David Peritz

BA, Occidental College. DPhil, Oxford University. Special interests in democracy in conditions of cultural diversity, social complexity and political dispersal, critical social theory, social contract theory, radical democratic thought, and the idea of dispersed but integrated public spheres that create the social and institutional space for broad-based, direct participation in democratic deliberation and decision-making. Recipient of a Marshall scholarship. Taught at Harvard University, Deep Springs College, and Dartmouth College; visiting scholar at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and the London School of Economics. SLC, 2000–

Undergraduate Courses 2017-2018

Politics

Modern Political Theory

Open , Seminar—Year

Political theory consists of a discourse of thinking about the nature of political power; the conditions for its just and unjust use; the rights of individuals, minorities, and majorities; and the nature and bounds of political community. Rather than tackling pressing political problems one at a time, political theorists seek systematic solutions in overall visions of just societies or comprehensive diagnoses of the roots of oppression and domination in political orders. In this course, we focus on modern writers who shaped the terms and concepts that increasingly populate political imaginations the world over; that is, the conscious and unconscious ideas about rights, power, class, democracy, community, and the like that we use to make sense of our political lives. Thinkers to be considered include Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, and Nietzsche. By studying their work, we will be better positioned to answer something like the following range of questions: What is the nature of political power? What is the content of social justice? Does democracy threaten basic individual rights? Is it more important to respect the individual or the community when the interests of the two conflict? Is a market economy required by or incompatible with democracy? What aspects of human potential and social worlds do different grand theories of political life illuminate and occlude? Finally, this course will pose the issue of the worth and legitimacy of European modernity; that is, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” Which of the ideas that jostle for prominence within this tradition are worth defending? Which should be rejected? Or should we reject them all and, instead, embrace a new, postmodern political epoch? In answering these questions, we will be forced to test both the internal coherence and the continuing relevance of the political visions that shape modern politics.

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Related Disciplines

The Legitimacy of Modernity

Open , Lecture—Year

How can social order be explained in modern societies that are too large, fluid, and complex to rely on tradition or self-conscious political regulation alone? Social theory is a distinctly modern tradition of discourse centered on answering this question and focused on a series of theorists and texts whose works gave rise to the modern social sciences. They explore the sources of social order in structures, many of which work “behind the backs” of the awareness and intentions of those whose interaction they integrate and regulate. The market economy, the legal and administrative state, the firm and the professions, highly differentiated political and civil cultures, a variety of disciplinary techniques inscribed in diverse mundane practices...one by one, these theorists labored to unmask the often hidden sources of social order in the modern world. Moreover, this understanding of social order has evolved side-by-side with evaluations that run the gambit from those who view Western modernity as achieving the apex of human freedom and individuality to those who see it as insinuating a uniquely thorough and invidious system of domination. This class will introduce many of the foundational texts and authors in social theory and the social sciences, including Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Jürgen Habermas. In this way, it will also cover various schools of social explanation, including Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, and (in group conferences) postcolonial studies and feminism. The thread connecting these disparate authors and approaches will be the issue of the worth or legitimacy of Western modernity, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” Which of the institutions that structured the process of modernization are worth defending or reforming? Which should be rejected outright? Or should we reject them all and embrace a new, postmodern social epoch? In answering these questions in class and group conferences, we will grapple with both the classical texts and the contemporary implications of different approaches to social analysis.

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Related Disciplines

Previous Courses

Justice, Action, Legitimacy, Power

Advanced , Seminar—Year
This seminar examines five frameworks of normative and social analysis, focusing on the issue of how to understand power, action, legitimacy, justice, and gender in contemporary social worlds. We read works by four of the most influential and systematic contemporary political theorists—John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, and Hannah Arendt—and by feminists who either criticize or extend their works. In this way, we examine—first on their own and then in comparison—the resources, implications, and limitations of different conceptions of social justice, human flourishing, political legitimacy, the organization of social power, and the nature of gender relations. We test the relevance of different approaches by examining the ways in which they either contribute to or impede feminist criticism. Stark differences will emerge between the five theoretical perspectives examined. For instance, a variety of positions will emerge on the issue of the worth or legitimacy of European modernity, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative and constitutional democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, the discourse on human rights, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” While they are all late-modern or postmodern thinkers, the authors that we study disagree radically on the possibilities that modernity opens for social justice, political legitimacy, empowered human action, or new and insidious forms of domination and inequality. Issues to be discussed include: What is the content of social justice, and can it be realized in contemporary social conditions? What is the relationship of identity, action, and politics? Can democracy be realized in advanced capitalist societies; and, if so, what institutional and social forms does it require? Should we view the process of Western modernization as representing genuine moral and political progress or simply as replacing older with newer and more insidious forms of domination? Does a feminist perspective contribute to, modify, or lead to the rejection of contemporary theories of justice, action, legitimacy, and power? Emphasis will be on close and sustained readings from original texts.
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Diminished Democracy: Critical Perspectives on the Roots of Our Contemporary Political Malaise

Open , Lecture—Year

America is the oldest and most stable democracy in the world. Something like American democracy is not only admired but also ascendant the world over. We have mainly overcome a long history of race-, gender-, and class-based exclusions and increasingly made effective the in-principle com­mit­ment to civil and political rights at the core of the Constitution. These real and important accomplishments notwithstanding, contemporary American politics is deeply unsettled. We find ourselves in the midst of a presidential election that almost certainly will be not only the most expensive but also one of the most fractious and unpredictable in our long political history. Popular disaffection and anger with “politics as usual” propels candidates from outside the establishment into front-runner status. The “new normal” of our politics includes partisan polariza­tion, an escalation of rhetorical salvos, and media saturated with highly negative and distortive advertising. This political climate belies the gravity of issues faced: the erosion of wages and standards of living, increasing inequality and stalled social mobility, unsustainable spending on core state goods (including social security and medical care), ongoing security challenges and the slow erosion of American power internationally, global warming, an education and health-care system that deliver mediocre results at extraordinarily high costs, etc. What are we to make of our democratic ambivalence as we live with the triumphs and troubles of a political system that is the worst—except for all the others? To gain insight into these issues, we will look at contemporary American politics from a more philosophical, historical, and comparative perspective. We will examine transformations in American political institutions, economics, and civil culture that have, perhaps, made our politics at once more inclusive but also more fractious, unequal, and dysfunctional.

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The Philosophy and Politics of (In)Equality

Open , Seminar—Fall

This course is part of the Intensive Semester in Yonkers program and is no longer open for interviews and registration. Interviews for the program take place in the previous spring semester.

Visiting America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed a deep, historically unprecedented form of social equality, one in which every person assumed that they could occupy any station or position of privilege. Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed a movement in the opposite direction: a phenomenal reversal of the “great compression” of income inequality produced by the New Deal political economy and, in its place, a rapid and profound growth in social inequality in America and other “up or out” societies, accompanied by striking declines in social mobility. One aim of this course is to examine the social and political forces that have produced this remarkable and accelerating growth in disparities in social fate. The focus, however, will not be on proximate factors responsible for recent trends but, rather, on the social theory of inequality; i.e., attempts to understand how deeply stratified forms of social order work and what forces and practices stabilize and legitimate the transmission of deep inequalities over time. Topics to be covered include class, race, status, gender, and professional stratification, while methodological perspectives will vary from sociology, anthropology, and economics to history, psychology, and public health. A further striking feature of the political present is the near total absence of effective political or social movements dedicated to redressing extreme concentrations of wealth, shrinking opportunities for social mobility, and the increasing economic vulnerability of large portions of humanity in this society and elsewhere. In exploring this issue, we will shift attention to political philosophy—and, specifically, the subject of distributive justice. We will search for standards of critique of contemporary inequality, standards that might serve social movements or political parties that aim for a return to a less unequal social world.

Faculty

Modern Political Theory

Open , Seminar—Spring

Political theory presents a tradition of thinking about the nature of political power; the conditions for its just and unjust use; the rights of individuals, minorities, and majorities; and the nature and bounds of political community. Rather than tackling pressing political problems one at a time, political theorists seek systematic solutions in overall visions of just societies or comprehensive diagnoses of the roots of oppression and domination in existent political orders. In this course, we focus on modern writers who shaped the Western political imagination; that is, the conscious and unconscious ideas about rights, power, class, democracy, community, and the like that we use to make sense of our political lives. Thinkers to be considered include Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. In studying their work, we will seek answers to the following questions. What is the nature of political power? What is the content of social justice? Does democracy threaten basic individual rights? Is it more important to respect the individual or the community when the interests of the two conflict? Is a market economy required by or incompatible with democracy? What aspects of human potential and social worlds do different grand theories of political life illuminate and occlude? Finally, this course will pose the issue of the worth and legitimacy of European modernity; that is, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” Which of the ideas that jostle for prominence within this tradition are worth defending? Which should be rejected? Or should we reject them all and instead embrace a new, postmodern political epoch? In answering these questions, we will be forced to test both the internal coherence and the continuing relevance of the political visions that shape modern politics.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: Democracy, Diversity, and (In)equality

Open , FYS

From ancient times through the major modern democratic revolutions, democracy’s advocates—as well as its critics—believed that it requires and tends to bring about political equality. Often, democratic equality has been understood to entail important limits on social inequality. It has also been long presupposed and sometimes argued that democracy only works in fairly homogeneous societies. Only in such societies, it has long been maintained, can a people be sufficiently similar and equal to form shared political understandings and projects. Absent considerable commonality—religious, linguistic, ethnic, racial, and cultural—as well as political and perhaps social equality, it is feared that democracy deteriorates into the tyranny of the majority or a war of all against all or a shallow contest of competing interests. At the outset of the 21st century, however, we are witness to two dramatic shifts in the character of society that increasingly seem to challenge the viability of democracy, at least if these long-held views about its necessary social presuppositions are correct. On the one hand, democratic societies have become increasingly unequal over the last 30 years as a result of globalization, changes in the nature and remuneration of work, new policies, and new political conditions. On the other hand, democratic societies are increasingly diverse and their citizens less willing to “forget” their many differences to melt into a dominant national culture. These developments raise some basic questions. Can the character of democracy be reconceived so that it is suited to and/or better able to modify these new social conditions? If not, is democracy doomed? Or might it be possible to reform democracy to render it compatible with conditions of deep diversity while also making it capable of securing the requisite degrees of political and social equality? This course will explore these questions in a number of ways. We will study exemplary historical statements of the ideal of democracy, drawing on traditional works in political philosophy. We will also draw upon contemporary work in sociology, anthropology, cultural and legal studies, and political science to examine the nature of social and cultural diversity, including religion, class, gender, sexuality, and race. We will draw upon a similar range of disciplines to seek to comprehend the causes and consequence of the widening inequality characteristic of almost all economically-advanced democratic societies. Finally, we will explore works that bring these themes together by examining current scholars’ efforts to (re)articulate the ideal and practice of democracy in light of increased diversity and inequality. By the end of the course, students will have been introduced to a variety of different disciplines in the social sciences, with a special focus on contemporary political philosophy, and will have surveyed a number of different proposals for deepening democracy in 21st-century social conditions. Educational objectives include acquiring, developing, and perfecting the skills necessary to: read demanding texts with care and rigor; participate in focused analytic discussion of these texts; write, edit, and revise interpretive and argumentative academic essays; and conduct original, independent research projects.

Faculty