Wednesday, November 14, 2007

David Estlund

David M. Estlund is professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Brown University. His new book from Princeton University Press is Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I obviously have lots of political philosophy and related stuff to read at all times. I’d gone too long without having a recreational book going, but I’ve just now finished one: Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides. A friend is starting a book club for guys and this is our first. It’s a safely masculine choice, so we won’t be confused with Oprah’s book clubs, I guess. Anyway, the book is as much the story of the sad war between the Americans and the Indians. Sides calls them Indians, not Native Americans, which immediately started me thinking about how this treatment fits with our contemporary appreciation of the cruelty that the westward expansion involved. The book is fascinating looked at through that lens. The author has grappled with those questions behind the scenes and his stance is not simple. It turns out that people are complicated. What emerges is a rich account of the heights of courage and humanity, and the depths of ignorance and depravity — all of this on both sides of the fight. But it’s not as if the book takes the simple stance that both sides were equally bad. Different readers will draw different conclusions on that. I don’t presume to judge the historical accuracy of the story, but it is as much about these hard questions (though rarely explicitly) as it is about the amazing and morally mixed Kit Carson himself.

I’m going to propose that this new reading group turns next to Kerouac’s On the Road. The recent discussions I’ve seen around the 50th anniversary of the text have convinced me that I should read it. I’m looking forward to it.

I’ve also just started an interesting book that is work-related, Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative vs. Participatory Democracy, by Diana Mutz. The author presents some empirical work that suggests that frank discussions about politics, of the kinds that many theories of democracy hope to promote, tend to dampen the level of political participation, something that is also often called for. The intuitive idea is that none of us likes to have those hard morally-tinged debates with people we spend a lot of time with. It’s no fun, too hard, hard on the relationships, etc. I’ve just started it. It’s a provocative thesis, and one that will be interesting to lots of people working on democracy.
David Estlund has been teaching moral and political philosophy at Brown since 1991. Learn more about his publications, including many of his scholarly papers which are available online.

Cass Sunstein on Democratic Authority: "A brilliant book, and indispensable reading for anyone interested in democratic theory. Estlund's careful treatment of the 'wisdom of crowds' and the idea of deliberative democracy stands out as a particularly large advance. One of the very few truly major contributions to democratic theory in the last quarter century."

Read more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue