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Monday, January 22, 2007

A Turn to the Right?

Peter Berkowitz, a friend and former teacher to some of us here, has just released a fascinating and funny essay in the form of intellectual memoir entitled The Longer Way. It appears in a forthcoming collection, Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys, ed. Mary Eberstadt (Simon and Schuster, 2007). In the essay, Peter acknowledges that he is regularly regarded with suspicion from lefties (he has criticized the critics of Bush v. Gore, among other things) and conservatives, who apparently don't think Peter hates liberalism enough. But in this essay, Peter gives a flavor of why I still (naively?) read his work as a non-conservative, even though Peter now publishes almost exclusively in conservative-affiliated publications, such as the Weekly Standard or Policy Review (which is surprisingly more multivocal since it left the Heritage Foundation and came to the Hoover Institution). For those who have read this essay: am I wrong?

One question, and then two stories from the essay to share after the jump. First, as a young man, Peter described himself as "captivated" by Roberto Unger's Knowledge and Politics, but he observes that the book has been "greeted with a deafening silence by the academy when it was first published in 1975, and since has been largely ignored or derided by professors of philosophy, political science, and law." Is this true? My sense is that Unger's work has meant a great deal to a variety of law professors, even though by the time I was at HLS in the late 1990's, it seemed like his influence had waned. I just did a quick JLR search on Westlaw and found 522 citations to Unger's book and 1500 citations to Unger himself. Since Westlaw's database doesn't even go back that far for many journals, I have to say: that's the kind of obscurity I could envy. To be fair, Peter also mentions derision of Unger's work, but again, my quick eyeballing suggests that Unger's work is probably acclaimed as much as it is derided, though perhaps his stature has waxed and waned over time. What kind of Unger moment do we live in now?

[As is often my practice, I showed this to Peter before posting and he helpfully replied: "My recollection (I'm in Herzliya reporting on national security and the Middle East and haven't got the opportunity at the moment to check) is that Stephen Holmes (in TNR), Don Herzog (University of Michigan Law Review(?)), and Ian Shapiro speaking in effect for liberal political theory, and William Ewald (in the Yale Law Journal) speaking for Oxford analytic moral philosophy, excoriated Unger's work and suggested that there was next to nothing to learn from Knowledge and Politics. It should also be said that Tony Kronman did write an early and illuminating review (including a revealing published exchange of letters between the two). I'm guessing that many of the references you found to Unger come in the 1980s from CLS scholars who for a time embraced Unger as one of their own (around 1983 Unger published a Harvard Law Review article called, if I remember correctly, "The Critical Legal Studies Movement" that did intersect with CLS but went far beyond it both in philosophical depth and political radicalness). Perhaps I should have said that professors of philosophy, political theory and jurisprudence largely ignored or derided Knowledge and Politics. Other than Kronman, can you think of significant exceptions to that proposition??" I don't know enough about Unger's reception history, so I invite others to weigh in on Unger's legacy in law schools today.]

Putting the Hunger for Unger issue aside, the essay has some gems. At one point, Peter describes his unusual experience as a young man in Israel after college, when he was shuttling between providing tennis instruction on a secular kibbutz in the desert and studying at a "English- language yeshiva where I would sit in on two hours of classes on Midrash and Talmud and then gobble down a quick, old- fashioned, Eastern European lunch of boiled chicken and rice, whereupon, to the consternation of classmates and teachers, I’d race out... I sensed that I was living a double life, and that it would be wise to keep it to myself. Eventually, I confirmed as much by casually letting a curious kibbutz friend know how I spent my mornings, and followed up that painful experiment by offhandedly mentioning to an inquisitive rabbi at the yeshiva where it was that I was living. My friend’s face and the rabbi’s contorted in identical fashion, as if I had nonchalantly disclosed my membership in a gang of child molesters."

Later, Peter describes how he ended up teaching at Harvard in the Government Department when he still had another year to finish at law school, which he started after his PhD.

"The offer I received required that I begin promptly. So I agreed to spend the fall semester of my third year in law school teaching political philosophy at Harvard. This was made possible by the best and most dangerous elements of a Yale Law School education. In a meeting in his office during the spring of my second year, the dean casually waived the reasonable law school requirement that students enrolled in courses be in residence in New Haven and attend classes. And why shouldn’t he have? On the one hand, he trusted Yale law students to use their freedom well. On the other hand, he supposed—as the faculty and administration drummed into our heads—that we members of the Yale Law School community were above the law, for if we weren’t, how would we be able to use it to do the right thing?" (emphasis added).

Posted by Dan Markel on January 22, 2007 at 12:18 PM in Article Spotlight, Dan Markel, Deliberation and voices, Law and Politics, Legal Theory | Permalink


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Berkowitz is right that at least among analytic political philosophers Ungar is a non-entity. This has been the case since long before I started seriously doing political philosophy so I can't say why for sure. I think that his work it though to be fairly amaturish. But then, the same goes for Berkowitz among analytic political philosophers, who are annoyed by his consistant inability to get major thinkers right (some of his work on Rawls is very bad) and thought his book on Nietzsche was second-rate and philosophically unsophisticated.

Posted by: Matt | Jan 22, 2007 12:36:12 PM

Matt, perhaps you could reference some links or citations? The Nietzsche book did have various admirers (selected as HUP's best book by a first time book author) and the underlying dissertation won the APSA's best political theory dissertation prize. I'm not suggesting there aren't dissenters on PB's work (or Unger's for that matter), but at least let's have the specific references if possible. Thanks.

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Posted by: ggoblin | Jan 22, 2007 1:50:26 PM

Ggoblin, thanks for the cites, but I looked, and they don't appear to support Matt's criticisms of Unger or Berkowitz.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 22, 2007 2:02:02 PM

Not to hone in an on tangential point, but I'm a bit surprised by your Policy Review aside. I've always thought that Hoover was much less partisan, and much more "multivocal," than Heritage.

Posted by: Adam | Jan 22, 2007 2:16:51 PM

On the Nietzsche book in particular see Brian Leiter's review in _Mind_, vol. 105, july 1996. My impression is that the large majority of Nietzsche scholars, at least those working in most US philosophy departments, largely share Lieter's view of the book. A quote: "Whereas Clark’s study of Nietzsche’s epistemology was informed by an
understanding of the philosophical issues at stake, almost all the recent literature on Nietzsche’s ethics is marred by a superficial understanding of moral philosophy. The book under review, unfortunately, is no exception."

The conclusion:
This book does not make for pleasant philosophical reading. Silly mistakes aside (e.g. Marx is said to have held that the “state” is “the opiate of the masses” (p. 167)), philosophers will find especially maddening the author’s lack of clarity and precision, in matters both philosophical and terminological. There are, for example, references throughout the book to “the traditional aspects” of Nietzsche’s philosophy, without any explanation of exactly what the “tradition” is. Yet Nietzsche plainly repudiates many aspects of “the tradition”:
the Aristotelian doctrine of the unity of the virtues; Platonic realism;
the idea that morality admits of rational vindication; and the idea that philosophy could be a purely a priori, as opposed to a naturalized, discipline—to name but a few! It is a good question how deep Nietzsche’s affinities are with other aspects of the philosophical tradition (a question well-addressed in John Richardson’s recent Nietzsche’s System
), but as on almost every other interesting question raised in this ambitious, but poorly executed, book, Berkowitz fails to shed any real light on the issues."

The book has had almost no impact on Nietzsche studies done by philosophers for just these reasons. Similar problems exist with his discussion of Rawls (in The Wilson Quarterly, among other places) where his sub-Sandelian analysis depends almost entirely on what political philosophers now take to be mistaken or confused readings. It's for these reasons that he's had essentially no impact on analytic political philosophy.

Posted by: Matt | Jan 22, 2007 2:34:35 PM

Adam, I think I didn't make myself clear. I agree with you that Hoover is more multivocal than Heritage, and consequently, Policy Review seems considerably more interesting to me now than when it was under the auspices of Heritage. I suspect it largely has to do with Tod Lindberg's more capacious view of the world, but I'm not enough of an insider to know whether the switch was made prior to Lindberg or as a result of Lindberg's editorship.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jan 22, 2007 2:45:46 PM

I have the greatest respect for Peter--I think his book on Nietzsche is fantastic, his reviews of philosophers in TNR were fantastic, and he was an extraordinarily gifted and generous professor at Harvard. (I had the good fortune of taking a seminar on political philosophy from him.) I think he and Galston are absolutely right about the virtue-oriented direction "liberalism" (in the classical sense) should be taking.

But I want to make one cautionary note about Unger: I never made it through his big books (K&P, False Necessity, etc)...but I had the feeling this was more due to my own inadequacy as a reader than to his as a theorist. I feel like you have to be pretty familiar with Durkheim, Weber, Freud, Parsons, Luhmann, etc. to read Habermas well. Add those, and perhaps many more, to the list that qualifies anyone to really understand Unger's work.

Posted by: Frank | Jan 22, 2007 4:16:37 PM

A reader called this to my attention, and although I've given up commenting on blogs, I'm going to make a brief exception here, since this is something I know a bit about and since I've already been cited earlier in the thread.

1. "Knowledge and Politics" is not just irrelevant to "analytic" political philosophy, as Matt Lister notes, but also to political philosophy simpliciter. The reason, I think, is that the central argument in the book is a rehash of the chapter on the "Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought" from Luckas's History and Class Consciousness, a book firmly entrenched in the canon of 20th-century European political theory. All Unger seems to add to the mix is a somewhat strange Catholic-inspired mysticism. As Professor Berkowitz notes, in the remark quoted by Dan Markel, the law review citations can largely be attributed to the mutual admiration society that marked the writings of the now defunct Critical Legal Studies "movement."

(2) Professor Berkowitz's Nietzsche book is incompetent, both in its scholarship and its philosophical argument (how it got picked up by Harvard U Press is an instructive story in the corrupt practices of academic presses, but we can put that to one side, since the intellectual merits are clear). It has, happily, largely vanished down a black hole of obscurity (see, for example, the recent and huge Blackwell Companion to Nietzsche edited by Ansell-Pearson, a rather uneven collection, but representing what might be euphemistically called "different perspectives"; one should be able to access parts of the text, as well as the index, via Google Books or Amazon).

The Nietzsche book was so bad that I have never read anything by Professor Berkowitz since; it may well be the later work is more satisfactory.

Posted by: Brian | Jan 23, 2007 10:16:32 AM

As a way of avoiding working on my dissertation this afternoon I stopped by our campus book store and looked through the recent books (i.e., post '96, when Berkowitz's book on Nietzsche was published) books on Nietzsche. There were quite a few from authors from a wide verity of philosophical schools. The only reference to Berkowitz's book I could find was a negative one in an article by Leiter. Leiter is surely right that this book made no impact on Nietzsche studies. References to him by political philosophers are also very sparse.

Posted by: Matt | Jan 24, 2007 12:16:55 PM

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