1) That philosophy ought to be and can be more than a set of intellectual puzzles. Teaching philosophy is one thing - among other things, we want students to exercise and develop their minds, become analytical thinkers and decent people, to explore how we say things and what experience is about, and so on. Philosophical puzzles are sometimes a good way of contributing to that. They just become amusement, however, when you're a professional philosopher.
2) That many philosophers confuse the difficulty and complexity of the puzzles with an inherent merit to philosophy when it is human experience in its difficulty and complexity that lends philosophy any merit it has.
3) That the most difficult intellectual puzzles anyway are not found in, say philosophy of mathematics or contemporary metaphysics, but are in how philosophy is connected to other human practices in ways that are descriptively faithful to and normatively critical of those practices (including philosophy).
4) That if you want to make normative arguments in philosophy, you probably ought to have some idea of how a normative claim might be actualized, what that would entail and what it would mean.
5) That this requires a person to move in circles outside of philosophy in order to be a philosopher - you have to continually educate yourself. Which circles you choose depends on which parts of human experience you want to try to figure out and what the content is of the normative claims you're busy making in philosophy proper. Much of the time, doing political philosophy is a way of explaining to yourself what you're doing while you're engaging in politics. That, I like.
6) That this is all experimentation. Philosophy is good at exposing and critiquing erroneous assumptions and beliefs, unjust ideas and institutions, and untruthful claims. But it's not very good at allowing itself to be jettisoned when it's merely creating puzzles for itself. Philosophy can live under delusion just as much as any other discipline or belief system. In other words, it often loses its own experimental edge for reasons similar to those in any other areas of experience (familiarity, habit, ignorance, lassitude, etc.).
7) That political philosophy ought to be modest about its potential, and ought to take as one of its keystones the daily and historical realities of policy and politics. As Peter Levine writes in a recent post that inspired this present one,
I doubt that philosophical arguments about politics are all that persuasive, except as distillations and clarifications of experience. Too much about politics is contingent on empirical facts to be settled by pure argumentation. (In this sense, political philosophy is profoundly different from logic.) Thus I read The Theory of Justice as an abstract and brilliant rendition of mid-20th-century liberalism. But the liberalism of the New Deal and Great Society were not caused in the first place by political theory. They arose, instead, from practical experimentation and negotiation among social interests. Rawls' major insights derived from his vicarious experience with the New Deal and the Great Society--which makes one wonder how much efficacy his work could possibly have. It was interesting analysis, no doubt; but could it matter?Precisely. Peter probably won't like the comparison, but I take this to be a rather Rortyan point. Richard Rorty thought there was little reason to try make rational philosophical arguments to people disinclined to listen (which is most of us most of the time, though he used Nazis and racists as examples to dramatize the point) to even the most sterling of philosophical arguments, and thus suggested - famously - that we're better off telling "sad and sentimental stories" to each other about what needs changing in the world and about what a better world might look like. Extrapolating, we could say that philosophical argument is just one tool to be used in politics and not all that useful of one. Images, stories, protests, organizing, etc. can all be much more effective tools for prompting political change. These are all ways of making arguments if, by "argument," we mean something much looser than the usual philosophical sense. A Kantian-style systematic argument for a contemporary version of liberalism, such as Rawls' A Theory of Justice, really has little force in actual political change. Thus, as Peter says, we need a "theory of change" to go along with our political philosophy. He cites Marx's famous dictum from the Theses on Feuerbach that the point is to change the world, not merely interpret it.
But do we? That is, we need to understand political change and its mechanisms, but do we need a theory of change? Well, yeah, kind of. That's what I've tried to outline above, what led me away from philosophy departments and into policy analysis. But this isn't theory in the good old political philosophy sense because any theory of change is going to have to allow itself the possibility of its own demise, its own jettisoning. (Besides, the above are mostly observations rather than an attempt at theorizing change - I'm not trying to convince you to come to my position).
One of the things I do professionally is institutional analysis, specifically focusing on international agreements and global governance. Institutional analysis could be said to be a collection of theories of change whose objects are, after all, the institutions through which we live. Scholars have a variety of ideological leanings, methodological preferences, and pet analytical instruments. They often spend much of their time defending those positions and instruments rather than using them to tell us something about institutional change. Those instruments embody, in many ways, theories of change tracking the dynamics of institutions in qualitative and quantitative terms. But there is always a surplus to any theories we come up with for explaining change and/or attempting it. That surplus is located in the contingencies of experience and it is what makes experimentation possible and worthwhile. It ought to make us more modest as political theorists and theorists of change. That modesty could even go some distance towards opening a bit larger space for political philosophers' ideas in politics.
There's no overall point here. No matter, though. I'm simply suggesting to you a few observations on political theory and change. I'll gladly allow my mind to be changed if you have a good argument or story to tell.