The Politics of Philosophy

There are three things that someone in philosophy might do. First is philosophy as traditionally understood: an autonomous science with real contributions to human understanding to be made in the existent sub-disciplines of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics; explicating, scrutinizing, clarifying and shoring up the foundations or logical superstructure — depending on whether you prefer an under or an over metaphor — of our more day-to-day beliefs. Philosophy as the agent of redistribution of the field of force, to use Quine’s analogy. Or philosophy is the avant garde of knowledge, preparing the ground for the eventual arrival of natural science. These activities would be philosophy’s on-label use, so to speak, philosophy per se or philosophy proper. The second common activity of people operating under the rubric of philosophy is the study of the history of ideas: decoding and deciphering what a philosopher of yore meant, study of how a philosopher came to the position that they did, the who-influenced-who game, genealogy of an idea down through the ages. These are the activities that people have in mind when they think of philosophy and this is how most philosophy institutions — university departments, publishers, journals, societies — bill themselves.

But there is a third, lesser known, and conspiratorially hidden practice within philosophy. It is philosophy as a sort of rarified politics, as inter-philosophical polemic.

It is the rare philosopher who satisfies themself with a small problem. A philosophy is a Weltanschauung, a worldview, an all-encompassing world system, a tiny nucleus of belief from which all the rest of belief might be derived. A metaphysic and an epistemology usually entail an ethics and a politics. There is hardly a philosopher in the world who is not reformist in their beliefs, who doesn’t want to see one set of ideas about things abandoned in favor of another, for the sake of the political and societal consequences it will entail. The very act of writing affects a desire for influence, to persuade and to change the world. When philosophers contend with one another about some seemingly impartial issue of ontology or logic, they are in fact arguing about what sort of society we are to have, just via a peculiar proxy. And as they do so, they are very much conscious of a series of relations where memes lead to real world consequences and this or that change in fundamental beliefs might lead to a new social organization.

I think the tendency of the non-philosophically oriented is to dismiss this as ridiculously detached — philosophy is just a parlor game! — but philosophy is the natural destination of some fairly commonplace behaviors. It has been said that science is the continuation of common sense. Philosophy is a result of a similar tact. Philosophy isn’t a dispassionate pursuit, cut off from and largely irrelevant to society, culture, politics, the economy, technology and the sciences. All of these fields are subject to contentious, political debates amidst their disparate practitioners, participants and communities. On the ground political difference is often derivative of our more upstream positions on fundamental questions. Or, perhaps more realistically, if also more Marxist and cynical: we build elaborate ideological superstructures as a means to justify our political and economic interests. The more disparate our political views, the more fundamental the disagreement that is their source. In this sense, there are factions in politics built upon philosophical affinities. In such a situation, philosophy becomes a sort of fall-back fortification after our more forward positions have been overrun. Depending on the degree of difference amidst individuals and groups, debates can be either genial, superficial affairs or can, in the quest for rhetorical supremacy, rent the fabric of our day-to-day beliefs and devolve into questioning the fundamentals of all underlying arguments. For example, it is amazing how quickly a discussion of tax policy — a discussion really only suited for specialist attorneys, OMB officials and SSA actuaries anyway — degenerates to one about human nature, the constituents of freedom and to whom we have a social responsibility.

As the breakdown of philosophical practice goes, my intuitive sense is that philosophy proper is the least practiced of the three activities and history of ideas is the second most oft engaged activity. Actually thinking a problem through, on its own terms, originally, on one’s own, is hard work. Thinking about someone else’s thinking, or thinking about how someone else thought about a problem, or application of the thought of someone else to a problem that they didn’t consider is easier — still hard, but easier — and to some extent more natural. But it is the third philosophical activity, philosophical politics, that actually constitutes the majority of what goes on amidst philosophers. In fact, the bulk of those other two philosophical activities, while performed under the pretext of philosophy per se or history of ideas, are really philosophy as politics too. Philosophers are of a certain worldview and a great deal of their reflection and reading is undertaken with the aim of strengthening that worldview, gathering intelligence on opposing camps, stress-testing their ideas by simulating critiques, rehearsing defenses and sharpening one’s own critiques of contending systems. It is philosophy as a sort of ideological fortress building. A great deal of historical explication consists of attempts to appropriate the legitimacy of some philosophical great to one’s own contemporary camp, or to delegitimate the man or idea of a rival camp.

Again, people tend to see philosophy as somehow ethereal, lofty, set apart from the hurley-burley of the world. But it is not. There is a perfect continuum between politics and philosophy. Philosophy is merely politics conducted in a more apocalyptic mode.