The Idea of Equality in 20th Century India by Yogendra Yadav — Lecture Transcript


A public lecture delivered at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), organised by Azim Premji University, Bangalore on Thursday, 6 November 2014.


  • As with the previous lecture of this speaker I transcribed, the present transcript also has been edited quite a bit. The speaker is prone to omit articles in his speeches, especially the definite article. These have been supplied. He also has a tendency to add additional information, often a lot of it, about his characters or topics just a sentence or phrase into a theoretical argument or exposition. These additions have therefore been moved in ways I thought appropriate.
  • This lecture starts abruptly. The divisions have been added by yours truly, although where they should be are fairly obvious. And as always with lecture transcripts, the video is embedded at the end.
  • For advanced students, the last section will be of particular interest. The Q&A also addresses some important questions. The point about cultural self-hatred, for instance, worries an audience member who fears that its corollary, which would be to take pride in India’s own traditions, to look at them as, to use the speaker’s words, “a resource, repository of ideas, values, and conceptual frames”, smacks of the same chauvinism and stridency, although he [the audience member] does not use these terms, that characterise the BJP. As he suggests, perhaps the gulf between the AAP (Yogendra Yadav was with the AAP at the time of the lecture) and the BJP isn’t that great; that perhaps the speaker could sit across the table with Amit Shah and talk! Yadav’s response to that criticism is, I think, important.

I

It appeared to me that one could go back to it’s [the idea of equality] past and recover as well as understand the ideological/doctrinal foundations. And what I am going to present to you is an overview argument — I won’t be able to get into the specifics — of four or five phases of the evolution of the idea of equality in India through the twentieth century and how we came to where we are today, and finally say a word or two about how it can possibly be recast today which is what possibly connects it to my current birth [as a politician].

I’ll begin tracing that journey from the nineteenth century because, in many ways, it is the later half of the nineteenth century that sets terms for how we were to understand the idea of equality. Just a word about the pre-colonial past. We all have a broad understanding which is that here was a caste-ridden hierarchical society that never contemplated equality. That is the very rough picture with which egalitarians look at our pre-modern past. I don’t know how many of you share that thought. But the beginning of the journey should be rethinking that assumption itself. Because what we have in the pre-modern, pre-colonial past of India are multiple ways of reflecting on equality, except that equality is understood in a very different context.

There are two contexts there: one is equality before God which is the basic unity of mankind [you find this when you look at the Bhakti tradition, Sufi tradition; it’s all about basic unity of mankind, reversal of material hierarchy in view of matters spiritual] and the other is equality within the self which is equanimity. These two are dominant ways of thinking about equality.

This of course is very unfamiliar to modern egalitarians because modern egalitarians want to understand equality in material terms. They want to understand it in terms of distributive equality in terms of goods and commodities. This is not available in that tradition and, therefore, it was very easy for modern egalitarians to say that this was a caste hierarchical society and had no notions of equality. This is just a small footnote and we move on.

II

The first stop is the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the 1870s, you have three texts that come up in three different parts of India.

[Comment: More accurately, in the 1860s and 1870s. The date for the first text he mentions (see below) is 1867 and not 1876, as he puts it. Clearly, this is an inadvertent, perhaps a careless, error.]

The first is by a less known Marathi thinker called Vishnubuva Brahmachari [1825–71, born Vishnu Bhikaji Gokhale] who wrote this very unusual tract called सुखदायक राज्यप्रकरणी निबंध [Sukhdaayak Rajyaprakarni Nibandh, translated as “Concerning the Ideal State”, 1867]. It’s a little Plationian vision and it basically advocates communism. He has no western education and he not familiar with any of the western ideas of communism or something of that kind but he proposes an ideal state, somewhat similar to Plato’s Ideal State where property is to be vested in state, where caste is to be abolished, children are to be handed over to kings, and the state is to arrange for education and marriage. This is written in 1867 and by someone who has no formal western education or connect. Equality is treated in material terms. Also, it is not an organising principle of society.

In 1873, we have another text, somewhat better known, by Jyotiba Phule [1827–90, Jyotirao Govindrao Phule] called गुलामगिरी [Gulamgiri, “Slavery”]. Phule has an English education; he is influenced by European religion and radicals in American revolution. There is a conscious deployment of western categories: freedom, equality, rights. But he twists it by bringing the focus on caste, and subjects the caste system and Brahmanic dominance to a comprehensive critique. Unusually, for his times, he extends this critique to man–woman relations — one of the first Indian thinkers to think about what we would call today “feminism”. He deploys culture and mythology. Phule is no nationalist and he actually supports British regime.

In 1879, in Bengal, comes a very famous essay by a very well known thinker, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (or Chatterjee), called Samya [Equality]. And most academics who write about the history of the idea of equality usually begin their journey with this essay. This is the first essay written in India which is aware of the western egalitarian tradition and carefully casts itself in that tradition. He is familiar with European socialism and communism. He is not interested in their metaphysics, their philosophy of history and things of that sort. His attention is to the concept of equality and what is specific is his critique of social differences beyond natural differences. He too does a critique of inequality in man–woman relationship as well as exploitation of peasantry. He is also a staunch nationalist. Having written this very first pioneering essay on the idea of equality, he strangely, and formally, withdraws that essay in 1892 saying essentially that what he said was silly. Why? Because the idea of equality is in tension with the idea of nationalism. As a nationalist, he does not want to be seen as exposing fissures in his society, to talk about peasantry, Zamindars and all kinds of inequality.

What we get in these three texts, briefly introduced, is, first, a shift in the idea of equality, he received idea of equality — remember that notion of equality before God, and inner equality. Equality becomes the organising principle of a good society. Equality is now at the centre of thinking about future society which it was not before. Second, it is also shifted to a different domain. That’s to say, it is shifted from a moral and metaphysical and spiritual to the more familiar — to us, today — domain of distribution of material goods, to the distribution of justice. Third, the bearer of responsibility — which earlier was me unto myself — is now the State which is tasked with providing equality. We have now the beginning of somewhat familiar notions of equality which happens in the late nineteenth century.

III

Let me jump to the early twentieth century. It’s fascinating period, not quite well-researched. And I would urge those of you who may have some interest in the history of ideas to look at this period. The nineteenth century has been explored and looked at. The early twentieth century is fascinating because Indians by this time know that there is socialism, there is communism, they have an idea. Except that the information is fairly limited. This is a period of what I call free translations. We have a broad idea of what socialism might mean and then we do a lot of value addition of our and say this is socialism, this is Marxism, this is communism.

One exemplary text of that sort is Lal Har Dayal‘s Karl Marx: A Modern Rishi [1912]. The title gives you something: Karl Marx is a rishi. Har Dayal has an English education, has been educated abroad, founded of the Ghadar party in the US, and wrote Hints for Self Culture [1934] which became a very famous book. He offers a very sympathetic exposition of Marxist ideas and life but, interestingly, the focus is more on Marx’s life than on Marx’s ideas. It is Marx, the rishi, who undergoes difficulties, who undergoes self-sacrifice — that is the one AHar Dayal highlights.

There is a fairly accurate depiction of Marx’s ideas, but what is his judgment about those ideas? He finds them one-sided and defective, and too focussed on the moral message of communism which is that land should belong to the community. His emphasis is on Marx’s character and he nicely assimilates Marx into nationalism. That is why official histories of Marxism in India are very uneasy about this book. Either they don’t mention this book. Or if they mention, they sort of say, but he never understood Marx. Because, in a sense, what he is doing is that he is incorporating Marx in a native register of sensibilities, of what is in the nationalist movement, and a register of Indian sensibilities of what is it worth celebrating about Karl Marx.

After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Indian Hindi magazines are full of essays and reports about Karl Marx, and reports about socialism, on the experiment of Russia and there is the feeling that Indians must bring the news to their compatriots except that the news is very inadequate; they don’t really know facts. Now, this can be seen as a problem but I look at it as an occasion for creativity. This was the one short period when Indian reading of socialism and Marxism was at its creative best. Lack of information gives you a lot of room to be creative. So, Indians were mixing their interpretation. There were value additions in terms of facts, imaginations, dreams. That phase is really worth looking at because, in a sense, Indians were writing their dreams into what they thought was Russia. This was a period when Indian socialism was experimental. It is, as i said, a period of free translations. I read your text and I translate it freely to say what I think it means.

This period is to my mind interesting because in this open ended engagement with the idea of equality, Marxist ideas are selectively received and rearranged. At some stage, I called it a pidgin socialism — pidgin as in pidgin languages, pidgin and creole languages where they pick a few words and phrases from a mother language and using those words, you describe the entire universe. So Indian socialism at his stage was a pidgin language where the received vocabulary of Marxism and socialism was truncated, cut into pieces, and rearranged. That’s what we were witnessing at that time. Of course, official Marxism, or the official left, does not think very much about that phase because it’s embarrassing. I really think that’s one of the most creative phases of Indian socialism and the Indian left.

Interestingly, there was no specification about how India was to be read. How should an egalitarian look at India was still an open question. Left to your imagination and your reading. Then comes the guillotine. In 1922, a Bengali thinker produces which signals the end of imagination, end of creativity, and the end of free-floating ideas. The thinker is Manabendra Nath Roy [1887–1954, born Narendra Nath Bhattacharya] and the book is India in Transition. Unlike all these other people, Roy actually has read Marx; he knows European languages; he has some access to German; he has travelled; he has actually seen it: in fact, in 1921 he has just been invited to Russia by Lenin and he has a brief encounter with Lenin. Roy writes a book explaining what is India and what is a correct egalitarian reading of India. I really think that once you read that book, you can almost read the history of the next seventy years of left Marxist writings of India because he establishes a paradigm. Its an astonishing work: its marked both by the brilliance of his imagination and the power of his writing. The trouble of course is that all such powerful writings tend to constrain future imaginations.

[Roy’s life is something which you can incidentally read like a thriller. It’s an astonishing story of an Indian revolutionary who set out to purchases arms, ends up in Mexico, becomes a leading political figure in Mexico, goes to Europe, makes friends with Lenin, goes to advice the Chinese communist party about how to create revolution in China — thankfully they did not listen to him, andcomes back, sets up a communist party in India and so on.]

India in Transition is preceded by a shorter book which he wrote in 1918. This book had been written in Mexico. It was called India: Her Past, Present and Future. For someone inclined to do research, it would be very instructive to compare this book with the book he wrote four years later because both the books offer dramatically different readings of India and tells you what happens to Roy when he converts to Marxism.

What India in Transition is to place India in a European trajectory. It puts it on a graph and enables you to plot India, where the axes are familiar and given, borrowed from European history. He says capitalism is already established in India. However, the bourgeoisie is weak and cannot be robustly anti-colonial. It’s 1922 and Roy is writing it in Europe. There has already been the rise of the proletariat and intense class struggle has begun in India. Caste system, he says is already finished. Class is the reality of India. Congress’ nationalism represents an unreliable character of the capitalist class, and therefore what you need is national liberation with socialist revolution. [Sorry, this is a five line summary of a 400-page book.]

Roy establishes this framework of understanding India. What is interesting about this new paradigm, this new orthodoxy, is that it invites you to think of India as a country which is in transition. The name itself is very interesting. Transition presupposes two poles: both an origin, one where it started and a telos, one towards which it is transiting. Roy has a deep faith in European modernity and he has the peculiar habit of describing every Indian event with a parallel in European history. So, every single Indian character is a distorted version of a true and authentic European character.

Equality is of course distributive and he combines it with militant nationalism. Unlike Bankim, he has no difficulty in reconciling Nationalism, anti-colonialism with a critique of inequality within. So, in this paradigm, you have strong universalism where the contingencies of European experience are seen as natural and necessary forms through which every society has to pass. There is also a distance from anything traditional. It simply turns its back on India’s intellectual resources. Because that would be backward, that would be chauvinist, that would be conservative: he turns his back to all that. India’s specificity is understood as a transient and surface specificity which very soon will give way to proper correct forms that you would find in European history.

So, the idea that what you witness today is only a recent or distant past of Europe is an idea that firmly gets entrenched with Roy. There is a unitary view of India. That India may have diversity within and could actually comprise all kinds of social forms and production forms is something that doesn’t interest him and you can’t blame someone who is writing that first book which gives you an overview. And what you have is a text-centric experience-distant view of reality. There is no space for experiences and practices of actors. The categories that the actors themselves use are useless because they don’t understand what is really happening. Now, all that I have described continued to be strong hallmarks of Marxist readings of Indian society for the next fifty to sixty years to come. Strong universalism, distance from traditions, Indian specificity as a transient form, unitary view of India in some ways, and text-centric experience-distant view of reality. That’s why I think Roy is simply such a powerful figure for the twentieth century.

IV

After that, there is a long period — from the 1920s to the next sixty years. There are at least two traditions in this period. There is an orthodox tradition and there is an unorthodox tradition. The orthodox tradition is what faithfully follows more or less the framework set by Roy. Interestingly, Roy’s own framework allowed for two or three different readings which is what the left in India kept playing with. In the orthodox tradition, I would put India’s official communists who were radical in many ways but their ideas are what I would call conformist. The CPI, the CPI(M), the Naxalites: all of them work within the frame given by Roy. The Congress socialists, specially the BSP and the Janata family and the Congress left, all of them are part of this orthodox tradition. The BSP tradition of socialism also very much falls within that orthodox reading. At the same time, you have an unorthodox/heterodox tradition which emerges because this idea of equality enters into an encounter with something outside. What was that outside? It could be two or three things? One is the encounter with Gandhi. This encounter was a source of so much of soul searching and creative thinking as to how to engage with the old man, a concern that bothered the Indian left, especially the socialists, a great deal.

Within the Indian left there were the communists who were outside, and the socialists who became part of the Congress and were within. Specially those who were within has serious existential anxieties about how to deal with the old man. Partly because the old man was very kind. So, Jayprakash Narayan was the son-in-law of Mahatma Gandhi because Gandhiji had adopted his wife as his daughter. And interestingly, the first proper Marxist critique of Gandhi was written by Narayan living as Gandhi’s son-in-law in his ashram where he says Gandhi may be a nice person but in the last instance he is an agent of the bourgeoisie. The point is that you have these existential encounters that keep happening. The encounter with Gandhi leads people like Narayan, Vinoba Bhave [1895–1982, Vinayak Narahari Bhave], Rammanohar Lohia [1910–67] and Acharya Javadekar [1894–1955, Shankar Dattatraya Javdekar] to reinterpret Marxism and inequality in India.

A different kind of encounter happens when some of them encounter religious traditions. Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi [1872–1944, Buta Singh Uppal] in what is now Pakistan encounters Islam and he wants to reconcile egalitarianism with Islam. Bhagwan Das [1869–1958], another thinker of the 30s and 40s, wants to reconcile socialism with the Vedas and wants to think of Vedic socialism. Acharya Narendra Dev [1889–1956] is a renowned scholar of Buddhism and he wants to understand egalitarianism through Buddhist lens. So, you have all these experiments that are happening and of course, not to forget Ambedkar [1891–1956, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar] who simply steps out of all of these and thinks of equality in a very different way. All these experiments are taking place. I won’t bore you with each of the experiments but I’ll just pick one thinker, Rammanohar Lohia someone from whom I have learnt so much.

Lohia is an Indian socialist who, unlike most Indians of that time, goes not to Britain or America but Germany to study; he comes back and is a rebel nationalist socialist; he becomes one of the founder members of the Congress socialist party, and after independence, is a leader of the Indian socialist party. He is someone who tries to rethink the foundations of the idea of equality. Two interesting things about Lohia: he is the first Indian thinker to directly confront the question of Eurocentricity of the idea of equality. He has a famous essay called “Doctrinal Foundations of Asian Socialism”, and it basically says that, so far, the idea of equality has been colonised by Eurocentric imagination and that we Asians cannot possibly borrow European socialism and live with it and that we have to reinvent the foundations of socialism in our context. And what is wrong with socialist thought?

Lohia says “No greater disaster can befall socialism than if the historical peculiarities of its career in Europe sought to be universalised and reproduced in the other two-thirds of the world. Socialism in Europe has been gradual, constitutional, and distributive. Socialism henceforth and in the rest of the world must be drastic, unconstitutional when necessary, and lay the accent on production.” He goes on to write a critique of Marxist economics; how development on one was preconditioned on underdevelopment in the other. Lohia writes an unfinished book called Economics after Marx and his project thereafter is to do a critique of economics, politics, and philosophy and history that socialism has presupposed. And he goes on to rewrite all of these.

In Lohia, you have an extension of the critique of Marxism in terms of the critique of the dominant frames of knowledge, limits of modern civilisation and critique of cosmopolitanism that passes for universalism in our part of the world. And he searches for an alternative universalism. There has been a lot of literature and research in the last twenty years on alternative modernities and to me it appears that one of the first Indian thinkers to anticipate that is Ram Manohar Lohia. He actually says that in India we can produce modernity of a kind that Europe has never known and cannot imagine. So, there is a search for alternative modernities.

He wants to produce a non-provincial reading of history, forward-looking modernism, a third camp in world politics and an alternative civilisation. What Lohia does is that he recasts the idea of revolution. He basically say that the idea of revolution that has come to us from Marxism is based on only one of the aspects, which is class. What we need, he says, are seven revolutions [सप्तक्रांति, sapta kranti] at the same time. What are these? Against gender inequalities — and Lohia is again one of the early thinkers from outside a proper feminist tradition, one of the first egalitarian thinkers to lay emphasis on gender equality; against caste inequalities; against inequalities between rich and poor; against racial inequalities; against inequalities among nations; also against encroachment of privacy by collectives; and finally for civil disobedience and resistance to injustice. So what he does is that he opens up thinking about equality to multiple dimensions and what he does is to move away from that debate about whether caste or class is real, which of them is the real distinction around which society needs to be organised and reorganised, and so on. He says that you have to look at all of them at the same time.

In a very short essay called “The Concept of Equality”, he actually changes the received ways of thinking about inequality — it is a very short essay, almost incomplete where at the end he is brushing up not having enough time to spell it out. What he does there is to say that what we have called equality so far is equality in the material realm and in the internal dimension which is to say material equality within a nation or a country. He thinks we need to think afresh. Equality has a material and a spiritual dimension and it should be realised in the external and in the internal domain. It gives you a 2×2 grid.

In the material realm, we first have a familiar one, which inward approximations [or equality] among classes within a country. The second one is somewhat familiar as well: equality among nations/countries in the world and Lohia keeps saying that Marxism draws you away from equality across different coutnries and much of the communist politics takes you away from that. Interestingly, he then says, in the spiritual realm, what is external and internal equality. In the external domain, spiritual equality would mean kinship, fraternity, बंधुत्व (bandhutva, “brotherhood”). And in the domain, equality should mean equanimity, समदृष्टि (samadhrishti), समभाव (samabhaav). It is one of the rare attempts in the egalitarian tradition of India to reconnect with that other notion of equality that we had abandoned in the nineteenth century.

V

I’ll take a jump again and come to the last phase which is after 1989, the fall of the Soviet Union, the fall of dominant socialist paradigms. There is a dead end although nothing really dies in India — Stalin may die in the USSR but he would continue to live in India; Victorian English after a few years would be spoken only in India, nowhere else! The dominant left ways of thinking suddenly come to a halt. They reach a dead end. The collapse of the Soviet Union leads to the political extinction of distinct socialist political streams. There is an abandonment of official socialism. It becomes embarrassing.

[Today, if you call yourself a socialist, it almost looks like a gaali. When people have to attack Aam Aadmi Party, they say, look at people like Yogendra, they are socialists. Full stop. Q.E.D. That’s the end of it.]

But this is the time when the idea of equality is being reinvented by those who do not officially affiliate to the egalitarian tradition. It is being reiterated in farmers’ movements, women’s movements, Dalit movements, etc. Victims of development and displacement are rewriting the rules of what equality should mean, what kind of struggles we need for the next century. You have lots of new activist thinkers. Some of them are new Gandhians, ecologists, reconstructed socialists, Dalit and feminist theorists. Allow me to pick just one: Kishen Pattnaik [1930–2004]. He wrote a book for which we don’t have an English translation but what we can do is read his Odiya writings and actually make it available.

[I always wonder why D. R. Nagaraj [1954–98, Doddaballapura Ramaiah Nagaraj] and Pattnaik are not available to the rest of the world. Our friend Prithvi [Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi who edited The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India, a collection of essays by Nagaraj] has done some service and Nagaraj, I believe, is available in English. So, we should do for Pattnaik.]

Pattnaik is a thinker of the new social movement and through the 80s, 90s, till his death, he is reimagining what it would mean to be egalitarian, socialist although he stops using the word socialism. And in his book when he is asked to describe his ideology, he says this is a देशज विचार (deshaj vichar, literally “indigenous idea/thought”). He doesn’t call it समाजवाद (samaajavaad, “socialism”) even though he was a समाजवादी (samaajavadee, “socialist”). What he does is that he reengages with Gandhi’s critique of modern civilisation. And within the egalitarian tradition, he insists that we need to rethink the very idea of development.

So, Pattnaik brings to the very heart of the egalitarian imagination the critique of development which has been developing outside the egalitarian tradition. He invites us to look for new forms of resistance among people who are fighting displacement, among subnational movements like those in Assam and Punjab which were seen by the progressives and left as chauvinist movements, and asks us to reengage with farmers’ movements. No wonder he was a friend of Prof. Nanjundaswamy [1936–2004, Mahantha Devaru Nanjundaswamy] who we should recall today. He doesn’t provide a full-fledged frame of how to rethink the idea of equality for the twenty-first century. But we can try and develop one looking at this entire history.

VI

Having done this survey, I will just talk about two things towards the end. One is to say whether we discover some new intellectual resources through this history. And second, whether we have some nodes around which we can recast the idea of equality. So, let me end by stating a few things there because, in many ways, and that is what connects to my present birth, politics of the twentieth century is about reimagining what it means to be left, what it means to be radical, what it means to be socialist. These words are dead; they are gone; they don’t have purchase with the new generation; they don’t have purchase with the victims of oppression and injustice. But there is oppression; there is injustice; there is inequality. How do we recast it is the question we need to ask.

Some of the resources available to us are — as I said — early responses to socialism which emphasise the ethical core of socialism rather than its paraphernalia of historical materialism and everything else. We also have unusual encounters — I just mentioned Sindhi, Das, Dev, Narayan, Javadekar — which produced very unusual conceptual resources for us to go back and try and recover. There are external resources available which the idea of equality has not sufficiently made use of. Narayan Guru [1854–1928], Ambedkar, and Periyar [1879–1973, Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy]. There are resources offered by feminists, ecologists, and the Swaraj tradition in the post-Gandhian Gandhism. These are all resources available for recasting the idea of equality today. But how do we recast it?

I will just raise a few questions. First, must equality be the central organising principle of politics? This is what egalitarians always thought. They always thought equality is not just one of the values but that it is to be the central organising principle. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that radical politics of the future need not place the idea of equality at the center. It has to be one of the organising principles. Why does it have to be the central principle?

Second, should the state be the principal agency for social transformation? This has been almost a matter of faith for all egalitarians and that’s why harking back to the state, the public sector, license-quota raj: if there’s a problem, the state has to solve it. This is not what people thought a hundred-fifty years ago and maybe they were right. Can we think of multiple agencies? This excessive reliance on the state as the agency for social transformation is probably overdone.

Third, can European modernity be the cultural touchstone for politics of equality. It has remained so. Much of the egalitarian tradition has treated European modernity as the cultural touchstone. Everything is with reference to that. Can we not rethink that?

And finally, how do we ground politics of equality in partial truths, contingencies, and particularities. Much of the egalitarian tradition has participated in that strong form of universalism. Need we do that? Lohia opens his book Marx, Gandhi, and Socialism by reflecting of the idea of partial truth, by saying that truth is partial — which then and still looks very odd for a practicing politician, and which is a strand of Lohia that no one picked up on. But in many ways that idea opens the possibility of a new epistemology of egalitarianism. The attempt to ground egalitarianism in a strong positivist universalism is something that needs to be questioned. And that allows us to understand India in a different way. How do we relate to India’s past? Is India’s past only a source of problems and embarrassments, the source of these wretched, negative, conservative traditions? Or can we look at it equally as a resource, repository of ideas, values, and conceptual frames? That’s one question we need to reflect on.

How do we erase elements of self-hatred that pass off as radicalism in India? Sorry, it’s stated somewhat strongly but so much of what passes for radicalism is nothing but cultural self-hatred. This is passed off sometimes as radicalism, sometimes as left, sometimes as modernity, or whatever. But no society evolves by simply presenting self-hatred. And the strength of European socialism was that it picked up the best of European traditions; it actually picks up the best of Christian values and incorporates those. Our radicalism, our egalitarianism however wants to turn its back on all that our traditions have to offer. So, do we really need to hate ourselves, our cultures so much? How do we learn from European social theory?

The manner in which much of egalitarian thinking of the twentieth century has related to European social theory is to treat it as a repository of abstractions which can be brought and applied to India. The assumption of course is that these are true universal abstractions. I am not too sure. I have come to believe that underlying each of these abstractions is are special and peculiar contingencies of the experiences of a tiny part of the world called Europe. So, when we use the word “state”, in small tiny brackets, there is some Europe inscribed there. Similarly, when we say “society”. And so with most concepts in social theory.

To my mind, the challenge for egalitarian traditions is to empty European social theory of its contingent experiences which are lodged inside these concepts and to fill these concepts again with experiential concepts and practices drawn from our Indian reality. This is as much a challenge for egalitarians as for much of our social science. It is as much a theoretical challenge as it is a political challenge. The challenge today is not to turn our back to this hundred-fifty engaging years of thinking about equality — which is quite fashionable today because somehow we have persuaded ourselves, especially if we read the pink press, that ideas like equality are matters of the past — but to reconceptualise and reformat it for a new kind of radical politics.

It is possible and likely that this radical politics will not call itself by any familiar name. It will not call itself socialist, it will not call itself left, and it shouldn’t, as long as it speaks to concerns about inequality, injustice, exploitation, and wants to find a way past that. This, as I said, is as much a theoretical challenge as it is a political challenge. And what I meant to do today was to invite you to join everyone in this theoretical and political challenge.



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Truth, Belief, and Interpretation by Quentin Skinner — Lecture Transcript


A lecture by Quentin Skinner delivered on 18 November 2014 during the conference “Ideengeschichte, Traditionen, und Perspektiven” [History of Ideas, Traditions, and Perspectives] at the Ruhr-University Bochum.


You could also read:

Quentin Skinner, “Interpretation, Rationality and Truth,” in Visions of Politics, vol. I: Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 27–56.

Quentin Skinner, “Truth and Explanation in History,” in Truth in Science, the Humanities, and Religion: Balzan Symposium 2008, ed. M.E.H. Nicolette Mout and Werner Stauffacher (Dordrecht: Spriner, 2008), 89–97.

Lecture is embedded at the end.


We’ve been invited at this conference to reflect on the figure of the intellectual historian but all I shall have to say in general terms about this figure is that I assume that he or she is someone principally interested in texts, i.e. things like novels or plays, newspapers, court records, speeches [inaudible] That’s all I shall say about subject matter and what I principally like to try and do in these observations is to put forward and illustrate — I shall work through two main illustrations which I think is always the way to try to get a point across — where I am trying to say how it seems to me we shall proceed. And both of these suggestions and illustrations I am going to state negatively. That’s to say, in the form of a critique of some prevailing philosophical assumptions and some historical practices.

Here’s the first. It is often said that the project of the intellectual historian is that of identifying and explaining beliefs. Now that that should be the enterprise of intellectual history is certainly in the Anglophone world is what is currently simply assumed. So for example, Mark Bevir in a very influential book called The Logic of the History of Ideas insists on what seems to me the very strong claim that “Whenever people make an utterance, they express ideas or beliefs and it is these beliefs that constitute the object studied by intellectual historians.”

When people make an utterance, they express ideas or beliefs, and it is these ideas or beliefs that constitute the objects studied by historians of ideas. Historical meanings consist of expressed beliefs that convey the individual viewpoints of individuals.

Mark Bevir, The Logic of the History of Ideas, 2002, p. 142.

Now, practicing intellectual historians generally show themselves content to endorse that kind of point of view. So, for example to take an extremely distinguished Anglophone case, Keith Thomas, at the start of his masterpiece, Religion and the Decline of Magic, observes that what he is studying is systems of belief in the spirit of a cultural anthropologist. And while, as he puts it, many beliefs widely accepted in the past may now strike us as obviously false, the fact remains that in earlier times intelligent persons held them to be true and historian’s task is to explain why that should be so.

This book began as an attempt to make sense of some of the systems of belief which were current in sixteenth– and seventeenth-century England, but which no longer enjoy much recognition today. Astrology, witchcraft, magical healing, divination, ancient prophecies, ghosts and fairies, are now all rightly disdained by intelligent persons. But they were taken seriously by equally intelligent persons in the past, and it is the historian’s business to explain why this was so.

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1973, Foreword.

By the way, Keith Thomas there is talking specifically about witchcraft beliefs. And there is an unusually distinguished literature both in German and in English on that particular theme. So, I have decided to take that as one of the examples that I shall work through in my remarks this evening. I’ll come back to that but for the moment, I just want to put forward my first negative suggestion which is that I do not myself think that we should take the project of the intellectual historian as that of identifying and explaining beliefs. I just don’t think that that should be our focus.

But why not? Well, one obvious reason is that much of the writing and speech encountered by intellectual historians is such that there’s no reason whatsoever to suppose that any beliefs are being affirmed. That’s surely true in the case where intellectual historians study literary texts. Admittedly, in the Anglophone tradition at the moment, there’s a strong tendency to suppose that we can often identify authors with some or other of the expressed beliefs of their fictional characters. And in an influential strand of recent Anglophone criticism, so-called New Historicism, something like a systematic attempt is made to recover authorial beliefs, especially beliefs of Renaissance early modern writers, from the evidence of the text that they write whether these texts themselves be plays, or poems, or, later, novels.

But to take an example which everyone will know, when Shakespeare in Act IV of The Merchant of Venice has Portia say that the quality of mercy is always greater than justice, that surely doesn’t give us any grounds whatever for supposing that William Shakespeare believed that the quality of mercy is always greater than justice. He was writing a play! Do we have to say this? If you read the scene carefully, you will not only find that there is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare is affirming a belief, there is no reason to suppose that Portia is affirming a belief! Even the fictional character is not affirming a belief!

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I.

But you might say well literary texts are a special case. What about the philosophical texts on politics? Surely, we basically need to approach philosophical texts as statements of belief if we are going to interpret them. No. I don’t think so. I think that is also going to give you a very misleading picture and certainly impoverished hermeneutic. But obviously, that is a more contentious claim. And so, I want to try and illustrate this claim and defend it, try to show you what I have in mind because it’s meant to be what the French would call [per paradoxal]. So, let me give you a example and I am going to work through this for a few minutes.

It’s a familiar example from a celebrated political treatise which also happens to have been much in the news of late because there has just been the celebration of its 500th birthday: I am referring to Machiavelli‘s Treatise Il Principe and I want to say a word about it. If you turn to or if you remember Chapter 18 of the Principe, you will find Machiavelli arguing, in what is probably the best known observation in that well-known work, that the political leaders who aspire to fame and glory must learn to imitate the [italian] “the lion and the fox”.

You must know there are two ways of contesting [striving for masters], the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man. … A prince … ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XVIII.

Now, how is that passage best interpreted? The usual answer is that Machiavelli is claiming, that’s to say he is affirming the belief, that success in politics depends on realistically recognising the unavoidibility of force and fraud. That unpacks the metaphor and states the belief. I certainly don’t want to deny that that appears to be what Machiavelli believed. What I want to ask is how adequately you can hope to interpret that passage if you approach it with that as your basic question in mind?

Machiavelli’s contention was afterall not launched into a cultural void; it was part of an extensive Renaissance literature of advice books for rulers in which everybody had agreed that glory is indeed the proper goal of princes and that the means to acquire glory is to cultivate the quality which was called in the Renaissance writing, virtus in the Latin, or la virtu in the Italian. And by the use of that term, they sought to denote not merely the moral and political virtues but also took virtus to be obviously the defining quality of the vir — the Latin for man [Latin of course less sexist than English has two words, does it not?, homo means man or woman, but vir means man by contrast with woman, source of the English word ‘virile’]. So the Rennaisance writers are making it a defining characteristic of successful leaders that they should possess distinctively manly qualities.

Machiavelli, by contrast, is telling that if you want to achieve glory as a ruler, you will have to cultivate beastly qualities — so manly–beastly, we are back in the metaphoricality of the passage. So, he is thus opposing, in the passage I have quoted, the hitherto undoubted humanist piety that qualities of manliness form part of the key to political success. He is thereby questioning the adequacy of humanist accounts of virtue, and he is redefining what it means to speak of virtue as the name of the attribute that brings princely glory.

Furthermore, he launched that critique into a culture in which, unquestionably the most widely known and read treatise on political leadership was Cicero’s De Officiis and there Cicero had laid it down, I quote — I am translating obviously — “There are two ways in which injustice may be done. Either by force or by fraud. Both methods are bestial and unworthy of mankind. Force, because it belongs to the lion. and fraud because it belongs to the cunning fox.” So, Machiavelli, in the passage I cited also turns out to be quoting Cicero; thereby reminding his readers of the most respected authority on the question of political virtue while at the same time, repudiating, and indeed you hear the tone now, ridiculing Cicero’s moral earnestness.

While wrong may be done, then, in either of two ways, that is, by force or by fraud, both are bestial: fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man, but fraud is the more contemptible.

Cicero, De Officiis, Book I, par. XLI.

My point here of the example is that Machiavelli in the passage I have cited is not merely stating an apparent belief, namely that force and fraud are indispensible to political success. He is also citing Cicero on the character of political virtue; reminding his readers of Cicero’s claim; questioning that claim; satirising that claim; thereby opposing a standard tenet of humanist political theory; and at the same time offering the counter virtus in which that central concept of classical moral philosophy is largely redefined.

You’ll have to agree that that gives you a rather richer interpretation of this famous passage. But for me, what is crucial is that in approaching in interpreting the passage in this way, I have not been treating it as an expression of belief. Rather I have been treating it as a quite complex intervention in a specific political debate and moral argument of the time.

Now, of course it is true that once you identify the character of the intervention, you may feel that it implies a number of beliefs on Machiavelli’s part, for example that Cicero is a silly old fool, [which you didn’t know of course when you first read that. You’re beginning to get the point…]. I am not asking here what is Machiavelli affirming in this passage, I am asking, what is he doing? What’s going on in this passage? is my question. Or to use a kind of slang in English idiom, what’s he upto? What is really going on in this passage?

To generalise the point I am ther illustrating, what I am proposing is that the vocabulary most appropriate to textual interpretation is the one that we use about actions, not beliefs. So, I am proposing that for intellectual historians, the activity of interpretation should focus less on what people affirm and more on trying to recapture the underlying purposes of those affirmations. That’s to say, thereby trying to elucidate what kind of a contribution they saw themselves as making to some pre-existing conversation or debate.

That is a polemical claim in as much as I wish to make it a claim about all texts, however abstract in character. And when I say all texts, I also mean all texts in the extended sense in which a symphony would be a text that could be read, or a building, or indeed the most abstract works of political philosophy. Let me give you an example of which I have thought about a bit, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the most important work of political philosophy of a completely architectonic kind in the English language. I like to think of it as a speech in parliament. It would have been a long speech, admittedly. But what I am trying to get at here is that that’s the character of the book that you have in you hand if you pick up Hobbes’ Leviathan. It is a polemical intervention in the debate of the English revolution in the immediate aftermath of the abolition of the institution of monarchy into the question, “Is political obligation due to a power that has come to authority by conquest?” That’s the question of the time. And he has a quite exceptional answer to that. The answer is Yes. It takes him a long time to give that answer but to understand the text, you’ve got to understand that that’s what he is doing. He is trying to produce an irenic work in conditions of revolution.

Or take another celebrated example, Plato’s Republic as an example of, well, “What?” Once you ask my question, you’ll see that you have very little chance of understanding Plato’s Republic. Because you’ve got very little chance of understanding the exact character of the contribution that he was making to the politics of Athens at the time simply because we don’t have the resources — we know he read Thucydides, we know he didn’t like the Sophists, but we can’t go much further that that; there is something tremendously threadbare about the context that interests an intellectual historian like myself. And I think that one consequence of what I am trying to say is that very frequently, you are going to find that there’s much less prospect of understanding these texts than you thought if you think them as forms of linguistic action instead of as affirmations of belief.

So, there’s my first commitment and I have to add that that has got me into a lot of trouble. I say in my Machiavelli example that I am claiming to have identified the specific intervention that he was making in the writing of this particular genre of political theory, that’s to say, handbooks of for princes of which the great example had been Cicero. And one thing you have to understand about that text is that it’s a satire not in the sense that he doesn’t believe it — it’s a passionate book! — but in the sense that there is much in that book of ridicule about it. To understand ridicule, you have to see the object of the ridicule, otherwise you’ve got no chance. So you have to move densely into the context of the Renaissance “Mirror for Princes” genre.

If you emerge from that engagement, then a number of postmodern critics have asked me — not always very courteously — “Are you seriously telling us that you have succeeded in recovering Machiavelli’s intentions?” Yes, of course. That’s the whole point! That’s what I have done. That is not just a polemical claim, but liable to look like an old fashioned claim. But I’ll need to say more about it by way of explanation and defence.

The claim that this is a recovery of intentionality is only contentious only if you believe, as a number of postmodernists so obviously do, that intentions are simply mental events. [We talked about intentions when Timothy gave his brilliant paper yesterday. And motivations, which I am not talking about at the moment, are plausibly mental events.] The notion that an intention is a exclusively a mental event is simply a philosophical error. But it is the error that leads postmodern criticism to suppose that you can’t interrogate the living about their intentions, let alone the dead. But the intentions I am talking about are not mental events. They are entirely publicly inscribed.

So, for example, Cicero says rulers must avoid force and fraud. Machiavelli says they must embrace force and fraud. And in doing so he quotes Cicero’s argument; he reminds his readers of it; he challenges the committment; he repudiates it; he ridicules the earnestness involved; he presents a whole new picture of political virtue. Now, those are all the names of linguistic acts. Notice we only have one sentence. There are half a dozen or more linguistic acts that are being performed in the writing of that sentence. But those linguistic acts, if we have correctly identified them, are the names of the acts that Machiavelli intentionally performed. They are the names of the intentions with which he wrote. They are claims, ideas about the force of his utterance. It has the force of being both a quotation and a response and a reminder and a challenge and a repudiation and an act of satire. All of those are accounts of what is going on in the passage and so they are accounts of the force of the utterance. Not the meaning of course! And the explanatory hypothesis has to be that he spoke with that intended force because that’s the inference to the best explanation.

But to arrive at that account of how you should understand that passage — and it is how I think you should understand that passage — there has been no attempt to get into Machiavelli’s head or whatever nonsense people talk about this in order to come forth with those claims. All that’s required is the public context of the utterance. If you get that right, you get the force of the argument. The whole thing is dialogical and the name of the game is intertextuality. Intertextuality gives you intentionality. That’s really a way of summarising my claim.

But as you will know, more serious postmodern critics, whom we must greatly respect, have a further objection to raise. And typically, they will want to say that this preoccupation with intentionality forgets the power of language itself in its state of continual and polysemic play. Although ‘play’ in Derrida, jeu, has been gravely mistranslated into English as if it’s ‘play’, as in playing, while of course, he mean jeu in the mechanical sense that there’s play in the machine: there’s always some play. And that’s going to, his point is, “write itself over” — there’s his wonderful phrase — any intention to communicate as a result of which you can’t get rid of the ambiguities due to the polysemy that is involved. So, the objection goes, equating the meaning of texts with the intended meaning is just an obvious mistake.

This moment was that in which language invaded the universal problematic; that in which, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse — provided we can agree on this word — that is to say, when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.

Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” 1970.

That criticism has been levelled at me more times than I care to remember but it completely misses the point. I don’t know what it is that’s wrong about my writing but I don’t seem to be able to get my thoughts across. I’m having another go this evening. But that completely misses the sense in which I am interested in intentionality. It is true, and this is the way that Derrida and his followers are traditional hermeneuticists because they think, that one should be interested in recovering meaning. And their point is, that’s what you think hermeneutics is and we are here to tell you that you can’t do it. I never thought you could do it and I am not interested in doing it. That’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about something completely else. You could phrase what I am talking about as a claim about meaning if you liked because the English language is very poverty stricken here compared with the French. French has signification but it also has vouloir dire. I am talking about vouloir dire. I am talking about what people meant by what they said. That’s to to talk about the intentions with which they spoke. It’s not to talk about linguistic meaning which is something completely separate from speech acts. Speech acts are what you are doing. Meaning, if you are lucky, is what you have.

I am completely willing to accept the deconstructionist argument about polysemy and ambiguity. Anyone who engages in textual interpretation would be insane not to agree with Derrida about that. And serious literary critics of very complex texts have never not known that. I mean, imagine being an interpreter of Cervantes and not knowing that there are certain ambiguities and maybe jokes and things that you better know about. I mean it is quite primitive hermeneutics we are talking about really if you could imagine. There could be a strand of thought that made its living out of denying that. That’s been known at an intuitive level by serious students of literary texts always.

But I can accept that point, which of course I do, because I am making my central question one not about meaning but about linguistic action. Now, nobody, I take it, supposes that you can understand an action without invoking the intentionality that’s embodied in it because in the explanation of actions, we identify the action as being an action of a certain kind. And that’s how we individuate actions, in virtue of the intentionality embedded in it. If you give up that idea, you’ll find, you have given up a lot. For example, you have given up the idea of criminal responsibility straight away. It would be strange to deny that actions are the actions that they are in virtue of the intentionality embedded in them. And that’s all that I am saying. And that’s the claim about intentionality that I would want to defend.

So, there’s the first part of what I want to say. And you’ll be delighted to learn that the second half is shorter. Let me round off the first part of these remarks by drawing out some implications to see, if we can, what I say might matter. And I want to draw out three implications.

First, if there’s always some intervention that any text, however abstract, may be said to be making in the culture in and for which it was originally written or spoken, then there is no categorical distinction to be drawn between literature or philosophy on the one hand and ideology on the other hand. It will always be worth asking, in other words, about the ideological orientation of even very abstract texts as the Hobbes’ example was intended to illustrate. It’s true that writers often put forward as straightforward affirmations of belief statements which, in addition, have underlying ideological purposes which are often hidden and of considerable complexity. And what I am really suggesting is that if the attainment that we wish to acquire in the end is understanding, then it is to those underlying purposes that you’ve got to try and attune yourself. And if you ask, “Well how is that attuning to be done?”, I have a rather despairing piece of methodology, it’s really my only methodological advice to offer you, which is that there is no substitute for omniscience. You just got to know enough to know that Machiavelli was quoting Cicero. You just got to know enough about what the context was. If you read enough, you get the answers.

My second observation is that if you treat the texts we study as essentially social actions, one effect, and this is beneficial in my view and this goes with a kind of Foucauldian story about [indiscernible]…[ obviously Foucault as you will already have gathered is one of my heroes.] So the beneficial result is that this decenters authorship. It doesn’t of course abolish authorship; that was a provocation on Foucault’s part and people forget that he always distinguished the [indiscernible French terms]. He would … course have authors but they are authors within a structure of discourse. They are contributors to traditions of debate. That was the point that he was making and that’s the point that I would also want to make.

All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest sell did he express in his discourse?

Instead, there would be other questions, like these:
What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions?

And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?

Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”, 1969.

My third point is a cautionary one. It is that that kind of explanation that I am talking about here is clearly not a species of causal explanation. It solves puzzles by way of reidentifying speech acts. If the explanation is the resolving of puzzles, which of course is the pragmatic account we would want to give of what an explanation is, then these are explanations: they now solve puzzles, you now know what is going on. But they do so in non-causal mechanisms. Now that’s not to say, which was perhaps the mistake that a lot of Wittgensteinians made, that action–explanation is incompatible with causal explanation. That’s even arguably Wittgenstein’s view.

I certainly don’t think any historian would want to take that view because you may also want to enquire into the motivations that gave rise to the intentions that we are here isolating. I am here making a strong distinction between motives and intentions and that’s absolutely deliberate. I am not talking about motivation which is a very complex subject indeed but about intentionality. I am very content to assume that the motive with which you act is the cause of the action that you perform. There’s no problem about saying that and indeed, I would not only want to say that but, furthermore, you might also want to ask about the causes of someone’s having a certain motivational set which will lead you out then to the wider fields or, I should say, the explanatory swamps, of social history.

So far, this has been about a kind of challenge to the idea that the interpretive task is that of recovering and explaining beliefs. But obviously, I must not exaggerate. I am not of course denying that one task of the intellectual historian is that of identifying and explaining beliefs and so, one large question, and this is the question I want to address in the second half of these remarks, is how should that enterprise be undertaken if I now allow that that is part of the enterprise. So, now I need to ask “How should that be done?”

I want to proceed here, as in the first half of these remarks, by considering a widespread view. The right way to proceed, and this is a view that in the Anglophone writings of philosophy of history and writings of history is very widely agreed, is to begin by asking whether the beliefs you’re trying to explain are true or false beliefs. Now that is almost a kind of standard approach in Anglophone analytical philosophy of social science uniting such disparate authors such as Charles Taylor, Philip Pettit, and Steven Lukes.

Let me quote Philip Pettit: “The reason why we need to begin with the question of truth and falsity is that false beliefs point to failures of reasoning.” And that in turn means that we need to ask what kind of “social function or psychological pressure” may have served in the given case to prevent people from recognising the mistaken nature of their beliefs. So, notice a very strongly causal account that we are being given there. That’s fine by me but there’s the claim that false beliefs point to failures of reasoning. And, it’s a causal question to be asked about how you come to entertain that false belief. Once you have got that, you’ve got the explanation.

Our contention … is that one’s own opinion about the truth and falsity of the aliens’ beliefs will affect the kind of explanation one gives of them. A long standing problem in anthropology for example is the longevity of beliefs that appear to be manifestly false. This is a problem precisely because the beliefs are taken to be obviously incorrect: it would not arise if they were true, or were not so clearly false. …In some cases, a true belief maybe acquired‘accidentally’, i.e. in a manner in which the truth-conditions played no part, or did not play the ‘correct’ causal role. And even in cases where the true belief is properly acquired, causation still plays a role; in these cases the causal factors are usually sufficiently transparent not to require emphasis. What remains are cases where the mistaken nature of the belief is very much evident (in our opinion); here explanations by reference to social function or psychological pressure may be worth exploring.

Graham Macdonald and Philip Pettit, Semantics and Social Science, 1981, “Cross-cultural Understanding”.

Now, that view about how to proceed is very widely endorsed by practicing intellectual historians and I mentioned at the outset that a good way of illustrating this is through witchcraft beliefs. I am very anxious not to take strawman and, so, I shall actually take a really great historian, namely Emmanuel Bernard Le Roy Ladurie, the classic discussion of peasant witchcraft in Les Paysans de Languedoc [The Peasants of Languedoc]. Ladurie prefaces this wonderful analysis with the claim that the belief that it’s possible to cause harm by casting spells is false. Don’t worry. It is, isn’t it? And he is right to identify it as false. And so, what we are looking for, as Ladurie says, is that this is the product of some deep and distracting form of psychological pressure that the historian needs to identify.

Now, lets first ask, why do these philosophers and why does a great historian like Ladurie think it important to begin by considering the truth or falsity of beliefs as a way in to explaining them. Well, because of a strong distinction between reasons and causes. So, for example, Ladurie argues that to understand why witchcraft beliefs gained such widespread acceptance in France of the Reformation, what you need to identify, is what could have caused such a breakdown in the processes of reasoning.

I am not so interested in the actual explanation that Ladurie goes on to give but his, probably you know this, main line of explanation which has to do with the effects of the reformation in France: a time to breakdown of local consensus, especially in Languedoc which of course was becoming Protestant; a breakdown of trust between neighbours; a tendency to entertain new suspicions, new fears of your neighbours so when something goes wrong, there is a heightened proneness to ask whether someone might have caused you harm; heightened proneness to accept the possibility that that could indeed be done. So, notice that what Ladurie is doing there is as you might put it, what the philosophers ask. He’s begun by identifying the falsity of belief and he has given you a causal explanation of how that false belief came to be held.

That brings me to the second of my negative suggestions which is: don’t ever write history like that; don’t even think of it; this is… I am lost for words! Why not? To ask the question, to proceed in this way, as the philosophers would have you proceed and the historians do proceed, is to assume that when an historian encounters a belief that he or she judges to be false, the explanatory task is that of looking for the cause of a lapse of reasoning. But that is to equate the holding of rational beliefs with the holding of the beliefs that the historian judges to be true, and that excludes the possibility that even in the case of a belief that nowadays might strike us as obviously false, there may have been good grounds in earlier historical periods for holding that false belief to be true belief.

It seems to me, in other words, that the key explanatory distinction we need here is not between true and false beliefs but between rational and irrational beliefs. When we seek to explain a belief that we think is irrational, of course we are going to ask additional questions about how best to explain it. You’re gonna have to enquire into the sorts of conditions that may have prevented an agent from following accepted canons of evidence or argument, or maybe even supplied them with a motive for defying them. But, it’s always possible to follow the best available canons of argument in one’s society in relation to the formation and testing of beliefs and nevertheless arrive at a false belief. So, to equate the holding of a belief that seems to us false with a lapse from rationality is to foreclose before you knew that you should have foreclosed on a whole type of explanation.

So, to clarify that account let me go back to Ladurie on witchcraft. He not only begins by noting that witchcraft beliefs were false but he is also assuming that these beliefs are not rationally held; that they are beliefs which stem from very deep fears. That’s why they come to be held. So, his attempt at an explanation takes the form of an enquiry into the causes of a delusion. That’s what he takes historical task to be. But he’s thereby left himself no space to consider a different type of explanation along the following lines: that the peasants may have believed in the existence of witches, and therefore the power to cause harm, as a result of holding a number of other beliefs from which that conclusion might reasonably have been inferred.

So, he has excluded in advance the possibility that the belief in the power of witches to do you harm might be the product of a perfectly acceptable chain of reasoning. But that means that as the result the explanation he puts forth for the delusion — the story about the Reformation, for all he knows — that may be completely false. I mean it’s just invented history. And it also means that it’s bypassed number of question which you might think indispensable to enquire into about the rationality of the beliefs of the peasantry.

Well, I am sure you also know what I am about to say next which is that, it’s not — I mean this is a classic text of Ladurie — that this problem has not been identified. Some of the more recent literature on witchcraft has devoted itself to worrying about his lack of interest in the mental world of the peasantry. So, for example, another really extraordinary fine work of scholarship on witchcraft, Stuart Clark’s book called Thinking with Demons makes it the basis of that book, methodologically speaking, that we should seek to make the people whose witchcraft beliefs we are examining as rational as possible. So, I just want to comment on that historiographical development. Because, that doesn’t please me either. I just wanted to offer two observations and both of them I am afraid are critical.

I was influenced, in particular, by a remark of Alasdair MacIntyre’s: ‘To say that a belief is rational is to talk about how it stands in relation to other beliefs.’ It soon became apparent that demonology was a case in point, and that witchcraft beliefs at this level were sustained by a whole range of other intellectual commitments.

What follows … is a book about demonology, … set in a series of contexts drawn from early modern intellectual life as a whole. I have taken seriously the suggestion that the best places to gain historical access to a strange culture are those where its meanings seem most opaque. …. The witchcraft beliefs of early modern intellectuals seem to be in this category. My aim, therefore, is to make them more intelligible in themselves but, in doing this, to shed light on the larger intellectual histories to which they belonged.

Stuart Clark, Thinking With Demons, 2001, pp. ix and x.

One is, don’t forget to distinguish epistemic from practical rationality. Even great historians can look as if they have got into a muddle there. Consider, for example, Paul Veyne‘s great book on whether the Greeks believed their myths [Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination]. Veyne’s answer is, I am sure you know roughly, that the question as to whether it was rational for the ancient Greeks to accept the truth of their myths was a question that was seldom pressed. But that it was not irrational for them not to press it.

But what does he mean? Does he mean practically rational or epistemically rational? I mean it may have been a rational policy not to press the question of truth because the widespread acceptance of the myths had so many beneficial social effects. But if that is the argument, it leaves completely open the question as to whether if the ancient Greeks did believe their myths, it was epistemically rational for them to hold that belief. It may have been practically rational whilst being epistemically irrational. It is very hard to think it was. So, you really must not get those two confused.

But that’s not my main worry. My main worry about what’s happened to this literature is that it seems to me that we are taking too capacious a view about the rationality of historical agents. Stuart Clark, for example, argues that provided we an show that the beliefs about witchcraft held by early modern demonologists cohered with their other beliefs so that you got a coherent set of beliefs within which these withchcraft beliefs were nested, then that is sufficient for it to have been rational for them to hold the demonological beliefs that you have isolated.

Now, I agree that if my beliefs are to be rationally held, it is necessary that I should be interested in consistency. I mean if you are not interested in consistency, it is impossible for anybody else to recover your beliefs. If I affirm that I believe p and I affirm that I belief not-p, you have no idea what I believe and nor have I. But what I cannot see is how this can be a sufficient condition. It must also be a necessary condition that I should adopt my beliefs only in the light of a certain attitude towards the process of belief formation itself.

That’s to say, I can hardly be said to hold a belief rationally unless I am interested in the sort of evidence that gives me ground for concluding that my statements of belief can be justified. And that they are not liable to be overturned by further evidence. So, I just can’t agree in other words with the suggestion that once you have uncovered the inner acceptability of a structure of beliefs — I mean this view that became so fashionable in intellectual history and in cultural anthropology — you cannot then fail to count as rational a belief that coheres within the system that you’ve uncovered.

Now that doubt about the procedures of current intellectual history and some current cultural anthropology has is not very popular at the moment. Because we are frequently told that to argue what I have just done is to import alien and condescending views about our superior rationality into studies of the past.

But that’s a complete misunderstanding. If as an historian, I stigmatise some particular belief I am investigating as irrational, I need only be claiming that I have uncovered a prevailing norms for the acquisition, testing, and justification of belief in the community that I am investigating, and that the belief in question was upheld in the face of rather than in the light of some some agreed local norm. I am not claiming that the belief was irrational according to my standards of rationality, still less according to the standard of rationality, whatever that could possibly mean.

So, there’s my second negative claim. When intellectual historians seek to explain systems of thought prevailing in past societies, they should I think, avoid asking questions about truth and falsity altogether. The only point at which they should invoke the concept of truth is in asking whether our forebears or some other society had sufficient ground for holding to be true what they believed to be the truth even if we don’t agree that it is the truth.

Okay, there’s the second claim. And in a way that’s the end of the story. Do I have four more minutes? That’s really good because, here’s the point, if that’s the second claim, then as you will all be aware and I am only too well aware, anyone who argues in the fashion that I have just now argued is liable to be denounced in some quarters or, of course, commended in other quarters as a conceptual relativist. So, I want to end by saying a word about conceptual relativism in relation to the practice of intellectual history.

There’s obviously a sense in which my argument is relativist: I have relativised the notion of holding true a given belief. I have suggested that it may have been completely rational for a sixteenth century French peasant in Languedoc to hold it true that you can cause harm by casting spells even if I would not necessarily regard it as rational if you told me that that was one of your beliefs. Furthermore, I have argued that intellectual historians need to be relativist in that sense. You need to keep before you always the thought that you can hold a false belief with complete rationality. But it seems to me a misunderstanding to suppose that historians who espouse this position are embracing the thesis of conceptual relativism.

Conceptual relativism I take to be a thesis about the nature of truth. Roughly, it is the thesis that there is nothing more to truth than rational acceptability within a form of life. If you think, that is, that rational acceptability within a form of life, within a coherent structure of beliefs, is a sufficient condition, then you’re a conceptual relativist. You’re a relativist about truth if you think that is a sufficient condition of those beliefs being true.

So, for example, Richard Rorty in his great work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is definitely a conceptual relativist. When he discusses Galileo‘s dispute with Bellarmine, he insists that Bellarmine’s rejection of heliocentrism was no less objective than Galileo’s affirmation of it and to suppose otherwise is merely to endorse the rhetoric of modern science. There are just two worlds.

Obviously, the conclusion I wish to draw is that the “grid” which emerged in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not there to be appealed to in the early seventeenth century, at the time that Galileo was on trial. No conceivable epistemology, no study of the nature of human knowledge, could have “discovered” it before it was hammered out. The notion of what it was to be “scientific” was in the process of being formed. … We are the heirs of three hundred years of rhetoric about the importance of distinguishing sharply between science and religion, science and politics, science and art, science and philosophy, and so on. This rhetoric has formed the culture of Europe. It made us what we are today. We are fortunate that no little perplexity within epistemology, or within the historiography of science, is enough to defeat it. But to proclaim our loyalty to these distinctions is not to say that there are “objective” and “rational” standards for adopting them. Galileo, so to speak, won the argument, and we all stand on the common
ground of the “grid” of relevance and irrelevance which “modern philosophy” developed as a consequence of that victory. But what could show that the Bellarmine-Galileo issue “differs in kind” from the issue between, say, Kerensky and Lenin, or that between the Royal Academy (circa 1910) and Bloomsbury?

Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1981, pp. 330–31.

Now I am not saying that at all. I take it that in the given case, there’s the fact of the matter. So, I actually believe that the earth goes round the sun and nor do I believe that it used not to. So, I don’t believe that was true then, and it’s not true now or any nonsense like that. I don’t want to make any of these points about truth and falsity. I don’t want you to ask if Bellarmine’s beliefs about heliocentrism were true. I mean actually they were false but these are not the questions we should be asking as intellectual historians.

So, that being my position, I am not even engaging with the thesis of conceptual relativism. I am just saying that the question of what it may be rational to hold to be true may vary with the totality of your beliefs. I am not putting forward what would be the wholly distinctive claim that truth can vary in the same way. By the way, if you did put forth that claim, I think it would be self-refuting because the proposition would present itself as true while affirming that there could be no such proposition.

I promised myself only four minutes and I have used up three. So here comes the fourth. I haven’t spoken here as a legislator. That is not a task in which I would feel comfortable. I haven’t tried to say how we should write intellectual history. Obviously, there are many valid ways of doing so. It is a house of many mansions and we practice it in different ways. It’s a large and it’s an open field. However, it is a field that contains some large potholes and I would like us to avoid these potholes and what I try to do in this talk is identify two of them and to show you I hope why it’s best not to fall into them.

Thanks very much.



Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin — A Summary


Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Liberty: Incorporating ‘Four Essays on Liberty,’ ed. Henry Hardy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 166–217.


This summary covers only the first two sections of the essay. (There are eight in all!) This is because I am assuming that those interested are mainly interested in the distinction between negative and positive liberty. That distinction is laid out clearly in these sections. I have tried to give the reader a taste of Berlin’s writing by extracting bits and pieces from the other sections. Why? See below.

But you can also go straight to the summary.

This is probably one of the most influential and commented upon essays in political philosophy to have emerged in the last century. It was originally delivered in 1958 by Isaiah Berlin as the inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory in Oxford. First published as a pamphlet by Oxford at the Clarendon Press in the same year, it was then published along with other essays in Four Essays on Liberty in 1969 and reissued in 2002 as Liberty with the inclusion of another essay by Berlin and other additions.

This essay is not simply an essay of conceptual analysis but it is engaging in what is called history of ideas. So there is much that is of historical interest. There are references to Saint-Simon, Engels, Marx, Heine, Kant, Rousseau, Fichte, Schelling, Robespierre, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Constant, Tocqueville, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Belinsky, Adam Smith, the Jacobins, the Reformation, Burke, Paine, Occam, Condorcet, ancient Greece and Rome, and we are still is the first section! The point is that rather than summaries, such an essay would require commentaries to explain precisely why, for instance, Occam (of the Occam’s Razor fame) is mentioned. [Check out this essay to get a primer on why Berlin says negative liberty is “liberty as it has been conceived by liberals in the modem world from the days of Erasmus (some would say of Occam) to our own.”]

It would do great injustice to try to summarise, and this will be familiar to those who are familiar with Berlin, what are remarkable streams of thought, or more correctly, illustrations that are characterised by their breath-taking breadth. Consider the following passage from the same essay.

The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer — deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role, that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realising them. This is at least part of what I mean when I say that I am rational, and that it is my reason that distinguishes me as a human being from the rest of the world. I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by reference to my own ideas and purposes.

“Two Concepts of Liberty”, p. 178.

A summary of that passage would be the first sentence. But it is easy to see how much damage it will do to Berlin’s presentation. The best I can do is put up some extracts to give the reader a feel of what Berlin’s writing is like. And this is what I have done for the rest of the essay. Even this however fails to work because these extracts, of necessity ignore most if not all of the finer (but also lengthier) points of exposition that Berlin engages in. As such, for those who are genuinely interested, you can’t do better than read the essay in full.


I

Freedom (or liberty; these two terms will be used interchangeably) is a term whose meaning is “so porous that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist.” I will endeavour to examine only two central political senses in which it has been understood. The first is what might be called the ‘negative’ sense which answers the question ‘What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be without any interference by other persons?’ The second which I shall call the ‘positive’ sense answers the question ‘What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?’

The Notion of Negative Freedom

In this sense, liberty refers to the area within which I may act unobstructed by others, an area within which I am free to do or be as I wish to do or be. If I am prevented by others from doing what I would otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if my area of freedom is curtailed beyond a certain minimum, I may be described as being coerced/enslaved. This does not mean that any curtailment of what I would otherwise do is coercion. Mere inability to, say, jump more than ten feet in the air or understand the writings of Hegel, is not coercion. Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings in my sphere of freedom. Mere incapacity is not a lack of freedom.

But what about economic freedom? What if I am unable to afford a loaf of bread on which there is no legal prohibition? Surely, I must be unfree in this case. Yes. But only if I believe in certain economic and social theories which outline a certain understanding of poverty as caused by arrangements brought about by men which prevent some people, like me, but not others, like the well-off, from having enough money to afford basic necessities. But if I do not believe in (the truth of) such theories, and if I understand my poverty as similar to a disease, like blindness or lameness, I am cannot say I am being deprived of freedom.

This is the sense, i.e. the absence of interference by others, in which classical English philosophers understood freedom. There was disagreement about how wide the area of freedom or non-interference would be. First because it was agreed that the sphere of freedom could not be unlimited for if every person has unlimited freedom, no person would be free. Second because they also thought that other goals like justice, equality, happiness, security, etc. were necessary to fulfil human purposes and therefore they deemed it necessary to curtail freedom in the interest of these other goals, or indeed, in the interest of freedom itself. Freedom then has to be limited.

But a certain minimum area of freedom which must be kept sacrosanct so that the individual does not find himself in too narrow a space where he can’t exercise and develop his natural faculties, and without which there would be no meaning to human life and human purposes and goals, including that of freedom itself.


[The next two paragraphs in the text are an important digression. The idea that one person’s freedom is another person’s unfreedom is obvious. If I am free to kill you, you are unfree to live. In Berlin’s words, “the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others.” This leads, unsurprisingly, many western liberal consciences to say or believe that perhaps the freedom that many of us enjoy is the outcome of the suffering of many groups of people who are exploited socially and economically. If I have the leisure, education, and means, to enjoy Pushkin, might not that be, however indirectly, the result of a system which denies boots to a peasant. And in this case, might not the peasant wish for boots (a basic need) rather than freedom (to enjoy the writings of Alexander Pushkin)? And shouldn’t governments/societies try to ensure these basic necessities before harking about freedom? And if that is not forthcoming, couldn’t or shouldn’t I say: “if others are to be deprived of it [freedom] — if my brothers are to remain in poverty, squalor and chains — then I do not want it for myself, I reject it with both hands and infinitely prefer to share their fate”.

This reflection, Berlin admits, “derives from something that is both true and important.” That is, it is true that a great percentage of wealth which is the basis for the freedoms enjoyed by, say, the west comes, or at least came, from exploitation elsewhere. But he maintains that it is nonetheless “a piece of political claptrap.” “Nothing is gained,” he insists “by a confusion of terms.” If I sacrifice my freedom for a great moral need — my fellow brothers are in “poverty, squalor and chains” — I am still sacrificing freedom. This is a loss of freedom and there is no gain of some other kind of freedom. “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.”]


If freedom cannot be unlimited and has to be curtailed by law if only to secure the freedom of others, upon what principle shall this curtailment be put in place?

Those philosophers who are optimistic about human nature and believe that human interests may be harmonised, such as Locke, Smith, and Mill, prefer a large area of freedom. Those who are pessimistic, Hobbes and his followers, prefer a larger area of control. In any case, that a certain minimum portion of life must be left uninterfered with is agreed by all and to invade this portion would be despotism and it would degrade our very nature. However, what that minimum must be has remained, and will probably remain, a matter of eternal and irresolvable dispute.

What then must the minimum be? That which a man cannot give  up without offending against the essence of his human nature. What is this essence? What are the standards which it entails? This  has been, and perhaps always will be, a matter of infinite debate.

Be that as it may, liberty in this negative sense is always “freedom from; absence if interference beyond the shifting, but always recognisable frontier.”

For Mill, “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.” This celebrated defence of liberty takes the presence of a “free market in ideas” which allows scope for, indeed encourages, “spontaneity, originality, genius, [] mental energy, [] moral courage” as a necessary condition for advancement in civilisation without which “society will be crushed by the weight of ‘collective mediocrity.’”

Whatever is rich and diversified will be crushed by  the weight of custom, by men’s constant tendency to conformity,  which breeds only ‘withered’ capacities, ‘pinched and hidebound’, ‘cramped and dwarfed’ human beings.

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter I.

We may note three points about this defence. Firstly, the connection between the existence of a free market of ideas and the development of critical, original, imaginative, etc. thought — which Mill seems to assume is necessary — is at best empirical. And it has been shown that “integrity, love of truth and fiery individualism grow at least as often in severely disciplined communities”. [Berlin points to James Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity]

Second, this doctrine that places so much importance to individual liberty is very modern and is absent from all discussions of liberty in, say, ancient Rome and Greece, indeed in all ancient civilisations. The dominance of this doctrine then is an exception rather than the rule.

Third, this idea of liberty is not incompatible with autocracy, or the absence of self-government (or democracy). Liberty in the negative sense is concerned about the area of control and not the source of control. A democracy which curtails the freedoms of its citizens in the name of say, welfare or social justice, may well be more oppressive in this sense than, say, an enlightened despotism in which the subjects are given sufficient latitude in their actions and behaviour. In other words, freedom is not connected in any logical sense with democracy. This is because the question of ‘who governs me?’ is logically different from the question ‘how far does government interfere with me?’ It is in this difference that the two concepts of liberty can be identified. The former points to positive freedom, and the latter, negative.

For the ‘positive’ sense of liberty comes to light if we try to answer the question, not ‘What am I free to do or be?’, but ‘By whom am I ruled?’ or ‘Who is to say what I am, and what I am not, to be or do?’

II

The Notion of Positive Freedom

The ‘positive’ sense of freedom derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master and it consists precisely in being one’s own master.

But isn’t this not so different from the ‘negative’ sense of liberty? If you are free to choose as you wish, i.e. if you are master of yourself, isn’t that the same as not being prevented from choosing what you wish by others? The similarity, however, is only superficial.

It is obvious that one could be coerced/enslaved by political, social and economic arrangements. But might not we be enslaved by nature? Or perhaps our own unbridled passions? Passions which we ought to resist or which we do resist at some level in our minds, passions such as the imperatives for what a former Headmistress of yours truly used to call, “momentary pleasures.” Don’t we characterise our emergence from unbridled desire for sexual encounters, and lust for fame, wealth (especially if you subscribe to Christian ethics) as liberating?

In any case, the desire to be one’s own master is not merely the desire to be free from interference by others, but to be free from our very own desires and passions which we might consider as base or sinful or unbecoming of our nature, our nature as members of certain groups, religious or otherwise, or indeed of our nature as human beings. The desire here is to give full power to a higher self — which may be “identified with reason, with my ‘higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or ‘autonomous’ self, or with my self ‘at its best’” — so that it may become master over the lower self — identified with “irrational impulse, uncontrolled desires, my ‘lower’ nature, the pursuit of immediate pleasures, my ‘empirical’ or ‘heteronomous’ self.”

The higher self could even be conceived as something wider than the individual. It could be the social whole — “a tribe, a race, a Church, a State, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn.” This entity is then identified as being the ‘true’ self which, by imposing its collective, or ‘organic’, single will upon its recalcitrant ‘members’, achieves its own, and therefore their, ‘higher’ freedom.”

There is some plausibility to this idea in so far as we recognise that it is possible and justifiable to coerce men in the name of some goal, say public health; to force them to wear seat-belts for example, or get mandatory vaccinations. But it is a small step from this to go to the view that takes your action, or that of the state, or church, or what have you, to be the rational choices of those very men (those unwilling to vaccinate their children or wear seatbelts) who are being coerced. This impersonation believes that although they may not be making their choices consciously or even willingly, their higher selves would certainly choose them, indeed they already have. “This monstrous impersonation, which consists in equating what X would choose if he were something he is not, or at least not yet, with what X actually seeks and chooses, is at the heart of all political theories of self-realisation.”

It is one thing to say that I may  be coerced for my own good, which I am too blind to see: this  may, on occasion, be for my benefit; indeed it may enlarge the  scope of my liberty. It is another to say that if it is my good, then I  am not being coerced, for I have willed it, whether I know this or not, and am free (or ‘truly’ free) even while my poor earthly body  and foolish mind bitterly reject it, and struggle with the greatest desperation against those who seek, however benevolently, to impose it.

This “sleight of hand” can be performed with regards to the negative sense of freedom as well. There the self that should not be interfered with would become the higher self of which I have spoken about, and this self could indeed be inflated to a super-personal entity. However, this splitting of the self into two — “the transcendent, dominant controller, and the empirical bundle of desires and passions to be disciplined and brought to heel” — has been perpetrated “as a matter of history, of doctrine and of practice” by the ‘positive’ conception of freedom as self-mastery.


[The rest are extracts. For reasons outlined above.]

III

The Retreat to the Inner Citadel

The doctrine that maintains that what I cannot have I must teach myself not to desire, that a desire eliminated, or successfully resisted, is as good as a desire satisfied, is a sublime, but, it seems to me, unmistakable, form of the doctrine of sour grapes: what I cannot be sure of, I cannot truly want.

This makes it dear why the definition of negative liberty as the ability to do what one wishes — which is, in effect, the definition adopted by Mill —will not do. If I find that I am able to do little or nothing of what I wish, I need only contract or extinguish my wishes, and I am made free.

Ascetic self-denial may be a source of integrity or serenity and spiritual strength, but it is difficult to see how it can be called an enlargement of liberty. If I save myself from an adversary by retreating indoors and locking every entrance and exit, I may remain freer than if I had been captured by him, but am I freer than if I had defeated or captured him?

IV

Self-realisation

The only true method of attaining freedom, we are told, is by the use of critical reason, the understanding of what is necessary and what is contingent.

What you know, that of which you understand the necessity — the rational necessity — you cannot, while remaining rational, want to be otherwise. For to want something to be other than what it must be is, given the premisses — the necessities that govern the world — to be pro tanto either ignorant or irrational. Passions, prejudices, fears, neuroses spring from ignorance, and take the form of myths and illusions. ... The scientific determinists of the eighteenth century supposed that the study of the sciences of nature, and the creation of sciences of society on the same model, would make the operation of such causes transparently clear, and thus enable individuals to recognise their own part in the working of a rational world, frustrating only when misunderstood.

We are enslaved by despots — institutions or beliefs or neuroses — which can be removed only by being analysed and understood. We are imprisoned by evil spirits which we have ourselves — albeit not consciously — created, and can exorcise them only by becoming conscious and acting appropriately. ... To understand why things must be as they must be is to will them to be so. Knowledge liberates not by offering us more open possibilities amongst which we can make our choice, but by preserving us from the frustration of attempting the impossible. ...That is the metaphysical heart of rationalism. The notion of liberty contained in it is not the ‘negative’ conception of a field (ideally) without obstacles, a vacuum in which nothing obstructs me, but the notion of self-direction or self-control.

V

The Temple of Sarastro

Those who believed in freedom as rational self-direction were bound, sooner or later, to consider how this was to be applied not merely to a man’s inner life, but to his relations with other members of his society. Even the most individualistic among them — and Rousseau, Kant and Fichte certainly began as individualists — came at some point to ask themselves whether a rational life not only for the individual, but also for society, was possible, and if so, how it was to be achieved.

Freedom is self-mastery, the elimination of obstacles to my will, whatever these obstacles maybe — the resistance of nature, of my ungoverned passions, of irrational institutions, of the opposing wills or behaviour of others. Nature I can, at least in principle, always mould by technical means, and shape to my will. But how am I to treat recalcitrant human beings?

I must, if I can, impose my will on them too,‘mould’ them to my pattern, cast parts for them in my play. But will this not mean that I alone am free, while they are slaves? They will be so if my plan has nothing to do with their wishes or values, only with my own. But if my plan is fully rational, it will allow for the full development of their ‘true’ natures, the realisation of their capacities for rational decisions, for ‘making the best of themselves’ — as a part of the realisation of my own ‘true’ self. All true solutions to all genuine problems must be compatible: more than this, they must fit into a single whole; for this is what is meant by calling them all rational and the universe harmonious.

The common assumption ... is that the rational ends of our ‘true’ natures must coincide, or be made to coincide, however violently our poor, ig.i:iorant, desire ridden, passionate, empirical selves may cry out against this process. Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong. To force empirical selves into the right pattern is no tyranny, but liberation. ...Liberty, so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it. This is the thought and language of all the declarations of the rights of man in the eighteenth century, and of all those who look upon society as a design constructed according to the rational laws of the wise lawgiver, or of nature, or of history, or of the Supreme Being.

If the underlying assumptions had been correct — if the method of solving social problems resembled the way in which solutions to the problems of the natural sciences are found, and if reason were what rationalists said that it was — all this would perhaps follow.

[And] In due course, the thinkers who bent their energies to the solution of the problem on these lines came to be faced with the question of how in practice men were to be made rational in this way. Clearly they must be educated. For the uneducated are irrational, heteronomous, and need to be coerced, if only to make life tolerable for the rational if they are to live in the same society and not be compelled to withdraw to a desert or some Olympian height. ... The unwise must be dragged towards it by all the social means in the power of the wise; for why should demonstrable error be suffered to survive and breed? The immature and untutored must be made to say to themselves: ‘only the truth liberates, and the only way in which I can learn the truth is by doing blindly today what you, who know it, order me, or coerce me, to do, in the certain knowledge that only thus will I arrive at your dear vision, and be free like you.’

We have wandered indeed from our liberal beginnings. ... What can have led to so strange a reversal? ... [E]ven Kant (who insisted that a capacity for rational self-direction belonged to all men), when he came to deal with political issues, conceded that no law, provided that it was such that I should, if I were asked, approve it as a rational being, could possibly deprive me of any portion of my rational freedom. With this the door was opened wide to the rule of experts. ...[And] if I am a legislator or a ruler, I must assume that if the law I impose is rational (and I can consult only my own reason} it will automatically be approved by all the members of my society so far as they are rational beings. For if they disapprove, they must, pro tanto, be irrational; then they will need to be repressed by reason: whether their own or mine cannot matter, for the pronouncements of reason must be the same in all minds. I issue my orders and, if you resist, take it upon myself to repress the irrational element in you which opposes reason.

If this leads to despotism, albeit by the best or the wisest — to Sarastro’s temple in The Magic Flute — but still despotism, which turns out to be identical with freedom, can it be that there is something amiss in the premisses of the argument? That the basic assumptions are themselves somewhere at fault?

VII

Liberty and Sovereignty

The French Revolution, like all great revolutions, was, at least in its Jacobin form, just such an eruption of the desire for ‘positive’ freedom of collective self-direction on the part of a large body of Frenchmen who felt liberated as a nation, even though the result was, for a good many of them, a severe restriction of individual freedoms. ...The liberals of the first half of the nineteenth century correctly foresaw that liberty in this ‘positive’ sense could easily destroy too many of the ‘negative’ liberties that they held sacred. They pointed out that the sovereignty of the people could easily destroy that of individuals.

Throughout the nineteenth century liberal thinkers maintained that if liberty involved a limit upon the powers of any man to force me to do what I did not, or might not, wish to do, then, whatever the ideal in the name of which I was coerced, I was not free; that the doctrine of absolute sovereignty was a tyrannical doctrine in itself. If I wish to preserve my liberty, ...I must establish a society in which there must be some frontiers of freedom which nobody should be permitted to cross.

[But] what would make a society truly free? For Constant, Mill, Tocqueville, and the liberal tradition to which they belong, no society is free unless it is governed by at any rate two interrelated principles: first, that no power, but only rights, can be regarded as absolute, so that all men, whatever power governs them, have an absolute right to refuse to behave inhumanly; and, second, that there are frontiers, not artificially drawn, within which men should be inviolable, these frontiers being defined in terms of rules so long and widely accepted that their observance has entered into the very conception of what it is to be a normal human being, and, therefore, also of what it is to act inhumanly or insanely; rules of which it would be absurd to say, for example, that they could be abrogated by some formal procedure on the part of some court or sovereign body.

This is almost at the opposite pole from the purposes of those who believe in liberty in the ‘positive’ — self-directive — sense. The former want to curb authority as such. The latter want it placed in their own hands. That is a cardinal issue. These are not two different interpretations of a single concept, but two profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life. It is as well to recognise this, even if in practice it is often necessary to strike a compromise between them. For each of them makes absolute claims. These claims cannot both be fully satisfied. But it is a profound lack of social and moral understanding not to recognise that the satisfaction that each of them seeks is an ultimate value which, both historically and morally, has an equal right to be classed among the deepest interests of mankind.

VIII

The One and the Many

One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals — justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another.

But is this true? It is a commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organisation nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez-faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society can conflict violently with each other. And it is no great way from that to the generalisation that not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind.

But if we arc not armed with an a priori guarantee of the proposition that a total harmony of true values is somewhere to be found — perhaps in some ideal realm the characteristics of which we can, in our finite state, not so much as conceive — we must fall back on the ordinary resources of empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge. And these certainly give us no warrant for supposing (or even understanding what would be meant by saying) that all good things, or all bad things for that matter, are reconcilable with each other.

The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others. Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value upon the freedom to choose; for if they had assurance that in some perfect state, realisable by men on earth, no ends pursued by them would ever be in conflict, the necessity and agony of choice would disappear, and with it the central importance of the freedom to choose.

I do not wish to say that individual freedom is, even in the most liberal societies, the sole, or even the dominant, criterion of social action. ...The extent of a man’s, or a people’s, liberty to choose to live as he or they desire must be weighed against the claims of many other values, of which equality, or justice, or happiness, or security, or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples. For this reason, it cannot be unlimited. ...That we cannot have everything is a necessary, not a contingent, truth. [But at the same time] there is little need to stress the fact that monism, and faith in a single criterion, has always proved a deep source of satisfaction both to the intellect and to the emotions. [However] to preserve our absolute categories or ideals at the expense of human lives offends equally against the principles of science and of history

Pluralism, with the measure of ‘negative’ liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of ‘positive’ self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind. It is truer, because it does, at least, recognise the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another. ...It is more humane because it does not (as the system builders do) deprive men, in the name of some remote, or incoherent, ideal, of much that they have found to be indispensable to their life as unpredictably self-transforming human beings.

It may be that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilisation: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognised, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no sceptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. ...‘To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions’, said an admirable writer of our time, ‘and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’ To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow such a need to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.


The Two Faces of Power by Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz — A Summary


Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, “Two Faces of Power,” The American Political Science Review 56, no. 4 (1962): 947–52.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/1952796


Sociologically oriented researchers have consistently found that power is highly centralised while scholars trained in political science have just as regularly argued that power is widely diffused. This explains why the latter group calls itself “pluralist” and, its counterpart, “elitist”.

The central claim of this article is that there are two faces of power, neither of which the sociologists see and only one of which the political scientists see.

I

The elitist approach wrongly assumes that there is an ordered system of power, a “power structure” which is an integral part and the mirror image of the organization’s stratification [at bottom, nobody dominates in a community]; further that this power structure remains stable over time [power is tied to issues which can be fleeting or persistent]; and finally that actual power is equivalent to reputed power [there is no way of disconfirming a hypothesis which presumes that some actors is always really engaged in running a community].

Such are the issues that the pluralists bring up against the elitists and they are well-founded. The pluralists, for their part, concentrate their attention not upon the sources of power but its exercise. They are interested not in the reputedly powerful but instead in actual participation in decision making understood through the examination of a series of concrete decisions. However, they fail to (a) take into account for the fact that power may be, and often is, exercised by confining the scope of decision-making to relatively “safe” issues, and (b) provide objective criteria for distinguishing between “important” and “unimportant” issues arising in the political arena.

II

We have to agree with the pluralists that an analysis grounded entirely upon what is specific and visible to the outside observer is more “scientific” than one based upon pure speculation. But can we agree with their assumption that power is totally embodied and fully reflected in “concrete decisions” or in activity bearing directly upon their making, which can be observed?’

“We think not. Of course, power is exercised when A participates in the making of decisions that affect B [the first face]. But power is also exercised when A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A. To the extent that A succeeds in doing this, B is prevented, for all practical purposes, from bringing to the fore any issues that might in their resolution be seriously detrimental to A’s set of preferences [the second (restrictive) face].”

[T]o the extent that a person or group — consciously or unconsciously — creates or reinforces barriers to the public airing of policy conflicts, that person or group has power.

Can [the student of power] safely ignore the possibility, for instance, that an individual or group in a community participates more vigorously in supporting the nondecision-making process than in participating in actual decisions within the process?

By ignoring this aspect, the pluralists overlook the less important but nonetheless extremely important face of power.

III

There remains the question of “key” and “routine” political decisions. The pluralists are wont to suggest that certain key and significant issues be identified for analysis.

In his critique of the “ruling-elite model,” Professor Dahl argues that “the hypothesis of the existence of a ruling elite can be strictly tested only if ... [t]here is a fair sample of cases involving key political decisions in which the preferences of the hypothetical ruling elite run counter to those of any other likely group that might be suggested.” [Quoted from Robert A. Dahl, “A Critique of the Ruling-ELite Model”, 1958, p. 466] (emphasis added)

Nelson Polsby, for example, proposes that “by pre-selecting as issues for study those which are generally agreed to be significant, pluralist researchers can test stratification theory.” [Quoted from Nelson W. Polsby, “How to Study Community Power: The Pluralist Alternative”, 1960, p. 478] (emphasis added)

But what issues are key or significant, and how are they understood to be so? Indeed, why suppose that there are significant issues in the political arena in any community? By doing so, the very question in doubt is being taken for granted. 

“The distinction between important [key or significant] and unimportant [routine] issues, we believe, cannot be made intelligently in the absence of an analysis of [organisation understood as] the “mobilisation of bias” in the community; of the dominant values and the political myths, rituals, and institutions which tend to favour the vested interests of one or more groups, relative to others.”

All forms of political organization have a bias in favour of the exploitation of some kinds of con£ict and the suppression of others, because organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized [Quoted from Elmer Eric Schattschneider, The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America, 1960, p. 70]

IV

[This section is a critique of Dahl’s work Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961) in the light of the conceptual insight thus outlined in previous sections. I ignore this because my interest in the essay, like in most others I summarise, is only conceptual.]

V

[Extract]

“[A] fresh approach to the study of power is called for, an approach based upon a recognition of the two faces of power. Under this approach the researcher would begin … by investigating the particular “mobilization of bias” in the institution under scrutiny.

Then, having analyzed the dominant values, the myths and the established political procedures and rules of the game, he would make a careful inquiry into which persons or groups, if any, gain from the existing bias and which, if any, are handicapped by it.

Next, he would investigate the dynamics of nondecision-making; that is, he would examine the extent to which and the manner in which the status quo oriented persons and groups influence those community values and those political institutions … which tend to limit the scope of actual decision-making to “safe” issues.

Finally, using his knowledge of the restrictive face of power as a foundation for analysis and as a standard for distinguishing between “key” and “routine” political decisions, the researcher would, after the manner of the pluralists, analyze participation in decision-making of concrete issues.”


The Concept of Power by Robert A. Dahl — A Summary


Robert A. Dahl, “The Concept of Power,” Behavioral Science 2, no. 3 (December 11, 1957): 201–15.
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/bs.3830020303


The concept of power is as ancient and ubiquitous as any that social theory can boast. Given this ubiquity, one suspects that there indeed exists such a Thing as power which can more or less be systematically studied. But one also suspects that perhaps the ubiquity of “power” reflects the existence of not one Thing but many Things, indeed as many Things as the theorists of society who have used it. It is difficult to know which of these is correct. The evidence is not yet in. 

However, it should be possible to define the concept “power” in a way that seems to catch the central intuitively understood meaning of the word.

We are not likely to produce — certainly not for some considerable time to come — anything like a single, consistent, coherent “Theory of Power.” We are much more likely to produce a variety of theories of limited scope, each of which employs some definition of power that is useful in the context of the particular piece of research or theory but different in important respects from the definitions of other studies.

This essay will propose a formal definition of power which captures its intuitive meaning. It will then indicate how operational definitions have been or might be modelled on the formal one for specific research problems.

[Comment: The summary concerns only with the first. Because, for one, the abiding interest of subsequent interventions regarding the concept of power (mostly from a critical standpoint) has been in the formal and not the operational part of Dahl’s essay. For another, I am simply not interested in the operational part; I am not interested in such trite projects as “rank[ing] a number of Senators with respect to their influence over the Senate on questions of foreign affairs”, which Dahl does with a lot of self-belief and in some detail (see pp. 209–214). Given that Dahl was writing during the heyday of Behaviouralism, and was a major figure in that tradition, his interest in the operational aspect is understandable.]

Power as a Relation among People

The intuitive understanding of power is this:  A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.

Power, we see, is a relation. To specify it further, it is a relation among people. Of course, one can possess power over inanimate objects or over animals, but from the point of view of social theory, the interesting aspect of power lies in this limited relationship. Lets call the objects in this relationship actors. These need not only be individuals. They could be groups, roles, offices, governments, nation-states, or other human aggregates.

Now to say that A has power over B is neither interesting, nor informative, nor even accurate. An interesting and useful statement will have to, in addition to the fact that A has power over B, include references to  (a) the source, domain, or base of A power over B; (b) the means or instruments used by A to exert power over B; (c) the amount or extent of A’s power over B; and (d) the range or scope of A’s power over B.

Let’s examine these elements using the following example: The US President has (some) power over Congress. The base of power consists of all the resources — opportunities, acts, objects, etc. — which can be exploited in order to effect the behavior of another. Some of the possible bases of a President’s power over a Senator are his patronage, his constitutional veto, the possibility of calling White House conferences, his influence with the national electorate, his charisma, his charm, and the like.

This base is inert and must be exploited using various means or instruments. In the case of the President, these would include the promise of patronage, the threat of veto, the holding of a conference, the threat of appeal to the electorate, the exercise of charm and charisma, etc. These means, say the threat of veto, may involve actual or potential use of the base of power.

The means mediate between A’s base and B’s responseThe scope consists of B’s responses. The scope of the President’s power might therefore include such Congressional actions as passing or killing a bill, failing to override a veto, holding hearings, etc. 

Finally, the amount of an A’s power is the probability of realising the scope given the use of certain means. To use the example, we might say the amount of power the US President has over the Senate is the probability that, for instance, the Senate will not override his veto if the President promises a judgeship to five key Senators.

Properties of the Power Relation

1. A necessary condition for the power relation is that there exists a time lag, however small, from the actions of the actor who is said to exert power to the responses of the respondent. A can hardly be said to have power over B unless A’s power attempts precede B’s responses

2. A second necessary condition is, like the first, obvious and nonetheless important in research: there is no “action at a distance.” Unless there is some “connection” between A and B, then no power relation can be said to exist. In looking for a flow of power from A to B, one must always find out whether there is a connection, or an opportunity for a connection, and if there is not, then one need proceed no further.

3. Some additional properties may be specified with respect to the amount of power. Consider the example we encountered before: the amount of power the US President has over the Senate is the probability that the Senate will override his veto if the President promises a judgeship to five key Senators.

Let (P,u) be the case in which the President promises to offer judgeship to five senators and (P,ū) be the case in which he does not make that promise. Let (S,o) be the case in which the Senate overrides his veto.

Let p be the probability that the Senate overrides the President’s veto when he promises the judgeship [p=P(S,o|P,u)] and p’ be the probability that the Senate overrides the President’s veto when he does not promise any judgeship [p=P(S,o|P,ū)]

  • If p=p’, no power relation exists. The Senate will override the President’s veto whether or not he promises to offer the judgeship.
  • If p’=1, and p=0, the amount of power is at a maximum. p=0 means that the President will unfailingly get the Senate to allow his veto if he promises the judgeships; p’=1 means that the Senate will unfailingly override his veto if he does not promise the judgeships.
  • If p=1, and p’=0, the amount of power is at a minimum. p=1 means that even if the President promises the judgeships, the senate will unfailingly override his veto; p’=0 means that the senate will not override his veto even if he does not promise the judgeships. Here there is the possibility that the amount of power be negative. This is simply the production of an opposite effect by the exercise of a means of power. The Legion of Decency sometimes seems to have this kind of power over moviegoers.

Power Comparability

How do we compare power? It is a matter of obvious fact that Stalin was in many ways more powerful than Roosevelt. But what do we mean by this?

If we wish to compare power between two individuals, we have at least
five factors that might be included in a comparison:

  1. differences in the basis/bases of their power,
  2. differences in means of employing the basis,
  3. differences in the scope of their power, i.e., in type of response evoked,
  4. differences in the number of comparable respondents, and
  5. differences in the change in probabilities.

The first two are properties of actor exercising power, A, and the last three, of the respondent, B, in the power relationship. While most interesting research on power thus far has been concerned with the first two, they are not really interesting. “[A]nalysis of the first two items does not, strictly speaking, provide us with a comparison of the power of two or more actors, except insofar as it permits us to make inferences about the last three items. 

The elements of national power approach to power analysis is a variant of the power-as-resources approach. In this approach, power resources are treated as if they were power itself. One problem with this approach is that what functions as a power asset in one situation may be a power liability in a different situation.

David A. Baldwin, “Power and International Relations”, in Handbook of International Relations, SAGE, 2002.

Therefore, in whatever way one defines the properties of the As who are being being compared, strictly speaking, one must compare them with respect to the responses they are capable of evoking, i.e. with respect to the last three factors.

Let’s look at them one by one. We shall begin be assuming that two of the last three are identical such that the difference in the third property shall reflect a difference in power. This throws up a great many difficulties. 

Say that the 4th and 5th factors are the same so that comparison of power can be made by reference to the 3rd factor, i.e. scope. The problem that arises here is how exactly do we understand a difference in scope? Suppose that I induce my son to bathe every evening and to brush his teeth before going to bed while my neighbor induces his son to serve him breakfast in bed every morning. Can the two responses I control compared to the one controlled by my neighbour lead to the conclusion that I have more power?

Say, further, that the 3rd and 5th factors are the same so  that comparison of power can be made by reference to the 4th factor, i.e. number of respondents. The same problem arises here as well. “If I can induce 49 undergraduates to support or oppose federal aid to education, you will scarcely regard this as equivalent to the power I would have if I could induce 49 Senators to support or oppose federal aid.”

This problem does not arise with the 5th factor. The 3rd and 4th factors being equal, we can say that the actor who has the higher probability of securing the response is more powerful. This simply means that that actor has a greater amount of power (see above).

“There is, as everyone knows, many a slip ’twixt principle and practice. How can one convert the theoretical measure [of the amount of power] into a measure usable in practical research? Specifically, suppose one wishes to examine the power relations among some group of people — a city council, legislature, community, faculty, trade union. One wants to rank the individuals in the group according to their power. How can one do so?”

[Comment: And thus starts what I have called the operational part of the essay (see above). I leave that for readers to check our for themselves if they are interested. I, for one, am not, for Dahl himself concludes:

In a word, the researcher himself must define what he means by comparability and he must do so in view of the purpose of the ranking he is seeking to arrive at, the information available, and the relevant theoretical constructs governing the research. (p. 209)]