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What is Legitimate to Study? In Pursuit of the 'Normative' in Normative Theory

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Abstract:

When both academic critique and funding criteria essentially say to political theory, ‘what is the point?’, anxiety creeps into the heart of every normative theorist and agonising self-reflection ensues; the study of the political without advisory comment and application may not seem a legitimate use of public finances, where demands to ‘make better use’ of research are common (Council 2016). Thus our response appears urgent: not just for the standing of the subject, but for its very survival, for the continuation of PhD funding (in a UK context at least) relies upon the quality of the reply.

The problem is, the replies do not merely conflict, they rest upon fundamentally opposed views of what the subject actually is. Political philosophy has an intrinsic value, one might say, and if you want impact, then we actually need to be free of its demands, for the insights of theorising rely upon this freedom to reflect. ‘Division of labour’ (Waldron, 1995, p. 167) is our watchword here, where we safely withdraw from the nitty gritty of practical application. Alternatively, we could be sympathetic to what is essentially a realist attack veiled within the funding criteria, and claim that the ‘normative’ in normative theory is there for a reason. Regardless of the different views such retorts rest upon, both are vulnerable to the charge of elitism: either an ‘introverted elitism’ in which academics talk to academics about what should be done but is not, or an ‘extroverted’ version where we step up to the steeple and presume to ethically instruct individuals and government, risking the move from scholar to figure of moral authority.

This paper prepares the case for normative theory in the context of these academic criticisms and funding criteria by not shying away from the idea of a ‘prescriptive’ role with impact (Waldron, What Plato Would Allow, 1995, p. 161), but neither basing it upon a moral authority per se, or neglecting political philosophy’s fundamental commitment to reflection. To achieve this, I propose that normative theory be considered simply as a ‘capacity to imagine’ pushed to the demands required of an academic discipline. When perceived of in this way I claim that it can act prescriptively, for importantly, in contrast to current methods, a normative theory based on this ‘capacity to imagine’ does not assume conceptual security on which a strong moral authority would rest, thus also inviting conceptual analysis into the prescription. If a moral expert of sorts is to exist then, at the very least she is under constant antagonism and scrutiny.

For example, instead of emphasising the plight of the homeless with the abstract principle of negative freedom, I argue that we might instead investigate the condition of homelessness to subsequently discuss what is lacking, and in that lack, try to reach our ideal. In this way, we do not apply an external moral value safe in the presupposition of our principle, but in fact allow our homelessness narrative to create it. Rather than saying ‘this is what we should do, and here’s what happens when we do not’, this method says ‘here is an issue, why do we perceive of it as an issue, what should we do and what values would our proposed actions hinge upon?’ Thus, in essence, I turn to an unlikely saviour in the form of a Nietzschean style of genealogy within a normative approach, where the principle is not the starting point that we apply to a specific problem, but the problem is our point of origin, which leads to ideal theorising alongside conceptual analysis. Hence, a subtle, simplistic and fairly obvious way of viewing the subject can have surprising consequences in terms of methodological approaches to it, and so in this paper I effectively show how the questions and pressures of legitimacy lead us to an alternative way of normative theory suited to step up to that challenge.

Most Common Document Word Stems:

normat (147), theori (117), polit (99), impact (78), principl (75), p (70), one (66), histor (62), us (58), abstract (58), would (55), waldron (55), moral (54), within (52), philosoph (50), ideal (48), philosophi (48), conting (47), point (46), even (43), may (43),
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MLA Citation:

Stevens, Simon. "What is Legitimate to Study? In Pursuit of the 'Normative' in Normative Theory" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the APSA Annual Meeting & Exhibition, TBA, San Francisco, CA, Aug 31, 2017 <Not Available>. 2018-06-19 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1247994_index.html>

APA Citation:

Stevens, S. , 2017-08-31 "What is Legitimate to Study? In Pursuit of the 'Normative' in Normative Theory" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the APSA Annual Meeting & Exhibition, TBA, San Francisco, CA Online <APPLICATION/PDF>. 2018-06-19 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1247994_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: When both academic critique and funding criteria essentially say to political theory, ‘what is the point?’, anxiety creeps into the heart of every normative theorist and agonising self-reflection ensues; the study of the political without advisory comment and application may not seem a legitimate use of public finances, where demands to ‘make better use’ of research are common (Council 2016). Thus our response appears urgent: not just for the standing of the subject, but for its very survival, for the continuation of PhD funding (in a UK context at least) relies upon the quality of the reply.

The problem is, the replies do not merely conflict, they rest upon fundamentally opposed views of what the subject actually is. Political philosophy has an intrinsic value, one might say, and if you want impact, then we actually need to be free of its demands, for the insights of theorising rely upon this freedom to reflect. ‘Division of labour’ (Waldron, 1995, p. 167) is our watchword here, where we safely withdraw from the nitty gritty of practical application. Alternatively, we could be sympathetic to what is essentially a realist attack veiled within the funding criteria, and claim that the ‘normative’ in normative theory is there for a reason. Regardless of the different views such retorts rest upon, both are vulnerable to the charge of elitism: either an ‘introverted elitism’ in which academics talk to academics about what should be done but is not, or an ‘extroverted’ version where we step up to the steeple and presume to ethically instruct individuals and government, risking the move from scholar to figure of moral authority.

This paper prepares the case for normative theory in the context of these academic criticisms and funding criteria by not shying away from the idea of a ‘prescriptive’ role with impact (Waldron, What Plato Would Allow, 1995, p. 161), but neither basing it upon a moral authority per se, or neglecting political philosophy’s fundamental commitment to reflection. To achieve this, I propose that normative theory be considered simply as a ‘capacity to imagine’ pushed to the demands required of an academic discipline. When perceived of in this way I claim that it can act prescriptively, for importantly, in contrast to current methods, a normative theory based on this ‘capacity to imagine’ does not assume conceptual security on which a strong moral authority would rest, thus also inviting conceptual analysis into the prescription. If a moral expert of sorts is to exist then, at the very least she is under constant antagonism and scrutiny.

For example, instead of emphasising the plight of the homeless with the abstract principle of negative freedom, I argue that we might instead investigate the condition of homelessness to subsequently discuss what is lacking, and in that lack, try to reach our ideal. In this way, we do not apply an external moral value safe in the presupposition of our principle, but in fact allow our homelessness narrative to create it. Rather than saying ‘this is what we should do, and here’s what happens when we do not’, this method says ‘here is an issue, why do we perceive of it as an issue, what should we do and what values would our proposed actions hinge upon?’ Thus, in essence, I turn to an unlikely saviour in the form of a Nietzschean style of genealogy within a normative approach, where the principle is not the starting point that we apply to a specific problem, but the problem is our point of origin, which leads to ideal theorising alongside conceptual analysis. Hence, a subtle, simplistic and fairly obvious way of viewing the subject can have surprising consequences in terms of methodological approaches to it, and so in this paper I effectively show how the questions and pressures of legitimacy lead us to an alternative way of normative theory suited to step up to that challenge.


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