The Poverty of PPE, Episode Nine

THEORY AND WORKING OF POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS

37. Since the questions: why do we have political institutions? is generally omitted from consideration in the study for this paper, or if not omitted, answered in a plainly circular way (Why do we have a Parliament? In order to govern), the student has excluded from his consideration questions concerning (e.g.) the economic basis of power and the difference between power and authority, and is thrust instead immediately into social engineering considerations. The only questions which arise when such a perspective is adopted ask how the various systems can be made to function better within their own terms of reference. The trivia churned out by the reform of parliament industry become the centrepiece of the course; the level of discussion is indistinguishable from that orchestrated by the Sunday press (the writers are generally the same people); the examination paper asks for a civil servant’s background brief: Question 11 in the 1967 paper reads “‘A proper relationship between policy and good government remained the nub of good government.’ In which of the countries you have studied is this best achieved?”


38. Other questions demand an uncritical descriptivism with regard to the institutions studied: yet the concept of objectivity raises serious problems in politics, as Charles Taylor’s “Neutrality in Political Science” [NOTE: In Laslett and Runciman (Eds), Politics, Philosophy and Society, Volume III, Basil Blackwell, 1967.] shows. Ideally, the study of institutions should be explicitly critical rather than descriptive, judging their achievements against one or other ideal. The realization of this ideal has been inhibited by certain developments in modern western political theory, questions on which comprise about a third of the paper. For the main tendency in modern writings on democratic theory in the west has been to reduce the ideal to the reality. This is most evident in Dahl’s Preface to Democratic Theory, which must be one of the most pointless books ever written. What Marcuse says of Janowitz and Narvick’s study of “Competitive Pressure and Democratic Consent” is just as true of Preface to Democratic Theory: “The criteria for judging a given state of affairs are those offered by … the given state of affairs.” [NOTE: H. Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, p.115, Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1964.] In fact, quite a large part of modern political theory consists of rationalisation to account for the retreat in the west from the classical conceptions of political democracy: Dahl’s book is one of the most obvious cases; another example is provided by Giovanni Sartori’s Democratic Theory. [NOTE: Praeger, 1964.] This collapse also underlies the work of institutional writers like Crick. [NOTE: e.g., The Reform of Parliament.] The tendency has been effectively criticised by P. Partridge in an article “Politics, Philosophy and Ideology”. [NOTE: Reprinted in A. Quinton, Political Philosophy, OUP, 1967.]

39. The theoretical side of the paper is unbalanced in so far as the only modern theorists of political institutions who are considered are those who accept the American way of life. The living Marxist tradition in Western Europe is ignored. It is interesting to note that though the early Marxists are not excluded from the political theory paper (an optional subject) where they are treated as the representatives of a dead utopian vision, their followers’ writings are excluded form the scope of the paper now under consideration, where their theories would have to be treated as embodying a living challenge to Western political values. The teachers and examiners prefer to forget this, and no doubt the real reason for excluding such theorists from the curriculum is that to include them would involve taking up the study of those social relationships which are crucial to understanding how society works and most embarrassing to our teachers’ understanding, namely the relationships between economic and political institutions. In the few areas where western political scientists voluntarily take up the study of economic-political relations – e.g. in the case of pressure groups – they approach the subject so timorously and with such an impoverished methodological framework as to render the fruits of their work nearly worthless.

40. The restriction of the types of theory thought fit for an undergraduate audience (an X certificate applies to the work of all Marxists since Marx, other than tedious Soviet dogmatists: Lukacs, Gramsci, etc. can only be studied by post-graduates) is buttressed by the choice of the four countries whose institutions are scrutinised. It is quite unbalanced and parochial to study, apart from Russia, Britain and America and France, which on a world scale have far more in common with each other than differences from each other.

41. But what is the alternative? What would constitute a study of real politics, something which would get beneath the tip of one side of the iceberg? On the one hand, it can be argued that the development of political sociology (now available in an optional paper) makes the study of political institutions in the present style obsolete. Alternatively, the student could get a much deeper insight into real politics if his studies were grouped around the theory of the state – both sociological theory and evaluative theory – and the horizon of research extended to take into account developments in the third world, though as we argue below these merit special study in themselves. The basic texts of such a course would be provided by the work of, on the one hand, Michels, Weber, Pareto, Mosca, Dahl, Lipset, etc., and on the other, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Mao Tse Tung, etc.

42. To internationalise the study of politics is not the only way to broaden the intellectual horizon. A second way is to alter the teaching and study methods. There is to hand in the University or the City of Oxford material for a study of functioning authority and power structures. Students might grasp the nature of the relationships considered in the texts cited above more fully if they were able to write long essays – short theses on such topics. Equally, the division between political study and political activity could be broken down. If more can be learnt about political activity by canvassing for a party, attending council meetings, joined a racial integration committee, than by reading David Butler, why shouldn’t these activities be regarded as essential activities rather than extra-curricular pastimes? There is no logical reason why reading books is the best learning method at all times in all places.

43. But such an approach raises difficulties which can only be mentioned rather than resolved at this stage. Who is to assess a thesis by a student whose main conclusion is that the University is ruled by a self-perpetuating oligarchy or a wise council of benevolent men of good will? Clearly, the assessment cannot be left in the hands of persons who fall into the categories lambasted or praised by the student. Assessment procedures would need radical alteration. And how does one assess the worth of what the student has learned from his practical activity? If we are learning in order to act, then is the student who is most successful in achieving his ends the one who has learnt best?

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11 thoughts on “The Poverty of PPE, Episode Nine”

  1. Don’t know. Where they both around in your day?

    (I should really find out where they keep old copies of Examination Decrees)

    Anyway, do keep up! These papers have just been… renamed! So we now have “Political Thought: Bentham to Weber” and “Marx and Marxism”. But they are otherwise identical, pretty much (except that we have recently clarified that we’d prefer people to use the Wood rather than the Knox edition of the Philosophy of Right, and that the second half of From Max Weber isn’t part of the set text anymore).

  2. Actually, the 2007 volume of Exam Decrees still prescribes all of Gerth and Mills. So I’ve confused myself somewhere along the line. I thought we were going to strike out most of the bits on religion, on the grounds that examiners never asked questions about religion, and they didn’t seem likely to start any time soon.

  3. “and that the second half of From Max Weber isn’t part of the set text anymore”

    technically that’s not true (as I think you’ve just noted) – Marc Stears just set me the whole book (and he’s course provider, and the whole book is set on the faculty reading list) and a million articles and said “if you find yourself thinking it’s boring, you haven’t understood it”.

    And he was right.

    I think the point is that you’re just supposed to work out for yourself what is important, what to risk skipping.

    Which can be problematic e.g. with Durkheim, where the set text reading comes to c. 550 pages….plus secondary literature of course. This is i think bad because it can encourage students to skip Professional Ethics and Civic Morals in favour of The Division of Labour in Society…which is madness because Prof Eth is AMAZING, far more interesting that DofL (which i do like a lot also), and also far more useful if you are doing something like, i dunno, sitting an exam which may ask you questions about Durkheim’s political thought.

  4. I think the point is that you’re just supposed to work out for yourself what is important, what to risk skipping.

    As long as “important” here means “important in the weird context of the Oxford course”, then OK. But we should register the thought that it really is quite weird to have so little about religion in a course on nineteenth century social theory, a huge amount of which was about the sociology of religion, in particular when two of the writers that do get studied — Weber and Durkheim — devoted quite so much of their lives to writing about religion.

    (This is linked to my general gripe about imperialism, of course: one reason why the comparative sociology of religion looms so large in C19th sociology has something to do with European powers’ attempts to govern non-Christian societies. But we just airbrush all of this out of the record, and pretend that these scholars are chiefly dispassionate theorists of domestic processes, only set questions on that, and so our students learn to pick out what’s “important” in the set texts they are given to read, i.e., the secular, domestic social theory.)

  5. “As long as “important” here means “important in the weird context of the Oxford course”, then OK. But we should register the thought that it really is quite weird to have so little about religion in a course on nineteenth century social theory, a huge amount of which was about the sociology of religion, in particular when two of the writers that do get studied — Weber and Durkheim — devoted quite so much of their lives to writing about religion. ”

    Agreed.

    I also happen to think that it is completely insane to set the whole of, say, Durkheim’s “political” writings in one week, likewise the whole of Weber’s (excluding religion, in both cases), or 300+ pages of Democracy in America.

    Whilst I enjoyed this paper one thing that really irritates me about it, and this is in many cases true of PPE at Oxford generally (though for some reason subjectively less so with the Plato-Rousseau paper), is that you end up with a pick ‘n’ mix ‘snapshot’ of “THE 19TH CENTURY, AND THE POLITICAL THOUGHT THAT WENT ON THEN, WHICH YOU ARE TO SEE IS A FOUNDATION FOR ENLIGHTENED MODERN UNDERSTANDING OF ‘JUSTICE’ AND ‘EQUALITY’ WHICH YOU HAVE PREVIOUSLY STUDIED IN THEORY OF POLITICS”. This involves momentary glimpses of big, big ideas by complex thinkers, and their big, important texts.

    There simply isn’t the time to treat any of these properly in the time alloted, and even enthusiasts like myself struggle, because you get 1 tutorial on this, and then you’re off on your own…which would be fine except that you are in a pretty similar situation across 7 other papers.

    For sure, ‘foundations’ is particularly extreme, but I feel similarly about ‘CPT’ – and although i do like that paper more, i’ve read the ‘set text’ bits of Leviathan, i think, 3 times and frankly that is nowhere near enough for my liking, and i’ve never even opened ‘Of a Christian Commonwealth’ – whilst my annoyance at the Theory of Politics paper is well publicised.

    But it’s true of many philosophy papers too. The Post-Kantian paper is fairly ridiculous. The only reason I have any grip on Nietzsche at all is because I find him fascinating and have read 3 full-volume treatments by the big commentators (Nehamas, Kaufmann, Janaway), which have allowed me to get a grip on his thought. Want to understand Nietzsche by just reading the original texts and having a few tutorials with Mike Inwood? Forget it. But having read as much as I do, I feel that the official Oxford course encourages you to just take ‘snap shots’ and never really appreciate a thinker, focusing rather on how you can pull the wool over the examiner’s eyes on the day. (The only reason Schopenhauer is manageable is cos he was a total Donkey, and everyone is pretty much agreed on what he said, and where he went wrong, and ultimately he’s only interesting because he influenced Nietzsche and shows us how to get Kant wrong. Meaning you can just read the secondary literature – which is nonetheless a rather unfortunate way to treat a big thinker).

    Knowledge and Reality is an idiotic paper. It encompasses the WHOLE of epistemology AND metaphysics. But as they took away the Descartes first year paper, and History of Philosophy is no longer compulsory, you can now take K+R with absolutely no basic grounding in philosophy, or how to do it. The result is that you spend 8 weeks trying to understand some very difficult stuff, so that they can present you with a finals paper which could ask you virtually anything, ranging from the blessedly general, to the ridiculously specific, usually meaning what the person who set the paper thinks is the most interesting current fad in the academy, which you’ve got bollock-all chance of knowing in sufficient detail, unless the course-provider was your tutor. Of course, you could spend all your time chasing up the latest fads that Oxford metaphysicians are pushing (e.g. which latest 10-page ‘solution’ to Gettier problems is being pushed, the counter-example to which won’t be produced until next week) and ignoring, you know, past masters like Hume, Kant, Descartes or Locke. In fact, i’m fairly sure that the point of K+R is to pretend that metaphysics and epistemology began in the late 1960s/ early 1970s when David Lewis started writing insane things about possible worlds. Of course, this wouldn’t be so bad if History was still compulsory and K+R assumed you had a basic grounding…which of course it does, which is precisely the problem.

    Ethics is only manageable because Oxford philosophers have decided that only about 3 issues are important – they’re all off doing Logic and Language anyway, so they don’t really care – and so they almost literaly set the same questions every year. Which is nice of them.

    In summary, there is still a significant poverty of PPE, at least as far as I’m concerned. And i’ve not even *started* about the modern state of gametheorymathematics. Sorry I meant economics.

  6. But the way to avoid the snapshot approach is to have broadly based survey courses, which means spending a lot of time in lecture halls, which is what on the whole you want to avoid…

  7. I think you gripe too much, cliche guevera. Snapshot or not, it’s still a remarkable privilege to encounter these stern thinkers in these stern halls. And with people like dear Chris to gently steer the way…

    I don’t see what so’s thoroughly bad about getting a grasp on, say, one and only problem in Hobbes or three in Aristotle. It’s better than nothing. And you can’t expect, in three short years, to have a non-snapshot grasp of the entirety of the Western intellectual canon.

    So I think it’s unfair to say that PPE is poor. That would be to ignore the constraints (i.e 3 x 8 x 3 weeks) within which we necessarily must operate

  8. “But the way to avoid the snapshot approach is to have broadly based survey courses, which means spending a lot of time in lecture halls, which is what on the whole you want to avoid…”

    i’ve always found that lectures are the ultimate snap-shot vehicle.

  9. “And with people like dear Chris to gently steer the way…”

    suck up


    And you can’t expect, in three short years, to have a non-snapshot grasp of the entirety of the Western intellectual canon. ”

    No, you can’t. But you can resent the feeling that the right way to do this stuff is to spend 3 years getting snap-shots, with the end aim of bulshitting some examiners, so as to go off and make loads of money. Which of course is not a feeling perpetuated or endorsed by all, but it is one that does linger around the place.

    Fact is, i’ve been annoyed since day 1 that you never get the *time* to look at things here, to just say “stop, i want to really understand *this*”. It’s always, “time’s up, move on to this new topic which you have three days to consume and assimilate”. And this is something which I think lectures, and lecture-series, contribute to, rather than diminish.

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