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?)