Taxonomizing Ideal Theory

We’re starting our MTSP discussion tonight on Gerald Gaus’s 2016 book, The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society. The online discussion is scheduled to last until roughly June, so you can (I guess) expect to see a series of posts on Gaus between now and then, and perhaps beyond.

But take that prediction with a grain of salt. As it happens, I still have drafts of material on Sher, Hart, and Tessman from months and even years back that I never managed to edit and post. (I don’t know if that’s true of anyone else.) So there’s no telling how much we’ll post on Gaus between now and June; it’s possible that little or nothing will materialize on Gaus between now and June, and also possible that Gaus-inspired material will appear long after we’re officially done reading the book.

Having just read the first chapter of Gaus’s book so far, I’ve found no shortage of bloggable ideas in it–six in the first 41 pages, to be precise. (I don’t know how many of those will actually get written.) Gaus’s style is somewhat more technical and “analytic” than that of some of the other authors we’ve read, so my aim this time around is to write some quick, (relatively) bite-sized posts, querying this or that relatively narrow point in the text, rather than trying to bring the big picture into focus.* Maybe others will be interested in writing “big picture” stuff.

The topic of the book is the way in which utopian ideals “tyrannize” over social theory and practice. Both theorists and activists have in mind the ideal of a “perfectly just and well-ordered society,” and think of what they do as a quest to bring this ideal about. But there is, Gaus thinks, something problematic and incoherent about all of this.

In this book my criticism of this posture is largely internal: I try to show that under the conditions of human existence, we cannot know what such an ideal would be–unless we disagree about it. Only those in a morally heterogeneous society have a reasonable hope of actually understanding what an ideal society would be like, but in such a society we will never be collectively devoted to any single ideal. The ideal of the realistic utopia of the well-ordered society tyrannizes over our thinking, preventing us from discovering more just social conditions. And, as Sen rightly observed, we will see that ideal theory forces a morally un attractive choice on us: fix local justice or pursue the ideal (Gaus, Tyranny, p. xix).

My comment in this post has to do with a passage on p. 1, in fact, the first paragraph of the first sub-section of chapter 1, “Beyond the Contemporary Debate and Its Categories.” Gaus’s point is that the issue of “ideal theory” has now become a cottage industry in analytic political philosophy, but that the taxonomies on offer are all problematic, necessitating revisions of the sort he intends to offer in chapter 1 of the book. My comment here is very indirect and nitpicky: less about Gaus per se than about analytic methodology, and less about the topic of the book than with what’s always struck me as a meta-philosophical problem in analytic philosophy. But I still think it’s worth saying.

Here is the paragraph I have in mind. I’ve omitted Gaus’s footnotes, italicized the sentence that expresses the inference I want to contest, and ignored the sentences after the last one I’ve excerpted:

There are numerous understandings of so-called ideal political theory–so many that the literature has now reached the stage in which taxonomies of the ideal/non-ideal distinction are being presented. Laura Valentini identifies three different ways in which the contrast is employed–”(i) full compliance vs. partial compliance theory; (ii) utopian vs. realistic theory; (iii) end-state vs. transitional theory”–while Alan Hamlin and Zofia Stemplowska identify other “dimensions”: (i) full v. partial compliance; (ii) idealization v. abstraction; (iii) fact sensitivity v. insensitivity; and (iv), perfect justice v. local improvements.” Although such “conceptual cartography” is helpful in organizing the now-large literature, it has important limitations. If we become too focused on classifications and distinctions,we are apt to miss how these different dimensions can be integrated (in various ways) into an overall, coherent, and compelling articulation of an ideal political philosophy (Gaus, Tyranny, p. 1)

The presupposition behind the italicized sentence is that creating a taxonomy or classification scheme is one discrete task, while that of integrating or “coherentizing” another one, so that it’s entirely possible to engage in the first task without engaging in the second (or, I suppose, vice versa). In other words, you can create a serviceable taxonomy that doesn’t integrate, or integrate without taxonomizing. That fact gives Gaus the motivation to set aside existing taxonomies and take things in the direction he takes in chapter 1: precisely because Valentini, Hamlin, Stemplowska et al fail to integrate, Gaus is left with the job of doing so. But in doing so, he has to leave the somewhat sterile task of “classification” behind.

The contrast Gaus draws strikes me as a good description of one of the presuppositions of a lot of analytic philosophy, but also strikes me as the wrong way of thinking about the relation between the two tasks. I raise the issue because he seems to take it for granted and proceed from there.

A taxonomy or classification puts items into various categories based on shared characteristics so as better to facilitate thought about them. “Integration” is a matter of identifying the higher-order similarities between different things, on the premise that while the similarities matter, the differences are at first sight easier to see or grasp. “Coherentization” is a neologism of mine, but is (at a minimum) a matter of integrating things without inconsistency, and (ideally) of integrating things in an explanatory way that confers a sort of understanding that would otherwise have been absent. Put this way, it’s a hard at first to understand why anyone would contrast classification with integration. Classification is a matter of identifying similarities, and so is integration. Why the contrast?

The contrast arises in analytic philosophy because when analytic philosophers engage in classification, they seem to have an unargued reflex for division and differentiation over integration. Given an analyzandum X, the analytic reflex is to start dividing X into subtypes of subspecies of X, not to connect X with non-X things generically similar to X.

So if (ex hypothesi) our analyzandum is racism, what I’m calling “the analytic reflex” is to start by dividing racism into subtypes of racism, rather than to show how racism shares higher-order similarities with other, non-race-based things like it. “Bigotry” aside, we don’t really seem to have a word for the genus to which “racism,” “sexism,” “classism,” “homophobia,” “transphobia,” “ableism,” “ageism,” “discrimination based on physical appearance,” and “genuinely invidious religious discrimination” all belong. The analytic reflex is to subdivide each of “racism,” “sexism,” “classism,” etc. individually, giving us extremely fine-grained analyses of each individual item (racism1, racism2, racism3; sexism1, sexism2, sexism3; etc), maybe indicating how the subtypes relate to each other (racism1 relates to racism2 as follows…; sexism1 relates to sexism2 as follows…, etc.), and calling it a day.** Integrating the target concepts into an overarching superordinate concept is a relatively disregarded task. (“Bigotry” sort of is the genus to which the target concepts belong, but is arguably too wide to capture what the target concepts have in common.)

When I wrote my doctoral dissertation on foundationalism, I found it difficult, despite the basically analytic orientation of my topic, to explain the topic of the dissertation to analytic philosophers, or at least, to explain its significance. What I was interested in was the logic of the genus to which epistemic and ethical foundationalisms belonged. What they were interested in were subspecies of epistemic foundationalism and ethical foundationalism, with little interest in the genus of which they’re both species. The significance of the genus somehow got lost in the shuffle of attention devoted to the various subspecies. This struck me then, and strikes me now, as a frustrating inversion of methodological priorities, a focus on the methodologically secondary at the expense of the methodologically basic.

Analytic philosophy is often thought to have begun in the late nineteenth century with Frege, or in the early twentieth with Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein. But there’s an earlier analytic tradition worth paying attention to, the Aristotelian tradition, starting as much with Plato as with Aristotle, and continuing through the centuries until the Aristotelians (including the Thomists) of the twentieth century. I often think that courses on analytic methodology would benefit a great deal from starting with Aristotle’s Topics rather than starting, say, with Frege, Russell, Moore, or Wittgenstein. But they don’t.

It’s taken for granted in the Aristotelian analytic tradition that a conceptual analysis is provided by a definition per genus et differentiam, so that part of what it is to define a concept is to indicate the genus–the generic category–to which it belongs. On this view, the distinction Gaus makes in the quoted passage above is a false one. A taxonomy that fails to integrate is not really a taxonomy at all. It’s an unmotivated series of divisions that divides the analyzandum into sub-species without ever providing a proper definition of the analyzandum itself. It fails to provide a proper definition because it fails rigorously to identify the genus to which the target concept belongs.

This may seem at first irrelevant to Gaus’s concerns, but it’s always struck me as a problem that operates in a lot of analytic philosophy, and I wonder right from the outset if it applies here. Often, analytic philosophers will start to sub-divide concepts that were never properly defined in the first place. A subdivision presupposes a definition; it isn’t a proxy for one. I don’t know how far that insight goes to unravel the confusions of the literature on ideal theory, but for whatever it’s worth, it’s often served me well to unravel confusions on other topics. So I recommend it here. It may or may not matter in the end. We’ll see.

*Though I have yet to read it myself, according to David Potts, a good account of Gaus’s overall program can be found in Gerald Gaus, “Social Morality and the Primacy of Individual Perspectives,” Review of Austrian Economics 30:3 (2017). [20 page PDF]

**Though I see the superscript function under the “special character” icon, I can’t seem to find the subscript function anywhere within WordPress’s Classic Editor, yet another example of the conspicuously dumb-ass quality of this platform. So yes, you’ll have to put up with the defective absence of subscripts in the text.

6 thoughts on “Taxonomizing Ideal Theory

  1. I try to teach genus-and-differentia definitions to my students to stop them from giving answers like “Utilitarianism is when you act to promote social benefit.”


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