Friday, March 19, 2010

Ten most influential books

See: Tyler Cowen, Will Wilkinson, Russell Arben Fox, Bryan Caplan,Matt Yglesias, and more. Haven't we done this on Facebook at some point?

I'm unsurprised by how alien Russell's and Bryan's lists are to me (in almost-opposite directions, of course). By contrast, even where my list doesn't overlap with Will's, for the most part I can recognize and to some degree share his reactions.

But, man, Rand and Nietzsche are showing up a lot, even on lists where I wouldn't expect them to. Neither's ever had a moment of hold on my mind. A friend in grad school thought that there was something odd and revealing about my complete lack of connection to Nietzsche: "You've never had a Nietzschean moment?" he asked-- a moment when I got it. Nope.

Anyway, I'll take the "formative influences" tack: books I first read before I graduated from college. And I'll arbitrarily stick to nonfiction in my general fields of professional inquiry.

1) Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose. An adult friend gave this to me when I was 11 or so (and when it was very new-- the copy of it, which I still have, is in hardcover). So for me, the exposure to libertarianism and to social science/ social analysis and to serious nonfiction that contained ideas that could really give my brain exercise were simultaneous. It's hard to know what the counterfactual looks like-- how differently I would think if I hadn't read this, then. The friend said that he gave it to me because it was already clear that I would appreciate it-- that it reflected rather than (only) shaping my intellectual tastes. In any case, the ideas of regulatory capture and unintended consequences were among the first serious ideas about social analysis I ever encountered-- and the simplified moral-political philosophy of the introduction to the book genuinely inspired me.

2) John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. Read when I had just turned 16, during slow periods and coffee and lunch breaks at my summer supermarket job. (I think this is the moment when lots of smart teenagers encounter Rand or Nietzsche-- when they're looking for something to read to keep their brains going while they're off school, especially if they're in the kinds of summer jobs working/ lower middle class kids get rather than internships and the like.) It wasn't technically my first primary text in political philosophy; by then I had read Thoreau's "Resistance," a couple of the Federalist Papers, and smatterings of Plato, Smith, and Marx in my Great Books collection. But it was "On Liberty" that really fired me up about great works in political philosophy. I agreed with its conclusions, of course, but I already knew enough to know that there were things to worry about/ argue with; I wasn't excited primarily by the agreement. I was excited by the prose, the power of the arguments, and the sense of what it could be to assemble normative arguments about big questions.

3) Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Read about the same time: the first work of scholarship I ever read, and still one of my favorites.

4) Leonard Levy, Original Intent and the Framers' Constitution. The second work of scholarship I ever read. The overarching argument of the book was a little beyond my reach at the time, but the detailed legal-historical analysis of the various constitutional provisions greatly impressed me, and complemented what I had learned about the era from Bailyn.

5) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. First read it my first semester of college; it aggravated me and annoyed me and in many ways defined the intellectual world I've lived in ever since.

6) Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice. Spheres annoyed me even more, the first two times I read it, and not in the same "I must engage with and respond to this" way that Rawls did. First two times I read it, I didn't see the point of it; by comparison with Rawls (or Nozick), Walzer never seemed to have any arguments. Eventually, as I followed the path I now understand as leading from political philosophy to political theory, I came to see Spheres of Justice as a wise and profound book, and an important exemplar of how to think normatively but not abstractly. There's still almost no argument in it I find compelling, nothing that I'm brought to agree with by Walzer's reasoning. But I do love to reread from it, when the occasion presents itself.

7) F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 1 (Listed together because I really think they belong together-- I think LLL v1 completes the argument of Constitution and makes the earlier book much more satisfying than it is on its own.) First read Hayek in a freshman seminar taught by by university's president on the history of liberalism. (Also my first exposure to Acton and Tocqueville.) More than any of the books listed so far, Hayek shaped how I think about the basic shape of the social world, and also how I think about the connections among normative, explanatory, and empirical social analysis. Though I'm not an economist, and one of the (minor but real) aims of my next book is to reject the intellectual history offered in Constitution, and to the best of my recollection the phrase "spontaneous order" doesn't appear in anything I've ever published, I still comfortably describe myself as a Hayekian in my intellectual outlook.

8) Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic. I read this in Wood's own class on the American Revolution, from then on I not only had my model of what to try to live up to as a classroom teacher, I also had my real understanding of how research at the highest level and teaching at the highest level enriched, complemented, and completed one another, and why the profession of university professor hung together as a single vocation. (It's also, simply, a great book, but its influence on me was not only intellectual.)

9) Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community, and Culture. This book gave me my first actual research agenda-- and was written recently enough before I became a graduate student that I felt like I could be a contributor to a live intellectual debate. Incidentally, this was probably the first dissertation-book I read all the way through. (I couldn't make it through Liberalism and the Limits of Justice on my first attempt; at a certain point I said "I get it, already," and put the book down.) I tell doctoral students in political theory that they should have a couple of dissertation-books on their minds and on their shelves that they think are relevant to their work. This may sound cruel: a dissertation-book is not a dissertation, and students shouldn't be made to think that they need to write an Oxford University Press-quality manuscript in order to have a submittable dissertation. But I found it tremendously useful to have a model for size and scope. Good graduate students often want to propose dissertations that are vastly too big and too ambitious, and then get frustrated when they realize that doing what they want would take decades and thousands of pages. A dissertation-book that you admire can reassure you that something important and worthwhile can be accomplished in something about this big-- and that it's okay not to answer every possible question or master the whole of human knowledge. Kymlicka provided that book for me: a reminder of how much could be accomplished in a project of about that size, and also a reminder that a dissertation can be an impressive accomplishment without doing everything. Kymlicka convincingly opened up a space for more research (others' research as well as his own); he didn't wait until he'd done it all himself before scheduling his defense.

10-11) Tocqueville, The Ancien Regime and the Revolution; Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. You'll have noticed a lot of American Revolution/ American founding material on this list, and I was as prone as anyone to a simple Whiggish sense of the connections among freedom, reason, and the 18th-century revolutions. Tocqueville and Berlin, in their different ways, helped to break me of that.


red dave said...

Your books seem to come from a 3 year period summer 15-18 disproportionately. I find the same thing in my list. What is is about young adulthood that gives those books such an impression?

Is 'catcher in the rye' remembered as a great book because it speaks to 15 year olds? If so why dont more writers target this age?

Russell Arben Fox said...

Good list. I will probably always feel odd--a little out of step; a little johnny-come-lately--about the fact that I could go all the way through graduate school with only minimal and indirectly influential encounters with Rawls and the like. I don't have any similar feelings about Nietzsche, however; he was someone who only became interesting to me in small doses, when Heidegger or Taylor or Arendt made references to him, and I went back and thought to myself "Oh, so that's what he's trying to say here." I respect the hell out of him as a master of prose...but then, Emerson is a master of prose too, and he didn't influence my thinking one bit.

Patrick said...

Why do political theorists hate Rawls so much?

This is a serious question. I read A Theory of Justice and found it exhilarating. I guess this is why I do political philosophy rather than political theory.

Yet, I have found that political theorists don't just disagree with Rawls, they seem positively annoyed that he ever wrote the book in the first place.

I must confess that I find this response baffling, so why does it happen?

Jacob T. Levy said...

Oh, my annoyance wasn't like what you're describing, though what you're describing is certainly a real phenomenon. When I took general exams at the most Rawlsian/ analytic/ philosophy-oriented major political theory program, one of the questions was something like "did Rawls do more harm than good to the study of political morality?" I answered "more good," but it was expected that the question was arguable on both sides.

My annoyance with TJ was just at particular arguments and particular conclusions-- but I found it exhilarating, too. I wanted to think about it, engage with it, argue with it. And I wanted to be in the business of writing books like it.

But a lot of political theorists think that TJ set things on a bad intellectual path, and are disappointed in its genre-defining power. Theorists want better moral psychology, or more serious thought about institutions and history, or more consideration of disagreement and judgment than of deductive unanimity, or... (And so Political Liberalism had a disproportionately better reception among theorists.) And so many theorists (and not only Straussians) have shared the reaction in Allan Bloom's 1975 APSR article-- that the whole enterprise of TJ is barren and a betrayal of "the tradition of political philosophy."

Matt said...

Theorists want better moral psychology, or more serious thought about institutions and history,

That's a nice way of putting what philosophers would put by saying that the theorists have trouble distinguishing between descriptive or historical claims and normative arguments. To a philosopher, many (though not, of course, all) of the complaints by theorists, and especially by students, seem to fall into this category.

Jacob T. Levy said...

That's a nice way of putting

Well, I've become a little more sympathetic to the complaint over the years. :-)

I'd still give the answer I gave to my general exam question-- but I'd now give a much better treatment of the other side.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I still find myself--nearly ten years after having received my Ph.D., and years after having gone back and forth in this argument with Jacob and others--somewhat confused and a little befuddled by the whole argument between political theorists and political philosophers. I recognize the dispute as Jacob outlines it--with descriptive arguments clashing with normative ones, with history and psychology clashing with ethics--but I just don't recognize it as any way of accurately describing my own program. I continue to suspect that this is primarily because the philosophy-theory distinction depends to a great extent on the treatment of certain key texts and traditions of inquiry within the Anglo-American academy, and if your program had you reading Continental thinkers from the start, it's going to complicate your ability to appreciate the fundamentalness of the dispute.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"it's going to complicate your ability to appreciate the fundamentalness of the dispute."


That's a very nice way of saying "will allow you to see that the dispute is *not* so fundamental."

Patrick said...

I did not see your political theory/political philosophy post when I asked the question. I see where you are coming from.

Anyway, very interesting, appreciate it.

I guess I am still at a loss about the intensity of the opprobrium. I guess I couldn't think of a similar hatred on the other side.

You use Walzer as an example of the other side, but I have never heard a political philosopher express the vitriol towards him that I've heard directed by political theorists (just keeping in mind tenured professors, not grad students in their cups) at Rawls.

Jacob T. Levy said...

No, but you certainly might hear such reactions to Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Sheldon Wolin, or Isaiah Berlin (though the Berlin remarks would be prefaced with comments about what a charming man he was).

Matt said...

Philosophers on Berlin will mostly say, I think, that he's just not very deep, and that his scholarship on historical figures, while important for moving the world-spirit, is also fairly superficial. I think that's largely right. He was important for a moment but doesn't have that much else to add, and his "big" ideas are not that important. I've never much heard philosophers talk about Wolin, so other than being ignored, I don't think he's an issue at all for most of them. On Arendt is largely ignored, too, more than disparaged. Strauss is the one who is disparaged, but in that case for quite good reason, I think, in that his historical scholarship has been exploded and show, I think, to be not just wrong but ideologically biases, and his positive program both implausible and undesirable. (Others will disagree, of course, but I think this is both right and the normal view among philosophers.)

Russell Arben Fox said...

Arendt is largely ignored, too, more than disparaged.

I'm not sure I would agree with this; I've heard strong anti-Heidegger opinions expressed by many political philosophers who come out of Anglo-American/analytical traditions, and with the condemnation of Heidegger comes a condemnation of many of his disciples, include Arendt.

Matt said...

Who do you have in mind, Russell? I've rarely seen Arendt discussed by political philosophers (sometimes something about the Eichmann book, but not with any real detail- just a nod, mostly, or once in a while something about her vile piece defending anti-black racism in the south) but the anti-Heidegger folks, while there are some, are mostly not serious political philosophers, and I've not seen many of them go after Arendt, but there could be some. Mostly she's just not discussed that much, for good or bad.
(Waldron wrote on her in the Cambridge Companion, though I've not read that piece. Larry May, who was a student of hers, also sometimes discusses her.)

Anderson said...

Thanks for the list, which motivated me to pick up a copy of the Wood book.

I'm half inclined to speak up for Nietzsche, but I can certainly see why he would have little to offer someone mainly interested in political philosophy, which was never N's strong suit (or interest, really).