Wolin, Politics and Vision, Expanded Edition.

Reading Questions  (back to table of contents)


Chapter Thirteen: Nietzsche: Pretotalitarian, Postmodern

1.      Wolin begins the chapter with the claim that, among 19th century theorists on the topic of culture, “Nietzsche above them all”….  What did he do?  Note, in part II, that N. is credited with influencing an extraordinarily wide range of thinkers. (454-6)

2.      Read section III carefully—Wolin claims “an older, less presentable Nietzsche had to be suppressed….”  Does he offer any evidence?  (457-8)

3.      Wolin asks us to consider 20th century totalitarianism in classic terms—like Aristotle, to see forms of constitutions as ideal types which may occur in good or perverted forms.  If we go along with this suggestion, what is totality or totalitarianism as a form?  (458-60)  See also question 11, below. 

4.      Nietzsche’s “distinctive conception of politics” (460) consists of several features.  What are they?  What is the connection between those and the analysis of culture?  (the latter, the frequent focus of contemporary readers of Nietzsche)

5.      Wolin begins section VI with these words:  Nietzsche justifies the politics of evil….”  (462)  Where did Wolin come upon the concept of evil, as used here?  Note it is part of Nietzsche’s question to overturn virtue, truth, and the way conventional politics restrain the “few.”  (462-4)

6.      What does Wolin mean by “critical totalitarianism”?  Make a list of its features.  (464-8)

7.      Wolin makes an argument about the totalitarian dynamic, and the role of totalitarian theorists.  (468-73)  What are the essential features of totalitarianism? (469-70) Note the metaphor of inversions, continued on p. 473.  A good but obscure book that develops this theme is Burt Alpert, Inversions.  Hard to find, worth it. 

8.      Nietzsche’s inversions are described in more detail from pp. 474-90.  The argument follows the subsection headings—a comparison to Marx, as a way of explaining nihilism; in ‘the politics of culture’ a reminder of N’s originality; an account of the importance of intellectuals (N’s conceit, perhaps); and, a new claim about what truth is accessible to us.  Note this culminates at the start of section XVII: Rediscovering Myth.  Why does Myth need rediscovering? 

9.      Wolin takes us back to Nietzsche’s starting place, on 484-9.  What role did Myth have in N’s thinking?  What did philosophy’s pursuit of truth do to that? (485)  What was so wrong about philosophy and science? (487)  Wolin ends these section with a reference to “the intellectual’s oldest fantasy….”  What was it? 

10.Wolin claims N. was more prescient than Marx.  How?  (490)  Over the next two pages Wolin recounts some claims made by N. that seem to have been prescient.  What are they? 

11.What is the “totality” of the twentieth century, revisiting that concept of the form of totality?  (492-4)  See question 3, above. 


Chapter Fourteen: Liberalism and the Politics of Rationalism

1.      Note the theme of this chapter—it starts by contrasting two books which help us trace liberalism’s “triumph over Fascist statism” and “its temporary embrace of the Welfare State.”  Wolin warns us that neither book is sufficiently robust theoretically—why not?  Then, why use them?  (495-6)

2.      What did Popper mean by “the open society”?  (496-7)

3.      Popper argued that the social sciences could play a limited but important role.  What, and why limit it in this way? (498-500)

4.      Wolin poses a big question about Popper’s argument, second complete paragraph on p. 500.  What happens if an answer to this question ignores (at the bottom of the page) “policy as it might emerge from the political contests… (between) rival political parties”?  Is it plausible that this is the general obstacle to resolving political conflicts through recourse to science? 

5.      At the end of section III, on p. 502, Wolin essentially accuses Popper of having significant reservations about democracy.  What is the substance of this claim? 

6.      Wolin claims that John Dewey did political theory, not political philosophy.  What’s the difference?  (504)  Note, at 506, that ‘action’ is at the heart of democratic theory, which is a particular way of defining theory. 

7.      What is the claim of section VII, 506-7?  Is this a way of saying that the point of democratizing science is to influence who benefits from it?

8.      In a subtle argument, Wolin suggests that Dewey envisioned a social quality to science, which in turn served as a response to questions about the role of government in economic affairs.  (508-10)  Can you outline the steps in this argument?

9.      Wolin tells us that Dewey saw the ways that ‘the economic’ was similar to totalitarianism (see Qs 3 & 11 for chapter 13, above).  Did his idea of democracy offer an answer to totalitarianism?  (510-14)

10.How did Dewey use science to reconceptualize democracy?  Was this convincing, or successful?  (514-19)

11.Section XV, on 519-20, presents an argument that helps specify that comparison in chap. 13 between the benign and pernicious forms of totalism.  Wolin labels this as the connection between technology and totalitarianism.  In an amusing concatenation of events, today’s New York Times carried two stories about jobs in the economy—one a celebratory piece about the private sector on a steady beat of job creation, and the other about most of those jobs paying too little to live on.  Sometimes it is dreary to see when Wolin calls it right. 

12.Section XVI contains a claim that is an important part of the concept “inverted totalitarianism,” which Wolin will present about 70 pages from now.  He says that elitism has been recast to fit a liberal narrative.  What are its constituent parts?  520-2.  

13.According to Wolin,  did the anti-war, civil rights and ecology movements produce significant expansions of political space?  [Recall the argument in chapter 9, referred to in question 6.]