Alan Ryan’s On Politics: A History of Political Philosophy

Nice review in The EconomistI’ve always liked Ryan’s work especially his edited Social Explanation and Russell: A Political Life.

It is also important that, as Mr Ryan puts it, “long-dead writers often speak to us with greater freshness and immediacy than our contemporaries.” James Madison has the best advice for Egyptian liberals who want to prevent Muhammad Morsi from turning democracy into dictatorship. John Stuart Mill (pictured centre) has the best arguments against Michael Bloomberg and the “soft despotism” entailed in his soft-drink regulations. Immanuel Kant has the best insights into the gay-marriage debate—he argues that, once you have stripped away the nonsense, marriage is nothing more than a contract for the mutual use of the sex organs. Mr Ryan’s historical approach helps us at the very least to look at our problems from new angles, and at best to harness the help of history’s sharpest minds in producing policies.

Mr Ryan’s approach to political theory is thoroughly old-fashioned—and all the better for it. In recent years historians and political theorists have been busily undermining the Western canon—dissolving the great political theorists in their wider intellectual contexts or discovering seminal thinkers in the rest of the world. This has produced some admirable results in the skilful hands of Quentin Skinner and John Pocock, but it has also threatened to rob the great tradition of its greatness. Mr Ryan is happy to put the greatness back in. He treats Hobbes and company as thinkers to be grappled with rather than historical figures to be contextualised.


Oakeshott as Conservative

Rob Devigne (or maybe it’s really Jack Nicholson) looks at Oakeshott’s ostensibly conservative stance – as several in this volume point out, this is very tricky territory indeed. Oakeshott is not a conservative that even most self-avowed conservatives would typically recognise.

The identification of Michael Oakeshott with conservatism is fraught with debate. To be sure, some analysts consider Oakeshott to be the modern incarnation of Burke. Moreover, during the closing decades of the twentieth century, conservative thinkers in the United Kingdom made the greatest claims to Oakeshott. Yet, different features of Oakeshott’s thought have made it possible for him to be read as a liberal, pragmatist, historicist, existentialist, postmodernist, as well as, a conservative.  What, then, is conservative in Oakeshott’s political philosophy?


Discount on Oakeshott Companion

In anticipation of the publication date (October) Penn State University Press are offering a 20% discount off the cover price of A Companion to Michael Oakeshott – download form here.


Antifoundationalist in spite of himself?

Here’s a review of Aryeh Botwinick’s recent book Michael Oakeshott’s Skepticism by my co-editor Paul Franco. Here is the opening salvo:

This is a strange book. From the title, one might expect that it would take up Oakeshott’s complicated understanding and deployment of skepticism throughout his philosophical career; perhaps also his relationship to such favorite skeptical authors as Montaigne, Hobbes, Pascal, Hume, and F. H. Bradley. But Aryeh Botwinick has something else in mind in his book; something both more ambitious and less satisfying. Instead of providing a detailed analysis of Oakeshott’s own views on and uses of skepticism, Botwinick uses Oakeshott to illustrate a larger thesis about how skepticism—which he construes largely in terms of a radical antifoundationalism—issues in a profoundly religious or mystical view of the world. This is not an uninteresting thesis, but whether it captures what is most important and distinctive about Oakeshott’s skepticism or his philosophy in general is doubtful.


Oakeshott in French

Adrien Guillemin tells me that that the French translation of Michael Oakeshott’s “On Being Conservative” has been released by Les Editions du Félin in Paris with a Preface and a biographical epilogue. He continues: “The book has already been welcomed by a nice editorial in Le Monde and one on the cultural channel of Radio France.” Congratulations to Adrien for this enterprising effort and for seeing it through to fruition some two years after he first made contact regarding copyright.


Morals and markets

Sandel plugging his latest. The journalist’s quote below has much resonance to me.

Even to a toddler’s mind, the logic of the transaction was evidently clear – if he had to be bribed, then the potty couldn’t be a good idea – and within a week he had grown so suspicious and upset that we had to abandon the whole enterprise.


Science, the Market and Iterative Knowledge

The second paper co-authored with Dave Hardwick has now been published in Studies in Emergent Order:

Abstract: In a recent paper (Hardwick & Marsh, in press) we examine the recent tensions between the two broadly successful spontaneous orders, namely the Market and Science. We argued for an epistemic pluralism, the view that freedom and liberty (indeed the very concept of liberalism and civil society) exists at the nexus of a manifold of spontaneous forces, and that no single epistemic system should dominate. We also briefly introduced the concept of “iterative” knowledge to characterize the essentially dynamic nature of scientific knowledge. Herein lies a tension. The Market (and perhaps the prevailing culture at large) sees scientific knowledge in cumulative terms, that is, progressing to a conclusion in a linear fashion. This relatively static understanding of medical science as it relates to pharmaceutical studies can have a corrosive effect on the practice of medicine and ultimately, we believe, on the proper functioning of the market itself. In this paper we examine this tension in much closer detail by focusing upon the demands of the market, specifically the pharmaceutical industry, and the science upon which it is based. In other words, we expound upon a clash of epistemic value – one (science) that sees knowledge as essentially iterative (dynamic yet tentative) and the other (the Market) that harvests conclusive scientific knowledge (ostensibly as a fixed and firm commodity) functional to its own interests. Clinical Trials that are sharply focused with precisely determined deliverables often manifest this tension in the sharpest of relief. As a means of recovering drug development and testing costs, conclusive assessment is required to avoid creating serious financial problems for the companies themselves not to mention issues in the public interest.