Saturday, May 10, 2008

What Happened to Political Philosophy?

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


If you ask a 22-year-old philosophy major for a Great Philosophers shortlist, one that extends until, say, 1950, it would probably go something like this: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre. In fact, it would probably even go in that particular order. However, if you ask for a shortlist of the great political philosophers, that list would likely go something like this: Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx. Significantly shorter, yes, but why so little overlap? One might think specialization, and certainly when Plato and Aristotle were at it, everything was more or less "love of wisdom." But if you ask for a list of the great metaphysicians, or epistemologists, you get pretty much the exact same list as the Greats list (though a savvy student will hesitate with metaphysician, and in some cases epistemologist, for everybody after Hegel). And what's with no names from the early part of the 20th century?

What happened to political philosophy?

When students take Philosophy 101, they are typically still taught that there are three major branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. Some students (usually the ones already earmarked for phil-majorhood) will recognize the first two, but almost no one will have ever heard of the third. The professor, of course, will be quick to break down the etymological roots of all three, particularly the last: the study of "value". They will then explain that this branch breaks into the more well-known ethics and aesthetics. Occasionally that will be it--on with the show. Many times, though, the professor will also expand on the many sub-branches that have been created over time to help future majors swim later: philosophy of mind, of language, of science, of art (which has largely replaced "aesthetics"), moral philosophy (mainly the new moniker for philosophical study of "ethics"), political philosophy.

In 101 courses, however, political philosophy is usually overlooked, and sometimes even moral philosophy. Most of the focus remains on metaphysics and epistemology. The reasons for this are, naturally, many and complex, but some general considerations arise to answer some of the anomalies I pointed out earlier.

The most important reason is Kant. Kant institutionalized (for reasons having to do with his genius, but also because of the birth of modern universities and the professionalization--the professorialization--of philosophy) the historical line of personages that we now recite as the Great Ones by, during the creation of transcendental philosophy, splitting the difference between--what he named as--the traditions of Rationalism (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza) and Empiricism (Locke, Berkeley, Hume). In fact, the very notion of "metaphysics" and "epistemology" as subjects, as different branches of philosophy, didn't really cohere until after Kant. ("Metaphysics," of course, is the name Aristotle's redactor gave to the first collection of writings after the previous collection, the Physics. Epistemology, I believe, wasn't coined until the 19th-century, in German as erkenntnistheorie.) Since Descartes began his philosophy by doubting everything he knew, and Kant then stepped back and wondered how we know anything at all, epistemology has seemed to be the most pressing item on the list, even right before the part where we divvy out the existence of things--how else, after all, would we know?

Epistemology becoming the king of the discipline, however, doesn't explain why the series of great political philosophers differs so much from the other series. It explains why the Great Metaphysicians series looks exactly like the Great Philosophers one, but not why Machiavelli didn't have a theory of knowledge, nor Descartes a theory of the state.

I think the explanation has to run through Plato's distaste for the affairs of humanity. "But Plato wrote the first comprehensive political theory?" It is true, Plato is usually the first stop for political philosophy, but you have to dig into what he was saying--Plato wanted to banish politics. Political, and moral, philosophy were supposed to be those branches where we deal with the Problems of Men, but ever since Plato wiped his brush of Philosophy over the canvas of humanity's interests, banishing Poetry, Politics, and Rhetoric, philosophers who have turned their attention to the temporal have all struggled with the tension between the subject matter's obvious humanness and their desire to rise above it. Plato created the desire to float into the heavens precisely because he wanted to push aside the things that otherwise seem the most distinctively human. Do animals have politics? Do they capture each other's passions with moving oratory? No, but they do all have a mode of being in the world. Our mode would seem to be like Aristotle said, animals with politics, but Plato put his stamp on humanity by suggesting that we were most human, not by doing all these human-y things, but when we rise above, that we were most human when we were rubbing elbows with eternity. Plato did it by creating a new activity that would be definitive of humanity, call it philosophy, theory or contemplation, that would allow us to show off our celestial side.

The impact was that Hobbes and Machiavelli seem to philosophers to be cynics, reveling in the baseness of humanity. To those still marked strongly by Plato, moral--and particularly political--philosophy needed to be devoid of the crass things we do on a regular basis, ego struggles, white lies, above all sex: these things had no place in a proper understanding of ethical behavior. This led to the abortive position of emotivism, and it led to subdisciplines--really, redefinitions of the discipline--like "moral theory" and "metaethics." All of these maneuvers were designed to get the human out of morality. But how the hell do you do that in politics?

Platonism never could figure out what to do with politics because it just seemed so coarse, after all, naturally and essentially having to do with other people. So philosophers have increasingly isolated themselves over 2500 years from the affairs of people. At least in regards to what they do professionally, politics was something they looked oddly at because it was the realm of human action, whereas their domain seems directly opposed to it, the realm of contemplation. They keep trying to affect human action, how we act in the world, but the further we get from Plato, the worse their specifically philosophical attempts seem. The dynamic of Platonism was such that it created a rift between the actual and the ideal, encapsulated in More's re-Platonizing of political philosophy, Utopia. More wanted to affect action, his book was a political tract that was to have real political effect, but Plato's stamp shows it's true colors in how we think of More's coined word today: utopic thinking is something that's out of touch with reality.[fn.1] Think of that old, post-60s Cold War chestnut: "Sure, communism works in theory, but...."

The struggle between Plato and the Sophists was the struggle between sophia and techne. "Loving wisdom" was something that Plato introduced, and it was not what other's had in mind. Pierre Hadot gives us a good reconstruction of what Plato did to wisdom in his What is Ancient Philosophy?. Early philosophers had no notion of philosophia, but they did think of wisdom as a kind of know-how, which is still the most commonly used notion of the word in common sense. Techne we can translate as "skill," and we can see how 5th-century intellectuals before Socrates might have thought sophia and techne very similar notions, wisdom being a generalized know-how and various skills being particular kinds of know-how. The epitaph of Thrasymachus, Plato's punching bag at the beginning of the Republic, read: "My career is sophia," which, in the Sophists adoring naïveté, they thought they could teach. Socrates' strategy and goal was to show that they were full of it by asking them what, exactly, they were teaching. The particular bit they were teaching was arete.

The word has gone through a number of stages of translation, which itself gives us a potted history of philosophy's struggle between theory and practice, contemplation and action. The oldest English translations we were living with at the beginning of the 20th century was arete as "virtue." The trouble with virtue is that it is something we tend to itemize into various virtues, like the virtue of compassion or temperance. So arete seemed to equivocate between various things we could teach, and teach better by knowing what it, in its various particular guises, was (thus lending credence to Plato's turn to the heavens) and a more hard to define general thing, as in, "That person has virtue." They have virtue? What, exactly, do you mean?

What, indeed, and it becomes worse, and Socrates' rancor over the Sophists even more understandable, when we move to arete as "excellence," a translation that started to become popular around the middle of the century. "That person has excellence" doesn't even make much sense in English, but it is closer to what the Greeks meant. How on earth do you teach excellence, in general? The difficulty seems to be that it is only by being more specific to an activity can you describe how one is excellent in it. I think the way we boggle at the question of teaching arete so defined is the degree to which we take Socrates as making an advance in our moral knowledge--he was right to call the Sophists out on teaching arete, for what the hell does it mean to do that generally?

Alexander Nehamas has proposed going even further, and suggests translating arete as "success." Now, on the one hand, this makes sense of the Sophists in a way that "excellence" does not. The Sophists were interested in the affairs of humanity and in Greece, at that time, the only way to make it as a citizen of a city-state, particularly in Athens, was by being able to perform orally in front of an audience. Athens in the 5th century became the seat of the birth of both modern democracy and a modern judiciary. Every citizen was their own politician and their own lawyer, every citizen expected to be able to argue and defend their own viewpoint in politics and their own case in law. Nowadays we bemoan the rise of professional politics as a weakening of the idea of democracy, with its sense of everyone having their own voice. We have a (largely correct) sense that having professional politicians makes it easier for citizens to become uninformed, when the only way for a true democracy to work, as the American Founding Fathers foresaw, is to have an informed electorate. And yet, there is a strong analogy between politics and law, reflected in the view of them the Athenians took--every citizen their own law-maker and -interpreter--and in the history of those activities since: no one bats an eye at the professionalization of law. How can any person be expected to argue the ins and outs of their case when there is such a massive amount to know about law, being the particular kind of thing it is?

The Sophists were performing a much needed service for the Athenians by teaching them how to be successful in their duties as a citizen of Athens. People don't just naturally know to argue and present the best case. You have to learn how to do that, and that's what the Sophists were doing: teaching the Athenian's success in the domains of politics and law. But because of the nature of concepts and language, these ideas were not the evolved notions we have, but still being tried out. The Sophists said they were teaching "success," but--and this is on the other hand--Socrates perceived rightly a problem with teaching a general skill called "virtue" or "excellence" or "success." Like Socrates, we wonder what it could possibly mean to teach "success" generally, an even worse proposition than "excellence."

Plato rectified the matter by giving a particular spin to sophia that distinguished it from techne. Plato took over from Socrates the idea that "wisdom" was actually an an ineffable object. Socrates, noting the absurdity of trying to teach a general techne called arete, called attention to it by asking the teachers what exactly it was they were teaching--give me a definition. Socrates would then dialectically beat the crap out of every definition given, and declare at the end that, if you can't give it a defensible definition, then you must not know what you are doing. QED. Plato thought this brilliant, which it was, a terrific strategy on Socrates' part to make fun of the Sophists. But Plato thought it was more than a terrific way to show up the Sophists, a way of punching up the difficulty in teaching something general, like "success." Plato thought that Socrates was showing us what true wisdom was, which in Socrates' analysis always ended up a blank--no definition ever survives. True wisdom was acknowledging the fact that we were fallen beings (hence Socratic superiority in knowing that you don't know) and turning it into the essence of an activity definitive of humanity.

That was the trap Socrates set for Plato, and that Plato, for lack of knowing how to resolve it, repeated in his writings, indelibly marking the tradition--philosophers must teach something because we are fallen beings who have to act in the world, but the sad truth of it is, we can never have what we most want. Socrates placed wisdom beyond the bounds of reason by showing that if we could not define the essence of an object, we could not teach it. But we've had to go on teaching it anyways. The ultimate parody of the struggle between the Sophists and Platonists, between not knowing what to teach and teaching something, comes to us in the form of an Upright Citizens Brigade sketch. The younger brother asks his older, successful brother for advice for an upcoming interview, whether he has a secret weapon. The older, wiser brother makes him promise not to tell anybody and, noting that it is kind of a long-term strategy, asks him how much time he has. The younger brother says he has only a week, and the older brother says that it still might work. His secret wisdom, the secret to all of his success, the strategy he has employed? "Every time a penny passes through your hands, stick it up your ass. And then spend it." The younger brother first thinks he's joking, and then recoils at the thought that this is what his brother does, this is his secret:

"Thanks Nick, yeah. I thought you were really going to help me. How is sticking pennies up my ass going to help me?"

"You don't just stick them up your ass, you spend them. I told you, it's a long-term strategy. I've been doing this for 11 years now, and every day for the last 11 years, I've stuck $30 in pennies up my ass. I use them for everything, cab rides, movie theaters, groceries."

"What does that accomplish?"

"Will you listen? That's a lot of ass-pennies I've got out there, my friend. And here's where the magic comes in: when I meet someone who intimidates me, who puts me on edge, a real 'hard ass,' I just think to myself, 'they've probably handled one of my ass-pennies.' In fact, they probably got one in their pocket right then. That just seems to sort of give me the upper-hand. I mean, hey, I haven't touched anything that's been in their ass."

And that is what has happened to political philosophy. Plato made wisdom ineffable, which means the secret of life could be, according to the philosophers, sticking pennies in your ass. Nothing is closer to the heart of the human experiment than our negotiations with each other over how we are to function together--but is that the essence of humanity? "Go ahead, defend that thesis. I will destroy it," says the ghost of Socrates. Plato thought the wisdom of Socrates was the idea of an ineffable object of supremacy that was pure and holy and so extraordinarily not human, totally free of humanity's taint. What we should come to acknowledge as the wisdom of Socrates, however, is not the inhumannes of abstraction, but the total inanity of looking for abstract essences that somehow control particular, specific human activities. No general definition of arete is going to tell us how to teach it as a general techne. Though the Sophists thought of themselves as teaching a general skill called "success," careers spent in service to wisdom, what they were actually doing was something more specific, teaching Athenians how to survive in the Greek city-state environment.

Philosophy has been trying to work out the relationship between our self-understanding of what we are doing and what we are actually doing ever since Plato. One direction has been to play out the consequences of Plato's self-understanding of what philosophy was, and since it was directed towards an ineffable object, the effect was to remove philosophy further and further away from anything applicable to the affairs of humanity. Once you could connect it to what we do, a Platonist would come along and go, "Oh, well, that must not be what we should be talking about then," because the very fact that it was useful for humanity showed that it was not what Plato was talking about. The other direction was in the direction of the Sophists, the actual activity of philosophizing, which is a practical activity of teaching people how to think. We know, now, that that is what the Sophists were actually doing (and Socrates doing better) because we know with much better clarity and understanding that thinking is a social activity, even when done alone. The activity of reflection is only possible by the internalizing of a voice different from our own in our mind. We think by making explicit in our minds some thesis which we would otherwise bring out, make into action, but instead of actualizing it, we try and defeat it, play out the consequences of the idea in our head, look for alternatives--all things that involve pretending to be someone or something else with a different viewpoint.

The Greeks were trying to teach us how to think, and though Plato totally misconstrued the activity, we can still see the virtue in philosophy. Political philosophy is that amorphous activity that bounces back and forth between political realities, details, behavior, laws and ideal fulminations of how things might be, should be. Political philosophy has historically been neglected in the canons of disciplines because it is the true king discipline--not philosophy as Kant thought, not science as Comte thought, not religion, not psychology, not linguistics, not history, not any of these. Political philosophy is the great discipline because all other disciplines, all other activities find their place within it. It is the conjunction of the two sides of our humanity, action and contemplation. It is a thing that is almost impossible to foresee how it is to be done well. Plato, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Mill, Marx, John Rawls, Albert Hirschman, Albert Hofstadter, Thom Hartmann, Paul Krugman, Foucault, Rorty, Pirsig, Harold Bloom, Daniel Dennett, John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, Michael Oakeshott, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Freud, Jonathon Lear, Randy Rhodes, Aaron Sorkin, Upton Sinclair, Milan Kundera, Cindy Sheehan, Judith Shklar, Randolph Bourne, Alexis de Toqueville, Jefferson, Dewey, Markos, Stanley Fish, Dan Savage, Elaine Scarry, John Hollander, Walter Ong, Walter Kaufmann, Michael Walzer, Habermas, Adorno, Gadamer, Louis Menand, Clifford Geertz, Ruth Benedict, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Annette Baier--they have all written things that can aid a political philosopher. Some self-consciously do political philosophy, some politics, some subjects related to politics, or philosophy, but a few in a connection that is probably opaque until I relate how I've, at least, found wisdom on their pages relatable to something called "political philosophy."

What do they all have in common? Nothing. Doing good political philosophy is impossible to define in a way that will predict where you can find wisdom. And that's generalizable to life. And because utterly unpredictable, professionals at it are partly historians and commentators on a diffuse array of writers, thinkers, singers, painters, speakers, as many activities as you can list--the political philosopher creates a canon of wisdom-creators and because it will partly be so idiosyncratic because of its diffuseness (we all find wisdom in different places), it is hard to see that profession as massively important. Which is just as well, because the fact that political philosophy is what it is also makes all of us political philosophers in the required sense, and the notion of specialists in political philosophy either stupid (because Platonic) or just meaning, "Well-read in other wisdom-seekers."

What happened to political philosophy? It has been going through the growing pains one could safely predict of anything that evolves, but in it's peculiar case, it has been the reflection of Humanity's Evolutionary Story as it, in effect, wishes to relate its past, present and future all at once. The mark of Platonism, carried out, makes philosophers understand whatever it is they teach to be effectively like ass-pennies--look, wisdom is ineffable, so as far as anyone can know, sticking these pennies in your ass is going to make you successful and better at life. And yet, philosophers and intellectuals are successful at making humanity better. What 2500 years has taught us is that the self-understanding of what philosophy is that Plato gave us might be the problem.


[1]POSTSCRIPT, JULY 2010: I have since learned that this sentence is wrong about More. I don't know about "re-Platonizing" (I think I just want to distinguish Machiavelli from More, but I don't know enough about the history of predecessors or successors), but Judith Shklar argues that More was Platonic in just the way I was suggesting he wasn't: More had no intent to be politically efficacious. Her two essays on the idea of utopias in Political Thought and Political Thinkers are invaluable to any kind of thinking about this. Shklar further argues that things began to change for political philosophy, beginning to shuck it's Platonic heritage, with what she calls the "birth of historical optimism," which was a combination of the increased exploits of technology--leading to greater material wealth--and the rise of a middle-class that began challenging aristocratic control of power (loosely defined as whatever is at the top of any hierarchy, be it a single king or a host of nobility), and these led to a greater appreciation of history (culminating in Hegel). The interplay between increased theoretical grasp (science) leading to increased causal control (technology) leading to increased material production (industrial) leading to increased wealth (economics) leading to increased power (politics) leading to a different increase of theoretical grasp (i.e., "hey, I think we can change things"), which leads to democracy, is a full story we are getting better and better at telling, but I haven't read anybody that puts it all together in a pithy way.


  1. AnonymousMay 14, 2008

    Spoken like a true pragmatist


  2. well said matt
    I have been reading Plato for school and you put into words exactly what I have problems with understanding let alone accpeting as true. Thanks


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