A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism
Kean Birch (University of Toronto)
Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2018, x + 193 pp.
In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi famously describes concepts as cognitive structures (aka gestalten) capturing countless amounts of subsidiary details, from which we cannot but attend in order to apprehend each concept's distinguishing focus, i.e. their meaning under the given circumstances. Polanyi believes our awareness of subsidiary details to be severely limited, though by no means absent. Were our awareness of these subsidiary details altogether absent, then we would be unable to grasp their focal point; just like we would not recognise a face without having at least some awareness of the countless and, for the most part, indescribable features allowing us to see a face and to know to whom it belongs. As Polanyi explains, it is only in highly artificial settings that we make use of concepts for which precise, explicit sets of necessary and sufficient conditions can be listed, such as the axioms of the formal sciences, the definitions and protocols of the natural sciences, and the official criteria for judicial hermeneutics. Nonetheless, even in these highly artificial settings there remain fundamental concepts that are as fuzzy and as open-ended as ordinary concepts normally are, such as the guiding ideals of formal elegance, scientific truth and legal justice--not to mention the continued implicit reliance of logicians, scientists and judges on ordinary language in their more prosaic but inevitable endeavours and, a fortiori, on ordinary concepts.
Birch mentions Michael Polanyi three times in his book (16, 18, 27) but does not cite, refer to, or make any palpable use of Polanyi's work, with which Birch does not seem to be familiar at all (Birch seems instead familiar with the work of Michael's brother Karl; 113-114). Thus, Birch's whole book is built upon a 'non-Polanyi-esque' premise, i.e., that it should be possible to make complete and explicit sense of the concept of neoliberalism, which Birch himself has employed frequently in his own previous works and has yet grown more and more dissatisfied with, because of the many important details that thousands--and growing--scholarly treatments of this concept regularly leave out, underestimate, overestimate, or relentlessly pile up into an unmanageable host of possible applications of the same. Under this respect, Birch sounds unaware of how...