Political Philosophy: What to read

Philosophers have written copiously about politics. There is, moreover, no sharp dividing line between “philosophical” writings on politics and other kinds of writing on this topic. So there is no end to what one might read under the heading of “political philosophy”. Here is a list of 17 significant texts, some classical and some modern, some short and some long, some famous and some not so famous, some highly readable and some very demanding. The selection is, of course, mine; others might add to it or subtract from it. I will add some comments on what makes these writings interesting and important.

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The Deficiency Theory of Human Nature and Its Deficits

Thomas Hobbes writes famously in chapter 13 of his Leviathan that human life under natural conditions is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[1] In order to live a social rather than a solitary life, a comfortable rather than a poor one, in order to live in a pleasantly civilized way rather than a nasty and brutish one, and in order to be long-lived rather than cut short in years, Hobbes argues, humans need to overcome their natural condition and create an artificial world, a second nature, a state, a commonwealth. Fortunately, they have “reason” which “suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.”[2] These “laws of nature” allow them to create the desired “commonwealth” with its “commodious living.” But it is not inevitable that they will succeed in this undertaking. Hobbes writes in De Cive: “Men come together … not because naturally it could happen no otherwise, but by accident.”[3]

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The Puzzle of Power

Let us be frank and admit that there is no such thing as power – just as there is no such thing as “the elephant” or “the rhinoceros.” It pays to be nominalist in all these cases and avoid a metaphysics of power just as much as a metaphysics of biological kinds. A noun makes us look for a corresponding object and an abstract noun for an abstract entity. Wittgenstein has shown how that misleads us. So, no power, but no harm will be done with the term, if we take it in the right way. Let us say, then, that there exists a field of relations of something affecting (bearing on, controlling, shaping, transforming, destroying, etc.) something in some way or other. Like Foucault, we can call this the field of relations of mobile inequality. It is from this field that we usually pick a subset we call relations of power. But the choice is wide open. Thus, we end up with disputes about the nature of power, disagreements about how power is to be defined. These arise only from an ill-conceived essentialism and should be relegated to the metaphysical dustbin.

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What hope is there?

Democracy in China. The Coming Crisis is a tightly argued new book by Ci Jiwei that sets itself the dual task of analyzing China's democratic deficit while doing so in a genuinely philosophical manner.

What follows is a short first stab at an assessment of this book.

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The Empire of Disorientation. A Preface (2nd draft)

It was the day after the election of Donald Trump when I first realized that we are living now in an empire of disorientation. That morning I faced 200 students who were so distraught that I had to cancel a scheduled examination. Some of my colleagues said soon afterwards that we needed to meet in order to console each other. The media and the commentators were profoundly puzzled that morning and in the days to come about the election outcome and what it meant. Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, was at a loss for words, her supporters destroyed. Even Trump himself, we are told, was stunned by the unexpected turn of events. I have come to understand since then that the disorientation that everybody felt that day was, in fact, a symptom of a wide-spread and truly pandemic condition. My initial picture of the United States as an empire of disorientation gave thus way to the recognition that the empire of disorientation is our new, global reality.

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Political Realism vs. Political Realism

Trump must be a puzzle to our political realists. He certainly shares their scorn for seeing politics in moral terms. Unlike George W. Bush, he doesn’t speak of an axis of evil in the world; and unlike Obama and the Democrats, he is little concerned with the issue of human rights. As an amoral capitalist he believes in self-interest and the exercise of power, in the use and pursuit of money in politics.

But he is also not much interested in the actual political realities. He sticks to a simple picture of what the world is like, despises experts, and ignores advice. In his factual claims he is often quite unrealistic.

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Politics in an age of advanced technology

For Ideas - 08ellul - 05 Mar 1982 --- French historian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) held the highest teaching diploma in France in Law. He was a Professor at Law Faculty at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Institute for Political Studies) in Bordeaux from 1937 until 1980. (Sophie Bassouls/Corbis) THIS IS THE LARGE HI-RES VERSION

Technology has transformed and deformed our long-evolved political order and it is likely to do more of that. A technologically enabled economic and financial system has certainly diminished the regulatory power of the state. Goods, services, and people can now move easily across continents, not always under the control of governments. Pictures, words, ideas, and information are massively channeled within and between political systems, often defying the power of states but also often abetting it. At the same time, the state’s tools of surveillance and repression have become definitely more effective. Its military strength has vastly increased and can be projected over wider distances. We notice, thus, a diminution of state power in some respects, but also an increase in others.

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The Nation State is Dead – despite what its advocates say

Globalization is out and nation states are in, if you believe the agitators. The reality is, however, quite different. The nation state was never a happy construct and technological change has undermined it once and for all. But what comes next? Justified anxieties about where we are going and what globalization will bring us have cast the idea of the nation state in a new, unexpectedly rosy light. It's, however, a false and deceptive light. Rana Dasgupta has written a terrific article in The Guardian explaining the demise of the nation state, why it is unlikely to come back, and what to do about it. Don't miss it.

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The Common Good

Michael Shirrefs, an Australian researcher and journalist, and his wife came to visit me for an interview. We talked about politics, America, European unity and disunity, and finally the question whether we still have a concept of the common good.

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Capitalism and Democracy. A Lesson from Hong Kong

The rise of Xi Jinping has made Hong Kong democrats increasingly nervous. But the main threat to their goal to make Hong Kong more democratic does not even come from the authorities in Beijing; it comes from their own home-grown capitalists. The case of Hong Kong raises broad questions about the state of global politics and the future of democracy.

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“The Owl of Minerva” – Where are we right now in philosophy? In need of a revolution.

Hegel famously wrote that the owl of Minerva starts its flight at dusk. He meant to say that philosophy, far from being avant-garde, is, in some ways, always behind its time. For first comes reality and only then, belatedly, comes our understanding of it. Our words and theories are always chasing after the facts.

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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.

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The place of America — in political philosophy

For those living in the United States the conditions of American politics will, for obvious reasons, be of some interest. But given the economic, political, and military power of the US it is not surprising to discover that American politics is scrutinized all over the world. When one looks at the International media one notices how much attention they pay to American affairs.

Does this mean that American politics also has a particular interest for political philosophy?

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