Danielle Allen:
The Art of Theory Interview (2011)


Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies and one of our most important contemporary writers in democratic theory. Her work integrates a deep understanding of both ancient and modern political philosophy, and we spoke with her recently about her scholarship.

Art of Theory: What brought you to study political theory?

Danielle Allen: The truth of the matter, I suppose, is that it’s a family business. My father is a political philosopher, and a significant number of family dinner conversations consisted of discussions between him and my mother, for instance, about whether Socrates was right that no one does wrong knowingly, or among my father, his colleagues and students, about the founders, Lincoln, and so on.

Add to this that a passion for democratic politics runs on both sides of my family. My mother’s grandfather served in the administration of the governor of Michigan. My father’s father helped found one of the first NAACP chapters in northern Florida. The belief that politics matters fundamentally for the life prospects of each one of us runs pretty deep in me.

Art of Theory: You have doctoral degrees in both Classics (from Cambridge) and Government (from Harvard). How do these two disciplines inform your work, and what are the challenges with working at the borders of two fields?

Allen: Studying classics generally gave me powerful tools for understanding language, text, and historical contingency.

Specializing in ancient Athens, in particular, also gives one a remarkable opportunity to hone one’s skills for analyzing democracy. It’s a closed case. Its archive is, at the end of the day, relatively small, certainly compared to the caches of evidence available for thinking about modern democracies. Its philosophers identified and framed powerful questions about some of the most challenging features of democratic life. And important theoretical inroads for understanding democracy have already been made, for instance in the work of Moses Finley and Josiah Ober.

Political science—and here I mean both the theoretical and the empirical sides—has, as you might expect, given me access to analysis of fundamental questions about democracy as transformed by the pressures of modernity. One needs additional tools for analyzing politics on the scale of contemporary nation states and global associations. Statistics, survey methods, modeling: these are all valuable tools for anyone who believes, as I do, in uniting sociological understanding with normative argument.

But, let me be clear, the student of language, text, and historical contingency is also contributing to sociological understanding, which I take to be a necessary basis for normative theorizing. The resources of the two disciplines are complementary.

Art of Theory: In your most recent book, Why Plato Wrote, you argue that Plato was not only a systematic philosopher but also a political activist determined to use the power of language to intervene in Athenian politics.

What is the most important lesson that contemporary public philosophers can draw from Plato’s rhetorical method? What drew you to offer this reinterpretation of Plato?

Allen: Nothing particularly strategic drew me to offer this reinterpretation of Plato. The story was just staring at me out of the evidence. This was one of those cases where you just feel compelled to tell people what you see because it’s so dramatic, as when you say to a friend, ‘‘Can you believe what I just saw?’’

But what lessons are there in seeing how cannily Plato crafted his language and with what self-consciousness about the role of language in politics? I suppose I wish that contemporary public philosophers had, like Plato, a bit more of the poet in them, a somewhat deeper understanding of metaphor and its power to transform imaginative landscapes. This is not to say that political philosophers or public philosophers should be casting aside argument, not at all. The point rather is that metaphor can help clear a field for argument to plow and sow.

Art of Theory: If you could recommend two works of political theory to a modern statesman—say, Barack Obama—one contemporary work, and one work from the history of political thought, what would they be and why?

Allen: There are different answers depending on the reader to whom one’s making the recommendations, no? So your question could be: if all the libraries in the world were destroyed and you could save only two books of political theory, which would they be. There my answer would have to be Plato’s Republic and the Federalist Papers.

Plato’s Republic and the Federalist Papers make two very different cases for how human beings can frame their collective lives so that they can flourish individually and collectively. To make sense of these two texts in relation to one another, one would have to dream up the missing stream of texts between them.

But if you wanted me to recommend two books to Barack Obama, they would be Herodotus’ Histories and Ralph Ellison’s Collected Essays. Both of these books explore how an egalitarian vision (Solon’s in the Histories, an American inheritance in Ellison) can be brought into concrete existence, as well as laying bare the obstacles to such a development. And the Herodotus provides a dose of Machiavellian insight as well.

Art of Theory: You’ve suggested in Talking to Strangers that democratic citizens should treat one another as friends. Do you think there are systemic features of our modern societies that impede this way of relating to one another?

Allen: I’d like to stress that the emphasis in the phrase ‘‘treat one another as friends’’ is really on the ‘‘as.’’ One doesn’t have to like another citizen to treat that person ‘‘as’’ a friend. Rather, the ideal means using the habits of friendship in one’s interaction with that fellow citizen: expecting that there will be turn-taking in the acceptance of loss, recognizing and honoring contributions made by the other to collective well-being, proving one’s trustworthiness to the other.

Clearly, the systemic feature of all societies (pre-modern as well as modern) that inhibits this is differential power relations. Treating other citizens ‘‘as’’ friends requires forthrightness that is difficult from a position of vulnerability and malleability that is difficult from a position of power. One hopes, therefore, to generate an animating ideal that puts pressure on situations of domination—both by encouraging the dominated to resist and by engaging the dominating in moral self-reflection—so that power differentials can be reduced to the greatest extent possible.

Art of Theory: You emphasize in Talking to Strangers that citizenship, friendship, and justice—among the ‘‘most complex, and also rewarding, of human activities’’ (p. 137)—all concern themselves with translating rivalrous self-interest into the equitable self-interest of civic friendship.

How well are we doing today in cultivating equitable self-interest? What institutions encourage its development? What more could be done?

Allen: The financial crisis of 2008 provides a good example of the excessive growth of rivalrous self-interest at the expense of equitable self-interest. In several of the leading financial institutions, we saw cases where important personnel pursued their own betterment even at the expense of their own firms. This has been much discussed in the press as a misalignment of incentives, where financiers were rewarded for behavior that, again, wasn’t even to the benefit of their immediate collectivity—the firm—let alone the benefit of a national or global collectivity.1 It’s not only the finance industry that provides evidence of this; at present, one can find examples in the insurance industry too.2 And I’m sure there are many other examples beyond these two quite specific cases.

My hypothesis is that some features of economic theory can be held accountable here: particularly, the reliance on stripped down conceptions of rationality and interest. Economists have begun to recognize weaknesses in their theories that come from the absolute monetization of interest, but I wonder if the rest of us can understand their work well enough to help them toward conceptions of interest that, for instance, might take account of the distinction between rivalrous and equitable self-interest?

Art of Theory: What do you take to be the greatest deficiency in our understanding of democracy today? What sorts of questions should democratic theorists be asking that they have so far failed to ask?

Allen: I think we have removed ourselves too far from the ideal of political equality and that we would have much to gain from turning our attention in this direction again. Issues of income inequality are of supreme importance to questions of political equality, so to turn to analysis of the latter is not to turn away from important questions of social justice that have been the focus of debate for the last thirty years or so.

Art of Theory: What feature of our political life most puzzles you?

Allen: How best to revivify the ideal of equality in a context where its necessary companion, liberty, has come to dominate our public discourse and collective understandings of politics.

Art of Theory: In 2007, you accepted an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Studies. Could you talk about why the atmosphere at the Institute is uniquely conducive to academic scholarship generally, and scholarship in political theory specifically?

Allen: In the School of Social Sciences at IAS, scholars from all the fields of the social sciences and often some disciplines in the humanities assemble each year to share their work. This is an extremely challenging environment in which to read, write, and talk because after years of specializing in one’s own discipline one is obliged to explain, to a lot of smart, tough-minded people and in a language that is not anchored to one’s own discipline, why one’s research question matters. In a sense, one is obliged to get back to the basic human ground of one’s work. This, I think, actually rejuvenates each scholar’s intellectual life, and has certainly had that effect for me.

Art of Theory: You previously served as Dean of Humanities at the University of Chicago, and currently serve as a trustee of both Amherst College and Princeton University. What insights do you think political theory can bring to university administration? Conversely, how has your experience in university administration informed your current scholarship?

Allen: My interest in political equality has led me to an emphatic focus on questions of education—about the content of education, access to education, and the relation between the research enterprise and the kind of knowledge culture that is disseminated to the citizenry as a whole. Serving as an administrator and on the boards of Amherst and Princeton, and also the Mellon Foundation, has given me the opportunity to develop a clearer understanding of the evolutionary processes by which colleges and universities come to embody one set of ideals or another.

Does being a political theorist help one in this administrative work? To some extent it helps; to some extent it hurts. It hurts, I think, in that we political theorists can be overly oriented toward ideals so that we are sometimes too slow to see the careful, slow, pains-taking cultivation required to move toward them. Yet being a political theorist helps as well because in general members of our tribe are highly attentive to institutional form and to how institutional structures do or do not enable human flourishing.

Art of Theory: What characterizes the best theory writing? What makes a piece of theory or philosophy excellent in your mind?

Allen: The work I admire most generally begins with a clear-eyed analysis of sociological realities. This is not to say that description of those realities necessarily enters the text but rather that beneath the structure of a text’s questions one can discern a sense of an urgent need to respond to lived realities, which have been astutely analyzed. In other words, good theory writing begins, in my view, in good sociology. And then I think good theory writing depends on honesty: the goal is to search out the best possible answers to those urgent questions, and one’s own conscience is the stern presiding judge whose standard one hopes above all to meet.

Art of Theory: Describe your workspace and writing habits. When you sit down to write, what’s your process?

Allen: I wish I had one workspace and one set of writing habits. I am far too peripatetic. I have a fantasy writing space: in various ways those in which I really work approximate it. That fantasy space consists of a very large, completely flat work top (without drawers, etc., so a table not a desk) set right up against a very large window looking out at trees, or through the branches of trees, with good light. I generally manage to have the wide, flat work top.

As to writing habits, I am not one of those people who does fifteen minutes or an hour a day. Either I am not writing or I am writing non-stop. I have done a ridiculous amount of my most valuable writing staying up all night in hotel rooms while in the wrong time zone.

Art of Theory: Where do you see your work going in coming years? What’s on your horizon?

Allen: I’ve just finished a book on the Declaration of Independence which is presently seeking a publisher, so I am now turning to other projects. I am working on a book called E-publics which is meant to be an answer to a question I regularly got about Talking to Strangers: how does the internet affect your argument? And I am working on a book called Education and Equality, in which I hope to lay out my arguments about political equality. These should keep me busy for a while. Beyond that I cannot say.