Bernard Yack: The Art of Theory
Bernard Yack is Lerman Neubauer Professor of Democracy and Public Policy at Brandeis University. We spoke with him in late 2012 in Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss his work.
Art of Theory: You have written that your initial interest in political theory was sparked by an encounter with Plato, to whom you were introduced as a University of Toronto undergraduate, by Allan Bloom. Which other thinkers from the ‘canon’ of political philosophy influenced you in those early years?
Bernard Yack: Well, the reason I mention Plato in that piece [“Bernard Yack,” in Political Questions: Five Questions on Political Philosophy, ed. Morten E.J. Nielsen (Copenhagen: Automatic Press, 2006), 211-23] is that I had an inclination, and perhaps a talent, for rhetoric and debate. I thought that I understood something if I could beat somebody else into the ground with a wall of words, an argument. At the time, starting out as an undergraduate, that’s all I thought that political argument really amounted to: persuasion, and winning. Winning arguments.
The encounter with Plato was what really compelled me to see the difference between understanding something and winning an argument, to appreciate that you could actually make progress in understanding. Anyway, that was in my first year.
Other canonical figures? Rousseau was important, largely because he’s the first philosopher I think I really understood. I did well at unraveling aspects of his thought that, as far as I could find, others hadn’t fully understood. I got very much into Rousseau’s Emile, for example. The other canonical figure who really had an impact on me was Hegel, because reading Hegel was the first time I was challenged by someone who thought in a completely different way, so systematically. And what amazed me when I started to take Hegel seriously, with the help of some very good teachers at the University of Toronto, was that by taking this systematic, even self-referential approach to explaining things, Hegel actually was able to bring out connections and relationships that I would have completely missed otherwise.
I think I’m the only person who’s drawn to Hegel because of the way in which he explains this world, the real world, rather than the ideal world. He can be fantastic. Anyway, reading Hegel was sort of like discipline for me. I’m not, by nature, a systematic thinker. (That’s probably why I felt a great affinity for Judith Shklar, who was even less systematic than I am.) Hegel really compelled me to appreciate what you can do with systematic thought. And I learned Hegel from a couple of very fine teachers at Toronto, including Emil Fackenheim and Kenneth Schmitz. I think the deepest encounter I had with Hegel was in a take-home exam on the Phenomenology of Spirit! Two friends and I spent the long night of the soul working on that take-home.
Art of Theory: You mentioned Judith Shklar. Among the teachers who influenced you in college and graduate school, you’ve spoken most highly of Shklar, who became your dissertation adviser. “If Bloom introduced me to the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living,” you’ve written, “it was Shklar who helped me learn how to lead such a life” [Five Questions, 213]. How did your encounter with Shklar shape your subsequent scholarship, as well as your teaching and advising?
Yack: I think that my teaching and advising probably reflects what was her biggest influence on me. Of course, Shklar was famous for her critical faculties—her ability to cut the biggest and most important person down to the size of the smallest terrified graduate student—and for her skepticism, and so on. Most people emphasize, for example, her resistance to Kant, to formulae, her suspicion of easy answers. And that’s certainly there.
But for me the most important thing about Shklar was her resistance to any kind of anti-intellectualism, which had the consequence of opening my mind to sources that I would ordinarily not pay attention to. And I’m thinking in particular with regard to science. Political theorists, especially those of us who were educated by European émigrés or their intellectual descendants, tend to take a defensive crouch—even a protective or aggressive crouch—toward science as potentially encroaching on our spheres. And Shklar too was skeptical of the ability to use the sciences or social sciences to simply answer our questions. But the fact that they couldn’t answer our questions, or provide us with the first principles to work out answers, didn’t mean for her that we shouldn’t be paying attention and learning something from the sciences when it’s appropriate.
Again and again, what I saw from Shklar was that resistance to easy answers or to inappropriate methods should not be taken to be the end of your reading. I remember a couple of times when Shklar figuratively—almost literally!—slapped me on the nose when I expressed that kind of anti-intellectualism about something I didn’t understand. (And she would do that to very prominent figures, as well.) Shklar has a reputation as this great skeptic, but for me, ironically, she opened up areas that I think I would otherwise have left closed.
This all relates to Shklar’s attitudes toward epistemological barriers. She had absolutely no patience for what I call the prophets of epistemological despair. Of course you can’t simply get it right! Of course everything we know is based, at least partly, on a construction that leaves things out! But there’s too much to know—so many different kinds of things to know—to spend all of our time worrying about the inadequacy of our knowledge. The fact that people may have misused a method in the past didn’t stop Shklar either.
Perhaps the best example of this is evolutionary moral psychology. People have misused it. The sociobiologists declared they were going to take over the world with it. Political theorists are rightly concerned, then, when people raise claims, based especially on sociobiology, about the consequences for human thinking. But we can still learn something from the better work on evolutionary psychology, especially on moral psychology. And this would save us so much wasted time. Formal theorists and rational choice theorists, especially, should be paying attention here, because other-regardingness is just as natural a disposition as self-regardingness. The fact is, we’ve got multiple dispositions and they’re evolutionary acquisitions. Deal with it. Anyway, I think that I wouldn’t have learned these lessons had it not been for Shklar. Given my own anti-systematic bent, I too was inclined to be skeptical toward people who came providing answers, and I would have been too quick to dismiss them. It’s strange to say that Shklar, of all people, taught me not to be too quick to dismiss others’ arguments—but that’s a fact.
With regard to teaching, and particularly advising graduate students, the corollary lesson was to really listen and find out where some new insights and directions might come from, rather than saying, “Here are the agendas, here’s where political theory is going; now go in that direction.” That much I think I picked up from Shklar, as well—to be a facilitator. Students are going to come in with different perspectives and experiences, and sometimes with different forms of knowledge; and I think we need to look for what they can bring. If there are some live embers there to blow on, then blow on them, fan them out. Shklar was the last person in the world to set young scholars off on an agenda of pre-established questions.
Art of Theory: What interested you in the specifically political side of philosophy? What gave rise to your interest in politics generally?
Yack: Well, I was interested in politics before I was interested in philosophy. So, the interest in philosophy was tempering the way I understood politics. Having said that, the last thing in the world I would have imagined myself becoming was a professor! “Those who do, do, and those who can’t, teach.” And, boy, if I was anti-intellectual about something, it was about the claims made by people who use words to do anything but persuade. I had that kind of smartass sense of superiority that a lot of high school male adolescents have, if they know a little bit. To me it was all politics.
But learning to take philosophy seriously tempered that political interest; and the discovery that you could actually make progress in understanding, where rhetoric sought only to persuade, was to me a complete surprise. I really didn’t expect it, and that was what got me started. That such understanding could come from books was even more surprising. With a North American education before you get to university, it’s very unlikely you are going to discover that a book could be used to open up a theoretical world. Of course you get talented literature teachers who open you up to a world through a book, open your imagination. But to get critical intelligence is very rare.
Art of Theory: Your dissertation and first book, The Longing for Total Revolution (Princeton UP, 1986), explores the sources of social discontent in the thought of Rousseau and his mostly German philosophical heirs. How do you see that early work fitting in with the subsequent course of your research and writing? And how did you originally get interested in that topic?
Yack: For almost anybody from my background, one of the things that drew us into our subject was the question, “What went wrong in the first half of the 20th century?” By ‘my background,’ I mean that I was a Jewish boy growing up in North America, confronting the intellectual world primarily through the medium of émigré scholars and their descendants—people like Bloom, Leo Strauss, Emil Fackenheim, and others—who often came with a message about what went wrong. In particular, there was this sense that what went wrong had something to do with how thinkers had constructed or reconstructed the world.
I saw something in Rousseau; in particular, the way in which Rousseau was reading the difference between ancient and modern politics, which I recognized as resonating with other thinkers. This seemed to explain something about the philosophic character of dissatisfaction with the modern world, and I was very interested in that issue.
As to how The Longing for Total Revolution relates to work I’ve done since, there’s one very direct connection. The book that I wrote on the use and abuse of the concept of modernity was really following through on the implications of some of my arguments in the first book, and applying them to some 20th century thinkers. More generally, though, this early work reflected an interest in moral psychology, and in the psychology of intellectuals, that has remained with me. Some of my most recent work on democracy flows from this interest in the psychology of intellectuals. I don’t think that most of us writing about democracy are sufficiently familiar with the intellectual tensions, and with the competing dispositions in our minds, regarding that subject.
Of course, too much self-consciousness is clearly disruptive for serious work, but I just don’t think there’s been enough of it in this regard. My recent essay on “Democracy and the Love of Truth” [in Truth and Democracy, ed. Jeremy Elkins & Andrew Norris (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 165-80] addresses this point: we have to recognize that our own moral psychology involves significant discomfort with public processes of inquiry that are not governed by rules promoting the seeking of truth. We are uncomfortable with that, and we should face up to it. Don’t try to reclaim or rewrite or reconstruct the democratic world to make us more comfortable. It’s not going to work, and we’re going to distort our own activity as theorists, as well.
Art of Theory: Given the tensions that you identify between truth-seeking and democracy, should political theorists be skeptical democrats?
Yack: “Uncomfortable democrats” is probably what I want to say. In my essay I don’t offer an argument that you should doubt your commitment to particular forms of democracy. I simply want us to recognize that, as theorists, certain democratic processes are going to cause us discomfort. That doesn’t mean that we have nothing to say about the structure or process of democracy; on the contrary, there is much we can say. But in order to say something valuable, we have to see the process for what it is—for example, the rhetorical competition of politics.
Once we recognize that there’s rhetorical competition involved, we can ask, what can be done to make it a better competition? Making it more deliberative I can imagine improving things, for instance. I even have a soft spot for Ackerman’s “Deliberation Day,” a civic holiday related to the political process. Assume that that could actually improve things. It’s a proposal that we reach by analyzing the political structure—in this case, rhetorical competition—and engaging in some moral evaluation about how that structure could be improved.
Now, if you want to change the way things are done in a democracy, you have to persuade people. And that’s different from seeking the truth. There’s nothing wrong with persuasion, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are acting as a “public philosopher.” A public intellectual, sure. But, as I write in my essay, I think that “public philosophy” is a contradiction in terms because I’m identifying philosophy with the activity of trying to understand the way things are, rather than trying to persuade people to do things. We should recognize that in order to accomplish things politically in a democratic system, one has to engage in a set of social relations which are shaped by a rhetorical competition to persuade.
That’s the fundamental thing that I think Habermas and his followers have got wrong. Opinions do not float freely in a civil society. Civil society is shaped by this rhetorical competition, and you can’t escape that. So it’s not that I think philosophers shouldn’t engage in public debate. But if and when they do, if they want to do something useful, they need to act and write with this in mind, and with a different kind of discourse.
Art of Theory: Your second book, The Problems of a Political Animal (UC Press, 1993), was an exercise in Aristotelian political theory. There you argued that Aristotle’s vision of politics emphasized not so much the life of the best regime, as the more limited (and nevertheless valuable) forms of cooperation that characterize the imperfect regimes of his age and ours. Would you say that Aristotle’s anti-utopianism is still instructive for political theory?
Yack: Absolutely. Yael Tamir once referred to the “muddy middle.” That’s exactly where we are. That’s where we are always going to be. But just because our experience is messy and muddy—other-regarding dispositions mixed up with self-regarding dispositions—that doesn’t mean that our thinking has to be muddy. Too many theorists believe that that’s the case; that we can either talk about ideal theory or about conflict and dysfunction, and that what happens in between can be explained only by adapting our theories of the ideal and of dysfunction, respectively.
The two theorists who have been most influential to my own work, the ones from whom I’ve learned the most, are Hegel and Aristotle. And in both cases, contrary to the way they’ve usually been read, I see them as guides to that muddy middle. Aristotle’s account of human beings as by nature political animals is an attempt to understand what drives us to, and what keeps us in, political relations—namely, a natural disposition to make claims based on justice, because of our speech.
What are the consequences of that, especially given that there are other dispositions that bring us together by nature, as well? One consequence is that our competition takes a particular form. It’s not simply based on the advancing of interests, the aggregation of individual interests. Sometimes we constrain our own self-interests to meet obligations to others. Sometimes we constrain our interests because we are concerned about what happens to members of our community, our political friends. So when we run into conflicting claims of interest and obligation, these conflicts take a particular form.
And one has to pay attention to these loosely moral connections, as well as to conflicts of interest. That’s why, in the chapter on social conflict in my Aristotle book, I argue that it’s because we are political friends that we become class enemies, that class conflict is characteristic of political community. For Aristotle, our naturally other-regarding dispositions form the context in which we have to understand how we engage in differences, conflicts, and competition. He took that for granted; other-regarding dispositions were not merely a corrective for an interest-driven understanding of politics. That’s why I see Aristotle as anti-utopian.
People often go too far in this direction, assuming that if we don’t privilege the last part of the Politics, Books 7 and 8, Aristotle’s ideal regime, then it must be because Aristotle rejected his teacher Plato. That was the empirical turn: Plato points up, Aristotle points down. To me, that’s the worst kind of contextual historicist’s interpretation—not because contextual interpretation isn’t often useful and enlightening, but because we have so little information in this case. I’ve recently written a piece about Aristotle’s Rhetoric in which I argue that the first hermeneutic principle you need in order to understand that work is, forget Plato!
It’s true that Aristotle does not attack rhetoricians the way Plato does. But let’s read the book and see where it leads rather than treating it either as a defense of rhetoric against Plato, or a surreptitious way of moralizing rhetoric, making it better. It’s neither. Anyway, it’s ridiculous to make that kind of interpretation of a figure about whom we don’t have sufficient information. Plato and Aristotle stand out, but there may have been a whole group of people in Athens who were arguing in a very different way than they were. But we don’t have any trace of them.
In any event, yes, I very much think that Aristotle provides us with a model of how to engage in more realistic forms of political theorizing. Bernard Williams made a distinction between realism and moralism and political theory. I claim that Aristotle falls within the realist camp, which for some would be surprising. For Williams, political moralism involves the application of moral principles to political choices, whereas political realism involves theorizing about politics that’s driven by an understanding of the structures that pose different moral questions for us. So, firstly you have to see what brings us together, what creates the problems of legitimacy. It’s not that realism takes moral questions out of politics, but it moves us beyond what seem to be the wrong moral questions. We identify the right moral questions by looking first at what brings us together in political relationships. On that score, Aristotle, despite his talk about the naturalness of other-regarding dispositions, is a political realist.
Art of Theory: What does this approach—focusing on the “muddy middle”—have to say to scholars who, perhaps influenced by Rawls above all, tend to focus on ideal theory?
Yack: My sense is that at least some ideal theory involves barking up the wrong trees or asking the wrong questions. I think, for example, that strong deliberative democrats, who believe that deliberation can change the way we understand legitimacy, are trying to reconcile conflicting dispositions of their own, and trying to make a messy world seem less messy. I sometimes think of Habermas twisting a Rubik’s cube in different ways until finally he can get all the pieces aligned. He thinks that if he keeps twisting it, okay, it’ll eventually click. But it’s not going to work.
And it means that we’ll neglect questions that, practically speaking, are more important. In that essay, “Democracy and the Love of Truth,” I suggested we do a disservice to both by trying to make them work together. But I have to say, I think there’s probably more distortion of political theory than of democracy, because you cannot but be swept into the rhetorical competition once you step outside the academy and make an argument. So it’s not that I think there’s anything dangerous about deliberative democracy; it just seems to me that the strong version—trying to transform the way in which we understand legitimacy—amounts to twiddling our thumbs, wasting our time.
Rawls is a different story. I have to admit that I was never much drawn to Rawls. What I’ve always found most interesting in political theory is work that tells me something I didn’t know, shows me how something works that I didn’t understand, gives me an insight into myself and the people around me, makes a claim that, even if not ultimately persuasive, draws my attention to a relationship that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. And, for the most part, Rawls’s theory of justice justified what people who accepted it already believed.
Ironically, the one part of his theory that did something bold was the part that’s been completely left behind: the Difference Principle. If Rawls is right that the Difference Principle is what, behind the veil of ignorance, rational people would choose, that’s a big conclusion. That changes things, and that’s interesting. That would be really challenging. But, in fact, I don’t think the argument for it is particularly strong; and, more to the point, nobody really defends it much at all. So what’s left in its place is a way of thinking about politics rather than an insight, a way of justifying your position, a resuscitation of the contract tradition. Now, this is not to deny that Rawls’s work was well done. For me, though, it didn’t tell me something I didn’t know. So that’s a personal statement of the standard by which I judge more valuable or less valuable forms of political theorizing, as opposed to “good” or “bad” in the sense of well done or not. One can do Rawlsian political theory very well, and, frankly, other people would get much more from it than I do.
In general, I’m also not drawn to methodological questions. My aversion is less extreme than Shklar’s, but I share her sense that I’d rather see the pudding than the proof. Now Shklar took that so far that I think it’s one of the reasons people don’t read her work as much as they should, or get as much as they should out of her work. Shklar took it so far that she was reluctant to actually explain what she was doing. I remember pushing her to explain why she was dealing with the vices in Ordinary Vices, insisting on how strange this would seem to most readers. She ended up writing a paragraph saying, in effect, that the vices are so much more interesting than the virtues, and so much more familiar, so let’s go.
Art of Theory: Tell us about your most recent book, Nationlism and the Moral Psychology of Community (Chicago UP, 2012).
Yack: It’s partly biographical. I’m originally from Toronto, so I’m now a dual citizen; I get to vote here. But I got interested in nationalism in the 80s when political and social theorists were in the midst of their liberalism-communitarianism debates. The question they kept asking was this: “Can liberal democracy survive without a sense of community?” Writers like Robert Bellah and Michael Sandel were asking if liberal citizens could sustain democratic institutions. And the primary example that everybody was using was America—the home of liberal individualism.
But I had no idea what they were talking about. Maybe it’s just because I’m a Canadian. I was reading Sandel’s piece on the unencumbered self during the 1984 Olympics, which were in LA. The Russians and the Germans didn’t participate, so the Americans were winning everything and chanting, “USA! USA!” These were not unencumbered selves. Yet, somehow, national attachments had been written out of conceptions of community. These writers seemed to think that those Americans chanting “USA! USA!” were believers in the American creed, the ideal. On that view, the chanting meant, in effect, “We believe in the principles of liberty!”—not “We are Americans!” But that seemed to me a misinterpretation, and thus a gaping hole in the argument. “Why can’t people see this?” I wondered. “What are they missing?”
These questions eventually led to a piece called “The Myth of the Civic Nation,” which was the first thing I wrote about nationalism. The trouble, though, was that I still couldn’t make sense of the phenomenon, of how it works within American life. That’s when I began to realize that it was a deeper problem; it has to do with the way we understand community itself.
It turned out that my work on community in Aristotle had opened the door for a rethinking of community. The problem is that nationalism and nations are taken to be some kind of outlier, an anomaly in the modern world. Ordinarily, we think of nations as intergenerational communities of some sort or other. And intergenerational communities, we’ve been taught, are supposed to decline in importance and significance in the modern world: Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, community to society, status to contract, and so on. We’re supposed to become more and more individualistic, replacing effective intergenerational ties with ties based on choice. That’s what we’re supposed to expect. And then here’s this grand anomaly. Contrary to that expectation, national communities developed unprecedented political importance in the modern world, precisely when such communities were supposed to decline.
So how do we explain this? We can either argue that initial expectations were right and it’s just that we’re misreading the nation. The nation isn’t really what it appears to be. It really is a voluntary association of some sort, and these cultural, intergenerational aspects are just ephemeral, as Ernest Gellner argues, driven by the needs of industrial societies. Or we could argue that it’s a sort of blip, an aberration; primordial sentiments that burst out from the cage that we’ve been keeping them in.
Alternatively, we can reject all of that: maybe our expectations were wrong. Maybe intergenerational community is just as normal in the modern world as it is elsewhere. Clearly we aren’t running around in tribes or extended families, but just as clearly it looks like intergenerational community has a very strong place in our lives.
To make sense of this you need a conception of community that isn’t tied to our notions of what is modern or pre-modern, and that’s where Aristotle helped. [sentence deleted] Aristotle’s understanding of community was not based on trying to find a corrective to individualist forms of human relations; it was designed to make sense of human relations however they were. There was no dichotomy between communal and individualistic. You have, for example, business associations for Aristotle. He talks about the forms of mutual concern and loyalty that develop among people who share what he calls “advantage friendships.” Associations develop in very different forms depending on what you’re sharing.
So what we needed, I thought, in order to makes sense of nations is an understanding of community that is not dependent upon this ancient/modern dichotomy. And then we could build on that by determining just what forms of sharing, what forms of friendship, are distinctive to the nation. And why is it that in the modern world, these forms of sharing take on political importance that they didn’t have before?
That’s how the book got started, and it’s because of this reconstruction of the theory of community that it ended up taking so long. I say in the preface of the book that most theoretical books about nationalism tend to be relatively short; they’re basically essays exposing the delusions of our colleagues. I thought I was going to write a book like that too, but it ended up being a much bigger and longer project because, after exposing a particular delusion, I found that I had to build from the ground up.
Art of Theory: Why does nationalism, of all forms of community, take on such overwhelming importance in the modern world, on your account?
Yack: It’s the consequence of popular sovereignty in the modern world. That is to say: it’s a certain understanding of political legitimacy that progressively out-competes and dismisses all of its rivals. As that understanding of political legitimacy spreads and succeeds, nationalism seems to follow. Historically, you can track it; every great landmark in the spread of popular sovereignty is also a landmark in the spread of nationalist sentiments. 1688, 1789, 1848, 1918, the collapse of the colonial empires, the collapse of the Soviet empire, and so on. Every time popular sovereignty comes on the scene, nationalism seems to follow.
The most basic principle of popular sovereignty thus leads us to reimagine political community. It leads us to think of a people as preexisting its institutions, and it’s this pre-institutional existence of community that leads us to think of legitimacy in a very different light. Citizens begin to associate the nation with the people of the constituent theory of sovereignty. They aren’t the same, but the theory of popular sovereignty pushes our political imagination in a new direction.
Nationalism then acquires such a powerful force because of our sense of justice. People owe us things. They owe us the right to take control of our lives. Popular sovereignty combines with our sense of concern as members of a particular community, and that combination is mutually enforcing. When they come together, these beliefs become very powerful.
Art of Theory: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the novel account of what makes nationalism not simply powerful, but morally problematic. You write that it “deepens our hostility toward the members of rival communities and weakens the moral restraints we normally rely on to check such antipathies.” Why doesn’t cosmopolitanism address this issue?
Yack: It’s not that cosmopolitanism itself can’t address the moral problems; it’s that cosmopolitanism in the form we’re likely to accept can’t address them. Traditional stoic cosmopolitanism—think of Diogenes—is perfectly well-armed to resist nationalism, because such a view has utter contempt for the particular loyalties to which people give moral significance. But traditional stoic cosmopolitanism also divides the world between the few individuals—the sages with understanding, who live their lives according to a higher cosmopolitan law—and most people who deal with other matters. That view certainly undermines nationalism, but the price is a dismissal of the way ordinary people lead their lives. Martha Nussbaum, in reviving Diogenes, seems to paint a portrait of the stoics as lovers of humanity. That’s true in the general, but not in the particular. Diogenes is the greatest model for misanthropy in Western history. So stoicism would work, but it’s not particularly attractive.
The other model that would work is a true world government model, though the idea of world government has been replaced by “global governance.” The emphasis on subsidiarity—doing things at the appropriate local level—is a move from stoic cosmopolitanism to what one person calls “both/and” cosmopolitanism, where we want both the universal principles and the value of particular attachments. This, along with the rejection of global government for global governance, leads to what I would call “communal pluralism” and “political pluralism,” rather than the priority of the more general attachments. It therefore doesn’t get at the sources of nationalism’s effect. The effects remain because, first, citizens are not going to completely dismiss popular sovereignty, and second, they’re not going to dismiss the forms of particular attachment that make people feel connected in nations.
There are many of these “both/and” cosmopolitanisms: “embedded cosmopolitanism,” “rooted cosmopolitanism,” “cosmopolitan patriotism,” and even “cosmopolitan nationalism.” There’s nothing wrong with these as long as you recognize that you’ve changed the focus, changed the character of cosmopolitanism. You’re now talking about pluralism rather than subordination to cosmopolitanism. I call these views “cosmopolitan humility,” and while it may be the best form of cosmopolitanism, it comes with a price. It still doesn’t perform all the services of world government and stoic cosmopolitanism.
Art of Theory: Would it nevertheless be fair to say that such pluralism can temper some of the excesses of nationalism?
Yack: Absolutely. The difference is this. The assumption is often made that if we can just show people that they have moral connections that go beyond their nations or particular communities, this would keep us from engaging in the worst forms of behavior that nationalism promotes. But that’s based on a false premise, that the moral problem of nationalism is just a sort of blind group loyalty, a failure to pay attention to the moral claims of others. I don’t think that’s right. I think nationalism is a moral problem precisely because it does have a concern for, and pays attention to, our moral relations to other people. It thinks other people have an obligation to us to let us take control of our affairs.
Everyone, even the nationalist, recognizes moral connections beyond the community; no nationalist would drive a truck through a crowd of foreigners simply so they can pass the road with ease. The question, then, is which moral connections are relevant, how they relate to each other, and what power they have over us.
Art of Theory: You wrote in your review of Charles Taylor’s book that “modern social imaginaries are like menageries of strange beasts.” So, apart from nationalism, what is the feature of our political life that you find most puzzling?
Yack: If you’re not puzzled by the way in which democracy works in our modern world, you’re just not paying attention. And not just because election season is the silly season, and silly people can grab a great deal of attention. More fundamentally puzzling is the combination of democratic forms of legitimacy—saying that the only legitimate exercise of power comes from popular approval—with extraordinary respect for expertise. Put these two things together and you are not going to have a consistent picture. There are going to be big tensions and they are going to come out in strange ways.
I think this comes out clearly in the United States because, in my view, the United States is the only country that actually had at least a partially successful democratic revolution. Britain had a partly democratic revolution, I suppose, in 1649. If you chop off the head of the King, then at least you’re moving in the direction of democracy. But they failed, and France failed three times; the French made adjustments to their democratic principles in their institutions, whereas ours were supposedly founded on unquestioned, long-lasting democratic principles. And so I think you see the tensions so much more strongly here.
We only practice democracy because we accept something that our democratic principles and our enlightenment principles say should be questionable. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we have trouble coming up with a coherent picture of a democracy as it actually is practiced. I do think it’s stranger than we imagine it in our philosophies.
Art of Theory: Tell us about your workspace and your work habits.
Yack: Oh, I don’t have any habits anymore. I used to, when I was a student and then up through, I don’t know when, maybe tenure. I used to have very strict habits. It went back to the days of having to produce papers for deadlines. The strict habit would work like this: I’d do all the work in preparation for writing a paper, down to the outline for it. But I could only actually write it in a period of time that was protected from everything else. So if it was a ten-page paper, I had to have, I don’t know, 48 hours. And in that time, I would write two hours on, half-hour off, two hours on, half-hour off, and so on. I knew how much I could produce in a period of twelve hours writing like this. I know I produced most of my thesis this way, and I’m pretty sure I produced the new chapters and final draft of my book mostly in this way. But I have abandoned that.
I not only abandoned habits of writing, I’ve also abandoned a workspace. I’m now a gypsy. My spouse, Marion Smiley, is also a moral and political philosopher. She is Chair in philosophy at Brandies and tends to do most of her work in the study with our desktop computer. I’ll be wandering around in different rooms with the laptop. Maybe it’s the laptop that’s liberated me, but I don’t have a workspace anymore. And it’s also because I do a lot of my thinking walking around. I’ve got lots of little notepads scattered around the house.
Art of Theory: From where, outside of political theory, do you draw inspiration for your work?
Yack: Philosophy, history, literature. Definitely literature. I do have another book that I really want to write—if I can get the time—about moral pluralism in literature. It would be called, The Faces of Moral Pluralism: Seven Portraits From World Literature. And the premise of the argument is this: if you want to say something really interesting about moral pluralism, about the tensions in how we pursue moral connections, you’re probably going to have to go beyond political theory and moral philosophy. There have been people thinking and writing about this deeply, it’s just that they are not theorists, because they are interested in exploring moral tensions and conflicts. So it turns out that some of the books that I’ve been most interested in thinking about, and sometimes talking about and teaching in class, are books that deal with this.
Chapters in the book would address Antigone—that’s the classic reference—but also Forster’s Howard’s End, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which I believe is the most extraordinary novel of the 20th century, Dostoevsky’s Possessed, a little book by Italo Calvino called The Baron in the Trees, and others. I plan to use these novels and plays to explore the different ways in which moral connections, moral practices, moral preferences, and moral dispositions conflict. I think such works can help us to broaden the moral imagination. That’s where literature truly inspires me.