A student asks: Who are some philosophers doing work in social and political philosophy whose writing style you admire?

I have some preferences — names that came to the top of my head immediately, for different reasons, were: Alex Guerrero, Brian Barry (sometimes), Debra Satz, Seana Schiffrin, Tommie Shelby, and, actually, all the political philosophers here. Personally I only occasionally admire the writing of people whose work I don’t think is very good, and would always flag that I am recommending only for the style not the content. (My student knows that my judgment of whether work is good isn’t much affected by whether I agree with it). But, I’m curious how other people here would answer the question. And why.

Sunday photoblogging: shop front, Narbonne

by Chris Bertram on January 9, 2022

Shop at Narbonne

In defense of presentism

by John Q on January 9, 2022

I was planning a post with this title, but after some preliminary discussion, a commenter on Twitter pointed me to this piece by David Armitage, which not only has the title I planned to use[1], but a much more complete and nuanced presentation of the argument, as you might expect from the chair of the Harvard history department.

I won’t recapitulate his points, except to make an observation about disciplinary differences. The dominant view in history described by Armitage as “professional creed: the commitment to separate the concerns of the present from the scientific treatment of the past” is identical, with a slight change in terminology, to the central claim of “value-free economics”, that it is possible to separate the positive science of economics, from the normative question of what economic choices should be made. [2]

What’s striking here is that the idea of “value free” economics has been the subject of severe criticism for decades, starting in the 1950s with Gunnar Myrdal [3]. Hardly anyone now puts forward claims of this kind in the strong version presented most notably by Milton Friedman. This view is routinely denounced as a residue of “logical positivism”, an pejorative with much the same valence as “Whig history”, except for a reversal of sign.

Armitage’s defense of presentism runs along very similar lines to the critiques of value free economics. Most notably, he observes

can we plausibly deny that we choose our subjects according to our own present concerns and then bring our immediate analytical frameworks to bear upon them?

Referring to history specifically, he says

only history—again, only our individual experiences and that collective record of the human past in all its forms, from the cultural to the cosmic—can supply the information and the imagination to shape our choices, in the present, among multiple potential paths into the future. If historians too freely use presentism as a slur or as a taboo, then we may be guilty of depriving our readers, and indeed ourselves, of one valuable resource for promoting human flourishing: history.

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