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Blogging the Annual Review of Political Science: Walzer

(See the introduction to and explanation of this series of posts.)

Well, that was disappointing.

Michael Walzer is the most important living American political theorist, and among the most important living scholars in the political theory/ social theory/ political philosophy fields in the world. There aren’t many scholars whose work I actively look forward to reading as much as his, even when I disagree with it (which is often; see my contribution to Reading Walzer); nor many whose work repays rereading to the same degree.

But “The Political Theory License” is a disappointing start to my reading in the Annual Review of Political Science, as it’s not at all the kind of thing I’m looking for in this project. As much of a giant in the field as Walzer is, his own intellectual autobiography and reflections on his methods do not amount to any kind of field survey. This (on its own merits fascinating) partly-valedictory essay belongs as the introduction to a volume of Walzer’s collected papers, or the afterword to a festschrift, or as the acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award (and surely Walzer is an obvious choice for the Skytte or the Hirschman prize) not as a contribution to a series whose mission statement reads

Annual Reviews is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide the worldwide scientific community with a useful and intelligent synthesis of the primary research literature for a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines…
Each year, Annual Reviews critically reviews the most significant primary research literature to guide researchers to the principal contributions of their field and help them keep up to date in their area of research.

The genre mismatch would be less frustrating if not for the fact that this is the only political theory entry in either the 2013 or 2014 volumes. I really enjoy reading Michael Walzer explain his intellectual relationships to Nozick, Rawls, Shklar, Hoffman, Nagel, Dworkin, and others. But I don’t like the thought that such reminisces would be seen as the political theory equivalent of a critical review of significant recent primary research, or the implication that there aren’t new developments in the field. The ARPS has published excellent work about political theory in the past; see Michael Blake’s “Global Distributive Justice: Why Political Philosophy Needs Political Science” or Jennifer Pitts’ “The Political Theory of Empire and Imperialism.” But for 2013-14, this Walzer essay is it.

The abstract worried me further:

My purpose here is to argue that political theorists have a kind of professional permit to move back and forth between the academic and political worlds and to expound and defend particular political positions. I then describe my own engagements, political and theoretical, and the books and articles that have come out of them—about war, social justice, pluralism, social criticism, and nationalism (with Zionism the key example of the last of these).

I don’t wholly agree with the first sentence, not 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.

Happily, and somewhat characteristically, the essay itself is not devoted to supporting that first sentence as an abstract or general proposition. Instead it’s all about the second sentence, about Walzer’s own experiences and intellectual progress and moral commitments. (Walzer is, of course, often more engaged with the particular than with the abstract and general.) In that light, and treating the essay on its own merits, I’m happy to have read it and am very happy to recommend it. I’ve printed it out and tucked it in to one of my volumes of Walzer’s collected essays so that I’ll be able to find it easily in the future. But precisely what it does not have is what I’m looking for in this reading project: a new understanding of where political science research stands.

Onward. Next I’ll read Simon Hug, “The Use and Misuse of the ‘Minorities at Risk’ Project.” NB: My one quantitative research paper as a graduate student was most assuredly a misuse of it.

Update Eric Schliesser rightly notes that I neglected to talk about Walzer’s discussion of the classroom. I strongly reject Walzer’s idea of a special “political theory license” to depart from the Weberian norms in teaching. What it means to abide by those norms obviously has to be affected by the fact that we’re teaching normative ideas rather than positive science, and Eric offers some reason to think that the norms might not bind as tightly as they’re sometimes thought to, but however tightly they bind, we do not have a special exemption from them. (I interpret them pretty strictly, myself.)

  • M Lister

    I’ll admit first that, after reading that abstract, there’s no way I’m going to read the piece, but hasn’t Walzer been doing basically this bad act for 10 years or more? I can’t remember the last new thing I read by him that I thought was good. He’s mostly just been engaged in “Walzer Studies”, hack defenses of Israel or war against people he takes to be Israel’s enemies, or extremely tired re-hashes of his old ides (though maybe this falls into the first category) for years now. I’ve never really been a fan, but he’s not been a serious contributor to knowledge for many years, I think. If anyone thinks he’s produced an important piece in the last 10-15 years, I’d be interested to hear what it is, and why it’s important.

    (For the record, I’ll note that I’ve read quite a lot of Walzer, and that _What it Means to be an American_ is my favorite book of his, and that I think _Spheres of Justice_ is highly over-rated and deeply, perhaps fatally, marred by his tendency to just, frankly, make stuff up about the topics he’s talking about.)

    • jtlevy

      His serious scholarship for the past 10-15 years has been devoted to the Jewish Political Tradition volumes, the relationship of which to the rest of his work he discusses in the essay. They’re new and very different from the post-9/11 essays you’re talking about.

      • M Lister

        Thanks. Do you think the scholarship on this stuff is better than his work in the past? He really did have some annoying tendencies to just make things up so as to fit the conclusion he wanted. (Spheres is full of this, as are some of his other works.)

        • jtlevy

          I think we’ve talked about this before…? I fully understand what you mean about Spheres, and used to react to it that way… and now I read the same stuff as evocative and rich. Yes, he “makes things up”– he’s not offering a logical proof that was already lying out there waiting to be discovered but giving us stuff that could only have come out of his mind, like a novelist does. But I find the stuff he makes up to be very worthwhile, in Spheres as elsewhere in his academic writing. (His political interventions are, as far as I’m concerned, a different matter.)

          The JPT project is, so far, I think his most *scholarly* work since the 70s, and I expect that the monograph he’s planning out of it will be like that, too. I’m not especially substantively interested in it, but you might appreciate that the dependence on a body of texts tethers the work.

          (My favorite book of his, FWIW, is In the Company of Critics, and the “Nation And Universe” Tanner Lectures are a close second.)