Thursday, February 12, 2009

What Is Political Philosophy?

This is the title of a famous essay by Leo Strauss. It is a perennial question for political theorists who occupy a peculiar place in the constellation of the modern academy. It is a question of renewed importance in this time, a time that may spell the passing of a century-plus arrangement and the a-borning of something quite new.

Political philosophy, Aristotle argued, was "architectonic" - the "master science" that governed all the other practical sciences (i.e., those "sciences" that had to do with human things, and thus, were not reducible to exactitude). It was "architectonic" because politics shapes and frames the other ways of organizing human life, such as economics ("household management"), military affairs, social arrangements, etc. (for Aristotle, it even influenced the human relationship to the divine, since most forms of religion in pre-Christian antiquity were a form of civil religion. While Christianity changes this equation - and thus places theology as a competitor to political philosophy, it was Aquinas who gave them a place of relative importance, attempting to combine the truths of reason and faith).

Political philosophy is thus at its most comprehensive a reflection on the organization of the whole of human society. It is both retrospective and forward-looking, taking into account what has been, what is, and what may yet be. The "discipline" of political philosophy was, for all practical effects, begun by Plato, who - particularly in the Republic and the Laws - sought to explore wholly different ways of organizing human communities that would in different ways accord with justice and/or our nature (these two things may not, and perhaps are not, wholly the same). Political philosophy is radical - going to the root of things - not bound by what is, but also necessarily cognizant of what has been and what is likely to be possible.

Political philosophy in our time was eventually incorporated into the discipline of political science, but it has always been an odd and uncomfortable partnership: political science is, at its most ambitious, the effort to predict certain outcomes of existing political arrangements, and at its most mundane and frequent manifestation, an effort retrospectively to explain why certain political things happened as they did (most political scientists if pressed will justify their discipline in terms of predictive ability, but most of their work is that of explanation of past events: they rarely if ever think deeply over whether explanation of discrete past phenomena can be predictive in human affairs in the same way that they may be in the natural sciences). Political philosophy is willing to raise questions about the very basis of how things are done, while most political scientists labor in the fields of things that are, only with difficulty raising their eyes beyond the horizon. They regard political theorists as imprecise and impractical, as an historical anomaly that has been allowed to persist in an increasingly rationalized academy. There are occasional efforts to eliminate the field (e.g., most recently at Penn. State University), or to make it the handmaiden of political science (i.e., "normative" political theory - raising questions that can be "operationalized" by political scientists). Some political theorists are even calling for the elimination of their own field, convinced of its imprecision and impractibility.

In recent years, I would argue, political theorists have increasingly become shaped by the forces that now dominate the modern academy. They have become increasingly specialized and largely write for fellow political theorists - or, more likely, a small subset of fellow experts in their field of political theory. An emphasis on professional training in graduate programs and avenues for hiring and career advancement place special stress on specialization and a kind of clannish building of coteries who speak to each other and not further. The field has splintered into many varieties and methodological approaches, all accomplished in their own way in their ways and approaches, but few that could be said to be attempting to achieve the kind of "architectonic" status that Aristotle argued was the hallmark of political philosophy. Indeed, it could be certainly argued that the demands and constraints of the modern academy have made the kind of comprehensive political philosophy almost impossible to achieve within its confines. A generation ago we saw the like ascent of the likes of Strauss, Berlin, Arendt, Wolin, Kojeve, Schmitt and others. In related fields, we encountered MacIntyre and Niebuhr. Today we seem to have epigones of epigones, but exceedingly few distinctive voices that seem capable of such architectonic vision. One must look largely outside the academy, or in tucked away places within the academy (more likely in our liberal arts colleges than our "top" research universities) for such thinkers, though I am hard pressed to think of many.

This is of special concern at this moment because political philosophers become of utmost importance in times of great crisis and change. Their vision (to adopt a term used often by Sheldon Wolin) makes possible to think in new ways, to conceive differently from prevailing forms. The political theorist Jeffrey Isaac noted some years ago that political theorists were largely silent about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, wholly isolated and disinterested in that world-historical event. Today political theory hums along doing what it has done so well for a number of years - churning out unread and unreadable academic papers - but has very little to say about our current moment. Either comfortable in their secure academic positions or desperately striving to achieve advancement within the academy, they have largely focused their attention on pleasing their academic peers while generally ignoring so many of the warning signs of the last few decades - ones that the vision of a political theorist might have had special insight into exploring and explaining.

Above all, political philosophy in its classical forms was not a domain for the special academic elect. Its foundational texts are still the texts that are regarded as essential for a well-educated - but not specialized or specially trained - human being. Plato and Aristotle; Augustine and Aquinas; Machiavelli and Bacon; Hobbes and Locke; Mill and Marx; Tocqueville and Nietzsche - these and others are the basic texts that we must all read and to some extent master to complete our apprenticeship in our fields. These texts speak in the broadest sense of the human condition, and in ways that are generally accessible to any intelligent and inquisitive human, without special training or background.

We enter a moment in modern history when the vision and insight, the comprehensive perception of political philosophers is all the more needed than in over half a century. Perhaps it is the times more than anything that give rise to such vision - context, more than anything, affords what is needed - but in the meantime we have largely disfigured a generation of political thinkers in ways that make it incapable for most to reflect in the deepest way about our current moment. They slept as deeply and blissfully as the wider population. Some perhaps will awaken now, but few with the capacity to speak beyond the narrowing walls of the academy. Others will doubtlessly arise outside its pernicious influence, infusing perhaps our academics with a renewed vigor and willingness to grapple with our deepest failures.

Above all what is needed is a re-engagement with the great texts and authors of our tradition - that retrospective and serious engagement with the various alternatives that have been explored throughout human history and a deep reflection on those alternatives. Our universities have been deeply infected with the mania for progress and - as equally as the rest of the populace - the belief that something could be had for nothing. Even still there is deep self-deception about our future, the belief that a few technical and economic tweaks can put us back on our accustomed course. Its denizens have been as deeply self-deluded as the rest of the culture, and show little signs yet of realization that much must be re-thought.

What is political philosophy? It is a way of seeing, further and deeper, beyond what is but deeply informed by what has been. We may yet see its rebirth, but it will largely be in spite of, and not because of, features of the modern academy. And this is certainly not at all a bad thing at all.


Anonymous said...

I agree that political philosophy is important, and that engagement with it can play an important public role. I don't agree that we need a is a re-engagement with the great texts and authors of our tradition - that retrospective and serious engagement with the various alternatives that have been explored throughout human history and a deep reflection on those alternatives." Part of what has made political philosophy seem IRRELEVANT is its obsession with historical texts. The last thing we need to make political philosophy relevant and important is yet another discussion of what Plato "really meant." Its not that I think that all we have done is inherently progress or that technicality always equals progress--but I do think that part of that movement has involved a chance to be more clear, to expand on what earlier authors said, to find their mistakes, to learn to be more clear. I also do not believe that political philosophy has some kind of unique obligation to be relevant or to fix the outside problems, or speak to the outside world. We don't demand all of physics focus on being "productive." Its o.k. sometimes that the work be done just to know, just to be precise, just to see how an argument plays out, just to get it right. There is nothing at all wrong if many members of the field focus on careful arguments with other members of the academy, even with other members of their subarea of the field. The people who do historical work shouldn't HAVE to justify their claims in regards to the contemporary folk nor vice versa. To do so just degrades the value of both of these (very different) projects.

Anonymous said...

Here are some interesting discussions on a possible fusion of “liberalism” and “libertarianism” initiated by somebody named Brink Lindsey.

"...raising their eyes beyond the horizon" is not always so difficult is it?