Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction Paperback – Oct 25 2001
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`Review of second edition: 'There is an effortless command of a range of arguments and theories, comprehensive and informed knowledge of the relevant sources, and a narrative which is highly accessible and at the same time organises the material intelligently. Kymlicka's own views are expressed but in a way that does not do a disservice to those he criticises. This is a fine example of an introductory text which does not mute its authors stance but which benefits from his partisan participation in the debates'' Dr David Archard, University of St Andrews
`Review of second edition: 'Kymlicka has an exceptional ability to present difficult material in an accessible manner that nevertheless allows the reader to understand why the issue is complex and why it matters. The chapters are clearly written, pitched at the right level, and cover the territory'' Dr Matt Matravers, University of York
Review of second edition: '(The) changes make this edition sill more attractive and useful than the first. Its depth, lucidity and rigour mark it out as one of the better introductions on the market for anyone who wishes seriously to engage with the important recent debates within contemporary liberal theory. It stands out as that rare introductory book that offers the hard analytical work required if one is really to get to grips with the issues.' THES
`Review of first edition: 'Kymlicka has given us a superb book that might serve as a central text in both introductory and advanced courses in political philosophy...Kymlicka's striking achievement is to have presented a sophisticated philosophical analysis in clear, non-technical language readily intellible to any alternative reader...'' David Stern, Teaching Philosophy
`Review of first edition: `... For a higher-level undergraduate or graduate course on contemporary political philosophy it would be ideal. Moreover, it is a serious work in political philosophy deserving the attention and respect of the mature political-philosophical community'' James Child, Philosophical Quarterly
About the Author
Will Kymlicka is Professor of Philosophy at Queens University, Canada and a recurrent Visiting Professor in the Nationalism Studies programme at the Central European University in Budapest. His most recent publications with Oxford University Press include Citizenship in Diverse Societies (co-edited with Wayne Norman, 2000) and Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, Citizenship (2001). The first edition of Contemporary Political Philosophy was translated into eight languages.
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This book is used as a college-level undergraduate text, and there is no other book that sets out the major positions and lines of argument as efficiently and as comprehensively. It's intelligently written, erudite, up-to-date, and includes copious guides to further reading.
The revised second edition (2002) discusses utilitarianism, liberal equality, libertarianism, Marxism, communitarianism, citizenship theory, multiculturalism, and feminism. All positions get a balanced, sympathetic hearing, but the broad leaning of the book is towards liberal egalitarianism -- or, at any rate, Kymlicka has the least to say in critique of it. The broad approach follows a suggestion of Ronald Dworkin's: instead of treating each philosophy as based on a fundamentally different value (libertarianism on freedom, multiculturalism on identity, and so forth), Kymlicka explores the idea that they're ALL interpretations of equality, and therefore comparable.
You might of course think this approach is wrong-headed, but it at least contributes to readability and makes for convenient structure. And readability is no small achievement, given the complexity of the subject area and the depth of detail that Kymlicka is prepared to venture into. You're delivered a huge amount of information -- for instance, around eight varieties of communitarianism are dealt with -- and you never get the feeling that things are watered down.
It's indicative of the clarity of the style that you can easily follow involved and subtly different arguments. The writing is even at times (gasp) entertaining.
And I thought it a mark of the care and sensitivity of the philosophy that though objections and questions arose to me, I continually found these already anticipated and soon addressed.
All chapters have fine footnotes and excellent bibliographies.
The chapters it contains are as follows:
2. Utilitarianism - the best discussion of utilitarianism I have found. Beats all introductory ethics books by far (see my other reviews).
3. Liberal egalitarianism - Very good overview of Rawls's earlier theory (TJ). He doesn't commit the regular mistakes that introductory books make, but sees Rawls's arguments as they should be seen. Contains also a great overview of a much less-known theory of Dworkin (which was only available in articles before "Sovereign Virtue" 2000).
4. Libertarianism - Indepth overview of Nozick's theory + very good counterarguments. Sees Nozick as he should be seen with the concept of self-ownership at the center of the entitlement theory. Great discussion of the rebuttals to Chamberlain experiment. Nozick can be interpreted differently, but Kymlickas is also an adequate one. This chapter also includes an overview of contractarian mutual advantage theory put forward by David Gauthier. It concludes with a good discussion of libertarianism and freedom and how they do not really fit together.
5. Marxism - Indepth overview of contemporary analytical marxism in the context of politics. Discussion of the marxist rejection of justice, marxist arguments for abolishing private property, about exploitation and about alienation. Guys mentioned are Cohen, Elster, Roemer and others. You wont find this material elsewhere.
6. Communitarianism - The movement of the 80s. Great discussion of philosophical communitarianism's main ideas like: politics of the common good, social self, social thesis and etc. Sandel and Taylor are mostly mentioned, Walzer and MacIntyre less so.
7. Citizenship theory/ 8. Multiculturalism - an addition in the new, 2001 edition. Haven't read those parts yet, but since these are the areas that Kymlicka is the most known scholar in, you should know what to expect.
9. Feminism - A very interesting overview of the wide field of feminism in politics. Touches upon sexual equality and discrimination, the public and the private and the ethic of care (Gilligan and others).
You will also get a great bibliography and a lot of ideas for further reading. It is a must have for any aspiring student in political philosophy or ethics. Kymlicka himself seems to support a somewhat liberal position most, although he doesn't explicitly state it.
It is not only for students. If you read a lot of primary sources you can see that many quote this book. It isnt just a neutral introductory volume (there are no such things in phil anyway), but a book with many good arguments by Kymlicka not found elsewhere. Of course it also contains good overviews of arguments found in articles that are not usually available for or read by most people. So even a working scholar can benefit a lot from this book - but they probably know that already :)
P.S to the reviewer who had doubts about treating Nozick on the basis of equality. Nozicks theory is not about equality in the real world, but the justification of the theory is in some sense the equality of everyones self-ownership rights. This is the reason Kymlicka deals with Nozick in the way he does.
Kymlicka's book serves as a good introduction to a number of the major strands of modern political thought from a liberal perspective. That Kymlicka favors liberalism is evident throughout the book. A great deal of the book is taken up with liberal critiques of the other main strands of political thought. While the chapters on the other strands of political thought are largely taken up with these liberal critiques Kymlicka does a good job offering fair and accurate summaries of the other strands of political thought before entering into his critiques and he is willing to salvage what he believes to be important insights from all the different strands of political thought he discusses in this book.
In my opinion Kymlicka's discussions of liberalism and libertarianism were the best parts of the book. In the section on liberalism Kymlicka provides overviews of John Rawl's and Ronald Dworkin's theories of justice. Since liberal theories of justice often have redistributive implications they are often considered to be defenses for the liberal welfare state. Kymlicka argues persuasively that the consequences of the liberal theories of justice are actually more radical than that, "For one thing liberal equality requires each person to start their life with an equal share of society's resources, and the sorts of policies needed to achieve this go far beyond the traditional welfare state approach. As we have seen, the welfare state is primarily concerned with the post factum correction of market inequalities, through tax and transfer schemes. But as Mill recognized a long time ago, to focus solely on post factum income redistribution is to make 'the great error of reformers and philanthropists...to nibble at the consequences of unjust power, instead of redressing the injustice itself'. If our goal is to achieve greater ex ante equality in endowments, we need to directly attack the entrenched economic hierarchies of modern societies" (89).
Kymlicka does an excellent job of defending the liberal concern for justice against critics. Some critics of the priority of the question of justice in political philosophy have argued that talk of justice and rights is only a substitute for the lack of genuine human feeling in the relationships within society. The reason it is not necessary to talk of justice in the family is because relations in the family are held together by love. If human relations within society as a whole were based on love there would be no need to talk of justice or rights since human beings would spontaneously respond to the needs of others. But as Kymlicka points out talk of justice and rights does not prohibit loving relationships of this kind, and the definition of a right does not prohibit the free relinquishing of those rights (I can, for example, freely relinquish my right to my property by giving a gift) but justice does attempt to ensure that human relationships are not "corrupted by domination or subordination" (210). Justice also ensures that the decisions to relinquish our rights are truly voluntary.
The section on libertarianism is also quite good and offers what I think are some truly excellent critiques of the libertarian position. Kymlicka provides an overview of three different forms of libertarianism: Nozick's libertarianism, mutual advantage libertarianism, and the libertarianism of liberty. Kymlicka presents solid critiques of all three strands but I think his critiques of the third strand are the best and most important. Libertarianism is not ultimately a very popular political doctrine but I think a number of the arguments presented by what Kymlicka calls the libertarianism of liberty find their way into popular political discourse in the United States.
There is a claim, for example, that the welfare state restricts freedom whereas capitalism does not but, as Kymlicka argues, this claim requires a shift in the definition of freedom half-way through the argument. One can define freedom in a moralized or a non-moralized way. The non-moralized definition of freedom claims that "we are free in so far as no one prevents us from acting on our (actual or potential) desires" (143). The libertarians must use a non-moralized definition of freedom when making their claim that the welfare state restricts freedom because if, for example, people have no moral right to the benefits which they accrue from their undeserved talents then the welfare state will not restrict people's freedom by redistributing those benefits. The problem is that if you define freedom in a non-moralized way then capitalism also restricts freedom. Private property, for example, limits the freedom of non-owners to use that property, "private property is a distribution of freedom and unfreedom" (150). If we accept a non-moralized definition of freedom then taxes do not actually limit freedom they simply redistribute it, i.e. they redistribute the right to use property from one person to another. No freedom is destroyed in this process it is simply redistributed.
In order to escape this consequence libertarians move to a different, moralized definition of freedom in their claim that capitalism does not limit freedom. People have a right to their private property and, therefore, the restrictions of freedom under capitalism are not really restrictions of freedom (putting up a no trespassing sign does not restrict my freedom since I had no right to use someone else's private property in the first place). The problem here is, if we accept a moralized definition of freedom, then libertarians cannot escape the debate about the justifications of their moral principles. One of the perceived strengths of libertarianism is that it does not require this kind of moral debate. Everyone is free to have their own moral beliefs about what is just or unjust as long as they do not encroach on the freedom's of others. Once we realize that the definition of freedom libertarians use requires a definition of moral rights this tactic will no longer work, "once we define liberty as the freedom to do what one has a moral right to do, then liberty can no longer play a role in deciding between competing theories of rights" (151). Libertarians will, therefore, have to offer some kind of defense for why the wealthy have a moral right to their wealth.
The section on utilitarianism was also quite good and offered some valuable critiques of the utilitarian position. The utilitarian position has always seemed implausible to me, however, so I was not quite as interested in this section. The section on marxism was interesting but I was a little disappointed that Kymlicka focused entirely on analytical marxism. I think the analytical marxists had some interesting things to say but they are not representative of most marxists. They accept a number of the premises of neoclassical economics (methodological individualism for example) as well as a number of the premises of liberal political theory (the importance of working out a theory of justice for example). For these reasons analytical marxism fits with the themes of Kymlicka's book better than standard marxist theory but it would be a mistake to assume that the analytical marxists are representative of marxism in general. I would recommend the reader who is interested in Marx look up books by David Harvey or take a look at Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory by Moishe Postone. The section on communitarism seemed good as well. Kymlicka presented what I think were some fairly solid liberal responses to communitarian critiques of liberalism. It seemed to me, however, that Kymlicka might not be presenting the best case possible for communitarianism before offering his critiques. Unfortunately I am not familiar enough to know for sure but I have read some of Charles Taylor, including his work Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity and I think very highly of Charles Taylor as a philosopher. The summaries that Kymlicka was offering of communitarianism seemed to me to represent views that were so clearly wrong I find it hard to believe a philosopher of Charles Taylor's status would endorse them in exactly the form that Kymlicka presented them in but, again, I have not read enough to know for sure.
All in all I would say Kymlicka's book is a good entry point into modern debates in political philosophy.
Some reviewers have commented on him interjecting personal ideas. I did not find that annoying at all. Better he express his opinions outright then try to sneak them in. His opinions were part of the larger narrative and were not forced upon the reader. I think it definitely added something to a book that would perhaps otherwise be a dry introduction. Well done by Kymlicka!
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