- Judgment in the New Millennium: Practical Wisdom Confronts Science
Any book that attempts to break new ground and does so with great attention to the intellectual landscape and the horizon of future theoretical implications is invaluable, especially in fields (such as political theory) often characterized by certain rigidities. Leslie Paul Thiele’s recent work, The Heart of Judgment, is such an example, for it dispenses with preexisting molds of how political theory “should be done,” and does so with daring and ambition. Moreover, it makes significant lateral contributions as it proceeds with its central argument.
What is judgment? Why has it been neglected in political philosophy and theory in recent times? These are the questions at the origin of Thiele’s work. His answer is not a straightforward excursion into the canon of political philosophy. Rather, it is located in the very recent discoveries within neuroscience. In this manner, Thiele attempts to bridge two fields, political theory and neurobiology, something that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented. This sort of thinking ‘outside the box’ is laudable and refreshing. There is nothing inevitable about making such a connection, for many would consider these fields to be so distant from each other that a bridge would never cover the chasm. It is to Thiele’s credit that he is able to build an impressive architectonic for such a bridge.
The book ultimately succeeds precisely because of the roughness of the terrain it covers. Undaunted by the difficulty of examining a complex notion such as judgment and in serving as a translator between the fields of neuroscience and ethics, Thiele gives us a broad view of how to think anew about judgment, a faculty that is more at home in classical thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. He also forces political theorists to face the facts: abstract, overly intellectualized ideas about judgment and reason fail us, for we need to remember that political theory is a form of practical wisdom. Political theory must be grounded in lived, bodily, and physical experience, and to the extent that it is not, it loses its footing. This is one key lesson we get from Thiele’s work.
More specifically, Thiele shows that relying entirely on rationality to provide sources of political legitimacy can never be a complete approach. Human experience is vital, and this can take different forms. Sensory perception, emotion, and intuition are all important in creating good judgment: “The experiences and opportunities required for the cultivation of practical wisdom is a shared, interactive life” (99). In other words, practical wisdom requires that we understand that the information we perceive in the world comes from our embodied being. In this respect, Thiele’s book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on what we may call sentient reason, that is, judgment that is rooted in our sensory experience. The strongest chapter is Chapter Four, where Thiele traces the role of affect and other emotions in the making of judgment.
While this important contribution is clearly a strength of the book, it is undermined by the incomplete analysis of the link between the brain qua physical thing and the act of judgment. It is not clear how knowing that experience affects our understanding of the world will (or even can) affect our judgment. Statements such as “[l]ike the muscles in our bodies, brain maps gain strength with their use” (78) remain morally ambiguous. To be sure, Thiele provides a clear and cogent summary of recent discoveries of the workings of the brain, but this does not clarify the implications for moral theory and moral judgment. This is one area where Thiele would do well to provide more guidance beyond vague ideas, such as “[m]oral judgment operates much like other kinds of judgment, with the lion’s share of its work accomplished by intuitive processes” (136).
Beyond this, there are two other areas where the reader is left with certain lacunae. One is the discussion of “narratives,” where Thiele seeks to establish a nexus between recent scientific studies of memory...