Methods in political theory/philosophy bleg

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 4, 2007

Yesterday evening, at the editorial meeting of the Dutch philosophy journal Filosofie en Praktijk (Philosophy and practice), we had a discussion about what methods are used in political philosophy. One editor mentioned that he is doing quite a bit of refereeing for the National Science Foundation, and that many political philosophy research proposals are quite vague on the methods that they’ll use. There is often some reference to ‘reflective equilibrium’, he said, but is that really all we do? Similarly, I noted that the “ECPR’s”: Summer school on Methods and Techniques this year had no “courses on offer”: on methods in political theory. And I know of several political science departments where the traditional ‘methodologies’ course includes all sorts of fancy quantitative and qualitative methods, but no political theory methods.

So do political theorists and philosophers have no methods? Of course not. But perhaps we are not so explicit about them than the empirical sciences or the theoretical disciplines that use methods such as game theory or formal modeling. I don’t doubt that we do use methods, but perhaps they are more implicit in our work. I have to confess that I’ve found it harder than I liked to answer colleagues who asked me what precisely our methods are (in fact – it’s not just colleagues – Last year when I had a 45 minutes interview with the Dutch National Science Foundation for the VIDI-grant competition, the only question I got was about the methods I would use in my political theory research).

So I’d like to ask two questions: What are the methods of political theorists and philosophers? And is there a good book or set of articles on “methods and techniques in political theory and philosophy” ? Or should we simply apply what is written in a good textbook on analytical philosophy?

Netroots essay and Boston Review

by Henry Farrell on September 4, 2007

I’ve gotten a couple of reprint requests for the essay I did a while back for the “Boston Review”: on the netroots and the Democratic party. Since the copyright for the essay reverted back to me when the _BR_ published it, the easiest thing for me to do is to republish it here under a Creative Commons license, so that people can do what they want with it (under the broad parameters of the license). It’s beneath the fold in html format; one of these days I’ll port it into skinny-font LaTeX to annoy Daniel (if someone wants to do this themselves, of course go right ahead). I do make two (non-binding) requests of anyone who uses it. First, please say that it was first published in the _Boston Review_, and if you publish it on the WWW, link to their website at Second, in the unlikely event that you want to publish it in print, please send me a copy.

This is probably a good time for me to mention that the BR‘s website has just undergone a substantial “redesign”: ; it now looks much spiffier. The most recent issue has already gotten some attention because of Glenn Loury’s “piece”: on the prison system/; also worthy of note are George Scialabba’s devastating little “essay”: on Philip Rieff, and Roger Boylan’s “article”: on Nabokov.

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Liberalism and Secularism: Not One And The Same

by John Holbo on September 4, 2007

Stanley Fish:

Back in June, I wrote three columns (”The Three Atheists,” “Atheism and Evidence” and “Is Religion Man-Made?“) about the recent vogue of atheist books, books that accuse religion of being empty of genuine substance, full of malevolent and destructive passion, and without support in evidence, reason or common sense.

The authors of these tracts are characterized by professor Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University as “the soccer hooligans of reasoned discourse.” He asks (rhetorically), “Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than thirty seconds without referring to religious peoples as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the public good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists … authoritarian despots and so forth?”

In a similar vein, Tom Krattenmaker, who studies religion in public life, wonders why, given their celebration of open-mindedness and critical thinking, secularists “so frequently leave their critical thinking at the door” when it “comes to matters of religion?” Why are they closed-minded on this one subject?

But my question for you is: why can’t the likes of Stanley Fish go three paragraphs without insulting his opponents and adding injury in the form of the worst sort of brazen ‘why are they still beating their wives’ question? Riddle me that.

I would also like to request a moratorium on critiques of liberalism that consist entirely of a flourish for effect – with accompanying air of discovery – of the familiar consideration that liberalism is inconsistent with blanket, categorical tolerance of absolutely every possible act and attitude. That is, liberalism is incompatible, in practice, with any form of illiberalism that destroys liberalism. If something is inconsistent with liberalism, it is inconsistent with liberalism. Yes. Quite. We noticed.

Also, it might not be a half-bad idea to notice that liberalism is not incompatible with religion, merely with illiberal forms of religion. Just as liberalism is incompatible with illiberal forms of secularism. Which suggests that there may be a need to revisit Fish’s title: “Liberalism and Secularism: One and the Same”.

(Also, the sentence, “in liberal thought, ‘reasonable’ is a partisan, not a normative notion,” is conspicuously confused.)