The Corner

If Derb Were The Devil….

This is what you’d say to exorcize him. From a reader:

I have included some of your remarks on theory (by which I mean political theory) below and would like to take some time to respond.

One of the key comments you made was the following, “I don’t think even the most pragmatic conservative realist in the world would deny the power of theory — on other people.” This seems to me to be an interesting argument, but one which doesn’t really grapple with what political theory truly is. You talk of the power of theory in an almost scientific (or positivist) sense in that theories are suppositions or prescriptions for the best political regime. While this is certainly true of political thinkers as Marx, Hegel, and (dare I say) Hitler, this is not the nature of “political theory.” The listed thinkers did present political models for a regime, but they were also limited by their own reliance on materialism. Marx presented dialectical materialism as his means of addressing the human problem. He had an “answer” to human affairs. Not in the sense that many think. He didn’t prescribe a solution, he merely “observed” an eventuality. For him the communist revolution was an end to history not an answer to the best regime it merely was the last regime (best or not). Radicals -or German Idealists- made this a prescription for the ills of society. This is not a defense of Marx in any way, but understanding how he views the end of history (not the ends which in a sense would be Hegelian) allows one to attack his thought by seeing if his observations are true. Are the conditions of workers in industialized countries continually worsening? etc.

Political theory in the sense that those who study it usually apply it is not about creating the best regime or prescribing specific solutions to the ills of society. Rather the journey is more complex than that. Political theorists ask questions of regimes and strive for “knowledge” not “opinion” of the best regime in the broadest sense. In the Classical piece most likely to be viewed as prescriptive “The Republic,” Plato presents the best regime as “The City in Speech.” Aristotle and the rest of history attack this “prescription” as unrealistic and unworkable. Aristotle does this carefully, we tend to do it in a knee-jerk Popperesque way. Aristotle attacks the particulars of the regime not the ends, he does the same with “The Laws.” But the question of “The Republic” is not what constitutes the best regime at all, rather it asks what is “Justice?” This is the first question one should ask when trying to build a regime, because justice is the ends of the best regime. It is the summum bonum of politics. Does Plato provide us with an answer to the question of Justice? No…he provides us with a method of asking about Justice which may lead us to knowledge rather than mere opinion.

Aristotle does similar things in his “Politics.” In it he discusses the best regime, but only with regard to its ends– Justice. His prescription is to have a mixed regime. How much of a mixing? What type of regime? These questions are not answered specifically because the answer differs depending on the components making up the city. He, like Plato, gives us a method to question the assumptions we have based on our opinions. One of the most useful arguments he presents us with is the difference between a good man and a good citizen. To be a good citizen in a tyranny one only need support the tyranny etc.

So your comparison of theory as prescription or model isn’t really an appropriate comparison when talking about theory as a discipline (especially when talking about Mansfield, Bloom, Strauss, etc. more so when talking about Jaffa).

All that being said, your Theory of Theory, “Goldberg’s Theory Of Theory: Theory good when explaining things. Theory dangerous when changing things,” seems valid. At the same time it seems a tautology. Theory is good when explaining things is what I mean when I use political theory. When changing things is when using theory in the postivistic sense and any prescription is dangerous especially when it hasn’t been properly disected which is what “Political Theorists” are for. The difference between Dahl and Strauss is that Dahl’s theory of democracy tries to be application and Strauss’ seeks to be understanding.

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