Monday, 31 January 2011

Some Pertinent Questions About Kant Scholarship

Over at the Notre Dame Philosophical Review there is a piece by Corey Dyck reviewing the recent collection edited by Paul Guyer The Cambridge Companion to the Critique of Pure Reason. One of the central points Dyck makes in the review of the volume is that it continues to perpetuate a very simple view of early modern philosophy, trading on a basic dichotomy of rationalists and empiricists. This kind of division has not been taken very easily for granted for sometime within the scholarship on early modern philosophy as is known by anyone conversant with the argument concerning what it means to be termed an "empiricist". There is also an ongoing research programme over at Otago University that focuses specifically on the retrieval of the idea that the real dichotomy in early modern philosophy was not between rationalists and empiricists but between speculative and experimental philosophers, an argument they have recently brought out as important also for the reading of the Critique of Pure Reason. 

Over at New APPS Eric Schliesser has further pointed to the educative value of Eric Watkins'  recent book Kant's Critique of Pure Reason: Background Source Materials which provides the novel service of bringing to the English-language reader portions of the works of Alexander Baumgarten, Christian Wolff, Euler, Tetens, Martin Knutzen and Crusius. In other words, authors Kant knew and read!

Schliesser's main point in drawing attention to the Watkins' collection is to emphasize the variety of the so-called "rationalist" tradition of Kant's time. It is worth more work to think through the relationship between Kant and Leibniz in view of all these intermediaries in between the two thinkers, something Watkins himself has been important in stressing.

The early modern period has even more odd elements  since many of the so-called "rationalist" thinkers stress a number of experimental elements of thinking whilst some "empiricists" are signally "dogmatic" in refusing to do so (and Kant described Locke as a "dogmatist" in some parts of the Critique). The kind of scholarship that simply repeats established conventions that have their origin in undergraduate conveniences is certainly problematic and it is right to bring out the need for much more investigation of both the diversity of early modern philosophy and the complexity that should be seen to be at issue in the variety of challenges the Critique presented to earlier metaphysics.

Kant Studies Online Goes Live!

I am happy to report that Kant Studies Online has now gone live with the publication of its first two articles. One is by Jeremy Proulx of McMaster who has contributed a piece on "Nature, Judgment and Art: Kant and the Problem of Genius"

and the other is by Victoria S. Wike of Loyola who has written on the topic of 

"Defending Kant Against Noddings' Care Ethics Critique".

The journal now also has a mailing list that can be joined for regular up-dates to content that be accessed here and see also the Editor's Report giving summary of the first period of work on the journal and expectations going forward. As before, contributors continue to be encouraged to submit material to the journal which should be done according to the procedure outlined.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Boycott the REF?

As there are increasing reasons for disaffection with the academic system here in the UK a campaign has begun to boycott the next Research Excellence Framework exercise. This is the process whereby academic research is assessed and its merit in relation to "national" and "international" standards of excellence is graded by selected panels and is subsequently somewhat loosely related to the awarding of funding, which, somehow, always ends up in the hands of the same institutions who had it to begin with, despite increasing evidence of "excellence" being rather more widespread than such findings would suggest. The campaign for a boycott of this exercise now has a blog.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Philosophers Under Threat in Hungary

It appears that there is a political campaign against a number of philosophers in Hungary due to the opposition that has been voiced there of some prominent thinkers to a new media law. There is a detailed letter on this subject that is reproduced over at New APPS and, for further commentary on the subject, from Habermas amongst others, see the posting over at Political Theory.

Kant, Sandel and Justice

Here in the UK Michael Sandel is hosting a series of TV programmes on the topic of justice, in accord with his Harvard course on the same topic and which was summarised in a different way in his recent book. Sandel's talent with public engagement cannot really be doubted. He is superb at bringing out how philosophical principles are already being tacitly invoked in daily arguments concerning politics and that such arguments do often involve commitments to views of the right and the good that are more substantial than many realize.

So my initial response to the TV programmes and to Sandel's general activity is a positive one as was indicated also today over at Crooked Timber by Chris Bertram. However, Bertram's enthusiasm for the series covered particularly the episode I saw last night and in which Sandel provided a contrast between Jeremy Bentham, Kant and Aristotle. This contrast covered a number of topics amongst which was the decision in Germany not to allow the firing down of an aircraft that it was alleged would have saved other lives. Bertram follows the lead Sandel offers in the programme to regard the decision as crazy. 

I'll return to the case in a moment but, prior to looking at such a particular, I have a general problem with the nature of Sandel's focus. In a programme on justice it was somewhat odd that Sandel focused exclusively on Kant's moral theory, citing the categorical imperative as an impressive contrast with the principle of utility. The point of this contrast was basically to subsequently present Aristotle as providing in some sense recognition of what was valuable in both the previous approaches and how to supersede the limits of each. However, whilst it is certainly the case that utilitarianism has a notorious problem with recognising justice as a specific subject and is constitutionally opposed to the notion of "rights" it is a distortion to think that a Kantian approach to the topic of justice is based primarily on the categorical imperative.

Kant's response to the topic of justice is laid out in the Doctrine of Right, not in the Groundwork and the formula that guides the latter work is the supreme principle of right. This principle concentrates on the conditions of external freedom and in the context of the elaboration of his account of justice Kant defends conceptions of public and private right that are grounded in the principle in question and not directly upon the categorical imperative. Since Habermas makes a similar error about Kant's view of justice in his otherwise seminal work Between Facts and Norms this is hardly an unusual error but it is an error none the less and distorts any serious contrast between Kant and Aristotle. Aristotle, like Kant, distinguishes the subject matter of politics from that of ethics and does not approach politics, as Sandel suggests, just from the standpoint of virtue.

In the light of these failings Sandel resorted in the programme to a fairly standard process of presentation that turns on hard cases, something common in elementary ethics classes and not to be despised in itself. It was in this context that he made Peter Singer admit that the utilitarian conception of the right thing to do does always come down to quantitative analysis. Oddly, when he turned to Kant, whilst he did approach a thinker from a Kantian philosophical background, it was not someone that has comparable standing to Singer, but instead went to Carolin Emcke who, despite her philosophical training, works primarily as a journalist. To Emcke he put the "hard case" of the shooting down of an airplane and she affirmed the unconditional nature of the dignity of the persons in the plane. The constitutional judgment makes clear further the commitment to the sense of such dignity.

The case in question is intended by Sandel to show the lack of attention to consequences in Kantian theory but what it in fact shows is that a certain type of interpretation of Kantian theory refuses to allow consideration of consequences. The point was to have a sharp division between Kant and utilitarians on the basis that Kant can give no basis for attending to consequences whereas the utilitarians can give no value to anything other than consequences. In this context, however, and as I will be focusing on in future postings, it leaves aside the growing debate over the question of whether Kantian ethics is so constrained that it can give no room for consequences. I have argued previously that this is not so and that Kantian ethics does have to be seen as consequence-sensitive. Others have increasingly been arguing for a version of Kantian consequentialism and it is has become less clear than Sandel's standard presentation would suggest that this is oxymoronic. Incidentally the case of the airline is, in any case, less obviously a knock-down argument against a view of Kantian ethics that refuses to incorporate concern for consequences than might be thought. It requires complete certainly that 1) the airline would definitely otherwise crash into a target full of civilians and there is no way at all that the hijackers could change their mind or be persuaded to act differently and 2) that there is further no possibility at all that the plane could not be retrieved from the hijackers. Such conditions are rarely met.

So in conclusion the basic problems with Sandel's presentation were the following: 1) it conflated Kant's ethics with his approach to justice and as a consequence did not focus on its alleged topic; 2) the same also occurred with Aristotle; 3) it had an asymmetry in the nature of the "specialists" appealed to; 4) it neglected the possibility of a position that combined the polarities in ethics whilst still including central elements of both and was not Aristotelian; 5) it failed to include any serious criticism of the Aristotelian view or to pose any "hard cases" in respect of it.

Despite all this it was certainly a worthwhile programme and if proper philosophical contestation could have more place on TV then this would be all to the good. Sandel's model of public engagement is definitely worth attention and it would be great if more philosophers of many different persuasions could be taken on board with such an enterprise.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Sandel, Kant and Patriotism

Michael Sandel has recently given an interview to Prospect magazine in which, amongst other things, he raises an objection against Kantian views of ethics and politics. The basic point Sandel makes is that since Kantian approaches turn on an appeal to universality that there are some key particulars that they cannot account for. The particular in question that Sandel refers to in this interview is patriotism. Sandel uses two examples to show the importance of this topic. The first example is Germany and the responsibility felt by contemporary Germans for the actions of their grand-parents, a responsibility felt to be of importance in matters both internal to the German states' organisation and also to its external relations. The second example is America and the notion, instilled within citizens of the US, that they each have a relationship to the constitution of the country and to central figures (such as Washington and Lincoln) in its history. In this case there is a relation to a positive self-image that is meant to transcend the particular circumstances of given individuals whose forebears might have been citizens of quite different polities.

Sandel's two examples are interesting both in themselves and in terms of the way they inflect his general question about patriotism. About a decade ago Pauline Kleingeld published an article in Philosophy and Public Affairs which responded to the general challenge Sandel has put again in his recent interview and did so by invoking the notion of "Kantian patriotism".

Since Philosophy and Public Affairs operates a pay-wall it is probably worth giving a quick summary of Kleingeld's argument in order to test its use as a response to Sandel. In brief, Kleingeld points out that patriotism does not have only one sense. She distinguishes between three different senses of the term. The first is "civic patriotism" which has an intrinsically political nature being concerned with shared political freedom and the institutions that sustain it. Such a form of patriotism is not based on ethnic traits but can embrace a reference to national traditions if they are based on political ones. This view is contrasted by Kleingeld to "nationalist patriotism" which has a key reference to a national group incorporated in it although such a group does not have to be one of shared ancestry and, importantly, the boundaries of the nation need not coincide with those of a state. However, embodied in this second view is an important comparison between the nation and the family so the lack of choice about belonging to a nation is, somewhat paradoxically, part of what one values in it. Finally, there is trait-based patriotism, which is inspired by love of certain qualities. This latter view can inspire love of a people not one's own though in such cases it is not usually called patriotism.

After distinguishing these three types of patriotism Kleingeld goes on to argue that the structure of Kant's arguments in the Doctrine of Right and in Perpetual Peace for republicanism should lead Kantians to embrace an identity as active citizens who are concerned to uphold and enhance traditions of engagement with the polity. This effectively leads her to endorse civic patriotism due to its lack of exclusivity.

There are some useful lessons from Kleingeld's analysis. It is clear, from thinking through the differences between these three different kinds of patriotism, that it is often the case that a given commitment to patriotism often partakes of mixtures of them. So Sandel's reference to American patriotism and its embrace of the constitution and a political history, is not purely a civic patriotism but also embodies trait-based patriotism and can, for some at least, be also a form of nationalist patriotism. The German case is more difficult because it is here a special set of obligations that are said to lie on the people in question due to crimes of their ancestors. This embodies a sort of nationalist patriotism but not one of pride in one's ancestors but a kind of shame in them. It inverts the nationalist case and tries to use it to instil a civic patriotism.

The German case involves a kind of addition of an "incentive" in Kant's sense on top of the normative commitment to republicanism. There are obvious reasons why this case arose but it also entails that the relationship to the constitution in question is not purely one of a civic sort.

Other examples could also be used to complicate the discussion. The example of South Africa would be one given the "truth and reconciliation" notion as a way of attempting to deal with a political history of conflict in which the majority were subordinated. It is not obvious, in some respects, however, whether this project is really as viable as it first seems.

In any case, what does emerge from combining Kleingeld's analysis with Sandel's is that the Kantian commitment to republicanism does contain special duties of citizenship in it. These special duties are sufficient to mandate a patriotism of a sort but the relationship to the other forms of patriotism is more difficult. Kleingeld effectively rules out the view that a Kantian could endorse either nationalist or trait-based patriotism but she does not sufficiently discuss the question of how these latter two forms of patriotism incorporate within them reasons for supporting traditions that could be civic as well as reasons for supporting non-civic identities.

The basic problem with nationalist patriotism, it seems to me, of the sort implied by Sandel's reference to America, is that it can involve a selective sense of the moral history of the nation in question. Whilst it is true that there are morally inspiring elements of American history there are many elements of that history that are rather darker including the founding genocide of the indigenous inhabitants, slavery, and international conduct that has often involved domination of others for a purely national interest. This is not to indulge in anti-Americanism since much can be said that is far from complimentary about most states. It is, however, to indicate a problem with national stories since they invariably only present nations in a good light, leaving aside that which is questionable.

Similarly, trait-based patriotism is open to the same objection. This does not, however, forestall entirely the point of Sandel's comment. The question of relations that are particular in their import is a salient one. It is just that the basis of these relations being the ones taken particularly seriously should not primarily rest after all on the cases of nationalist or trait-based patriotism.

The German case suggests a problem with dismissal of considerations that arise from nationalist matters (even if they are here in an inverse form to usual). But what this case shows is that the commitment to the civic becomes part of the identity of a people and that, after all, is compatible with a general civic view of patriotism. Indeed, it indicates reasons for generalizing it.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Dworkin's Attack on Sen

Thanks to the people over at Political Theory for this quick report on Ronald Dworkin's response to Sen's The Idea of Justice which raises a number of points against Sen that strike me as entirely apt, not least the general point concerning the problem of "weighting". Sen spends a lot of time attacking Rawls from a comparativist view without engaging either with the major factors that should be treated as key to any such comparison or showing what levels of priority should be given to any of them. Further, Sen spends sometime attacking Rawls' lexical priority of liberty which he even views as an "extreme" view without giving any consideration to the problem that without a scheme of lexical priority it is unclear how to view political problems at all except by referring to generic considerations that, however, as generic, are rarely the issue in dispute. The citations from Dworkin also suggest that his own work might well bear more consideration than Sen's.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Managerialism and the University

In an article in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books Simon Head makes a number of acute points concerning the source of the directives that are forcing the university system both in the US and the UK towards a quite new model of organisation. There have been scattered protests of "marketisation" and, less strictly accurately, of "privatisation" of the academy now for sometime, but these have increased in the wake of the publication late last year of the Browne report, a report set up by the previous UK government and promoted in particular by the last head of the government department responsible here for universities, none other than the "department of business".

How did it come about that the last government - a Labour government, let's not forget - could have placed responsibility for the universities in a department of business? Getting to grips with such a question is important for understanding the source of the Browne report, the report that has created the environment in which the current Coalition government is implementing changes to the university system, including, most importantly, the complete withdrawal of the block teaching grant for the majority of subjects in the system with the important exception of the so-called "STEM" subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and some unspecified language courses. That all of this was recommended by a committee established by the last government is of some significance since the driving of the logic of its recommendations has certainly not come from new research.

What Simon Head reveals very well is that the background to the Browne report can be found in a series of articles published during the 1990s in the Harvard Business Review. The key notion that was presented in these articles was that of the balanced scorecard, a new method of measuring business activity meant to go beyond the traditional focus on revenues, net profits and return on investment. In this approach the concern shifts to relations with customers, internal business procedures, financial indicators such as profit and loss and indicators of "innovation and learning". The stress on the latter has been key to the transformation in the relationship between universities and government.

The vocabulary of "metrics", "impact assessment", "indicators of esteem" and "units of assessment" has arisen from this shifted direction of attention on the part of government. Towards the end of the last Labour government one of the factors that contributed to the placing of universities under the regime of the department of business was the attention in particular to "impact" assessment. The introduction of this notion into the assessment of research was self-consciously presented by the government as a way of ensuring that research had a clear connection to the demands of business and was not seen to be directed to internally academic concerns.

Essentially the universities thus become understood as simply a research tool of the enterprise that is known as UK PLC. As Simon Head points out this has specific implications for science research since following the demands of business there has a special meaning. It means following the dictates and concerns of the pharmaceutical industry. This has some clear specific dangers to research which thus becomes understood through the prism of what best suits such industry not through the demands that would naturally arise within the research itself.

With regard to the rest of the university the regime will doubtless drive research again in very specific directions. It isn't true that philosophy research cannot be effected by this as many think. For example, the University of Sheffield has its primary philosophy research centre named and funded by the Hang Seng Bank of Hong Kong. Whilst less brazen than this the direction of research at some other universities is also directly governed by the prospect of attracting research grants from a wider orbit than government in a number of places such as is apparent at the Centre for Professional Ethics at the University of Central Lancashire and the interest in related areas such as business ethics is part of this phenomena as is the general explosion in the areas of practical ethics and applied ethics.

The research assessment system in the UK is almost certainly going to soon end in its current form with a likely focus on giving most money to those who already have most resources and an ever-increasing stress on driving research, in all subjects and at all levels, in directions that are most likely to produce non-government revenue. The follow-on from research in the area of management studies suggests that the university is being re-thought from top to bottom as an increasingly integrated sector of the market economy. The talk of "privatisation" is not relevant to either analysis of it or any prospects of resistance to it. The analysis should centre on the nature of this change, a change that will ensure that any areas of "pure research" will be marginalised and confined to "top schools" whilst making the relationship to the private sector in terms of research provision the central question for any academics free enough to pursue research. 

Two points emerge from serious consideration of this. Firstly, anyone hoping to understand the change in the university is well advised to begin learning management theory and working through its application to the running of their institution. Secondly, the key point in the imposition of this model to the running of universities has been the fragmentation and passivity of the university response. The sectoral divisions that lead the Russell Group to adopt positions quite at variance to those of Million+ ensure that successive British governments are likely to continue to redefine the university in the image of a corporation. Amongst the central trends in this will be the continued casualisation of large parts of the university work-force, the further introduction of degree programmes with direct linkages to industry and the redefinition of philosophy as a subject that can help sharpen the imperatives of management outside the university. Resistance has to centre on more than protection of research areas that don't fit such a model although this is certainly important. It has to consist in the development of a critically different image of the point of university education though one of the key problems in such an approach has been the willingness of academics to invoke tired models from the past. Unless a different vision to the corporate one can be provided that shows the continuing viability of an education that puts the market more at a distance than governments now seem to desire then it will become increasingly likely that academics will be "providers" of a "service" for "consumers" of "innovation".

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Report on Netroots UK Conference

I've just returned from attending this conference that was held yesterday in London. It was held at the headquarters of the British Trades Union Congress, the umbrella body here for all the major trades unions. The day featured a couple of plenary sessions and some workshops and was highlighted as an occasion to bring together  "progressive activists" working on the web. As I will indicate by going through my impressions of the day, it was an event that, whilst full of promise, also highlighted some predictably depressing truths about the state of British politics.

The event itself was well attended and it took a little time to register for it. Participants were generally smartly dressed and professional looking. The head of the TUC, Brendan Barber, gave a short address welcoming everyone to the event and was succeeded by a video message from Markos Zuniga, from Daily Kos, one of the points of the second being to emphasize the connection of this event with similar ones in the US. One of the providers of funding for the event was also Blue State Digital.

After these opening salvoes the first plenary session opened and was chaired by Sunny Hundal from the blog Liberal Conspiracy who, despite posting his own speech in advance on his blog, decided not to give it. Speeches were, however, given by Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society, Nigel Stanley from the TUC, the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee and, most impressively, from Clifford Singer of the excellent site False Economy. Singer made clear the basic strategy of the Coalition government here which is to cut the national deficit over 4 years by a programme which is comprised of 80% cuts and 20% tax increases (with the latter including the recent highly regressive increase in purchase tax, known here as "value added tax" or VAT).

Singer made the point that the basic problem with opposing the government concerned getting across the idea that "growing the economy" would resolve the lion's share of the problem and enable revelation of the real size of the "structural" debt. However, whilst there is this problem, there are clear pressure points on the government in relation to fairness and electoral legitimacy given that neither of the parties to the current coalition indicated prior to the election that they would embark on a programme of the type that they have adopted. There are also alternatives in terms of revenue raising that are not even being considered including the Robin Hood tax and tackling tax avoidance on the part of the super-rich. The former tax has a specific campaign which was one of the sponsors of the conference although , somewhat oddly, I saw no sign of them at the event. The focus on general tax avoidance on the part of the super-rich has been the province of the mass civil disobedience campaign, UK Uncut.

The general strategy of the TUC, as made clear in the plenary speeches, is to aim for a big demonstration on March 26th of this year with the implicit threat of a "spring of discontent" following. It is also being suggested that whilst a third of the population support the government and a third are seriously opposed that a further third are capable of being won round. There are now over 150 separate campaigns listed on the False Economy site and the number continues to grow.

In relation to this struggle activity on the internet has a key role to play as a number of elements of the day demonstrated well. Paul Mason, the editor of Newsnight, one of the top BBC political comment shows, was quoted as stating that social networks have the potential to contest and overturn dominant views of politics and evidence was presented of how the websites of mainstream news outlets such as Mail Online have been influenced in how they present stories by reporting on social network sites and blogs.

After the opening plenary the next part of the day was given over to workshops, about nine of which ran concurrently and featured an array of topics including a "beginner's guide" to blogging, investigative journalism for bloggers, sessions on raising funds for campaign actions and how to plan campaigns. I attended the session on turning online activity into offline activity, not least because it was being addressed by Jessica Riches, better known to her Twitter followers as littlemisswilde and who was head of Twitter communication during the occupation at University College London during December, an occupation that ran for 16 days.

This session was chaired by a guy from the Labour Party who had apparently played a role in the campaign to get Ed Miliband elected its leader. The other speaker at the section was Teddy Goff, from Blue State Digital, who talked about ways in which the campaign to get Obama elected President of the US had been run. Of the two speakers, Riches was decidedly the better despite being less experienced. She made clear how Twitter had helped to "widen the room" when the occupation at UCL was ongoing since it enabled members of different occupations to keep in touch with each other and also to connect to both other students not occupying at the time and to a wider support base. She also furthered the case made earlier by Singer of the ability of social networks to present a clear "alternative narrative" to that being put out by mainstream media, something I can confirm since keeping pace with events in December was definitely possible by means of Twitter whilst mainstream media frequently mis-reported and almost always under-reported actions. Riches also argued that Twitter successfully lowered the bar for entry into actions enabling participation of a wider range of people than would otherwise tend to occur. The discussion was somewhat wide-ranging and a video of Ed Miliband's campaign for leadership was shown, a somewhat slick affair that was far from winning general enthusiasm in the audience. It also opened out the problem, voiced by someone who intervened from the floor at the plenary session, of the relationship of the anti-cuts and protest movements to the Labour Party, something that continued to be a bone of contention throughout the day.

After consumption of a lunch provided by the organisers it was time for the lunchtime fringe sessions which were all successfully run and again concerned a wide range of topics from the influence of the blogosphere on the Swedish election of 2010, to a special session for disabled activists and a non-technical guide to internet security. I attended the session on the student fightback which was led by Guy Aitchison from Open Democracy and Aaron Peters who has been such a successful front for UK UnCut that he has been subjected to a specific attack in Mail Online.

Peters referred as part of his contribution to the theory he has developed of how there is always a kind of "cognitive sharing" occurring in struggles since everyone is capable of having good ideas of how to take actions forward and that this is one of the reasons why the general protest movement has structured its actions in such a way that it tries to avoid reproducing leadership structures. It may be doubted, however, whether this is entirely successful! One of the tensions within the student movement has concerned its relationship to the formal national union, the National Union of Students, not least because of unhappiness with its leadership. Some discussion was had about this but it was rather inconclusive. The shadow of the Labour Party's relation to the movement again lurked but was not seriously tackled.

Afternoon sessions now began, again focusing on a wide range of areas, from local campaigns against the cuts to how women can be engaged on-line to a specific session on how to use satire on-line. I chose to attend the session on blogging in 2011 which was subtitled "how to build an infrastructure for the left". I misunderstood this title since I had assumed that by "the left" what was meant was the general protest movement but, in fact, what turned out to meant by this sub-title was the Labour Party.

Speakers at this session included Mark Ferguson from Labour List, Donnacha Delong from the National Union of Journalists, Laurence Durnan from Political Scrapbook, Sue Macmillan who was until recently the head of new media for the Labour Party and Tim Montgomerie from Conservative Home. With the exception of Delong this was a set-up for the political establishment. It was put into an oddly small room and there was, to be truthful, very little real discussion of blogging. Macmillan made the stern early point that whatever campaigners thought they were doing that political parties had only one real point which was to get elected. Ferguson and Durnan congratulated each other on running great sites and Delong advised bloggers to join the NUJ as bloggers are regarded by the NUJ as journalists just as much as print writers are. Montgomerie gave much the most interesting of the talks in this session pointing out that the really interesting thing when it comes to blogging is not the raw numbers of followers but the nature of them so that the aim should be to get influential followers. He also indicated that the blog did not only reflect his views but also things taken seriously by his readers.

Montgomerie also spoke to a brief of the opportunities and problems for the left in the current period indicating that the opportunities lay in exploiting the cuts, running local campaigns and exploiting the migration of talent from government to campaigns. He also, rather more controversially, indicated the real "problem" for the movement which consisted, in his view, on "infiltration" from extremists, something that led to protests from the floor and from Delong despite Sunny Hundal trying to close this down. As Delong pointed out the recent actions were not led by "extremist infiltrators" but by genuinely very angry demonstrators and, as was added from the floor, it is in any case somewhat offensive to be given such advice by someone who supports the current government and compares the "far left" to racists and fascists!

The disappointing session on blogging was followed by a final plenary that both cemented the disappointment and also confirmed its source. Ari Rabin-Havt from Media Matters gave a narrowly focused but very fine talk on the baleful influence of Fox News in the US and urged all present to do everything they could to prevent Rupert Murdoch consolidating his hold on media in this country. He was then followed by the scarcely believable Labour MP Stella Creasy who gave a very long and boring speech saying precisely nothing. Creasy talked at great length about how good it was to campaign though she only gave two examples of anything she had campaigned for, namely, returning puppies to their owners and against loan sharks. She also reacted in a contemptuous and condescending manner to questions from the floor which grew increasingly hostile. After this appalling performance, a reminder of everything bad about the Labour Party, campaigners were summoned to the mic for plugs of different action groups but were given only a very brief time each at the mic, something, after the awful speech by Creasy, that was pretty offensive.

I had to leave at this point and missed the final speech by Will Straw of Left Foot Forward. My impressions on closing were very mixed. On the one hand, there is still tremendous energy in the campaigns that came together at the end of last year and determination to take on the coalition government. However there is a great risk of this being dissipated and the relationship of the protest movement to the Labour Party emerges as a serious problem. The official line of the Labour Party, repeated as a clear refrain at the event by all its official representatives, is that the campaign against the government is a long-haul thing that will take the length of a whole session of parliament. Effectively they see campaigns as simply facilitating, as Sue Macmillan put it, the task of winning an election. They do not see the point of the campaigns being to force the government to collapse and to do so quickly.

Unfortunately this Labour perspective seems to be shared also by many in the wider movement as was evidenced by Sunny Hundal's talk of being in this for a "long-haul" and by statements made by some in the student session that if some want to lobby parliament and others do other protests that this is fine also. There was lots of talk in this latter vein of "pluralism" but this appears to be a watchword for keeping campaigners away from pressuring the Labour Party and trying to drive it into a more radical posture. Whilst Labour remains committed to the idea that this government will serve a full term and it is allowed by campaigners to persist in this line then there is serious danger that the energy of the movement will dissipate as the agenda of the coalition becomes entrenched in the wider society. Unless the movement takes the wider perspective that it is imperative to have an early and decisive action to close down this government's chance of governing then it is only too likely that the movement will simply go down to defeat. I hope I am wrong about this and I hope the movement adopts a more urgent posture but the evidence from this event was, despite everything at it that was of interest, unfortunately discouraging.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Kant, Sen and Transcendental Institutionalism

Amartya Sen, Indian economist, philosopher, an...Image via Wikipedia
I began reading Amartya Sen's book The Idea of Justice recently and was interested by the way the introduction is structured around a dichotomy between two approaches, both alleged to originate in the Enlightenment. The two approaches are described as "transcendental institutionalism" on the one hand and "realization-focused comparison" on the other. The former emerges as a foil in order to make the latter, which is the view Sen endorses, more attractive.

The distinction between these approaches is really a device used by Sen to present his own approach in contrast primarily to that of John Rawls. It would require a different posting to assess how accurate an account Sen gives of Rawls. Since, however, the real basis of Sen's specific response to Rawls is given in Chapter 2 of The Idea of Justice I would like to leave discussion of that for another occasion.

The point I wish to assess in this posting concerns the accuracy of Sen's classifying of Kant as part of the tradition of what he terms "transcendental institutionalism" (or TI for short). The approach is traced back to Hobbes and Rousseau and is claimed to have two distinct features. The first is a concentration on "perfect justice" as opposed to relative comparisons of justice and injustice. This has the following result:

The inquiry is aimed at identifying the nature of 'the just', rather than finding some criteria for an alternative being 'less unjust' than another. (6)

The second feature is a primary focus on getting institutions right as opposed to focus on "actual societies" and in making this second move TI requires some "specific behavioural assumptions". After making this initial characterisation of TI Sen goes on to claim that this approach, initiated by Hobbes, was pursued later also by Locke, Rousseau and Kant and in the latter case he specifically cites the Metaphysics of Morals though in a fairly old translation and without discussing any of the secondary work done on Kant's political philosophy and its relationship to his moral philosophy.

The prime purpose of Sen's characterisation of TI is, as he goes on to make clear, a response to what he takes to be important contemporary claims in political philosophy but he has clearly thought it nonetheless important to trace TI as emergent from a definite lineage of political thought. The subsequent analysis provided of TI argues that it goes wrong in assuming that it is either necessary or sufficient to arrive at some decisive principles of justice that are supposedly uniquely "impartial" in their appeal.

Now the main point I want to make here is that Sen's characterisation of the tradition of TI goes seriously wrong in its picture of Kant's political philosophy. Firstly, Kant does not, in the Doctrine of Right, focus on "perfect justice". In fact Kant is very far from having such a focus as is made manifest in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone where the notion of a "kingdom of virtue" is distinguished sharply from a political state of affairs and the attempt to collapse the distinction between the two is also sharply criticised by Kant in Perpetual Peace.

The outline of the Doctrine of Right is focused on providing a basic condition of a political state that matches what Kant terms the demands of "strict right". It is precisely because these demands are quite different from those of "virtue" strictly speaking or the following in political life of some strict adherence to Kant's moral theory that some recent commentators on the Doctrine of Right have come to the conclusion that the philosophy elaborated there does not belong within the province of Kant's practical philosophy at all. Whilst this reaction also strikes me as wrong it is a more reasonable response than the view provided by Sen of Kant's political philosophy.

The second feature of Sen's account, the emphasis on "institutionalism" does describe correctly some features of Kant's view though it still fails to acknowledge the importance of his analysis of "private right" or the distinction between this and "public right". The emphasis on "actual societies" in Sen's own story is meant to address the way that behaviours are not simply derived from institutions but also shape and drive the ways in which the latter manifest themselves. Similarly the discussion of private right in Kant is meant to show that there is a region of life that has its justification separately from the justification that can be given of the state and whose normative validity hence is of a different sort. So whilst Kant does emphasise "institutions" he does not take them all to be simply part of the "social contract" in the sense of having their validity bestowed on them by the province of the state. In this respect, in fact, Kant shares some common ground with both Locke and Hobbes (and all of them are here different from Rousseau).

Sen's primary reason for drawing the distinction between TI and his own "comparative" approach is to argue for the need to think about situations as "more or less" just. However precisely this recognition of the need for such a notion is at the heart of Kant's own theory as Kant recognises well the various ways in which states fail to achieve the distinction of being completely republican and uses the notion of the republic as a critical device that helps to enable us to understand the different ways in which things are "more or less" just. So it is a clear disservice to discussion at least of Kant's theory to pit the concentration on institutions that emerges from his political theory against a comparative analysis of societies (further it is not clear that is helpful with Rawls either though that would be another story).

The critical reasons for Sen's analysis hence do not cut against the way that Kant's own theory is structured. This theory does not attempt to describe a "perfect" society and is not guilty of neglect of "comparative" analysis but does describe institutions primarily (not, however, entirely from the standpoint of the normative validity of the state) and has, from this analysis, a critical tool that enables further assessment of "degrees" of justice and injustice.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The 12 Key Postings of this Blog in 2010

Generally speaking I have little time for analysis of trends and prospects, whether forward or backward looking. However, reading someone else's blog recently which concerned trends in that blog's coverage did alert me to some issues of importance and it is possible that if I summarize here some of the key trends in last year's postings on this blog that this will similarly alert a reader to some issues of significance so here goes:


Last year opened with a series of postings on ethics, including, perhaps most importantly a piece on ethics and teleology that laid out some of the problems in thinking through the notion that an ethical position was "teleological", a concern that I have had for some time and which continues to exercise me.


Contained a mixture of postings, some on political developments internationally and others on ethics. Perhaps the key posting of the month, and certainly by far and away the most viewed of the year was the piece on W.D. Ross and prima facie duties and the concern to respond to intuitionism in general was a feature of some of the key postings both of January and February. Look out for the return of this topic at some point this year.


A mixture of topics in this month, from considerations about the relationship between morality and rationality to an extended treatment of the nature of heterosexism. Connecting the general topics to the specific political problems addressed during the month was a piece on Kant, objectification and feminism.


Some general postings on philosophy and its relation to the humanities featured alongside analyses of the three main British political parties' election manifestoes, in the run-up to last year's general election. Also began responding to the threat (in the process now of being realised) to close Middlesex University's philosophy department. Of the pieces of the month that gave most philosophical interest however, was likely the piece on cosmopolitanism, coercion and immigration, part of an extended discussion with Tim Waligore.


More news postings on the battle at Middlesex plus some initial responses to the inconclusive British general election but, more importantly than any of those, was the extensive report on the XIth International Kant Congress that was held in Pisa last year and was a fascinating event.


Postings on Rawls and non-ideal theory were made as were pieces on Apple's failed attempts at censorship but the follow-up second piece on ethics and teleology was the most significant, correcting, as it did, a certain impression formed of my book on Kant's practical philosophy.


The month with fewest postings due to holiday commitments last year but which still featured postings on the Rawlsian distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory in addition to a piece on philosophy and authority and an extended report on a workshop in Amsterdam on the Critique of Judgment.


Began some postings on the relationship between Kant and Salomon Maimon and some others on Wilfrid Sellars' response to Kant in the first chapter of Science and Metaphysics. There was also a report on a conference on Maimon and a posting on the phenomenon of epistemic egalitarianism.


For the second year running the month in which most postings were made. Included a great variety of topics from further responses to W.D. Ross on the notion of common sense morality to continuing thoughts on the Rawlsian distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory. The posting on the relationship between the notion of contradiction in the will and the universal law of nature formula of the categorical imperative proved, however, one of the more visited postings and presented some of the most distinctive thoughts.


The publication of the Browne report on higher education funding required a serious and prolonged response as did the beginning of political agitation against the government's move to implement its principal recommendations here in the UK. Controversy with Brian Leiter over a "spoof" of Derrida also produced some lively to-and-fro. However the reading of an early Rawls piece on the nature of rules was a more philosophically important posting.


A further set of postings on the political battle over education cuts appeared alongside continuing pieces on Wilfrid Sellars' reading of Kant and on Salmon Maimon's Essay on Transcendental Philosophy. The piece reflecting on the meaning of respect for persons was, however, more on the mainline of concentration on Kantian ethics.


The first half of the month's postings again concentrated on the agitation in the UK over education cuts culminating with a piece on the vote to raise tuition fees that named and shamed the Liberal Democrat members of parliaments who either voted in favour or refused, at any rate, to vote against. The postings in the second half turned back to questions about the nature of practical reason and normativity with the piece on incentives, intelligence and the nature of reason receiving particularly high viewing and making a case for seeing Korsgaard's view as requiring there to be a maxim-like structure in "instincts".

Putting it all together the concentration of this blog last year on a set of topics is perhaps clearer than was always apparent at the time. Happy reading to anyone who visits the above postings whether to look again or to review their understanding and/or response to them. Postings in 2011 should further concentration on some of the above topics.