Political Philosophy & The Dark Arts

-Steven Smith

A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.” I could not agree more with this sentiment. Those words, written by the great Polish philosopher and dissident Leszek Kolakowski, come to my mind every time I try to address the question what is political philosophy and what is it for, what are its methods if any, and how does it differ from other branches of knowledge? These apparently simple questions are also the most difficult to answer. I want to consider especially the role of political philosophy as a pedagogic enterprise, that is, as a type of political education.

The obituary for political philosophy had been written so many times that, like Mark Twain, one can only say that the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.  Writing at approximately the midpoint of the twentieth century, Leo Strauss spoke for a consensus view when he wrote: “Today, political philosophy is in a state of decay and perhaps of putrefaction, if it has not vanished altogether.” The end of political philosophy was deemed part of the end of philosophy more generally and was pronounced by two of the most powerful currents of modern thought. Hegelians and Marxists saw philosophy as an “ideological” after-thought destined to disappear in the planned or rational society of the future. “When philosophy paints its grey in grey, a shape of life has grown old.” Hegel wrote in one of his finest sentences. “The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk.”Philosophy as a “normative” activity concerned with the best regime or the best way of life was declared to be nothing more than a reflection of its time and place. Philosophy has a place only in a world where there is a conflict – a “contradiction” – between the claims of reason and the realities of social life, but in the rational world now coming into sight where the institutions of civil society will provide a home for free men and women, philosophy as a speculative enterprise will simply wither away.

From the other end of the spectrum, the logical positivists and empiricists regarded philosophy as an “under-labourer” to science. Scientific thought with its empirical modes of verification was believed to set the standard for all meaning.  In A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth, and Logic, all meaningful statements were divided into analytical truths like those of logic and mathematics and empirical propositions like those of the natural sciences. The moral and political language was declared a species of “emotive” talk that expressed nothing more than the personal attitudes or “ejaculations” of the speaker. Philosophy in this view had to adapt itself to the modest task of clarifying the status of different propositions or clearing up conceptual confusions that stand in the way of future scientific progress. Ludwig Wittgenstein captured the ascetic quality of this scientific empiricism when he declared at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

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Cite as: Steven Smith, Political Philosophy & The Dark Arts, 1 Jour. of Pol. Th. & Philo. 1-22(2017).


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