Political theory as a subfield of political science

This essay was written in january as part of an exam in a course titled ”Social Studies of Science”.

My field of study would probably best be described as political theory, and more broadly, political science. The label of ‘political theory’, however, cover a very broad range of intellectual interests and pursuits, and one may even doubt that there exist enough commonality as to warrant one to speak of a “field” in any determinate manner. This vagueness of my field of study, and its rather insecure institutional place within academia, is actually part of what I would like to discuss in this paper.

Political theory is not science and the claims its practitioners make are rarely seen as claims to knowledge or truth. This puts me in difficulties with regard to the present exam question: much of the course material, concerned as it has been with science proper, will not be straightforwardly applicable to the field of political theory. But in this paper I will attempt an analysis of political theory as a field. By this I mean that I will not concern myself with describing prevalent theories and traditions in political theory and trying to explain them with reference to the social context. Rather, I will analyze political theory as a discipline — that is, its identity and place amongst other disciplines in academia.

This is not because I find the first set of questions unimportant. Indeed, in my view such reflections ought to be conducted by theorists themselves, so as to make the field in some sense more self-reflective. This would be the demand for what Bernard Williams calls ”reflective social understanding”:

[T]he education of political philosophers should include such epistemological materials as will help them to get some measure of the varying claims of the sociology of knowledge. As it has been said that metaphysicians and philosophers of language should not be verificationists, but should have a verificationist conscience, so political philosophers should have a readiness to be embarrassed by the possibility of reflexion on the formation and direction of their views (Williams 2006: 160).

Yet I will not pursue such reflections in the present paper. Partly because I find it difficult that to do to in as brief a space as this. Partly because very little of the course material seem relevant to such a task. Choosing instead to analyze political theory more broadly as a discipline it will be possible to keep this paper more in line with the themes, if not the specific theories, addressed in the course material.

As I said before, political theory is not a science. Yet it is currently a subfield of political science. This fact causes some tension within the discipline. It is not surprising, therefore, that calls are sometimes made for the separation of political theory from political science. I will now point to one such case of late, and make a suggestion of what kind of institutional or economic logic may account for such calls for separation.

In 2007 the political science department at Pennsylvania State University decided to no longer offer political theory as a main field of study for graduate and Phd students. The debate that this decision sparked recently reached the scholarly journals (Brown 2010; Gunnell 2010; Kasza 2010; Kaufman-Osborn 2010; Rehfeld 2010). I will draw on some of the arguments in this debate, but first I would like to pick up on some themes of the course that I think may help to explain the temptation to exclude political theory from the discipline of political science.

(1) There is within science always a struggle for economic resources, and this struggle determines what kind of research gets done. Thus there is a vital need to position and frame one’s research and discipline as highly important and useful.

(2) The prestige and status of science is unique in contemporary society.

Both these themes have often been subject for discussion in the lectures of this course, and is also discussed in the course literature (primarily Bucchi 2004; Ravetz 2006). They are of course the basic starting points that make the social study of science important and interesting. I will now try to build on these two ideas and analyse political theory’s position as a subfield of political science.

If (1) covers not only the practise of the natural sciences, but also every other kind of intellectual and academic activity, then, if we combine it with the fact (2) that science is highly esteemed, we get the formula: (3) There is an incentive for all academic disciplines to present themselves as constituting “science”.

Well then, what distinguishes political theory as a subfield in political science? Wendy Brown supplies an answer: “[P]olitical theory is the sole outpost of nonscience in an ever more scientized field” (Brown 2010: 681). While political theory cannot plausible dress itself in the robes of science, as Brown puts it, the other subfields of political science potentially can. Then, to the extent that political theory asks ‘the big questions’ about the study of politics, of its methodology and of social ontology, political theory makes itself an annoyance to its subfield neighbours. Not simply because it, through its existence, take up a proportion of the existing resources allotted to the discipline — and therefore annoys those who simply deem it a worthless practise — but because political theory may then be regarded as undermining a key factor determining the size of those resources, namely the possibility to present the discipline — to policy makers as well as the public — as a hard science. (This reaction is quite understandable, since, after all is said and done, who would wish to suffer the fate of the humanities?)

This partly explains, I think, the existence within social science of quite naïve and outdated ideas about science. If we combine the formula (3) with the fact that in the society at large “science” is still generally understood in a rather narrow positivistic fashion, then we need not be surprised that the very same conception of science is still entertained and propagated by scientists. After all, they themselves will benefit from presenting their discipline as in accordance with these conceptions of science. And hence, what Gregory Kasza describes as “the marginalization of political philosophy”, ought not to surprise us.

Make no mistake: political philosophy presents a threat to today’s mainstream political science. Contemporary research in the philosophy of science offers little justification for the neo-positivist template that still dominates empirical research in political science. To ask graduate students to probe the basic ontological, episte- mological, and normative questions of philosophy and apply what they learn to contemporary research in political science is to give away the store. The only way to stop philosophical inquiry from undermining the status quo is to exorcise it from graduate education. That is why philosophy requirements have disappeared from the curriculum. (Kasza 2010: 699)

Naturally, they are opposed to including in their discipline any intellectual enterprise asking the kind of questions Kasza sees as characteristic of political philosophy (he prefers the term ‘philosophy’ over ‘theory’ but treat them as interchangable):

What is the character of the human being and human society? What is politics and what should be the proper scope and objectives of political research? What sort of knowledge about politics is possible? What is science? What is a good society? (Kasza 2010: 697)

On the contrary, these scientists are rather happy in a state of affairs in which ”most graduate students are no longer taking courses that would problematize the correspondence between the social and natural sciences” (Kasza 2010: 699).

I will now expand on this issue of the distinctiveness of the social sciences. Kasza speaks of the ‘neo-positivists’. But let us return to the earlier proponents — or rather, to one of their critics. Isaiah Berlin was moving in the circles of British positivist philosophers, but became a staunch critic. In ‘Does Political Theory Still Exist?’ he discussed the scientistic ambitions of an even earlier age, the ambitions of those who, in the wake of Newton, had believed that the “monstrous muddle” of social and political doctrines could be cleared away “by the strong new broom of scientific method” (Berlin 1999: 162). Here is Berlin’s estimation of that project:

Nevertheless, attempts made by the philosophes of the eighteenth century to turn philosophy, and particularly moral and political philosophy, into an empirical science, into individual and social psychology, did not succeed. They failed over politics because our political notions are part of our conception of what is to be human, and this is not solely a question of fact, as facts are conceived by the natural sciences; nor the product of conscious reflection upon the specific discoveries of anthropology or sociology or psychology, although all these are relevant and indeed indispensable to an adequate notion of the nature of man in general, or of particular groups of men in particular circumstances. Our conscious idea of man – of how men differ from other entities, of what is human and what is not human or inhuman – involves the use of some among the basic categories in terms of which we perceive and order and interpret data. To analyze the concept of man is to recognize these categories for what they are. To do this is to realize that they are categories, that is, that they are not themselves subjects for scientific hypothesis about the data which they order. (Berlin 1999: 162-63)

The first part of this paragraph may simply express the thought that there are inevitably normative questions that can never be ‘solved’ by greater scientific knowledge in social and political matters. The second part, however, have more far-reaching consequences. For these concepts and categories, these models and presupposition of which Berlin speaks, are not simply something that we use to make sense of our experience, they form that experience. As Bernard Williams says, the understanding of historically and culturally different concepts and categories, and “the self-understanding of our own”, is then a prime task of philosophy (Williams 1999: xv). And since these models determine the actions and beliefs of individuals, there is a case to be made that an understanding of the social world depend on understanding such models and modes of thinking. “No amount of careful empirical observation and bold and fruitful hypothesis will explain to us what those men see who see the state as a divine institution” (Berlin 1999: 167-68). Political theory does exist, Berlin says, and its task is to bring, “by an effort of imaginative insight”, understanding of the concepts and categories that have dominated societies; insights without which these societies “will remain opaque to us” (1999: 168).

Still, it might be argued that this would be a humanistic enterprise, and that though it may supplement political science it has no place in that science. In reply to this argument, we may highlight the question of “the self-understanding of our own” concepts and categories. Then it will be seen that political theory, “the reflective dimension of political science” as Gunnell calls it (2010: 678), is integral to the discipline. For if there is no reflection on the categories and concepts “in terms of which we perceive and order and interpret data”, then we would not be able to make conscious choices about crucial methodological questions, and we would pursue our work unconscious of the presuppositions and social ontology that by necessity direct it. One does not simply by an empirical study discover what kinds of entities exist in the social world. On the contrary, a social ontology is conceptually prior to the study of that world — though the result of empirical work may then influence us to change our model and basic concepts of society. My point is: Either you try to be explicit about this ontology and try to understand the historical and sociological causes of these preconceptions, so as to make informed choices. Or you don’t.

What I am saying here could perhaps be understood as the claim that one task of political theorists is actually to conduct sociology of knowledge in relation to the field of political science. And, secondly, that the nature of political science is such that the discipline would fare less well as a science did it not make room for intellectual work of that kind. But I don’t mean to say that each and every political scientist must spend a whole lot of energy on these issues. As Bernard Williams told the philosophers: while there ought to be a sensitivity to these issues, this sensitivity may sometimes rightly take the form of simply looking the difficulty in the face “and getting on with something one actually believes in” (Williams 2006: 160). However, at the level of the whole discipline and the departments (such as Penn State), such an attitude is a different matter completely.

I have in this paper suggested that a certain amount of political theory and sociology of knowledge would make political science better off. Better off epistemologically speaking, I must stress again. For as I have also suggested, there seem to exist a kind of institutional and economical logic that threaten to make the discipline worse off in terms of resources, if it were to acknowledge precisely that view. This social analysis explains why my field of study seem to have an uncertain disciplinary home.[1] As long as the ‘distinctiveness’ of social science of which I have spoken is not broadly understood in the rest of society, then this state of affairs is likely to remain. For the existence of a profession of political science depend on the willingness of the rest of society to financially support it. And the extent of this willingness is crucially dependent on whether the profession is regarded as “science”. So, whether due to an adaption process, or to a selection effect, it is no surprise that there is tendency in the profession to propagate the same conception of science as that which is held by its financiers. This perhaps explains the prevalence of philosophically disreputed ‘neo-positivist’ views of science, and why a department of the discipline decided to give an entire subfield the boot.


[1] The situation of course varies between different regions. Kasza complains of “America’s overspecialized academic structure”, and the “ill influence” it has had in the United Kingdom and Germany (Kasza 2010: 698). My view regarding Sweden is that Kasza would have less cause for concern in this case.


  • Berlin, Isaiah (1999), Concepts and Categories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
  • Brown, Wendy (2010), ‘Political Theory Is Not a Luxury: A Response to Timothy Kaufman-Osborn’s ‘Political Theory as a Profession”, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 680-85.
  • Bucchi, Massimiano (2004), Science in Society (London & New York: Routledge).
  • Gunnell, John G. (2010), ‘Professing Political Theory’, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 674-79.
  • Kasza, Gregory J. (2010), ‘The Marginalization of Political Philosophy and Its Effects on the Rest of the Discipline’, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 697-701.
  • Kaufman-Osborn, Timothy V. (2010), ‘Political Theory as Profession and as Subfield?’, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 655-73.
  • Ravetz, Jerome (2006), The No-Nonsense Guide to Science (Oxford: New Internationalist).
  • Rehfeld, Andrew (2010), ‘Offensive Political Theory’, Perspectives on Politics, 8 (02), 465-86.
  • Williams, Bernard (1999), ‘Introduction’, in Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
  • Williams, Bernard (2006), Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

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Isaiah Berlin and the Liberal Dilemma of Education

Below is the introduction to my paper ‘Isaiah Berlin and the Liberal Dilemma of Education’ (unpublished).

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Liberal-democratic societies are often faced with a dilemma regarding educational policy. While inclined to proclaim individual autonomy and critical thinking to be vital educational aims in its public schools, and as necessary conditions for running private schools, liberal democracies often incorporate cultural or religious minorities that will feel threatened by such aims. These groups might claim that such an education threaten the values, perhaps even survival, of their community. Hence they might demand that, in the name of tolerance and diversity, exemptions must by made for their children from certain parts of the curriculum: the teaching of evolution theory, for instance, or of education in sexual matters. Some groups might demand separate schooling of the children of their community: a withdrawal from the wider society, the mixing with which they see as at odds with their fundamental values or deep religious convictions.

How should liberals respond to groups or parents making demands such as these? The basic liberal commitment is to let people live their lives as they themselves see fit. Hence, the explicit will of some group of individuals to live in a certain way cannot easily be dismissed. Yet, the same commitment make liberals favour an education that give children the capacity for critical thinking, an ability to deliberate on normative issues and on one’s own identity and life plan; in short, an education that aim at individual autonomy and self-direction. But these very ambitions and ideals, the dissenting group now claim, constrain a legitimate way of life: the non-autonomous life of deep moral convictions and group belonging.

The present paper will approach this liberal dilemma of education by investigating the political thought of Isaiah Berlin. Being one of the foremost liberal thinkers of the twentieth century, one may hope to find in his writings some valuable insight pertaining to the dilemma at hand. Not least since Berlin was a liberal unusually alive to the tension between individual liberty and the human need for belonging, and his political thought in general is permeated by the insight of the necessity of clashes and conflict between genuine human goods and ways of life.

Since William Galston’s influential paper ‘Two Concepts of Liberalism’ (1995) debates on this kind of issues are often framed in terms of a tension between two branches of liberalism; branches that stem, as it were, from different historical roots. On the one hand, we have a type of liberalism that finds its roots in the Reformation, the religious wars, and consequently focus on toleration and peaceful co-existence of dissenting groups and religious communities. This toleration-liberalism,[1] which has John Locke as its most prominent figure, is always on alert against the power of the state, rejecting the claims for state intervention however benevolent its ambitions may be. On the other hand we have the kind of liberalism that stems from the Enlightenment concern for the autonomy of the individual, in the face of not only the state but also of oppressive cultural practices, ignorance and clerical authority. This autonomy-liberalism finds it inspiration in John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

When it comes to schooling these variants inevitably clash. Galston’s paper was in fact prompted by considerations on educational policy, namely on the famous case of Wisconsin v. Yoder. Galston supported the verdict in favour of the Amish family Yoder to withdraw their children from public education, thus agreeing with the court’s ruling that the mandatory school attendance law constituted a violation of the Yoder parents’ religious freedom. According to Galston, a liberal state must, in order to protect diversity, allow “wide parental rights” and have a “non-autonomy-based system of public education, supplemented by private education” (Galston 1995: 529). From the view of Reformation liberalism, to give the final authority over education to the state is certainly illiberal, a measure doomed to disrupt the civil peace. As the family, on this Lockean view, “function as the last, best obstacle to the complete politicization of life,” parental control over education must be extensive (Ruderman and Godwin 2000: 527). And hence, communal or religious groups have the right to educate its young members according to the values they cherish, without being subjected to restrictions and conditions of state-sponsored liberal virtues.

But is it not — the Enlightenment liberal might reply — the obligation of society to intervene on behalf of the weak as against the strong? And if so, what if the weak are weak simply because they are not yet adults? Should then not the process of them becoming so be guaranteed against the strong, against the-already-adults, as it were, in whose interest it may be to inculcate them into obedience, to believing certain religious dogmas about the sinfulness of this or that, or into unduly deference to authoritarian community leaders, into a narrow identity of clan or tribe, or acceptance of confined and oppressive gender roles? This line of thought can be said to have prevailed in the almost equally famous case of Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education. Here the court ruled in favour of the authorities, against the parents’ complaint and demand for exemption for their children from a set of textbooks used in their children’s school. The Mozert parents claimed that the books were offensive to their religious beliefs and community by depicting girls and boys in gender roles at odds with their traditional values, by teaching the theory of evolution, and by implying the notion that salvation was possible for believers of different faiths.

Even though the rulings of Mozert and Yoder go in opposite directions, liberals have applauded both. This is revealing, notes Kevin McDonough and Walter Feinberg, editors of the book Citizenship Education in Liberal-Democratic Societies, of the continued battle between the Reformation and the Enlightenment: “Public education in virtually every Western country is in the cross hairs of this internal conflict within liberalism” (McDonough and Feinberg 2003: 8). There are difficult cases where the two kinds of liberalism clash, and the “distinctions, exceptions, and priorities that are needed to anticipate and resolve these cases are in the process of being created” (2003: 8).

This paper constitute a reading of Berlin’s writings on liberty[2] with this conflict in mind. Is it possible to find in Berlin a case for a certain set of “priorities”? I will attempt to answer this question by discussing the Yoder case. This is a well-discussed and contested case, and so could constitute a good background for a consideration of Berlin’s thoughts on education. In explaining the liberal dilemma in the Yoder case I will present William Galston’s arguments for his stance. And Galston will continue to be relevant throughout the essay, as presenting a view that I will contrast and compare Berlin to. My presentation of Galston is primarily based on his (1995) article, which discussed Yoder as the background for explaining his version of liberalism. But since then he has come to support his version of liberalism by invoking Isaiah Berlin’s notion value pluralism (2002, 2005). Though these later books will mostly be outside the scope of my paper, this fact of course makes Galston of additional interest as theorist to compare Berlin with.

There are two major passages of Berlin that my discussion will focus on. The first is expressing a very marked emphasis on the children and their future as free individuals. The second passage is in the same vein, though it also contains an interesting viewpoint on education in general, emphasizing that to educate mean by necessity to force and to ‘mould’ the young. On what basis can such a phenomenon be justified at all? Here I will make the suggestion that autonomy, viewed as a species of positive liberty, must be a legitimate condition for education. I will argue against Neil Burtonwood, a theorist who has written plenty on Berlin and education, who suggests that Berlin is bound to a position much closer to that of Galston. The point I wish to make here is that schools are institutions of a special character, with implications for how we adjudicate between autonomy and other values. Taken together, the picture that emerges from these passages is that Berlin is committed to educational ideals of making children capable of free choice and self-direction.

The structure of the essay is the following. Section 2 introduces the dilemma posed by the Yoder case, as well as the theoretical reasoning used by Galston to support the verdict. Section 3 briefly covers the key concepts in Berlin’s thought as they are expressed in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. Section 4 then turn to Berlin’s explicit views on education, and here I will venture to draw out the implications of these. The concluding section 5 will briefly summarize the main points of the preceding arguments, and indicate where Berlin stand in relation to the divide between Reformation and Enlightenment ideals in these educational issues.

* * * *

[1] Galston calls it ’diversity liberalism’, but toleration-liberalism has become the more established term.

[2] The volume Liberty (2002) comprise the original four essays on liberty together with two other longer essays and a number of shorter texts.


  • Barry, Brian (2001), Culture and Equality (Cambridge: Polity Press).
  • Berlin, Isaiah (2001), The Power of Ideas (London: Pimlico).
  • Berlin, Isaiah (2002), Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Berlin, Isaiah (2004), ’Democracy, Communism and the Individual’, (The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library).
  • Berlin, Isaiah (2006), Political Ideas in the Romantic Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  • Brighouse, Harry (2006), On Education (London & New York: Routledge).
  • Burtonwood, Neil (2002), ’Must Liberal Support for Separate Schools Be Subject to a Condition of Individual Autonomy?’, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 269–284.
  • Burtonwood, Neil (2003), ’Isaiah Berlin, Diversity Liberalism, and Education’, Educational Review, Vol. 55, No. 3, pp. 323–331.
  • Burtonwood, Neil (2006), Cultural Diversity, Liberal Pluralism and Schools (London & New York: Routledge).
  • Callan, Eamonn (2006), ’Galston’s Dilemmas and Wisconsin v. Yoder’, Theory and Research in Education, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 261–273.
  • Cherniss, Joshua L. (2007), ’Berlin’s Early Political Thought’, i Crowder & Hardy (2007).
  • Crowder, George (2004), Isaiah Berlin (Cambridge: Polity Press).
  • Crowder, George (2007a), ’Two Concepts of Liberal Pluralism’, Political Theory, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 121–146.
  • Crowder, George (2007b), ’Value Pluralism and Liberalism: Berlin and Beyond’, i Crowder & Hardy 2007.
  • Crowder, George & Henry Hardy (eds) (2007), The One and the Many: Reading Isaiah Berlin (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books).
  • Feinberg, Joel (1992), Freedom and Fulfillment (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  • Galston, William (1995), ‘Two Concepts of Liberalism’, Ethics, Vol. 105, No. 3, pp. 516–534.
  • Galston, William (2002), Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Galston, William (2005), The Practise of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Lilla, Mark, Ronald Dworkin and Robert B. Silvers (eds) (2001) The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin (New York: New York Review of Books).
  • McDonough, Kevin, and Walter Feinberg (eds) (2003), Citizenship and Education in Liberal-Democratic Societies (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Miller, David (ed) (2006), The Liberty Reader (Edinburgh: Paradigm Publishers).
  • Müller, Jan-Werner (2008), ’Fear and Freedom: On ’Cold War Liberalism’’, European Journal of Political Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 45–64.
  • Ruderman, Richard, and Kenneth Godwin (2000), ’Liberalism and Parental Control of Education’, The Review of Politics, Vol. 62, No. 3, pp. 503–529.
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).

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Isaiah Berlin och det liberala dilemmat gällande utbildning

Som vissa av bloggens läsare vet så skriver jag för tillfället på en uppsats angående ett liberalt dilemma angående utbildning. Dilemmat formuleras bra av Eamonn Callan:

[S]ome people want to deny their own children particular educational opportunities or experiences that are widely regarded as necessary to the good of every individual child. They want this not out of malice toward their children but because they sincerely subscribe to an understanding of what counts as a good human life that is repugnant to the cultural mainstream. That understanding entails a conception of education that seems deeply harmful to children from the perspective of the mainstream. What is at stake here is [. . .] a collision between parental choice and the basic interests (as the larger society defines those interests) of individual children. If parental choice is thwarted in such cases, we have what seems to many people a violation of freedom of conscience. If parental choice is accommodated, children are denied at least part of the education to which many people will think them morally entitled. (2006, 262)

Min uppsats går ut på att undersöka Isaiah Berlins politiska tänkande med detta liberala dilemma i åtanke.

Callan argumenterar i den aktuella artikeln mot William Galston, som angående det kända fallet Wisconsin v. Yoder argumenterar för föräldrars rätt att undandra sina barn från utbildning som strider mot deras (föräldarnas) övertygelser. Utifrån Galstons version av liberalism är detta rätt och rimligt. Intressant är att Galston grundar sin liberalism filosofiskt i Berlins idéer om värdepluralism och har därmed skapat en ”liberal pluralism” i Berlins efterföljd. I min uppsats försöker jag utröna vad Berlin skulle kunna tänkas säga om detta dilemma. Endast vid ett fåtal tillfällen skriver Berlin direkt om utbildning. Men dessa stycken (citerade nedan) är klart i motsättning till Galston. De har en upplysningsliberal ton som knappast är förenlig med Galstons ackommoderande linje gentemot föräldrar som av exempelvis religiösa skäl vill undanhålla sina barn från viss typ av kunskap eller framställandet av vissa livsstilar som de finner anstötliga. Min förhoppning med uppsatsen är dock inte att blott peka ut dessa stycken, utan även att argumentera att att de följer utifrån en logik inom Berlins övergripande antaganden och normativa ståndpunkter. I min uppsats hoppas jag kunna förklara detta, och genom att göra jämförelser till några av Galstons kritiker inom den samtida politiska teorin (främst Callan och George Crowder), visa att Berlins liberalism och värdepluralism innebär att det är giltigt att fastslå individuell autonomi och kritiskt tänkande som legitima mål för skolan, även när dessa mål krockar med föräldrarnas övertygelser, värdet av kulturell tillhörighet, osv.

Eamonn Callans hållning är följande:

I claim that Galston underestimates considerations within his own theory that might tell against deference to parental choice. In particular, he overlooks the extent to which restricting parental choice may be necessary to the expressive liberty of children because of the internal connection between their liberty and the avoidance of servility in their education. Here again Yoder is revealing. I show that considerations of children’s prospective interest in liberty make a reasonable case for regarding the Supreme Court’s decision in Yoder as morally unfortunate. (2006, 263)

Ett av de två centrala stycket i Berlin som jag tänkte ta upp ligger i linje med detta, specifikt det Callan kallar för ”considerations of children’s prospective interest in liberty”. Vid ett tillfälle då Berlin ska förklara hur man kan resonera utifrån hans utgångspunkter gällande frihet, oundvikligheten i moraliska konflikter, osv, så tar han som exempel frågan om att införa ett offentligt och enhetligt utbildningssystem. Detta finner Berlin önskvärt, och han säger sig resonera på följande sätt:

If I were told that this must severely curtail the liberty of parents who claim the right not to be interfered with in this matter — that it was an elementary right to be allowed to choose the type of education to be given to one’s child, to determine the intellectual, religious, social, economic conditions in which the child is to be brought up — I should not be ready to dismiss this outright. But I should maintain that when (as in this case) values genuinely clash, choices must be made. In this case the clash arises between the need to preserve the existing liberty of some parents to determine the type of education they seek for their children; the need to promote other social purposes; and, finally, the need to create conditions in which those who lack them will be provided with opportunities to exercise those rights (freedom to choose) which they legally possess, but cannot, without such opportunities, put to use. (2002, 46)

Jag tänkte koppla detta till Joel Feinbergs kända idé, utvecklad i respons till Yoder, om ”the child’s right to an open future”. Det finns likheter, även om Berlin inte kan ses som en rättighetsteoretiker av Feinbergs släkte. Men en rätt till en ”öppen framtid” tycks återfinnas även i det andra stycket av vikt som jag har hittat. Jag vill argumentera att samma skäl som gör att Berlin att förespråkar långtgående tolerans överlag, samma skäl gör det rimligt med starkt begränsade möjligheter för föräldrar att medvetet begränsa sina barns utbildning och förmåga till egna livsval. Läs nu följande stycken, ur ett långt brev till George Kennan (publicerat i volymen Liberty):

What horrifies one about Soviet or Nazi practise is not merely the suffering and the cruelty, since although that is bad enough, it is something which history has produced too often, and to ignore its apparent inevitability is perhaps real Utopianism – no; what turns one inside out, and is indescribable, is the spectacle of one set of persons who so tamper and ‘get at’ others that the others do their will without knowing what they are doing; and in this lose their status as free human beings, indeed as human beings at all.

Certainly we do not detest this kind of destruction of liberty merely because it denies liberty of action; there is a far greater horror in depriving men of the very capacity for freedom – that is the real sin against the Holy Ghost.
[. . . ]
If pushed to the extreme, this doctrine would, of course, do away with all education, since when we send children to school or influence them in other ways without obtaining their approval for what we are doing, are we not ’tampering’ with them, ’moulding’ them like pieces of clay with no purpose of their own? Our answer has to be that certainly all ’moulding’ is evil, and that if human beings at birth had the power of choice and the means of understanding the world, it would be criminal; since they have not, we temporarily enslave them, for fear that, otherwise, they will suffer worse misfortunes from nature and from men, and this ’temporary enslavement’ is a necessary evil until such time as they are able to choose for themselves – the ’enslavement’ having as its purpose not an inculcation of obedience but its contrary, the development of power of free judgement and choice; still, evil it remains even if necessary. (2002, 339–42)

Vad jag vill hämta ur detta är naturligtvis att den liberala friheten att göra egna livsval också har tydliga implikationer gällande utbildning. Vad jag vill bygga på är tanken att liberalismen innefattar —måste innefatta, trots att den historiskt varit ovillig till det — både en teori om vilka faktiska preferenser som ska tolereras men också en idé om processen genom vilken preferenserna skapas. (Kanske jag här överdriver detta tomrum i liberal teori. Åtminstone enligt Brian Barry, s. 200) Människor föds inte med färdiga preferenser och inte heller med ”the power of choice and the means of understanding the world”. Det är pga detta som skola och utbildning inte kan behandlas som vilken annan samhällsinstitution som helst. Notera att diskussionen här blott är en del i en större debatt. Nämligen den mellan ”autonomi-liberaler” och ”tolerans-liberaler”. Och notera, som David Thunder, att “this toleration-autonomy debate is not merely a ‘family dispute’ about some fine points of liberal theory”.

On the contrary, the outcome of this dispute has dramatic implications for societies where deep religious and cultural differences are either well-entrenched (say, the U.S.) or growing at a fast rate (say, France or Germany). If we adopt a tolerationist stance, social groups and social infrastructures (e.g. schools, hospitals, businesses) devoted to tradition-based ways of life involving, say, arranged marriages, intellectual submission to religious authority, some form of patriarchal social structure, and the limited exposure of members to “alternative ways of life,” may be permitted to exist and reproduce themselves, albeit against the backdrop of a liberal juridical and economic order that includes freedom of association. If, on the other hand, we adopt a pro-autonomy stance, the State and its agents may be authorized to control, either through legal rules or educational policies or both, the internal practices of associations—and presumably, of families—to ensure that their members develop an adequate capacity for personal autonomy, albeit in a prudent and even-handed manner. (Thunder 2009, 155)

Bland dessa ”sociala infrastrukturer” vill jag alltså hävda att skolsystemet har en sådan funktion att den generella debatten mellan tolerans och autonomi inte är rakt av överförbar. Givet en mångfald av preferenser kan vi i övriga fall välkomna en mångfald inom en given social infrastruktur, för en sådan mångfald gör det möjligt för medborgarna att leva sina liv efter eget huvud och känsla för mening. Fortfarande är det så att autonomi-liberalen kan påminna om de fall inom dessa infrastrukturer och sammanslutningar där individer far illa eller hindras från att lämna, och vi kan i sådana fall diskutera legitimiteten i statlig intervention för att upprätthålla vissa liberala värden och individuella rättigheter. Här har vi då tolerans/autonomi-debatten i sin generella form.

Men är skolan en institution om alla andra? Vad bör den liberala friheten innebära här? Isaiah Berlin citerar John Stuart Mill: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way”. Och skriver:

If this is so, is compulsion ever justified? Mill had no doubt that it was. Since justice demands that all individuals be entitled to a minimum of freedom, all other individuals were of necessity to be restrained, if need be by force, from depriving anyone of it. (2002, 174)

Tänk att individerna x och y väljer fritt att inrätta sitt liv på så sätt att de går med i en sekt och lever efter vissa värderingar. De besitter ”the power of choice and the means of understanding the world” och de utövar nu sin rätt att ”pursuing our own good in our own way”. Men vad händer om x och y får barn? Ska deras frihet innebära att de och deras sekt tillåts sörja för barnens skolgång på ett sådant sätt att dessa barn inte vet något om yttervärlden, inte något om andra sätt att leva, eller blir intalade att andra sätt att leva leder till helvetet. Eller vore detta ett sätt att beskära dessa barns frihet, vilket isåfall innbär att föräldrarna rätteligen borde bli ”restrained, if need be by force” från att undandra barnen från en allsidig öppen utbildning? Detta är således alldeles oberoende om det sätt att leva som sekten utövar anses legitimt och rätt av staten att tolerera. Jag tror att Berlins utgångspunkter måste leda till en sådan slutsats. För notera kraftfulla i att den vision om människans fria val hade som konsekvens att i teorin ”do away with all education”. Den enda legitima form av utbildning är i liberala ögon den som har ”as its purpose not an inculcation of obedience but its contrary, the development of power of free judgement and choice”. Denna sociala infrastruktur skulle annars helt sakna existensberättigande.  Strider sådan utbildning mot föräldrarnas önskan måste liberalen sätta ner foten, precis som i fall där vuxna sinsemellan kränker varandras frihet.

Går det att finna stöd för detta hos Isaiah Berlin. En teoretiker som skrivit om Berlin ifråga om utbildning är Neil Burtonwood. Men han håller med Galston. I en passage som jag förmodligen kommer kritisera i min uppsats skriver han:

In supporting separate schools for the children of non-liberal cultural minorities liberals should be able to recognise the gains that will be made in terms of cultural congruence and a sense of belonging but they will also have to accept that this entails a loss of individual autonomy. This is only problematic if autonomy is granted absolute status as some kind of foundational human value. As Berlin observes, the reality is a trade-off between human values. There comes a point where we have to make a choice, and for Berlin the genuine liberal does not require that individuals choose autonomy. (Burtonwood 2000, 282)

Är inte detta stycke förvirrat? Individer är visserligen inte är tvingade att ”välja” autonomi, men har de rätt att undandra denna möjlighet för sina barn? Det är ju detta hela frågan handlar om. Man är fri att inträda i en sekt och därmed kanske inordna sig i ett icke-liberalt levnadssätt, kanske även avsäga sig framtida möjligheter till autonoma val. Liberaler kan inte, precis som Burtonwood säger, tvinga människor att ”välja” autonomi. Det finns andra värden: ”cultural belonging”, osv. Men vem ska göra avvägningen mellan dessa värden? Det är det som är frågan. Den som är kritisk mot denna typ av skolor behöver inte vara det pga en idé om att ett autonomt liv är det enda goda (vilket Burtonwood säger: ”this is only problematic if. . .”). Att kräva ”en öppen framtid” innebär inte att autonomi görs till det enda legitima sättet att leva.

Ja, det var några korta punkter om vad min uppsats handlar om. Synpunkter tas tacksamt emot. Som brukligt när man skriver uppsats så har jag varit ute och seglat på de vida haven, läst vitt och brett, innan jag lyckats smalna av ordentligt. Ett tag lämnade jag Berlin helt och ägnade mig åt samtida teoretiker, men nu, för att få en striktare ram, har jag återgått till Berlin.

Nu har jag bara 2,5 vecka kvar att skriva. Måste därför släppa lite på perfektionismen och börja hulka upp text på allvar. Usch. Publicerar kanske några stycken här på bloggen allt eftersom. Ni får gärna ge mig ett handtag genom kritik och frågor kring upplevda glapp i tankegångarna.


Berlin, Isaiah (2002), Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Burtonwood, Neil (2002), ’Must Liberal Support for Separate Schools Be Subject to a Condition of Individual Autonomy?’, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 269-284.

Callan, Eamonn (2006), ’Galston’s Dilemmas and Wisconsin v. Yoder’, Theory and Research in Education, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 261–273.

Thunder, David (2009), ’Why Value Pluralism Does Not Support the State’s Enforcement of Liberal Autonomy: A Response to Crowder’, Political Theory, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 154–160.

Den ytliga liberala människosynen — och det totalitära alternativet.

Artikeln ‘The Silence in Russian Culture’ publicerades i Foreign Affairs 1957. Isaiah Berlin beskriver där bland annat den intellektuella bakgrunden till den sovjetiska totalitarianismen.

Over a century ago Russian critics denounced European civilization for its lack of understanding. It seemed to them characteristic of the morally desiccated, limited thinkers of the West to maintain that human activities were not all necessarily interconnected with each other – that what a man did as a writer was one thing and what he did as a citizen was another; that a man might be a good chemist and yet maltreat his family or cheat at cards; that a man might compose profound music and yet hold stupid or immoral political views that were no business of the critics or of the public.

This notion of life, according to Russians of almost all shades of opinion, was artificial and shallow and flew to pieces before the deeper insight of the all-embracing view, according to which the life of individuals and the life of their institutions was one and indivisible. Every faculty and element in the individual were in a state of constant interplay; a man could not be one thing as a painter and another as a citizen, honest as a mathematician and false as a husband; it was impossible to draw frontiers between any aspects of human activity, above all between public and private life.

Any attempt to insulate this or that area from the invasion of outside forces was held to be founded upon the radical fallacy of thinking that the true function and purpose of a human being does not penetrate every one of his acts and relationships – or worse still, that men had, as men, no specific function or purpose at all.

It followed that whatever most fully embodies this ultimate total human purpose – the State, according to the Hegelians; an elite of scientists, artists and managers, according to the followers of Saint-Simon or Comte; the Church, according to those who leaned towards ecclesiastical authority; an elected body of persons embodying the popular or national will, according to democrats or nationalists; the class designated by ”history” to free itself and all mankind, according to Socialists and Communists – this central body had a right to invade everything. The very notion of the inviolability of persons, or of areas of life, as an ultimate principle was nothing but an effort to limit, to narrow, to conceal, to shut out the light, to preserve privilege, to protect some portion of ourselves from the universal truth – and therefore the central source of error, weakness and vice.

Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Silence in Russian Culture‘, Foreign Affairs,  Vol. 36, No. 1 (Okt. 1957) , s. 4-5.

Isaiah Berlin och upplysningen

En god vän har uppmärksammat mig på att en understreckare häromdagen framförde en märklig synpunkt på Isaiah Berlin. En skribent vid namn Clas Johan Gardell skriver om en bok av Zeev Sternhell under titeln ‘Motupplysningen lade grunden för fascismen‘.

Sternhell följer den intellektuella produktionen från Vico till vår tids religiösa fundamentalister och placerar många tänkare på kontraupplysningens parnass. [. . .] Kalla krigets totalitarism-teoretiker, som Jakob Talmon och den brittiske filosofen Isaiah Berlin på 1950- talet, fördömde upplysningsfilosofin och hävdade att Rousseaus och Voltaires tankar var ansvariga för den ryska revolutionen och det stalinistiska skräckväldet. I en intervju 1990, när Berlin blev tillfrågad om sina intellektuella förebilder, räknade han bland annat upp Vico och Herder samt Sorel och greve Joseph de Maistre. Den sistnämnde, som levde 1753–1821, var en fransk monarkist som hävdade att den franska revolutionens förödande tsunami utlöstes av ett skalv på 1500-talet när den lutherska reformationen frigjorde individen från den katolska kyrkans trygga kollektiva famn.

Detta är ganska märkligt. Vico och Herder är väl en sak, men att Berlin skulle vara influerad av Sorel och de Maistre är svårare att svälja. Att Berlin ägnade sig åt sådana tänkare var i mångt och mycket för att just förstå uppkomsten av totalitära politiska ideologier. Och därtill, i stycket ovan görs ingen åtskillnad mellan att vara intellektuellt influerad av någon samt att dela dennes politiska slutsatser.

Skälet till att Berlin ifrågasatte upplysningen var att han ansåg att vissa av dess grundantaganden var politiskt farliga. Enligt Berlin så utgörs upplysningens politiska arv inte bara av liberal demokrati utan även av kommunismen. Det var för att komma till rätta med de potentiellt farliga antagandena i upplysningen som Berlin försökte utkristallisera det gångbara och sunda inom motupplysningen. Det kan tilläggas att en person som instämmer med de Maistre aldrig med glädje skulle kunna skriva att Voltaires ”life and writings probably liberated a greater number of human beings than those of any man in recorded history”.

Jag gjorde en sökning på Sternhells bok och hittade en recension skriven av Adam Kirsch i The New Republic:

What is missing from Sternhell’s book is any sense of why the anti-Enlightenment flourished in the first place, and how it produced thinkers of the stature of Burke and Herder. Sternhell takes for granted that the Enlightenment—or his preferred version of it—is mankind’s only hope, so that its opponents cannot seem anything other than perverse and malevolent. Yet it was not just these thinkers who felt that the advance of science and liberalism was making the world less happy. The same intuition can be found in almost all the literature of the nineteenth century, from Wordsworth to Dostoevsky, and sometimes even in Mill, the greatest liberal of all. And it was not just conservatives such as Carlyle who attacked the dehumanizing effects of modern life. Liberals and socialists such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Morris all felt the same way. When such thinkers looked back to a more organic and religious past, it was not because they were enemies of the human spirit, but because they felt that the spirit was starving in modern conditions. Traditionalism is not always the same as authoritarianism.

Sternhell never really engages this critique of the Enlightenment and its legacy. He simply dismisses it out of hand, leaving the reader to wonder why some of the arguments of Burke and Herder sound so reasonable. [. . .]

At the same time, Sternhell’s belief in the power of ideas means that he offers little sense of how political, economic, and social changes affected the way ideas were received and transformed. He blasts Renan, for example, for writing that “the masses only have the right to govern if they know better than anyone else what is best,” a frankly elitist and anti-democratic notion. But as Sternhell notes, Renan wrote this in reaction to the demise of the Second Republic in France, when the majority of the people elected Napoleon’s corrupt, ineffectual nephew as president and then applauded his decision to abolish democracy and become emperor. It was this coup that, Renan said, “made me disgusted with the people,” and it was a feeling shared by many liberals at the time. Even Mill opposed universal suffrage.

Berlin, Isaiah (2006), Political Ideas in the Romantic Age, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), s. 36.