Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

James. C. Scott, Yale University Press, 1998

Some books are inspirational; others are fun, yet others provide valuable information. Few books have the capacity to impact our very perception of reality. Scott’s Seeing Like a State is just such a book. I especially appreciated the opening and closing sections of the book. In the former, the author offers a rather protracted “parable” concerning the stark differences between seeing a forest from above, as the locus of commercial possibilities, and seeing a forest from its very midst, as the locus of an irreducibly complex web. In the closing section, Scott leads us through an epistemological reflection on the Greek concept of metis (μῆτις) (cunningness or wisdom, craft, skill) as a form of knowledge that is not replaceable by scientific knowledge. I found this reflection in particular to be eye-opening in areas as diverse as language instruction, politics, education, even parenting!

“The problem… is that certain practical choices cannot, ‘even in principle, be adequately captured in a system of universal rules’.” (p. 322). Anyone who has been a teacher or reared a child knows this all too well!

—Pedro Sandin, Brevard, NC