs
  • Adam Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy
  • George Kateb, Human Dignity; The Inner Ocean
  • Wendy Brown, Manhood and Politics

24 Thoughts on this Post

  1. First, thanks for that list: several I have not read and more than a few are very good if not excellent books. If one believes, as I do, that legal theory overlaps with (while remaining distinct from) political theory, here’s a list of works in the spirit if not letter of your post (not all of the books deal with legal theory or philosophy of law). In any case, I think all of these contain a fair amount of “intellectual history” and a couple of them, like Fried’s book, are predominantly works of sophisticated intellectual history (while being theoretically or philosophically sound and interesting):
    • Amadae, S.M. The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2003).
    • Anghie, Antony. Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
    • Atiyah, Patrick S. and R.S. Summers. Form and Substance in Anglo-American Law (Clarendon Press, 1987).
    • Dyzenhaus, David. Legality and Legitimacy: Carl Schmitt, Hans Kelsen and Hermann Heller in Weimar (Oxford University Press, 1997).
    • Fried, Barbara H. The Progressive Assault on Laissez-Faire: Robert Hale and the First Law and Economics Movement (Harvard University Press, 1998).
    • Goodin, Robert E. Reasons for Welfare (Princeton University Press, 1988).
    • Holmes, Stephen. Passions & Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 1995).
    • Keal, Paul. European Conquest and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: The Moral Backwardness of International Society (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
    • Koskenniemi, Martti. The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law, 1870-1960 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
    • May, Larry. War Crimes and Just War (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
    • May, Larry. Global Justice and Due Process (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
    • Shapiro, Ian. The Evolution of Rights in Liberal Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1986).

    • Adding to Professor O’Donnell’s erudition as well as the slippery slope from legal to political theory and back again: S. James Anaya’s Indigenous Peoples in International Law, as well as volumes by Henry Minde, Rhiannon Morgan, and Alexandra Xanthaki, all contain **intellectual history** chapters. Edited collections by additional UN member-state “experts” and the global Indigenous Caucus, such as publications by Jens Dahl and Erica-Irene Daes, function more as accounts and memoirs than **intellectual history.** Studies on contemporary applications of the “Roman law of nations” and “doctrine of discovery” also usually feature **intellectual history.** For oppositional perspectives on the remedial consequences of “Marxian” categories (perhaps more pertinent to Ms. Burnett’s post), see Peter Kulchisky’s Aboriginal Rights Are Not Human Rights.

      • (For the record, I am not a ‘professor,’ but a lowly adjunct instructor at a community college in danger of losing what little work I have due to declining enrollment.)

        I’m delighted to see the Anaya title cited, as it sits on my shelves (not all of my books have that privilege) alongside Anghie and Keal, so I cannot account for missing it. And some wonderful stuff there!

      • A highly-esteemed titular error. I’m also uncertain whether **political theorists** classify books such as Jeffrey Glover’s Paper Sovereigns or the Native Claims collection as **political theory** (legal studies?) unless a research scholar holds a joint position (Samuel Moyn, Sarah Gordon, Jack Rakove, George Van Cleve, etc.) or journals that advance **system-building** review an **intellectual history** publication. On the topic of shelves, Robert Dahl’s brief How Democratic Is The American Constitution? still sits atop a book stack from my undergraduate days.

    • Thanks, Patrick and Cory!

      Many of these titles look excellent. I especially am intrigued by the Holmes–it sounds as if it would connect well with the Hirschman book. Is that a connection Holmes works explicitly?
      And the point about the nearness of legal theory to political theory and intellectual history is one I would definitely like to keep in mind as I proceed. Following the example of Samuel Moyn, I believe that there are a number of young scholars, such as Jeremy Kessler, who have appointments at law schools but are also making very significant contributions to US intellectual history. There were some great panels along these lines at the most recent conference.

      • Re: “I especially am intrigued by the Holmes–it sounds as if it would connect well with the Hirschman book. Is that a connection Holmes works explicitly?”

        Andy, Yes. But Holmes is particularly interested in constitutionalism in liberal democracy and how many of the former’s political virtues are prefigured in pre-liberal constitutionalism (e.g., Jean Bodin). For instance, instead of the common focus on the role of liberal constitutions in “negative” terms, that is, “the view that the primary or even sole purpose of a constitution is to secure individual liberty by hamstringing the government and its agents,” Holmes would have us view constitutions more as “enabling” rather than merely “constraining” devices (or, constraints serve to enable…), christening this contrasting approach as “positive constitutionalism,” insofar as “strategic limitations on power” serve to enable governments to act more effectively, enshrined in the “paradox” that limited power is thereby, in some sense, more “powerful” (democratically effective in pursuing its aims) than unlimited or authoritarian exercises of power. In short, “Constitutional constraints may be an indirect technique for building effective state institutions and reinforcing governmental power,” a claim Holmes believes “lies at the heart of liberal-democratic theory.”

        And Holmes, while praising and building upon Hirschman’s (‘highly original’) The Passions… in his treatment of “self-interest,” also finds fault with his argument, citing “three shortcomings: (1) it focuses too single-mindedly on the pursuit of glory, slighting other irrational motivations [which Holmes proceeds to discuss] with which interest was contrasted during this period; (2) it neglects the extent to which religion, particularly the idea of original sin, helped provoke new and more favorable attitudes toward self-interest” [Hirschman’s treatment of Christianity is inadequate, according to Holmes, who reminds us that ‘Christian hostility toward pridefulness and glory-seeking helped pave the way for secular and “bourgeois” attacks on aristocratic sentiments and ideals’]; and (2) it mentions, but leaves undeveloped, the egalitarian implication of the postulate of universal self-interest.”

      • More “senior” legal scholars such as Stuart Banner and Mary Bilder contributed to **intellectual history** over the years as well (although not to widespread acclaim). I hope that I wasn’t remiss in not mentioning the Beyond the Founders volume for **political theory.** Bernard Bailyn’s “Search for Perfection” essay on Isaiah Berlin also elucidates how the not-so-Berlin “Atlantic Dimensions” of oh-so-Berlin “positive liberty” and “negative liberty” (and inquiries into a possible collapse of such a dichotomy) reshaped his own approach to **intellectual history** and perhaps the “Crooked Timber.” John Dewey’s “Two Senses of Freedom” and the array of comparative **intellectual history** books on “liberty” and “freedom” may or may not fall into the **political theory” category.

  2. If it is permitted under the rules of decorum, I would suggest that my Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism fits the general category you describe (and, of course, it is well worth reading!).

    • Thanks, Drew! It’s been on my to-read list since Brad Baranowski’s great review of it here on the blog.

  3. Andy: Haven’t read your post yet beyond the opening (will do so later), but just to agree that The Passions and the Interests is an excellent book: compression and lucidity, yes, exactly right.

  4. Ok, have read the post now. One title I might add to your list is Nancy Rosenblum’s On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship (2008). Haven’t read it, but I think it fits in pretty well w some of the list’s general concerns. (Perhaps a selective reading wd do, as it’s not that short.)

    • Louis,
      I was hoping you’d make some suggestions–thanks so much for commenting! I’ll have to check Rosenblum out, but a quick search of her work leads me to another title that I might look at first (once it comes out): Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America. Thank you for pointing her out to me!

      • I didn’t know about Good Neighbors (due out this spring, apparently). Looks like it might be interesting — thanks.

  5. Andy,

    I must say I’m enjoying this reading list! Two quick recommendations I’d add as good companions to Reed’s book on Dubois are Robert Gooding-Williams’ *In the Shadow of Dubois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America* and Nick Bromell’s *The Time is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of U.S. Democracy.* Both works really delve into political theory, African American history, and the history of African American thought in the United States.

  6. What, no Isaiah Berlin?! Actually, this list looks really interesting, and I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts as you get into it. The Hirschman book, I agree, is really great. Here are some further suggestions that are on my reading list (most of which, sadly, I have a feeling I will never get to–but I can aspire!):
    Charles Mills, The Racial Contract
    Tommie Shelby, We Who Are Dark
    Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism
    Amy Gutmann, Identity in Politics
    Seyla Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism
    Everything by Charles Taylor.

    • These are great, Dan–thanks so much! I was definitely thinking about putting a couple of titles about cosmopolitanism on the list–it is/was an intellectual current that I feel is crying out for some contextualization and re-assessment–but I think that may be work for another day, unfortunately. I am very interested in the Shelby: I hadn’t run into it, and it looks great!

  7. Andy –

    I like the way you set this up, letting Hirschman’s concluding question lead the way back to Ben’s question of last October, and I’ll follow up a bit by asking whose debates you’re thinking about elevating, those of intellectual historians, political theorists, or others; since the intended audience says something about how that might be done, where the debates might best take place, and who might be willing to participate. Perhaps you’re concerned mostly with how intellectual historians could improve their work by such engagement, turning theory into subject matter for historical projects; or more broadly with countering what Hirschman calls [another puzzling pronoun here!] “our own[,] specialization-induced intellectual poverty.” [3]

    I was thinking too that one might do a little historical study of what was involved in his history of ideas becoming a topic, provocation and resource in/for “political theory” and other fields as well. What made that possible, how did it go on, and what’s happened as a result? What about the book and its settings of importance led to its becoming a history of ideas that generated thought and debate across a diverse intellectual landscape?

    I haven’t read it for a long time, but a quick perusal now suggests that part of the reason may have been that Hirschman’s approach was explicitly inter-disciplinary and critical of existing approaches; that he framed many of his historical statements and questions with an abstract theoretical vocabulary that pointed beyond the immediate context, along the way drawing upon many theorists whose work was pre- or extra-disciplinary, who raised issues that almost required discussions of broader scope and implication, contextualizing the contextualizers, prodding them to more elevated projects.

    • Sorry, Bill, for taking a little longer to get to your excellent questions. Probably the most straightforward answer I can give is that I am primarily interested in raiding the icebox of political theory for some insights into how intellectual historians could better address large themes more directly and, possibly, more compactly. “Elevation” isn’t necessarily the right word for the effect that might have on intellectual history debates, but it would do something.

      That is certainly not to say that I regret intellectual history’s tendency toward amplitude–the value of something like Uncertain Victory or John Dewey and American Democracy is precisely their abundance. And, I should note, I deliberately left off a few titles from the list above (e.g., Politics and Vision, Machiavellian Moment) because they were too long–I may read them, but it would be challenging, I think, to blog about them coherently.

      The question of why Hirschman wrote Passions the way that he did is a really interesting one, and I definitely agree that it has a great deal to do with disciplinarity. But I may wind up blogging about the book itself soon, so I’ll save my thoughts for then.

      • Andy –

        Thanks for the feedback. I’ll be watching for your discussion of Hirschman.

        Since commenting, I’ve encountered Dean Mathiowetz’s work, which many here are probably familiar with already, including the book Appeals to Interest: Language, Contestation, and the Shaping of Political Agency, 2011, and a couple of articles available online : “The Juridicial Subject of ‘Interest,’” Political Theory August 2007, and “Historiographies of Liberal ‘Interest’ and the Neoliberal ‘Self.’” Interestingly, he’s critical of both Hirschman’ and Stephen Holmes’ accounts of the concept of “interest.”

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