I’m off to a remote island in the Baltic Sea on which there are 14 stone houses and a boat that comes once a day with food. I’ll be back in mid-August. In the meantime, I suggest you keep track of the postings over at Crooked Timber and the interesting discussion of naturalism and ethics at Legal Theory Blog. That’s what I’d be reading if I were here.
Kieran Healey over at Crooked Timber draws a distinction between reasons and causes in the ongoing discussion about US foreign policy in the Middle East and the invasion of Iraq. In “Reason, Truth, and History” (a title borrowed from Hilary Putnam’s 1981 book of the same name), Healy argues that when one looks into the explanation for why the war occurred, one’s finds multiple causes. Given the complexity of human affairs, this is what one would expect to find in almost any serious historical explanation. And notice that by emphasizing the causal chains leading up to an event, one has not addressed the ethical issues involved.
That brings us to the second part of Healey’s analysis. The flap over whether Bush lied to or deceived the American people in making the case for intervention turns on the reasons Bush had and the reasons he gave for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. To give reasons for something as important as going to war that are not the same as your reasons for doing so is manipulative and deceptive.
The question being raised now by his critics is whether Bush (Cheney, Rice, etc.) intentionally misled the public by giving reasons (e.g. the Niger “connection”) that could not possibly have been their reasons for invading Iraq. That, it seems to me, is a question of fact. Whether Bush (or any democratically elected leader in a similar situation) has a moral obligation to give his “real” reasons for going to war, reasons such as those offered by both Marshall and Den Beste — “to get America irrevocably on the ground in the center of the Middle East (thus fundamentally reordering the strategic balance in the region), bring to a head the country’s simmering conflict with its enemies in the region, and kick off a democratic transformation of the region which would over time dissipate the root causes of anti-American terrorism and violence: autocracy, poverty and fanaticism” (Josh Marshall), is unfortunately a much more difficult question to answer. Under what conditions, if any, is deception morally permissible?
One of our grad students at the New School, Alfredo Perez, has a very rich and wide-ranging new site devoted to political theory. Here’s what he has to say about it:
“The main purpose of the Political Theory Daily Review is to make articles, essays, and other magazine and journal items easily available to those who otherwise might find it difficult and time-consuming to carry out searches by themselves. The editorial approach intends to cover a wide range of perspectives found in the field of political thought today. From the most historically-oriented to more analytical styles, from conservative to radical, we are dedicated to providing room for theorists of many different methods and persuasions.”
It’s been a common practice among philosophers in the U.S. to distinguish the history of philosophy from "serious" philosophical work. Painstaking examination of the social, economic, psychological, and political contexts from which philosophical ideas often emerge is viewed as, at best, an interesting supplement to the rational reconstruction of a philosophical argument evaluated in light of “the philosophical problems of today”. In short, an account of the historical forces that may have influenced a particular philosopher’s views are far less important than the arguments themselves. (As a graduate student in philosophy, I was told by one of my mentors that "It’s not a bad idea to read some history of philosophy. That way you have something to do when you’re old and can’t think anymore.")
A conference at Princeton University in April, 2003, "Teaching New Histories of Philosophy", is a sign that an incremental shift in the received view may be underway. Over the course of three days, some of the most prominent figures in the field came together to examine both the importance of historical understanding of philosophical ideas and the role "new histories of philosophy" play in rethinking both what and how philosophy is taught in colleges and universities.
"Much recent work has stressed how important it is for students to learn about the contexts in which philosophy is done. Modern philosophers were often responding to dramatic developments in science, or to radical changes in European religious belief, or to social and political upheavals. They were frequently in dialog with their predecessors — using their work or deliberately rejecting it. Often they were arguing against authors we do not teach." (From the conference website.)
The questions raised go beyond the academic monitoring of professional practice. Anyone who wishes to engage with philosophical ideas and practices can benefit from considering how they were understood and how they functioned in the past. And I say that not as a dogmatic advocate of “tradition”, but to acknowledge the value of moving beyond the familiar and comfortable terrain of one’s own way of thinking toward a radical encounter with the unconventional, overlooked, and forgotten ideas of those whose experiences are very different from our own. Only then is it possible to think outside of ourselves and imagine things as being different than they are.