Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What I've been reading: Don Herzog, Cunning

This is the funniest book of political theory I've ever read.

That sounds like a faint praise, and like a very low bar to clear. But I laughed-- actually laughed-- more often reading Cunning than reading Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, or Montesquieu's Persian Letters, or Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, or Hume's Essays, all of which I think are genuinely funny works. (And much much more often than when reading the last officially-meant-to-be-funny work of political theory published in my lifetime that I made my way through-- a disappointing book from an author who's both brilliant and funny but who produced a text that was neither.)

It's subversive (and admits to being self-subversive, too), sarcastic, and constantly surprising, which helps keep the laughs coming; it never settles into shtick.

Cunning is also the work of a word-crafter, precisely written and a delight to read on that count alone, even without the wit.

This book is a humanist essay, not a monograph bound within one or another disciplinary genre. (And Herzog has entertaining things to say about the monographs within the disciplinary genres.) It ranges from major works of literature to almost-unknown figures of history to contemporary social science and philosophy, and in so doing manages to feel genuinely new in its reflections on instrumental rationality.

That's terribly hard by this point. Everyone in social science and the cognate areas of philosophy is familiar with all the decades' worth of back-and-forth on rational actors who choose efficient means toward given ends that even hearing the words triggers a whole set of preprogrammed responses and counter-responses. So Herzog gives us a new word: cunning. He invites and provokes thought on the ways in which the word can be praise and the ways in which it implies wickedness. He plays with the figure of cunning Odysseus to great effect, and helps the reader to wonder what kind of character Odysseus can finally be. The book unsettles some of those very entrenched thoughtless patterns of thought about rationality-- and it doesn't propose new safe patterns into which one could settle. Any reader who feels smug seeing Herzog whack at the other side's idols and icons has missed the point, or has stopped reading at the moment of smugness and missed the turnabout on the following page.

The reflections on method and genre in the introduction and scattered throughout ["foundational justifications are philosophers' pet unicorns; their colorful folklore tells us what they look like, but we have yet to see one"], the bracing skepticism and useful modelling of how we can proceed despite skepticism, are all very useful. But it would be a mistake to read this book in the spirit of ends-means rationality, mining it for what is useful in it. Read this to enjoy it, and learn from it along the way.