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In the "margins": Notes on Hayek

My research habits are rather chaotic, but that often bears fruit when I come across some interesting note or commentary that helps me better understand a more general work or issue. For example, I am always interested in reading the footnotes and marginalia in “definitive editions” of classic works. Thus, in reading the sub-sub-sub footnotes written by the editors of the Glasgow edition of Adam Smith’s work I was made aware of a significant argument about accountability that he made in the fist several editions of Theory of Moral Sentiments — and which does not show up in the definitive 6th edition which almost every student reads in one form or another (more on that perhaps at some other point in these posts).

I recently picked up the “definitive edition” of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and found myself diverted to the footnotes — both Hayek’s original and those of the edition’s editor. Here I learned of two interesting tidbits that might come in handy some day, both related to the negative reception Road to Serfdom received in the US when it was first published.

One was found in a footnote by Hayek in the preface to the 1956 edition of the work (it was first published in the UK in 1944) where he cites a critical assessment of his argument in a book by Barbara Wootton and then notes a comment on that work by Chester Barnard (one of my intellectual heroes) that finds Wootton’s thesis to actually support Hayek. I am pursuing this tidbit for what insight it offers into the work of Barnard….

A second tidbit (found in the same 1956 preface — in fact, on the next page) was a note that combined Hayek’s comment on the difficulty of finding a US publisher for Road with an editor’s elaboration of the controversey that took place within the publication industry once the University of Chicago Press decided to take on this “dispicible” work. Great case study into how politicized intellectual life can become….

August 27th, 2009 Posted by | books, political theory | no comments

On the "desk": Sunstein on group polarization (1)

In addition to my “nightstand” reading, I am constantly looking for material for my classes and relevant to my research. There are certain “go to” writers who often provide interesting books or articles that I immediately give a “look see.” Two of the most notable on my list are Richard Posner and Cass Sunstein. Both are highly regarded “public intellectuals” as well as legal scholars with substantial identities in other fields: Posner (who happens to be a judge on the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals) is well known among economists, and Sunstein (who currently works at the White House for his former colleague) has an established reputation among political scientists and philosophers.

I have been reading Posner’s A Failure of Capitalism (more on that at some point in the future), but yesterday I received copies of Sunstein’s latest — among them Going to Extremes in which he offers his take on the propensity of group dynamics to generate extreme forms of behavior. What Sunstein accomplishes here is to put in readable form an empircially-based thesis about the a phenomenon (group polarization) that has some real world implications.

In the first chapter he reviews examples drawn from studies that he had participated in, and immediately I was taken by his ability to explain the logic and methodology of the research without having that overwhelm the topic — which already makes this a candidate for adoption in a number of class where such details are often a “turn-off” and distraction for students. But even as important, the range of applications — to US political, to judicial decisionmaking, to market behavior, to genocide (he happens to be married to Samantha Power of “Hillary is a monster” fame, an authority on genocide to whom the book is dedicated), to internet behavior, etc. — is impressive.

More thoughts to follow as I explore another couple of Sunstein’s latest titles….

August 26th, 2009 Posted by | books, political science | no comments

On the "nightstand": John Gray on Liberalism (1)

My current “nightstand” reading is John Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism, which I purchased after reading for first part of his Black Mass.

Before picking up these books, Gray has been someone in the “background,” part of the political noise coming from the literati that I have been trying to track and make sense of for years (I am a very slow learner). The label “public intellectual” comes to mind — a high level “pundit” who wrote for the NYRB and that kind of publication, and who every so often would make some comment that would draw attention. If I associated him with anything, it was Thatcherism and neo-liberalism. Obviously I was way off base…

It was a “vodcast” on that got me beyond the mistaken view of Gray — and led me to the current readings. It is a tape of a “conversation” with Gray held at some book fair in Sydney and it focused on Back Mass, which is his most recent. This was obviously no mere commentator — Gray seemed worth the read, so I ordered Black Mass as well as the Two Faces of Liberalism. Two Faces was backordered, so I started Black Mass and soon became intrigued. As I got into Black Mass it became evident that a full appreciation of that work required a reading of Two Faces. And thus my current reflections…..

Two Faces provides a contrast between the Liberalism of Mill and the Liberalism of Hobbes — or, to use some other labels I think Gray would feel comfortable with, Enlightenment Liberalism and Agnostic Liberalism (after Isaiah Berlin, who Gray obviously regards as his mentor). The Enlightenment Liberalism (again, my label, drawn more from Black Mass than from Two Faces) believes in the promise of rationality and progress, an overarching truth that emerges from science and consensus overtime. Agnostic Liberalism (again, a label drawn less from Two Faces than from Gray’s reference to Berlin) adheres to a value-pluralism approach — there is no truth or higher set of values, only the constant effort to live with (and within) the diversity of values and lifeworlds (again, I am putting words in Gray’s mouth) that increasingly characterize our world. Social life, governance, etc are constant efforts to “deal” with this diversity, etc.

That last paragraph does not do the distinction between the two liberalisms justice, and so I will keep plugging away at the ideas and views of Gray as I continue with these posts….

August 25th, 2009 Posted by | books, political theory | no comments

Irony of the political….

I have spent the last two days in a forced relaxation mode and found myself doing lots of work on my web sites as well as a bit of interesting reading. The question of what is “political” has come up by mere coincidence in two works I have been skimming, and I suddenly find myself intrigued by the arguments which some might regard as “radical”.

I was already somewhat familiar with Chantal Mouffe‘s view of the political from an earlier reading of The Democratic Paradox during my stay in Belfast. I am now reading an even earlier work (originally published in 1993) on The Return of the Political which is providing me with quite an education on the liberalism of Rawls, communitarianism, civic republicanism, etc. as she critiques them all for their indifference to what she terms “radical democracy”. Central to her view is diversity and plurality of opinion that defines political life, and she is most critical of those aspect of modern liberalism (and its critics) that seek reforms which effectively subvert the dynamic forces of political disagreement.

As in Democratic Paradox, Mouffe is more inclined to reference Carl Schmitt (an interesting choice given his association with Nazi Germany) than Hannah Arendt, but the recent publication of some of Arendt’s papers and unpublished (or untranslated) essays from the 1950s highlights the centrality of a similar concept of the political in her work. A long essay titled “Introduction into Politics” (more like a short book) in The Promise of Politics (published in 2005, but recently available in paperback) makes the case for the distinctiveness of the political sphere by stressing its roots in human plurality (differences) and the freedom to pursue them unencumbered by necessity or convenience.

Put in that light, it is difficult not to think of any form of institutionalization (social, economic, cultural) as an effort to overcome or escape from political life — as efforts to rein in or limit the expression or pursuit of plurality and human differences. It is the ironic nature of the political that it is critical to the pursuit of collective actions that effectively result in apolitical or even anti-political arrangements. After reading that essay, one has an even greater appreciation for Arendt’s fear of totalitarian governance which seeks to do away with the political altogether, as well as her aversion to the administrative state and many forms of modern social organizations.

That said, is it possible to develop institutions that protect and promote the political realm? Mouffe seems to think so, but one wonders how Arendt would react to her arguments….

July 29th, 2007 Posted by | accountabilitybloke, books, democracy, Hannah Arendt, political philosophy, political theory | 3 comments

Unshelving Steven Johnson….

The Wikipedia entry for Steven Berlin Johnson labels him an “American popular science author,” but anyone who has read or heard him thinks of his domain as the emerging “interface culture” — a term he applied to the title of his 1999 book which was my first introduction to his writing.

At the time I read that book I was contemplating taking my civic education theme on “educating nomads” to the next level (see here); as a result I was diving into any book on cyber-culture I could get my hands on. Interface Culture was among the best of that group, and I waited for the next work to follow through. It was at that point that the prolific Johnson took the turn to “popular science” writing with the publication of Emergence and then Mind Wide Open. I found these interesting enough to “dip” into, but at the time they did not hold my attention — I suspect because I was looking for an explicit sequal to the earlier work. I was too dense to realize that they were indeed what I was looking for.

The more explicit follow up did come with Everything Bad Is Good For You, but it remained unopened on my shelf for the past couple of years.

Recently I came across the Ghost Map, his latest work (see here), and although the topic was interesting (a work in the tradition of James Burke’s “Connections” that traces a good deal of social change to the cholera epidemics that struck London in the 19th century) I decided it was not of immediate interest….

But I am now taking those unread items off the shelf and diving in as a result of watching a May, 2007 lecture Johnson gave to the Long Now society. The lecture is worth viewing and reinforces my initial belief that Johnson is among the most interesting popular writers who seems to “get it” when it comes to the real impacts and implications of the emerging culture. His talk — on the Long Zoom — will no doubt result in a very interesting book, but for now I am taking Johnson off the shelf and digging deeper into both Mind Wide Open and Everything Bad for You….

July 28th, 2007 Posted by | books, civic education, culture theory, cyber-culture, games, interface culture, learning, Marshall McLuhan, media | no comments

Into the Labyrinth…

By the time I finished teaching last night and made it to my New York “pad” (courtesy of very generous cousin-in-laws) I was, to say the least, exhausted — but pleased that this will work out so well. Despite my frazzled condition and incoherence, the class went well (obviously I am more entertaining when tired) and the nutty decision to take this “busman’s holiday” may actually to be an enjoyable experience. Check this blog in four weeks to find out how it works out in the long term….

June 5th, 2007 Posted by | books, New York, reflections | no comments

Sitting at the infosnack bar….

I don’t know how I missed it for so long, but until I ran across the term “infosnacking” in a Frontline documentary several weeks ago I had never heard the word. But as it turns out, it was the Webster Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” for 2005 — a not uncontroversial choice in light of the emergence of “podcasting” that same year. As the story goes, infosnacking did make it into the dictionary right away, but the editor’s like it. Perhaps its time is coming….

Curiously, while the word has gained some traction, it has yet to earn a Wikipedia entry (do search here; btw, podcast has one). This is surprising for two reasons — first, it seems like the perfect word to describe what many younger Wikipedia users do at the site and, second, it is a more pervasive practice among net-geners than we might think.

May 28th, 2007 Posted by | books, media, nomads | no comments