Thursday, July 28, 2011

Civil society in a globalizing world

An important component of western political theory since Locke and Rousseau is the notion of civil society—the idea of a society in which members have a variety of cross-cutting activities and associations, and where the state is not the sole source of social power. On this conception, a civil society is one that is characterized by multiple associations, free activities and choices by individuals, and a framework of law that assures rights and liberties for all citizens. It is a society with multiple forms of power and influence, minimizing the potential for exploitation and domination by powerful elites or the state. And it is a society in which citizens have developed a sense of mutual respect and consideration for each other. The fact of civil association serves to enhance the strength of collective identities among citizens, by building new loyalties and affiliations. Citizenship and unity are built through association with other citizens and the knowledge that they can pursue their interests and values through their associations (Robert Putnam, Better Together: Restoring the American CommunityBowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community). But we can emphasize as well the importance of civil associations as a counterweight to the power of the state. Citizens have greater security when they can be confident that the state cannot act against their interests with impunity.

What is involved in sustaining a civil society? What are the conditions that enhance civility within a community? There are several factors that are particularly important. There is solidarity—some degree of shared identity among the individuals who make up the society as groups with interests in common. There is a sense of justice—confidence that the basic institutions are fair to all. There is confidence in the future, that one’s children will have reasonable (and improved) life prospects. There is a sense of dignity—of being treated with human dignity, of being assigned equal human worth. And there is a need for stable, fair, and predictable institutions that give citizens the confidence that they can pursue activities, form associations, and engage in civil discourse without fear. When these conditions are satisfied we can have the greatest confidence in the stability and flourishing of a civil society.

Several of these features fall within the concept of what John Rawls calls a well-ordered society. Rawls introduced the concept of a well-ordered society in A Theory of Justice. It is the conception of society “as a fair system of cooperation over time from one generation to the next, where those engaged in cooperation are viewed as free and equal citizens and normal cooperating members of society over a complete life” (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement : 4). Citizens within a well-ordered society respect one another; they have confidence that their most basic interests are fairly treated; and they have confidence that the basic institutions of society permit them fair access and permit them to pursue their conceptions of the good. A well-ordered society is thus a powerful and pervasive foundation for a stable society, and justice is an important causal factor in sustaining and reproducing a society. The underlying hypothesis is that shared moral values, including particularly the values, that determine the terms of social interaction, create the grounds of stability in a society. And profound disagreement about these values creates the possibility of serious conflict. (Here are a few earlier postings on Rawls's views in this area; link, link).

These ideas find their most common application in the context of local or national communities. How does this concept pertain to the idea of a world society? Is there any meaning we can assign to the notion of a global civil society? Or does this concept apply only to connected populations engaged in face-to-face interactions with each other? Is a global civil society feasible? This would be a world in which all persons recognize and respect the human reality and worth of all others—near and far. It is a world in which people are tied together through cross-cutting civil associations—local, national, and international.  These may include labor organizations, women’s organizations, environmental organizations, or religious groups. It is a world in which persons share a sense of justice—they share a basic agreement on the essential fairness of the institutions that govern their lives. And it is a world in which all people have grounds for hope for the future—that there are opportunities for them to improve their lives, that they will have fair access to these opportunities, and that their children will have better lives than they themselves have had. Such a world has every prospect of sustaining stable, peaceful, and civil social life—both local and international.

How does a theory of global justice relate to this vision (The Paradox Of Wealth And Poverty: Mapping The Ethical Dilemmas Of Global Development)? The connections are profound. Justice requires an urgent commitment to ending poverty throughout the world. It requires a commitment to democracy and human rights—and the effective legal institutions that can secure both. It entails adherence to the values of fairness and human equality, and the importance of reshaping international institutions with these values in mind. And these are precisely the values that are needed to establish the basis of peaceful civil society. If these values are genuinely and deeply embedded in our planning for the future—and if the people of the developing world become convinced that these are real, guiding priorities for the people and governments of the wealthy world—then the potential bonds of international civility will be established. And at the country level the positive institutions of law, democracy, and economic opportunity will reinforce the values of civility and mutual respect.

So the important values that pertain to just global development are arguably critical to a decent future for humanity. A world order that is not grounded in a permanent commitment to human dignity and justice is not only disqualified from the perspective of morality. It is likely to be an increasingly unstable and violent arena for deep and desperate conflict. So for our own sakes and for the sake of future generations we need to commit ourselves in practical and enduring ways to the establishment of global justice, an end to poverty, and the extension of effective democratic and human rights to all persons in all countries.

Three specific points are particularly central. First, poverty is not simply a problem for the poor or for poor countries. Rather, it is a problem for the world, and one that we must confront with determination and resources. This means that we need to develop plans that have a likelihood of success for poverty alleviation; we need to work toward the political consensus that will be needed in order to carry these plans out; and we need to exercise our democratic rights and voices so as to bring about the large commitment of resources that will be needed.  The Millenium Development Goals place this as the first priority (link).

Second, the equality of worth of all persons is an essential moral fact. All persons are equally deserving of attention. And much follows from this fact. The extreme inequalities of life prospects between citizens of the north and the south are inconsistent with this principle. The persistence of anti-democratic and authoritarian regimes throughout the developing world is inconsistent with the equal rights and worth of the citizens who suffer under those regimes. And the inequalities of voice that are present in current international institutions represent an affront to the moral equality of all persons who are affected by those institutions.

Finally, democracy and human rights are critical. It is only through effective democratic institutions for government and decision-making that the interests and concerns of citizens will be aggregated into just policies and progressive social institutions. Democratic institutions permit all citizens to influence the policies that affect the terms of their lives, and they represent a meaningful obstacle to the emergence of exploitation and domination of the powerless by elites.

Are there examples of international settings that embody some of the features of a global civil society? The European Union, and the pan-European institutions and identities that the EU is in the process of forging, offer a promising example of a system that can bring about a just international order. Here we find fledgling experiments in the creation of solidarities that transcend language, religion, nation, or place. And we find an emerging discourse of solidarity that may provide the political basis that will be needed to bring about global justice (and the international transfer of resources and knowledge that this will require). There is a measure of “global thinking” among European citizens that offers a basis for optimism about the feasibility of an engaged world citizenry. OECD institutions have already gone a long way in the direction of giving meaningful priority to the needs of developing countries. The OECD and the Development Assistance Committee represent effective and broadly supported institutional agents of change within the processes of economic development. And surveys of European public opinion suggest an emerging and strengthening public support for global justice (link, link).

Finally, what does the concept of a global civil society imply for the durability of national or cultural identities? Can the Brazilian, Sikh, or Muslim at the same time be a member of a global civil society? This question can be posed at virtually every level of scale—village, region, nation, or global system. And the answer is everywhere the same. One can be both cosmopolitan and Muslim, both Brazilian Catholic and citizen of the world (Martha Nussbaum and Josh Cohen, For Love of Country?), (Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity). In other words, this conception of a just global civil society does not presuppose a process of homogenization of world cultures. Instead, it presumes the development of a cross-cultural consensus about the importance of civility as a necessary context for the many cultural, religious, or national differences that will persist and that constitute one of the positive engines of creativity that are available to the world’s people.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Steinmetz on colonialism

George Steinmetz offers a comparative sociology of colonialism in The Devil's Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa.  More specifically, he wants to explain differences in the implementation of "native policy" within German colonial regimes around the turn of the twentieth century.  He finds that there are significant differences across three major instances of German colonialism (Samoa, Qingdao, Southwest Africa), and he wants to know why. (For example, the Namibia regime was much more violent than the Samoa or Qingdao examples.) This is a causal question, and Steinmetz is one of the most talented sociologists of his cohort in American sociology. So it is worth looking at his reasoning in detail.

One reason this is interesting to me is that it seems to represent a hard case for the perspective of analytical sociology (link, link), with its goal of providing an overarching model of all valid sociological explanations. On its face, Steinmetz's analysis doesn't look much like Coleman's boat -- identify a macro pattern of interest, look for the actors whose behavior gives rise to the pattern, and try to identify individual-level circumstances that cause the pattern through the individuals' actions.  So let's look in a little bit of detail at the explanations that Steinmetz offers.

Here are the guiding research goals for Steinmetz's study.
Social theorists have often treated colonialism as a monolithic object, a uniform condition. Yet even a cursory overview of the historical literature indicates that colonialism is actually an extremely capacious category, encompassing everything from pillage and massacre in the Spanish conquest of the New World to the peaceful coexistence between British rulers and Chinese subjects in late colonial Hong Kong. The colonies that made up the German overseas empire, which lasted from 1884 until the end of World War I, exemplify the enormous variability even within the more delimited category of modern colonialism. This specifically modern variant of European colonialism, as opposed to the early modern (or earlier) forms, is my focus in this book.  I have selected three colonies to illustrate the wide spectrum of colonial native policy, which I will argue below, was the core activity of the modern colonial state.  These colonies are German Southwest Africa, forerunner of modern-day Namibia; German Samoa, precursor of the contemporary nation-state of Samoa; and Kiaochow, a colony that consisted of the city of Qingdao and its surrounding hinterland in China's Shandong Province. (1)
What I try to account for in this book -- my "explanandum" -- is colonial native policy. Four determining structures or causal mechanisms were especially important in each of these colonies: (1) precolonial ethnographic discourses or representations, (2) symbolic competition among colonial officials for recognition of their superior ethnographic acuity, (3) colonizers' cross-identification with imagos of the colonized, and (4) responses by the colonized, including resistance, collaboration, and everything in between.  Two other mechanisms influenced colonial native policy to varying degrees: [5] "economic" dynamics related to capitalist profit seeking (plantation agriculture, mining, trade, and smaller-scale forms of business) and [6] the "political pressures generated by the international system of states. (2)
This book does not attempt to identify any singular, general model of colonial rule.  Indeed, general theory and general laws are widely recognized as implausible goals in the social sciences.  Historians have always preferred complex, overdetermined, conjunctural accounts, but sociologists and some other social scientists have been reluctant to abandon the chimerical goals of parsimony and "general theory." Rather than attempt to use colonial comparisons to fabricate a uniform model of the colonial state, I will seek instead to identify a limited set of generative social structures or mechanisms and to track the ways they interacted to provide ongoing policies. Even though each instance of colonial native policy was shaped by a different constellation of influences, the four primary mechanisms named above were always present and efficacious to varying degrees. (3)
Note that Steinmetz proceeds here in a clearly comparativist fashion (three cases with salient similarities and differences); and he proceeds with the language of causal mechanism in view.  The comparativist orientation implies a desire to identify causal differences across the cases that would account for the differences in outcomes in the cases.  He suggests later in the analysis that all six factors mentioned here are causally relevant; but that the general structural causes (5 and 6) do not account for the variation in the cases.   These structural factors perhaps account for the similarities rather than the differences across the cases. But Steinmetz emphasizes repeatedly that general theories of colonialism cannot account for the wide variation that is found across these three cases.  "The patterns of variation among these three colonies are as puzzling as is the sheer degree of heterogeneity" (19).

So what kind of account does Steinmetz offer for the four key mechanisms he cites?  Consider first factor (2) above, the idea that the specifics of colonial rule depended a great deal on the circumstances of the professional and ideological "field" within which colonial administrators were recruited and served.  (Here is a posting on Bourdieu's concept of "field"; link.)  "Social fields are organized around differences -- differences of perception and practice.  It is difficult to imagine what sorts of materials actors could use in their efforts to carve out hierarchies of cultural distinction if they were faced with cultural formations as flat and uniform as Saidian 'Orientalism'" (45-46).  The idea here is that the particular intellectual and professional environment established certain points of difference around which participants competed. These dividing lines set the terms of professional competition, and prospective colonial administrators as well as functioning administrators needed to establish their program for governance around a distinctive package of these assumptions.
Was the colonial state characterized by common perceptions of distinction and stakes of conflict? German colonial administrators did in fact compete for a specific form of cultural distinction within the ambit of the colonial state, and this struggle guided each individual toward particular kinds of native policy.  ... The colonial stage thus became an exaggerated version of imperial Germany's three-way intraelite class struggle. (48, 49)
This mechanism is a fairly clear one; and it provides a promising basis for explaining some of the otherwise puzzling aspects of colonial rule and native policy.  It derives, fundamentally, from Bourdieu's theories of social capital.  Consider an analogy with current military policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Suppose there are two large ideas of strategy in the air, counter-insurgency and state-building.  Suppose that each of these frameworks of thought has resonance with different groups of powerful political leaders within the government.  And suppose that senior military commanders are interested in establishing their credentials as effective strategists.  It makes sense to imagine that there may be a competition for choosing on-the-ground strategies and tactics that align with the grand strategy the theater commander thinks will further his long-range career success the best.

This mechanism is consistent with an agent-centered theory of explanation: actors (administrators or generals) are immersed in a policy environment in which conflicting ideas about success are debated; the actors seek to align their actions to the framework they judge to be most likely to prevail (and preserve their careers).  No one wants to be the last Curtis LeMay in Vietnam when the prevailing view back home is "winning hearts and minds."  The explanation postulates a social fact -- the prevalence of several intellectual frameworks about the other, several ethnographic discourses; and the individual's immersion in these discourses permits him or her to act strategically in pursuing advantageous goals.
We can often begin to understand why one strand of precolonial discourse rather than another guided colonial practice once we know who was put in charge of a given colony. (54)
So this illustrates the way that factors (1) and (2) work in Steinmetz's explanation.  What about (3)?  This falls in the category of what Steinmetz calls "symbolic and imaginary identifications" (55).  Here Steinmetz turns away from conscious calculation and jockeying on the part of the colonial administrator in the direction of a non-rational psychology. Steinmetz draws on psychoanalytic theory and the theories of Lacan here. But it remains an agent-centered analysis.  Steinmetz refers to elements of mentality as an explanation of the administrators' behavior, and their possession of this mentality needs its own explanation.  But what proceeds from the assumption of this mentality is straightforward; it is a projection of behavior based on a theory of the mental framework of the actor.

The fourth factor in Steinmetz's analysis turns to the states of agency of the colonized.  Here he refers to strategies of response by the subject people to the facts of colonial rule, ranging from cooperation to resistance.
Resistance is located on the opposite side from cooperation. Colonized peoples were able to modulate and revise native policies. By signing up as a native policeman one might be able to temper colonial abuses of power. More frontal forms of resistance could bring a regime of native policy to an abrupt halt and force the colonial state to seek a new approach. (66)
This aspect of the story too is highly compatible with a microfoundations approach; it is straightforward to see how social mobilization theory can be fleshed out in ways that make it an agent-centered approach.

Here is how Steinmetz sums up his account:
The colonial state, I have argued here, can best be understood as a kind of field, one that is structured around opposing principles and interests and around conflict over specific stakes.  Actors in the field of the colonial state competed to accumulate ethnographic capital.  This field's internal heterogeneity and the fact that a field is "a space of possibilities" with an "immense elasticity" meant that colonial policy was never a smooth, continuous process but was prone to sudden shifts in direction. The relative autonomy of the colonial government from the metropolitan state and its independence from other fields in terms of its definition of symbolic capital meant that it was, in fact, a kind of state, even if political theorists have paid little attention to it. Just as it is impossible to generalize about the contents of ethnographic discourse or the policies of the colonial state,neither can one characaterize the "mind of the colonizer" in general terms, except to say that it was as complex and internally contradictory as the subjectivity of the colonized. (517-518)
It should also be noted that a great deal of Steinmetz's account is not explanatory, but rather descriptive and narrative.  He provides detailed accounts of the history and behavior of the colonial regimes in these three settings, and much of the value of the book indeed derives from the research underlying these descriptive accounts.

So Steinmetz's account seems to have several important characteristics.  First, it is interested in providing a contextualized explanation of differences in nominally similar outcomes (different instances of German colonial rule).  Second, it is interested in providing an account of the causal mechanisms that shaped each of the instances, in such a way as to account for their differences.  Third, the mechanisms that he highlights are largely agent-centered mechanisms.  Fourth, the account deliberately highlights the contingency of the developments it describes.  Individuals and particular institutions play a role, as well as historical occurrences that were themselves highly contingent.  And finally, there is a pervasive use of collective concepts like field, ideology, worldview, and ethnography that play a crucial causal role in the story.  These concepts identify a supra-individual factor.  But each of them can be provided with a microfoundational account.  So Steinmetz's analysis here seems to be largely consistent with microfoundationalism.  It diverges from analytical sociology in one important respect, however: Steinmetz does not couch his explanatory goals in terms of the idea of deriving social outcomes from individual-level actions and relations.  Rather, it is for the reader to confirm that the mechanisms cited do in fact have appropriate microfoundations.

(Steinmetz discusses his theoretical approach to colonialism in his interview included in the "interviews" page. Here is an appreciative review of The Devil's Handwritinglink.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Social explanation and causal mechanisms

To explain a social outcome or regularity, we need to provide an account of why and how it came about; and this means providing a causal analysis in terms of which the explanandum appears as a result.

Having a causal theory of a realm requires having an ontology: what kinds of things exist in this realm, and how do they work? Along with others, I offer a social ontology grounded in the actions and relations of socially constituted actors, which I refer to as methodological localism (link). (This is also the ontology asserted by the programme of "analytical sociology";  link.)

This entails, basically, that we need to understand all higher-level social entities and processes as being composed of the activities and thoughts of individual agents at a local level of social interaction; we need to be attentive to the pathways of aggregation through which these local-level activities aggregate to higher-level structures; and we need to pay attention to the iterative ways in which higher-level structures shape and influence individual agents.  Social outcomes are invariably constituted by and brought into being by socially constituted, socially situated individual actors (methodological localism). Both aspects of the view are important. By referring to "social constitution" we are invoking the fact that past social arrangements have created the social actor. By referring to "social situatedness" we invoke the idea that existing social practices and rules constrain and motivate the individual actor. So this view is not reductionist, in the sense of aiming to reduce social outcomes to pre-social individual activity.

We also want to refer to supra-individual actors -- firms, agencies, organizations, social movements, states. The social sciences are radically incomplete without such constructs. But all such references are bound by a requirement of microfoundations: if we attribute intentionality to a firm, we need to be able to sketch out an account of how the individuals of the firm are led to act in ways that lead to the postulated decision-making and action (link).

So, then: what is involved in asserting that social circumstance A causally produces social circumstance B? There are, of course, numerous well developed answers to this question: statistical inference based on correlations of occurrences, conditional probabilities, and necessary-sufficient condition analysis. My view, however, is that there is a more basic meaning of causation: A caused B iff there is a sequence of causal mechanisms leading from A to B. This approach is especially suitable for the social realm because, on the one hand, there are few strong statistical regularities among social outcomes, and on the other, it is feasible to identify social mechanisms through a variety of social research methods -- comparative analysis, process tracing, case studies, and the like.

The social mechanisms approach (and the scientific realism that lies behind it) goes back at least as early as the late 1980s. An early statement of the view was presented in my Varieties Of Social Explanation: An Introduction To The Philosophy Of Social Science in 1991.  Mario Bunge and Jon Elster took similar positions. The view took a large step forward, on the theory side, with the publication of Hedstrom and Swedberg's Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (1998), and on the empirical research side with the publication of McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly's Dynamics of Contention (2001). There are important differences; theorists within analytical sociology largely favor methodological individualism and mechanisms grounded in rational individuals, whereas Tilly and his colleagues favor "relational" mechanisms. But in each case the model of agent-centered explanations that either require microfoundations or are plainly compatible with such a requirement.  (Here is a recent post on causal mechanisms.)

Several social scientists have anticipated this approach through their own concrete analysis of aggregation phenomena.  A good illustration is Thomas Schelling.  His work presents a large number of examples of mundane social outcomes that he explains on the basis of simple individual-level choices and an aggregation mechanism (Micromotives and Macrobehavior, Choice and Consequence). Features of organized crime, traffic patterns, segregation, and dying seminars all come in for treatment.  Schelling demonstrates in concrete terms what sorts of things we can identify as "social mechanisms" and traces them back to the circumstances of action of individuals in social situations.

The framework of social mechanisms as a basis for social explanation raises an important question about the role and scope of generalizability that we expect from a social explanation. Briefly, the mechanisms identified here show a degree of generalizability; as McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly assert, social mechanisms can be expected to recur in other circumstances and times. But the event itself is one-of-a-kind. This is a familiar feature of Tilly's way of thinking about contentious events as well: the American Civil War was a singular historical event. But a good explanation will invoke mechanisms that recur elsewhere. We shouldn't expect to find general theories of civil wars; but our explanations of particular civil wars can invoke quasi-general theories of mid-level mechanisms of conflict and escalation. (Here is a recent posting on general and specific causal claims.)

Another important methodological question for this approach to social explanation is the issue of explaining general statistical patterns in social life.  What if we want to explain something more quantitative -- say a gradually rising divorce rate or the finding that co-habitants before marriage have higher divorce rates than non-co-habitants? On the social mechanisms approach, we would want two things. First, we would like an agent-level mechanism that explains the statistic; and second, we would like to find a common cause if the phenomenon is similar in several countries.

Finally, the actor-based mechanisms approach invites an area of study which is now being referred to as "aggregation dynamics" (link, link).  We need to have theories and tools that permit us to aggregate different micro-level processes over time into meso- and macro-outcomes, taking into account the complexity of causal interactions in a dynamic process.  The tools of agent-based modeling are relevant here (link).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Marx's critique

Marx was a critic above all else. His most comfortable intellectual stance was criticism -- most of the subtitles of his works involve the word "critique". He was, of course, a critic of other thinkers --Proudhon, Smith, Bakunin, for example. And here, the key to criticism is the unearthing of indefensible intellectual presuppositions. But even more importantly, he was a critic of the society he observed around him. The key here is to uncover systemic features of a given society that are fundamentally inconsistent with important human values. His earliest social criticism took its aim at the German society he inhabited in the 1830s and 1840s. But it is his critique of modern capitalist society that is the most enduring, and this critique took shape through his observations of the society and economy of Great Britain in the 1850s and 1860s.

I think that Marx's critique of 19th-century capitalist society can be summarized in three words: exploitation, domination, and alienation. These are simple ideas, but they invoke large and somewhat separate theories. The first has to do with economic relations in capitalism, in which one group extracts wealth from the work of another group. The second has to do with political relations in which one group has the power to compel subordination on the part of another group. And the third has to do with consciousness and the social psychology of the members of capitalist society.

You might say that it is the work of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 to address the first set of questions. Capitalism depends on free labor and freedom of property; it depends on a system of free exchange; so how can exploitation take place? The exploitation inherent in slavery or feudalism is apparent in the formal legal and political relations of those regimes: slaves and serfs are compelled to transfer part of the product of their labor to the masters through a juridical regime enforcing inequality. But how does this work in the system of free exchange in capitalism? Marx's answer, briefly, is that the privilege of ownership of the means of production allows owners to set the wage at a level that permits the creation of a profit; this profit is a form of surplus value.

Marx's political writings, and his writings about power within capitalism, are less systematic. But in his writings about French politics and the revolution of 1848 he expresses some of his ideas about how domination works through a political system (Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The Civil War in France: The Paris Commune). And in Capital he offers a vivid description of the social power wielded by the capitalist (link).
On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

Marx's writings about alienation are among his earliest writings. The most systematic exposition occurs in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he describes the social consciousness associated with the "modern" factory system. The worker is separated from the product; he is separated from the process; and he is separated from his own essence, his creative capacity for invention and creative labor. Here are a few representative passages (link).
We proceed from an actual economic fact.

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers[18]; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.[19]
All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.
Estranged labor turns thus:

(3) Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.

(4) An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man. What applies to a man’s relation to his work, to the product of his labor and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labor and object of labor.

In fact, the proposition that man’s species-nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man’s essential nature.

The estrangement of man, and in fact every relationship in which man [stands] to himself, is realized and expressed only in the relationship in which a man stands to other men.

Each of these theories highlights a different dimension of the social reality of modern society, in Marx's worldview. Each implies a positive theory of a good society; it is one that emphasizes a kind of human equality, and a positive view of society as an environment that enables the full development of each as a condition of the full development of all. So equality and the fullness of human flourishing are the underlying values.

Finally, there are systemic connections among the three areas. It takes power to sustain an exploitative system; so exploitation and domination are interlinked. A specific group of individuals are privileged by both systems; and Marx has a subtle view of the ways in which the propertied classes wield power through a group of power specialists. Alienation, finally, is a predictable consequence of the circumstances of life created by the social relations of exploitation and domination. There is the alienation of the worker; but there is also the alienation of the consumer and the voter, each carried along by a system of activity that frustrates real human engagement and satisfaction.

Does any of this seem relevant in the contemporary world? The inequalities we see in the current economy certainly suggests the idea of exploitation of someone; wealth is being created and a large proportion of it is flowing to a small privileged group. Power is visibly concentrated in contemporary society -- whether it comes to legislation, regulation, or the influence of the media. This implies a degree of domination on the part of a small segment of society -- a "ruling elite". And few would doubt that there seems to be a growing sense of value-less-ness in contemporary society -- a condition strikingly like what Marx described as alienation. So it certainly seems timely for all of us to sharpen our critical skills and help figure out what we need to do to create the foundations of a more just and more humanly satisfying social order.

This is a short posting about a large subject. Is it possible to argue that these few paragraphs capture the heart of the view? Could Marx have formulated his key ideas in a posting in the New York Herald Tribune? Essentially, I'd like to argue yes. Much of Marx's work takes the form of detailed discovery of the facts that make this case and an unconvincing effort to formulate a mathematical economic theory, the labor theory of value. But what is probably of the greatest value today are the dimensions of social criticism outlined here, not the economic theory.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Academic freedom from Hofstadter to Dworkin

Academic freedom is a core value in American higher education. At certain times in our history it is a value that has been severely challenged, including especially during the McCarthy period of the 1950s. But what, precisely, does it entail?

One way of starting on this topic is to consider Richard Hofstadter's writings on the subject. Hofstadter was an historian who did an excellent job of tracking some deep currents in American political culture, including the powerful currents of progressivism, conservatism and paranoia that American politics have embodied over the past two centuries (The Progressive Movement: 1900-1915, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics). (Here is an informative review of Hofstadter's biography in the New York Times.)

One of those currents on the progressive side is the idea of academic freedom. Hofstadter was a champion of the value of intellectual discourse in a democracy, and Development of Academic Freedom in United States (with Walter Metzger, 1955) was a direct response to the attack on the academic freedoms of professors of the McCarthy period beginning in 1953. (The first part of this book was later published as Academic Freedom in the Age of the College (1961), which covers the history of the freedoms assigned to colleges and universities from the European middle ages to American colleges at the time of the Civil War.) The project as a whole is an interesting one. It was funded by the American Academic Freedom Project at Columbia as a response to Joseph McCarthy's attack on universities and professors. Hofstadter's part of the project was to write a history of the evolving idea of academic freedom from the European middle ages through the American colleges of the 1860s. Walter Metzger's contribution analyzed the development of universities and academic freedom in America after the 1860s. Robert MacIver wrote a companion volume, Academic Freedom in Our Time.

What is lacking in Development of Academic Freedom is an analytical definition of the idea of academic freedom. Hofstadter is clearest in his defense of the idea of the independent intellectual, whether in the medieval Italian university of the nineteenth century American university. But neither he nor Metzger give a succinct definition of the concept of academic freedom itself.

So what is academic freedom? And how is it distinct from the other kinds of freedoms we have as either constitutional protections or fundamental human rights -- freedom of association, freedom of speech and thought, freedom of expression? Fundamentally the idea is that the faculty of a university have a more extensive and specialized version of each of these fundamental freedoms, and that their exercise of their academic freedom cannot be used as a basis for dismissing them from their positions within the university. (This is the fundamental justification of the system of faculty tenure.) The employees of a corporation have a right of freedom of expression; but their conditions of employment may set limits on their exercise of that freedom. For example, there are numerous examples of people dismissed from their jobs in the private sector as a result of their comments about the company they work for. The idea of academic freedom is that professors have a special right to think, reason, and express their ideas about subjects relevant to their teaching and research responsibilities without fear of sanction by the universities (or legislatures) that employ them.

A second dimension of the idea of academic freedom is institutional. The university ought to be significantly autonomous from the power centers of society in its internal organization and decision-making. The curriculum, the subjects that are taught and researched, and the processes of appointment and review of faculty should be governed by the processes of the university rather than external powers in society. And most fundamentally, this aspect of the idea depends on the notion that the pursuit of truth should depend on the rational procedures of the disciplines of the sciences and humanities, not on the particular interests of powerful segments of society.

The classical justification for the idea of a form of academic freedom more extensive than the general freedoms that citizens enjoy qua citizens derives essentially from arguments expressed in the nineteenth century in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty: the pursuit of truth requires the untrammeled exploration of and expression of conflicting ideas, so that rational citizens can arrive at a better understanding of the issues. Here is how the 1940 AAUP statement puts the point (link):
Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.[1]
The argument is fundamentally utilitarian: Society is best served when it embodies a university system that is fundamentally committed to the the principles of academic freedom.

Here is the classic statement of academic freedom from the AAUP Red Book, drafted in 1940 (link).

Academic Freedom
  1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
  2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.[2] Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.[3]
  3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.[4]
This statement refers to three zones of academic freedom: in research and publication, in the classroom, and in "extramural expressions" by faculty members in the exercise of their ordinary citizens' rights of expression. Essentially this final point comes down to the idea that a faculty member has an ordinary citizen's right to express ideas that are unpopular to the public without punishment, "censorship or discipline" from the university for this expression. Noam Chomsky's opinions about the Vietnam War or the Gulf War were often unpopular with officials and the public; but his academic freedom assured that he would not be censored by his university employer. An employee of Northrup or Krogers would not have had the same protections. (Note that principle 3 is the most qualified of the three, and sets somewhat vague limits on the content and form of extra-mural utterances by the faculty member.)

The AAUP statement does not separately justify its inclusion of the extramural principle; but presumably it goes along these lines. Determining public policy in a democracy requires open debate among well informed citizens. Faculty members are well positioned to develop their knowledge and arguments about important public issues -- welfare reform, desegregation, war and peace. The public and the common good are well served by a set of arrangements that enable faculty members to speak their minds without fear of retaliation from their university employers. So it is felicitous to extend the protections of academic freedom to expressions by faculty members in the public sphere as well as within the university.

The philosopher of jurisprudence Ronald Dworkin provided a pivotal contribution to Louis Menand's The Future of Academic Freedom (1998). Dworkin argues that the issues surrounding academic freedom have shifted since the 1970s, and that they have as much to do with criticisms of faculty speech from the left as from the right. Here is how Dworkin describes the essentials of academic freedom:
We begin reinterpreting academic freedom by reminding ourselves of what, historically, it has been understood to require and not to require. It imposes two levels of insulation. First, it insulates universities, colleges, and other institutions of higher education from political institutions like legislatures and courts and from economic powers like large corporations. A state legislature has, of course, the right to decide which state universities to establish -- whether, for example, to add an agricultural or a liberal arts college to the existing university structure. But once political officials have established such an institution, fixed its academic character and its budget, and appointed its officials, they may not dictate how those they have appointed should interpret that character or who should teach what is to be taught, or how. Second, academic freedom insulates scholars from the administrators of their universities: university officials can appoint faculty, allocate budgets to departments, and in that way decide, within limits, what curriculum will be offered. But they cannot dictate how those who have been appointed will teach what has been decided will be taught. (183)
In addition to the utilitarian reasons for defending academic freedom mentioned above, Dworkin argues that there is also a principled ethical basis for these institutional protections based on his theory of "ethical individualism".

It seems relatively clear that academic freedom is a fragile value that depends substantially on the willingness of the public to recognize its crucial role in securing democratic progress, and legislatures and elected officials who are prepared to resist the inclination to narrow its scope. And it also seems right that Hofstadter's central intuitions about universities are still the strongest justification for the defense of academic freedom: the integrity of intellectuals and scholars seeking and debating the truth and the contribution they can make to a civil democracy. Here is how Robert MacIver puts this point in Academic Freedom in Our Time:
The search for knowledge, honestly undertaken, is a moral discipline. With the pursuit of this discipline goes the liberation from intolerance. . . Thus the intellectual mission of the university becomes also a moral one. Men sensitive to experience may learn the lesson in other ways, but the institution of learning is a major training ground. . . . Not knowledge itself but the free search for and the free communication of knowledge distinguishes the open mind from the closed mind, and the open society from the closed society.... The attack on academic freedom is an attack on all these values. (261-262.)
Here is a review of Hofstadter and Metzger, Development of Academic Freedom in United States as well as MacIver, Academic Freedom in Our Time. Here is an article in the Journal of Philosophy on MacIver's book, including a fascinating letter by John Dewey to the New York Times in 1949 on the subject of academic freedom. And here is an AAUP piece in Academe on what it regards as a different kind of threat to academic freedom -- from commercial and corporate interests.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Food and water

It seems likely enough that one of the largest global security issues in the next fifty years will be food and water.  There is a brewing food crisis underway already, with prices for staple grains rising world wide, and poor countries are beginning to experience the consequences.  But a crisis in fresh water seems not too far in the future as well.  Both these necessities depend on inherently scarce resources: arable land and large sources of fresh water.  Along with energy, these goods are crucial to every person and every country in the world; and this in turn suggest the possibility of serious conflict over these resources in the future.

So what makes food and water a global security crisis? How does the possibility of dearth at the family level get transformed into the possibility of international conflict? Rising food prices create social unrest at the national level long before they lead to famine or malnutrition. International grain markets have been unstable over the past decade, with periodic upward spikes in prices. And grain riots have occurred as a consequence in a number of developing countries. This piece from DemocracyNow from 2008 documents demonstrations and riots across a range of African countries (link), with an interview with Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.  Here are some updates from the Christian Science Monitor (link) and Energy Bulletin (link), including riots in Algeria in 2011.

The bottom line of several of these reports is fairly simple: the international trade system for grains, including especially rice and wheat, periodically undergoes abrupt and prolonged price rises, and these price increases have dire consequences for urban poor and middle class people in the developing world.  When a large population mobilizes in protest against rising food prices, national governments are at risk. And this is where the security risk comes in: when countries like Algeria or Morocco suffer serious instability, this has the potential of leading to international instability in the region as well.

Here is another, more distant cause of international tension that comes from the food crisis.  Governments are interested in taking steps to provide greater food security for their own populations.  And this sometimes involves taking actions that are harmful for other countries or for other populations.  One symptom of the pressures mounting on the world food system is a widespread land grab of agricultural land around the developing world.  Here is a report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on this issue (link) and a piece from the Guardian that describes the situation a few years ago (link), and here is a FastCompany story about China's land purchases (link). The FAO report documents a significant transfer of land ownership from developing countries to middle and upper income countries; this implies serious future constraints on the development possibilities available to those countries.  And it suggests a new form of colonialism -- not direct governance, but substantial absentee ownership.  This too has the potential for stimulating international conflict.

So what about water?  Here is a recent report by the Council for Foreign Relations on the interconnected consequences of fresh water shortages in different parts of the world (link).  In this piece the effects of China's water crisis are traced internationally.  Here is an inventory of resources by GlobalPolicy on international conflicts over water (link); it is a long list of potential conflicts.  Here is the introduction the editors offer:
As demand for water hits the limits of finite supply, potential conflicts are brewing between nations that share transboundary freshwater reserves. More than 50 countries on five continents might soon be caught up in water disputes unless they move quickly to establish agreements on how to share reservoirs, rivers, and underground water aquifers. The articles and analysis below examine international water disputes, civil disturbances caused by water shortages, and potential regulatory solutions to diffuse water conflict.
Chinese-financed dam projects in Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia indicate how high the stakes are. The great rivers of Southeast Asia now face a major of challenges as a result of plans for hydroelectric dams regulating flow to downriver users. Here is a piece from the Irrawaddy on the controversies surrounding the Myitsone Dam in northern Burma; link.  Similar issues arise on the Mekong River and other great rivers in the region; link.  The problems that have arisen with regard to dams in Southeast Asia include displacement of villages and towns, serious environmental damage, and significant lowering of water levels in many of the great rivers of the region.  Here is a background piece in Global Policy Forum on China's massive expansion of hydropower; link.

These sources of conflict over the most basic necessities of life suggest the need for serious international planning today to arrive at equitable and sustainable regimes for resolving conflicts over resources in the future.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Idealist philosophy of history

In a previous post I commended W.H. Walsh's approach to the philosophy of history for Walsh's sympathetic effort to understand both traditions in the field, including what is called "speculative" philosophy of history (An Introduction to Philosophy of History). And Walsh is to be commended as well for his analytical ability to formulate and explicate these positions. This is in fact what we want from good historians of philosophy -- a detailed, text-based explication of the theories of difficult thinkers such as Hegel and Dilthey.

So the fact that Walsh offers an extended and nuanced interpretation of the efforts by Hegel, Herder, and Dilthey is to his credit as an exegetical scholar. But a key issue remains: do the positions that he explicates stand up to criticism? Is there in fact an intellectually credible place for speculative or idealist philosophy of history?

Walsh's position seems to be ambiguous on this question. On the one hand, he seems sometimes simply to be saying that there is a meaningful and philosophically intelligible program of thought associated with the speculative school -- which is consistent with an ultimate finding that this program fails in execution. And at other times he seems to go further and to assert that Hegel or Herder actually succeed in providing something of a substantive speculative philosophy of history that adds to our knowledge. Here is how he describes the intellectual work Hegel seeks to complete:
To accomplish this task the philosopher must take the results of empirical history as data, but it will not suffice for him merely to reproduce them. He must try to illuminate history by bringing his knowledge of the Idea, the formal articulation of reason, to bear upon it, striving, in a phrase Hegel uses elsewhere, to elevate empirical contents to the rank of necessary truth. (143)
Here is part of Walsh's assessment of the success of Hegel's project:
We must now try to estimate the adequacy of this defence. As regards the first point, it is surely successful. I have tried to stress throughout this chapter and the last the metaphysical and moral context within which speculative philosophy of history arose and was pursued. As we have seen, those engaged in these enquiries were concerned to divine the meaning or point or rationality behind the historical process as a whole, and they took up this question primarily because of its metaphysical relevance. (148)
My own assessment of idealist philosophy of history as presented by Walsh is measured. First, Walsh includes the centrality of action and ideas within history as a central tenet of idealist philosophy of history. This is Collingwood's central idea, and it seems to be Dilthey's as well. And in my opinion, it is a credible and empirically suitable hypothesis. Even if we conclude in the end that there is more to the historical process than deliberation and action, we can agree that action is a highly important component. And therefore an explication of the ways we investigate and interpret meanings and actions is a valid exercise. It falls in the category of epistemology, with a harmless bit of ontology stirred in (the constitutive importance of action).

But it must be emphasized that this perspective doesn't rule out other important insights into the ways that historical change takes place. In particular, we can also adhere to a limited materialism and structuralism in history, following Marx in holding that "men make their own history, but not in circumstance of their own choosing."

Second, I'm willing to be persuaded that there is a valid object of study for philosophers in the logical-semantic systems that thinkers like Hegel have created; and this extends to their philosophies of history. So the philosophical study and explication of metaphysical philosophy of history is a rationally acceptable enterprise as well.

What I have difficulty in accepting is that such a system can actually succeed. When Walsh writes that the goal of the historian and the philosopher is to tell the story of history in such a way that all the events make sense within the context of a master narrative -- when he proposes that the goal of the philosophy of history is to discover the real meaning and rationality of history as a whole -- I believe he is describing an effort that cannot succeed. There is no single unifying meaning or plan in history. And efforts to "colligate" events in such a way as to demonstrate that they contribute to such a plan seem to be unguided acts of creativity.

It is a commonplace that a series of actual events can be interpreted in different and apparently incompatible ways. We can attribute different motives to the actors and interpret their actions in such a way as to tell very different stories. (This is what we refer to as the "Rashomon effect".)  In ordinary settings we can sometimes gain more evidence to choose between them. But when the choice is between interpretation frameworks at the highest level -- a materialist theory of history and a theory based on the unfolding of reason, for example -- we can't possibly provide empirical evidence that would choose between these all-encompassing hypotheses.

So I'm putting my bets on several ideas: yes to the validity of the hermeneutic program, yes to the interpretive task of understanding the great metaphysical systems from a philosophical point of view, and no to the idea of rationally justifiable interpretations of the whole of history. In Walsh's terms this means yes to a limited idealism, yes to the task of the history of philosophy, and no to the aspiration towards a substantive metaphysics of history.

And, indeed, Walsh seems eventually to come to a similar conclusion:
Our speculative philosophy of history must accordingly be a mixed one. In a way, we are forced to characterize it as utterly wrong-headed, since its programme amounts to an attempt to comprehend history from the outside; an attempt which, as Croce made clear long ago, cannot have any appeal for working historians. On the other hand, its most celebrated exponents certainly did make an important indirect contribution to the development of historical studies, as we have just tried to show.  Whether there is any future in this type of philosophizing is another question, dependent, it would seem, on what chance there is of anyone's producing a tenable moral justification of the course history has taken. (153-54)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

W. H. Walsh's philosophy of history

English-speaking philosophers have often made a hash of the philosophy of history. Either they have had such disdain for continental philosophy that they could not get their minds around the thoughts of a Hegel or a Dilthey, or they became pre-occupied with certain minor linguistic or logical issues and therefore couldn't get to the more serious problems. W. H. Walsh was a surprising exception in the British environment of the 1950s. His Philosophy of History. An Introduction, first published in 1951 and revised in 1960, is an open-minded and very well grounded effort to provide an in-depth presentation of the field.

The book attempts to treat both major aspects of the philosophy of history: the nature of historical knowledge and the possibility of gaining “metaphysical” knowledge about history. An Oxford philosopher evidently trained in modern philosophy, Walsh was strongly influenced by Collingwood and was well aware of the European idealist tradition of philosophical thinking about history, including Rickert, Dilthey, and Croce, and he treats this tradition in a serious way. He draws the distinction between these traditions along the lines of “critical” and “speculative” philosophy of history. Walsh’s goal for the book is ambitious; he hopes to propose a framework within which the main questions about history can be addressed, including both major traditions. I find the book to be an excellent piece of work on the subject, and very enjoyable to work through. Here are a couple of large groups of questions that he poses in the book in order to formulate a structure for thinking about the philosophy of history.

Walsh lays out the field of the philosophy of history along the following lines.

First, he offers some ideas about the subject matter and knowledge content of history. He describes the goal of historical inquiry in these terms:
[The historian] aims ... at a reconstruction of the past which is both intelligent and intelligible. (32)
What every historian seeks for is not a bare recital of unconnected facts, but a smooth narrative in which every event falls as it were into its natural place and belongs to an intelligible whole. (33)
The historian is presented with a number of events, actions, and developments during a period. How do they hang together? The process of cognition through which the historian makes sense of a set of separate historical events Walsh refers to as "colligation":
Colligation: to locate a historical event in a larger historical process in terms of which it makes sense (23). This process of reasoning serves to establish the "inner connections between certain historical events" (24).
Walsh fundamentally accepts Collingwood's most basic premise: that history concerns conscious human action. Collingwood's slogan was that "history is the science of the mind," and Walsh appears to accept much of this perspective. So the key intellectual task for the historian, on this approach, is to reconstruct the reasons or motives that actors had at various points in history (and perhaps the conditions that led them to have these reasons and motives). This means that the tools of interpretation of meanings and reasons are crucial for the historian -- much as the hermeneutic philosophers in the German tradition had argued.


One of the central questions that Walsh identifies is whether history is a part of "science," or whether it is a sui generis kind of knowledge. Here is Walsh's summary definition of the key features of a field of scientific knowledge:
We may sum up the results of this brief attempt to bring out the main features of the common conception of science and scientific knowledge as follows. We apply the term "science" to knowledge which (i) is methodically arrived at and systematically related; (ii) consists of, or at least includes, a body of general truths; (iii) enables us to make successful predictions and so to control the future course of events, in some measure at least; (iv) is objective, in the sense that it is such as every unprejudiced observer ought to accept if the evidence were put before him, whatever his personal predilections or private circumstances. (36)
And he argues that history satisfies (i); probably not (ii); not (iii); and qualified yes to (iv). In other words, according to Walsh, history is not a science in the paradigmatic sense of physics or chemistry.

If history is not "science," then what kind of knowledge is it? The main alternative is what Walsh characterizes as the idealist conception of historical knowledge. Here is what Walsh refers to as the "standard idealist account of historical knowledge":
History, because it offers a body of knowledge methodically arrived at, is a science; but it is a science of a peculiar kind. It is not an abstract but a concrete science, and it terminates not in general but in individual truths. 43
Nature we must look at from the outside, but thoughts and experiences are accessible to us from within. We can grasp them in a unique way because we can re-think or re-live them, imaginatively putting ourselves in the place of the persons, past or present, who first thought or experienced them. (44)
The idealist theory of history, we may begin by remarking, consists in essentials of two propositions. First, that history is, in a sense which remains to be specified, properly concerned with human thoughts and experiences. And second that, just because of this, historical understanding is of a unique and immediate character. (48)
These characteristics recall German historicism and interpretivism. (See this post on the methodological crisis in German thought around 1900; link.)


Walsh suggests that the philosophical content of the philosophy of history falls naturally into two different sorts of inquiry, parallel to the distinction between philosophy of nature and philosophy of science. The first has to do with metaphysical questions about the reality of history as a whole; the latter has to do with the epistemic issues that arise in the pursuit and formulation of knowledge of history. He refers to these approaches as "speculative" and "critical" aspects of the philosophy of history. And he attempts to formulate a view of what the key questions are for each approach.

Speculative philosophy of history asks --
  • What is the meaning and purpose of the whole historical process? (25)
  • Can we "write such an account of the detailed course of historical events that its 'true' significance and 'essential' rationality are brought out?" (25)
  • What is the main driving factor in history? (Marx: economics) (26)
  • "We may summarize by saying that if the philosopher can be said to have any specific concern with the course of history, it must be with that course as a whole, i.e., with the significance of the whole historical process." (27)
Walsh take a supportive or or at least agnostic position on these questions; he asserts that they are meaningful questions and can meaningfully be considered. This is in contrast to the position of the verificationist end of the analytic philosophy spectrum, which would deny the meaningfulness of these questions (and proposed answers).

Critical philosophy of history asks these four key sets of questions:
  • "What sort of thing is history and how does it relate to other studies?" (16)
  • Are there "facts" in history? What makes a historical statement "true"? (18)
  • Is historical knowledge "objective"? (19) [historian's bias; rational decidability]
  • What is the nature of a historical explanation? (22)
Critical philosophy is what we now refer to as "analytic" philosophy; it is the equivalent for history of what the philosophy of science is for nature.

The book is divided into two large discussions. Chapters II-V treat these four major groups of questions for critical philosophy of history. Chapters VI-VIII focus on the issues and theories offered by Kant, Herder, Hegel, and a few others on "metaphysical" questions about history.


It is interesting to consider the intellectual origins of innovative philosophical insights. So where did this philosophical perspective and methodology come from in Walsh's own development? Walsh is plainly an expert on the history of modern philosophy, including especially German philosophy. This means that he has read, and thought about, the tradition from Kant and Schleiermacher and Herder to Hegel and Dilthey, and is able to make philosophical sense of their theories. He authored a number of articles on Kant, Hegel, and other German philosophers, and was the author of a book on Kant's metaphysics (Kant's Criticism of Metaphysics). What does this imply about his training and his development within British philosophy? He entered Merton College, Oxford, in roughly 1930, and took his first professional post as a philosopher at Merton College in 1947 through 1960. The bulk of his academic career was spent at the University of Edinburgh as a professor of logic and metaphysics. So here is the interesting question for me: to what extent was Walsh an analytic philosopher, in the mold of Russell, Ayer, and Ryle, and to what extent was he an idealist philosopher, in the pattern of Collingwood or Bradley? (He refers several times to Ryle's The Concept of Mind.) His comments in the first chapter of the book suggest that he positions himself separately from both camps, while understanding the philosophical perspectives and methods of both. The evidence of this book suggests that he had an admirably pluralistic approach to the problems of philosophy.

Here is a bibliography of some of Walsh's published articles and reviews (link), and here is a reconsideration of his philosophy of history with regard to "facts and truth," published in 1977 in History and Theory as a review of Leon J. Goldstein, Historical Knowing (Austin, Texas and London, University of Texas Press, 1976). In the course of the review he considers how the discipline of analytic philosophy of history has developed since 1951, and he finds that three of his four questions have come in for very extensive discussion.

(I discovered along the way, an amazing bargain as a Kindle book, Marnie Hughes Warrington's Fifty Key Thinkers on History, Second Edition ($14). The book has 3000-word discussions of fifty important historians and philosophers -- Bloch, Collingwood, Dilthey, Hempel, Obsbawm, Oakeshott, Ricoeur, Vico -- and is well worth having on the Kindle. The essays are concise and informative, and they generally raise the big issues that were important to the various thinkers. There is an entry for Walsh as well.)