Scott Timcke is a PhD candidate at the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. Here he talks us through the books on South African politics which have inspired him most during his studies. Scott particularly enjoys books that track or reflect upon how a scholar’s thought evolves over their career, and recommends John Rawls’ Collected Papers over A Theory of Justice for this reason.
In 2002, I enrolled to study politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. I did so primarily because I had read Tom Lodge’s South African Politics Since 1994 the year before. The quality of scholarship, clarity of thought, and depth of analysis was far superior to the kind of political analysis that appeared in newspapers or on the radio. Importantly it opened me to higher standards for political explanations and insight.
During the course of my undergraduate studies, I poured over The Politics of Race, Class, and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century South Africa, an edited collection compiled by Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido. While all the selections are of high quality, the essays by Deborah Posel and Saul Dubow are exceptional, and likely the best pieces of scholarship on the complexity of South African politics I have yet encountered.
Later on Shireen Hassim’s Women’s Organization and Democracy in South Africa reminded me not to make the good the enemy of the perfect, and that often-times actual political decisions are hard, requiring difficult strategic choices between incommensurable goals. Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony struck me as a remarkable application of late twentieth century cultural theory to African Studies. Even though my intellectual trajectory has since then moved towards liberal political theory and ethics in general, these books remain central touchpoints of my academic identity.
Somewhere along the way, I picked up Andrew Feenberg’s Marx, Lukacs, and the Sources of Critical Theory. At the time I had garden-party familiarity with Western Marxism, but this book encouraged me to become more acquainted with this tradition of inquiry. I also encountered Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference. While his ideas enriched my research, I cannot say the same for my writing (It is likely that it will never recover). Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern and John Law’s After Method gave some coherence to my thoughts on the social aspects of scientific and technological practice.
During the early portion of my doctoral training, I lingered with 1970s sociological thought. Within Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour, and Anthony Giddens’ Capitalism and Modern Society Theory, one can see intellectual forerunners to contemporary practice theory. Steven Lukes’ Power: a Radical View and Harry Braverman’s Labour and Monopoly Capital pushed me to reconsider the intersection of intent and labour in ideological reproduction, an area best primed by Dallas Smythe in Dependency Road. Lastly C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination persuaded me that while good work requires intellectual curiosity, by itself this is insufficient. Rather, as Mills writes, responsible scholarship should be “direct relevance to urgent public issues and insistent human troubles.”
Following Mills dictum, more recently I have focused on luck egalitarianism and the egalitarian turn in liberal thought. Naturally, I’ve been influenced by Thomas Nagel’s Equality and Partiality, and G. A. Cohen’s If You’re an Egalitarian How Come You Are So Rich?
I enjoy books that track or reflect upon how a scholar’s thought evolves over their career. This is why I recommend John Rawls’ Collected Papers over A Theory of Justice. CP covers his early work decision theory, through justice as fairness to political liberalism and early public reason theory. In this vain, Robert Nozick’s has some magnificent essays on weight and worth, love and value in his quasi-intellectual autobiography, The Examined Life. He also concedes that his earlier political libertarian positions were untenable.
Regarding moral and ethical thought Bernard Williams’ Ethics and The Limits of Philosophy, while aiming to draw attention to how certain kinds of systematic moral aspirations were counter-productive to human flourishing, nevertheless showed the dramatic positive possibilities for ethical reasoning (even if as Derek Parfit claims, Williams doesn’t have a good grasp of what a reason is.) I have yet to cover Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, or Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons in their entirety, but the chapters I have read have informed how I think about personhood and political recognition.
Due to the clear influences of Rawls and Williams in her work, I am mesmerised by Martha Nussbaum. Frontiers of Justice is a splendid introduction to current liberal thought more broadly. Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice has led me to discard the pretence of liberal neutrality, to disagree with Sandel, I am open to favouring liberalism’s goods.
Scott Timcke is a PhD candidate at the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. His thesis, On Modal Luck Egalitarianism, addresses the egalitarian turn in liberal philosophy and introduces modal conceptions of luck, action, and responsibility into that debate. You can follow him at @ScottTimcke.