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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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Comment by Dean Machin on August 19, 2011 at 11:48am

I think you are right but I think it is compatible with the claims I want to make which are:

1.       Political philosophy can illuminate or help to solve some practical or theoretical problems.

2.       This implies that those who do this kind of political philosophy (i.e., problem-based political philosophy) can make a claim to some expertise that non-philosophers ought to value.

3.       However, because political philosophers are not (or cannot be) ‘experts over the full range of issues that arise’ in these cases, any claim to expertise is limited and hedged.

4.       This (probably) implies that problem-based political philosophy should be carried out in collaboration with specialists from other disciplines.

 

I also want to make the following claims:

 

The historical claim: Any political philosopher who understands what the great thinkers claimed and/or is able to explain the ongoing relevance of the greater thinkers has a claim to some expertise that non-philosophers ought to value.

 

The final claim is:

 

The bold claim: Any political philosopher who is a specialist only in literature-based contemporary political philosophy cannot, in virtue of this fact, claim any expertise that non-philosophers should value.

 

To claim that specialism implies expertise (in the relevant sense), requires that the importance of literature-based political philosophy be understood in terms of claims 1-4 above; the historical claim; or in terms of literature-based political philosophy’s value as a teaching aid.

 

The value of literature-based contemporary political philosophy, then, is dependent on its relationship to historical philosophy, problem-based philosophy or the teaching of philosophy. The value of literature-based contemporary political philosophy has no independent value. (This claim is bolder than I intended it to be. I will stick with it, though.)

Comment by Jonathan Wolff on August 18, 2011 at 6:15am

Dean, you say:

 

"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." 

 

I agree, but was expecting a different conclusion - that in problem-based political philosophy it is much harder to make out the claim that philosophers are experts, or rather, are experts over the full range of issues that arise. In these areas we need to  work with people in different disciplines to ensure that what we do is well-informed, relevant and up-to-date. Practical problems often get at least half-solved before philosophers even get to hear about them.

Comment by Patti Tamara Lenard on August 10, 2011 at 4:13pm
Why can't we argue that we study themes that have occupied man's attention for generations?  I certainly think about much of what I do in that way.  Should government have authority over citizens, and if so why? What makes a government legitimate?  Under what conditions can individual freedom be restricted?

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