meaning of, responses to, and effects of those challenges has prompted the exploration of how we are even to read the texts he has left, as political theorists ire beginning to bring him into the ken of their interpretative efforts (e.g., Phelan 1990; Miller 1990; Thiele 1990).
The expansion of the corpus in all directions is important for deepening our knowledge and resources. As with every field of study, however, as it expands the practitioners become more and more separated and conversations among scholars more difficult. A smaller core of texts means a more focused conversation among political theorists, but also a conversation that can become constricted and narrow, looking only in on itself. The wider the core of readings, the more difficult it becomes to carry on the conversation. Insofar as political theory is conversation about the just and the unjust, the best regime and the worst, legitimacy and illegitimacy -- the expansion of readings and the possibilities of new understandings of these questions are to be welcomed. The challenge, though, is to maintain the conversation despite the expansion. It is not clear that the last generation of scholars has been able to achieve this.
R.G. Collingwood, faced with the ugliness of the Albert Memorial, was forced to confront the meaning of beauty for himself and for the architect of the memorial. He claimed that he could not understand the memorial or appreciate it if he used his own standards of beauty; he needed to understand how the memorial met the standards of a different time and a different person. In this way, perhaps, he learned the limits of his own conception of beauty and was led to discover a beauty that transcended the expectations of his own set of experiences. The texts that we include in the study of political theory likewise cannot be understood insofar as we go to them only with our own questions and our own standards. To this extent we must be able to set them in a context, to see them as having authors, as speaking in a language that a particular set of a past population could understand. But this need not leave them as simply artifacts of the past -- curiosities of long faded values. Collingwood recognized that Scott's standards of beauty may not have been his own, that the role of this memorial may not have matched his own conception of that role, but in so doing he need not learn the relativity of all standards of beauty. The challenge may be Socratic: to raise questions about the opinions precisely by showing that those opinions may not be universal. But as with Socrates, to learn that our truths may not themselves be universal does not lead to the impossibility of searching for truths. It leads rather to the aporia, the admission of ignorance, that is at the foundation of all learning.
To be able to learn about the limits of our opinions we need to understand the context of the works we read; if we do not, we are left with our questions unanswered. Despite the attacks on texts launched by those critical of their "gendered" language, of their status as object rather than subject, of their psychological and historical distance from us, we have seen no lessening over the last decade of commentary on and engagement with texts. What we have seen is the increased willingness to acknowledge the educative role of these texts -- a role that may make them more dangerous than they were when they were read simply to set the record straight about who said what, when, and first. Socrates was executed by the Athenians for corrupting the young as he goaded them to ask new questions of their established norms and perhaps find those norms wanting. The return to texts for this normative education does entail a certain degree of danger. Though theorists today have no illusions that the hemlock is likely to confer martyrdom's immortality on them, they are prepared to confront the profoundly discomforting conclusions that a Nietzsche or a Heidegger may force us to acknowledge, the undermining of the enlightenment foundations of knowledge and the political consequences of that critique. If anything, it is likely that the next decade will see continued and increased attention to precisely those texts that do force us to question some of our most casually accepted assumptions. It is the unsettling quality of these texts that make them far more powerful educational tools than perhaps even Matthew Arnold envisioned in his pleas for a literary canon. What has appeared to be given in any society may not be; but that is precisely why we read these texts and why they are at the center of so much academic debate of late.
On the other hand, the historical debates that set those texts into a discourse of a time and place so distant from our own, that assume fundamental discontinuities rather than continuities, that force us to spend our time learning a new language can make these works seem sterile. Yet, as Strauss recognized and as Collingwood warned us, we cannot read those texts without language skills, broadly conceived. Sophocles' Antigone, for example, is not about fighting for the rights of self-expression of the individual, as it is far too often understood to be. To read the play in that way is not to learn from Sophocles. But if we know nothing about the absence of a language of individual rights to self- expression or of the centrality of the conflict between household and the establishment of the polis in ancient Athens, we may make this mistake. The overwhelming challenge for the next generation is then to resist the
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Publication information: Book title: Political Science:The State of the Discipline II. Contributors: Ada W. Finifter - Author. Publisher: American Political Science Association. Place of publication: Washington, DC. Publication year: 1993. Page number: 21.
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