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Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens Paperback – April 4, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


Shortlisted for the 2010 Hessell-Tiltman Prize, English PEN

Winner of the 2008 PROSE Award in Classics and Ancient History, Association of American Publishers

"Josiah Ober is a practically minded, get up and go, people's kind of democrat. . . . There is certainly nothing like [Democracy and Knowledge] in the literature on ancient politics."--Geoffrey Hawthorn, Times Literary Supplement

"Democracy and Knowledge is the final book in an extraordinary trilogy. It follows Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, which appeared in 1989, and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, in 1998. This third book incorporates the central conclusions of the first two, and with this volume Ober, by means of a highly original historical argument about Athens, does in fact refute Michel's famous law. . . . Ober's careful historical work and his theoretical framework generate a convincing portrait of a flourishing participatory democracy that overcame real crises, and achieved a stable balancing of the interests of masses and wealthy elites, and responded to collective action problems by developing institutional and cultural solutions that focused on the social distribution and the social valuation of knowledge. . . . Is it too much to ask that members of the Obama administration turn to a dense work of ancient history to help them make good on Obama's vision of an American state that combines the resources of representative and participatory democracy? They would take away from Democracy and Knowledge at least a few important general ideas."--Danielle Allen, The New Republic

"This book . . . richly rewards any reader with interests in democratic theory or Athens. For many it could renew an interest in the sociology of deliberative action. And it does an excellent job rethinking tired political hyperdivision of 'public vs. private,' 'weak vs. strong publics,' and 'civic vs. market orientations.'"--Christopher Moore, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Josiah Ober's book is a remarkable contribution to classical Greek history, social theory, and political philosophy. It advances understandings within each field and shows why these disciplines should be in more conversation with one another."--Gerald Mara, Cambridge Journals

"The book is written in a very accessible style and it should be of interest to a wide range of scholars working in the are of ancient history, political science and democratic theory."--Zsuzsanna Chappell, Political Studies Review

"[This book is] very much worth reading, if for no other reason than for the extremely rich and interesting historical detail to be found. . . . In this respect, [the] author live[s] up to [his] justly earned reputation as [a] great political historian."--Frank Lovett, Perspectives on Politics

"[T]he book is well worth the read. The attempt to cross disciplinary boundaries is refreshing. Moreover, Obe''s analysis offers a valuable contribution to democratic theory."--Emma Cohen de Lara, Acta Politica

"[Ober] makes a detailed and stimulating case. This is a book which has much to offer to both scholars of Athenian democracy and democratic political thought."--Peter Liddel, European Legacy

From the Back Cover

"In this pathbreaking work, Josiah Ober draws on the full array of modern social science to explain the amazing success of Athenian democracy. He argues persuasively that the Athenians were able to overcome problems of collective action through the efficient aggregation and use of knowledge, as when Cleisthenes created new tribes that brought together citizens from different parts of Attica. The striking vignettes and episodes from Athenian history conjoined with sophisticated theoretical analyses make for utterly compelling reading. It will enrich social science no less than the writing of ancient history. Since the work of Paul Veyne, there has been nothing like it."--Jon Elster, Collège de France

"A fresh, intellectually daring proposal by the George Grote of our times: democracy is not just an ethically desirable political form, but potentially unsurpassed as a source of innovation, public learning, and the application of publicly useful knowledge."--John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Westminster and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin

"Josiah Ober introduces Athens to students of institutional design and institutional design to students of Athens in an exercise of trailblazing scholarship and analysis. The book will become a standard reference in both areas of investigation."--Philip Pettit, Princeton University

"Democracy and Knowledge looks at Athenian democracy from a quite new angle by taking on a question that has not previously made the transition from political and social science to ancient world studies. No one has even asked how in practice the Athenians aggregated their knowledge to make sensible decisions. There is no treatment of classical Athens or, to my knowledge, of the working of any democracy, comparable to this."--Robin Osborne, University of Cambridge

"This is a terrific book. Ober applies modern social science to explain and make sense of Athenian institutions, and offers strong and compelling discussions of many issues. The two central lines of argument--the role and structure of knowledge and the incentive or game structures of the interactions of citizens in politics--are at the core of understanding these issues, and yet they are seldom brought together in this way."--Russell Hardin, New York University

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 4, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691146241
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691146249
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #974,683 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Douglas K. Smith on January 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Bravo to Josiah Ober for this timely, well written book about the essential link between knowledge and democracy. Professor Ober writes for all audiences, not just academics. His carefully lays out the evidence for why Athens stood above other ancient societies in achievement; namely, an outstanding set of approaches to make sure that the knowledge, learning and innovation needed for success would always be available.

This is no small feat. Today, we face many difficult problems and challenges. Yet, it's very often the case that we have the know-how to meet those challenges if we can only figure out how to tap and apply it. Athens did figure this out. And any among us who would like to learn how to do in our lives and situations have much to gain from reading this clear and compelling book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Danese Giuseppe on August 5, 2014
Format: Paperback
I have adopted this book for a (third-year) Economics of Institutions class at Simon Fraser university. I thoroughly enjoyed the interdisciplinary character of the book, which draws, among other things, on results from the public choice literature, the theory of networks, and the neo-institutionalist analysis of transaction costs. The book follows the advice of Hayek, according to whom dispersed knowledge should be the central problem of all social sciences, showing how democracy in Athens interacted with three epistemic process, namely aggregation, alignment and codification. The book does a great job at showing how cooperation problems (aggregation) are inextricably linked with coordination problems (alignment).

The book follows Elinor Ostrom's "substantive lesson" to avoid one-way, unequivocal directions of causation in the analysis of cooperation/coordination problem. The book shows how the three epistemic processes interacted in a feedback loop with individual agency and the institutional framework within which agency is exercised.

In summary, this book takes stock of many of the lessons we have learned from the research on cooperation and coordination done in the the last few decades by the likes of Lewis, Ostrom, Coase, Williamson and Ellickson, presenting a convincing case about how democracy promoted economic and military performance in classical Athens.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful By T. Carlsson on May 22, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The author presents a competent review of Athenian political institutions. Athens managed to create a unique system of democratic government, but that is of course a familiar story. The author's claim to novelty rests on the extension of Athenian political and economic history to matters of knowledge. He argues that the superior power of democratic Athens (over other Greek city states) is explained by the way its governmental processes utilized the ordinary knowledge of Athenian citizens.

I think the argument misses its mark because the mark is so elusive and inaccessible to historical study. Athens built an empire and its citizens participated in government, that much is clear. But what Athenian citizens may or may not have known about any given issue, how their opinions may have interacted and changed in debate, to what extent their decisions were determined by distributed ordinary knowledge rather than specialist knowledge - these seem to be completely speculative questions that historical research simply cannot answer.

Since direct evidence about states of knowledge among Athenian citizens does not exist, the author uses a variety of roundabout approaches to build his case. The results are uneven. The city-state comparisons and the timeline of the historical development of Athenian government in chapter 2 provide an interesting starting point. When the author discusses decision-making in councils, magistrates and assemblies in chapter 4, the argument is to some extent persuasive. These are, after all, manifestations of direct democracy and thereby also of ordinary knowledge. But when he moves on to legal decrees, coinage, monuments, architecture etc. in chapters 5-6, the connection to ordinary knowledge is often lost and the argument is unclear.
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on January 18, 2011
Format: Paperback
This thoughtful and interesting book is a sustained attempt to defend participatory democracy by a careful examination of classical Athens. Ober draws on a large range of modern social science literature to discuss the key problems that must be solved by a successful polity. He argues against a broad range of opinion that these problems can be successfully solved by a broadly based, participatory democracy because such a state has advantages in the dissemination and use of knowledge. He argues as well that these characteristics provide a participatory polity with considerable flexibility and ability to deal with the novel. Athens is Ober's prototype example. He shows that it was the most successful Classical Polis, that it succeeded in the unusually competitive and violent environment of the Greek poleis, and that Athenian success correlates well with the emergence of the participatory democratic regime. He follows with a detailed examination of how Athenian institutions dealt with key problems of effectively running a state. In many ways, this is the best part of the book, showing the interesting complexity of Athenian institutions. Despite Ober's interesting exposition and analysis, I'm not sure that he really completes the argument. He shows well how Athenian institutions drove effective governance in a highly participatory democracy but does not clearly demonstrate that these were the key factors that permitted Athenian success. There are also a couple of probably minor problems with his analysis. He complements his qualitative analysis of Athenian success with some correlation analysis based on an extensive database of the poleis. I think Ober used the wrong statistical method.Read more ›
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