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I am a new comer to this so please forgive me if I do not follow the correct etiquette. First, thanks for having me; I hope to get a lot from the Public Philosophy Network. Second, the purpose of this comment is to explore my doubts about the purpose of political philosophy.


Recently, I attended a media training event – it was entitled 'How to get your research to a wider audience'. At one point the trainer said ‘remember to be confident: you’re the expert’. This got me thinking: in what does a professional philosopher’s expertise reside? What do we possess that counts as ‘expertise’? Is it an ‘expertise’ that others should value and respect? Is it an expertise that is, in any sense, important?


It seems to me that a good professional political philosopher is someone who has a decent understanding of the key views/theories of the great figures from the history of political philosophy and has a good understanding of many of the contemporary debates in political philosophy.


But to what end? Understanding what the great thinkers thought seems to have intrinsic value and students should be taught what the great thinkers said. Being able to explain the ongoing relevance of the greater thinkers also seems to be a very important skill.


If a political philosopher has expertise in some or all of these things, then, I think their work commands respect, is valuable, and is in some sense important. Let me now turn to contemporary debates in political philosophy.


Today, most political philosophy seems to be what can be called literature-based. There is a body of work on, say, democratic theory or equality, and philosophers respond to what has been said in these debates. For example, there is the ‘Equality of what? debate; there is the debate about democracy’s value etc.


In literature-based philosophy, philosophers attempt to make a new point, show that some claim that was believed to be correct is not, do the reverse and so on. The main point, though, is that their work fits within an already existing body of literature. Literature-based philosophy is philosophers talking to other philosophers about what they deem important and/or find interesting.


Here is the nub: if one is an expert in literature-based political philosophy is one an expert in something that non-philosophers should value and respect? Is your expertise ‘important’? I am sceptical.


It seems to me that the fact that a philosopher is an expert in what philosophers write about is insufficient to make their work valuable. In addition, it does not give a non-philosopher any reason to respect the philosopher’s work or listen when they speak.


In addition, contemporary philosophy cannot invoke the judgement of time to justify its focus. We cannot argue that the themes we study have occupied man’s attention for generations. Many of the debates are new, either completely or in the level of depth to which they now reach. Political philosophers can only invoke the judgment of colleagues to validate what they do (and what they ought to do). 


What, then, is the connection between expertise in literature-based political philosophy and expertise in anything that non-philosophers may care about, ought to value or ought to judge important? I would value anyone’s answers to this question because, at the moment, I can think of no positive answers.


Literature-based political philosophy is not the only type of contemporary political philosophy. There is also what can be called problem-based political philosophy. This kind of political philosophy takes a practical or theoretical problem and attempts to show how philosophy can illuminate it or solve it. This would tie political philosophy more closely to things that non-philosophers care about or find important. But - it seems to me anyway - problem-based political philosophy is a minority sport.


Anyway, please let me have any comments on this. I am geniunely perplexed.


(NB: one could avoid my worry by dropping the requirement that political philosophy should command the respect of non-philosophers, or be valuable or important in some sense. Does anyone want to go for this strategy?)

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"What, then, is the connection between expertise in literature-based political philosophy and expertise in anything that non-philosophers may care about, ought to value or ought to judge important? I would value anyone’s answers to this question because, at the moment, I can think of no positive answers."


1. Much of the expertise that purports to be non-philosophic is, in fact, philosophic.


Examples:  What could be more practical than the art of making money?  But all of (theoretical) economics is a philosophical theory.  Neoclassical economics, at it's founding, was a derivation of utilitarian philosophy.  Ultimately, to really understand economics, you need to understand philosophy.  Economists will often make assertions that are illogical or absurd, but they don't realize the problems with their assertions because they lack expertise in philosophy


Or what about making war?  Well, military strategy started out being closely connected to philosophy.  Among the first books of military strategy were Xenophon and Machiavelli's Art of War, both of which are central parts of Xenophon's and Machiavelli's political philosophy.


2. The philosophers do not lack practical expertise.  One fundamental action of politics is logos - convincing others to your viewpoint.  And the philosopher is precisely the expert in analyzing and arguing about viewpoints.


3. I want to push back against the concept that philosophy is literature-based.  At the beginning of philosophy, there was no written literature at all (Socrates did not leave any writings).  Socrates' action as a philosopher was engaging in dialogue with the people physically around him.  Clearly, this action of his was very successful, since he convinced such followers as Plato, Xenophon, Aeschines of Sphettus and so on. Insofar as his followers engaged in political action, Socrates influenced the politics of the time.  While some of their actions were politically disastrous (Plato in Syracuse), some was politically effective (Xenophon and the 10,000). The dialogue form continues to preserve this Socratic action (of course, it preserves the action in text but the implication is that dialogue can/will happen in actuality). 

"But - it seems to me anyway - problem-based political philosophy is a minority sport."


To the contrary, problem-based political philosophy is a large portion of our canonic philosophic literature.


Here's some examples:


1. The mirror of princes - the philosopher gives advice to a prince on how to rule.  Examples include: Aquinas' De Regno, Machiavelli's Prince, Erasmus' The Education of a Christian Prince and many others.


2. The philosophic letter - the philosopher gives guidance to a community on how to solve various problems that that community has asked the philosopher to solve.  Examples include: Maimonides' Letter on Astrology, Augustine's letters and many others.


3. Policy proposals - the philosopher outlines what he believes a political community should do.  Examples include: Xenophon's Ways and Means, Rousseau's Considerations on the Government of Poland, Locke's Constitution of the State of South Carolina and many others.


4. Treatises on arts - the philosopher describes an art or craft. Examples: Xenophon's On Hunting, Machiavelli's Art of War, Cicero's De oratore, Alberti's work on household management, Oresme's The Treatise on Money and many others.


First, thank you to Patti & Alexander for the comments. I should say that my doubts are perhaps narrower than my comments implied. I do not doubt the value of philosophy as a subject worthy of study but I do doubt the connection between philosophy as a subject worthy of study and a great deal of philosophy research. For example, roughly there are 30+ political/moral philosophy journals. Let us simplify & say that they publish 4 issues per year with 4 articles in each. This is 460 articles per year (30*4*4).


Alexander says that ‘the philosopher is precisely the expert in analyzing and arguing about viewpoints.’ I agree with this but I wonder: what is the connection between the volume of research produced and this expertise? What is the connection between philosophers’ ability to teach students how to analyze and argue about viewpoints and the amount of research being produced? If only 115 articles were produced a year would we be less able to teach students well?


Of course, one reply is that the research produced has value in addition (and independently) of its relationship to teaching. I agree with this. But this brings me to the problem: what value does philosophy research have? To explain my worry I distinguished (roughly) between research about (a) the key views/theories of the great figures from the history of political philosophy and (b) contemporary debates in political philosophy. I also distinguished between (i) literature-based research (ii) problem-based research. My concern is with a, i, viz., literature-based, contemporary political philosophy research. And it is connected to the volume of research produced.


There is a lot of literature on all sorts of philosophical problems. The distance between what a specialist in area x knows about x and what a non-specialist knows about x is quite large. One can spend most of one’s time keeping up with the latest research. This can get to the point – as it has for me recently – where reviewers ask you to refer to and respond to research that is as yet unpublished.


This brings me to the final two points. Alexander says ‘expertise that purports to be non-philosophic is, in fact, philosophic’ and gives the example of ‘(theoretical) economics’. I agree but I do wonder why very few economists seem to understand (much less accept) this claim. I suspect that the problem – and this is one of my worries – is that political philosophers talk to political philosophers, economists talk to economists, lawyers talk to lawyers & political scientists talk to each other.


Each discipline develops its own theoretical framework that is incomprehensible to other disciplines (or deemed to be irrelevant, ill-informed etc.). As a result, in spite of the fact that we are talking about the same (or similar) things we find it very difficult to talk to each other.


Let me finish with a suggestion. What if universities required political philosophers to co-author an article with someone who does a similar subject in a different department? E.g., those who specialize in democratic theory would have to work with someone who does empirical work on, say, democratization in Latin America; while those who specialize in international/global justice would have to write a piece with an international lawyer.


I think this would be a great idea. But I also think that both parties to the experiment would find it very difficult explain their theoretical concerns, concepts etc. to each other. This strikes me as very bad: if academics studying similar subjects in different departments find it hard to communicate with each other, what hope have we of explaining important and complex ideas to those outside academia?


I should conclude by adding that the problem I am talking about is not all political philosophers fault. But (a) some of it is, (b) I think it is caused largely by the focus on literature-based research, and (c) I don’t think we should be indifferent about is existence.


But please let me have any thoughts. The reason I started this blog/discussion is to see whether my feelings about the subject reflect anything substantial or merely my own idiosyncratic sentiments.


Isn't this a much more basic question that appeared in the first days of philosophy?  See the Clitophon and Book VII of the Republic


Responding to some of your points:


1. We don't really care what the economists, international relations experts, sociologists and so on perse think.  What we care about is understanding, ultimately.  The real question at the end of the day is who understands, and who doesn't?  Who is a knower, and who is a faker?


2. Understanding and criticizing the theoretical frameworks are part of the work that philosophy does.  Largely, these frameworks are the result of non-philosophers attempting to do philosophy (without realizing what they're doing), but flailing around somewhat aimlessly. It is often the case that the philosophers don't need to understand all the elaborations of these frameworks - because it's common that there will be a hidden assumption or logical leap buried within the base of the framework.


One example: At the core of neoclassical economics is an epistemology. If that epistemology is incorrect, it is largely secondary what the many elaborations (perhaps near infinite elaborations) of the vast neoclassical economics framework are. Similar such things occur within the foundations of all other notable frameworks.


What contemporary academic philosophy research looks like is somewhat peripheral. Really, it's no more than a genre of writing - and a genre that is actually only weakly founded in the tradition.   Remember that the treatise was not the predominant genre of philosophic writing for a very long time indeed.

Thanks Dean for starting this thread and to Alexander for your well-developed and thoughtful replies.  I concur, in large part with Alexander's replies, but wonder if I might attempt to draw out Dean's concerns in more depth.


Dean: To add to Alex's reply you might ask: Is it your belief that people working in different fields cannot, in principle, understand one another, or that they do not see the value in making the effort to do so? 


If your position is that people cannot understand each other, in principle, I'd wonder why you think this. I'd also suggest that you couldn't notice misunderstanding without understanding a great deal about those you claim to misunderstand first. If you can understand enough to misunderstand, it seems quick to foreclose the possibility of further progress toward consensus.

Alternatively, you may take the second line-that people don't care about engaging with the practice of philosophy. If Alex is right, however, and public life is build out of philosophical positions, and, here's the contentious part, we can, collectively, fallibly level grading judgments regarding such positions, then human beings, who are by nature philosophical, clearly stand to gain by getting straight on whether their position on the philosophical issues that underwrite their practice is tenable.

You might accept that philosophical questions kick around the practices of public life but doubt whether philosophy can come up with answers to these questions that are non-arbitrary.  This would be to doubt the value of philosophic inquiry wholesale-in which case you might have to abandon your commitment to the value of teaching philosophy.


What do you think?

If you accept Alex's position, you might assess the genre of academic writing we use to engage in philosophical practice in light of the extent that it enables us to get straight on both philosophical and practical issues-which classically were coextensive. You still might doubt the starting point of many conversations in the literature, as Alex has pointed out via the example of economics, and this might drive your skepticism of the value of the discussions on more fine-grained issues following from the starting points, but I'd be surprised, if you were to doubt the value of writing as a method of checking your philosophical work.  Are you?

If you accept Alex's line, where philosophy has intrinsic value for public life, you've a way out of the tendency to appeal to factors such as historical longevity our consensus, which strictly speaking are appeals to ungrounded authority (what justifies these after all?) to ground the value of particular practices. If your skeptical of the intrinsic value of philosophy for persons however, you might ask what sort of justification you're looking for, to support contemporary philosophical practice.


What do you think?


Best regards,







I'm not certain myself where Dean's primary criticism lies. If it were merely the question of genre, then the response to Dean is comparatively trivial: the tradition of philosophy is vast and utilizes many different genres (including oral genres). Contemporary practice has tended to limit the genres it uses.  But that's comparatively easily fixable - Dean just has to write in a different genre.  Not that it's easy to write dialogues (to take one genre for an example) in practice, but the path is (comparatively) well-defined.


Perhaps this is a bit off-topic, but we contemporaries tend to drastically limit what we see as our canon. While most of us are fairly well-versed in Plato and Aristotle, we tend not to know many of the other ancient philosophers well at all - particularly in cases like Xenophon, who especially pushed the boundaries of philosophic genres.  Xenophon, in addition to dialogues, also wrote biography, history, autobiography, several how-to manuals, constitutional analysis and policy proposals. And we don't spend as much time on Rousseau as we do Kant or Hume.  And Rousseau wrote operas, autobiography, fictional novels and dialogues, as well as treatises. (And we shouldn't ignore that Hume's best-selling books in his lifetime were his histories.) Similarly, while we study Machiavelli's treatises, we tend to ignore much of his other writings, which include plays, dialogues, literary criticism, history, letters, poetry, fables, how-to manuals and policy proposals. Some of us read Aquinas, but how many of us read his sermons and Biblical commentaries?

The point regarding the reductive re-forming of the philosophical cannon is well taken. Similar examples persist in other departments. A course on the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century is offered at my university, but the more popular sermons of the time are left for 'non-literary' departments.

The forgotten examples you point to, I think, exemplify a tendency to reify present practice and some not-so-coherent philosophical commitments underwriting these practices. Among these commitments, a skepticism about the possibility of philosophical knowledge and a derivative tendency to see philosophical practice as almost inherently insignificant to work of other academic fields strike as most salient. 

The best courses I've taken in Philosophy used literary and other aesthetic forms extensively as vehicles for dialectical engagement. So I certainly appreciate your concerns.


How's bringing Ancient thought to Economics?



Thanks for asking.  It's going quite well, especially since so few people have spent any substantive time trying to understand ancient economic theory.  The historians of economic thought can't easily understand ancient economic thought, because ancient economic thought is very deeply buried within the philosophic debates of the time.  In addition, ancient economic writings are often particularly opaque and strange texts, which often incorporate raunchy sex jokes.

In my limited experience (and limited chops) I've seen similar occurrences in other areas of academic discourse.  I recall once reading a passage in the Oxford Guide to Chaucer that encouraged readers to treat Chaucer as an empiricist with a materialist ontology by citing a passage from the Canterbury Tales ending "Eek Plato seith, whoso kan hym rede, The wordes moote be cosyn to the dede."  I was shocked.


It would be interesting to here more about the relationship between Philosophy and Economics. I'm working with some folks up here on a Provincial Philosophy Curriculum for high school kids and a section on Economics would probably be an interesting selling point (raunchy jokes appropriately minimized).


Ever have any interest taking philosophy to public schools? 


My primary interest is not in public schools, but I'd be happy to aid your effort if I can. Economics actually is a topic of philosophy simply, and this identity was only forgotten extremely recently - in the late twentieth century. The raunchy jokes are not peripheral, however.  Economics for Plato and Xenophon is the art of managing the oikos, the household.  The household is founded upon marriage.  And marriage (and sex) is the comedic topic above all others.  For Plato and Xenophon, economics is inherently funny because money is an illusion of the conventional mind - which is precisely also the source of the funniness of marital and sexual life.  That is why the miser - the man who cannot properly value love or money - is such a central stock figure in comedy.  This is also why Socrates says that his profession is that of a pimp or matchmaker. Socrates is the man above all others who can properly value love and money - thus it is obvious that Socrates is the best matchmaker above everyone else!

Ordinary people have to make political decisions and so must engage in political philosophy. Political philosophy generally stems (and, I think, should stem) from political ideas of the sort literature-based philosophers deal with. At the very least, literature-based philosophers can offer citizens ideas to mull over and considerations to take into account.


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