Texts and Canons: The Status of the "Great Books" in Political Theory
Arlene W. Saxonhouse
The arguments have flown fast and free over the last several years, rocking the academic world: canon or no canon? Is it Western imperialism, misogyny, and racism, or is it the core of civilized discourse over the ages? Are the texts we study and assign to our students culture and time bound, reproducing the white, patriarchal past in a multicultural present or are they to be preserved as the focus of common discourse lest we and our students drown in a sea of relativism? The rhetoric on both sides of the debate has been powerful; moderation has been a forgotten virtue. And the subdiscipline of political theory as the study of great texts written by earlier generations has not been immune to the swirling debates. Indeed, it was a political theorist, Allan Bloom, in his best-selling Closing of the American Mind ( 1987), who did much to bring this issue to public attention and to set the tone for the debate. While this debate has addressed the broader field of the role of education in contemporary American society, challenges from within the discipline of political theory have been launched as well, questioning the claimed apotheosis of certain classic readings: the works of authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Marx. Others have defended this core as being at the foundation of our ability to theorize about the value, purpose, and meaning of political life, and the courses in which students read Plato et al. continue to be included in the curricula of most political science departments.
Political theory as a field managed, though barely, to survive the assaults of the 1950s and 1960s. On the one hand, there was positivism, which denied validity or meaning to the conceptual core of a field that used such inaccessible terms as justice, duty, freedom; on the other hand, there was behavioralism, which dismissed the normative in favor of the empirical. The severest and most powerful assaults of the last decade, though, have come from within. John Gunnell, for instance, claims that the core of authors and readings traditionally included in the study of political theory is simply a "myth," constructed by modern theorists with particular agendas; others argue that those works that have become part of the so-called "myth" survived by chance rather than because of their status as great works, worthy of careful reading, from which we might learn about the nature of politics ( Condren 1985). Yet others have turned political theory into a subfield of history, especially intellectual history, embedding the classic texts in an historical setting of language usage on one side or political experiences on the other. To borrow the language of David Miller describing this movement: "[T]exts that we now regard as classic sink into the landscape" (1990, 425).
Such attacks arise since in many ways political theory is an artificial construct that lacks an independent identity, caught as it is at the cross-roads of a multitude of disciplines. While political scientists may see political theory as a subfield of their own discipline, political theory draws from (and is claimed by) history, philosophy, sociology, literary studies, linguistics, and women's studies. 1 At home in none, but enriched by all, political theory during the last decade has confronted the new threat of the centrifugal force of interdisciplinary connections which have often led to sharply divided communities of discourse. Beyond the isolation from mainstream political science, the sub-specialties of political theory informed by their various inter-disciplinary connections have become isolated from one another. Thus, at the same time that the very texts we might have defined as the unifying basis of political theory are under assault, the activity of studying those texts has itself been drawn in different directions.
It is the argument of this essay, though, that the texts that have come under such powerful and (usually) articulate attack and that have been appropriated by other disciplines have weathered the assaults and remain a central part of the discipline of political science -- though recent trends suggest that their survival is in no sense assured. In part, these texts have survived the attacks of the last decade because political theorists have not established a simply defensive stance asserting the validity