Filling gaps in my knowledge

Reading (or flipping through) the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics

I’ve always been fascinated by David Lodge’s game of humiliation. The idea is that a group of English professors gets together and each names the most famous work of English literature that they have NOT read. You win by humiliating yourself. One of the characters names Hamlet. He wins the game but ultimately loses his job.

I’ve always been afraid that there are large gaps in my knowledge of politics/political science that would show up in a real game of humiliation, under questioning from my students, or in something I write. I suppose this is my version of imposter syndrome. 

I could certainly be gotten on classics of political theory, few of which I’ve read deeply. Among modern works, I still haven’t read Schattschneider’s Semi-Sovereign People, which is mercifully short (though it used to be very expensive), or many IR classics. And this is not to mention works where I have only read the first and last chapter (hopefully Theda Skocpol is not reading this post). Even worse might be gaps in my knowledge of actual political history - there are certainly important wars and battles that I might not recognize (see Poast on the Battle of Belleau Wood:


I do have a weakness for reference works, which is one of the ways that I remedy these gaps. I share Diderot’s dream of an encyclopedia of all knowledge. In this post, I thought that I would look through one of them to see if there were entries that left me speechless. I tried the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics (2009 edition) as a quick test just because it was available. Even though I’ll focus on entries that I didn’t know, this is not to say that I am well-informed on the ones that I did recognize. As I mentioned, I might know something about most political theorists, for example, but not all that much.

I’ll group my ignorance into a few areas:

UK-specific knowledge

There were a good number of entries that are UK specific, after all, this is the Oxford dictionary. I could list here the following: Barnett formula, black sections, boundary commission, Butskellism, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Chiltern hundreds, Committee on standards in public life, delegated legislation, Erskine May, Garden city movement, golden rule (not the Kantian one), Greenham common, Hansard, Lord Chancellor, militant tendency, 1922 Committee, PSBR, Public Accounts Committee, Public Bill Committee, report stage, reselection, sponsored candidate, Statute of Westminster, statutory instrument, and Woolsack. I can probably skip most of these.

Political thinkers/activists

There were many thinkers whose name I sometimes recognized, but whose contribution I would be hard pressed to define, particularly early modern English thinkers: Bolingbroke, Crosland, Filmer, Andrew Fletcher, Richard Price, LF Richardson, Anna Wheeler, and Gerard Winstanley are some of these. There are other historical figures/thinkers whose names I barely recognized: B.E. Ambedkar, Cesare Beccaria, Blanqui, Murray Bookchin, Nicholas of Cusa, Helvetius, Holbach, Kautilya, Marsiglio, Michael Young, Andre Siegfried, Francis Suarez, and Turgot.

Fun terms to know, but not really important

  • Australian ballot: I thought this meant the secret ballot, but it seems to mean just a ballot that lists all the candidates rather than a party-issued ballot; that does make the ballot more secret because you aren’t seen carrying the party-issued ballot

  • Comitology: Idiom to describe the procedure for implementing EU decisions.

  • Cross bench: seats in the House of Lords between the government and opposition for non-aligned lords.

  • Domestic analogy: analogy between people in state of nature and states in anarchical system

  • Dyarchy: system of dual rule where power shared; applies to late colonial India and current Northern Ireland

  • Entryism: tactic of extremist parties to gain power by covertly entering moderate parties

  • Organic analogy: any explanation of politics drawing on an analogy to the human or animal body

  • Pantouflage: The practice of retiring from public service and moving into the private sector; from the French for slippers.

Things that I knew but under different names:

  • Catastrophe theory: A mathematical field similar to chaos theory.

  • Concorde fallacy: Apparently this is just the sunk cost fallacy.

  • Demarchy: Burnheim’s proposal of election by lot. I think sortition is a better term

  • Dirty public good: public goods where consumption does diminish supply (eg, airport)

  • Exchange theory: apparently a sociological version of rational choice

  • Formative elections: first election after democratization

  • Supergame: series of repetitions of the same game as in Axelrod

In the category: do I really need to know this? 

  • Brandt Report: A 1983 report drawing attention to inequalities between the North and South.

  • Continuous revolution: A Maoist idea.

  • Flexible response: military doctrine under Kennedy

  • National treatment: state can’t apply more favorable regulations on imported products than on domestic ones

  • Neighborhood nationalism: form of identity politics that encompasses both national and local discourses on nation; not sure I understand this one

  • Petersburg Declaration: agreement in 1992 to strengthen European defense capability

  • Pluralities of violence: myriad ways that violence manifests itself

  • Pancasila: The official ideology of the Indonesian state

  • Panscheel: The five principles of Nehru’s foreign policy.

  • Physiocrats: French economists who believe that land is source of all wealth and in free trade

  • Quartet on the Middle East

  • Sittichkeit: “ethical life” in Hegel

  • Structuration: social theory of Giddens that reconciles agency and structure; has this survived?

  • World Social Forum: network of antiglobalization protest

A few historical events that I should probably know better:

  • Jacobitism: defenders of James II; conservatives who declare the current government illegitimate. I do have a better sense of Jacobism.

  • Mexican Revolution: I should probably know more about this

  • Spartacists: internationalist, revolutionary group in SPD, expelled and form KPD; probably I should know more about Weimar - this thread was helpful:

Finally, here are some entries that I’ll try to remember: 

  • Asiatic mode of production: I had known that this was a thing, but not what it was. The two characteristics are apparently the lack of private property and the self-sufficient character of village life which led to stagnation and the geography that led to a reliance on irrigation and hence centralized planning and “oriental despotism”. Probably better would be to know if there is any truth to it.

  • Bonapartism: I probably could have deduced the meaning from knowledge of the Bonapartes, but I wouldn’t have managed to get the whole concept. According to Marx it is an opportunistic and populist alliance between part of the bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat which rests on plebiscites to secure legitimacy. It represents the autonomy of the state when class forces are balanced. It also stands for strong leadership and conservative nationalism. 

  • Chinese political thought: my knowledge here is close to zero. I’ve been meaning to read my colleague’s book on this.

  • Disjointed incrementalism: a policy becomes more acceptable if considered as pieces than as whole, something like salami politics

  • Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft: I’ve tried to teach myself this distinction a thousand times and I never remember which is which. Is there a stalactite/stalagmite way? Gemeinschaft is community (personal ties) and Gesellschaft is society (impersonal ties). I feel like political scientists don’t use this much.

  • Guild socialism: decentralized socialism rooted in industrial democracy supported by GDH Cole; curious about the details of this

  • Ideal-regarding principle: I like Brian Barry, but I hadn’t heard this one before. Apparently a want-regarding principle takes into account all the wants a person has, but an ideal-regarding principle is selective about the wants it takes into account. I’m still not sure how this is useful.

  • Internal colonialism: I’ve heard this one before, but I wonder how useful it is

  • International society: English school of IR; I should read more on this.

  • Perfectionism: the view that the role of the state is to promote morally acceptable conceptions of the good life. I’m guessing that Adrian Vermeule’s recent turn belongs here, right?

  • Social Credit: a theory that underconsumption is a persistent problem and that citizens should be granted a national dividend of credit; it has been popular in Canada

  • Species-being: I’d seen this lots back when I read Marx, but I probably didn’t look it up. It refers to the uniqueness of man as the only creature to have an awareness of itself as a species and to make his own nature an object of contemplation. Marx changes this to distinguish man not by contemplation but by free and conscious material production.

  • Ultra vires: This means beyond one’s legal authority. There are probably some other Latin terms that I don’t know, especially from law. Obiter dictum is one I always forget. And I took Latin for 5 years in high school.

  • Zapatismo: This is another like Bonapartism that I could vaguely associate with Mexico and indigenous revolts, but not much more. Here it says a tradition focused on the restoration of rights of the dispossessed. 

Overall, flipping through this book didn’t seem to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Some of it maybe due to the dictionary which was a bit heavy on the Marxist tradition, international trade, and parliamentary procedure in the UK. This format is also not great for capturing political thought not to mention history. What might be more helpful is something like Larry Solum’s Legal Theory Lexicon or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I think the Oxford Handbooks are taking their place (and maybe the Annual Review of Political Science), but they tend to be a little dense for fun reading and often aren’t accessible online.

Solving my imposter syndrome will have to wait for another day.