Jonathan Healey, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689

(Palo Alto) I recommend Healey’s 2023 history of 17th-century England as an important and enjoyable work.

I grew up thinking about this topic, since my Dad was a scholar of English intellectual life in the 1600s and he regularly taught British political history.

In that century, England was on a path toward global power and influence and was already forming the colonial societies that later became the USA, the Irish Republic, and the Anglophone Caribbean. England also experienced the ferment of revolution, radical political and religious ideas, and the Scientific Revolution. Key interpretive questions, such as the causes of the Civil War and the originality of the early Enlightenment, have long been contested; and the rival interpretations of Whig liberals, Marxists, evangelical Christians, and others have implications for the present. The events of 1640-1690 cast long shadows, and I wanted to get one current interpretation of them.

Healey meets my criteria for good historical writing. First, he makes broad points but is not locked onto a few reductive theses. He tends to emphasize the cultural aspects of the Civil War, particularly the clash between radical puritanism and traditional forms of recreation and worship that the Puritans sought to ban. This explanation may compete with political or economic accounts, but Healey doesn’t exclude a range of evidence as he makes a case for what he calls a “culture war.”

I was left thinking that it was unfortunate that a culture war coincided with the effervescence of republican ideas, because the backlash to puritans’ religious reforms may have prevented them from building a durable republic with a broad base of support. However, perhaps 17th-century political radicalism needed religious inspiration.

Second, Healey chooses stories with vivid protagonists to make serious points. For example, his title comes from a science-fiction novella of the same name that Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1666. Cavendish is a fascinating character, and Healey relates her life for several pages. But he chooses his stories to illustrate general patterns, not to entertain with zany anecdotes or to present historical figures as strange and colorful (as popular historians often do).

Finally, Healey documents facts, quotes, interpretations, and stories by citing a large number of primary and secondary sources. Although he wears his learning lightly, I felt in safe hands, since he has obviously read widely and carefully. This period is very well documented, compared to earlier times, and Healey takes advantage of the evidence. (For example, weekly and daily publications devoted to political news originated during the year 1641 and then proliferated manically.)

I learned much from The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, but a few larger points stand out for me.

I was surprised by the scale and cruel destructiveness of the Civil War. I knew about the set-piece battles but not the massacres.

I see more clearly how the intense political debates of the 1650s morphed into the intellectual debates and innovations of the Restoration period–the English Revolution shifting into the Scientific Revolution once many thinkers became disillusioned with political conflict.

I hadn’t realized the extent to which England developed economically from 1600 to 1700–with slavery serving an essential role in the nation’s substantial growth and development.

Healey doesn’t dwell on the following point, but he provides support for it. I would describe England in 1600 as a country with a monarch but very little national government. The government could not field a standing army or collect taxes from a broad spectrum of the society; it didn’t even have a rough idea how many people, farms, and businesses lay within its borders. One reason for high rates of violence was a lack of capacity for social control. Each Stuart monarch struggled with parliaments because the only way to obtain enough revenue to project power was to persuade the big landowners and towns to provide it by consent, although sometimes a king would amass enough money to rule for a time without the legislature.

In contrast, the England of 1700 had a government with considerable capacity. As Healey notes, it occupied the former location of the royal palace at Whitehall, while the monarchs moved west to St. James and Kensington. The government had officers, employees, and statistics. This is the fundamental reason that the monarchy was now much less significant and on it way to irrelevance.

See also: civility as equality; introducing republicanism; the Dutch secret; the oscillation between dictatorship and parliamentary institutions (a game theory model)

What was Nietzsche doing?

I enjoyed guest-teaching a course on Leo Strauss last evening that enrolls an extraordinary group of students. Deeply steeped in political philosophy–and especially Nietzsche–they are able to cite Nietzschean texts by heart, with references.

I had assigned a selection from Will to Power for this session because, in my early work (and even in a roman-a-clef), I presented Strauss as thoroughly Nietszchean. As we discussed the earlier philosopher, I asked–without premeditation–what we think he was up to. Was Nietzsche …

  1. A therapist
  2. A political actor
  3. An artist
  4. A philosopher with views
  5. A scholar

Any forced-choice question about a major thinker is reductive, but I recommend this one to provoke conversation.

Students provided some alternatives that were not on my impromptu list, such as “a recruiter of philosophers.” For what it’s worth, I would choose c. (an artist), while recognizing that a. and e. are also true, to a degree. I am not so sure that Nietzsche was political, in even the loosest sense of that word; in other words, I am skeptical that he wrote to change society. And I don’t think he had philosophical views, in the standard way, because his core doctrines were meant to be self-refuting. I think that Nietzsche wrote to create beautiful, original, and formally fascinating works, in which the author is also a character.

See also: Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness

applied ethics need not mean applying ethical systems

Recently, hearing a distinguished technologist talk about the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI), I recognized a familiar style. People in a given technical field realize that they face an ethical issue. They turn to the relevant academic discipline (philosophy), and they think that they discern a set of available ethical “systems.” These options include at least utilitarianism and Kantianism/deontology. They apply each system to the issue at hand and explore its apparent conclusions. The various systems seem to disagree about at least some cases, and the analysts conclude that ethical questions are hard and unresolved and that people who happen to start from different premises will probably reach different conclusions. The last slide of the PowerPoint is a head-scratcher about the difficulty of ethical reasoning.

I suspect that these “systems” look authoritative because they have been discussed in vast numbers of peer-reviewed publications. If you want to mention deontology, you can cite Kant (1788) and innumerable subsequent works. For utilitarianism, you have Bentham (1789) and its successors. (See Stahl 2021 as just one example.) In a technocratic world, this form of authority seems weighty. You are not just expressing a personal opinion if you can mention a book that has thousands of citations.

The mental model behind this kind of analysis also resembles technical forms of reasoning. The various philosophical systems are seen as very general and internally consistent premises that generate conclusions algorithmically. Ethics is treated as a Normal Science.

To be fully satisfactory, a system’s premises should apply to all cases. Trolley-problems and similar thought-experiments are fascinating because they suggest that the general premises of different systems conflict in select cases. Different algorithms yield different results. The methodological assumption is that analyzing such exotic thought-experiments should clarify principles that will then apply universally. Since this method doesn’t seem to have succeeded (yet), the analyst is entitled to conclude that ethics is unresolved. Hence the last slide of the presentation is about not knowing what to do.

It is often acknowledged that there are more than two or three ethical views for which we can provide fancy citations. What about Thomism, Stoicism, Marxism (of various flavors), feminism, the Five Precepts of Buddhism, Confucianism, African “Sage Philosophy” as explored by H. Odera Oruka (1990), deep ecology, Nietzsche, Levinas, etc. etc.? The notion that there are two or three available systems has a specific history in secular, 20th-century, Anglophone philosophy departments, and it was always controversial even there.

Then again, when people extend the list of available philosophies, often they reach even more relativist conclusions. If “systems” from distant times and places disagree, then surely there can be no right answers. Now the PowerPoint really ends with a head-scratcher.

But in order to conduct this kind of analysis, one must assume that very general premises should apply across all relevant cases. In other words, the appropriate units of analysis are broad generalizations. It is either right or wrong that we should maximize aggregate welfare or that we should treat people as ends rather than means.

One of the leading systems, deontology, may not purport to generate guidance about specific cases. In the Shadow of God (2022) Michael Rosen gives an up-to-date argument that Kant did not intend for his principles to answer questions of applied ethics. If that’s true, then it’s a bit odd to treat utilitarianism and Kantianism as rival “systems.” Utilitarianism might even be the only available philosophy that can really work like an algorithm, and only in some of its forms.

If you are a particularist, you believe that generalizations are not the appropriate units of analysis. What is right or wrong is the specific act, not the generalization. Most people aren’t true particularists, but many are somewhat leery of pure abstraction. We presume that general ethical statements can have some validity and value but that generalizations rarely settle particular cases.

I like Jonathan Dancy’s aesthetic analogy: the best object of judgment is a painting, not a feature (like a splotch of red paint) that recurs in many paintings. Aesthetic judgment is holistic, and the whole is the work of art. Likewise, ethical judgment is often about a whole ethical situation that has many features, not about each feature taken abstractly.

One irony is that applied ethics derives its authority from the academic discipline of philosophy, yet not very many current philosophy professors apply ethical “systems” to cases. I think that approach comes most naturally to technologists who expect reasoning to be algorithmic, whereas philosophers are often humanists who prefer close readings and thick-description.

The applied ethics that I admire most is much more attentive to the empirical and pragmatic details of specific cases, much more closely engaged with the dilemmas of practitioners, more focused on real situations instead of thought-experiments, and more open to normative insights from a range of sources (literature, history, folklore …). It aims to address problems, not to provoke skepticism. And it accepts responsibility for its own consequences.

My favorite applied ethicists work in the world (almost always with collaborators) and are willing to reflect on whether the outcomes are good or bad. Their final PowerPoint slide says: “This is what we’re building, what we hope to accomplish, and why. What do you think about it?”

See also why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; how we use Kant today; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life.

against using the humanities instrumentally

Imagine this scenario: most college students major in humanities disciplines, while the applied sciences languish. The National Endowment for the Humanities spends 250 times as much money as the National Institutes for Health, instead of vice-versa.

Kindly humanists recognize the value of the applied sciences and gather among themselves to consider how to involve their STEM colleagues in their research. For instance, some humanities professors might be working on the 2025 presidential theme of the Modern Language Association: visibility and invisibility in various kinds of texts. Others are addressing the theme of the American Historical Association’s presidential address: “conversations with the dead.” After brainstorming ways for STEM colleagues to contribute to these agendas, they might come up with proposals. Maybe computer scientists could build a website for presenting the invisible aspects of texts? Come to think of it, the WiFi in the Humanities Center seems a little unreliable–could the Comp. Sci. department help with that?

This is satire, but I want to challenge well-intentioned ways that STEM researchers and administrators often view the humanities. Basically, they assume that important agendas come from the applied sciences, including the biomedical fields. The humanities are worth consulting in two main ways.

First, humanists might be able to address the ethical questions that arise in engineering or health projects. In my view, applied ethics is important, but it involves a tiny proportion of humanists. Besides, if the agenda is already determined, then the ethical horizon is narrow. For example, the question is not whether to have private tech. companies, but how they should design AI tools.

Second, STEM people sometimes hope that humanists can help with communication–they can frame convincing messages for the public good. But humanists are more typically interested in reading against texts, or understanding the relationships among texts, or interpreting especially complex texts that are not particularly accessible, or challenging the assumptions in texts. Studying these questions does not make one particularly good at communicating with broad audiences.

I believe in the engaged or public or civic humanities. I don’t think that humanities professors should set their own agendas in isolation and expect society to pay for their work. I argue that humanists must engage the diverse public in two-way conversations, affecting the public debate while also responding to it.

Therefore, I see value in interdisciplinary projects that originate in the STEM disciplines and that involve limited numbers of humanists. As a philosophy PhD, I often find myself in such roles and enjoy them. But most of the potential is lost if the STEM fields always set the agendas and if the humanities are seen as merely useful around the edges.

See also: “The world wants the humanities”; what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; Tisch Program in Public Humanities

An Association as a Belief Network and Social Network

I will present a paper entitled “An Association as a Belief Network and Social Network” at next week’s Midwestern Political Science Association meeting (remotely). This is the paper.


A social network is composed of individuals who may have various relationships with one another. Each member of such a network may hold relevant beliefs and may connect each belief to other beliefs. A connection between two beliefs is a reason. Each member’s beliefs and reasons form a more-or-less connected network. As members of a group interact, they share some of their respective beliefs and reasons with peers and form a belief-network that represents their common view. However, either the social network or the belief network can be disconnected if the group is divided.

This study mapped both the social network and the belief-network of a Rotary Club in the US Midwest. The Club’s leadership found the results useful for diagnostic and planning purposes. This study also piloted a methodology that may be useful for social scientists who analyze organizations and associations of various kinds.

Two illustrative graphs …

Below is the social network of the organization. A link indicates that someone named another person as a significant influence. The size of each dot reflects the number of people who named that individual. The network is connected, not balkanized. However, there are definitely some insiders, who have lots of connections, and a periphery.

The belief-network is shown above this post. The nodes are beliefs held by members of the group. A link indicates that some members connect one belief to another as a reason, e.g., “I appreciate friendships in the club” and therefore, “I enjoy the meetings” (or vice-versa). Nodes with more connections are larger and placed nearer the center.

One takeaway is that members disagree about certain matters, such as the state of the local economy, but those contested beliefs do not serve as reasons for other beliefs, which prevents the group from fragmenting.

I would be interested in replicating this method with other organizations. I can share practical takeaways with a group while learning more from the additional case.

See also: a method for analyzing organizations

modeling social reality

I’m working on an article and have recently posted various excerpts in draft form.* This is the current outline:

  1. A model is a simplified representation of social reality that may take the form of a diagram, a story, a thought-experiment, an ideal-type, or an analogy to something that’s better understood.
  2. Human beings use models to navigate the social world.
  3. Judgment (phronesis) requires choosing and applying models of social reality.  
  4. Social models characteristically have empirical and normative aspects (both “facts” and “values”).
  5. Models can be categorized by their forms, e.g., root-cause, cyclical, genealogical, historical-institutionalist, organizational, game-theoretical, interest-group-coalition, etc.
  6. A model offers guidance, much as a fable suggests a moral (Cartwright 1999; Johnson 2020).
  7. The empirical details of a model should be testable and falsifiable, but new evidence typically modifies a model; it doesn’t invalidate the model. This is because (a) the model has normative aspects that are not empirically falsifiable; and (b) methods, concepts, sources, normative principles, and specific facts interrelate.
  8. Models are wise or unwise, not true or false. The best model is the one that does the most good, not the one that is most correct.
  9. The logic of applying a model to a given case is abductive (per C.S. Pierce), not inductive or deductive.
  10. Choosing a good model requires understanding and considering other options; it’s comparative.
  11. Therefore, (a) good education for civic life involves exploring multiple models, never one model; and; (b) good participation in civic life involves sharing one’s model and listening to others.

*See choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy; different kinds of social models; social education as learning to improve models; making our models explicit

the coincidences in Romola

In George Eliot’s Romola, we see events from the perspective of four major characters (one at a time): Tito Melema, Baldassarre Calvo, Tessa, and Romola herself. Four people can have up to 3! = 6 bilateral relationships. In Romola, each of these six potential connections is filled out with several independent interactions.

Just for example, Tito encounters Nessa on his first day in Florence and then on several important occasions, Baldassare takes shelter in the farm where Tessa lives, Tessa’s toddler runs into the street and into Romola’s arms, and Tito washes ashore at Baldassare’s very location on the shore of the Arno. In that last case, the older man has no reason to expect his enemy to appear, but when this happens, he understandably feels that “something was being brought to him” for a reason–as a “fortunate chance for him” (italics in the original).

These distinct connections arise over a short period in quite a large community. (The population of Renaissance Florence was on the order of 100,000, but that understates the improbability, since Baldassare has been enslaved in the Middle East and encounters Tito almost as soon as he finds himself in Florence. The odds of that encounter must be one in a million.)

I think we generally assume that we pass through life with one thing just happening after another–sometimes as a result of our decisions, but often by sheer contingency. Occasional coincidences should be expected as a matter of probability, but they do not mean anything. Every one out of a million events will be a one-in-a-million event.

These assumptions make Romola look contrived and perhaps didactic, evidently the work of an artist who has deliberately connected four characters in the maximum number of ways to explore symmetries and contrasts. The text seems unlike life.

As Caroline Levine (yes, my sister) shows, Romola learns as the story unfolds. She figures out that life is not foreordained and prophesies are unreliable–sometimes true, but only by chance. (Prophesies are important in this political novel, since the main political actor, Savonarola, gains his influence through prophesy.) Romola concludes that human beings make free moral choices that alone determine what happens. Her conclusion seems inconsistent with the density of coincidences in the plot, which should instead suggest (as the addled Baldassare concludes) that everything has been set up for a reason.

Caroline notes that plotted narratives typically have a strange feature. The author knows what will happen and selects the events to narrate with that outcome in mind. It’s a flaw in a plotted narrative if we’re told things that don’t matter later.

Imagine two events that occur in a sequence, A and B. In a novel, A should have an affect on B, yet B is the cause of A in the sense that it explains why A is narrated.

This means that Romola may (or may not) be correct about how life works, but she is wrong about her own story as it is told in the eponymous novel. Her story is determined by an omniscient creator and organized to reach coherent conclusions.

For me, the density of coincidences is a bit alienating: it’s like seeing the puppeteer’s hands. As the coincidences mount, I think: this is just too improbable. I prefer Middlemarch, which also has coincidences, but at a much lower rate. Still, perhaps the best conclusion is that any narrated story is a contrivance. In this case, it’s contrived to teach us that only our choices matter, and that is a bit of a paradox.

Source: Caroline Levine, “The Prophetic Fallacy: Realism, Foreshadowing, and Narrative Knowledge in Romola,” in Levine and Mark W. Turner, From Author to Text: Re-Reading George Eliot’s Romola (Ashgate 1998), pp. 135-164. See also Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; my favorite book (on Middlemarch, from 2008); Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time; Hilary Mantel and Walter Benjamin.

register and propose sessions for Frontiers of Democracy 2024

Dates: June 13 (5pm) until June 15 (1 pm) at Tufts University in Medford, MA

Please hold the dates (June 13-15), register and purchase tickets at the “early bird” discount rate until March 29, and consider proposing one or more sessions for the conference by April 16.

This year’s special theme is “Violence, Nonviolence, and Robust Democracy.” We anticipate robust conversations (and disagreements) about what defines and causes political violence and about the potential and limitations of nonviolent strategies. This year’s plenary speakers on the nonviolence theme will include This year’s plenary speakers on the nonviolence theme will include Damien ConnersHeather CronkJalene SchmidtMaria Stephan, and Thupten Tendhar. Jessie Landerman and Keisha E. McKenzie from Everyday Democracy will lead an interactive plenary session on Prime Time Propaganda: Using Narrative, Dialogue, and Facilitation Techniques to Confront Violent Forms of Communication

The nonviolence theme is not exclusive; we welcome sessions on other topics related to Tisch College’s “North Star”: building robust, inclusive democracy for an increasingly multiracial society. In particular, we are eager to continue last year’s rich conversations about religious pluralism and democracy and would welcome proposals in that area, whether or not they relate to violence and nonviolence. 

Although we will consider proposals for presentations or panels of presentations, we generally prefer proposals for other formats, such as moderated discussions, meetings devoted to strategy or design, trainings and workshops, case study discussions, debates, and other creative formats.

The conference agenda will develop over the next several months.

Cost: $240 for a standard ticket with discounts for current students. This includes hors d’oeuvres on June 13, breakfast and lunch on June 14, and breakfast and lunch on June 15. Other meals and lodgings are not provided.

Learn more and register

Biden’s democracy agenda is limited but Trump is against democracy

Tisch College Dean Dayna Cunningham and I have a piece in The Conversation today. We begin:

President Joe Biden argues that “democracy is on the ballot” in the 2024 election.

We believe there are potential threats to U.S. democracy posed by the choices voters make in this election. But the benefits of American democracy have for centuries been unequally available, and any discussion of the current threats needs to happen against that background. …

For us, Biden’s talk of democracy is a useful starting point for a broader conversation about U.S. democracy and the 2024 election. …

BLM protests and backlash

In 2020, Jacob Rubel, who was then my advisee as a Tufts undergrad, launched with the lead author Mathis Ebbinghaus a project to assess the policy impact of Black Lives Matter protests. He got support from another advisee of mine, Jane Romp, and two other Tufts undergrads to hand-collect data on police budgets and political processes in 264 US cities (all of the 300 largest cities for which data were available), and he collaborated with Mathis Ebbinghaus and Nathan Bailey on the analysis. The results are now published as:

Mathis Ebbinghaus, Nathan Bailey, Jacob Rubel, “The Effect of the 2020 Black Lives Matter Protests on Police Budgets: How ‘Defund the Police’ Sparked Political Backlash, “Social Problems, 2024;, spae004,

Overall, funding for police did not change to a statistically significant degree from 2019-2021. Larger protests accompanied increases in police budgets, but not to a statistically significant level (hence that relationship could be noise). However, in cities where Republican voters were more numerous, larger protests were associated with increases in police budgets. The authors consider the timing of elections and show that this backlash was not a result of electoral pressures. Rather, cities with more Republican voters seem already to have had more conservative (or pro-police) political cultures, and those city leaders reacted to BLM protests by increasing funds for police.

See also: police discrimination, race, and community poverty; on the phrase: Abolish the police!; who protested in 2020? how change is made