I have to give a talk at the Madison Center on Princeton on Monday as part of a panel on Locke. Here are some quick thoughts, based on Jim’s fine review in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.
Peter’s point #3 is put more incisively in his great new book Modern and American Dignity: Augustine (and by extension Calvin) taught us that one the main ways Jesus changes politics/political philosophy is by revealing that human beings aren’t “polis fodder.”
The thing is that for all of Wood’s emphasis on the ideas of the founding generation as they themselves understood themselves, he may have missed out on much that they could have known because his historical “methodology” excludes any other thoughts that they could have had or experienced–even as those thoughts and experiences are presented on the pages of their writings private and public.
It is good that Wood takes politics seriously and that he is faithful to the historical record. But in a strange way he ends up imposing a “presentism” on history–a presentism informed by certain linguistic theories regarding what is knowable within what we now know about language games, as well as in terms of the way in which language precludes knowledge of what is. The limits of language are the limits of knowledge, as Wittgenstein said in some shape or fashion.
The description of the founding as “ideological”–even in the most broadminded understanding of the term–misses what is integral to Quentin Skinner, JGA Pocock, Bernard Bailyn, etc. mean by the republican “ideological” interpretation of political history. The liberal, natural rights version is also just as often “ideological”–see Louis Hartz.
In this way Wood’s account is ideological in the pejorative sense, in that it is concerned with the consistency of ideas over against the lived reality. With such an interpretation, you can find homologies of ideology between 1960s community/grass-roots organization and action in the name of local liberty and the American revolution–even if it is an absurd belief (cf. Bailyn). Or the Tea Party simply represents the typical suspicion of “power” of the American colonists (Jill Lepore). Prior to the “ideological” school, Richard Hofstadter simply called it the “paranoid style.”
I think all this type of analysis is called structuralism. The Gordon Woods of the world of the historiography of American political history are the Levi-Strauss’s of the deep structures of American thought. They are not of the the Bancroftian Hegelian/Christian meta-narrative. This is all good, but when they hate the race, class, gender trinitarians, they simply hate the kind of bloodless ideological analysis that bit back what they had established in the first place.
That is to say, for every Levi-Strauss there is a Foucault–let alone a Derrida.
Meanwhile, there are Americans who still live under and within an inherited constitutional, legal, institutional, economic, cultural and political order. Whenever they make their minds up to act–whether in terms of the few elite or the many populists–they must be acting according to a DNA that is encoded and only understandable by the scientific Watsons like Gordon Wood.
One wonders if there is not more to this story.
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