2005 was a kind of curious year in book publishing in political theory and philosophy. The market was mainly filled with huge Companions or Very Short Introductions or anything else besides actual monographs. It doesn't seem to me that there was any book that captured everyone's attention. There was no new book in the prestigious Oxford Political Theory series. People have been talking for the past few years about the absence of any set of questions so exciting and energizing as to draw everyone out of their niches and into a common conversation. This year seemed to me the year in which that absence filtered through to the lagging-indicator of newly-published monographs.
Now, there's nothing wrong with that. The exciting, unifying, common-conversation Big Ideas are only sometimes productive. There need to be signficant periods of time when people are working in their niches and making progress there. Frankly, I enjoy going to APSA more in the years when it's filled with scores of panels with interesting new papers, each following its own logic of argument and discovery, than in the years when everyone feels compelled to give a paper about, e.g., deliberative democracy.
But in those fragmentary moments, excellent books can get published that don't get noticed because they're in other people's niches. I like to see good work get read and recognized, and like to discourage the occasional bout of "nothing good is being done these days" despair. So, as a partial corrective, a list of ten excellent, interesting, important, or potentially transformative books in political theory [however I happen to understand the boundaries of that discipline-- including political philosophy, parts of legal theory, parts of intellectual history, etc.] published in 2005. I restrict myself to formal publication dates in 2005, so omit, e.g., William Galston, The Practice of Liberal Pluralism, Steven Smith's Law's Quandary, and Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others which all came out at the very end of '04-- but now I've just mentioned them, so I guess they're not wholly excluded after all.
The list is heavy on the 18th century, which is certainly in part because that's where my attention's been directed lately. But I think Hont's and Robertson's books, along with the Pocock series of which the book below is volume 4, do add up to a sense that there's renewed energy and argument about enlightenment political thought. Hont, Robertson, and Pocock are often in direct argument with one another, in ways that help the reader to see what's controversial and exciting and at stake. I don't know of another part of the field that saw such a cluster of important and contending works published this year.
I find some of these books more persuasive or interesting than others, of course. Some I suspect point down dead ends. But none am I willing to lightly assume points down a dead end; in each case I'm at least eager to see what other ideas are generated by people going in the directions these books suggest. And some aren't meant to be agenda-setting books but make real contributions on their own.
I exclude all books that are first monographs published by young scholars, though that means leaving off some of the year's finest work. That's because I'm chair of the APSA/Foundations of Political Theory Best First Book committee for 2005. Once that committee has deliberated and awarded the prize, I'll make an effort to plug the awardee[s] as well as other books from that pool.
Disclosure: The discipline is so small that any list like this is riddled with various intersections of interest; many of these people are friends and/or colleagues in one way or another.
In no particular order:
Jealousy of Trade : International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective, by Istvan Hont.
This collection explores eighteenth-century theories of international market competition that continue to be relevant for the twenty-first century. "Jealousy of trade" refers to a particular conjunction between politics and the economy that emerged when success in international trade became a matter of the military and political survival of nations. Today, it would be called "economic nationalism," and in this book Hont connects the commercial politics of nationalism and globalization in the eighteenth century to theories of commercial society and Enlightenment ideas of the economic limits of politics.
Barbarism and Religion, Vol. 4: Barbarians, Savages and Empires, by J.G.A. Pocock
This fourth volume in John Pocock's great sequence on Barbarism and Religion focuses on the idea of barbarism. Barbarism was central to the history of western historiography, to the history of the enlightenment, and to Edward Gibbon himself. As a concept it was deeply problematic to enlightened historians seeking to understand their own civil societies in the light of exposure to newly-discovered civilizations hitherto beyond the reach of history. The troubled relationship between philosophy and history is addressed directly in this fourth volume.
The Persistence of Subjectivity : On the Kantian Aftermath, by Robert Pippin
What might it mean to take seriously Hegel's claim that philosophical reflection is always reflection on the historical "actuality" of its own age? Discussing Heidegger, Gadamer, Adorno, Leo Strauss, Manfred Frank, and John McDowell, Robert Pippin attempts to understand how subjectivity arises in contemporary institutional practices such as medicine, as well as in other contexts such as modernism in the visual arts and in the novels of Marcel Proust.
Politics and Passion : Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism and Arguing About War, by Michael Walzer.
Note: Treated as one book; each is a slender collection of Walzer's already-published writings, one on domestic politics and political theory, one on international questions. There was good reason to separate them for publishing purposes but I recommend buying and reading them together.
1. Liberalism is egalitarian in principle, but why doesn’t it do more to promote equality in practice? In this book, the distinguished political philosopher Michael Walzer offers a critique of liberal theory and demonstrates that crucial realities have been submerged in the evolution of contemporary liberal thought.
In the standard versions of liberal theory, autonomous individuals deliberate about what ought to be done—but in the real world, citizens also organize, mobilize, bargain, and lobby. The real world is more contentious than deliberative. Ranging over hotly contested issues including multiculturalism, pluralism, difference, civil society, and racial and gender justice, Walzer suggests ways in which liberal theory might be revised to make it more hospitable to the claims of equality.
Combining profound learning with practical wisdom, Michael Walzer offers a provocative reappraisal of the core tenets of liberal thought. Politics and Passion will be required reading for anyone interested in social justice—and the means by which we seek to achieve it.
2. Michael Walzer is one of the world's most eminent philosophers on the subject of war and ethics. Now, for the first time since his classic Just and Unjust Wars was published almost three decades ago, this volume brings together his most provocative arguments about contemporary military conflicts and the ethical issues they raise. The essays in the book are divided into three sections. The first deals with issues such as nuclear deterrence, humanitarian intervention, and terrorism. The second consists of Walzer's responses to particular wars, including the first Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And the third presents an essay in which Walzer imagines a future in which war might play a less significant part in our lives. In his introduction, Walzer reveals how his thinking has changed over time. Written during a period of intense debate over the proper use of armed force, this book gets to the heart of difficult problems and argues persuasively for a moral perspective on war.
Frontiers of Justice : Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (The Tanner Lectures on Human Values), by Martha C. Nussbaum
Theories of social justice are necessarily abstract, reaching beyond the particular and the immediate to the general and the timeless. Yet such theories, addressing the world and its problems, must respond to the real and changing dilemmas of the day. A brilliant work of practical philosophy, Frontiers of Justice is dedicated to this proposition. Taking up three urgent problems of social justice neglected by current theories and thus harder to tackle in practical terms and everyday life, Martha Nussbaum seeks a theory of social justice that can guide us to a richer, more responsive approach to social cooperation. The idea of the social contract—especially as developed in the work of John Rawls—is one of the most powerful approaches to social justice in the Western tradition. But as Nussbaum demonstrates, even Rawls's theory, suggesting a contract for mutual advantage among approximate equals, cannot address questions of social justice posed by unequal parties. How, for instance, can we extend the equal rights of citizenship—education, health care, political rights and liberties—to those with physical and mental disabilities? How can we extend justice and dignified life conditions to all citizens of the world? And how, finally, can we bring our treatment of nonhuman animals into our notions of social justice? Exploring the limitations of the social contract in these three areas, Nussbaum devises an alternative theory based on the idea of "capabilities." She helps us to think more clearly about the purposes of political cooperation and the nature of political principles—and to look to a future of greater justice for all.
Theories of social justice, addressing the world and its problems, must respond to the real and changing dilemmas of the day. A brilliant work of practical philosophy, Frontiers of Justice is dedicated to this proposition. Taking up three urgent problems of social justice--those with physical and mental disabilities, all citizens of the world, and nonhuman animals--neglected by current theories and thus harder to tackle in practical terms and everyday life, Martha Nussbaum seeks a theory of social justice that can guide us to a richer, more responsive approach to social cooperation.
The Case for The Enlightenment : Scotland and Naples 1680-1760, by John Robertson
Challenging the recent tendency to fragment the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Europe into multiple Enlightenments, John Robertson demonstrates the extent to which thinkers in two societies at the opposite ends of Europe shared common intellectual preoccupations. Before 1700, Scotland and Naples faced a bleak future as backward, provincial kingdoms in a Europe of aggressive commercial states. Yet by 1760, Scottish and Neapolitan thinkers were in the van of those advocating the cause of Enlightenment by means of political economy. Robertson pays particular attention to the greatest thinkers in each country, David Hume and Giambattista Vico.
The Enlightenment's Fable : Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society , by E. J. Hundert
The apprehension of society as an aggregation of self-interested individuals is a dominant modern concern, but one first systematically articulated during the Enlightenment. This book approaches this problem from the perspective of the challenge offered to inherited traditions of morality and social understanding by Bernard Mandeville, whose infamous paradoxical maxim "private vices, public benefits" profoundly disturbed his contemporaries, while his The Fable of the Bees had a decisive influence on David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant. Professor Hundert examines the sources and strategies of Mandeville's science of human nature and the role of his ideas in shaping eighteenth century economic, social and moral theories.
Political Obligations, by George Klosko
Political Obligations provides a full defense of a theory of political obligation based on the principle of fairness (or fair play), which is widely viewed as the strongest theory of obligation currently available. The work responds to the most important objections to the principle of fairness, and extends a theory based on fairness into a developed "multiple principle" theory of obligation. In order to establish the need for such a theory, Political Obligations criticizes alternative theories of obligation based on a natural duty of justice and "reformist" consent, and critically examines the non-state theories of libertarian and philosophical anarchists. The work breaks new ground by providing the first in-depth study of popular attitudes towards political obligations and how the state itself views them. The attitudes of ordinary citizens are explored through small focus groups, while the "self image of the state" in regard to the obligations of its citizens is studied through examination of judicial decisions in three different democratic countries.
The Idea of the State , by Peter J. Steinberger
Political theory has been characterized by a pronounced distrust of metaphysical or ontological speculation for more than a half-century. However, Peter J. Steinberger reaffirms the importance of systematic philosophical inquiry into the foundations of political life in view of changing trends. Steinberger demonstrates how such an approach can cast a new and instructive light on a variety of controversial, seemingly intractable problems of tolerance, civil disobedience, democracy and consent.
Democratic Faith, by Patrick Deneen
The American political reformer Herbert Croly wrote, "For better or worse, democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility." Democratic Faith is at once a trenchant analysis and a powerful critique of this underlying assumption that informs democratic theory. Patrick Deneen argues that among democracy's most ardent supporters there is an oft-expressed belief in the need to "transform" human beings in order to reconcile the sometimes disappointing reality of human self-interest with the democratic ideal of selfless commitment. This "transformative impulse" is frequently couched in religious language, such as the need for political "redemption." This is all the more striking given the frequent accompanying condemnation of traditional religious belief that informs the "democratic faith."
At the same time, because so often this democratic ideal fails to materialize, democratic faith is often subject to a particularly intense form of disappointment. A mutually reinforcing cycle of faith and disillusionment is frequently exhibited by those who profess a democratic faith--in effect imperiling democratic commitments due to the cynicism of its most fervent erstwhile supporters.
Deneen argues that democracy is ill-served by such faith. Instead, he proposes a form of "democratic realism" that recognizes democracy not as a regime with aspirations to perfection, but that justifies democracy as the regime most appropriate for imperfect humans. If democratic faith aspires to transformation, democratic realism insists on the central importance of humility, hope, and charity.
What do you think I've left off? I've already thought of a few, but I'll hold off on mentioning them until I've heard from a few readers.
(After finishing up this topic, I expect to return to blogsilence for a long while.)
Update: OK, here are my two candidates-- twelve altogether, to make one book per month in 2005:
Ian Shapiro, The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences
Iris Marion Young, On Female Body Experience.
And here's my top three to look forward to in 2006:
Adrian Vermeule, Judging Under Uncertainty : An Institutional Theory of Legal Interpretation
David Schmidtz, The Elements of Justice
Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers