Points of tangency

by Henry on February 15, 2007

I read “this post”:http://www.long-sunday.net/long_sunday/2007/02/are_we_who_you_.html by Jodi Dean a week or two ago, and found one of her claims a little annoying; in the middle of criticizing efforts to ‘define’ the subject matter and approach of various intellectual approaches, she opines:

Can it mean anything, then, to reject or criticize political theory as a whole? If one is a formal modeller, yes. One is saying that only with formal methods can anything significant be said about politics. But, this is not a critique. It is simply a rejection. I don’t critique formal modelling in my work. I simply reject it. I find it uninteresting and irrelevant.

Now this may quite likely just be unfortunate wording on her part, but it reads to me as though she is ‘defining’ formal modellers as people who argue that only formal methods allow you to say anything significant about politics. Which, if this were indeed what she meant to say, is not only a sweeping generalization, but quite untrue.

But this post isn’t meant to be a gotcha; I accept that it’s quite likely that she meant to say something different. What I want to write about is something else altogether. When someone from a particular intellectual community rejects another intellectual community _tout court_, as Jodi Dean is doing here, what might you recommend them to read in order to show that the intellectual product of this community has meaning on _their_ terms, as best as you understand them?

In this particular case, I think I’d recommend Jodi read Donald/Deirdre McCloskey’s _The Rhetoric of Economics_, possibly together with Ariel Rubinstein’s “Comments on the Interpretation of Game Theory” (Econometrica 59 (1991):909-24) to show how questions of rhetoric and interpretation are absolutely central to unresolved difficulties at the heart of formal theory. If I were trying to persuade a Habermasian, I’d suggest instead that they take a look at Jim Johnson’s “Is Talk Really Cheap? Prompting Conversation Between Critical Theory and Rational Choice.” (American Political Science Review 87 (1993):74-86) instead. If I were trying to persuade a skeptical formal modeler to go in the other direction, I might suggest Bourdieu’s _Distinction_. Which makes for a broader point, I think. There are very few intellectual communities that are so completely antithetical to each other that there aren’t some points of tangency between them, books; articles, essays that potentially speak to both. These points of tangency are probably not going to be part of the core conversation in either community, but they’re usually the more interesting for that. Any others out there worth mentioning?



Matt 02.15.07 at 8:31 pm

Pretty much all of Jon Elster’s work ought to convince both sides of any theory/formal debate that there’s something important to both sides and that making use of both can enrich knowledge. To a lesser degree I’d include work by Ken Binmore and Brian Skyms on the social contract, making use of evolutionary game theory in a way that’s made certain intuitive ideas much clearer.


Wade 02.15.07 at 8:43 pm

…to show how questions of rhetoric and interpretation are absolutely central to unresolved difficulties at the heart of formal models.

Seems to me that that would only give more reason to reject formal modeling, by confirming her in the belief that it only papers over more fundamental hermeneutic stuff.


Jodi 02.15.07 at 8:54 pm

I’ll accept that it was an unfortunate example. I was simply trying to establish the difference between rejection and criticism. Wade’s point is a good one, though, in how I would be convinced. I know Habermasian’s who value the link to rational choice. I don’t find that work persuasive, though, because I don’t find the basic assumptions convincing. I agree with Matt that Elster has some enriching work. I recall learning from his discussion of Odysseus and the Sirens in Sour Grapes (I think this is right, but it may be wrong).

For me, the interesting point is whether there are intellectual communities that are antithetical to each other. Given the hostility so much of the academy shows to psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, it appears to me that there are intellectual communities that constitute themselves via strong opposition to other ways of thinking and writing.


roger 02.15.07 at 8:55 pm

How about Nancy Cartwright’s work on models? I think it is very good about what they do, how they are made, and what they can’t do. I’d recommend The Dappled World.


Barry 02.15.07 at 9:36 pm

To be pedantic, you don’t want ‘tangency’, you want ‘overlap’.


Henry 02.15.07 at 9:40 pm

jodi – what would you suggest as readings from within poststructuralism and psychoanalysis to convince people from different theoretical backgrounds that there’s something of value on their terms? Anything out there?

Barry – the metaphor got a little fuzzier as I wrote the post – points of intersection would be even better than overlap, I think. But I’ll probably leave it stand with acknowledgement of slight inaptness etc.


radek 02.15.07 at 9:45 pm

On economics those are both excellent suggestions. For those without JSTOR access you can get a lot of Ariel Rubinstein’s stuff (including free books!) from his website:
More or less related to this topics are the papers
“Dilemmas of an Economic Theorist”,
“On the Pragmatics of Persuasion”
and of course the Economics and Language book.
If you click on Vita+All Papers the Econometrica paper Henry references is #37 (also 42).

And some of old Krugman stuff address some of these issues.


Henry 02.15.07 at 9:48 pm

Thanks, radek


Henry 02.15.07 at 9:52 pm

although I think that Rubinstein made the right choice in going into game theory rather than web design …


radek 02.15.07 at 10:04 pm

Yeah, the only thing I’m not sure of is whether his favorite color is “bright blue” or “bright green”. “Blinding cyan” is also a contender.


Scott Eric Kaufman 02.15.07 at 10:17 pm

Henry, vis-a-vis psychoanalysis, a couple of us are going to try to hash this out in the near future, if you wanted to participate. My own opinion on the matter–much considered, as Holbo’ll attest–is that it varies between useless, loaded and applicable in certain contexts. But, as Jodi knows, “generally speaking” isn’t one of those contexts. It’s funny, but she seems less willing to debate the matter than Sinthome, who’s a practicing psychoanalyst. I wonder if this doesn’t reflect some larger divide between theoretical and practical knowledge.

(Also, what I said on the aforelinked thread still applies.)


Marcus Stanley 02.15.07 at 10:40 pm

Formal modeling is itself a form of rhetoric. But there are some advantages to mathematicizing it. Both you and your “reader” become more aware of your assumptions and all of the implications of those assumptions.

People who can’t follow the model assume that mathematicizing it makes it more opaque, but if you can follow it then it makes it less opaque.


Colin Danby 02.15.07 at 11:31 pm

Philip Mirowski’s work is a great example of someone who’s smart and critical across multiple traditions. For another example check out the critical accounting literature. There are many, many of us in heterodox econ of all kinds (Austrian, Marxist, Feminist, Post Keynesian etc.) who are critical of particular kinds of models but who take the trouble to learn them, and who also draw on various strains of post-structuralist or hermeneutic thought. It’s just as silly to reject all formal methods as it is to insist on only formal methods.


Matt 02.16.07 at 1:15 am

On Freud, if not, perhaps, psychoanalysis, some people might find Brian Leiter’s “Morality Critics” piece, discussing Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. I think there’s a link to it from his home page (his law school one, not his blog.)


Kieran Healy 02.16.07 at 2:04 am

A terrific example of what you have in mind is an article by my colleague Ron Breiger: “A Tool Kit for Practice Theory,” _Poetics_ 27 (2000): 91-115.


Henry 02.16.07 at 2:23 am

Scott – I’ll pass on the event if only b/c I don’t know enough about psychoanalysis to say anything at all useful. But would you mind toning down the level of snark a little bit? I know that there have been a variety of heated arguments surrounding this set of issues, and I’d like, if possible, to see if we can have a conversation on the specific issue of points of tangency/bridges/complementarities/whatever between apparently mutually opposed points of view, if they exist. Not that snark doesn’t have its place at CT, goodness knows, but what I’d like to figure out is whether there is some grounds here for exchange that goes beyond trench warfare, and more specifically to figure out if there is stuff that I should be reading as a pol-sci type that I don’t know about (I’m familiar with Foucault, Bourdieu, and some of the anthropological theory debates; a lot of the other stuff in the post-positivist field I’m sketchy on).

Kieran, that looks fascinating.


Scott Eric Kaufman 02.16.07 at 2:32 am

But would you mind toning down the level of snark a little bit?

In my earlier comment, you mean? Because there’s no snark in it as far as I can tell. As for the distinction between Jodi and Sinthome, well, that’s something they’ve hashed out themselves in the comments on I Cite, so I don’t think my reference to it is particularly snarky. Fact of the matter is, I’m not the lightning rod in these debates, I’m the…whatever the opposite of the lightning rod is. (In fact, I just posted a draft of a paper–still the top post on my site–which says much the same thing you do vis-a-vis “points of tangency/bridges/complementarities/whatever.”)


Scott Eric Kaufman 02.16.07 at 2:42 am

(Sorry, you meant on the LS thread. That’s localized snark, aimed at Craig and Craig alone. I meant to refer back to my other statements over there, which were snark-free and full of substance.)


Wade 02.16.07 at 2:55 am

Is this really about methodology? Because it sounds like we’re dealing with rival definitions of the political actor. If I think that your ontology fails to capture some fundamental aspect of political life—say, that it neglects how persons are socially constituted—then your choice of method only concerns me to the extent that I accept your theoretical orientation.


Wade 02.16.07 at 3:00 am

I should add that I don’t know to what extent Jodi disagrees with you on that level. But it doesn’t sound like she’s opposed to formal modeling per se.


Jodi 02.16.07 at 4:37 pm

I don’t understand what Scott is talking about, what he has in mind.

Anyway, Henry, I appreciate your questions. As a bridge to poststructuralism, perhaps work in social studies of science and technology, like anything by Latour. Some folks in this thread have already mentioned Foucault, which makes sense, given his self-description as a ‘happy positivist.’ I think his short essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ is clear and persuasive and could be useful to anyone.

Psychoanalysis is a different kettle of fish. Perhaps a starting point is anything by Adam Phillips, who writes beautifully and is not dogmatic. A potential problem, though, is that he is difficult to extend or apply. Eric Santner’s My Own Private Germany could be a good choice–it reads Judge Daniel Schreber’s psychosis in terms of a generalized crisis facing modernity. Finally, I think that the last chapter of Zizek’s Ticklish Subject could be a good bridge because it engages risk society theory.


Peter 02.16.07 at 5:19 pm

Regarding Radek’s mention (comment 7) of Rubinstein’s book “Economics and Language”: I am still amazed that a prominent academic can write a succession of papers, publish these papers, and even compile them into a published book on a topic while completely ignoring the 2300 years of existing literure on the topic. Rubinstein’s book shows an ignorance of argumentation theory that would be failure-inducing were his book a PhD thesis. Was Rubinstein’s work not peer-reviewed, or are reviewers in economics just as ignorant as authors?

But, of course, most economists assume that they are the first people to ever consider a problem, so why both looking for any prior literature.


radek 02.16.07 at 10:57 pm

Ay, so much for tangency.


Henry 02.16.07 at 11:07 pm

Thanks Jodi. Peter – that comment tells me rather more about you than about Ariel Rubinstein’s book.


astrongmaybe 02.17.07 at 12:06 pm

Excellent, very important topic and thread.

I think Dominick LaCapra’s History and Reading: Tocqueville, Foucault, French Studies might be very interesting both as a reflection on just these issues, and as a pretty good primer on the more important ends of neo-hermeneutic and post-structuralist thought (the bibliography is superb). His vocabulary is steeped in psychoanalysis too, which some people may not like (it’s what I like least about his stuff), but his use of it is thought-provoking in any case.

On Foucault, I’m not sure I’d agree on the “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” essay – it always seemed to me like a quick write-up of his reading notes on Nietzsche. I would recommend the final chapter of “The Archaeology of Knowledge.” Even if you don’t believe a word he says (and, after years, I’m still not sure), it is an intellectual performance of great grandeur and nobility. He is engaging with a particular tradition of intellectual history, arguing (much as he might reject the word), for a structuralist, constructivist approach to the history of ideas. The way in which he summarizes the tradition he opposes is the astonishing thing – he summarizes it, including its strengths, better than most of adherents ever could. Then (and *only* then, that’s the nobility of it)… he demolishes it, or makes a pretty good attempt. Read that, and you realize that, while Foucault can and should criticized on many grounds, many of his critics aren’t in the same league as him.


John Emerson 02.17.07 at 12:31 pm

The opposite of a lightning rod is a house sitting there waiting to be destroyed by lightning. Lightning rods do not cause trouble –they make trouble less likely, or divert trouble in a harmless direction. Perhaps they’re like scapegoats. (I doubt they’re like homo sacer). What Scott probably meant was “the opposite of a red flag to a bull”, i.e. not an inciter or provocateur.

We will now return to our previously scheduled programming.


Jim Johnson 02.18.07 at 4:00 am

Maybe the best thing I can think to recommend to those who would “reject” formal modelling is parts of Tom Schelling’s Micro-Motives and Macrobehavior – since he claims that models are a way of communicating. His remarks tie in with Rawls’ comments about “devices of representation” at the start of Political Liberalism. One could go on from there … The problem is that many formal modellers need to read Schelling too since they too often have a hair-brained notion of what models are for.

(PS: I think Jodi Dean is correct that many formal modellers – at least in political science – do think that one can only say something intellgible in some formal language. That is silly though.)

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