Interview with Stephen Turner: Part V

Interview with Stephen Turner: Part V

Stephen P. Turner (University of South Florida) is a Weber scholar and social theorist. He is also a member of the so-called “disobedient generation,” which left graduated programs and incorporated to US faculties in the years after the 1968 student movement. Departing from his own personal experience, in this interview Turner shares his views on the intellectual, professional, and job-market conditions under which social theory and Weber studies have evolved since the 1970s. He also explains what he sees as the reasons of the social theory’s current difficulties, but also argues for its continued importance as an academic rather than engaged vocation. Here he also sees a place for Weber’s ideas. Turner’s memoir, Mad Hazard: a Life in Social Theory, was published in September 2022.

This interview was conducted in Berlin on the 10th of July 2019 by Álvaro Morcillo (Free University Berlin). The interview was recorded and subsequently transcribed. It has been edited for clarity; occasionally, the order of a question and the answer thereto has been altered. A list of references is available here.

All parts of the interview are available in our blog section.

Section V: Regis Factor and Catholic Political Thought

ÁML: So, we arrive here because we were discussing your first writings on Weber. Before we move on, I wanted to say a few more words about Regis Factor. You mentioned that he had a dissertation on Morgenthau? I didn’t know. For most political scientists and sociologists, he’s an unknown figure, and you also mentioned… he seems to be an interesting character, ultra-Catholic, and it, and an ultra-Catholic in Florida!

ST: Oh no, that’s not so difficult, in fact there was a very traditional Catholic church near the campus that served mass every day at noon, which he went to and even participated with the priests.

ÁML: He believed, had he been a priest?

ST: No. And that was a problem. He had actually gone to the SAIS, the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and he had been in the Army. He had a lot of languages, and he was fascinated by the German problem, so he had a lot of relevant background. Then he went to Notre Dame and finished in International Relations. But they thought of him as too Catholic. At his defense, they asked him questions like “If you had to give an appointment to a person who was this or that, what would you do?” They wanted to make sure he was not overly Catholic in the sense of intolerant. But Catholicism is what led him to Notre Dame, and also, I think, paralyzed him intellectually. He gave a natural law critique of Morgenthau in his dissertation, and he was an Orthodox Catholic. But the problem with being an Orthodox Catholic and a layperson is that you’re always in terror of contravening some doctrine that you don’t really have any authority to talk about. You see this in Donoso Cortés being denounced as a heretic, and even in Schmitt’s care to distance himself from the political theology he presents by discussing it at a meta-level. Intellectually, Regis was very active. But he was completely committed to natural law. He invited John Finnis, the Oxford law professor, one of his heroes, to visit our small campus in Florida, and he came.  In retrospect it sounds very strange—this grand Oxford figure on a campus that was still housed in surplus merchant marine training barracks. But natural law was not something you could make a career out of. There’s not much to be said about natural law theology that hasn’t already been said, and if you’re not a theologian you don’t have any authority to talk about a lot of these things. So, it was a kind of dead-end intellectually for him. But he wasn’t interested in it in a careerist way: he just wanted to know the truth and teach it. For me, it was great because I didn’t know anything about this material. I read a little bit of Aquinas in graduate school but not from the point of view of seeing this as anything but a weird historical phenomenon. So, to have an actual live natural law believer was valuable, because it illuminated a lot of issues, especially about early German social science, which saw itself as liberating itself from Naturrecht [natural law]. And a lot of natural law thinking was parallel to Strauss. We had a really good partnership because I respected this as a serious alternative. He was my German eyes and ears and he taught me a lot about Germany, and about different interpretations of German history. But also, he would go and read literature that was too difficult for me to read. I could do the writing and he could do the scouting. It was a very good relationship that lasted until he died in 1999. It was very hard. He died of ALS [Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] at 61. It was very tragic.

ÁML: You became friends?

ST: We became very close, we played tennis with his wife and my wife and we socialized.

ÁML: Do you know where he became interested in Morgenthau?

ST: Well I think it was through the SAIS experience. He realized he wanted to do something more theoretical and academic, and they were really training people for working in the state department. That had been his original idea. Morgenthau was just the target back then, so he focused on him.

ÁML: And Paul Nitze did, maybe he met him. Paul Nitze was at Johns Hopkins and some of the émigrés ended up there.

ST: That was also true at Notre Dame. They had a tradition started by Waldemar Gurian. The people he worked with were removed from that generation, but it was still part of the mindset of The Review of Politics.

ÁML: And he was there in the 1950s?

ST: He would have been there in the early 1970s, late 60s.

ÁML: Gurian wasn’t alive anymore, but some of the Schmittians were also in Notre Dame, so…

ST: They were very fascinated by Voegelin. But they had a negative view of Schmitt.

ÁML: Well, we have never talked about Voegelin, we could do that afterwards. But I was intrigued by the footnote in the autobiographical chapter (2005) where you discuss the moralism of Niebuhr and I must say, I must admit that I didn’t understand it. That Niebuhr is moralizing, while pretending that he doesn’t moralize. How does that work?

ST: When he uses this category of evil, he excuses himself really from justifying it, from spelling out his moral commitments or moral theory. Evil is just a fact, and we have a responsibility created by this fact of evil. I think that’s the thing that attracts a lot of people, it’s moral absolutism without any grounding. 

ÁML: And who defines what’s evil? Niebuhr.

ST: He doesn’t want to ask that question because he thinks that there is a self-evident existential phenomenon of evil. 

ÁML: But, you connect this to your parents.

ST: Yes, because they were certainly part of that generation that was heavily influenced by Niebuhr: he was the big Protestant thinker of the time.

ÁML: Have you ever thought of Niebuhr and Weber?

ST: More about Niebuhr and Morgenthau because they were big friends. But I think that there’s probably a connection between them through two kingdoms’ theology. I spent a lot of time with [Charles] Elwood, who was Niebuhr’s rival, and he was definitely not a two kingdoms theologian. For him, the obligation was to imitate Christ in this world and to bring the spirit of Christ into your dealings with the social world. Niebuhr is clearly rejecting that and is a realist about everything but evil.

ÁML: I haven’t gone down to the details but as you would guess, because they are obviously, he and his brother, of German descent, and German readers, they actually read the Protestant Ethic in the 1920s according to his biography. So that’s another Weberian/Weberian? Realist connection.

ST: interesting, I didn’t know that

ST: As for Voegelin, I don’t really have a lot of opinions, but he was so outrė that he was really interesting, I guess my reaction was that having been in this very constrained sociology context, and then to move to the world of Voegelin and Strauss, was a real liberation. You felt like now we are dealing with the real topics, not this trivial disciplinary dreck.

ÁML: Your critique of Merton seems to me completely incompatible with the extremely learned man that he was. Surrounded by sociologists. And despite Clubbism and his association with Merton kept in touch and supported a very wide range of people. This is my impression from working in his archive, that he, well they were, of course, they were very mean to C. Wright Mills, but when his daughter wanted to collect the letters, Merton helped her. And he also supported Gouldner and Gouldner’s wife.

ST: Also supported Karl Polanyi. I think there’s a mysterious hidden political significance in Merton’s career. He was obviously very far left in his younger years, but he also concealed it.

ÁML: You don’t question that he was a learned person?

ST: Absolutely, very learned. But he was not engaged with Voegelin and Strauss kinds of questions. And my dealings with Gouldner on the Weber paper reflected that. None of these people had that kind of intellectual scope. They had an extremely narrow view of what was important, and what they thought was important was defined by their concealed political commitments, or by other quite narrow tastes. Marx and Saint-Simon were important for Gouldner, for example. Simmel was important for Merton. But the things outside of this that everybody else knew, like Mill, for example, didn’t exist for them. A huge proportion of important scholarships didn’t exist for them. This is what made Merton different from Shils. And also made it easier for Columbia to stamp out students.