The Politics of Philosophy
Updated: May 27
The German-American Harvard political philosopher Leo Strauss once said that “philosophy is the attempt to replace opinion by knowledge, but opinion is the element of the city, hence philosophy is subversive”. Politics, Strauss would claim, is situated in the world of opinions, and is, therefore, eternally at odds with philosophy.
That might seem to be a strange thing to say if you happen to be a Marxist. Karl Marx was a philosopher long before he ever wrote on politics and economics. His philosophical elaboration of dialectical materialism was inextricably related to his work on the political economy and his critique of capitalism. The antagonism between philosophy and politics goes back to Socrates--a philosopher who could not persuade the political class to spare his life nor agree that his influence on youth and therefore on the city was not corrupting but rather enlightening. It was the Athenian judges perverse embrace of opinion (doxa) over truth that, according to Plato, did Socrates in.
The American pragmatist Richard Rorty also cautioned that we should not look to philosophers for any sort of insight or understanding about politics. Rorty's and Strauss's conviction that philosophy and politics don't mix is nowhere more glaring than in the case of Heidegger--the philosopher's philosopher who become a member of the Nazi Party--albeit for a rather short time. Indeed, Leo Strauss was a notoriously Machiavellian right-wing reactionary who believed lying to, dominating and subordinating the masses was normal and natural. The Straussian-minded see philosophers as "the superior few who know the truth and are entitled to rule." At a more personal level, while a post graduate student in philosophy I took a reading course with a famous Merleau-Ponty scholar only to find out he was an enthusiastic proselytizer of far right politics, and fully supported the neo-liberal capitalism of people like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman in the name of human 'freedom'. How, I wondered, could any thinking person subscribe to such a exploitive, destructive, dehumanizing politics?
Then there is Hannah Arendt--one of the most perceptive political thinkers of the 20th Century who refused to be characterized as a 'philosopher'--presumably because the model of the pure thinker was, for her, Martin Heidegger. And yet, in many ways Arendt had much more respect for Karl Jaspers, a philosopher who, seemingly unlike Heidegger, realized very early on what the Nazi Party stood for. Arendt was no politician--but she was indeed both a philosopher and a political thinker. Indeed the latter were inextricably related in her written works. That is why I simply do not buy the idea that the 'sophos' or philosopher, must inevitably remain ignorant of what is good for herself or good for the city. This is more the caricature of the aloof philosopher as nerd or egghead rather than thinking, caring and responsible citizen. Neither do I hold to the ridiculous and clearly disastrous assertion that there is no room in politics for truth. As Arendt might say the autocrat, despot or narcissist is the sort of political leader "for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist". The George Bush's, Donald Trump's, Duterte's, Bolsonaro's, Pinochet's eschew truth and reality, and in so doing bring into the world unjustified wars, human suffering, disease, environmental calamity and mass poverty. They are the antithesis of both the philosophical and the political.
From my own experience in both the philosophical and political realms, the wise person is not the solitary philosopher locked away in an ivory tower, but the person of 'phronesis' (that is, practical wisdom) who engages, questions and debates in a world of others, of social and political relations. From this perspective philosophy does not cease to be motivated by wonder about things, but neither is it aloof, ‘other-worldly’ or elitist. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite: philosophy is always a kind of fundamental questioning of that which is uncritically accepted—a questioning of elitist opinions, prevailing prejudices, apparent expertise, unquestioned doctrine, and conventional pieties that circulate in the public and political spheres.
I do not deny that continuous critical and philosophical questioning will be considered 'subversive' within the realm of party politics. But in an important sense, it is this very questioning that drives us to reach beyond the politics of party towards a more penetrating, nuanced understanding of things, a more principled approach that honours a reality or truth that has been lost or forgotten in the politics of pure expediency. What then appears as subversive, seditious, or treasonable is simply an unwillingness to mindlessly accept the prevailing orthodoxy or fear of daring to stray too far from what is considered acceptable speech--most especially if such speech challenges a powerful political or economic elite. It is for this reason that someone like Socrates was summarily executed 2,420 years ago and would very likely would be ‘canceled’ today by those that put liberal or conservative ideology before truth.
Does that mean that philosophy should be seen as rising above the political or be understood as apolitical or abstract contemplation? I would say that philosophy can certainly be distinguished from politics and the political realm, but this does not mean that ‘doing philosophy’ takes place in a political vacuum. It is true that telling the truth when a lie is much more consoling or comforting can put you very quickly at the bottom of the polls! But it is also true that when the politician has the courage to speak the truth about things he or she will be for that reason readily admired. It may be that Strauss is right--that insofar as it is oriented by truth, philosophy is politically subversive. But it may be that the subversive is just what we need to keep politics vital and connected to the truths and realities on the ground.
So, what about philosophers as politicians? Can a person be both philosopher and politician? Should they not, as 'good' politicians know when to set aside the truth and tell the noble lie, or go along with the opinions of the many or the powerful in order to stay in politics? In an important sense, the dichotomy of truth and opinion is a false one--there is no such thing as absolute eternal truth, with perhaps the exception of certain mathematical proofs that exist in a closed system. All of our truths are in some measure, contingent and provisional--the best account of things we have so far, given our limited observational and experiential human perspectives. This is the case not just in the human or social sciences, but also in the biological and physical sciences. Truths, like opinions are contestable. However, even what we take to be contingent or provisional truths are often a fairly reliable guides to understanding human and physical reality!
On the other side, there just is no such a thing as an opinion that is entirely devoid of any relation to truth or reality. To say, for example that 'pigs can fly' is equivalent to saying that COVID-19 does not exist--neither of these should be thought of as opinions, because both are based in a denial of what is real or true. They are not 'opinions' but rather delusions not worthy further comment or discussion. Now, it is obviously true: opinions may be partial, wrong about the world, one-sided, contingent, uninformed, a misinterpretation of the facts, based on unreliable data and so on. However, opinions, as opinions, are not intrinsically opposed to truth, unless they issue from a delusional mind or from out of a closed religious or ideological worldview--which, by virtue of its closed nature cannot allow countervailing evidence or truths to challenge, contradict or falsify it.
The reality is that philosophy is practiced by philosophers who are indeed political animals, and, like everyone else, are situated in a concrete, contingent, particular world. They hold opinions on things and defend these opinions through argument, just as politicians do. But philosophers, by no means, have exclusive rights to truth or reality. Since they are trained in critical thinking, they may be better than most at assessing the state of things, comprehending the big picture, picking out unjustified or hidden premises, spotting informal fallacies, or flawed, unsound or illogical reasoning and argument. However, the latter are also practical rhetorical capacities that every politician endeavours to develop over time.
The more important question is whether the philosopher as politician will, in the darkest of times, speak truth to power--whether he or she will decide to protect elite interests over public good; whether he or she will be wholly oriented by careerism, opportunism and expedience or, instead, be oriented by principles of justice and equity, as well as ideals that protect and nurture a space for original and critical thinking that challenge rather than succumb to powerful individual interests. They can still remain philosophers as politicians, and as politicians they can choose to honour and speak the truth, even if doing so does not happen to be popular. In this sense, the politician as phronimos (wise ethical leader) is one who is oriented by public good; one who does not merely express opinions, but strives to move the polis toward both truth and excellence.
In 'Thinking Without a Bannister' Hannah Arendt remarked that if we should ever lose our ability to wonder and cease to ask unanswerable questions we might also “lose the faculty of asking the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded,”. For Arendt ‘thinking’ is an ethical duty that we freely impose upon ourselves for love of the other and the world. In my view, Arendt is saying here that philosophy is not opposed to, but rather indispensable for a politics grounded in truth, reality and plurality.
From this perspective, philosophical thinking is not merely disengaged speculation or abstract isolated contemplation, but rather a genuine form of political and ethical engagement with and for others.