What’s Another Word for Getting Big? Research Time, 20/06/2017

A curious idea came to me as I was reading through some of James Madison’s Federalist Papers. If I were to think about them historically – and this is just a riff, really – I’d see them as a forerunner of the pragmatists.

I don't just mean this in the ordinary sense of the term, that they’ll adapt their thinking to changing situations and generally apply their thought to problems in immediate political and social problems. Of course, they did. But that’s not all that was going on.

Sometimes, I think the only -ism I could ever adopt as a thinker is pragmatist.* Our thinking is rooted in understanding the changeable, contingent, material world. So we strive for our thinking to be as flexible as reality. Not conform to some perfect imagined symmetry.

Just because you wrote more of the papers, that doesn't mean you have
to be the star of the show.
* I just wish academics would stop assuming that all the name means, is that I write commentary on William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey.

The world is as it is, and philosophy develops different ways of thinking to deal with that. Philosophy is the craftsmanship of concepts, our mind’s tools. I see that idea in the work of Hamilton and Madison. But it’s especially at the forefront for Madison. If Hamilton is the Federalists’ political scientist and sociologist, Madison is the book’s philosopher.

Hamilton argues for his conclusions through very insightful and philosophically productive analysis of ongoing and oncoming political problems of the post-independence Thirteen Colonies.

Madison will argue for the same conclusions, but through analyzing the possibilities for the structures of communities themselves.

He attacks an argument against large-scale federal government. It has nothing to do with immediate political and military consequences. It’s that the only functional free societies in human history have been the size of small cities. So only small cities can govern themselves democratically.

Madison’s argument was that democratic possibility doesn’t depend on size, but on communication. To deliberate as a public in ancient Greece or medieval Germany and Italy, you had to show up in the same town square and talk to each other.

By the time of revolutionary North America, they’d developed the technology for detailed communication across entire continents. The same public deliberation could carry on through the first continental-scale mass media – printed newspaper and an educated society.**

** Educated among the whole people, at their time; less so among the three-fifths people.

The same media effectively carried out democratic governance in the same way. Election machinery and fast channels of communication between a town and a capital city connected South Carolina to New York, Vermont, and Maryland within a few days.

The mechanisms for representatives to reach a general assembly and communicate with the people for whom they were responsible in government could reach longer than the walk down the road. Detailed communication across continents was possible by the American Revolution.

You could create a public of millions with trains and the postal service. What’s important isn’t size, but the speed and density of communication. Find the difference that makes the difference. You may need new ideas to do it – a butcher can always make a better knife. That’s philosophy.

No comments:

Post a Comment