Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 4.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Actualized Freedom’s Fragility in the Myths of Self-Authorization.

Freedom, more specifically “fully actualized freedom,” is spontaneity – acting on new reasons – that has been “unhooked from exigency,” i.e. recurrent and habitual patterns of action. This happens when subjects are directly related to one another, so that what it makes sense to do or what one has reason to do is not shaped by their relations with “inert objects” (39). Subjects directly related to one another can, as a group, authorize their own actions because each recognizes all others and each is recognized by all.

Once such a group has formed it has a reason for maintaining itself, namely to maintain the freedom of self-authorization (and equality) as an “indeterminate good” (48). Self-authorization is “fragile,” however, because, being paradoxical and to that extent logically impossible, it is something of a myth (45, 47). Pinkard refers to the “paradox of democracy” (or autonomy):

the idea that a people authorizing itself, for example, to write a constitution cannot actually describe itself as an authoritative people capable of such an act until after “they” have written the constitution that creates and authorizes them as a people to do just that. (The United States Constitution, with its famous preamble beginning “We, the people …” is one of the paradigm cases.) (49.)

As an aside, I don’t see how the U.S. Constitution is paradoxical in this sense, for the people of the United States certainly existed, and were lawfully represented, when the Constitution of 1789 was being written, debated, and ratified. The United States of America was created in 1777 by the Articles of Confederation, which was an agreement among colonies or states that regarded themselves as sovereign to enter into a “Confederation and perpetual Union” of that name. Subsequently, it made sense to speak of the people of the United States, but strictly speaking the United States created by the Articles was not and did not claim to be the act of the people of the United States. The Articles do refer to “America” and could be said to allude to the American people, as the Declaration of Independence speaks for “one people” as opposed to another, but that’s not the same thing. Continue reading

Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 3.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Practical Identities, Singular and General: Differing Conceptions of “We.”

Spontaneous action, individual or common, has a tragic dimension. Sophocles’ Oedipus is the archetype: although he did not intend to kill his father, marry his mother, and bring the plague upon Thebes, that that is what he turned out to be is as horrifying to him as to anyone, and he accepts blame for the pollution he has caused. As Pinkard observes, “[i]t is not merely the thought that things turn out differently than we might have thought, but the realization that this different outcome turned out to be included in our ends after all and that we ourselves were responsible for these unanticipated results” (33). Although the case of Oedipus is singular, Sartre ascribes the consciousness of “who we turned out to be” to collective action as well.

Collective action may take one of several forms. One is a kind of “togetherness,” which characterizes a group of individuals who share an aim, who understand one another as sharing an aim, but are somehow not engaged with one another in sharing that aim (they are “without any real sharing of the aim” [my emphasis]” (35). A real aim, I take it, would be a reason for action that reaches beyond the “inert” purpose that in fact unites them. Sartre’s term for this is “seriality.” Being one of a series seems to mean being aware that one counts as a member of a set – and no more than that. Thus, the individuals on the corner of 34th and Vine count as members of the set of people waiting for a certain bus, but they perceive no reasons for action, no potential for spontaneity, beyond what they have done often in the past and expect to do often in the future. Given their equivalence as mere members of a set, counting as such owing to a single easily-acquired property, no individual is necessary to the group and each is dispensable or “superfluous.”

Continue reading

What Political Theory Is

A short definition is that political theory is an attempt to give a comprehensive and impartial account of the nature of political life – its character, purpose, and value.

A more elaborate answer might start as follows: A political theory is an argument about the nature of political life that is theoretical in scope, or character, or intention.

We can can go quite far with this definition. Plato in the Republic, Augustine in The City of God, Hobbes in Leviathan, Rousseau in The Social Contract, Hegel in the Philosophy of Right, Rawls in A Theory of Justice, and Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia all offer political theories in the sense stipulated: they offer theoretical arguments about the nature of politics or public life, or their foundations.

The definition is unsatisfying, however, because all it does is reformulate the terms of the question. One who hears that a political theory is an argument about the nature of political life that is theoretical in scope or character is still left wondering what might be meant by “political life,” and what makes an argument about political life “theoretical.” To fill out the definition, more must be said about “political life” and “theory.”

We can begin to do so by drawing out the meanings of the two key words in the definition, “political” and “theory.” Both words derive from ancient Greek: “political” comes from the ancient Greek polis (πόλις), “theory” from the ancient Greek theoria (θεωρία).

Polis originally meant “city” or “community” or “state.” The word “political,” then, refers to matters that pertain to the polis. Put differently, the term “political” refers to matters that are public in character: the very large range of issues, concerns, or controversies that members of a community recognize as common concerns because they call for deliberation oriented towards a decision to be taken or a policy to be adopted for the sake of the community as a whole.

In ancient Greek, the word polis also suggests an association dedicated to protecting a singular and distinctive way of life against threats (for example, the threat of being defeated and enslaved by an invading army). (Linguists trace the Greek polis to the Indo-European root pele-, meaning a fortified high place or citadel capable of being defended against attack.) Polis, then, does not pertain to just any kind of society or social grouping, but rather to an association dedicated to preserving and defending a distinctive way of life, distinguishable from other ways of life. Preserving and defending a distinctive way of life demands judgment, deliberation, and decision from those who have a stake in it. Continue reading

Under the veil of ignorance, what society should you wish for?

The answer depends on how risk-averse you are.

The problem is to identify the arrangement that maximizes the minimum share of the society’s resources. An unequal distribution of wealth would be to everyone’s advantage if the least advantaged person in the distribution were better off than the least advantaged person in any other possible distribution.

In the case of a benefit to the least well off that requires a sacrifice by those in the middle, a risk-averse person behind the veil of ignorance would choose the benefit on the grounds that he or she might end up being the worst off on the other side of the veil. But a less risk-averse person might figure that the chances of winding up at the bottom are low, and decide that withholding the benefit was a reasonable gamble. Continue reading

The Case Against Democracy

In his book Against Democracy (2017), Jason Brennan presents a formidable amount of empirical evidence to the effect that the more someone is involved in politics, the worse he or she becomes as a person.

  • The more you are involved in political debate (especially as the representative of a group or ideology), the less likely you are to reach reasonable conclusions. Participation increases people’s tendency to ignore facts that don’t support their position, to argue in manipulative and deceptive ways, to adopt extreme views, and in general it makes people more biased and less reasonable.
  • The more active you are in politics, the less likely you are to talk with people whose views run contrary to your own. In fact, you may reach the point where you are unable even to imagine a point of view other than your own. As a result, the more active you are in politics, the less good you will be at doing what politicians are supposed to do: see enough sides of an issue to craft and sell a compromise.

Continue reading

What does Foucault mean when he says “do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth … use political practice as an intensifier of thought”?

The passage reads in full:

Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.

The quotation is taken from Foucault’s preface to the American translation of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, which appeared in 1977.

Although the preface purports to be (and to some extent is) a summary of the ethical and political “message” of Anti-Oedipus, it’s really a statement of Foucault’s own attitude at the time. And it’s an elegant bit of prose, all the more effective for being so much more intelligible than the book that follows. I’m willing to bet that most readers recall Foucault’s preface more clearly than anything else in Anti-Oedipus.

As for what it means, that’s best seen in contrast to the view Foucault opposes.

Before the “five brief, impassioned, jubilant, enigmatic years” of 1965–70, Foucault writes, political thought on the left in France was dominated by Marx and, to a lesser extent, Freud. But the self-proclaimed liberators of humanity inspired by these figures turned out to be disasters. They were the “sad militants” of the Communist Party (“bureaucrats of the revolution and civil servants of the truth”), the “technicians of desire” (psycho-analysts and psychiatrists who wanted to get everyone’s desires back to “normal”), and the fascists – not the “historical” fascists but rather “the fascism in us all, the fascism that causes us to love power.” Continue reading