Gateway books discussion thread

by Henry on May 21, 2006

Something I’ve been thinking about posting on since I read the opening sentence of this post by Max Sawicky on J.K. Galbraith.

Like Robert Heilbroner, another giant, John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) wrote books persuading people like me to enter a profession dominated by analysis quite unlike their own.

I had a very similar experience with political science; I decided to do a Ph.D. after reading and loving Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which I later discovered to be completely atypical of what most political scientists do and talk about. Do other academics (or indeed non-academics) have similar experiences? What were the books (or other works) that made CT readers decide to enter a field, and did these books (or whatever) give the right or wrong idea about the field that readers entered?



dagger aleph 05.21.06 at 11:17 am

In high school I read a lot of existentialism.

I was surprised when I got into philosophy as an undergrad and discovered that it wasn’t taken very seriously.


harry b 05.21.06 at 11:27 am

Well, my first exposure to philosophy was Quine’s “On What There Is”, given to me in secondary school by my economics teacher who thought I’d find it interesting. The he gave me Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. A few years before, my vicar had introduced me to Berkeley’s ideas (only through discussion not through making me read anything — I figured out it was Berkeley he was talking about after I read Berkeley as an undergrad). Convinced me to study philosophy instead of history at University, on the grounds that I would only learn more about philosophy if someone taught it to me. It was a very accurate representation of what I eventually studied, so I can only thank them both.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.21.06 at 11:43 am

I think what often happens here is that one picks up the work of a seasoned, tenured professor who no longer is beholden to the strictures of professional socialization (and thus specialization) and infers that this work is somehow emblematic of the field. In my case, it was enchantment with the writings of the late Ninian Smart (brother of J.J.C. ‘Jack’ Smart) in ‘Religious Studies’, only to discover any work I would dare write would need to be far more ‘diciplined’ and narrow in focus (and no doubt with some reason) than any number of Smart’s books, lacking as I did the experience and expertise of my beloved mentor. However, what I suspect often happens is that during the arduous course of discipinary socialization one loses sight (or courage, stamina, etc.) of the proverbial ‘big picture’ and, in the end, the imagination wilters and one’s scholarship risks being either redundant or irrelevant to social issues and problems outside the ivory tower. To continue, think of Jon Elster’s polymathic talents and productions, he’s hardly emblematic of most work in the social sciences. So too Pierre Hadot, Thomas Nagel, Martha Nussbaum, (the late) Richard Wollheim, and Jonathan Lear in philosophy. A philosophy graduate student would be well-advised, for better and worse, not to endeavor to follow in their exemplary and inspiring footsteps: at least until he or she has achieved the security of tenure! Or think of Deirdre McCloskey in economics…or Erich Fromm, Jonathan Lear (again) and Nancy Chodorow in psychology…or Dworkin, Raz, Coleman and Waldron in philosophy of law/legal theory. Or cosider those like Elster, Nussbaum, McCloskey, Fromm and Lear above, but also Robert E. Goodin, C. Fred Alford, Paul Thagard and others who are so adept at disciplinary boundary crossing. The work of such individuals is hardly representative of disciplinary-specific standards of scholarly production, yet we’d be enormously foolish to ignore or dismiss it.


Corey Robin 05.21.06 at 11:53 am

I had a similar experience. The two books that inspired me to go into political science (as opposed to history, which I had majored in as an undergraduate) were Hannah Arendt’s *The Origins of Totalitarianism* and Louis Hartz’s *The Liberal Tradition in America*. Two very different books, though both written in the early years of the Cold War, which now seems like the Golden Age of American social science and inquiry. (I might add to this list of great books from that period: Philip Rieff’s *Freud: The Mind of the Moralist*; Richard Hofstadter’s *The American Political Tradition*; Herbert Marcuse’s *Eros and Civilization*, and Lionel Trilling’s *The Liberal Tradition*. Another interesting point about all of these books: each was written by a Jew. Not sure what to make of that.)

Anyway, I thought that political science was the discipline where one could write and read such books — that is to say, books that were theoretically engaged with contemporary events, books that were written with a combination of passion, deep erudition, and skepticism, books that were brutally disabused — and disabusing –about the contemporary scene but offered, by virtue of their relentless and un-sentimental analysis, some hope that the world could be understood and perhaps changed for the better. (I say this despite my deep disagreements, both intellectual and political, with Hartz and Arendt.)

Needless to say, I quickly learned that contemporary political science was not hospitable to such books. What’s odd is that Hartz’s book is still widely read by grad students (and also widely misunderstood, I think). So clearly people find in it something worthwhile. But for some reason we’re not encouraged to write such books ourselves.

Curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this. And thanks to Henry for raising this issue, which is something I too have thought about for some time. I’ve also thought it would be a fun exercise to gather together a group of leading political scientists whose work we admire and ask them to write an essay on the one or two books that inspired them to enter the profession — and to see how the profession did or did not live up to the source of their inspiration. Might make for an interesting collection of essays.


Chris Bertram 05.21.06 at 12:11 pm

I chatted to the boyfriend of my French exchange partner’s sister. He was into philosophy and got me to read Rousseau’s Social Contract and Nietzsche’s The Antichrist. Exciting stuff — I really should study philosophy, I thought. Then I got to Oxford and found myself ploughing through “Sense and Reference”. Still, the Rousseau came in handy, eventually.


Robert 05.21.06 at 12:24 pm

It was ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence’ in high school that led me to Plato, then into philosophy at university the following year. The main character is a neglected genius who is stifled by faculty laboring under intellectual biases. That part didn’t really inspire me, but Plato certainly did. Once in grad school, I was surprised to find that in fact the neglected genius syndrome that I now recognize in the main character of that book was not all that uncommon among graduate students. It is perhaps a even professional hazard.


Adam Kotsko 05.21.06 at 1:19 pm

I was inspired to enter theology by reading the letters of Paul. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that one cannot establish a reputation in academic theology by writing a handful of dense and enigmatic letters. (Except for Bonhoeffer, and that was only posthumously.)


Henry 05.21.06 at 1:22 pm

Corey – I’d be interested in finding out a bit more about your personal experiences. You seem to me to have had nearly unique success among younger political science/political theory types in keeping the guardians of the disciplinary boundaries happy while also speaking to broader intellectual debates. I suspect that this must have been tricky at times. How did you manage to pull it off?


djw 05.21.06 at 2:50 pm

Dialectic of Enlightenment was a big part of my political theory decision. I now have a hard time seeing what I saw in Adorno.


Matt 05.21.06 at 2:55 pm

Three philosophers who wrote in something like aphorisms and saw philosophy as in one way or another theraputic got me really seriously interested in philosophy- Epictitus, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. While all are studied and taken seriously by at least some no one can hope to make a career in philosophy doing anything like that, surely. I don’t suppose I ever though one could, and I read plenty of philosophy in a more or less common modern style (Russel, Reichenbach, Schlick, etc.) but it was this trio that got me really interested in philosophy.

I’m curious about #3 above, though- Waldron, Raz, and Colman are right in the mainstream of legal theory, are they not? It might be hard to do work of that quality, but their style or focus or method are not at all out of the mainstream, I’d think.


abb1 05.21.06 at 3:02 pm

Isn’t this quite normal and typical though? You read something where the basic idea is expressed in a simple, clear and elegant way, popularization perhaps; you get interested, you dig deeper, become expert and find a lot of unnecessary complexity, confusion, hackery, obfuscation ‘n stuff. What’s so special about it?


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.21.06 at 3:25 pm


‘Tis true, they’re in the ‘mainstream,’ but I suspect the scope and ambition (‘focus’) of their work is not something one would want to imitate until one has a track record of publishing things of more modest reach (I could be wrong). For instance, would a young, untenured academic attempt something on the order of of Waldron’s The Dignity of Legislation or his recent work on Locke, or, say, Coleman’s Practice of Principle? Of course I have nothing, in principle, against the attempt, but I suspect the temerity of the enterprise itself is and will be restricted to a relatively few (again, I’d be delighted if I’m mistaken).

It is, incidentally, intriguing to consider how diverse were the genres and styles or forms of philosophical expression and discourse up until the time philosophy was thoroughly professionalized in the modern Anglo-American educational system. Wittgenstein, the Existentialists, and a few others appear to have deliberately resisted the restriction of philosophical analysis and discussion to the sort of ‘analytic’ style that now dominates the academy (it has its virtues, but the Platonic dialogue, for example, amply reveals the virtues of another kind of philosophical discourse).


Matt 05.21.06 at 3:46 pm

I guess that while I’m happy to agree that much of Waldron and Colman and Raz’s work is very good and ambitious, and so would be hard for someone less good to do, I don’t see it as being especially different in style and form from the majority of analytic philosophy of law or political philosophy. (Dworkin is perhaps further away, but that’s becuase so much of what he writes is written for forums like the New York Review of Books.) Certainly no one will pick up Waldron and Colman and think it’s even close to as far from the mainstream in style, topic, or form as Wittgenstein or Camus or Nietzesche or anything like that- even Nussbaum and Lear are much further from the mainstream in style and topic than are Colman or Waldron. (Sorry to take this a bit off topic, but I suppose it’s only really interesting if we look at cases not just of philosophers (or whatever) that are much better than we suppose we could be but only at those who are in some more interesting way outside of the mainstream.)


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.21.06 at 4:13 pm

The point about Waldron, Coleman, Raz and Dworkin has to do with the nature of their theses, the ambition and scope of their arguments, which of course cannot be divorced from how ‘good’ their work is in general (their considerable capabilities, etc.), but even young and very good legal theorists lacking tenure, would be prudent not to emulate them in the above respect. I was not making a claim about their style or form of writing (as I was with regard to philosophy in the second paragraph). I would agree they’re not the keenest of examples when held alongside the likes of a Nussbaum or Lear….


Jim Delaney 05.21.06 at 6:17 pm

Like Henry, I was drawn to graduate work in political science (following a history undergrad) by an atypical political scientist: in my case by reading James Scott’s The Moral Economy of the Peasant. Luckily, Canadians are almost always required to do an MA prior to jumping into a Ph.D. So following the first postgraduate degree, I happily made the switch to human geography, where political scientists like James Scott and Benedict Anderson are well within the norm.


rented mule 05.21.06 at 6:19 pm

“The Dual Voice” by Roy Pascal and “Unspeakable Sentences” by Ann Banfield. After a year in a graduate English studies program, I realized I should have gone into linguistics.


Tyrone Slothrop 05.21.06 at 6:32 pm

I loved Imagined Communities, but I read it in an interdisciplinary course, and it never would have occurred to me to call it political science.


Christopher M 05.21.06 at 7:29 pm

I decided to study law after watching Ally McBeal and The Practice. Does that count?


kwanzaa 05.21.06 at 8:13 pm

I read a bunch of sci-fi and decided to become a computer scientist.

Needless to say, I didn’t have a clue about research, but it worked out okay(sort of).


JoséAngel 05.22.06 at 1:22 am

Well, you might have read sci-fi and gone into English or literature… that might have been worse.


Mike Otsuka 05.22.06 at 2:40 am

Dworkin’s Taking Rights Seriously, which was assigned for an undergraduate Constitutional Law course, got me interested in studying political philosophy. The next two political philosophy books got me hooked: Rawls’s Theory of Justice and Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

did these books (or whatever) give the right or wrong idea about the field that readers entered?

The right idea of the field at its best. I’m glad I first encountered the Platonic forms.


Tim Worstall 05.22.06 at 3:25 am

My interest (no graduate work, just a life long interest) in economics was sparked by Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. I enjoyed it hugely but over the years have become somewhat disappointed at how little of it actually is economics as opposed to elegantly constructed polemic.


Doug T 05.22.06 at 7:31 am

I’d bet there are some physicists out there who got drawn in by Feynman’s memoirs, before realizing that being a wild eccentric and having crazy adventures is easier when you’re the smartest man on the planet, but more frowned upon when you’re not.

More generally, I’d say there’s a bait and switch at the heart of most science–I loved the physics I learned in classes. But you get to grad school and you’re stuck in a lab 12 hours a day for months in order to produce 1 paper that will probably never even make a class, and if it did would result in about 5 seconds worth of material.

The ratio of effort to knowledge gained is wildly different between taking classes and actually doing research. Classes are concentrated learning in which, in one semester, you cover generations worth of knowledge gained. Whereas in labwork, it’s mostly drudgery with a miniscule amount of knowledge the result. You’re one of the dozens of folks toiling for generations in order to produce enough material for one class.

Which is why I bailed on research as soon as I finished grad school. I loved the material and loved learning it. But that has almost nothing to do with being a scientist.


Corey Robin 05.22.06 at 8:22 am

Hi Henry. I’m glad you ask this question — how does one do work that is both scholarly and engaged — because I hear it a lot, and I think it’s an important issue for all of us who want to write for more public audiences to think about.

I should say at the outset that there are some external reasons for why I’ve been able to do what I’ve done. First, I had a topic — fear — that people got quite interested in after 9/11. I remember in grad school proposing this topic for my dissertation and lots of folks were quite discouraging. That was back in the early to mid 90s, when no one was talking about this. But post-9/11, things changed. Second, I had an academic publisher — and editor — that was quite adept at marketing scholarly books to a mass audience. Third, since I write a lot for newspapers and magazines, I had a lot of contacts with media people, so that helped in getting the book reviewed and marketed. And finally I teach at a university — CUNY — that isn’t too caught up in how many times you publish in the APSR or Political Theory. So all that has helped and freed me up to do what I wanted to do.

Having said that, I think one of the hardest challenges younger scholars like us face comes from the nay-saying among ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times friends and colleagues in my cohort have warned me to keep my head down, observe academic protocols, be careful, etc. I remember one conversation in particular with a young political theorist who’s at a top 10 poli sci department. He warned me against doing the work I’m doing and said I should wait till tenure. I said I didn’t have the stomach or the stamina to wait that long. I pointed to other political theorists in the field who’ve gotten kudos, from an early point in their careers, for doing more engaged writing. Michael Walzer comes immediately to mind. My friend said in response that even Walzer gets occasionally dissed by other political theorists for not consistently doing serious work! I remember thinking that if Michael Walzer was not a sufficiently inspiring model for younger theorists, nothing short of tenure at Harvard would convince them that they could do what they wanted to do and still be successful. I just never had that kind of time to waste — that is, if I had to wait till tenure at Harvard to write what I wanted to write, well, the whole thing didn’t seem really worth it to me.

And that’s the problem with being so careful and strategic: you hide what you want to say in order, first, to get a job, then tenure, then a better job at a better university, then Harvard. Beyond the obvious fact that very few people will ever get that far, the problem with this kind of thinking is that professional success is an ever elusive goal. So long as you ignore what it is that you really want to do, the external marks of success will never be really good enough for you. You’ll always want something more, and never do what you really want to do.

I bring this up because I think we really do psych ourselves out a lot of the time. As I said, I recognize that I’ve been lucky and had external things going for me. But pretty early on I resolved to write what I wanted to write, how I wanted to write it. I had my own models in mind — Arendt and Hartz, as I mentioned in my earlier post, among them — and I just ignored what most people said.

Grad students and younger faculty in particular are all too vulnerable to what passes for wisdom from our elders. I remember in grad school one professor in particular constantly telling grad students what they should write about — all of it based on what the market would bear. Beyond terrorizing students into writing what they didn’t want to write about, the silly thing about this kind of advice was that it was so present-minded in the stupidest way. What seems hot and faddish in one year, when you’re writing a proposal, will probably earn you nothing but a yawn by the time you finish the dissertation and will probably not get you a contract by the time you’re ready to publish your first book.

So without ignoring the real constraints we face as younger scholars — pressure for tenure, getting a job, and the like — I think the best advice I can give is to write what you care about, and to write it without paying too much attention to scholarly conventions and jargon. And whatever you do: don’t listen to the nay-sayers among your cohort. Everyone at this stage is just afraid, and in the guise of well meaning advice, they just make you afraid. The end result is you plummeting down the rabbit hole.

I should say, Henry, that you yourself are also a model for doing things differently. This blog is fantastic, and from what I can tell, it has in no way detracted from your scholarly work. So perhaps I don’t need to say all that I’ve said here; you seem to have figured it out yourself.


H. E. Baber 05.22.06 at 10:02 am

Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I read it when I was 16 at summer camp–in 2 sittings: I was riveted and did nothing else for 2 days. I decided immediately to go to college–something I hadn’t been planning–do philosophy, and be a philosophy professor. I never wavered.

It’s superficial I suppose and innacurate–I haven’t re-read it since. But it gave me a very good idea of the issues and the shape of the field, at least historically and was a jolly good read.

The thing about philosophy that makes it like humanities disciplines and unlike the sciences is that you can get in at the shallow end where it’s all fun and games and only have to deal with the hard, technical stuff once you’re hooked.


John Emerson 05.22.06 at 11:03 am

Since you ask.

Pretty much every scholarly book I ever liked had been marginalized by the time I read it. Thus, no academic career at all.

My theory is that a cold wind swept through the humanities starting about 1950, and that the present landscape has been irrevocably diminished. Mirowski and McCumber have given partial descriptions of these events from the woints of view of econ and phil.


burritoboy 05.22.06 at 11:41 am

Well, I suppose everyone, not just academics, has a slightly false idea of the careers they enter. In my old field (investment management), the ideal is one that many people get through either reading books by or about Peter Lynch, Warren Buffet, portfolio manager interviews in Barrons, etc.

All of these provide the “heroic” model of the profession – the noble, totally independent discover of the truth. The reality is, of course, highly different: very narrow strategies and goals usually preset by upper management or investors, mind-numbing all-day meetings, repeated travel to Lansing or Lexington or Rochester (or Turlock, California for me), investing in one stock over another because one of them is maybe 2% better than the other, and so on.


Ted 05.22.06 at 2:00 pm

Kernighan and Ritchie’s The C Programming Language persuaded me that artistic achievement isn’t totally foreign to technical writing. There’s been a lot more drudgery than art in my subsequent career as a tech writer, but I’ve had some pretty satisfying moments.


Renee Perry 05.23.06 at 1:21 am

S.J. Gould’s essays in Natural History are probably responsible for my being a biologist rather than an urban planner. That and an undergraduate human physiology course that taught me about the marvel that’s the human kidney.

I’m serious about the kidney.


Donald A. Coffin 05.23.06 at 9:06 am

Lordy. I became interested in economics after reading Michael Harrington’s The Other America. After 40+ years, that book still resonates for me, although it has little relevance for modern economic theory/research.thought. It still influences how I think, though.


Jacob Christensen 05.23.06 at 11:08 am

I suspect that Danish political historian Tage Kaarsted has to bear some part of the blame in my case. His lively descriptions of crucial events in modern Danish history showed that there was something beyond news reports. (If you don’t read any Scandinavian language, you are lost here).

But how do you get from Political History to Political Science? Radio is one part of the answer (long story), careerism another (exactly how I got stuck in Academia is an even longer story).

The question about the discrepancies between what draws us to a subject and the academic mainstream is interesting and important.

As a university teacher, I have to note that many of our students have problems with articles in scolary journals etc. The problem is their (lack of) grasp of quantitative methods.

In a recent review of undergraduate and graduate education in Political Science in Sweden, the review committee complained that courses put too much emphasis in normative theory (such as citizenship theory) and too little on rational choice theory and generally criticised a lack of training in methods in undergraduate courses. (Ok, I could write a long post on that subject. I do think that the review committee did have some points, here).

Oh, and in the field of Political Science, I’m still crazy about Giovanni Sartori’s “Parties and Party Systems” but that’s hardly the kind of book you would read as a teenager.


Henry 05.24.06 at 6:31 am


Thanks for the information and for the kind words. I wish that I could say that blogging was part of a plan to reach outside the academy to other conversations, but really I never expected CT to assume the role that it’s had. Not that it’s an enormous blog by some standards, but still, we have many more people reading us than I ever expected.

Jacob – you do know that there was supposed to be a sequel to Sartori’s book? The story goes that the mss was left in his car and stolen – he’s been saying ever since that he will recreate it at some point or another (and who knows – he may have; haven’t followed the literature on political parties in the last year or two).


Jacob Christensen 05.25.06 at 11:12 am

Just a follow-up to the Sartori story: I remember reading somewhere that he used parts of the material intended for vol.2 of Parties and Party Systems in his later book Comparative Constitutional Engineering.

But I can’t quote a source for that right now. Maybe it was mentioned briefly in a special edition of some journal.

By the way: Is it terribly low-brow to name Galbraith’s TV series The Age of Uncertainty as an inspiration to study social science? :-)

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