The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Scholars and Politics

March 31, 2007

Stuart and my article — which I blogged about a few days ago — has generated a decent amount of discussion over at Crooked Timber, as well as some here at the Duck. A few people have also e-mailed me privately too. All of this has sparked some further reflection on my part — which I present below the fold for your reading pleasure.

I’ll take up three points: Henry Farrell’s suggestion that we need political action to make space for Weberian-objective scholarship in the public realm; the question of whether any intervention into a public debate is necessarily political and should be evaluated according to those standards; and the question of the role that scholars have or should have when dealing with the broader public.

1) Henry Farrell writes that “political activity is necessary to secure the space for actual academic debate (let alone to have this debate resonate more widely) and that the alternative strategy of pure Weberian activism is doomed to irrelevance” because in present-day America, academics don’t have the kind of social authority that they did in early-20th century Germany — which means that scholarly interventions are going to be perceived as partisan. I agree with Henry that the social capital commanded by the professorate in present-day America is certainly an order of magnitude weaker than that commanded by traditional German academic brahmins; among other things, this speaks to and reflects the rather pervasive anti-intellectualism of American society, which has a long and not-so-disinguished history marvelously chronicled by people like Richard Hofstadter and Thomas Frank.

So yes, scholars start from a disadvantage in the contemporary United States. But I don’t think that this means that we need political action to address this disadvantage. For one thing, I’m not sure that this is a political problem so much as a cultural problem — the absence of a socially meaningful space from which to speak as scholars, and the absence of the kind of cultural resources that could even in principle justify or sustain such a space. It probably is a good idea to work on the development or rehabilitation of cultural resources that would legitimate intellectual activity and the scholarly life, but this is a long-term project that involves a sustained engagement with the long American tradition of anti-intellectualism.

Also, Henry specifically recommends that “academics to get out there, and to deliberately, specifically, and politically attack the people who are seeking to undermine the very concept of academic inquiry.” But what precisely is political about this? Pointing out that a claim is not, in fact, scholarly or scientific is a perfectly appropriate activity for scholars or scientists to engage in. Doing so requires the scholars in question to have a relatively precise delimitation of what constitutes scholarship. I’d suggest that the easiest way to make a case like this is to be able to point to one’s own practice as an example — which is difficult to do if any attempt to distinguish between politics and scholarship is taken to be a “political” act!

Let me use Weber’s notion of ideal-typification to make this point more clearly. Weber argues that social-scientific knowledge — indeed, knowledge in general — is ideal-typical rather than either classically objective (which would be a pure representation of mind-independent, externally existing objects) or purely subjective (which would be a pure expression of an individual’s idiosyncratic observations and values). An ideal-type mediates between these two alternatives, since ideal-typical knowledge starts off with value-commitments but proceeds to refine those value-commitments into conceptual instruments that can be used to make sense out of empirical situations. Weber calls this “objectivity,” but since it’s such a different use of the term than the classical definition, it’s probably better to call it “Weberian objectivity.”

Weber’s types of authority (rational-legal, traditional, and charismatic) are ideal-typical in this sense: starting with a set of values about the relationships between governments and people, Weber fashions three conceptual categories that can then be applied to actually existing polities as a way of explaining and understanding their dynamics. And this means that any knowledge generated through this application is neither classically objective nor purely subjective, but ideal-typical.

Given this, we can broadly differentiate between three kinds of empirical critique of knowledge-claims and those making them:

a) your value-commitments are wrong.
b) your conceptual instruments don’t accurately reflect your values.
c) your application of your conceptual instruments is flawed.

Critiques b) and c) are appropriate scholarly criticisms, because they deal with the way in which knowledge-claims are produced and speak directly to the epistemological status of the claims. Critique a) is not an appropriate scholarly criticism, because it focuses the exchange on value-questions that are most likely intractable (unless we want to make heroic assumptions about the ultimate commensurability of value-claims . . . which opens a whole can of worms that should be labeled “the Enlightenment project,” and that’s a long discussion for another time). “I disagree with your values” (critique a) is more of a ethical/political claim; “I don’t think that you did that correctly” (critiques b and c) is a scholarly claim.

To bring this back to Henry: taking on the claim of a pundit and showing how it is methodologically problematic, or showing how it is nothing more than the expression of a value and therefore not a scholarly claim at all, is not a political attack. It is a perfectly appropriate scholarly activity. So contra Henry, I do not think that we need politics to establish the conditions under which scholarly claims can be taken seriously; I think we scholars need to be more assertive about demarcating punditry from scholarship. Not all empirical claims are created equal, and there’s nothing political about pointing that out.

2) did SSSFP fail? I have to admit that I probably should have pressed harder for the article Stuart and I wrote to have a question-mark in the title, because I’m not entirely sure that the effort did fail. From a political point of view, yes, we failed, inasmuch as policy was not altered. But that’s an appropriate standard for politics, not necessarily for scholarship. Personally, I think that we in SSSFP would have failed if we had taken in more explicitly partisan money and run full-page newspaper ads in swing states, because we would have abandoned any hint of scholarly (Weberian) objectivity.

I think that one of the temptations with a scholarly intervention like the SSSFP campaign is to start thinking of it as a piece of political activity. If we do that, then yes, SSSFP failed — but it was also inept and naive, so its failure was probably overdetermined (and Andreas is probably right that getting an appearance on The Daily Show might have been the best avenue to pursue, since criticism has become satire and vice versa). But if we think of it as something else, then the SSSFP campaign did its job: it pointed out flaws and failures in the then-current Iraq policy. Maybe we could have communicated that somewhat more effectively, but I don’t think the effort was a clear-cut “failure.”

3) all of this leads up to a more basic question: what exactly is the role of scholars with respect to public debates? How should scholars think about their responsibilities when a public discussion enters an area where they have a certain level of professional competence? As should be clear by now, I don’t think that scholars ought to be using the standards appropriate to politicians when trying to think these things through. But I’m also not of the opinion that scholars ought to say and do nothing publicly; if I thought that I wouldn’t very well be blogging about anything related to world politics, and obviously I wouldn’t have been involved in SSSFP. And I will admit that when I first heard about the nascent campaign, I was somewhat skeptical that the planned public intervention could be made without the compromise of scholarly integrity — something I am rather acutely sensitive to since I teach at a university here in Coruscant, where the boundary between scholarly and political activity is sometimes, shall we say, “blurry” — because my basic strategy for several years before that point had been to simply refrain from even commenting on current political issues as much as possible. But obviously I eventually thought that SSSFP was okay, so how and on what basis did I come to that position?

In the end, the key issue for me — and I offer this not as a prescription for everyone, but as a contribution to an ongoing process of thinking these things through — was my sense that scholars, and academics in particular, are social surplus. I mean two things by that: first, that scholarship is not something that is necessary to the functioning and the survival of human society; and second, that scholarship and academia are the kind of thing that wealthy societies can afford precisely because they are wealthy, which means that they are generating resources beyond those resources that have to be consumed in order for the society to survive. (My thinking on this is rather decisively influenced by the French poststructuralist George Bataille, who argues — among other things — that we ought to be analyzing societies and economic systems based on how they spend their surpluses, rather than on how they manage scarce resources.) To be a scholar, to be an academic, is in this sense a very great privilege: somehow, social resources are so configured as to make it possible for us to get paid for reading, writing, and thinking about things — and facilitating student encounters with those things. How “surplus” is that?

So thinking about it in this way changes the question somewhat. Since scholars are social surplus, what do we owe the society that makes us possible? I would say that what scholars owe in the first instance is that they be scholars, which means that they adhere to the professional norms and principles appropriate to the scholarly vocation. Which means two things to me: first, that scholars should make an effort to share the knowledge that they are producing with the wider society; and second, that scholars should make an effort to police the boundaries of scholarship and point out where empirical claims that come into the scholar’s area of professional competence are problematic. Putting this more bluntly: communicate, and critique. And that’s it. If one wants to change policy or some other concrete thing in the world, then one shouldn’t be or speak as a scholar, because this would be a violation of the specific vocation of the scholar — which is to produce ideal-typical knowledge through a disciplined application of conceptual instruments derived from specific value-commitments.

Yes, Weber said almost all of this many years ago; I do not claim originality for these insights. I just happen to believe that Weber was right that in the end, “scholarship” and “politics” are names for vocations: modes of living and of comporting oneself with respect to the world. Vocations are in this way more about identity than they are about any sort of specific outcome. Remember that Weber was quite close to Kant in maintaining that ethical action is not about consequences but is about conformity with various abstract principles and procedures — in this case, principles and procedures that constitute a particular identity category. The operative question, then, is: does this course of action conform to the kind of person that I envision myself as being, with the specific vocation in question representing an important facet of that person? Or: “Would a scholar do this?” The trick here is that there is no simple and finite list of characteristics that constitute a “scholar”; instead, there are a set of issues and distinctions that a would-be “scholar” (and in this approach I am sketching here, everyone who thinks of themselves as a scholar is a “would-be scholar” — no one has gotten it completely “right,” because that’s not really possible) has to confront. To have a vocation for scholarship is to accept, at least provisionally, these issues and distinctions as the things that one has to wrestle with — and to keep on wrestling with them.

For my part, thinking through the specific responsibilities of the scholarly vocation led me to conclude that SSSFP was okay as long as we didn’t take any partisan money or make electoral recommendations — or explicitly intervene in the election campaign. I don’t think that we did, so I think we stayed on the scholarly side of the line. And that’s enough for me: SSSFP was a good and appropriate scholarly activity, regardless of the outcome. I wasn’t trying to be effective; I was trying to appropriately fulfill my responsibilities as a scholar. And I think that we did that.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.