Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What is the Purpose of Political Philosophy?

I have always been attracted to thinking through the issues in value theory. My entire dissertation is on a phenomenological account of values, and while I do not practice intense reflection on politics in either Marxist, Rawlsian or Habermasian theory, I bask in its sun every now and again. However, I found some recent philosophers so radicalized that they questioned every premise I used. My objections to their argument fell on deaf ears. That wasn't the surprising feature of the conversation. I could not enter the discourse since I had not been radicalized enough. I failed to have uber-leftist street cred. I am a self-confessed Neo-Aristotelian when it comes to most matters in value theory, but I have never made up my mind on exactly what political philosophy is, its questions and what the proper formation of the polity should be. I do not even begin to wonder what a Neo-Aristotelian approach might be in political philosophy other than thinking that institutions possess the virtue of justice, let alone if the table of constitutions even applies from Aristotle's Politics. We'll leave that for another time.

A recent conversation with two colleagues in my department resulted in a fantastic realization. I am not radical enough. We were discussing the legitimacy of the state and the role prisons play in American society. Prison populations are incongruent in terms of race, economic power and educational level just to name a few. We could agree on the saliency of the moral facts about whom is in prison, and what the social iniquities are. Philosopher A advocated the complete abolition of prisons due to some Foucaultian critique of power and anarchist commitments. Philosopher B advocated a virulent Marxism or critical theory approach to the analysis that I could not quite follow. Admittedly, the view was a bit garbled. One of the claims made by A: state power is strongest when you are not under surveillance, that is, when you feel like you are not being watched but act in a manner as if you were being under surveillance. I broached some skepticism on this point. I simply asked what if this notion of power is more due to the fact that others take moral considerations seriously and defined morality as the set of impartial constraints we learn from upbringing and practice...

Now, I already anticipated the objection to my response. Philosopher A would say something like the internalization of moral constraints is not strictly impartial. That's all I got. I did not get that there is some dynamic of power that Aristotelian upbringing and focus on practice cannot encapsulate, and what that dynamic notion of power is, how it operates and most importantly how that view challenges my objection. Foucault has a lot to say about how power works in local contexts, and since I am no expert, I wanted to hear about it. I did more philosophical work in my head than the dismissive attitude about my objection---this is the strong point I want to make. Philosophers work by scrutinizing each other. The moment we stop "testing" our conceptions against other views that attempt undermine our own, the moment we stop having the intellectual humility to search out which political conception, critique and theory should be true is the moment we stop doing political philosophy altogether. We abandon what it is to be philosophical. 

Now, my sample is small and anecdotal. It should be taken with a grain of salt. However, I have talked to many people not only at my department but at conferences too. Most of these exchanges, however, have been the expression of consistent ideology. Consistent ideology is when the young philosopher learns to employ a set of concepts and concerns within a school of thought. However, this is minimal work inasmuch as young philosophers learn to speak Quinean about epistemology and metaphysics or Heideggerian about questioning modernity. We can all speak our specialties, and political philosophers are no different. However, the point of philosophy is to preserve the living-presence of these concepts. The moment these concepts become calcified is the moment we stop questioning them.

I am not advocating that someone cannot be a Rawlsian or any other such label. However, I am questioning that thinking stops with being a convinced this or that philosophy--the moment that happens is the moment philosophy becomes ideology. I suspect such a move from disciplines that do not engage in systematic argumentation about central commitments or core beliefs. I anticipate the English literary theorist who does not attempt to undermine the logical possibility of her appropriation of Foucault for the purposes of interpreting a text or the political theorist that appropriates Habermas. The appropriation is often ideological, and the scholarship of said philosopher is lacking (and decent exposition of central texts). For them, it is in the act of appropriating the theory we conceive and evaluate that matters. This is why the analogy of the philosopher to the theoretical physicist has some weight. I do theory and engage in theorizing so that others do not have to theorize just as much as the theoretical physicist does theory so that the experimentalists can carry on. The employment of these concepts outside their philosophical domain requires the fact that I test them out.

Given the fact that the qualitative questions philosophers address and the fact that philosophical questions are indefinite, these questions could be asked and reflected interminably. Therefore, it becomes incumbent upon us to arrive at answers and put them into logical form. The logical form of an argument provides normative ways we can all agree on in order to reflect on these questions. In addition, the form arguments take need not reflect solely the influence of argumento-centricism and its tendency to logocentrism. Any number of Continental authors can be read as having intelligent points, critiques and arguments. The point, however, is to at least strive for consistency.

So let me return to my experience. A and B are solidly convinced of their belief structure and in their inability to put that belief structure into tension with others, they are advocating an ideology. This relies on a distinction between philosophy and ideology, and this is what I have argued so far. Philosophy relies on the engagement with opposing viewpoints to brush up and test one's own conclusions. Ideology is the mere acceptance and eventual self-validating profusion of one's own commitments whether it be rightist libertarianism or leftist Marxism. This is what it means to be radical. Being-radicalized is a function of ideology, not the other way around.

Yet, there is the original question: what is the purpose of political philosophy?

At this point, I couldn't really answer the question. I think it is vastly more complicated than it was at the time of Rawls. In my experience, no one asks the foundational questions of this line of inquiry. The recent debt crisis and post-2008 recession has conjured new life in the critiques traditionally offered from the left about capitalism, and in equal measure the conservative justification of the neoliberal order. Moreover, it has caused an awareness and stretch of economics for other social sciences. I cannot anticipate where this will lead, but if there is any wisdom to what I've written, then let it be simple. Try to abandon ideology, and I'll always question the argument you're developing. That's why I became a philosopher, and I would hope that's why you'll question my questioning of your argument.

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