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July 16, 2007

the purposes of political philosophy

(In Philadelphia for the National Conference on Volunteering and Service) Why would a person sit down at a desk to write general and abstract thoughts about politics? This is a significant question, because people who think hard about politics are likely to be interested in social change. Yet it is not obvious that writing abstract thoughts about politics can change anything.

One might write political theory in order to persuade someone with the power to act on one's recommendations: for instance, the sovereign. Machiavelli addressed his book The Prince "ad Magnificum Laurentium Medicem"--"to Lorenzo (the Magnificent) de' Medici"--a man who surely had the capacity to govern.

Today, political theorists still occasionally write papers for the World Bank or a national government, preserving the tradition of philosophy as advice to the ruler. Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, et al. sent a brief to the Supreme Court whose first section was headed, "Interest of the Amici Curiae." The authors explained their "interest" as follows: "Amici are six moral and political philosophers who differ on many issues of public morality and policy. They are united, however, in their conviction that respect for fundamental principles of liberty and justice, as well as for the American constitutional tradition, requires that the decisions of the Courts of Appeals be affirmed."

Unfortunately, one rarely finds a sovereign willing to act on morally demanding principles. And if one's principles happen to be republican, one may not wish to serve or help the sovereign at all. (It is a subtler question whether a powerful Supreme Court is compatible with republicanism.)

Rousseau, being a republican, thought that Machiavelli's advice to Lorenzo had to be ironic. Machiavelli's real audience was--or so Rousseau presumed--the Florentine people, who would realize that a prince, in order to be secure, must be ruthless and cruel. They would therefore rise up and overthrow Lorenzo, becoming what they should always have been: the sovereign. In this "theory of change," the philosopher addresses the sovereign as an apparently loyal courtier, but his real effect is to sew popular discontent and rebellion.

Whether or not Rousseau's reading of Machiavelli was correct, many philosophers have addressed themselves to the public as the sovereign. Rousseau himself dedicated his Discourse on Inequality "To the Republic of Geneva." He began: "Magnificent, very honorable, and sovereign sirs, convinced that it is only fitting for a virtuous citizen to give to his nation the honors that it can accept, for thirty years I have labored to make myself worthy to offer you a public homage. ..."

There is, I'm sure, some irony in Rousseau's dedication. He didn't expect the oligarchs of Geneva to whom he addressed his discourse to act in accord with his ideas. He understood that "la Republique" was not the same as the "souverains seigneurs" who might actually read his book.

Today, a dedication or appeal to the public would seem pretentious in a professional philosophy book--partly because it's clear that "the public" won't read such a work. John Rawls' Theory of Justice is dedicated to his wife, a common (and most appropriate) opening. Still, I think we can assume that Rawls wanted to address the whole public indirectly. He believed that the public was sovereign. He knew, of course, that most citizens would not read his book, which was fairly hard going. Even if it had been an easier work, most people were not interested enough in abstract questions of politics to read any "theory of justice." But Rawls perhaps hoped to persuade some, who would persuade others--not necessarily using his own words or techniques, but somehow fortified by his arguments.

This is a third "theory of change" that may be implicit in most modern academic political theory. The idea is: We must first understand the truth. Since it is complex and elusive, we need a sophisticated, professional discussion that draws on welfare economics, the history of political thought, and other disciplines not easy for a layperson to penetrate. But the ultimate purpose of all this discussion is to defuse diffuse true ideas into the public domain. We do that by lecturing to undergraduates, writing the occasional editorial, persuading political leaders, filing amici briefs, etc.

This theory is not foolish, but I don't believe in it. I doubt that a significant number of people will ever have the intellectual interests or motivations to act differently because they are exposed to philosophical arguments.

I further doubt that one can develop an intellectually adequate understanding of politics unless one thinks through a theory of change. It is easy, for example, to propose that the state should empower people by giving them various political rights. But what if saying that has no effect on actual states? What if saying it actually gives states ideas for propaganda? (Real governments have sometimes used political theory as the inspiration for entirely hypocritical rhetoric.) What if talking about the value of particular legal rights misdirects activists into seeking those rights on paper, when the best route to real freedom lies elsewhere? In my view, an argument for political proposition P is an invalid argument if making it actually causes not-P. And if you argue for P in such a way that you can never have any impact on P, I am unimpressed.

Finally, 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?

A fourth "theory of change" is implicit in a work like John Gaventa's Power and Powerlessness (1980). This book has no official dedication, but the preface ends, "Most of all, I am indebted in this study to the people of the Clear Fork Valley. Since that summer in 1971, they have continued to teach, in more ways than they know." It's not clear whether Gaventa expected the residents of an Appalachian valley to read his book, but he did move to the region to be a leader of the Highlander Folk School. Gaventa's theory was: Join a community or movement of people who are motivated and organized to act politically. Learn from them and also give them useful analysis and arguments. Either expect them to read your work directly, or use your academic work to develop your analysis and then share it with them in easier formats.

I am the opposite of a Marxist in most respects, but I think we have something to learn from Marxists on the question of "praxis": that is, how to make one's theory consequential. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx wrote, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." That seems right to me, not only because we have a moral or civic obligation to work for social change, but also because wisdom about politics comes from serious reflection on practical experience.

Thus I will end with one more quote from a preface--the 1872 preface of the German edition of the Communist Manifesto. Here we see Marx addressing an organized social movement: "The Communist League, an international association of workers, which could of course be only a secret one, under conditions obtaining at the time, commissioned us, the undersigned, at the Congress held in London in November 1847, to write for publication a detailed theoretical and practical programme for the Party. Such was the origin of the following Manifesto, the manuscript of which travelled to London to be printed a few weeks before the February Revolution."

Now that is political writing with a purpose.

July 16, 2007 12:01 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


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