2.9.09

Alan Jacobs has a link from the National Association of Scholars that asks the following:

Who are the key authors and what are the key books in the liberal, conservative, libertarian and radical traditions? The National Association of Scholars is designing a project to examine how political theory is conveyed in the American undergraduate curriculum. To that end we need to compile lists of works that (A) unambiguously represent different strands of political theory, (B) are widely recognized, and (C) are plausible material for undergraduate courses. We are interested in contemporary books as well as older works, but nothing published before 1750. Our goal is to compile lists of ten books in each category that all sides would agree are a fair sample of these political traditions.


Jacobs lists a number of potential problems with the request. But the most significant problem with the intended task is "nothing published before 1750." Both the liberal and libertarian traditions would seem to need, at a minimum, Locke (one can make arguments about Hobbes), else one has to explain where certain ideas enter into the intellectual milieu by focusing on some lesser exponent of the same tradition.

The list of suggestions is also maddening:

John Rawls, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, J. S. Mill, J.-J. Rousseau, Howard Zinn, Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, Russell Kirk, Paulo Freire, C. Wright Mills, Ludwig von Mises, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Oakeshott, Eric Voegelin, Albert Jay Nock, Reinhold Niebuhr, Charles Reich, Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Alasdair MacIntyre, William F. Buckley, Barbara Ehrenreich, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, John Kenneth Galbraith, Charles Taylor, F.A. Hayek...Who is missing?


There are a few people on this list who appear not to belong: I'm sure Barbara Ehrenreich's work is interesting, but I'm not sure how one justifies mentioning her in the same breath with Smith and Rousseau, if only because they have had several centuries in which to exert a substantial influence on the way we look at the world.

Further, am I to assume that all the Marxists on the list count as "radicals" and not under some other heading? Because then Angela Davis and Karl Marx are on the same list, however different their concerns and interests. Or does "radical" function as a catch-all term?

Also, do the liberals or the conservatives get Reinhold Niebuhr? I think I could make a case either way.

3 comments:

FLG said...

The nothing before 1750 is completely arbitrary and quite frankly stupid. How can anybody put together a list of key political theory authors that off the bat excludes Plato and Aristotle? Especially given my firm belief that all of political theory is a rehash of their original disagreements.

Nicholas said...

Well, if you think of liberalism as a philosophy that stresses limited/divided government and a defense of rights, then neither Aristotle nor Plato have anything very relevant to say. If conservatism comes from the reaction to the French revolution, the same is true (granted, some conservatives claim to derive their philosophy from, say, Aristotle, but that's a separate kind of claim). Etc etc.

Peter said...

The reason for excluding figures such as Locke is precisely because they bridge more than political tradition. That's what we meant by excluding works that are "ambiguous." If a book is seen as seminal by two or more current political traditions, its presence in the curriculum doesn't indicate anything in particular. Likewise, Plato's Republic and numerous other works of great importance to political theory per se do not stand as works that exemplify particular contemporary political viewpoints. We chose 1750 as the cut-off date precisely to avoid these entangling questions of intellectual history. The further back we go before the Enlightenment, the more entangled things get. Locke can be equally claimed by liberals and conservatives, for example, and is therefore irrelevant to this project. I am surprised by the vehemence of some respondants and commentastors who think the whole idea of asking this question, or limiting the date range is preposterous. What gives? Why is the question so threatening? And why is it so difficult to grasp that we would need to first identify important works that are not claimed by more than one current political outlook? As to the list of suggested names, we added it as an afterthought just to start people thinking. Generally it succeeded, but it also seems to have irritated some readers who invested it with sugnificance it didn't have.