Yes, Let's Talk About Sloppiness

UPDATE: Sorry, I just saw I failed to link to Field's essay! Corrected.

Laura K. Field, in a five-part essay attempting to trash Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, accuses Deneen of sloppiness. For instance, she writes:

"Bacon was not merely interested in 'torturing' nature to discover her secrets, as Deneen repeatedly alleges."

I just re-checked my copy of Deneen, and:

  1. He never says Bacon was "merely" interested in "torturing" nature. This just happens to be the aspect of Bacon's thought he is interested in. The book is not a intellectual biography of Bacon, nor even an intellectual history of liberalism. So why would we expect a full picture of Bacon as a thinker? That itself might take up the whole book, and Deneen would never get around to discussing liberalism!
  2. He does mention this notion... just once. Not "repeatedly."

Field writes:

"I do not know where Deneen got the idea that Francis Bacon had no interest in cultivating virtues like wisdom, prudence, and justice, given that one of Bacon’s most famous works is a collection of moral essays that considers some of these themes."

Again, she's making s&*t up: Deneen never says that Bacon had "no interest" in such topics. He contends that Bacon did not consider them the main focus of education.

She then writes: "Given how much Deneen’s inevitability thesis depends on early modern thinkers having a single ideological outlook and program..." Well, the answer to "how much" is "Not at all": what he contends is that there are various trends in thought that come together into liberalism. In fact, he names Locke as the first liberal political philosopher, so he could not possibly think he had the same ideological outlook as Bacon or Hobbes, whom he does not consider liberals!

Field further says that Deneen's very use of "liberalism" to describe what he criticizes "seems to me like a highly-charged political choice dressed up as scholarly objectivity." But liberalism is just standard terminology here: Fields argument seems to me to be just throwing a bunch of trash to see if any sticks. She contends that Deneed instead should use "liberal democracy" or "constitutional democracy," but this is nonsense: Deneen is criticizing liberalism, not constitutions or democracy. In fact, Deneen devotes a whole section of the book to "Antidemocratic Liberalism," noting how liberals tend to only like democracy when it produces liberal results. And he notes how constitutionalism long pre-dates liberalism. So Field is asking Deneen to irrelevantly drag concepts he is not critiquing into a discussion of one he is by mislabeling his target.

Field, in attempting to make her case that Deneen is intellctually sloppy in this book, writes:

"I take my final brief example of Deneen’s sloppy writing from his account of Tocqueville, a writer that he clearly admires and takes seriously. Deneen appeals to Tocqueville repeatedly in Why Liberalism Failed, and he makes his overall interpretation of Tocqueville more explicit in a response to some critics that came out in Commonweal magazine last year."

This is absolutely bizarre: Fields is putting Why Liberalism Failed on trial for intellectual sloppiness, and presenting as evidence... a completely different work. I'm sorry, the essay Deneen wrote in Commonweal may or may not be good (I have only skimmed it, and I am not a Tocqueville scholar), but that has nothing to do with whether the book under review is good: it is quite possible to write some works that are very good and some that are not.

In criticizing Deneen's emphasis on modern atomism and individualism, Field writes:

"For all of Deneen’s lamentations about modern atomism and individualism (modern politics is based on “the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals” 31, “our default condition is homelessness” 78, and we live lives of “deracinated vagabondage” 131), the phenomenon he describes is not exactly new: selfishness and individualism have a long ancestry (!) that reaches at least as far back as ancient Greece. Ancient literature is full of characters who struggle personally with the duties imposed by convention..."

But Deneen never contends that the tension between individualism and social harmony is brand new! What he argues is that modernity has come down one-sidedly for individualism. The fact that ancient thought struggled with this tension backs, rather than refutes, Deneen's case: modernity has declared the struggle decided, with individualism the winner.

Field cites Samuel Goldman's review of Deneen's book a couple of times, but it might do her well to re-read it herself: it is a much more fair-minded, if still critical, review of Deneen. Her review is a partisan polemic, and not a serious engagement with what Deneen actually wrote.


  1. I see that she read twice the book she reviewed, so it is not a casual reading of Deneen I guess.

    On Bacon, she quotes Deneen's summary, but the quote does not warrant the accusations she immediately launches. She deserves 100% your critique.

    On Tocqueville her critique is hard to follow. She concedes multiple times that Tocqueville was pessimist about the prospects of the effects of the inevitable democratization, but just after that she writes about a "shift" in his old age, and says "that shift is a response to specific historical changes and transformations, not a pronouncement for all time". She is not convincing about that "shift" and her interpretation of Tocqueville's late words not been a "pronouncement for all time" looks shallow.

    First I thought that her aim was to show her mastery of Bacon or Tocqueville, but at the end of part 1, we see that the real target is the politics of the "illiberal/authoritarian" Deneen, Vermeule, Ahmari and the American conservatives who admire Orban.

    I did not go through the other parts and only had a quick look at part 5, so I may have missed a lot (I am the sloppy here), but from what I read, you are not at all unjust. She is.

  2. Hi Gene,

    What are your thoughts on the claims that medieval iceland was an example of working anarcho-capitalism? In my opinion, it was far closer to anarcho-communism and a tribal society than any functional proto ancap territory.

  3. What are your thoughts on medieval iceland being an working example of an anarchist territory?


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