What Would Socrates Do?
My first book, What Would Socrates Do? Self-examination, civic engagement, and the politics of philosophy (Cambridge, 2014; on Amazon.com) was released in Fall 2014. In this book, I reconstruct Socrates’s practice of philosophy in democratic Athens to offer a strange and different Socrates for contemporary discussion. The figure of Socrates has long been viewed as antagonistic to his native Athens and thus as destructive critic of the democracy, but I argue that Socrates’s philosophy can empower citizens and non-citizens alike by drawing them into collective practices of dialogue and reflection that in turn help them to become thinking, acting beings more capable of fully realizing the promises of political life. At the same time, however, I show how philosophy's commitment to interrogation keeps it at a distance from the political status quo, creating a dissonance with conventional forms of politics that opens space for new forms of participation and critical contestation of extant ones. In addition to reconstructing Socrates’s philosophy in democratic Athens, What Would Socrates Do? brings this reconstruction into conversation with two movements inspired by Socrates that claim to improve democratic life in the United States today: the Clemente Courses in the Humanities, humanities-based college courses that target the poor; and the Socrates Cafés, philosophical discussion groups that also seek to involve those outside the halls of the academy in collective inquiry. Engaging these present incarnations of Socrates, I show how Socrates’s philosophy can offer an alternative to conventional approaches to self-examination, civic engagement, and the politics of philosophy, modeling what it might mean to assert one’s thoughts publicly and contesting extant political forms through questioning and dialogue.
Writing in The Bryn Mawr Classical Review – the largest review in the world of classical studies and related fields – Paulin Ismard of the Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne called the book “original and inventive, occasionally brilliant” (full review). I expect more reviews in the coming months, but already the book’s publication has led to a roundtable discussion at the Western Political Science Association Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, NV (March 2015) as well as an invitations to speak on democracy at Penn’s Urban Studies Program (November 2015), on ancient political thought at Yeshiva University’s Strays Center for Torah and Western Thought (October 2015), and on Socrates and James Baldwin at SUNY Oneonta (March 2015). The book’s publication has also established me as a scholar consistently asked to review article and book manuscripts. Since its publication (and during my tenure at Bryn Mawr), I have reviewed manuscripts in ancient political thought and related topics for American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, Political Theory, Political Research Quarterly, Polis, Contemporary Political Theory, Teachers College Record, and The University of Chicago Press.
Why Social Scientists Should Read Herodotus
While enjoying the aftermath of What Would Socrates Do? I have also begun two new research projects. The first book project examines Herodotus as a political thinker who developed a distinctive and compelling approach to understanding social and political life. This continues my approach in What Would Socrates Do?, positioning my research on Herodotus along two axes: first, I undertake thick contextual work on ancient sources, informed by my extensive language training and deep knowledge of the historical period; second, I seek to bring these ancient voices into the contemporary conversation about democratic life and the need to foster a vibrant civic culture to support this democratic life. Among political theorists, the former is not a given; a great deal of political theory discusses ancient documents in translation and without thorough contextualization. Among classicists, the latter is often performed too superficially, as a gesture toward “relevance” rather than a thorough rethinking of contemporary assumptions and necessary translation from the historical context into our own.
In terms of historical interpretation, I read Herodotus’s Histories as an inquiry oriented toward developing free regimes in their own time. Herodotus’s work cannot be confined by the genre of history. Instead, I argue that Herodotus models epistemologies, ontologies, and forms of inquiry conducive to political freedom. This interpretation builds on two lines of scholarship focused on Herodotus that have not yet been brought together. On the one hand, scholars such as Rosalind Thomas and G.E.R. Lloyd have illuminated how Herodotus emerged from the context of the Ionian scientific revolution and its new modes of inquiry into the natural world; these scholars have rescued Herodotus from accusations of founding a “liar’s school” or being a mere myth-spinning poet dressed in historian’s clothing by showing how Herodotus developed a scientific and systematic approach to social reality, bridging the study of the natural world and the study of the human world by looking deeply at the interrelationships and interdependencies between the two. While this scholarship has examined Herodotus as part of the tradition of early Greek science, I contribute to this emergent conversation by placing him in the tradition of political thought that followed, showing how he approaches dilemmas about the relationship between knowledge and politics that Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle also addressed. Moreover, I show that Herodotus’ concern for free regimes and for discovering and implementing a form of social inquiry that can support these regimes distinguishes him from subsequent thinkers.
These arguments about the political significance of Herodotus’s inquiries also build on another strand of scholarship. Scholars such as Kurt Raaflaub and Sara Forsdyke have shown how Herodotus “faced Greece,” writing his Histories with the contemporary situation of increasing antagonism among the Hellenes as well as the nascent democratic ideology in mind. For these scholars, Herodotus acts as a historian of his time, writing a “history of the present” to warn his contemporaries against any propensities to repeat their enemies’ worse mistakes. I argue that seeing Herodotus’s inquiry as a work of social inquiry allows us to connect his scientific and his political concerns: Herodotus’s inquiry not only attempts to understand social reality but to speak to it; Herodotus, in other words, presents an engaged scientific inquiry, one committed to supporting the same free regimes that make it possible.
Why Social Scientists Should Read Herodotus will continue an important line of scholarship connecting ancient political thought to twenty-first century democracy. Moreover, it will broaden the concerns with democratic politics to include the relationship of knowledge and politics, specifically social science and democratic regimes. The model of Herodotus will also have broader implications for how social scientists consider the political implications of their work, emphasizing the form of inquiry and presentation and not solely the content. Herodotus’s example can return political theory to a democratic pedagogy, one essential to revivifying political culture in the face of diminished democracy.
Literature of Diminished Democracy
While the Herodotus project has continued to percolate, I have given a good deal of energy to another project on political theory and literature. Building on my article “Socrates in a Different Key: James Baldwin as Black American Socrates" (available in the Bryn Mawr College Repository) I have continued to pursue research into contemporary American literature and its relationship to democracy. In three essays substantially revised and drafted since coming to Bryn Mawr, I explore how literature not only figures democratic deficits of various kinds – legitimation crises, absences and silences in ethical life, pathologies inherent to the experience of freedom, and so forth – but also how literature responds to these deficits, how it intervenes in the very problems it diagnoses. On my reading, writers like Don DeLillo and Joan Didion not only share an epoch of recent history; they also share a reflexivity about the work of literature (and writing more generally) in this epoch. I see this commonality in their attention to form, compression, and the language codes and keywords of their times; these aspects of their writing suggest modes of political work entailed by their literary practice.
As part of this project, my article, “The Polis Artist: Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and the Politics of Literature” has just appeared in Theory & Event (also available in the Bryn Mawr College Repository). success of the DeLillo piece inspired me to write a companion piece on the work of Joan Didion to continue to chart what I call “literature of diminished democracy.” I researched and drafted an early version of this essay during summer 2015. I presented “Joan Didion and the Dream of a Common Language” at the American Political Science Association Annual Conference in San Francisco, CA (September 2015) and workshopped a revised version (“Joan Didion and American Democracy”) with the American Colloquium at Harvard University (October 2015). That essay is currently under review for publication.