Theory and Philosophy

As a break from thinking about issues of life and death, I want to weigh in on a fairly abstruse discussion that has been going on in the more rarified neighborhoods of the Blogosphere (here, here, and here, for example); the discussion concerns “political philosophy” vs. “political theory”.

The discussion is pretty abstract and academic, but I think it is an important one. It is important both because I think that these kinds of questions are important – that philosophy matters, as shown by the role that an obscure Muslim philosopher played in 9/11 and the current geopolitical situation – and because this distinction helps mark a break point between where I stand and where I believe Joe stands, in encouraging what we call “4th Generation” politics and where some other commentators seem to be.

Part of where this difference lies is in the notion that instead of looking at “one unifying truth”, it is often best to let that truth develop through the elicitation and communication of “many small truths”. I’ll expand on this at some point.
Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jacob Levy has a pretty extensive discussion on the subject, with a pretty good institutional analysis of the differences, which leads him to an explanation of the difference:

All of this means that theorists and philosophers, even when thinking or writing about the same questions, have different intellectual backup resources. To put it crudely: a political philosopher is much more likely to appeal to a higher level of abstraction (to general ethical theory, then to metaethics, then to epistemology…) while a political theorist is much more likely to appeal to a lower level of abstraction (empirical findings, history).

Relatedly…though this is probably the weakest tendency I’ll mention…theorists tend to be more interested in institutions, in normative analyses of political systems as a whole, and more willing to think that politics is importantly distinct from other realms of ethics. Sometimes ‘political philosophers’ are simply ethicists and moral philosophers who apply their familiar tools to new situations. What a policymaker should do is treated as a special case of what the person standing at the trolley switch should do. This is not true of Rawls, and indeed isn’t true of many of the most prominent political philosophers. (Interestingly, it is sort of true of Nozick.) Moreover, some theorists tend this way themselves. But (as Matt Yglesias notes), for this sort of reason theorists have a loose tendency to find the turn to ‘political liberalism’ in late Rawls both more comprehensible and more justifiable than do philosophers.

First, given that we’re doing kind of an “anthropology” of the discipline, let me disclose my own background; I was a student of Sheldon Wolin and Jack Schaar. I started my college career as a physicist, and could never get comfortable with the representations of the political scientists that their work was somehow “scientific” when I saw it as an extension of the old high school lab error of “precision by division”. I was always interested in and read philosophy, but because Schaar used literature as an extensive part of his theory curriculum, I came to see a kind of thinness in the purely philosophical explanations that I could never get beyond.

This doubtless marks me as someone who fits neatly into the “theorist” camp. My senior paper, which in essence argued that “political philosophy” was an oxymoron … probably sealed my membership in that camp.

It wasn’t until graduate school, where I studied with Host Rittel, that I began to be able to articulate a little more about the distinction.

Rittel, along with Mel Webber, wrote a brilliant paper on this exact issue. It was called “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”, and in it, they suggested that problems could be divided into two categories: “tame” and “wicked”.

“Tame” problems are those that can be modeled (represented in language, notation, or a simplified physical representation), repeated (they will consistently give the same response to the same inputs), and bound (defined entirely within a constrained space, such as a laboratory).

“Wicked” problems, on the other hand, meet none of those criteria. Rittel and Webber developed ten criteria to define wicked problems:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy in representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
10. The planner (designer) has no right to be wrong.

Problems in politics are almost certainly “wicked” problems, as defined here, and one of the reasons why we have so much trouble talking about politics … and why so much of the discussion on politics is inherently unsatisfying is that we persist in trying to make believe that they are tame problems.

Let me try this again in a more accessible way.

In Los Angeles, where I live, the movie industry is one of the core industries, so much as people who live in Redmond are fairly conversant in the ins-and-outs of the software industry, or people who live in Manhattan are often conversant in advertising and finance, we tend to be comfortable with movie jargon.

Most high-budget pictures today are what are called “high concept” pictures. The essence of the picture … the point, if you will … is readily reducible to a sentence or two, in which you describe the hero or heroine and situation. The rest of the film hangs from this armature of concept; in some cases, it works well – pick a John Ford western or a Kurosawa samurai movie – and in some, badly – pick any current Eddie Murphy movie.

“High concept” pictures are “tame”; they are representable (you can readily describe the film in two or three sentences), repeatable (Lethal Weapon II, III, IV, V, etc.), and bound – you leave the film feeling like the whole of the characters, plot, and environment are contained within the film itself.

Other movies are not “high concept”; they depend on the unpredictable-seeming interactions of the characters to define the plot, and you certainly walk away from them feeling like what you have seen is a small window into a vaster, more complex world that extends far beyond the screen and the duration of the film. These “wicked” films are typically more complex, more interesting, and when they work, can leave you with a deeper experience.

Similarly, what political philosophy attempts to do is to create what would in essence be a “high concept” politics; one in which the richness and unpredictability of real political relationships can be reduced to a to compact armature of formula. This manages to be both wrong and dangerous, because it turns theory into a Procrustean bed onto which we intend to force messy, complex, real people to fit.

I’ll pick this up later and use it to discuss Rawls specifically and how the nature of thinking that underlies this kind of “philosophical politics” can be perceived at the opposite end of the pole from the kind of dynamic 4th generation politics that I’m interested in.

5 thoughts on “Theory and Philosophy”

  1. AL – I’m a regular reader, and I would like to engage with you on this topic, but I had some trouble understanding your post. The only thing I really understood was the third paragraph, and the distinction between tame and wicked problems – which sounds rather like the distinction cognitive psychologists make between well-defined and ill-defined problems (see, for example, the work of Herbert Simon on this).

    Is the difference between political philosophy and political theory the same as the difference between high-concept and the opposite (those undpredictable-seeming stories)?

    Politics is the art of the possible, and the reason it is an art is because figuring out what is possible is non-trivial, as George Bush and Jacques Chirac have recently demonstrated. But is that aphorism part of political philosophy, political theory, or neither?

    Sorry to be so dense on this issue. I have no background in PoliSci other than one first year course I slept through (because it dwelt on minutiae of the Canadian constitution, one of the great soporifics known to humanity). But I may be able to earn my keep by providing the perspective of a cognitive psychologist interested in issues such as decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity.

  2. Well, briefly, ‘theory’ and ‘philosophy’ are defined academic subspecialties of what is typically called ‘political science’.

    Each claims a certain group of writers and thinkers…there is some overlap.

    The philosophers are more enamored of formally-expressed Big Ideas, which the theorists are more into historically grounded explanations…

    Right now there is a lot of discussion about John Rawls, a Harvard political philosopher who recently died. I didn’t much care for Rawls’ work, and part of what I want to do is articulate why.

    I’m thinking that the reason (why I don’t like his work) is also a good lead-in to a discussion of this ‘4th Generation politics’ metaphor Joe and I keep using, which I’m trying to articulate and which I think may actually be something kind of new.

    How’s that for a bit of clarification?


  3. A.L. Over the past decade my politics have moved rightward over the question of integrity. I hope to stay with you on this thread because I discern that you are one of the few liberals I know who has integrity, who wants to deal head on with wicked problems. Most liberals I talk with seem to hope all problems will remain tame. I have not read Rawls so I will probably remain on the sidelines and just read. So, continue.

  4. AL – OK. I will read about John Rawls and return. What little I know of Rawls’ work I don’t care for. It doesn’t seem to make much contact with reality, in the sense that it seems to me both to underestimate and overestimate humans at the same time.

    I will also check the archives to learn more about this 4th gen stuff. Sounds intriguing.



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