Hume’s Political Theory (Part 3 of 3)


At the end of the previous post I claimed that understanding language as a fundamental convention helps us to understand Davidson’s controversial conclusion that language does not exist. More precisely, language as ordinary convention does not exist but language as a fundamental convention, I argued, does exist. This does not appear, however, to be Sabl’s claim. Sabl’s concern, as he states from the beginning (and as cited above), is to show how Hume’s History can be understood as a continuous meditation on ‘how conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die.’ (HP 7). Language tends to be treated as a convention, but as ‘equilibrium case’ that is ‘relatively static’ (6). As Sabl puts it, ‘In some of life and a great deal of politics, the right thing for each person to do is that which he or she has reason to think others will do: speak the same language, meet at the same rendezvous, use the same measurements, accept the same authority for choosing officers and making laws.’ (ibid.) The philosophers such as David Lewis and others who focus upon language as a convention, or the game theorists who accept that the identities and expectations of the relevant actors is already known, are each beginning with a static convention as the basis for their explanations. Sabl, however, turns to the challenges that arise in times of historical crisis when we do not have reason to think what it is others will do. It is in times like this when one turns to the focal points – the prominent, obvious markers that one can use to orient oneself (following Schelling as discussed in the previous post). Sabl argues that these are temporary, however, for as the fundamental convention that constitutes the political authority of government comes into being, these focal points increasingly become ignored and unnecessary. But it is this process that we seek to understand, and I think the account offered in the previous post concerning Davidson’s rejection of language is illuminating, even if the fundamental conventions that concerned Sabl were those concerning political authority and not language (he may even reject the very idea that language is a fundamental convention and follow Lewis and others and accept that it is an ordinary convention).

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Hume’s Political Theory (Part 2 of 3)

Continuing from part 1, we turn now to the role of focal points play in solving coordination problems. Focal points emerge as a crucial piece in Andrew Sabl’s account of how Hume’s History should be read. Focal points, in other words, are integral to the solution of coordination problems and are essential, therefore, as Sabl will argue, to understanding Hume’s account of ‘how [fundamental] conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die’ (HP 7). The concept of focal points Sabl borrows from Thomas Schelling’s classic work, The Strategy of Conflict (1960), where Schelling addresses the problem of how two or more people are to coordinate, as they desire to, when they do not know where the other is and cannot communicate with them. If two parachutists need to meet up with each other after landing, but they don’t know where the other lands nor can they communicate with them, but they do each have a copy of the same map (as in the figure above which is from Schelling’s 1960 book), then the question is whether or not the parachutists will be able to coordinate their actions and meet. Schelling argues that they would, and that in many cases people resolve such coordination problems all the time. Schelling offers another example, of ‘a man who loses his wife in a department store,’ and Schelling argues husband and wife will likely ‘think of some obvious place to meet, so obvious that each will be sure that the other is sure that it is “obvious” to both of them.’ (Schelling, 54) Similarly in the case of the parachutists, each will likely think of an obvious place to meet, and as experiments have shown the most common place people pick, when asked what they would do if they were one of the parachutists, is the bridge. It is the most unique, prominent, and obvious place on the map. Such obvious places are focal points. ‘Most situations,’ Schelling argues, ‘provide some clue for coordinating behavior, some focal point for each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do,’ and the ‘prime characteristic’ of these focal points, Schelling continues, ‘is some kind of prominence or conspicuousness.’ (ibid. 57)

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Hume’s Political Theory (part 1 of 3)

Few would deny that Hume regards both private and public law as matters of convention; Hume repeatedly uses the word himself. But few have recognized that he regards certain conventions as fundamental; immune to alteration (except in the extremely long term, at least generations and more likely centuries) by the usual methods of political power and social change. The claim that Hume does believe in fundamental conventions, that he rests a distinctive form of constitutionalism on the foundations of custom and mutual advantage. It finds little support in Hume’s philosophical works, only in the less familiar History…The development of fundamental conventions…could be seen as the central story of the History of England. These conventions are both below and above ordinary laws. Below, because their fundamental status can never be codified as such. Above, because they limit, at least arguably, the authority of the lawmaking body, whose own right to enact positive law itself derives from fundamental conventions. (Andrew Sabl, Hume’s Politics [hereafter, HP], 121-2)

In his book, Hume’s Politics, Andrew Sabl provides a fresh look at Hume’s History that not only makes a strong case for reconsidering the importance of Hume’s political theory but also, and perhaps more importantly, he offers a critique of a many of the presuppositions of contemporary political theory. Central to doing all of this is Sabl’s reading of Hume as one who develops a concept of fundamental conventions to address the coordination problem associated with who ought to have political authority, and thus government, as a fundamental convention, is an answer to a coordination problem.

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Fear of Bloggers

At the D8 Conference Steve Jobs lamented the descent of news-gathering and editorial functions into a world of bloggers. As Jobs puts it,

One of my beliefs very strongly is that any democracy depends on a free, healthy press, and so when I think of the most important journalistic endeavors in this country, I think of things like the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and publications like that,” Jobs replies. “And we all know what’s happened to the economics of those businesses. I don’t want to see us descend into a nation of bloggers. Anything that we can do to help the news-gathering organizations find new ways of expression so that they can afford to keep their news-gathering and editorial operations intact, I’m all for.”

Other than a blatant justification for the iPad’s closed format and Apple’s recent collaboration with Rupert Murdoch, of all people, Jobs may have a point. Are there too many blogs and bloggers to disseminate information in a manner that can generate effective political action? Can bloggers create networks that will avoid the stratifying grasp and control of large multinationals and states while at the same time providing for the emergence of shared objectives sufficient to motivate an effective political process.

Here’s a link to the full story of Jobs’ interview. There’s a full video of this and other interviews at the site as well.