Commentary Magazine


Man and His Government, by Carl Joachim Friedrich; and Human Nature and Politics, by James C. Davies

The Politics Of Textbooks

Man and his Government: an Empirical theory of Politics.
by Carl Joachim Friedrich.
McGraw-Hill. 737 pp. $13.50.

Human Nature and Politics.
by James C. Davies.
John Wiley. 401 pp. $7.50.

When I was just coming to the end of being a little boy, my mother warned me of “mutton dressed as lamb.” Had she known that my main diversions in this painful life were to be scholarly, she might better have warned me of lamb dressed as mutton.

What can come over men to make them dress up their young ideas in the muttonish disguise of textbooks—too fat, too long, too tough, too rambling, too familiar, and, seeking to be all things to all men, too likely to annoy them all: too difficult for the college student, too much a mixture of old and new for the scholar, and too heavy-looking by far for the general reader?

I declare my interest. I have studied under Carl Friedrich and I respect him as a great scholar and a great teacher. He has always combined historical scholarship of the highest rank with a sense of the contemporary relevance of timeless ideas. He has successfully fought, with the most effective of weapons—personal example—against the division of his subject into “ideas” or “institutions” while resisting (despite some politic concessions) the currently fashionable “let ‘p’ be Power” behaviorist banalities. Yet I have never been more annoyed by a book than by this one.

Friedrich has some extremely important and complex things to say. He also has an aspiration to provide a general theory of politics. Apologizing in his Introduction for what he calls the “temerity” of the book, he offers a description of its intention as follows:

To review and summarize the political experience of mankind in order to see whether it does not yield some fairly general conclusions about what contributes to political order and the good life and what detracts from these universal goals is as much needed a task as it is a foolhardy one to undertake. Yet, somehow I felt that it ought to be attempted once more and by one who had spent a lifetime with the materials of politics, not only in theory, but in practice, not only in one country, but in many, not only pragmatically, but philosophically.

But instead of “the major work on political theory” that we are promised on the dust jacket, we get an infernal hybrid that looks like a textbook, weighs as much as a textbook (some three hundred thousand words, comprising seven-hundred and thirty pages), and—acid test—seems to labor under the obligation of providing coverage of the field (a big one in this case). Such coverage inevitably means that some rather familiar ground has to be traversed in order to reach some rather familiar conclusions (though with the usual text-bookish quibbles at the established vocabulary, good enough though it seems, to provide some excuse for redoing things). In this vast bulk, points of great originality are obscured.

Why adopt the textbook form at all? Is there really no market for an attempted Summa of modern politics written by a great scholar that is not disguised as a college text? What, then, are the university presses for? (Ironically enough, Professor Friedrich's standards are so high that the book will probably never be widely “adopted” for college use—particularly in view of the rather humble standards involved in those guided operations of communal reading of single books currently disgracing the colleges.)

Perhaps I am being unfair. Dr. Friedrich may have thought he was writing in the old German tradition of the definitive work in a field, albeit striving neither for an a priori speculative system nor a catalogue of “what is the case” in the tradition of Ranke, but rather for “an empirical theory of politics.” “Theory,” he writes, “as distinguished from philosophy and opinion, is the more or less systematized body of demonstrable or at least coherently arguable generalizations based upon rigorous analysis of ascertainable facts.” But such an “empirical theory” needs stating as clearly and concisely as possible. Instead, it is lost in a welter of learned argument, personal reminiscence, occasional items of information useful to college students, and endless analysis of concepts in place of the empirical studies of specific problems that we had been led to expect.

If, on the other hand, this book was meant simply as a descriptive work on the character of modern politics, then it should have been so organized as to give us more than some generalizations and examples arising from the discussion of concepts; or, worse, from the discussion of the rival conceptual frameworks of other contemporary political scientists (few of whom deserve the attention that Friedrich lavishes on them).

_____________

Does a scholar have to choose between the monograph and the textbook? Surely there exists—we must keep on re-inventing him—“the educated general reader”? This unicorn may almost always be of campus origin; he may even still be found there and in large enough numbers, in fact, to constitute a market (which might even turn out to include a certain number of undergraduates). But he will not be reading in his capacity of hurried instructor looking for predigested course material, but rather as an intellectual, that is, one who sees the general importance of general ideas, who is instinctively prepared to relate “subjects” to each other—and without ranking them in hierarchies of subservience to his own; for that is the mark not of the intellectual but of the ideologue. Is it impossible to write for this hypothetical creature? He is in need, for political knowledge is in very low repute among the literary intelligentsia. Politics to them remains either a matter of subjective “commitment” and “personal affirmation,” or else an activity of base compromise. Hence, scholarly books on politics are either boring or else they are rationalizations of something else.

_____________

James C. Davies presents a less drastic case of the same malady. If one makes more of an effort than is reasonable to expect, one will find that his book is excellent. At a time of far too many plain silly books from social scientists, Davies discusses the relation of psychological knowledge to politics with a rare and modest determination not to claim too much. Like Friedrich, he has a sense of what is relevant and a Kantian view of “problems” rather than a Hegelian enslavement to “categories.” Like Friedrich, too, he sees the pertinence of knowledge from many disciplines, and how parts of contradictory theories may complement each other in different contexts. Moreover, Human Nature and Politics includes an extremely sensible discussion of political participation—a corrective to all the moralizing that goes on about this subject—as well as an illuminating exploration of the “basic needs” of political action in relation to its types and occasions. In addition, Dr. Davies provides much evidence relevant to the neglected master-question of political theory—which he rather negatively calls “the politics of instability.”

But here, again, the author's choice of the textbook form involves a puzzling mixture of the original and the unoriginal, the profound and the banal. Less ponderous than Friedrich (if also less weighty), and hence more accessible to the general reader, the book is yet full of irritating attempts to soup it up, which, in practice, involve “writing down.” (“Anguished participants in the portended parturition need be neither sympathetic nor hostile to what will emerge. . .”; or “the frantic fatalism of a finished Farouk indulging deathbed desires.”) And bad style matters—if only because in one way or another it obscures meaning.

_____________

More important than such minor flaws, however, is the way these huge tours of knowledge inevitably present so many hostages to fortune. Dr. Davies, for example, describes Darkness at Noon in his bibliography as “a psychologically penetrating fictional account of man in a totalitarian society, written precociously before many non-fictional corroborations of Koestler's observations.” Why “precociously before”? Are we so social science conscious as to be surprised that events precede the theories explaining them and that fictional accounts come before sociological ones? This book prides itself on covering “the origins of political action in the non-Western world” (though by “origins” the author really means contemporary motives—for the origins of politics were Western). But how comprehensive can it be when its bibliography includes only one work in a foreign language, when there is no mention at all of journals not originating in the U.S., and when a significant group of writings by British psychoanalysts on politics and “normal personality” is ignored altogether (Money-Kyrle, MacCurdy, and Ernest Jones, as well as the eccentric but stimulating work of Alex Comfort, Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State)?

If Friedrich's learning is more awesome than Dr. Davies's, yet the dictates of textbook omniscience sometimes tempt him, too, from the scholarly straight and narrow. Scientific theories, he well says, can never be reduced to verbal questions, for: “We are primarily concerned with reality, and only incidentally and secondarily with words used to designate the reality inquired into. Obviously these are fighting words which require careful elaboration.” Then a footnote follows: “Gellner, 1959, developed the contrast as a critique of the school of logical positivism, from a sociological viewpoint, but his treatment is not entirely satisfactory.” This all sounds very judicious—(if a bit odd, philosophically, to talk about “reality” so confidently, as if that settled anything). But Ernest Gellner's Words and Things: A Critical Account of Linguistic Philosophy and a Study in Ideology gives only one brief chapter, despite the tail end of its subtitle, to any “sociological viewpoint”; the rest of the book is a critique of Oxbridge linguistic analysis, not of logical positivism. Indeed, the author is explicitly closer and more sympathetic to the scientific preoccupations of logical positivism than to the purely literary and linguistic pursuits of the rival heirs of Wittgenstein. A small matter? Certainly—but it is disappointing to find an author judging a book which he either has not read or has not read closely.

_____________

If I have been unduly harsh, it is because both these books are important—Friedrich's beyond doubt. It might be turned to by future generations to understand the politics of our times—it has this stature in parts; but if they do so, future readers will do so cursing—as we do when we turn to Hegel and Marx—at the form they chose and the appalling discursiveness of the writing. Anyone can see that I have been waiting for a target at which to fire this general broadside, whether impudent or imprudent; but it is better at least to pick a fight with real eagles than to hit at the clay pigeons and parrots of the commercial textbook market who are a disgrace to learning and who in any case go unreviewed in the decent intellectual journals. (In the professional ones, they are reviewed either with kid gloves or with a kind of cynical fatalism).

By way of conclusion, I offer the following suggestions, albeit in a speculative spirit: it is impossible to write textbooks in the social sciences (especially for textbook houses) which are original contributions to knowledge; textbooks in the social sciences, at least, are unnecessary and should not be encouraged, for educational reasons, by scholars whom we look up to; the technicalities of the social sciences are a matter for internal debate, proper for learned journals, which can, however, be put aside when addressing an intelligent general audience; this audience as a contingent fact of our political-technological culture, needs such books; the best discipline for an author to ensure meaningful generalizations is to address such a non-specialist audience; finally, short books usually have more to say than long ones.

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