The Futures of Political Philosophy

An undergraduate lecture.

What is the status of the tradition of political philosophy? How do we stand in relation to it? What authority does it have for us? Is it a living tradition, or only an object of scholarly inquiry? What can it offer us as we try to make sense of the challenges we face today?

In a narrow sense a tradition is a literature: a canon of texts that have passed the test of time. In a wider sense, a tradition is a network of broadly shared beliefs, values, and dispositions – a common language by means of which we communicate to one another our individual perspectives on the events taking place in the world we share.

In the narrow sense, the tradition includes Locke’s argument in the Second Treatise of Government that there’s no unambiguous biological feature that confers a right to rule on those who possess it and denies that right to those who don’t. In the wider sense, the tradition is what makes it possible for someone who expresses an opinion premised on Locke’s argument to expect a hearing, because Locke’s premise is widely regarded as material to political debate. For example, the argument that the mere fact of being female doesn’t justify preventing women from practicing certain professions can’t be dismissed out of hand, because everyone understands the form of the argument, namely its reliance on the premise that no arbitrary biological feature can be the basis for the distribution of rights.

A tradition is selective, emphasizing continuity and de-emphasizing discontinuity by presenting innovations as extensions, reinterpretations, or criticisms of its core themes and commitments. A tradition is evaluative, singling out what is important to remember and passing over what is not exemplary or illustrative. A tradition is relevant and useful, implicitly claiming that the knowledge it preserves and transmits is essential to understanding issues and events in the contemporary world. A tradition includes interpretations of itself, narratives that articulate the meaning, structure, development, and application of the tradition. Finally, a tradition is, or can be, authoritative.

There’s a complementary relationship between tradition and authority. In the ancient and medieval worlds, authority connected the people to the founders of their communities, and in the words of the twentieth century political philosopher Hannah Arendt “gave the world … durability.” [All quotations of Hannah Arendt are from “What is Authority?” in Between Past and Future (1954).] Authority, Arendt insists, is not the same as political power:

Since authority always demands obedience it is commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence. Authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed. Authority, on the other hand, is incompatible with persuasion, which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation. Where arguments are used, authority is left in abeyance.

The quality possessed by those with authority, and with respect to which they are regarded as superior to others, is moral authority, but of a specifically political kind. Those with political authority have a special connection to the basic principles on which the society was founded such that we can and must consult them for advice about whether proposals to deal with current challenges are consistent with the founding principles. This special connection can be established neither by force nor persuasion. It’s based, one could say, on the authenticity of the authority, his or her moral worthiness or what rhetoricians call ethos.

The specifically political authority that interests Arendt is of Roman origin. The word “authority” derives from the Latin auctoritas, which derives from augere, to augment, and auctor, author or originator. For the ancient Romans the founding of the state was a political initiative to which all later initiatives were related as extensions or contributions. Thus an authority is not only the preserver and interpreter of the tradition but also its enlarger or augmenter.

At the heart of Roman politics, from the beginning of the republic until virtually the end of the imperial era, stands the conviction of the sacredness of foundation, in the sense that once something has been founded it remains binding for all future generations. To be engaged in politics meant first and foremost to preserve the founding of the city of Rome.

In the Roman optic, everyone in the history of a society is a contributor to the project established by the founders. The American Constitution, for example, is a constitution of freedom, and each generation of Americans regards itself as contributing in its own way to the extension of freedom. The authorities are those who, thanks to their knowledge, commitment, experience, position, ancestry, or other distinctive connection to the founding are able to judge the quality of the contributions, i.e. whether they do in fact extend the founding project. They check the will of the people by limiting it to expressing itself in ways that are consistent with the founding principles. A people’s unfettered will, Arendt thinks, has a natural tendency to make escalating demands that reflect an insatiable appetite to achieve comprehensive control over all the conditions of its existence. To constrain and channel a will like this, the founding must take on a sacred quality and its principles must be beyond debate.

Authority and tradition complement one another. As Arendt observes, “the Romans conceived of history as a storehouse of examples taken from actual political behavior, demonstrating what tradition, the authority of the ancestors, demanded from each generation and what the past had accumulated for the benefit of the present.” But the tradition began to lose its authority, indeed authority as such began to decay, beginning with the Protestant Reformation and accelerating with the Scientific Revolution. Until the last part of the fifteenth century, knowledge and wisdom were assumed to be found in the past. The discovery of America in 1492 changed that by showing that it was possible to discover new knowledge and by introducing the very idea of discovery, and therefore of progress. With the idea that new knowledge can be discovered, the future is now anticipated to be radically different from the present and the past. As a result, the key presupposition of authority and tradition, namely the value of continuity and the idea that the present is an extension of the past, is replaced by the presupposition of the inevitability (and for many the desirability) of change.

As change accelerates, however, so does disorientation and confusion. By the nineteenth century, thinkers such as the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche “perceived their world as one invaded by new problems and perplexities which our tradition of thought was unable to cope with.” By the middle of the twentieth century, Arendt says, “[a]uthority has vanished from the modern world,” resulting in “the loss of worldly permanence and reliability.” The loss of authority in the modern world is “tantamount to the loss of the groundwork of the world, which indeed since then has begun to shift, to change and transform itself with ever-increasing rapidity from one shape into another, as though we were living and struggling with a Protean universe.” In the modern age of relativism (what Arendt calls “historicism”) everything we encounter has the status of an ephemeral stage in a developmental process that is transforming it into something different. All ideas and values are questionable and uncertain. We feel disoriented, confused, alienated, and basically mistrustful of the world – or so Arendt argues.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche accomplished the “theoretical” destruction of the tradition. The practical destruction was brought about by the First and Second World Wars, which introduced forms of evil and criminality that the concepts, values, and methods of the tradition could not comprehend, a fact that was obvious even to the unlettered. The authority of the tradition collapsed. It’s important to see precisely what this means: the tradition didn’t collapse, but its authority did. It’s not that philosophers can’t come up with plausible theories of justice or rights, but no one pays attention to them because they have no authority.

The question for Arendt then becomes: How do we relate to this tradition, which has lost its self-evident authority but to which we have no alternative? Her answer seems to be that we encounter, appreciate, and if possible use the “fragments” of the shattered tradition without attempting to understand them in terms of a comprehensive whole. Arendt alludes to Ariel’s Song in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Death, the twentieth century American poet Wallace Stevens says, is “the mother of beauty,” and this may be true of the death of a tradition as well. Like a corpse decomposing at the bottom of the ocean whose bones and eyes metamorphose into coral and pearls, the tradition has sunk to the bottom of the sea of criticism and history. But reading its texts in the radically new context of the modern world could enable us to understand them in ways that are illuminating (“rich”) albeit unfamiliar (“strange”). Such a reader is like “a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths and to carry them to the surface.”

What’s been lost is the sense of a continuous narrative that linked the elements of the tradition to one another, and, most importantly, us to them. The elements remain, but they are scattered. They can, however, be gathered and put to whatever use we can find for them in trying to understand the meaning of our current situation. Our position is that of the Fisher King in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, surveying the wreckage of a once-great kingdom and saying of the shards that remain: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

For Arendt, the one redeeming feature of the loss of the tradition’s authority is that the narrative that created a sense of continuity in the tradition was deeply flawed. The tradition that culminates in modern liberalism, she thinks, imagines political action as a kind of production process. The concept of freedom at the center of the tradition sees agency as a kind of causality, a matter of exercising power to “fabricate” a world that is responsive to human needs and desires, which in practice means making it safe, secure, comfortable, reliable, and predictable. Freedom is understood as a form of control, and action as an instrument used to shape the world in accordance with a pre-established vision of the final product.

Arendt thinks that there’s a coercive element in the image of political action as a form of production, because the political actor is understood as a fabricator who shapes the passive raw material of the people according to a design established by reason and reflection rather than involvement and mutual understanding. But the main problem for her is that this picture obscures a more important aspect of political action, namely its expressive dimension. Political action is essentially interaction – a “sharing of words and deeds” that reveals unique individual personalities whose actions, good and bad, we then interpret and evaluate. Conversation and argument about the meaning of a people’s words, deeds, and creations just is the content of any tradition, and it is also what constitutes the public sphere. Political action in this sense is not the effectuation of the will but rather the disclosure of the actor or agent, and the public sphere is what makes it possible for individuals to appear to one another, take initiatives, and perhaps bring something new into the world.

Think of Arendt’s approach to political philosophy, in which she re-contextualizes and re-interprets the great texts in order to discover the meaning of the tradition and perhaps move beyond it, as “hermeneutical” political philosophy. Arendt was one of a number of mid-twentieth century political philosophers who approached the discipline in this way. They include Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Sheldon Wolin, and to some extent people like Richard Rorty and Michel Foucault. It’s certainly not the only way forward, and hermeneutical political philosophy has been vigorously challenged by historians of political thought such as J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner, who see the hermeneutical school as historically naive. The idea that there was a unified and unbroken “great tradition” stemming from classical Greek political philosophy that was overturned by “modernity” is, these historians say, a myth.

The twentieth century also saw powerful attempts to reconstruct the philosophical foundations of justice, rights, and morality (John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Elisabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntrye, Michael Sandel, T.M. Scanlon, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen), to understand the nature of morally and politically relevant concepts such as agency, action, intention, and normativity (Anscombe again, J.L. Austin, Donald Davidson, Derek Parfit, Robert Brandom, Philippa Foot, Christine Korsgaard), of political knowledge and judgment (Roberto Unger, Ronald Beiner, Bernard Williams), and a great many other problems and topics. These efforts are still very much alive.

There are also those who say that instead of regarding the confusion and alienation of the modern world negatively, we should embrace it and just give up the idea that to be human means being an agent. For the classical liberal tradition, the purpose of human life is to develop the faculties and abilities constitutive of rational, self-determining beings by reflecting on the quality of our desires, formulating goals, and developing life plans to achieve these goals, thus transforming the world as given by nature into a “second world” that is responsive to our needs and in that way making, through our own efforts, a world of our own. For political thinkers influenced by the twentieth century French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri) we are not agents but rather intensities, forces, lines of flight, desiring-machines, multiplicities, bodies-without-organs, deterritorializations, and various other forms of “becoming.”

All of that was inspired, ultimately, by Nietzsche. His view was that Western Civilization’s great mistake was to think that human beings are at their best when they are using their reason to reflect on their beliefs and desires and trying to determine whether their beliefs are true or false and whether their desires are higher or lower. In reality, he thought, we’re at our best when we’re behaving spontaneously or instinctively, i.e. doing something without having consciously deliberated over whether to do it, just reveling in the sheer joy of being alive and growing into something unknown and original.

But some political philosophers (Hans Sluga, Michel Foucault) have been inspired by a different Nietzsche, namely the cultural genealogist. This kind of political philosophy is diagnostic. You begin by identifying a political pathology in your own society. You then try to discover the causes of this pathology, relying on every intellectual tool you can get your hands on to do so: history, sociology, psychology, etc. The diagnostic political philosopher aims to contribute to the political conversation that matters to him by identifying important problems that then become objects of political debate.

And there are many forms of what’s broadly called “theory” practiced today: queer theory, critical race theory, post-colonial studies, critical theory, etc., all of which have political or at least ideological overtones. It would take a very big anthology to represent them all. They haven’t had much of an impact on political philosophy, but their influence in other disciplines has been enormous.

Perhaps the anarchic variety of political thought in the twenty-first century confirms Arendt’s image of the tradition as a scattering of texts, concepts, values, and methods that are no longer held together by a unifying narrative thread or a comprehensive understanding. This would imply that while the tradition may have no one future, it may have many futures. Whether that’s promising or disappointing depends, perhaps, on one’s sensibility.

My personal opinion is that Arendt exaggerated the degree to which the tradition was “broken” by the Holocaust. As unprecedented as that evil was, it seems to me that the tradition does possess the intellectual resources required to understand it and the moral resources required to condemn it. Arendt’s own book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) accomplishes both aims. Most of us, I think, still endorse the classical principles of liberty, equality, agency, and personal responsibility even in the face of the confusions of our age. To the extent we do, anyway, the tradition is alive.


The first slide of my last lecture at California College of the Arts.

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