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Michael Sandel The Art of Theory Interview
Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of
Government at Harvard University, and is one of the most influential
political theorists of our time. Jonathan Bruno and Jason Swadley sat
down with him recently in Cambridge with 12 questions on the craft of
political philosophy.
Art of Theory: What brought you to study political theory?
Michael Sandel: I began with an interest in politics. I was a political
junkie as a kid, and still am. But it wasnt until graduate school that I
became interested in political philosophy as such. Thats where I first read
Kant, and Kant I found terribly challenging and intriguing. I began
graduate school in 1975. John Rawls A Theory of Justice had come out
four years earlier, so I read that for the first time in graduate school.
In fact, the first winter vacation in graduate school at Oxfordthey had
these six-week breaks between termsI went with some friends to the
south of Spain and took along a bunch of books and sat and read them:
Kants Critique of Pure Reason, Rawls A Theory of Justice, Nozicks
Anarchy, State and Utopia, and Hannah Arendts The Human Condition.
Somehow Spain, which was a little less cold and damp than Oxford, was
more conducive to reading.
Art of Theory: Describe your arrival at Harvard in 1980.
Sandel: Political theory had a strong tradition here, represented by the
then-senior figures, who were Judith Shklar, Harvey Mansfield, and
Michael Walzer, and in the philosophy department John Rawls and Robert
Nozick were teaching. And so there was great ferment, great interest in
political theory and political philosophy.
I was introduced to Rawls through Judith Shklar, who was a friend of his.
She told him my dissertation was largely about his book and that I was
coming to be an Assistant Professor in political theory in the Government
Department. And shortly after I arrived the phone rang in my office and
the voice at the other end said, This is John Rawls; R-A-W-L-S as if I
might not recognize the name. [Laughter] He was inviting me to lunch;
thats when I first met him. He was very kind and generous. Nozick and I
also spoke on occasion and were on friendly terms.
Art of Theory: You mentioned your dissertation, which became
Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. The so-called liberal-
communitarian debate became a staple in philosophy courses all over the
world. How do you see that debate today?
Sandel: I think there are two versions of the debate, one of which has
stalled and is not so interesting, and another that is more interesting and
continues to animate discussion. The stalled, uninteresting version sees the
debate being between those who place more weight on individual rights
and those who place more weight on community, as if its a matter of
competing values.
7/3/2014 Michael Sandel The Art of Theory Interview : the art of theory a quarterly journal of political philosophy
http://archive.today/OYh7t#selection-65.76-65.295 2/7
Thats not a very interesting version of the debate, though thats the way
many people cast it, as if the critics of Kantian/Rawlsian Liberalism were
against rights, or favored defining rights simply by whatever values
prevailed in a given community at a given time.
I think that was the misunderstanding of what the critique was about, and
it led to a very narrow and uninteresting debate about rights vs.
community. I think thats lost its steam and rightly so.
But the other strand of the debate that was always of greater interest to me
was the broader question of political philosophy, which is this: is it possible
to define and to defend rights without presupposing any particular
conception of the good life?
So the debate about the priority of the right over the good can be
understood in these two ways: at the level of rights vs. communities (the
uninteresting way, to my mind) or at the level of how rights are defended,
how justice is defined, and whether its possible to do so in a way that
avoids taking sides among competing conceptions of the good life.
That second version is the more important debate, and the term
communitarian doesnt quite capture it because it isnt a matter of
whether youre for or against rights or community. Its a matter of how
theories of justice are argued and whether those arguments can be
detached from contested moral and spiritual conceptions, conceptions of
the best way to live.
That strand of the debate is alive and well, and very much at stake in our
public life, and has led to a lot of interesting work within political theory.
Art of Theory: Tell us about your Justice course, which is an institution
at Harvard now and has been seen by millions on PBS and online.
Sandel: I taught Justice for the first time the first year I came here in
1980 and initially it was a bit more focused on contemporary thinkers.
Since then Ive incorporated more of the classical thinkers, but it always
involved moving back and forth between philosophical texts and
contemporary issues, legal and political issues that raise philosophical
questions.
I was drawn to that style of teaching because, when I started teaching, it
was fresh in my mind what it was like to be a student. I think that is the
heart of good teaching, having or summoning that memory.
I was not taken with political theory when I was an undergraduate. I
found it abstract, distant, remote, and difficult just looking at the texts. I
wasnt quite up to it then. So, when I began to teach I had vividly in my
mind this question: What would have kept my attention as a student? This
was what was behind the design of the course.
The first year I think there were 100 students, then maybe 300 the second
year, then 400, and then it leveled off around 800 to 1000.
Art of Theory: Now that youve reached an even wider audience through
the public television series and the Internet, what have you learned about
the relationship of the political theorist to the wider world? What
responsibilities go along with that?
Sandel: Ive always been drawn to political theory and political philosophy
as a way of informing politics and the debates that go on in public life; Ive
always wanted to connect philosophical ideas with the public life we live
and the arguments we have. This experiment was a way of pushing that
idea further. We decided to make it available on public television and free
online around the globe, and see what would happen.
And its been a fascinating experiment. Ive been especially intrigued to see
7/3/2014 Michael Sandel The Art of Theory Interview : the art of theory a quarterly journal of political philosophy
http://archive.today/OYh7t#selection-65.76-65.295 3/7
And its been a fascinating experiment. Ive been especially intrigued to see
the reception in other parts of the world, and I was wondering to what
degree they come at these questions from different cultural perspectives.
What struck me, as Ive done some traveling in connection since the book
has been out, is that there seems to be an enormous interest in other parts
of the world and, in particular, East Asia, in Western political theory and in
this way of arguing about political theory and public questions. What
interests me now is to explore these themes across cultures, and to explore
the similarities and the differences.
Ive been struck at the level of interest and even hunger for engagement
with these questions. I think theres a sense in many societies that public
life and public discourse are impoverished, that they dont often address the
big questions of justice and rights and the common good that lie just
beneath the surface of our political debate. Theres a great hunger
everywhere for more direct engagement with these big questions in public.
Art of Theory: What have you learned pedagogically, in Justice and
other courses youve taught, that professors new to the classroom should
know?
Sandel: Its very hard to hold students attention for 50 minutes.
Especially on challenging material like political theory.
Its certainly beyond what I could do to hold students attention if I read
from a text. So, being able to lecture, to put across material without a text,
is very important. There are small numbers of people who can read from a
written text and hold the attention of students, but they are very few and
Im not among them.
I think the first thing is to learn the material well enough so that you could
put it across without having to read any of it. And then having some kind
of opportunity for students to argue back, not only to ask questions but to
respond to the texts or to the professors view.
I think that adds a tremendous amount. It mobilizes students own
imaginations and argumentative powers. And if the questions are good and
the challenges are strong then other students learn by listening to that
exchange.
Art of Theory: What features of our political life most puzzle you?
Sandel: I would say the largely arid terms of political discourse, the
thinness of public discourse in the worlds leading democracies. Thats the
single most striking and worrisome thing.
Its partly the tendency, over the past three decades, of economics to crowd
out politics. This has been an age of market triumphalism. Weve come to
the assumption that markets are the primary instruments for achieving the
public good. I think that is a mistaken notion and people are now
beginning to question that.
It also has led to political discourse being preoccupied with technocratic,
managerial, economic concerns. The broader public questions and ethical
questions have been crowded to the side.
I think that this has been reinforced by a certain idea of toleration, a well-
intentioned idea of toleration that says, Given the disagreements we have
on moral and spiritual questions, we should try to conduct our political
debate without reference to them. I think thats also contributed to an
emptying out of substantive moral discourse in politics, an emptiness
people are eager to fill.
Such emptiness often provokes a backlash, so that narrow, intolerant and
sometimes fundamentalist voices fill that void and have a persuasive force
they wouldnt otherwise have, if public discourse included open and direct
engagement with rival moral views and moral conceptions.
7/3/2014 Michael Sandel The Art of Theory Interview : the art of theory a quarterly journal of political philosophy
http://archive.today/OYh7t#selection-65.76-65.295 4/7
engagement with rival moral views and moral conceptions.
Art of Theory: What remedies could be offered for that problem of thin
political discourse?
Sandel: There are remedies at two levels.
At the level of political theory (and this is what Ive tried to do in some of
my work), we need to challenge the premise that a pluralist society, or a
society based on mutual respect, must avoid or set aside substantive moral
and spiritual questions or questions of the good life.
Also at the level of political theory, I think there needs to be a challenge to
economistic visions of democracy.
At the level of political practice, I think we have to find ways of
encouraging and nurturing the ability of citizens to engage more directly
and in a morally robust public discourse. That requires a civic education
that the political parties are not providing and that the media is not
providing.
I also think educational institutions can be sites for civic education.
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to provide students with an
opportunity to develop their skills in public discourse and in moral and
political argument.
Art of Theory: Youve defended the place of religion in that discourse.
Why?
Sandel: Well, Im in favor of a more faith-friendly form of public
discourse and public reason than is advanced by some versions of liberal
political theory.
So, for example, one account of public reason thats prominent is advanced
by Rawls in one way and by Habermas in another. Both, despite their
disagreements, share the idea that public reason should not depend on
trying to persuade our fellow citizens of our preferred conception of the
good life. I think thats too narrow an account of public reason, because it
requires people to leave their spiritual convictions or their secular,
substantive moral convictions, at the door when they enter the public
square.
I think thats a mistake. I would favor a more expansive idea of public
reason that welcomes all comers. That doesnt mean that everyone can or
will carry the day. But Im not in favor of excluding arguments that may
draw on faith traditions, for those who want to bring them to bear in
politics.
Theres a tendency to think that this invites dogma into politics; thats one
of the reasons people think we should leave religious reasons outside of
public discourse. I agree that dogmatic assertions typically are not valuable
contributions to democratic discourse, but I dont think religious
communities have a monopoly of dogmatic assertions. There are plenty of
dogmatic claims that are brought to bear by people coming from secular
traditions.
So Im in favor of reasoned public discourse, but I wouldnt rule out in
advance reasons that may reflect faith traditions or other substantive
conceptions of the good life.
We cant know what types of arguments can be accepted until we try.
This may be the main point of disagreement I have with Rawls and
Habermas. We cant stipulate in advance those reasons which could, in
principle, be accepted or agreed to by everyone. We cant specify criteria for
possible acceptance by everyone without delving into some of the
substantive moral disagreements. I would not use that requirement to
7/3/2014 Michael Sandel The Art of Theory Interview : the art of theory a quarterly journal of political philosophy
http://archive.today/OYh7t#selection-65.76-65.295 5/7
substantive moral disagreements. I would not use that requirement to
prevent certain kinds of reasons or arguments from being brought to bear
in politics.
Art of Theory: Tell us a little bit about your work process.
Sandel: At the moment Im working on a book project that Ive been
working on for a long time, with many detours, on the moral limits of
markets.
I have developed and tried out the broad philosophical ideas in teaching
and in papers, but at the same time I want to relate the question of
markets to actual examples of contested commodification. I have gathered
from newspapers and other sources over many years intriguing examples
of contested commodification today.
So the process by which I work includes working-out philosophical ideas in
discussion with students and colleagues, and gathering concrete
illustrations to connect the themes and to illustrate them. I have great file
boxes full of clippings and examples. Bouncing philosophical ideas against
a novel controversy can prompt important questions.
Art of Theory: Do you do you find yourself returning to canonical
thinkers, whether ancient or modern, in the course of your work?
Sandel: All the time. Im constantly finding that the contemporary
debates raise philosophical questions that go all the way back to Plato and
Aristotle, and thats part of the fun of doing political theory: being attuned
to the arguments that take place around the world, reading newspapers
alongside old books.
Art of Theory: What does excellent political theory look like to you? What
sets it apart from the merely mediocre?
Sandel: Excellent political theory is determined by how interesting the
question is.
I have found, over the years, in looking at Ph.D. dissertations that the
single best predictor of what will be an excellent dissertation is the question
it addresses. In political theory, more than in other academic subjects, the
quality and interest of the work depends on the ability to identify an
interesting and important question.
If you get it wrong then you can be very smart and conscientious and
logical and a great researcher but it wont be terribly interesting or even
worthwhile. The single most important consideration is finding and
choosing the right question, or the right set of questions.
If you put dissertations aside and look at the history of political thought
and the lasting texts, they are the works that have taken on big, interesting,
important questions; thats what sets apart good, or even great political
theory, from merely ordinary work.
After the question is chosen I am a methodological pluralista radical
methodological pluralistto the point where I dont even think we could
lay down any meaningful criteria for the right research method.
Now this may be different in other parts of political science (I doubt it), but
choosing the right questions matters far more than the methodology. I
think theres a tendency today in political science generally, maybe to a
lesser degree in political theory, for people to get it backwards: to let the
choice of method determine the subject. I do think that has it radically
wrong, and a lot of political science goes astray that way.
Art of Theory: How optimistic are you about the future of political theory
as a field of study?
7/3/2014 Michael Sandel The Art of Theory Interview : the art of theory a quarterly journal of political philosophy
http://archive.today/OYh7t#selection-65.76-65.295 6/7
Really enjoyed the interview, thanks.
Its funny: following the first couple of broadcasts of Sandels
Justice lectures here in the UK I recieved a phone call from
my mother who had stumbled accross them somewhat
inadvertently. She told me that it was the first time in her life
(!) that she had really sat down and questioned what fairness
actually means, what justice actually involves, and asked if
she could borrow one of those books Im always reading.
Consequently, when she visited recently she took home a copy
of Barrys Why Social Justice Matters (she wanted something
a little practical).
Though obviously this is but one example, it strikes me that
political theory is a subject that many would enjoy if only it
were more accessible. As Sandel comments, economics
pushing politics to the side somewhat reproduces itself in the
interests of both students and the general public, and perhaps
results in a general tendency to dismiss normative questions as
a bit of a waste of time: theres real problems to be solved!,
and thats a great shame.
post ed by Tom Aindow on 03.31.11 at 7 :2 4 am
Thank you very much for this interview, it reminded me that
I need to get back to Dr. Sandels videos.
post ed by Max Lockie on 04.09.11 at 1 1 :3 8 pm
Comments
Sandel: I think there have always been, at least for the last forty years or
so, attempts by some political scientists to claim that political inquiry could
be put on so scientific and rigorous a footing that there would be no more
need for political theory. But those attempts havent succeeded even
remotely, and I dont expect that they will.
I think the attempt to make political inquiry over in the image of the
sciences is bound to fail. So Im confident about the future of political
theory as an academic subject, and what strengthens that confidence, apart
from the intellectual conviction that normative questions persist and will
persist, is that students persist.
Students of politics, whether undergraduates or graduate students, are
drawn to the subject (for the most part) not because theyre intrigued and
passionate about this or that method, but because theyre intrigued or
troubled or worried or passionate about some political question or other:
about how countries get along or fail to get along, about questions of war
and peace, or globalization, or the role of markets, or about equality and
inequality, or about what makes for successful democracies, or what
enables people of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds to get along or
find themselves in conflict.
Its impossible to address any of these questions without taking up big
themes in political theory. What keeps universities and academic
communities full of energy and curiosity and ferment and inquiry is the
passion that students have for actual political questions. That means that,
for them, political theory is indispensable.
7/3/2014 Michael Sandel The Art of Theory Interview : the art of theory a quarterly journal of political philosophy
http://archive.today/OYh7t#selection-65.76-65.295 7/7
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post ed by Max Lockie on 04.09.11 at 1 1 :3 8 pm
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