Canons at the ready

Political Philosophy - Political Thinkers
November 26, 2004

Judging from the marketing campaign, the Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press is aimed at an audience academics are constantly told no longer exists - the general reader. David Miller’s book is a fine invitation to its subject, a handy textbook and a refreshing clarification even for the weathered specialist. It benefits from being more wide ranging than comparable volumes (such as Jonathan Wolff’s introduction to the subject, to name one).
As well as the usual suspects - authority, democracy, freedom, justice - Miller discusses multiculturalism, feminism, and global justice and the nation-state. The book also profits from Miller’s willingness to set out his own point of view, particularly in the final chapter, where he offers a fresh defence of his view of the nation-state against the claims of cosmopolitanism. There is, in other words, plenty to provoke as well as inform the reader.

When considering David Boucher and Paul Kelly’s volume, I cannot resist using cliché: this is a major attempt to round up the usual suspects. But canons, especially as enshrined in textbooks, are themselves clich?s, the force and point of which need recovery and reinterpretation for each generation. In rounding up their suspects, Boucher and Kelly extend and transform our sense of who should fall under suspicion.

The editors have assembled a potent array of contributors. The volume not only incorporates feminist scholarship that would not have been acknowledged even a few years ago (Carole Pateman on Mary Wollstonecraft and Jennifer Ring on John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women ), but sticks its neck out to nominate some 20th-century authors for inclusion. This handsomely produced book is now the best in its class, and should deservedly elbow its way on to reading lists in the history of political thought.

It oddly misdescribes itself in the subtitle, however: its magisterial survey of the canon of Western political thought starts with a beautifully clear chapter by Peter Nicholson on the pre-Socratics.

After an introduction by the editors, the book divides into four sections, treating the Polis (Sophists, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), the two kingdoms (Augustine, Aquinas, Marsiglio of Padua, Machiavelli), the rationalist Enlightenment (Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau, The Federalist Papers , Wollstonecraft, Tocqueville, Bentham, Mill on liberty and on the subjection of women), the counter-Enlightenment (Burke, Hegel, the early Marx, then Marx and Engels, Nietzsche), and a tentatively titled “The twentieth century: four approaches” (Oakeshott, Habermas, Rawls, Foucault).

Each entry contains a critical overview of its subject, sensibly brief guides to further reading, biographical details and a list of each thinker’s key ideas. While there are no weaklings, there is some unevenness in the contributions. Although most chapters offer excellent introductions,
others are more challenging and seem either to require acquaintance with the author at issue or a fairly high level of philosophical self-consciousness on the reader’s part. C. D. C. Reeve’s chapter on Plato, which focuses solely on arguments in the Republic , is a particular case of the former, and Boucher’s chapter on Oakeshott of the latter. As the editors hint in the introduction, this is really a text for the advanced undergraduate, not the beginner. Some chapters take time to grapple with issues of textual attribution and dating (say, Deborah Baumgold on Hobbes), while others do not (say, Jeremy Waldron on Locke). Some are concerned with what an author has to teach us, while others are more discreet.

These differences in some part reflect deeper divergences on what the history of political thought is meant to be about, and there is healthy reflection of this pluralism both among the contributors and in the editors’ introduction. On the one hand, a canon with roughly these contents has been a strikingly robust feature of the academic study of politics: this is one way in which politics is a really conservative subject. On the other hand, there are both deep disagreements about how to study it and about what it is for.

Boucher and Kelly’s introduction offers a masterly and complex tour of these considerations, notably encompassing the history of the academic subject and the anxieties induced by Quentin Skinner and John Pocock, before arriving at a fairly traditional destination: we read these authors because they have contributed to the architecture of our moral and political universe. It is a powerful statement, but for most of the target market (if they look at it at all) this will probably be seen as throat-clearing before the main business.

The editors’ selections are judicious. In particular, it is good to see chapters on figures who are sometimes left out (Cary Nederman on Marsiglio, Yoshie Kawade on Montesquieu). The substitutes’ bench, however, bristles, featuring Cicero, Seneca, Bodin, Grotius, Spinoza, Smith, Constant, Kant. There are no Romans before Augustine, no Stoics, no socialists after Marx (or before him, for that matter). Even the entry on Habermas oddly restricts itself to a passing nod to his early work before plunging the reader into the theory of communicative action.

In the case of the 20th century, a serious case could be made for Max Weber and perhaps for
F. A. Hayek. While one would not want to confuse Smith and Hayek, they play a similar functional role in prompting thought about markets and politics and these thinkers’ joint omission are an unfortunate lacuna here.

The other minor doubt about this book concerns the Procrustean and unhelpful categories of rationalist Enlightenment/counter-Enlightenment that organise the bulk of the chapters. The contributions are too sophisticated for this straitjacket.

Matthew Festenstein is reader in politics, Sheffield University.

Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. First edition

Author - David Miller
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 147
Price - £6.99
ISBN - 0 19 280395 6

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