Archive

Tag Archives: Political Philosophy

I have been revisiting some old writing lately. Some of it should be confined to the dustbin… some of it deserves more consideration. These thoughts on Agamben & Strauss I’d say deserve more thought. They were the focus of an old conference paper I once gave, and then never did anything with. Writing and reading is purely for pleasure now, so I’m not sure what I will do next, but these thoughts have some kernel of usefulness in them, I believe.  With the publication of Strauss’s lectures, and helpful volumes such as the recent collection on Strauss’s 1930s work (“Reorientation”), obviously the literature would need to be addressed anew. I’ve long thought that Strauss needs to supplement the arguments that Agamben makes in Homo Sacer, especially given that Agamben mentions him by name. What follows is the beginning of such an attempt. 

“What is Security?” Two answers from Strauss & Agambem

Strauss’s “Notes on Carl Schmitt” have been translated and published alongside Schmitt’s treatise since 1996, while the appearance of Homo Sacer in English in 1998—a book that takes up the debate on emergency powers between Schmitt and Walter Benjamin—shows readers that Strauss’s philosophy is one of the touchstones from which Agamben’s critique takes its bearings.  Agamben, while introducing his understanding of the distinction between zoe and bios says the following:  “The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not (like Leo Strauss’s thesis concerning the secret convergence of the final goals of liberalism and communism) a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their histories and rivalry” (Agamben 1998, 10).  That is, Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political philosophy in Agamben’s presentation is unable to “thematically interrogate the link between bare life and politics” and cannot “bring the political out of its concealment and, at the same time, return thought to its practical calling” (Agamben 1998, 4-5).  Agamben turns to Strauss again at the very conclusion of the work:

Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zōe and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city.  This is why the restoration of classical political categories proposed by Leo Strauss and, in a different sense, by Hannah Arendt can have only a critical sense.  There is no return from the camps to classical politics. (1998, 187)

Agamben has picked a fine interlocutor, though it is unclear how aware Agamben is of this fact, as Strauss demonstrates a surprising ability to respond to Agamben’s challenges.[1]  Agamben mentions Strauss on other time in Homo Sacer, during his discussion of the distinction between physis [nature] and nomos [law/custom/convention].[2]  There, Agamben identifies the “classical natural right” teaching—by way of Strauss—to be the use of the “law of nature” to undermine the “Sophistic opposition” between nature and nomos (1998, 35).[3]

Read More

Advertisements

I’m struggling with how to “introduce” my dissertation, now that it is finally, officially, the end game for writing. Looking through notebooks and old files I found my preparatory work for my Proposal defense. It isn’t quite appropriate for the dissertation itself, but it’s always nice to revisit the clarity with which one thought about a project at its beginnings, as opposed to the layers upon layers of literature that obfuscate at the end of it. Here’s what I had to say, then:

Read More

If you’ve found your way to this space, then you’re likely already familiar with the work of Sergei Prozorov.  The depth of his thought on International Relations as Political Philosophy is hard to match.  I’d say that he has, more explicitly than any other writer, taken up Rob Walker’s call in 1993 to do IR as Political Theory.  After all, that is all that “international relations” is, and it is certainly all that the discipline of IR theory is. We have not benefited one iota from the separation of Political Theory proper from IR Theory, in the academic world or outside of it.  I have taken to describing my self as a “political theorist” whose area of concentration is “IR”, and I think that this descriptor would fit a great many.   But the occasion for this post is the review of both volumes of Prozorov’s Void Universalism (the first volume is Ontology and World Politics, the second is Theory of the Political Subject) that appeared today in Contemporary Political Theory, written by my friend Dr Robert Oprisko.  You can read it here.  I will pull out only one quote from the first volume of Void Universalism that picks up some of my favourite themes:

In this classic article Wight (1960, ‘Why is there no International Theory?’) famously distinguished between ‘domestic’ political theory, whose object was the territorially delimited state, as the theory of ‘good life’ and ‘international’ theory, whose object was the relations between these state with no overarching authority above them, as the theory of ‘mere survival’… More important for our purposes is Wight’s constitution of the domain of international theory by the subtraction of all positive content of ‘good life’, reserved for political theory proper, which leaves ‘international theory’ reduced to a theory of mere survival.  International theory is thus from the outset conceived in the privative mode as ‘political theory minus’.

This is exactly right.  I don’t say that often, so it’s important to do so when appropriate. Now is such a time.  I’ve tried to make this point in a different and much more inelegant way by arguing that sovereignty and security are one-and-the-same concept, and the question of the good life, ‘how must one live?’, is answered with one word: securely.  But I will restate this formulation of mine, which I have yet to improve on: the logic of inside/outside is made possible by the noetic heterogeneity of the good.  Prozorov destroys the intellectual borders and boundaries of IR by giving IR a more important role in the enlightenment of the human race than we usually accord it, or than it usually allows itself.  That is no small feat.  Read the books.  Both of them.  I am.

Rousseau ends The Social Contract by saying that he has yet to speak about the state’s foreign relations, international law, rights of war, commerce, and so on. In short, he can write an entire treatise on the ideal sovereign state without addressing these questions. This puts the matter too simply, of course. He does not go so far as Aristotle does, imagining a city with no foreign relations whatsoever – that would be a true Utopia, because it would never exist. But it serves to show the extent to which Rousseau thought the questions that we present-moderns take as primary – security, war, peace, external relations, markets, trade, THE ECONOMY – Rousseau thought to be secondary to the important question of the just and good regime.

Read More

I’ve read a lot of Rousseau. Far more than most but also less than those self-identifying as “Rousseau Scholars”. Still, I think I understand him once in a while. Reading his Statement on St Pierre’s Project, that is, Rousseau critique of the idea of Perpetual Peace, I see Rousseau confirms something that I was accused of getting wrong in a public setting. Sour grapes this is not. Rousseau is exasperating and confusing. He means everything he says and refuses to say everything he means. Once in a while I get confirmation from him that I was on the right track, and this just happened once again. (n.b. I say this in full knowledge that he’ll pull the rug out from under me soon enough – but this is the price you pay when studying him).

The point at issue here is the status of International Relations in his thought. I am returning to some research on Rousseau and Schmitt re: Sovereignty pretty soon, so I thought I’d give the St Pierre commentary a closer read than I previously have. Now, one of the points that I thought was clear to me was that foreign relations in Rousseau are totally subordinate to the pursuit of the good and just society. What matters is approximating the society of the General Will in one’s particular community and international relations matter only insofar as they impact this pursuit. I thought this was suitably clear from The Social Contract or his fragmentary essay The State of War. When I made this point in a public setting it was met with bewilderment. “This isn’t IR…” Sure, but that’s because Rousseau doesn’t see it as a separate domain of politics. Anyways, I offer this quote, pp.37–38 of Vaughan’s translation:

No man can have thought long upon the means of bringing any Government to perfection without realizing a host of difficulties and obstacles which flow less from its inherent nature than from its relations to its neighbours. The result of this is that the care which ought to be given to its internal warfare has to be largely spent upon its outward security; and we are compelled to think more of providing for its defence against others than of making it as good as may be in itself.

All I have ever done is try to understand Rousseau’s books as he did.

Over the last couple of months I’ve had a couple of reviews published. Both books are excellent. And they are quite related. The first is Nicholas Rengger’s Just War and International Order: The Uncivil Condition in World Politics for the Review of Faith and International Affairs. The second is Robert Howse’s Leo Strauss: Man of Peace for E-International Relations. Both are published with Cambridge University Press. I want to say a couple of things that didn’t make it into the reviews for the sake of space.

First, regarding Rengger’s book. It is remarkable the extent to which just war is totally misunderstood, and the reasons causing us to misunderstand it. His point is, essentially that once politics began to question the morality of certain tactics of war, the big question of whether a war was just became displaced by the question of whether our actions were legal. This is a hugely important change because it is no longer easy or clear that we should ask whether or not to allow violence to enter politics but how and in what way politics is violent. This is quite obviously related to the question of security, which only arrives in full bloom once Machiavelli and Hobbes have had their way with the holy books. Violence is permitted too easily. Far too easily. I’m writing this post under the environment of the American Senate releasing the executive summary of its committee report on torture. The questions, “is it worth it?” or “Is it permissible?” miss the moral point. Merely posing them means some kind of moral introspection about the relationship between politics and violence has been lost.

This relationship between politics and violence is a running them in Howse’s book. Strauss, it turns out, has a great deal to say about international politics, state violence, international law, and so on. Howse covers an incredible range of material, in Strauss’s written work and in his newly available lecture transcripts. One point which I left out of the review is that using the transcripts is not as difficult as at first seems, despite their quasi-private character. This procedure is perfectly legitimate, as Strauss used it himself. In his introductory essay to Mendelssohn’s The Morning Hours and the Friends of Lessing, Strauss uses the private correspondence between Jacobi and Mendehlssohn to clear up ambiguities in the public record regarding Lessing’s “Spinozism,” that is, whether he was an atheist. Certainly if private correspondence is suitable for that weighty subject, the less private character of classroom conversations can be used for insights regarding questions of everyday political relevance.

The one thing I loved about Howse’s book is how it puts to rest any doubt that Strauss resembles the caricature usually represented in popular media. The polemical case against this has already been made by a handful of others in the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, but now we have a philosophical case against this nonsense. Any writers who continue extolling that simplistic tripe demonstrate the shortcomings of their reading habits. To wit, this bizarre review by Richard Wolin in the Chronicle of Higher Education. We leave this review learning more about Richard Wolin than either Leo Strauss or Rob Howse’s book. Though Wolin has faced criticism recently about his reviews.

Two reviews well worth reading are from Steven Smith and Benjamin Wurgaft.

Video of a dialogue on the book held at Penn State with commentary from Anne Norton is available here.

It’s probably useful to list them all, in all their variants, in one place. Begin with Diogenes Laertius, compare the changes in Xenophon and Plato, as Strauss suggested on the first page of his Xenophon’s Socrates.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives 2.5.40:

The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metron, ran as follows: “This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.

Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.1:

I often wondered by what possible speeches those who indicted Socrates persuaded the Athenians that he deserved death from the city. For the indictment against him was something like the following: Socrates commits an injustice by not believing in the gods which the city believes and by bringing in new and different divine things; he commits an injustice also by corrupting the young.

Xenophon, Apology of Socrates to the Jury, §10:

And [Hermogenes] affirmed that Socrates said that, this being his view, when the plaintiffs accused him on the grounds that he did not believe in the gods in whom the city believes but brought in other strange daimonia and corrupted the young…

Plato, Apology of Socrates, 24b

It is something like this: it asserts that Socrates does an justice by corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel. The charge is of this sort.

Plato doesn’t report this part of his biography, though Diogenes Laertius does:

Justus of Tiberias in his book entitled The Wreath says that in the course of the trial Plato mounted the platform and began: “Though I am the youngest, men of Athens, of all who ever rose to address you”–whereupon the judges shouted out, “Get down! Get down!”

Xenophon, of course, couldn’t have spoken at the Trial of Socrates because he was busy leading 10,000 Greeks out of Asia, or something. One wonders what would have transpired if Xenophon rose to speak, and not Plato. That begs the question of whether Xenophon would have ever risen to speak in the same way.

In closing, compare Aristophanes’ charges against Socrates with Socrates’ charges against Gorgias.

The more I learn of the Inklings’ outlook on Modernity, the more I come to love them.  I know I’ve written about Lewis’s The Abolition of Man previously in this space, and I should read them (and write) about them far more often.  What is most impressive and accurate to me about the approach that is as clear in the most esoteric and unknown Inkling works as it is in the Tolkein inspired movies, is the profound sense that some humanity has been lost in Modernity.  Modernity (which is a word thrown around too often but also not often enough) as a phenomenon in itself is glossed over too often and too quickly, especially by “international Relations” scholars, a category to which I belong.  (n.b. The proximate cause of this is a dreadfully famous essay by Martin Wight.  I’ve discussed the ultimate cause in a post on Descartes, Hobbes, Schmitt, and Strauss).  I suspect because Tolkein, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams wrote novels, or poetry, or literary criticism, and because the art of rhetoric had already been unjustly discredited and its study fallen into disuse that Political Science neglected the commentary on politics, society, technology, economics, &c. that is so clearly running through everything they’ve written.  What has my attention at the moment is Barfield’s essay “The Coming Trauma of Materialism.”  A quote:

“Materialism” in my title means, not any materialist philosophy … but the mental habit of taking for granted, for all practical purposes and most theoretical ones, that the human psyche is intrinsically “alienated” from nature in the manner indicated, a habit so inveterate as to have entered into the meanings of a great many common words and thus to have become accepted  as common sense itself.  Materialism in this sense is not, for instance, incompatible with deep religious conviction.  The habit is one which owes a good deal to a certain secondary consequence of Cartesianism that is not often recalled or alluded to.”

Again, I’ll remind about the previous post on the makros anrhopos vs. the retreat into consciousness.  The retreat does not take for granted the intrinsic alienation of psyche and physics.  To thwart my own confusion, materialism is compatible with deep religious conviction because of the transformation of common sense.  Modernity and its sciences take a leap of faith.  What Barfield says two paragraphs later about Darwinism is simply magisterial, and speaks directly to something that I can only describe as an “Enlightenment of Biology.”  Even in this small passage above we see the basis of a grammatology and a post-modernity, but a post-modernity that first returns to the past before progressing.  No small feat, and still ignored.  Whatever.  I still have papers to mark and a dissertation to write.