Political Theory Is Not a Luxury: A Response to Timothy Kaufman-Osborn's "Political Theory as a Profession"

Article excerpt


In "Political Theory as a Profession," Timothy Kaufman-Osborn calls for political theorists to shed attachments to political science subfields. This call inadequately reckons with the perils to political theory posed by the combined contemporary forces of scientization and neoliberalization in knowledge. Focusing on these perils, the author argues for the strategic preservation of the political theory subfield. However, this preservation will not be advanced by intensified professionalization or a turn toward market applicability. Paradoxically, the survival of political theory rests in resisting professional and neoliberal metrics and reaching for publicly legible and compelling intellectual purposes.


Political theory, humanities, science, neoliberalism

In most respects, I find little to disagree with in Timothy Kaufman-Osborn's "Political Theory as a Profession." Certainly he is right that the Penn State controversy letters are not especially compelling as political theoretical arguments, although they are probably more appropriately analyzed as weapons in political battle. They were not developed to expound the nature, scope, and value of theory as political theorists might formulate these but, rather, were deployed as strategic threats to nontheorists about the consequences of expelling us from their midst. Kaufman-Osborn is right as well to remind us that the categories by which we organize knowledge are, like all discursive categories, compressed histories at best inapt for the present and at worst perpetuating political formations emanating from a rueful past. This is true both of the subfields of political science and of the subdivisions of theory many of us chafe against-political theory apportioned into "historical" and "normative," leaving "positive" to the formal modelers.1 Kaufman-Osborn's account of how professionalization has warped political theoretical pursuits and values is also incontestable. And certainly he is correct that political theory is not a unified or coherent enterprise. In fact, even his dog metaphor may be too kind. No matter its breeding, the mongrel is a single animal modestly integrated in physiology and personality. Far from a unified and coordinated "us" lacking only illustrious pedigree, political theory is a genre (if that) harboring polymorphous inquiries whose identity is probably forged mainly in relation to what it is not. We are less a mongrel enterprise than an asylum for diverse outsiders to empirical political science.

If I have no major disagreements with Kaufman- Osborn's critiques, I am nonetheless disturbed by the querulous, ungenerous, even unloving tone in the article, a tone that makes me diffident about his inquiry into what we do and whether we ought to defend the autonomy of the enterprise. Certainly there is no requirement that one who closely analyzes the scope or value of a particular endeavor also care deeply for it. But to ask "Why should this field of inquiry be saved?" which is at bottom what Kaufman-Osborn is asking, shouldn't deep affective investments at least be relevant? It is one thing to make the analytic claim that political science subfields are not merely incoherent but dysfunctional and hence ought to be dismantled along with all the other disciplinary boundaries emerging from the twentieth-century cold war, imperial, and colonial histories. It is another to ask after the best mode of nourishing and protecting what one considers a field of generative or compelling intellectual work, regardless of the logics and histories that contour the field's present boundaries and endeavors. This second perspective, and the affect that would animate it, is curiously absent in Kaufman-Osborn's unquestionably smart history and analysis, and I wonder why-what has cooled or suppressed his ardor?

If one absence in Kaufman-Osborn's article is any sign of affective attachment to at least some of what political theory is and does, another is close attention to the discursive powers organizing knowledge and intellectual life in the present, powers generating the specific need for protection of political theory's autonomy that it might not otherwise require or deserve. …