20 December 2000


Is It a Good Question?

After a short delay, it's finally time to follow up on the thoughts of a few nights ago.  I mentioned that Hanah's and Jaffo's recent postings had reminded me of the teachings of one Ross Lence, a past political philosophy professor of mine.  Lence has a fairly unique teaching method that has been duplicated, but probably not understood entirely, by many of his graduate students over the years.  In his classes, he relies heavily on questions about a given text, to be answered in three-page papers.  Not three-and-a-half page papers, not two-and-a-half page papers, but papers exactly three pages in length.  The questions tend to be significant in scope.  In one Ancient Political Thought seminar, for example, the question after having read the Republic and beginning the Politics was: In what manner and to what extent do Plato and Aristotle concur on the nature of democracy.  The precision of thought and the precision of rhetoric required to answer such a question given the conditions imposed force one to come to grips with the subject matter, to know it inside and out, to grasp it conceptually as well as concretely.  I always thought it was a great method to ensure that students really are forced to grapple with a text, and in a directed manner (and this last ties into Jaffo's journal entry that treats, among other things, college and wasted time; I tend to agree with Jaffo that free-ranging "discussion" and other such nonsense tend to be a grand waste of time, because idiots are allowed -- even encouraged -- to predominate while the instructor abdicates his responsibility to guide learning in a controlled fashion).  

The key teaching of Lence that even most of his graduate students never understood is something he repeated every time he handed out one of those questions:  "When consulting the text in order to answer the question, you should consider three things:  What does it say, what does it mean, and what difference does it make?"  It sounds deceptively simple, so much so that I hate to admit that it took me halfway through my first seminar with the Good Doctor to figure out what he meant by it.  For the most part, he doesn't especially care that a student get his questions "right."  Many of his questions aren't so simple that there IS an obvious "right" or "wrong" answer.  What does matter, however, is that one find support for one's answer in the text (What does it say), one tries to understand the author of the text as the author understood himself -- the author's understanding rather than contemporary understanding (What does it mean?), and finally that one comes to some resolution as to why the answer matters (What difference does it make?).  

That last part of the triad -- What difference does it make? -- is the most important question for political philosophers.  I will elaborate a bit on a topic also from the journal entry from a few nights ago to illustrate the point.  Suppose we were posed this question: In what manner and to what extent do you concur with John C. Calhoun's critique of the federal-national distinction in Federalist 39?  Just as background, Calhoun in his Discourse on the Constitution and Government spends some time drawing attention to Publius' claim in 39 that the government is partly federal and partly national; Calhoun cannot imagine how this can be!  And he lays out a fairly convincing case for his position.  So the very simple approach to the question I posed would be to analyze 39, and conclude that Calhoun is correct in thinking Publius just wasn't quite right in the whole discussion of the federal/national question.  But that's not terribly interesting.  The interesting part is the implication of this finding: that Publius is either confused or deliberately ambiguous about the nature of sovereignty in the regime.  Given that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were men of letters who were quite precise in their other writings, the former is unlikely.  And the latter raises interesting questions -- why would they be ambiguous on such a matter?  Could it be that they truly envisioned sovereignty moving, over time, from the people of the several states to the people of the "United States" but couldn't say this directly and win passage of the new Constitution?  In other words, is Calhoun's critique really an accusation of a much more sinister plot (and was he right)?  And if this were truly the intent, why was Madison the author of 39, when this would more likely be Hamilton's view according to conventional wisdom?  Or might conventional wisdom be wrong?  

This is the method of political philosophy, where the question, properly directed, is often far more crucial than the initial answer, because it leads us to the most important issues -- what difference does it make!?  This is why the Good Doctor often began seminar discussions by asking someone to read his question, and then asked, "Do you think it is a good question?" 

* * * *

Reading Hanah's recent paper immediately sent me into political philosophy mode. I have no real problems with her contention that the three most recent political campaigns have used the rhetoric of freedom in inconsistent, if not incoherent, ways.  My question is -- what difference does it make?  Could it be that freedom and liberty are such a given in our system that those terms simply ARE used trivially in campaigns for rhetorical effect?  Or is it that the meanings have simply become muddled and confused with the onslaught of Berlin's "positive" and "negative" conceptions of liberty (which would be new formulations for the Founders)?  How were those terms used in founding-era political campaigns, and would that matter?  It's the sort of thing that could turn into a dissertation, if executed properly.  And it could be a very important matter, if indeed the meanings/practices have changed significantly over time, and one could identify both the breakpoints and the causes.  

* * * *

These are the sorts of discussions I long to have.  They are altogether rare.  They didn't happen for the most part in graduate school.  They have happened rarely elsewhere.  But when they do, the result: joy that can't be explained.

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