Interview: Jason Blakely
Interviews Society Philosophy

Interview: Jason Blakely

William Lombardo
William Lombardo

Associate Professor of Political Science, Seaver College at Pepperdine University

Jason Blakely is associate professor of political science at Pepperdine University and the author of, most recently, We Built Reality: How Social Science Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power (Oxford, 2020), which examines the worldmaking power of popular social science and how it has distorted our practices and our senses of self. He is also co-author with Mark Bevir of Interpretive Social Science: An Anti-Naturalist Approach (Oxford, 2018) and Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and the Decline of Naturalism (Notre Dame, 2016). He has published many academic articles on political theory and hermeneutics as well as popular articles in outlets such as The Atlantic and Commonweal. Professor Blakely received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

Professor Blakely joined me for a discussion on major themes from his most recent book, the advantages of hermeneutics, and how interpretive philosophy should inform political theory and practice.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

William Lombardo: My introduction to hermeneutics was by way of Hans-Georg Gadamer, who, I think, reins in some of the nasty excesses of his teacher Martin Heidegger. But he does build on Heideggerian philosophical hermeneutics. Some of our readership is interested in the thought of Leo Strauss, who in a different way was interested in saving philosophy from the path to nihilism that he sees embodied in Heidegger. So, by way of entrance into the tradition of hermeneutics, what do you think causes Heidegger to travel down the path to Nazism, and how do you think the hermeneutic elements of his thought can be salvaged?

Jason Blakely: I arrived at Berkeley very interested in the thought of Leo Strauss, partially because he was such an interesting reader of the history of political thought, but also because of the disaffection he had with positivism or mainstream political science. I studied mainstream political science as an undergraduate and felt there was something big missing. Strauss has the beginnings of an answer to that. One of the things I argue in my dissertation is that one of the reasons Straussianism is limited as a paradigm—even though he has the right question or problem—is that Strauss was missing the hermeneutic tradition. He saw Heidegger reductively as a form of historicism but didn’t see in hermeneutics any ethical sources for a revived humanism. Gadamer and Strauss are two of Heidegger’s most brilliant students and yet emerged very differently. And Strauss never developed an alternative form of political science; he experimentally said let’s go back to the ancients. But one of the things he missed in Heidegger, because he reduced him to historicism, are certain ethical sources.

That said, there is something to Strauss’s point that Heidegger’s thought has this problem of relativism. But you have to read Heidegger against himself to get out of the problem of relativism. So one of the reasons Heidegger has this troubling core, which Strauss saw, is that his treatment of the ontological question is sometimes done in a fashion that seems to relativize ethics or make ethics external to ontology. But there is a path out, where you re-ontologize ethics through humanism.

William Lombardo: So, if Heidegger’s thought provides the ground for a revived humanism, that human is what you distinguish in your book from the prevailing culture of scientism, which seems to be the main ideology you take aim at in your book. Can you describe a little more the problem you’re trying to address?

Jason Blakely: The thesis of the book—and what animated it initially—is that social science theories are not just descriptive; they are not just word-object relationships. We tend to accept social scientific theories almost as a looking glass, something you look through to see the world. And hermeneutics teaches sensitivity to meaning-making. So, one of the experiments of the book was: what if I started reading social science tracts from the perspective of meaning-making and as meaning-making artifacts? Which was tied to the second part of the thesis, which is the sociological-philosophical claim that we can embody these meanings.

When you start reading social science not just as word-object relations, then hermeneutic anthropology—the notion that we’re self-interpreting animals—tells us that we can embody the meanings these social scientists are creating in our practices and in our forms of selfhood. And so there are these vulgarization effects where we live out versions of our theories that world-make: they inform our practices and different kinds of selfhood.

The book is essentially concerned with mapping instances of this, for example the way social scientific discourse actually shapes something like democracy. I make a critique of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, where they imply you cannot possibly rely on citizens to govern their own affairs and that we instead need rule by managers. That’s a re-signification of democracy along technocratic lines that I associate with American democracy over the last fifty years but especially with the Obama administration, which staffed people who had advanced these theories.

William Lombardo: To tease out an implication of this, would you say that, when reading social science literature, we can’t help but do the meaning-making you’re describing? That it’s impossible to assume the looking glass perspective that the social sciences purport to adopt?

Jason Blakely: Yes, the shortest way to put it is that universal hermeneutics should reign and that whenever we’re building theories, we should be aware of their meaning-making dimensions. And that doesn’t mean we don’t try to make descriptive claims, but that we’re aware of this hermeneutic relationship by which I can become more or less like my description. At the center of that, the central anthropological thesis is that humans are self-interpreting animals who only become complete selves through our meanings. Like Clifford Geertz, the American anthropologist says, “Human beings without culture are not even full human beings.”[1] Without this meaning-making dimension, you would have an unworkable biological mass that didn’t have an identity or a way to plan or carry out actions. This means that we have to be aware of these dimensions in a way that you don’t in the natural sciences. Not that hermeneutic questions don’t emerge in the natural sciences, but you don’t have to worry about describing a plant in a certain way and then the plant becoming more like the description. In my ideal social science, you don’t stop trying to make descriptive claims, but you’re aware of the ethical dimension and the subtleties of the meaning-making that’s happening.

William Lombardo: You identify popular social science books as where the meaning-making action mostly occurs. This presumably means that their readership is larger than a purely academic audience, but it also means that they come downstream from high academic social science. Does purely academic social science also deserve to receive some of your critique or is it primarily a problem of the medium and who’s doing the mediating between academic and popular social science?

Jason Blakely: I do focus on popular social science in the book, because I’m concerned with world-making, and world-making happens through discourse. Take homo economicus, the form of selfhood that arises from rational choice theory. Part of the evidence for that self-conception includes the practices and forms of self-hood that exist in the world popularly. So when someone asks why they should accept this critique, I claim that informs a discourse that is widespread, and I give examples of homo economicus. And that is certainly downstream from academia.

But you’re right to perceive an ambiguity there, because high academic discourse sometimes--even oftentimes--makes the same mistake and is insufficiently hermeneutic. Though oftentimes academic social scientists include caveats and warnings to this effect. An example of this is Michael Doyle, the scholar behind democratic peace theory, whose work ended up being cited by George W. Bush.[2] He had all kinds of caveats and warnings about liberal imperial tendencies or the way liberalism itself can drive aggression globally that were never part of the wider discourse surrounding the War on Terror. At the same time, Doyle’s theory has some of the same problems—a sort of naturalism. The idea he’s offering is a science instead of an interpretation or a repressed hermeneutics.

I tend to think social scientists have a repressed hermeneutics, even in high academia. Then the problem is one of self-knowledge, of whether they realize they’re offering a hermeneutic or whether they think they’re offering the final description of social reality. People like Doyle have a similar blindspot. At the same time, their version is far more sophisticated and defensible than what occurs downstream, where you have a brutalized metaphorics. And part of what I do in the book is to read mainstream social science as poetics and turn the tables on social science by reading it as hermeneutics. You can do this to high academic theory as well; you can make the same move.

William Lombardo: I think you see something similar to what you ascribe to Doyle in the Milton Friedman essay you cite, which is anything but a piece of popular writing, and where Friedman basically concedes that economic assumptions are false.[3] But you do turn the tables on that as well.

Putting on our Marxist goggles for a moment, there’s a pattern that seemed consistent across many of the chapters of this book, which is that this reinterpretation of ourselves thanks to popular social science happens to be tremendously beneficial to capital. Do you see that as an accident or as a necessary part of this literature?

Jason Blakely: One place where hermeneutics is in tension with orthodox Marxism is that the latter treats class in a sort of reified way, as a brute reality. For instance, working class consciousness is thought to have certain content—immiseration, radicalization, pauperization. In the Communist Manifesto, you get a portrait of the proletariat as having a culture that takes the form of a consciousness and a subjectivity. One difference with Marxism is that hermeneutics doesn’t think there is an object to call “class” that is separate from self-interpretive activity. That said, a dominant way that class constructs itself in our society, that often goes unnoticed, is through scientism around issues that promote homo economicus—and a kind of self takes hold.

Taking homo economicus as a form of selfhood, here there are probably some affinities with Marx. Marx has this idea about disenchantment, where he says: “[The bourgeoisie] has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”[4] And there is clearly an affinity with homo economicus in that description. But the philosophy of social science is different. In hermeneutics, homo economicus isn’t the product of material conditions or relations. It’s the reverse; culture is what creates certain economic situations.

William Lombardo: So if the popular interpretation tends to benefit capital as opposed to labor (using a very crude breakdown), that is incidental to the discursive meaning-making. No one is intending for this to happen; nor is it a nefarious plot of rich factory owners. You see it as a byproduct?

Jason Blakely: Yes, and I don’t mean to eliminate agency. But essentially what you have are different traditions. Even though I level a critique at managerialized forms of democracy and self-help culture, those are cultures and traditions that also have motivating sources from the bottom up. They’re not just imposed as a false ideology by the capitalist class. For hermeneutics, the economy is within culture. Different economic scenarios are generated by different cultural traditions. This doesn’t mean domination doesn’t happen, but it means the relationship between power and practice is more complicated than a unilateral top down.

William Lombardo: I want to ask about your discussion of artificial intelligence and homo machina—how the discourse around AI has caused a similar reinterpretation of ourselves. People now think of themselves as more machine-like. Can you describe that?

Jason Blakely: One thing I am trying to do constantly is to turn the tables on naturalism. Eventually I get around to treating AI as an empirical theory of the mind, but if we’re looking at it as hermeneuticists then what we see foremost is a set of meanings, metaphors, and poeticizations of human agency. One of the things that AI models of cognition and human agency gravely miss is what Charles Taylor calls the “significance factor.”[5] I also studied with John Searle at Berkeley, who has the famous Chinese Room argument, which draws a distinction between syntax and semantics.[6] Both Taylor and Searle are trying to make the same point, which is that human agency has a significance or “mattering” dimension; things matter for human beings. From that perspective, computational systems—for all their sophistication—have not approached one inch closer to that dimension. In that regard, they are still instrumental tools. The syntactical speed needed to run an algorithm, even faster than ever before, doesn’t get any closer to significance or mattering. As Taylor says, machines, strictly speaking, aren’t doing anything. The language of “doing” is a poetic-linguistic trick we play. Or, more specifically, they’re only doing something relative to an agent doing that with them.

We have a very superstitious, even fetishized, relationship with technology and machines. We are constantly using metaphors like “the computer is computing” to describe machines doing things as though they are agents. So we anthropomorphize our machines. That doesn’t mean machines can’t become like it, but if it’s going to happen, they are going to have to grasp what Searle called semantics. We would have to create a machine for which things matter, not a machine that simply manipulates algorithmic steps.

William Lombardo: You mention changing the standards for the Turing Test, away from a machine fooling us into thinking it’s human, and towards one that creates meaning for itself and for which things matter.

Jason Blakely: Right. I’m very fond of the movie Blade Runner, and inspired by that movie I suggest an alternate Turing Test, an empathy test like Deckard uses in the movie. But whether things matter becomes the new standard for intelligence, not whether we can be fooled on a phone call by a computer that can make linguistic moves fast enough that we think we’re talking to another person. That was Alan Turing’s famous test for intelligence.

William Lombardo: One interesting thing about Blade Runner is that, while the robots are anthropomorphized, humans are de-anthropomorphized or roboticized. The expressed fear is that AI will become so intelligent that it will become like us, but is there also a risk that, if the logic of this plays out, the real conclusion would be the opposite, that we become more robotic?

Jason Blakely: I think that’s the real repressed fear here, not that machines are becoming more like us, but that we’re becoming more like machines. Which is to say that homo machina is a form of selfhood that requires detachment and manipulation. Part of what I do in the chapter on self-help and managerial democracy is to suggest that we’ve learned through popularized social scientific theories to treat ourselves and others like machines. It’s a kind of Neo-Stoicism in the sense that it involves a step back from my desires and the things that are meaningful to me. We take a rationalist stance in which we manipulate and apply scientific methods in order to ensure certain outcomes in our personal lives, our love lives, our businesses, our democracy.

This kind of a self has a relationship with other people that is increasingly objectified. The real fear of machines is that we stand in awe of our own imagination, and we’re scared of the wrong thing. I think Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are tremendously superstitious people who have overawed themselves with their own imaginations. They’re scared of the Great Leap Forward of robots, but the repressed fear there is that we are becoming more machine-like with each other because of this ethos where we treat others as objects to be manipulated. This is also true of mass, factory-style killing, which I address in the book. The modern political imagination’s fixation on the concentration camp is partially because they are kinds of laboratories where nobody in particular really does the killing. It just happens scientifically, rationally, efficiently, etc. The same is also true of drone warfare.

William Lombardo: And this involves not just an objectification of objects, but also a kind of disembodied self-alienation, which Charles Taylor calls the “punctual self.”[7] It’s as if we were standing apart from ourselves and looking at ourselves as objects to operate on. And this is a really strange way of thinking about ourselves.

I want to pivot to political hermeneutics and the different politics one can arrive at by looking at the world hermeneutically. Can you describe how and why hermeneutics can create differing political commitments?

Jason Blakely: I wrote a book with Mark Bevir called Interpretive Social Science, and in the opening of that we discuss how there are different philosophies that motivate the interpretive turn. For example, one of the most interesting conservative theorists of the last one-hundred years is Michael Oakeshott, who delivers a criticism of rationalism on the basis of a notion of tradition.[8] Pragmatism is another source; post-structuralism is another; we could go on. But the idea is that a lot of different philosophical traditions converge on the insights of hermeneutics and on the study of human beings. Partly, the motivation that drives somebody into hermeneutics can generate different political theories. For example, part of what Michel Foucault is doing is constructing archaeologies of epistemic systems and locating subjectivities in systems of power that create a discursive selfhood. For Foucault, his politics is anti-humanistic; there is no special value to human beings. It’s a Neo-Nietzschean position, a moral avant-gardism. So, out of interpretivism a kind of Nietzscheanism can emerge. In Oakeshott, on the other hand, you have a Burkean traditionalism that’s suspicious of technocracy and heavy-handed globalism.

Myself, I would identify with a kind of Left-Catholic humanism that revolves around issues of utopian imagining and deliberative democracy. If politics is about storytelling and meaning, one thing you can take away from hermeneutics is that ordinary humans have access to and can participate in the very highest elements of governance. I’m more sympathetic to this participatory turn.

William Lombardo: More pointedly, what is the relationship between hermeneutics and developing a healthy multiculturalism?

Jason Blakely: Charles Taylor would be who to begin with on that, and he frames multiculturalism in terms of the politics of recognition.[9] For him, the link between multiculturalism and hermeneutics is that modern selves have to grope toward and try to articulate who they are. In his genealogy in A Secular Age, we see that we don’t live in a social imaginary where our identity is automatic.[10] A medieval peasant would have thought his place in the feudal system was given by the cosmos. We live in a “social imaginary” in which everyone realizes they can become something radically different than they already are and brush shoulders with people who don’t share their sense of selfhood. Multiculturalism is tied to hermeneutics because self-interpretive activity implies that I could interpret differently and that there is a fragility to modern identity. The problem becomes: which identities are or are not recognized in modern democracies? For Taylor, provocatively, identity politics is inescapable in the modern social imaginary. Conservatism is an identity; evangelical Christianity is an identity; working class, union member, etc. The question for multicultural societies is how many identities can you sustain? What is a reasonable number?

William Lombardo: Perhaps, as a final question: you have been critical of the rising illiberal right. I imagine you have a list of criticisms against that group of thinkers, but your last answer suggests there is a critique that comes from hermeneutic political theory. Do you think you could describe that critique?

Jason Blakely: There are lots of ways into this, but one thing hermeneutics can offer anti-liberalism is that liberalism is a constellation of meanings and not a frozen type from which you can deduce or establish sociologically necessary conclusions or final destination points. A huge mistake among anti-liberals on the level of philosophy of social science is to reify liberalism so that it must always be one way and lead to the same conclusions. They identify an inner logic that misses how liberalism and all ideologies are more like Wittgensteinian family resemblances. They are themes and clusters of meaning that can achieve different things. For instance, liberalism can feed into authoritarianism, many of the features of which developed out of the market polis in the United States in which market science has to be imposed even against the wills of democratic majorities. So, liberalism can combine with anti-liberalism in the same way that meanings can combine. Even in the history of liberalism, it generates such disparate ideologies as political republicanism in Tocqueville and the American Founders; it generates liberal racial hierarchies in Calhoun; it can generate far-left liberal utopias in Thoreau and the transcendentalists.

Liberalism is not an essential type. That does not mean you have to be a liberal, it just means you can’t get away with a reductive move. What I suspect is that anti-liberals will find that they themselves are marked by the liberal tradition. If they’re fully post-liberal, they have to think about liberalism a little more charitably.

  1. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). ↩︎

  2. See Michael Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs,” in Debating the Democratic Peace (2001). ↩︎

  3. Milton Friedman, “The Methodology of Positive Economics,” in Essays in Positive Economics (1953). ↩︎

  4. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). The quote continues: “It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” ↩︎

  5. Charles Taylor, “Cognitive Psychology,” in Human Agency and Language (1985). ↩︎

  6. John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Programs (1984). ↩︎

  7. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (1989), Chapter 9. ↩︎

  8. See Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics” (1962). ↩︎

  9. Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism (1992). ↩︎

  10. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007). ↩︎

William Lombardo is the Politics editor. He is a policy researcher living in Washington, DC and a graduate of Duke University.