Righting academia: Part II
My recent introduction to Twitter was greeted with one nice comment and a flurry of tweets from another commenter who dismissed my last post as meaningless drivel, accusing me of having a persecution complex. He referred to my claim of a left-liberal hegemony in academia (which has been made many times before, almost ad nauseam) as “conceptually incoherent” and “profoundly narcissistic,” with “no empirical basis.” It seems that my polemical statement was read as a sociological assertion regarding the educational institutions that are sometimes referred to collectively (by clumsy intellectual cavemen like me) as “academia.” I don’t mind criticism, but his haughty appeal to empiricism touched a nerve that has inspired me to offer some comments in reply, in the spirit of friendly debate. His comments were not explicitly political, because he was simply questioning the validity of my statements, but his call for empirical standards pointed to an implicit politics that I find interesting.
I do not think that this commenter is as devoted to empirical, value-free methodology as he implies, but rather that he raises it as a standard when convenient. From a brief glance at his work (he is definitely a plugged-in academic), it seems that he finds a purely empirical approach to sociology limiting, and seeks to overcome those limitations through the adoption of various theoretical add-ons that provide a more nuanced understanding of human behaviour, opening paths between value-free science and the incoherencies of post-structuralism. Yet, if a value-free science still forms the basis of this approach, it can never shake an implicit allegiance to what I loosely refer to as a left-liberal politics.
The emphasis on empiricism mentioned above brings to mind an essay by Leo Strauss (who I have disparaged before in this blog, for reasons that I need not enter into here) on what he calls the new political science, which dominated the post-war academic world of his time and which still influences scholarship in the social sciences today (including sociology, which for Strauss is “the study of nonpolitical associations” ). The essay is titled “An Epilogue” (1962).
Strauss outlines the difference between the ‘old,’ or Aristotelian, political science and the new, value-free and empirical political science. The old political science is political philosophy (128), and provides a theorization of the “practical wisdom” (129) gained through political experience and an understanding of man’s natural ends. The ‘old’ political scientist is an “impartial judge” who uses “the language of political man,” offering “advice and exhortation” (130). He recognizes man as the “the rational and political animal” with a unique and privileged status.
The new political science is fundamentally a scientific discipline (128). The new political scientist is a “neutral observer” (130) with “an extensive technical vocabulary” (130). Free of, and aware of, values that could taint his data, he can offer only “prediction” and “hypothetical advice” (131). He gives man no special status, and for him, “to understand a thing [including man] means to understand it in terms of its genesis or its conditions . . .” (131). Everything about the new political science stands in opposition to the old, and sociology and the study of economics are empirically-grounded disciplines that stand alongside it.
Again, I don’t think my commenter would identify too closely with the new political science described above. There have been movements in the social sciences that question empiricism and take values into consideration, including such Aristotelian concepts as natural ends. My commenter is apparently influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre, who has valiantly sought to reconstruct and revive the Thomist conception of Natural Law. I don’t know exactly what the implications of MacIntyre’s thought are for sociology, but I expect they might lead to a narrative-focused understanding of community development, which does seem interesting to me.
Nevertheless, a Thomism founded on empiricist social science will be very different from Thomism proper. Its intellectual foundations will be value-free, and thus susceptible to the same problems that Strauss identified in the new political science. The separation of fact and value in the social sciences (for example, in the refusal to accept the existence of God and His commandments as fact) (148) always suggests–to those who might look to social science to determine how we should live–that the best political system is one founded on this same premise.
According to Strauss, by following the logic of the fact/value distinction,
One thus arrives at the notion of the rational society or of the nonideological regime: a society which is based on the understanding of the character of values. Since this understanding implies that before the tribunal of reason all values are equal, the rational society will be egalitarian or democratic, and permissive or liberal: the rational doctrine regarding the difference between facts and values rationally justifies the preference for liberal democracy–contrary to what is intended by that distinction itself. (152)
Furthermore, the new political science “puts a premium on the study of things which occur frequently now in democratic societies: neither those in their graves nor those behind the [Iron] Curtains can respond to questionnaires or interviews. . . . the laws of human behaviour are in fact laws of the behaviour of human beings more or less molded by democracy . . .” (154).
When I talk about the “crippling imbalance” caused by a left-liberal hegemony, I am talking about the implied politics of much of the research being conducted in academia today, which still follows the basic model identified by Strauss. Where radical deviations from this norm occur, they are in the direction of a relativist, Nietzchean politics, as found in the work of Michel Foucault, for example (or, as some have claimed, in the esoteric political teaching of Strauss himself), or in neo-Marxist approaches.
I prefer a social science that is explicitly prescriptive and proscriptive and considers the natural ends of human development to a social science that only analyzes the ever-flowering social mutations of our time while simultaneously providing them with a political support-structure. At least, I would like to see more space made within mainstream “academia” for such an approach. Sociology is not my field, but I would be interested in exploring work of that orientation.
Strauss, Leo. “An Epilogue.” An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss. Ed. Hilail Gildin. Detroit: Wayne State U P, 1989. 125-155.
Update: The person who commented on my last post provided a response which is available here. He is well-versed in sociological and social theory, and he pointed out some of the apparent inaccuracies in my argument, which are, I think, the result of my blurry knowledge of sociology and its terminology. To clarify, I did not mean to suggest that an explicitly value-free approach to social science (crude behaviouralism, for example) is common today, but rather that the separation of fact and value is still the conceptual root of much social science, even if the newer social science seeks to bridge or overcome this separation. As I understand it, the problem of normativity arose within the context of an empirical approach to social science. The larger problem, as I see it, is that the problem of normativity can’t be solved in a context in which “normativity” is recognized as a meaningful concept. Pursuing a balanced approach between empiricism and normativism amounts to an evasion of the fundamental issue, and pursuing a radical normativism in the manner of Foucault leads back to the relativism that the fact/value distinction made possible in the first place. The political implications of this are that social science tends to display either a preference for liberal democracy (as per Strauss’s argument regarding value-free social science), political relativism (as in the case with Foucault and his followers), or something in-between. It is this “something in-between” that is dominant in academia today: a commitment to egalitarianism and democracy that is informed by a superficial (because halfhearted) political relativism. Strauss made an effort to escape this unsolveable problem in political science by returning to political philosophy, and I think a thorough reconsideration of (rather than a partial reconstruction of) Aristotelian and especially Thomist (or neo-Thomist) understandings of society could benefit the social sciences–and has, to some extent, through the work of Alasdair MacIntyre.