Saturday, 25 August 2012

PTJ on SMW on Education and Knowledge

Patrick T. Jackson on Stephen M. Walt on the education of young gentlemen would-be policy wonks:

Walts (sic) sings the praises of a liberal education

I have a problem with this part:
Walt suggests that "geography matters" so students ought to learn things like the physical characteristics of different regions. But this is a non sequitur, since it is entirely possible for one to maintain that geography matters without becoming a geographical determinist. Studying the physical characteristics of a region and expecting them to give one insight into social and political dynamics is geographical determinism...
This 'non sequitur' allegation is itself a non sequitur!  'Physical geography matters' is not determinism; 'physical geography determines' is determinism.  And I don't buy the slippery slope argument that if we allow mountains, rivers and so on into our analyses that we're a hop and a skip away from Mackinder.  What about, for instance, Jared Diamond?  Is he beyond the pale?  I know that he has a tendency to reify things like 'national culture' and for that I would criticise him but in general he does an excellent job of drawing sociality and materiality together in such a fashion that neither determines the other.  Braudel too.

This either/or logic is the fundamental weakness of social constructivism: that either we bracket out materiality (in this case physical geography) completely or else we'll inevitably end up saying that mountains, rivers and disease mechanically determine the various trajectories of humanity.  It just doesn't follow.  More seriously, it limits the potential of constructivism with respect to critique, interpretation and explanation.  It's old fashioned dualism dressed up in fashionable new jargon.

Down with this sort of thing!

Other than that, however, I agree with PTJ.  Walt all too easily, and perhaps even subconsciously, suggests that some epistemic practices have access to reality while others simply stitch together different aptitudes and interpretations.  This is the very worst of advice.

In this century the sociology of knowledge has to be a core part of any decent liberal arts education (or, frankly, any decent education).  Without it there can be no reflexivity or self-awareness with respect to everything else that one is learning.  Without that students are likely to take the geology, biology and, worst of all, the economics of the matter to be the 'really real' behind all the interpretations.

However, that said, it'd help if social constructivism (the kind taught to IR students, at least) didn't so wilfully cut reality straight down the middle and pretend that most of the constitutive elements of our worldly existence should be ignored, lest they 'determine' us.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

More on Mr Ferguson

Dan Drezner on Ferguson and Zakaria:

Intellectual power and responsibility in an age of superstars

I don't think it's fair to suggest that Ferguson's critics are jealous of his income.

People despise Niall Ferguson because he uses his academic status to lend a veneer of intellectual credibility to the bare faced lies and misinformation of whatever right-wing talking point is doing the rounds. Academics especially despise him, consequently, because he cheapens their vocation. He's a self-interested hack falsely credited as a profound thinker. He is where he is not because of his exalted brainpower but because he tells rich and powerful people exactly what they want to hear.

Now, of course, he's not stupid -- the market for telling rich and powerful people what they want to hear is very large indeed and he's clawing his way to the top of it -- but he's not much of an intellectual either. Perhaps I'm just a silly old romantic but 'intellectual' suggests to me someone who venerates ideas and truth-saying above stroking their own ego, lining their own pockets and sating the appetites of the powerful.

Intellectuals say what they believe, regardless of who is listening and/or paying. Someone who does the contrary is just a big-talking pseudo-celeb.

Royalty and 'Disgrace'

'Rich, famous young man has some fun -- world shocked.' He should be stripped of his title (instead of his underpants), some suggest.

If 'arry is 'disgracing' the blessed Royalty by his antics then isn't that a fantastic reason for him to keep his title? Anything to disrupt the smarm-secreting, anally-retentive, buttoned-up, master-signifying bullshit-mongers. Anything to drag this country's self-image into the Eighteenth-bloody-Century.