Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thoughts on a Recent Paper

In the course of writing a term paper for a state and local government class, for some reason I felt the urge to write an informal reflection on what I thought I was doing in the paper -- a kind of meta-essay, if you like that kind of terminology. I'd never done that for any of my papers before, and the writing flowed much more easily than any section of the actual paper. It was a strange experience... Here's what made it onto the page/(screen):

It is only fitting that in the course of writing a paper primarily concerned with theory and philosophy that I should be rudely interrupted by stubborn reality. While this paper was originally only intended to be a tentative or introductory exploration anyway, I feel it has turned into an exploration of the possibility of an exploration, etc. The feeling and image that pervaded my mind while writing this paper was that of a large mob of people all trying to fit through a very small door at once, with the result that almost no one actually made it through – and those who did were late for their appointments. Perhaps it is because of my deep fascination with and respect for political science, theory, and philosophy that I feel I did not nearly do it justice. It also might have to do with the fact that my introduction is quite frankly intellectually dishonest, or at least is forced. The inclusion of Key (1949) and Elazar (1972) and the relation of my inquiry into the nature and history of political science and theory to state and local government seems obviously tacked on – yet I present the paper as though my turn to historical and philosophical analysis emerged naturally out of reading their articles, as though the works of Key and Elazar were my real inspiration. The real origin of my interest is simply the general sense, as a student of politics, that political theory and philosophy (in the original and true sense) has faded from and been virtually rejected by the modern, mainstream practice of political science, yet I am unsure of the soundness of that rejection – indeed, it often seems as though no one even sees the need to justify that rejection. It is simply self-evident, or so it is implied, I feel. The textbook for my Logic, Scope, and Methodology class (Johnson and Reynolds 2008, Political Science Research Methods) is adamant that political science is a branch of science in general – simply the application of the methods of science (including natural science) to political phenomena – and that as such, political science ought to be (and cannot but be) “value-free” and “non-normative”. Just as logical positivism, by the adoption of the verification principle of meaning, banished theology, metaphysics, and ethics from the realm of rational (or even meaningful) discourse, modern political science seems to be consciously (and even gleefully) banishing all political thought prior to the 20th century to that same void – and through a definition that is itself neither value-free, non-normative, nor arrived at by means of the scientific method. If this banishment is political philosophy’s just fate, then so be it. But as the work of Strauss, Germino, Bakshi, and Wolin (to name a few) shows, that such a fate is justified is far from clear or demonstrated...
Weird.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Politics and Theology

In my previous post I discussed Strauss' argument that political things are inherently subject to evaluation and judgment, approval or disapproval, praise or blame, etc. It seems to me that theological and religious things are of a very similar nature, especially since they often make contradictory and mutually exclusive claims about reality. (Even syncretic religions such as some forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism implicitly deny the exclusivistic elements of non-syncretic religions.) As before, not taking religious and theological claims seriously prevents us from understanding them as what they are. Even if we eventually reject those claims as false, we must first attempt to understand those claims as those who advanced them understood them, if we are interested in the pursuit of truth.

Another statement of Strauss' may also be relevant to theology, in the context of distinguishing political thought from political philosophy: "Political thought may not be more, and may not intend to be more, than the expounding or the defense of a firmly held conviction or of an invigorating myth; but it is essential to political philosophy to be set in motion, and be kept in motion, by the disquieting awareness of the fundamental difference between conviction, or belief, and knowledge." (p.12) If this can also be seen as a distinction between thought and philosophy in general, then if theology or religion is in any way to be concerned with truth it must be a philosophic theology -- a theology constantly aware that the sincerity of a conviction or belief says nothing about its truth.

The way in which Strauss' discussion of political things could also be applied to theological things struck me as a possible clue, that perhaps the problems of politics and the problems of theology are somehow linked or related. It also gave more meaning and explanation to the title of Spinoza's work: Theologico-Political Treatise. Perhaps the political problem is really and inextricably a theologico-political problem.


Sources:

Spinoza, Benedict. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
Strauss, Leo. What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies

Friday, December 24, 2010

Should Political Science Be Scientific?

One of the preliminary chapters of my political science methodology textbook, entitled "Studying Politics Scientifically," states: "Knowledge that is evaluative, value laden, and concerned with prescribing what ought to be is known as normative knowledge. Knowledge that is concerned not with evaluation or prescription but with factual or objective determinations is known as nonnormative knowledge. Most scientists would agree that science is (or should attempt to be) a nonnormative enterprise." (Johnson and Reynolds, p.31) Aside from the irony of the textbook's statement that science should be nonnormative (which itself is a normative statement "prescribing what ought to be"), I'd like to contrast that quote with some of Strauss' arguments from What Is Political Philosophy? In the first part of the essay ("The Problem of Political Philosophy"), Strauss states, "'Political science'... designates such investigations of political things as guided by the model of natural science..." However, Strauss also makes some interesting observations about the nature of political things: "Political things are by their nature subject to approval and disapproval, to choice and rejection, to praise and blame. It is of their essence not to be neutral but to raise a claim to men's obedience, allegiance, decision or judgment. One does not understand them as what they are, as political things, if one does not take seriously their explicit or implicit claim to be judged in terms of goodness or badness, of justice or injustice, i.e., if one does not measure them by some standard of goodness or justice." (p.12)

Of course, if true, Strauss' description of political things poses a problem for modern political science. If Strauss' analysis is accurate, and if political science is the application of the methodology and assumptions of natural science to political phenomena (see p.1 of Johnson and Reynolds), then there's the very real possibility of what philosophers call a "category mistake" or "categorical error". For instance, when people argue about abortion, do they debate whether abortion is true or false? No, the argument is about whether abortion is right or wrong. To discuss abortion in terms of truth and falsity is to commit a categorical error -- to confuse two different categories: the logical and the moral. If political things or (in more academic language) political phenomena are as Strauss describes them, then it would seem wholly inappropriate to study them as you would the subject matter of natural science or to study them using the framework of natural science. Does the law of gravity demand praise or blame? Does photosynthesis demand allegiance? Does mitosis require choice or rejection? Does one approve or disapprove of the quadratic equation? Rhetoric aside, this observation at least might cause us to hesitate before accepting the premises of modern political science as laid out by my textbook.

One of the more interesting implications of this problem is that if political phenomena do make claims on us as humans and demand evaluation, then attempting to study them in a "nonnormative" way actual would lead us to a less realistic understanding of them. If political phenomena inherently present themselves in terms of goodness or justice, then attempting to be "nonnormative" endangers objectivity and gives us a distorted, filtered, and sterilized view of political phenomena. If the purpose of empirical science is to understand things as they are, then a nonnormative, value-free approach to political things actually prevents us from understanding them as they are; empirical science turns out to be self-defeating when applied to political things. Only an evaluating or evaluative political science can be truly scientific.

There are some (perhaps obvious) parallels that can be drawn to theology and theological things. I plan to cover a few of those in subsequent posts. Until then, do you think Strauss' analysis of political things is accurate? If so, does that really pose problems for the way political science is currently conducted? If it does, is there anything that we can or should do about it?

Sources:

Johnson, Janet Buttolph and H.T. Reynolds. Political Science Research Methods
Strauss, Leo. What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies

Monday, May 3, 2010

If Rules Are Made to Be Broken, Can You Break Rules That Haven't Been Made?

     Are there rules of thinking? There seems to be some sort of identifiable order to the material world, as evidenced by the laws of physics, biology, etc. However, do we have any reason to believe that similar laws might exist for the immaterial realm of thought?

     As thorny as some of the above questions might seem, they all implicitly contain their own answer. Are there rules of thinking? Well, either there are or there aren't -- that's the logical law of excluded middle. Even the second question assumes that we should look for a reason or evidence that such laws exist; it assumes that reason can lead to knowledge. The existence of at least some order or rules to thinking seems unavoidable. What's more, we know we had nothing to do with making these rules any more than we had anything to do with creating the gravitational force or the replication mechanism of DNA. The fact the we discovered them doesn't mean we created them any more than the fact that you're reading the words on this blog means that you wrote them. That being the case, logic is not something that we arbitrarily made, but something that we discovered. When you walk through a building and slam into a wall because you didn't look where you were going, you know you didn't put that wall there. My experience with logic has been like running into a mental wall; I know I didn't put it there, and there seems to be no way around it.

     Before getting to the (rather simple) basic laws of logic, it would be useful to have a working definition of logic itself. Informally defined, logic is a way to think so that we can come to correct conclusions by understanding implications and the mistakes people often make in thinking. (Geisler and Brooks, CLR) Logic is a prerequisite of all thinking. Without the order of logic, no thought would be possible, no argument would ever even begin to get off the ground. Even those who wish to deny logic cannot avoid using it in that very denial. For lack of a better phrase, logic is so inescapable that it seems to be built in to the very fabric of the universe.  

The three fundamental laws of thought are:

1) The law of noncontradiction (A is not non-A)
2) The law of identity (A is A)
3) The law of excluded middle (either A or non-A)

     Well, those are all well and good, and no one denies that Aristotle guy was pretty sharp, but why should anyone accept these laws? We didn't consent to them, and not everyone agrees on them. Some outright reject them, such as D.T. Suzuki and other Zen Buddhist philosophers along with Jacques Derrida and other deconstructionists -- not intellectual lightweights by any stretch. Is there any defense?

     As trite as it may sound, these laws of logic are self-evident and really don't need a defense. They are self-evident in the sense that once you understand what the terms mean, it shows itself to be true. The law of identity is a perfect example. The law that "A is A" has the same term on both sides of the equals sign, so to speak. It is simply speaks for itself. As Geisler puts it, "Once one knows what 'triangle' and 'three-sided figure' mean, there is no need to prove that a triangle is a three-sided figure. It is simply seen (by rational intuition) to be true." (Geisler, ST Vol. 1 Ch. 5)

     Additionally, any attempt to deny or refute these basic laws destroys itself instantly. No one can deny these laws without using them in the denial, and thereby immediately destroying the basis for the denial in the first place. It is like saying "I think that I cannot think" or "I know that I cannot know" -- you're doing precisely what you claim you cannot do. If the law of noncontradiction is not true, then A can equal not-A; what is true can also be false at the same time. However, the statement "the law of noncontradiction is false" itself claims to be true and not false, and thereby refutes itself. In a sense, no refutation needs to be made of attacks on the laws of thought -- each attack refutes itself. All that needs to be done is exposing that fact.

     Still, some (mostly modern) philosophers reject the laws of logic, especially the law of noncontradiction and, to a lesser extent, the law of excluded middle. Jacques Derrida, for instance, dispensed with the principle of noncontradiction, in fact calling his own philosophy "a joyous self-contradiction" which "delights in being without defense." (Derrida, "P" in EU) For Derrida, contradictions are not a problem. Contradictions are inevitable, and we needn't be so caught up in trying to resolve them. Furthermore, Derrida referred to "the empire of reason" and saw logic and reason as not only unfounded and unjustified, but also as merely another set of tools of oppression used by elites. (Derrida, "PR" in EU)

So, my question to you is: what do you think? Should we accept the laws of logic? Does logic apply to reality? What are we to make of those who reject logic? This was a rather hotly debated point in my philosophy class, so I'm anxious to get input. What say you?


Sources:

Derrida, Jacques. "Punctuations: The Time of a Thesis" and "The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils" in The Eyes of the University.
Geisler, Norman and Ronald Brooks. Come, Let Us Reason
Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology Vol. 1
Suzuki, D.T. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

Sunday, March 21, 2010

First Things

Motivated by some discussions last fall and an unusually light class load this semester, I've been reading through quite a few philosophical and theological books -- slightly different from my normal, politically-themed reading. Some of the ideas I found struck me as interesting enough to bring up in conversation. Many led to thought-provoking conversations, and after receiving several suggestions, I've decided to start posting some of the ideas that have proven to be the most intriguing. Such topics include logic, truth, God, and morality, some of which are often seen as unrelated or even contradictory.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm no expert, and the self-taught nature of my reading in this area is apt to lead to many flaws. Still, all the conversations I've had have been, at the least, mutually beneficial. Hopefully this blog will have a similar result.

As a side note, there will still likely be random posts about politics, games, books, academia, and other random subjects. Reader beware?