Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The return of the big book

In late 2005 I wrote:
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

Well, the last twelve months look rather different. Herewith a quick rundown of some of the books published since December 2007-- some of them works that people I know have been eagerly awaiting for years. In this post I'll list ten by well-established prominent senior figures in the field; I'll follow up with a post on ten by young and mid-career scholars. No rankings or claims of "ten best" or "ten most important;" more like my equivalent of Larry Solum's Legal Theory Bookworm (and, unsurprisingly, there's a bit of overlap with the books he's highlighted over the past year).

  • Thomas Christiano, The Constitution of Equality: Democratic Authority and Its Limits

    What is the ethical basis of democracy? And what reasons do we have to go along with democratic decisions even when we disagree with them? And when do we have reason to say that we may justly ignore democratic decisions? These questions must be answered if we are to have answers to some of the most important questions facing our global community, which include whether there is a human right to democracy and whether we must attempt to spread democracy throughout the globe.

    This book provides a philosophical account of the moral foundations of democracy and of liberalism. It shows how democracy and basic liberal rights are grounded in the principle of public equality, which tells us that in the establishment of law and policy we must treat persons as equals in ways they can see are treating them as equals. The principle of public equality is shown to be the fundamental principle of social justice. This account enables us to understand the nature and roles of adversarial politics and public deliberation in political life. It gives an account of the grounds of the authority of democracy. It also shows when the authority of democracy runs out. It shows how the violations of democratic and liberal rights are beyond the legitimate authority of democracy and how the creation of persistent minorities in a democratic society, and the failure to ensure a basic minimum for all persons, weaken the legitimate authority of democracy.

  • G.A. Cohen, Rescuing Justice and Equality

    In this stimulating work of political philosophy, acclaimed philosopher G. A. Cohen sets out to rescue the egalitarian thesis that in a society in which distributive justice prevails, people’s material prospects are roughly equal. Arguing against the Rawlsian version of a just society, Cohen demonstrates that distributive justice does not tolerate deep inequality.

    In the course of providing a deep and sophisticated critique of Rawls’s theory of justice, Cohen demonstrates that questions of distributive justice arise not only for the state but also for people in their daily lives. The right rules for the macro scale of public institutions and policies also apply, with suitable adjustments, to the micro level of individual decision-making.

    Cohen also charges Rawls’s constructivism with systematically conflating the concept of justice with other concepts. Within the Rawlsian architectonic, justice is not distinguished either from other values or from optimal rules of social regulation. The elimination of those conflations brings justice closer to equality.

  • George Kateb, Patriotism and Other Mistakes

    George Kateb has been one of the most respected and influential political theorists of the last quarter century. His work stands apart from that of many of his contemporaries and resists easy summary. In these essays Kateb often admonishes himself, in Socratic fashion, to keep political argument as far as possible negative: to be willing to assert what we are not, and what we will not do, and to build modestly from there some account of what we are and what we ought to do.

    Drawing attention to the non-rational character of many motives that drive people to construct and maintain a political order, he urges greater vigilance in political life and cautions against “mistakes” not usually acknowledged as such. Patriotism is one such mistake, too often resulting in terrible brutality and injustices. He asks us to consider how commitments to ideals of religion, nation, race, ethnicity, manliness, and courage find themselves in the service of immoral ends, and he exhorts us to remember the dignity of the individual.

    The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Kateb discusses the expansion of state power (including such topics as surveillance) and the justifications for war recently made by American policy makers. The second section offers essays in moral psychology, and the third comprises fresh interpretations of major thinkers in the tradition of political thought, from Socrates to Arendt.

  • Charles Larmore, The Autonomy of Morality

    In The Autonomy of Morality Charles Larmore challenges two ideas that have shaped the modern mind. The world, he argues, is not a realm of value-neutral fact, nor does human freedom consist in imposing principles of our own devising on an alien reality. Rather, reason consists in being responsive to reasons for thought and action that arise from the world itself. Larmore shows that the moral good has an authority that speaks for itself. Only in this light does the true basis of a liberal political order come into view, as well as the role of unexpected goods in the makeup of a life lived well.

  • David Miller, National Responsibility and Global Justice

    This book presents a non-cosmopolitan theory of global justice. In contrast to theories that seek to extend principles of social justice, such as equality of opportunity or resources, to the world as a whole, it argues that in a world made up of self-determining national communities, a different conception is needed. The book presents and defends an account of national responsibility which entails that nations may justifiably claim the benefits that their decisions and policies produce, while also being held liable for harms that they inflict on other peoples. Such collective responsibility extends to responsibility for the national past, so the present generation may owe redress to those who have been harmed by the actions of their predecessors. Global justice, therefore, must be understood not in terms of equality, but in terms of a minimum set of basic rights that belong to human beings everywhere. Where these rights are being violated or threatened, remedial responsibility may fall on outsiders. The book considers how this responsibility should be allocated, and how far citizens of democratic societies must limit their pursuit of domestic objectives in order to discharge their global obligations.

    The book presents a systematic challenge to existing theories of global justice without retreating to a narrow nationalism that denies that we have any responsibilities to the world's poor. It combines discussion of practical questions such as immigration and foreign aid with philosophical exploration of, for instance, the different senses of responsibility, and the grounds of human rights.

    [See also my article "National and statist responsibility," Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy]

  • Martha Nussbaum, Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality

    From one of America's most distinguished moral philosophers, a sweeping historically based argument that equal respect for all citizens is the bedrock of America's tradition of religious freedom.

    In one of the great triumphs of the colonial and Revolutionary periods, the founders of the future United States overcame religious intolerance in favor of a constitutional order dedicated to fair treatment for people's deeply held conscientious beliefs. It granted equal liberty of conscience to all and took a firm stand against religious establishment. This respect for religious difference, acclaimed scholar Martha Nussbaum writes, formed our democracy.

    Yet today there are signs that this legacy is misunderstood. The prominence of a particular type of Christianity in our public life suggests the unequal worth of citizens who hold different religious beliefs, or no beliefs. Other people, meanwhile, seek to curtail the influence of religion in public life in a way that is itself unbalanced and unfair. Such partisan efforts, Nussbaum argues, violate the spirit of our Constitution.

    Liberty of Conscience is a historical and conceptual study of the American tradition of religious freedom. Weaving together political history, philosophical ideas, and key constitutional cases, this is a rich chronicle of an ideal of equality that has always been central to our history but is now in serious danger.

  • Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens
    When does democracy work well, and why? Is democracy the best form of government? These questions are of supreme importance today as the United States seeks to promote its democratic values abroad. Democracy and Knowledge is the first book to look to ancient Athens to explain how and why directly democratic government by the people produces wealth, power, and security.

    Combining a history of Athens with contemporary theories of collective action and rational choice developed by economists and political scientists, Josiah Ober examines Athenian democracy's unique contribution to the ancient Greek city-state's remarkable success, and demonstrates the valuable lessons Athenian political practices hold for us today. He argues that the key to Athens's success lay in how the city-state managed and organized the aggregation and distribution of knowledge among its citizens. Ober explores the institutional contexts of democratic knowledge management, including the use of social networks for collecting information, publicity for building common knowledge, and open access for lowering transaction costs. He explains why a government's attempt to dam the flow of information makes democracy stumble. Democratic participation and deliberation consume state resources and social energy. Yet as Ober shows, the benefits of a well-designed democracy far outweigh its costs.

    Understanding how democracy can lead to prosperity and security is among the most pressing political challenges of modern times. Democracy and Knowledge reveals how ancient Greek politics can help us transcend the democratic dilemmas that confront the world today.

  • Philip Pettit, Made With Words; Hobbes on Language, Mind, and Politics
    Hobbes's extreme political views have commanded so much attention that they have eclipsed his work on language and mind, and on reasoning, personhood, and group formation. But this work is of immense interest in itself, as Philip Pettit shows in Made with Words, and it critically shapes Hobbes's political philosophy.

    Pettit argues that it was Hobbes, not later thinkers like Rousseau, who invented the invention of language thesis--the idea that language is a cultural innovation that transformed the human mind. The invention, in Hobbes's story, is a double-edged sword. It enables human beings to reason, commit themselves as persons, and incorporate in groups. But it also allows them to agonize about the future and about their standing relative to one another; it takes them out of the Eden of animal silence and into a life of inescapable conflict--the state of nature. Still, if language leads into this wasteland, according to Hobbes, it can also lead out. It can enable people to establish a commonwealth where the words of law and morality have a common, enforceable sense, and where people can invoke the sanctions of an absolute sovereign to give their words to one another in credible commitment and contract.

    Written by one of today's leading philosophers, Made with Words is both an original reinterpretation and a clear and lively introduction to Hobbes's thought.

  • Nancy Rosenblum, On The Side of Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship
    Political parties are the defining institutions of representative democracy and the darlings of political science. Their governing and electoral functions are among the chief concerns of the field. Yet most political theorists--including democratic theorists--ignore or disparage parties as grubby arenas of ambition, obstacles to meaningful political participation and deliberation. On the Side of the Angels is a vigorous defense of the virtues of parties and partisanship, and their worth as a subject for political theory.

    Nancy Rosenblum's account moves between political theory and political science, and she uses resources from both fields to outline an appreciation of parties and the moral distinctiveness of partisanship. She draws from the history of political thought and identifies the main lines of opposition to parties, as well as the rare but significant moments of appreciation. Rosenblum then sets forth her own theoretical appreciation of parties and partisanship. She discusses the achievement of parties in regulating rivalries, channeling political energies, and creating the lines of division that make pluralist politics meaningful. She defends "partisan" as a political identity over the much-vaunted status of "independent," and she considers where contemporary democracies should draw the line in banning parties.

    On the Side of the Angels offers an ethics of partisanship that speaks to questions of centrism, extremism, and polarization in American party politics. By rescuing parties from their status as orphans of political philosophy, Rosenblum fills a significant void in political and democratic theory.

    [There will be a symposium on On the Side of Angels on this blog in the near future.]

    Brandon said...

    Thanks, Jacob--this is useful.

    Might note that Quentin Skinner also has a new book--Hobbes and Republican Liberty--which I suspect could be nicely paired (interchanged?) with Pettit's new volume.

    Jacob T. Levy said...

    Indeed-- that was the book that got cut to get the list down to 10, but it's an important work (and genuinely quite novel, which I frankly hadn't expected; even after all of his writing on republicanism and on Hobbes Skinner still has new things to say.)

    djw said...

    Did you consider Hirschmann's Gender, Class and Freedom in Modern Political Theory or is she young enough in scholar years to go on the second list?

    Jacob T. Levy said...

    Didn't think about it; it came out in 2007. But I'm happy for further recommendations to be posted here in comments!

    djw said...

    My mistake; my copy says 2008 but you're right. At any rate, it's very good.