How to do political philosophy

We can distinguish three styles of political philosophy: (1) abstract normative theorizing, (2) political realism, (3) diagnostic practice.

My claim is that abstract normative theorizing is a dead end and that normative political considerations have to be based on an understanding of the political realities. Normative political thinking thus presupposes political realism. But how well do we actually understand the political realities? And what are the epistemic constraints on political philosophy? Political thinking as a diagnostic practice sets out to examine that question. It is evident that an understanding of the political realities presupposes diagnostic practice.

Abstract normative theorizing about politics has had a long history and is still the dominant form of political philosophy today. Normative political philosophers typically ask: What is the best form of political order? The polis (city-state)? The empire? The nation state? What is the best form of government? Monarchy? Democracy? The Republic? What is the standard for judging political actions? Justice? Legality? Legitimacy? Plato, Aristotle, and John Rawls characteristically proceed in this manner. In the Republic Plato seeks to show through philosophical reasoning that the rule of philosopher-kings is best. By the same kind of reasoning Aristotle seeks to establish in his Politics that the Greek polis is the best form of political order. And John Rawls seeks to establish in a similar fashion in his Theory of Justice that actions and institutions are just when they implement his two basic rules.

Raymond Geuss has in recent years made a strong case against normative theorizing of this kind. In his book Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton 2008) Geuss writes: “Political philosophy must be realist.” (p. 9) It must be concerned in the first instance, he adds, “not with how people ought ideally (or ought ‘rationally’) to act … but rather with the way the social, economic, political etc. institutions actually operate.” (Ibid.) It must recognize that “politics is in the first instance about action and the context of action, not about mere beliefs or propositions.” (p. 11) It must accept that “politics is historically located,” (p. 13) It must also understand that “politics is more like the exercise of a craft or art” than an application of a theory. (p. 15) Its exercise depends on skill rather than theoretical understanding.

Geuss writes provocatively: “In my view, if political philosophy wishes to be at all connected with a serious understanding of politics, and thus become an effective source of orientation or a guide to action, it needs to return from the present reactionary forms of neo-Kantianism to something like the ‘realist’ view, or, to put it slightly differently, to neo-Leninism.” (p. 99) But what does he mean by “neo-Leninism”? According to Geuss: “Lenin defines politics with characteristic clarity and pithiness when he says that it is concerned with the question that keeps recurring in our political life: ‘Who, whom?’ … Although Lenin’s formula is basically correct, it is perhaps too dense and needs to be developed or extended… First of all, the formula should read not merely ‘Who whom?’ but, rather, ‘’Who [does] what to whom for whose benefit?’ with four distinct variables to be filled in, i.e., (1) Who, (2) What, (3) To whom, (4) for whose benefit? To think politically is to think about agency, power, and interests, and the relations among these.” (pp. 22 and 25) And so Geuss concludes: “If one takes this extended Leninist model as the matrix of political philosophy, certain consequences would seem to follow. The first is that it would be a mistake to believe that one could come to any substantive understanding of politics by discussing abstractly the good, the right, the true or the rational.” (p. 28)

But is political realism sufficient or must we not also consider the epistemic conditions under which it proceeds and, more generally, the epistemic conditions for any kind of political theorizing? Three kinds of questions arise here. The most general is, of course, how and to what extent the inhabitants of the political field understand that field and their own locatedness in it. Every inhabitant of that field is positioned in a distinctive temporal and spatial location. This will affect their perception of the field as a whole; it will provide them with specific insights but also limit their range of vision. Politics is, moreover, an active enterprise and not simply one of understanding. We find ourselves committed to action under non-ideal cognitive conditions. That is, we are forced to act when we have no full grasp of the situation in which we find ourselves; we may be unsure of the thought and intentions of other political actors; and we can never be completely confident about the consequences of our actions.

Political theorists can suspend judgment in cases where political agents may be forced to act. They can time to assemble their knowledge of the political situation, of the thoughts and intentions of the political actors, and of the consequences of their actions and can do so with some degree of detachment. But even they are confined in their range of vision by the spatio-temporal location they occupy. They may find their access to the past obstructed by the lack of traces left over in monuments, documents, or memories; they may discover their capacity for comprehending the present in all its vivid detail to be limited; and like everyone else in the political field they are unable to look clearly into the future. They may lack adequate concepts to organize and describe the political field and its complex, ever shifting conditions. The outcome has to be that the insights of the political realist will inevitably tenuous. As for the political actors themselves, the political field will always be a domain of uncertainty and often of also of disorientation for the political realist.

The diagnostic approach will finally also throw a critical light on the claims of the normative theorizers. We will want to ask what powers of reason and intuition the normative theorists has to rely on to make his claim and what confidence we can have in these powers since they themselves are products of particular circumstances. And there will be the further question of how we are to imagine the use of those norms that the normative theorizer claims to have discovered. Both the way up to the norms and the way from them to their application needs to be critically examined.

For the normative theorist, political philosophy is closely linked to prescriptive ethics. It may even be branch or application of ethics to the political field. For the political realist, political philosophy will be a part of ontology and related to what is now known as social ontology. For the diagnostic practitioner, questions concerning our knowledge of politics are primary and political philosophy will, in the first place, be an epistemology of knowledge under non-ideal conditions.Read more

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