Philosophy and Politics

Philosophy and Politics

It would be naïve to suppose that philosophy in the twentieth century was sealed off from the political turmoil of the period, particularly two World Wars followed by a Cold War. Philosophers, being intellectual people, would naturally look to the causes of war (and oppression generally) in various forms of defective thinking: ideologies, social conformity, propaganda, delusion, irrationality, and sheer nonsense. They would then set themselves to rectifying these deformities of thought, hoping thereby to prevent war and other forms of violence. They would see themselves as thought doctors and intellectual scolds. Thus religion, pseudo science, superstition, political ideologies (fascism, communism, etc.) would be subjected to philosophical scrutiny, followed by condemnation. Positivism is one extreme (and therefore attractive) form of this tendency, declaring much of traditional discourse literally meaningless: the chief cause of war is nonsense, to put it simply. This diagnosis fits religious wars and with some tweaking carries over to wars powered by ideology. Karl Popper, though not a positivist, shared the aim of cordoning off the shabbier precincts of intellectual culture—particularly, Marxism and Freudianism. Other philosophers put their faith in symbolic logic or the down to earth prescriptions of ordinary language. Philosophers felt the need to oppose forms of thinking and talking that fostered dangerous tendencies, so there was a political rationale for their activities. The search for a criterion of meaningfulness (or a demarcation criterion in the case of Popper) was at least in part prompted by political concerns—concerns about war, human welfare, and human enlightenment. It was not a purely intellectual matter. Philosophy was seen as politically useful. The same could be said of phenomenology and existentialism, notably in the shape of Heidegger and Sartre, whose writings have a clear political motivation. We need to focus on lived experience, Dasein, the for-itself and the in-itself, the indisputable facts of Being. These philosophers oppose tendencies of thought that produce social discord, alienation, and sickness unto death. Twentieth century philosophy is thus shaped by political considerations; it is not a pure inquiry cut off from “the real world”. It is, in a word, relevant.[1]

            Nor were previous centuries all that different. Without rehearsing all this we can report that philosophy was shaped a good deal by religion, that it was concerned to promote the reputation of science, that it addressed itself to issues of political authority in an age of monarchy.  Opposing or supporting the Church was a central concern of philosophy throughout the middle ages, coming to a head in the Renaissance. And, of course, there was plenty of war to fuel interest in its intellectual causes (I am speaking mainly of Europe, but elsewhere in the world much the same situation existed). Philosophy was not disinterested—disengaged from large political and social issues. Only in the time of the ancient Greeks does philosophy appear serenely removed from politics, though here too appearances may be deceptive. True, Plato and Aristotle undertake inquiries whose political relevance is at best obscure (particulars and universals, substance and form), but politics occasionally intrudes in the form of the Sophists, the nature of the ideal state, democracy, and the death of Socrates. Were Socrates’ own motives completely apolitical? He went around exposing lazy thinking, questioning traditional pieties (the Euthyphro argument), and upsetting the authorities: why would he do this unless he thought that the errors he exposed were harmful? If they were just harmless eccentricities, silly personal foibles, he might have devoted his energies to other pursuits; he clearly thought it mattered that people are so intellectually inept. It mattered to the body politic. Still, I think it is true to say that the spirit of pure inquiry was very much alive in this period of intellectual history; one doesn’t sense the philosopher looking over his shoulder at the political ramifications of his studies. Perhaps this is because the time was one of relative peace with little internal conflict and a sense of freedom. The ancient Greeks did not feel themselves to be at odds with dangerous ideologies that philosophers must be conscripted to combat (at least that is my impression). However, this period didn’t last long and philosophy took up the cudgels against foes and phonies. The philosopher conceived himself in oppositional terms—always fighting with someone, always aiming for the Greater Good. The philosopher was ipso facto a political philosopher.

            The same is not true of other disciplines. Mathematicians and physicists are not politicians: they don’t conceive their subject as primarily concerned to combat dangerous intellectual error on the part of others, or to correct shabby thinking, or to root out pernicious nonsense. Teachers of these subjects don’t announce that their purpose is to enable you to think clearly—the assumption being that clear thinking will have practical benefits. Critical thinking courses, however, are intended to foster an ability to resist propaganda and sophism of the kind offered by the unscrupulous politician. Mathematics and physics, by contrast, simply study a certain range of questions in an impartial spirit, without regard for political considerations. Wars are not caused by false physical theories or unproved mathematical conjectures! The same is true of biology, geology, history, and botany. But philosophy has always been thought of as politically relevant: philosophers are expected to have political opinions, to be politically engaged. Even within philosophy there are political battles—battles for power, prestige, funds. Analytical philosophy versus continental philosophy, history of philosophy versus timeless problems, ethics versus metaphysics: philosophers are always engaged on some sort of crusade, busily denouncing and demoting. The philosophy profession is apt to be highly politicized in one way or another. Philosophers, we are told, are concerned with how to live, and politics is about that very question on a larger scale. Nowadays philosophers are much exercised with questions of gender and racial equality, this being a new arena of political engagement for them. That is a continuation of an old tradition: the philosopher as political operative. How could it be otherwise?

            Let’s pursue that question: what would philosophy be like without political input and influence? Suppose the twentieth century had been a century of peace and tranquility: no war, no oppression, no genocide, no imperialism, no class division, no religious controversy, etc. That is, suppose the century had featured nothing of consequence in the political sphere. Do you think there would have been the same obsession with meaningfulness, demarcation principles, the hygiene of formal logic, and the bracing breeze of ordinary language? I doubt it: for none of the usual political enemies would have existed to combat. All these concerns were prompted by perceived errors that required philosophical correction—errors with “real world” consequences. Wouldn’t philosophy have looked a lot more like physics or botany? And what would that be in the case of philosophy? A concentration on philosophical problems as such—that’s what. Philosophers would simply confront the perennial problems of philosophy without regard for any political ramifications–trying to understand them, debating them, and even solving them (well, that may be expecting too much). Not that nothing of that type was occurring during the time of the politically engaged kind of philosophy (for those problems have an irresistible allure), but it was not free to go its own way without any inhibition or restraint. The subject was surrounded and infiltrated by political questions. In fact, I think that the last few decades of the twentieth century were unusually free of political preoccupations and that philosophy benefited hugely thereby. There wasn’t much need for political engagement on the part of philosophers, so they could (to some degree) pursue questions that are politically irrelevant. They rediscovered the joys of pure inquiry: they could, for example, indulge in metaphysics without fearing that they were abetting stultifying religion or war-inciting ideological nonsense. That is, the psychology of philosophers changed during this period—not completely but partially. They felt freer to pursue their vocation.[2] Imagine what it would be like if politics intruded not at all on philosophy—a type of utopia no doubt but an imaginable one. Philosophers could then focus on the problems of philosophy without having to think about anything extraneous to them. It would be like Popper without the (alleged) pseudo sciences of Marxism and Freudianism to contend with—there would be simply no need to labor over formulating a demarcation criterion. If there is no war, then we need not fret over its intellectual causes: we need not spend our time skewering bellicose ideologies with superior reasoning. We could be exclusively concerned with discovering the truth without regard to its political utility. As I say, I think some of this has been in the ascendant, but it is good to state clearly what philosophy would look like in its unadulterated form—apolitical philosophy. Politics is fine in its place, and philosophers have a role to play in improving the practice of politics, but we should not lose sight of philosophy in its ideal and primal form. It is not in its essence prophylactic or therapeutic or anti-irrational or politically progressive. It is not in the business of war prevention or bullshit detection or oppression removal. It isn’t even to be understood as a good way to think clearly about things in general (that is not its essential point). It is an attempt to come to grips with certain age-old problems—a completely non-political enterprise. And there is always a danger that philosophy aimed at political ends will be dragged down to the level of politics. In my view philosophy is intrinsically apolitical, despite its history. That is indeed a main part of its attraction. We are not trying to improve the world qua philosophers but to formulate and answer the distinctive problems of philosophy. Movements like positivism are an aberration in philosophy, not part of its central mission (and let’s not forget that the avowed aim of positivism was to destroy and suppress metaphysicians, to “cancel” them).[3] In an ideal world the philosopher would have no interest in politics at all (except as a hobby)—though political philosophy would be perfectly kosher. The ivory tower would be sealed off from the outside world.

            I fear I may be misunderstood. It is not that I am against politics, and it is not that I think philosophy has no relevance to it, and it is not that I think philosophy has been wholly political for its entire history. I am merely suggesting that the exigencies of politics have shaped and distorted philosophy, which in its essence is not a political subject. Its connection with politics is contingent. In its pure form philosophy is an apolitical attempt to come up with the truth about a certain range of (pretty abstract) problems. Anything else is a corruption of its true nature.[4]


[1] I am obviously speaking in broad generalities here; the usual caveats apply.

[2] I want to avoid mentioning names for fear of omissions and wrong inclusions, but just to convey a sense of what I am talking about let me cite the following as (relatively) apolitical philosophically: Kripke, Nagel, Fodor, Strawson, Davidson, Lewis, and others. On the political side I would mention Rorty and Scruton as explicitly political in their approach to philosophy. More ambiguous figures would be Austin, Quine, Wittgenstein, and Rawls.   

[3] Isn’t it remarkable that the obsession with meaningfulness, once so urgent, has now completely disappeared from the philosophical agenda? I conjecture that this has to do with the change of political climate since the early and middle twentieth century, particularly regarding the dominance of religion. Nor are philosophers so focused these days on the question of freedom and personal authenticity, ever since the political revolution of the 1960s rendered such concerns nugatory (at least to some degree). 

[4] What is valuable about the philosophical state of mind (the philosophical life) is that it is not a political state of mind—not obsessed with power, advantage, competition, winning and losing, popularity, and influence. It is free from such worldly concerns. Not that it is easy to achieve.

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