Théorie politique

H16(b) - The Methodology of Political Theory

Date: Jun 14 | Heure: 08:30am to 10:00am | Salle:

Chair/Président/Présidente : Eric Adamo (McMaster University)

Discussant/Commentateur/Commentatrice : Rebecca Kingston (University of Toronto)

Towards an Ethnographic Sensibility: the Archival Turn in Political Theory and its Ethical Implications: Olivier Ruchet (Université Paris 2)
Abstract: The use of archival material is becoming increasingly prevalent in contemporary political theory, especially in studies on important academic figures of the XXth century – recent work on Rawls (Hawi, 2016; Forrester, 2019), Foucault (Elden, 2021; Behrent, 2023), Arendt (Hill, 2021), or Habermas (Verovsek, forthcoming), for instance, heavily draw on unpublished material to offer renewed perspectives on the political theories examined. Picking up on the trend, Alexander Livingstone launched a seminar series on “The Archival turn in political theory” at Cornell in 2021. Archival research was also instrumental in my own study of Sheldon Wolin’s political thought (Ruchet, 2023). Most existing reflections on the role of archives in political science research, however, tend to concentrate on comparative politics or political behavior (Skemer, 1991; Frisch at al., 2012; Lee, 2014; Sobotić, 2021) and very little exists concerning political theory (see Hazareesingh & Nabulsi, 2008). This contribution aims to participate in filling that gap. It asks what the different methods used by the authors of these texts are, what different sets of practices drawing on archives can induce, and what the results have been in the different texts cited. Attention to the archive seems to proceed from a different kind of reflexivity (Zacka speaks of an ‘ethnographic sensibility’) which I explore in the paper. Finally, the presentation addresses the ethics of archival research in political theory.

Context and Conjuncture: Althusser's History of Political Thought: Christopher Balcom (Toronto Metropolitan University), Will Kujala (Huron University College)
Abstract: Contextualist approaches in the history of political thought turn on the idea that texts much be situated in the background historical and linguistic environment that enabled them, and to which they respond. One of the central contributions of this approach is to reveal that apparently abstract and universal theories are products of partisan political debates. As contextualists often note, this approach has been subject to much criticism. Some claim it is antiquarian; others claim it saps writings of their philosophical power, reducing them to mere polemical ‘moves’; others claim contextualists ignore the material dimensions of context. We intervene in this ongoing debate through a reconstruction of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s approach to the history of political thought, focusing on his readings of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Lenin. We argue that he offers a conjunctural rather than contextual reading of past thinkers, a reading that offers an important criticism of the contextualist project. In these readings, we argue, Althusser shows that the contextual and polemical character of thought, and its scientific-theoretical character are not in tension. It is often precisely in taking a polemical stance that thinkers offer ‘scientific’ interventions that transcend their own moment. For Althusser, this possibility of reading texts as ‘contextual,’ yet ‘scientific’ hinges on a materialist conception of context that we call, following him and his readers, a conjuncture.

Methodological Problems in Causal Theories of Social Change: Aleksander Masternak (McGill University)
Abstract: This paper delves into the methodological challenges inherent in Neo-Institutionalist approaches to studying social change. It places particular emphasis on the contrasting methodologies employed by Rupturists, who utilise a dual model of critical junctures and path dependence, and Gradualists, who identify and sequence incremental modes of change. Neo-Institutionalists often generate inaccurate accounts of social change due to Confirmation Bias and Blind Spots inherent in their theoretical frameworks. Firstly, they employ abstract models that accentuate specific social phenomena while obscuring others. These models serve as lenses guiding researchers in selecting cases and data aligned with the model's design. Consequently, there's a risk of Neo-Institutionalists finding only what they initially sought, excluding the possibility of encountering anything else. Secondly, while Rupturists focus on sudden, exogenous causes and Gradualists explore gradual endogenous change, they exclude two other possibilities: sudden and endogenously driven change, and gradual and exogenously driven change. These neglected possibilities remain understudied within the discipline. This paper investigates how scholars from these opposing camps analyse each other's hard cases, revealing a tendency to cherry-pick evidence aligning with their preconceived models. Drawing on examples such as Eva von Redecker's reinterpretation of the French Revolution as a gradual build-up of revolutionary practices and Valerie Bunce's classical structural account of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this research illuminates the limitations of Neo-Institutionalist methodologies.

Practical Past(s): Koselleck, White and the Politics of History: Sophie Marcotte Chénard (Carleton University)
Abstract: In an essay on history, Michael Oakeshott distinguishes between the “historical” and the “practical” past. The former is a specific mode of intellectual engagement, exclusively concerned with the past and regulated by specific methodological procedures. The latter, also referred to as the “living past”, can include artefacts, reports of experiences, stories of past human circumstances, and is mostly praised for its usefulness. While the “practical” past can teach by example and contribute to our self-understanding, it is not, in Oakeshott’s view, history. By enlisting the past for a specific cause, we run the risk of reducing and simplifying history as it happened (Oakeshott, 1983). Hayden White and Reinhart Koselleck, two major figures in contemporary theory of history, both take issue with the notion of an independent historical past that should be preserved from contamination by practical considerations. Despite major differences in their respective projects, White and Koselleck expand the realm of the theory of historiography to include existential attitudes toward the past, the political role of traditions, and a consideration for the moral dimension of historical knowledge (Paul, 2011). I argue that Koselleck and White provide resources to elaborate a vision of a “practical past” that does not stand in contradiction with the “historical past”, but rather leads to interrogate the very distinction between the two modes of understanding. While there are risks involved in moving from “was” to “ought” (Blau, 2021), both Koselleck and White develop a politically relevant conception of history that is normative without being explicitly prescriptive. As I show in the paper, their respective projects also bring to light the potentially damaging effects of a strictly scientific concern with the past and the importance of poetic imagination within the historical discipline. Ultimately, rehabilitating the concept of a 'practical past' allows to reconsider the relationship between political theory and history.