Friday, October 30, 2009

A suggestion

I think a really useful invention, after a wind-proof umbrella, would be a portable foot that I can put in my mouth after about 10 minutes of conversation with anyone in academia.

Update: I do have to say though that the thing which most effectively mitigates the ungoodness of grad school is having gone to Chicago for college. This is true for many reasons, but not least because it is a future grad student processing plant such that half my friends now study variations of political thought in several disciplines, and I can run into them everywhere. Knowing people is, of course, the best way to meet other people. This makes conferences happier, especially for socially inept people like me.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Class notes

Through sheer force of habit, I have acquired the ability to take notes in class without paying any attention to what is being said. Unfortunately, like renditions of Greek texts made without requisite νους, sometimes the results are unreliable. For example, I found this from today's lecture on Aristotle some hours later:
The politics of two peoples can be the model for the friendship between two onions.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

All my ideas have already been had

One of my great fears is that there will come a point in my life and the growth of scholarship at which every idea I have will have already been written by someone else until there is nothing at all left for me to say. I thought that such a day might come, possibly in my lifetime but at least farther down the line, but it seems that it is already here. I was reading Locke's Thoughts Concerning Education for a paper, and somewhat after the fascinating disquisition on the imperative to control bowel movements, I realized that the following:

Locke thinks that man's most natural inclination is towards "mastery" of other people. Left alone, this will lead to either tyranny or incessant warfare, but in either case, non-liberty. A free society then is only possible when all men have developed an incredibly powerful habit of internal self-restraint over their desire for mastery, which explains why he takes self-restraint to be the foundational virtue. This self-restraint can only be cultivated through education since man is evidently not born with it, which explains the shockingly despotic nature of the education Locke is prescribing, in which every single desire of the child must be monitored and repressed. Even physical proclivities like sensitivity to cold and bowel movements must be brought under rational control. Since the child is nothing but a dangerous bundle of potentially tyrannical desires, its will must be subjugated entirely to the will of parents until it has attained self-mastery, which is what produces the strange disjunction in the Second Treatise between the nearly despotical authority of the parents over their children and the political equality of citizens.

Excited by my potential paper topic, I conveyed it to Sebastian, whose response was, "Oh yeah, Tarcov already wrote about that." Then I thought about this a little more and realized that everyone has already written about this.

I am doomed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The infinite perfectibility of DOOM

This is my contribution to Athens and Jerusalem's ongoing debate about Enlightenment, category: "worshippers of reason," problems thereof.

I was reading Condorcet's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Human Mind this weekend, which I first thought was a parody of the Enlightenment and only by the third or fourth chapter realized that it was intended seriously. Perhaps the rest of the 20th century would share my reaction to these lines:
Such is the aim of the work that I have undertaken, and its result will be to show by appeal to reason and fact that nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties; that the perfectibility of man is truly indefinite; and that the progress of this perfectibility, from now onwards independent of any power that might wish to halt it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us...Already, the dawn of science had begun to break; man revealed himself to be distinct from the other species of animals and seemed no longer confined like them to a purely individual perfection.
The rest of the book follows this auspicious beginning, alternating between a questionable history of the West and a questionable typology of anthropological development (Did Condorcet intend this confusion, or does he really think man's stages of development always and everywhere unfold in the order: hunting/gathering-->herding-->farming-->Greece?), and a polemic against religion, particularly Christianity. Earth is headed irreversibly towards perfect equality and perfect knowledge, and even seeming obstacles are really benefits in disguise. For example, the invention of firearms--a boon for equality, especially the equality of killing:
They have made war less murderous and warriors less ferocious...Organized countries no longer have to fear the blind courage of barbarous nations. Vast conquests and the revolutions that follow in their wake have become almost impossible. The superiority that the wearing of armour, the possession of horses...gave the nobility over the common people disappeared, and the destruction of this last obstacle to freedom and to real equality is due to the invention that seemed at first glance to threaten the human race.
Progress! And how much better are our laws and more just our punishments now that all crimes are regarded as "attacks against security and the rights of citizens" rather than "wrongs done to an individual." And just wait until you see the new, humane imperialism that will be based purely on reason, "zeal for truth," and the best interests of the barbarians instead of desire for their resources and proselytizing enthusiasm. And you'll never believe the totalitarianism we have in store for you when we finally decide that government should harmonize itself with "the general laws directing the phenomena of the universe" that make all human affairs subject to prediction.

It is, of course, not quite fair to blame Condorcet for these results. Though they seem to flow logically from his philosophy, there is a vast distance between the Sketch and some of its 20th century efforts. (Actually, my main question is, how could he have written this while in hiding from the Jacobins? Didn't his predicament dampen his enthusiasm for government by reason and the international brotherhood of man even a little?) But reading it is like watching a horror movie where the main character hears a noise upstairs and contemplates whether to investigate, and you think, "Don't do it...Go out the door instead...Get out as fast as you can...!" But, deaf to the audience's protests, they go upstairs and predictably get knifed.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

...And the practice of political science, too

Since last night, I have received no fewer than 12 messages and notices about some amendment to cut NSF funding to political science on the grounds that, basically, it's not a science (not entirely untrue...). This has apparently inspired great outrage and mobilization among political scientists who take the suggestion that they're even lamer than CNN quite badly and also enjoy receiving government moneyz (mobilization, payment-induced participation--all phenomena that have probably been studied with NSF grants). Should I care about this?

A similar recent complaint: political theorists concerned about the decline of political theory as a sub-discipline in American poli sci departments. Probably nothing I want to study will ever qualify for an NSF grant, but surely this development hits closer to home and should worry me. But not really, or maybe not yet.

However, I did read Quentin Skinner's "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas" this week and spend hours constructing a defense against this hateful and unwarranted attack. Methodology in history is an important question. The state of political science is...not. The problem seems to be that, while I decided last spring to study political theory instead of history, I was never convinced that there was any important difference between the two, or that political theory was anything other than a flexible branch of history that had been miscategorized with political science by some kind of cosmic filing error. I realize much of contemporary political theory is unconcerned with history, but those concerns exist only on the periphery of my consciousness, where people who believe that "justice can only be a quality of institutions" live. I can read their books, but I can't imagine thinking their thoughts, or really thinking about anything political without thinking about history.

So this might be why I don't really care about the fate of political science as a discipline, or even political theory, although such apathy is biting the hand that feeds me.* It's fine as a placeholder for the amorphous blob of "approaches to studying politics"--the last thing I want to do is re-organize human knowledge before I even acquire any. If political science disappeared tomorrow, theorists would find other homes, and I would defect back to history. However, if history as a discipline came to an end, that would be truly apocalyptic.

*There is an alternative explanation, based on models of political participation, which would suggest that I, like nonvoters and other scourges of democracy, have not yet acquired sufficient socioeconomic academic resources, established a participatory social network, or been personally mobilized from above to care. B. Franky would say I have not developed the social and political wherewithal that is created by associating, and every mid-century public intellectual would say I am exhibiting symptoms of alienation. All possible, I suppose.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Further enquiries regarding the practice of history

If my life should, unaccountably, take a permanently academic direction, how many times a day will I be condemned to hear the meaningless phrase, "There is a lot of really interesting work being done in that area right now"?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Return of the beast

Two weekends ago, Seb and I drove to DC to pick up the cat. Now he lives with me again, in an appropriate state of trepidation, possibly fearing another 10-hour car ride in the event of bad behavior. A lesson for college students: just because you have a cozy little apartment with your friends does not mean you should try to complement the set-up with a matching animeel. They require more maintenance than a couch, cost more to fix than a bicycle, and they may even live long enough to scratch your children.

(Please direct your objections to the couch pattern to the complaint department. Miss Self-Important does not handle criticism of her used furniture purchases directly.)

(PS: I am reading through the recommended Plato essays and will respond to those comments shortly.)