My Review of Bob Talisse’s Overdoing Democracy

I recently reviewed Bob Talisse’s important new book, Overdoing Democracy, in an online journal, Erraticus, which is open access. Do take a look. The book is good, and it is both inexpensive and well-written. So if you’re interested in the subject, I recommend the book strongly.

Bob’s basic thesis is that American democracy is hurt by the fact that many people are extending democratic debates into too many parts of social life, creating unhealthy and destructive “political saturation.” I agree with his diagnosis, which is well-defended, but Bob tries to avoid giving concrete solutions to avoid taking a side in our democratic disputes, as well as foregoing explaining some of the mechanisms that have led to political saturation, both of which have some benefits, but also some costs.

An excerpt from my review:

I also thought the prescriptive part of the book would have profited from a discussion of why we’re seeing so much political saturation. I see two reasons Talisse doesn’t discuss: (1) that governments have power over a huge range of activities that they did not always have, and (2) that secularization is destroying the main source of cross-cutting identities—religious faith. It might be that societies will be tempted to overdo democracy when they want government to engage in a wide range of activities. Government is force, and so some will invariably wield it against others. Expanded states may mean expanded conflicts, even if one of our conflicts is over how extensive the state ought to be. And it might be that, with the decline of religious faith, we simply have fewer things that we place ultimate value on.

You don’t have to be a religious conservative to think these two phenomena will lead us to overdo democracy. It is not an especially partisan thought that the temptation to overdo democracy will continue unless we limit government’s power over our lives more than we do at present, since that will lower the stakes of politics. Nor is it expressly factional to think that we’re going to be tempted to overdo democracy if we lack compelling comprehensive doctrines that prioritize non-political values. This is true in particular because a relatively less religious society will tend to have more people with ideological commitments because—I think, plausibly—political ideology is the religion of modernity.

I recognize my recommendations will invite people to see the red tribe. Religion and limited government are unfortunately seen as red rather than blue values. But this is a mistake. Decentralizing and limiting the federal government will enable some parts of the country to better pursue a social democratic agenda. And allowing for more religious activity doesn’t necessarily mean more conservative Christians. There are liberal Christians, especially in marginalized communities.

So I think when we try to explore what it would take to stop overdoing democracy, we must look at solutions that may risk tempting our interlocutors to think that we’re in the red tribe or the blue tribe. But such an inquiry is necessary anyway. And without this inquiry, Overdoing Democracy struck me as incomplete. But that does not detract from the overall value of this excellent book, and is something that Talisse can explore in other work.

In Defense of the History of Philosophy: A Reply to Huemer

Mike Huemer has just written a provocative broadside against the history of philosophy, following a broadside against analytic philosophy and another against continental philosophy. I had some sympathy with the first two posts, but much less with this one. I want to outline some reasons to value the history of philosophy and historians of philosophy.

  1. Intrinsic Value. Studying the great works of philosophy is a lot like studying the great works of literature. Many of these works are beautiful and it is worth having people around who understand those works and that can teach others about them. We don’t need a good reason beyond the intrinsic value of art or great literature to justify having at least some academics who study these works full time. Same with the great works of philosophy. Yes, Mike is right that we have historians of philosophy around to teach undergraduate courses, but that’s because we think those works have intrinsic value for students. So the same reasons that justify teaching the history of philosophy to undergraduates can also help justify having people around who study the history of philosophy full time.
  2. Philosophers Forget Stuff. Philosophy changes a lot from generation to generation. We often focus on a narrow band of views and then forget the insights of the past. Philosophy is vast field of complex conceptual systems. Focusing on some of those systems takes so much time and effort that we just plain forget about other systems or at least their most important features.
  3. Philosophers Learn New Stuff. We can learn new views from studying old texts. Many of the great works of the history of philosophy are quite complex, in that their parts can be combined in many ways. Huemer’s vision of a history-less philosophy profession seems to assume that we’ll good ways to get all the interesting views on the table without history of philosophy, but he doesn’t consider that studying the history of philosophy might help us gain new insight by struggling with complicated, frustrating texts. Maybe the great works of philosophy are the grain of sand in the oyster – beauty-generating irritants. Another way we learn new stuff is when a single philosopher knows multiple important historical texts and can contrast them to form new views. My graduate course with Jerry Gaus on the Social Contract, where we read Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, helped me to see the way in which public reason views arise rather naturally from studying their views as a coherent whole. And indeed, the texts of that class, with some others, were turned into this lovely little volume. I don’t know where my work would be without engaging them all.
  4. Social Benefits from Diverse Historians. Huemer claims that studying great historical works of philosophy can be bad for you as an individual since you may become ideologically wedded to the position. Sure, that’s a risk. But we have lots of historical texts that are radically distinct from one another, which often generates a bunch of diverse ideologues. And that means diverse minds can bring disputes between those systems of thought to life and carry out useful debates. I absolutely love seeing great historians of different philosophers interact, like Hume and Hobbes scholars, or Aristotle and Aquinas scholars, or Kant and Hegel scholars. Sure, each one is wedded to their view, but their interactions have serious positive externalities.

Of course, we should be focused on figuring out true views. But history of philosophy helps that process in a number of ways Huemer doesn’t consider.

So history of philosophy is philosophically valuable history and a source of philosophical progress in some cases.

In sum, contra Mike, let there be Aristotelians! They’re good to have around because they can convey the intrinsic value of Aristotle, keep Aristotelian systems of thought alive for people to engage and to revisit for new views (like neo-Aristotelian virtues ethics), and it is great to have Aristotelians be part of a diverse group of philosophical historians. So, let there be Platonists, Thomists, Hobbesians, Lockeans, Humeans, Kantians, and Hegelians, and let them all interact forever!


My Next Book – A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times

I am pleased to announce that my next book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, will be published late this year with Oxford University Press. It is the data-driven sequel to Must Politics Be War? I argue in this book that specific liberal rights practices can not only be morally justified, but create social and political trust in the real world with real people. I focus primarily on freedom of associations, markets, social insurance, quality of governance, and democratic elections.
I wrote MPBW primarily for philosophers and political theorists, but this book is aimed more broadly at political scientists, economists, and policy people. It has philosophical argumentation, but I mark out where it begins and ends so that non-philosophical readers can profit from my overall argument. This book will also be much cheaper, under $30, so if you’re not a philosopher or political theorist who wants to learn about how we can build trust in diverse societies, then this book is for you.
Here’s another part of my pitch. I think that mistrust and polarization are in a causal feedback loop, and so those of you who are interested in addressing polarization may find the book of interest as well. If there are laws and policies that can increase trust, then perhaps we can contain the more destructive aspects of political polarization.