Thursday, July 19, 2007

What Are We Doing When We Do Political Philosophy?

I'm a political philosopher and ethicist by training, pitch, wow and flutter. But I've strayed from the flock due to an interest in several interrelated considerations, all with their attendant doubts, of course:

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.


MT said...

Especially playing defense as a political critic, sound argument will be sound rhetoric at least sometimes for smart people, and in some of those sometimes those people are liable to be influential. Political philosophy doesn't have to be the deadliest of intellectual pursuits to be politically or morally worthwhile. I suppose Nobel-prize theories in economics are to most politicians like water on a duck's back, but that doesn't mean economics is a waste of time or talent. On the other hand, when a theorist works far ahead of "basic research" in his or her discipline, the work is liable to be nutty or treated as such, even if IBM is loaning her a Blue Gene to do it. Your conclusions can be hogwash and yet your methods can be foundational and important. And then there's the discipline-crossing aspect of what it sounds like you're doing, helmut. An individual who brings rare or entirely new skills into even a teaming and competitive habitat nevertheless may find the pickings easy. The evolutionary history of academia is must be full of events where one field invades another and/or begets a new discipline by it.

helmut said...

I'm off to bed. This deserves more than a wise-ass comment. Tomorrow....

MT said...

Here's computational neuroscientists explaining why they think it makes sense to produce mathematical models of thought and perception while so many basic questions about brain anatomy and physiology remain unanswered, and while everybody else who cares how brains work is working on those questions.

MT said...

Caution: There's a lusty boo from the audience in that video boo when a panel member mentions philosophers.

helmut said...

Boo, philosophers! That would be appropriate if anyone really knew what they were doing but themselves.

I don't mean that doing things we often call "pure" science or "pure" philosophy (or "basic research") is a waste of time and that people ought not to engage in these things. I have myself. It's fun. I certainly don't expect people to do things I think I ought to do. Your neuroscientist case is not really what I'm speaking to, however - mathematical models in this case can have utility (although I'm also not saying that utility ought to be the main criterion or goal of research) in providing conceptual shape for how we understand physiology when we get to the point where are tools of explanation are more refined. In fact, it helps us refine those tools. The person doing basic research on mathematical models, without any concern for their use, is nonetheless doing work they might be usable in some way by others. In this case, perhaps a better overall understanding of physiology. If it's not of some use at some point - even if its use is negative (say, as a theory that turns out to be wrong, thus guiding researchers away from it in directions more likely to be right) - then I do think we ought to question it. We don't have to know what the payoff is in advance (thus, "basic research"). But if there's never a payoff, then isn't the endeavor a kind of high-powered insanity?

My point is that political philosophy often takes this style of endeavor - of attempting to bracket other creeping elements of human practice and experience - as its model for doing political philosophy. It's packed with assumptions about the relation between theory and practice, about the role of politics in our lives, and about where intellectual endeavors find their merit. In many ways, the content of these assumptions is a kind of general belief that echoes Plato. That is, even when explicitly denying it, this way of doing theory at least implicitly sets up a strong distinction between, in Plato's terms, Being and Becoming. Being is the realm of universals, abstraction, stability, eternity (the abiding Forms/Ideas [eidos]). Becoming is the realm of particulars, change, practice. Plato set up philosophy to be largely an endeavor in reflecting upon Being rather than Becoming. This set the scene for Western metaphysics and it remains in many ways. When we go to political philosophy this becomes problematic.

In The Republic, Plato has Socrates and interlocutors construct the ideal city (the ideal political form), a city which doesn't exist and admittedly will never exist. One generous interpretation - which I admire - is that the construction of the city is itself significant as a pedagogical tool. Socrates has encouraged his interlocutors to construct a vast idea about politics and morality. Along the way, they have generated conclusions about a number of problems and have generated new ideas. But the city remains a construct of and in their minds. That is, for Plato, its great worth. It is in itself a contemplation of the forms, apart from the messy practices of actual politics and problems (the "city of pigs"). That is, philosophy.

There are considerations along the way based in the contingencies of actual experience. One is the problem of, in the interest of maintaining order and stability in the ideal state, how people are going to be convinced to live in the oppressive state they've constructed. The answer is an elaborate ruse, a mythology, of class identity. In the name of order in the model and logical consistency and coherence of thought thinking about this model, they've created a state that foregoes individual's concerns about, for instance, their own freedoms.

Now, there is an important feature even to leaps of imaginary philosophy. Ideas can serve as guides to practice, something to shoot for, something against which we can critique our own real situation. That wasn't the goal of Plato. But it is of political philosophers like Rawls, theorized in his notion of reflexive equilibrium. Nonetheless, this practice remains tied to philosophers for the most part as they go about philosophical speculation.

So.... my claim here is that political philosophy, in the age-old name of consistency and coherence in its own models, often makes the same move as Plato did (even when political philosophers say, "nuh uh, that's not what I'm doing").

This leaves the tricky question of the relationship between theoretical models and actual practice. Theory is always necessary to think through practice, but theory can't be devoid of attention to practice. This may not apply in neuroscience, but I think it should in political philosophy. The two fields have very different goals, after all. I think that the theory/practice question is essentially unresolvable and rightly so - that we're better off continually questioning what we're doing when we're theorizing politics by looking at actual, relatively un-theorized politics, and vice versa. But it's better figured out by also honestly drawing upon the ways in which our theories go awry. This, I think, demands an intense intellectual integrity because the landscape of politics is always shifting, and because it's not easy to revise or even give up on frameworks of thought and interpretation. Part of that integrity requires us to be able to discard theories when they have little to say to relatively un-theorized politics and policy, but aspire to do so. The risk is in discarding all theory, leaving us with the old relativism problem. I'm not a relativist, but I'm also tired of cries of relativism when a theorist is attempting to revise his/her thinking in light of actual practices. That accusation itself has come to take on tones of "you're either with us or against us."

The more we explore this more flexible notion of political philosophy, the better we get at negotiating this tricky landscape.

Anonymous said...

Too bad we don't have such a field of study as applied philosophy. Wouldn't it be fun for philosophy to actuallay be relevant to peoples lives?

helmut said...


There exists applied philosophy - a number of sub-disciplines and interdisciplinary fields. Although this post is specific to a discussion about what political philosophers do, it assumes a modicum of knowledge on the part of the reader to make its point. I regret that you've missed it.