Imagining Other…

Political Philosophy Part 2

the ‘isms of politics in modern times

                                                                                                                                                                   Links: Imagining Other Index Page

                                                                                                                                                                              Political Philosophy Contents



Introduction to Part 2 (pp12).


(i) a word about political philosophy:

‘The unexamined life is not worth living’

(a quote attributed by Plato to Socrates, in Plato’s Dialogue the ‘Apology’).


This quote is also given by Julian Baggini as a justification for philosophy. (See The Guardian 2nd February 2009, in a review of a book series on the Art of Living, just published by Acumen).


Baggini contrasts philosophy with ‘self help’:

·        ‘self help’ advice tells us how to achieve various goals (be more confident, more persuasive, and more productive) but it takes the goals themselves for granted

·        philosophy, on the other hand, gets us to question the value of these goals, - ‘whether you’re right to want’ them. It is worth stressing immediately that often the questioning of such goals seems surprising – but to my mind it is just when there appears to be a consensus that we ought to watch out and be prepared to ask awkward questions!!!


Baggini’s distinction is an interesting and useful one, I believe, and it can be used to explain my view of political philosophy as well: the aim of political philosophy is to ‘examine’ politics, and thus help us to clarify, evaluate and justify the goals of politics. And we might say that political scientists and politicians themselves (like ‘self-help’ gurus) are more concerned with the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of politics: what do I want to achieve and how do I do it, rather than ‘philosophical’ questions about the validity of the goals… This is a controversial statement, I recognise, and it is true that in times of political conflict there seems to be debate about the deeper issues. However, we surely need to watch out, since most of the time most politicians would prefer us to take the desirability of their goals (e.g. full employment, a balanced budget, reducing the national debt, ‘peace’, ‘democracy’ etc) for granted. Political philosophers should - all the time - be asking the awkward questions about what is meant by these terms and whether we are right to believe in them.


Barbara Goodwin makes a similar point: political philosophy sets out to explain, justify or criticise the distribution of power in society


And Alan Brown on Political Philosophy: there are two parts to this process – explaining, and then justifying or criticising 


e.g. political philosophers take a concept such as democracy, and ask what it means by analysing the meaning of the concepts and arguments used by such as Hobbes – how do they work? Other concepts property, the state, social contract etc.  A selection of concepts is given in [pp12introductiontopart2otherconcepts] In the course of this, questions will arise as to whether we can agree with Hobbes’s conclusions (the state needs to be very powerful, etc). In other words, ‘justifying and criticising’ is different to analysing. It is one thing to discuss what democracy (or equality, etc) is, and another thing to say whether you are for it or against it.


Why do political philosophers differ if all, especially if they all claim they are trying to get to truth? Because different people have different values, preferences.


(ii) In other words, political philosophers question what happens or is proposed in politics, and they do this using the techniques of philosophy:


·        careful analysis of the meaning of words

·        logical reasoning.



(iii) Note: it might also be helpful to try to distinguish philosophy from ‘ideology’ – though this is not as simple as it seems. See separate notes.


 (iv) the ‘isms of politics in modern times… the historical context:


Given the definition above, it follows that political philosophers will (or should!) respond to events in politics. Thus, although philosophers are usually expected to deal with timeless or universal ideas, the preoccupations of political philosophers may move with the times. So, when we examine ‘modern’ political philosophy we will need to be aware of the major political events of the last two or three centuries.


Two ‘revolutions’ dominated the eighteenth century, and are usually seen as marking the beginning of ‘modern’ times:

·        the (scientific and) industrial revolution which started in the 17th century, and

·        the French Revolution at the end of the 18th (1796).


These events had a marked effect on subsequent (19th and 20th century) political thinking. Of course, these changes had an incredibly significant impact on society: new social classes took shape (factory workers, merchants and capitalists), and much political thinking was devoted to trying to understand this change in particular. 


There are three key points I would make about the ideas of the modern world:


(a) as Britain and Europe industrialised and ‘developed’, the study of economics grew in importance, and, for those who wrote and thought about economics, it had close links with politics (the study of this field was originally called ‘political economy’).  A number of philosophies and ideologies were developed that built on the study of economics.


(b) the increased democracy in Europe (inspired by the French Revolution) led to more popular involvement in political ideas – ideas which then (as Marx would say) took on a ‘material existence’ and were manifest as movements and/or ideologies. Thinkers were more likely in these times to be committed to particular ideas. There was an increasing tendency, then, for followers of a particular political idea to identify themselves collectively (as e.g. socialists, conservatives, liberals) – and thus we find in modern political thought a widespread use of the suffix ‘-ism’. This is the reasoning behind the presentation of this course.


(c) Another significant feature of political thinking was – inevitably – the opposition between those who saw the new society in terms of progress, which was to be welcomed (liberals and radicals), and those who opposed the changes (conservatives), seeing them as retrograde.


(v) the ‘isms of modern politics (for plan of this course by weeks, see below after this section). See also: Summary of thinkers in Part 2.


[note: the prefix pp below e.g. pp13, indicates the web page number for further notes]


1. Liberalism.

In what is known as ‘early modern’ thinking (from the seventeenth century onwards) the predominant idea in Europe and Britain was liberalism (pp13) – which stressed the importance of freedom for the individual, and consequently the need for the state to have only limited powers – mainly to ensure the freedom of the individual citizen. John Locke, 1632 – 1704, whom we dealt with in Part 1, is a ‘father’ of liberalism. Another key thinker, for me, who represents ‘modern’ thinking about politics, is Adam Smith (1723 – 1790). He represents the two sides of the liberal point of view (freedom for the individual and the need to limit the state) but his ideas make most sense, to me, if we bring together his thoughts about economics with his theory of ethics. Smith is best remembered for his stress on individual freedom in the capitalist market – but we need to understand that he did not believe (contrary to the view of some contemporary interpreters) that the market was the solution to everything! There are some functions that the state needs to fulfil in supporting its citizens.

Liberalism is a strong and influential set of ideas, and it has been ‘updated’ recently by thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin (1909 – 1997) and (John Rawls (1921 – 2002). Rawls revived liberal ideas by looking again at the idea of a social contract.


2. Utilitarianism.

In a development of the liberal tradition, there was a group of thinkers who tried to develop and apply in philosophy the ‘scientific’ aspects of then current thinking (*). They founded a school of thought we now call utilitarianism (pp14). This is based on the idea that (i) the only thing about human behaviour that we can be sure of is that each of us seeks happiness (ii) we therefore always want to know how useful anything is to us – its utility (iii) if government is based on policies that bring the greatest happiness to the maximum number of people, only then will it be satisfactory. The best-known examples of utilitarian thinking are Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and JS Mill (1806 – 1873).  (Marxism also, see below, took a ‘scientific’ approach).


3. Socialism .

Socialism (pp15: Saint-Simon, Robert Owen (1771 – 1858), William Morris.. (1834 – 1896)…) was partly a reaction to the evil side-effects of the industrial revolution, but it is worth noting that ‘socialist’ ideas of equality and the brotherhood of all (often inspired by Christianity) existed before the industrial revolution (although the word was not invented until the early 19th century when it was used by the followers of Robert Owen). McClelland (**) and other writers give the impression of thinking that socialism was simply a reaction against the negative impact of the industrial revolution. The ideas that belong to the tradition of socialism, stress the equality of all, and the dignity of labour; the word was used to oppose the ideas of ‘economic man’ – that is, the individual motivated purely by economic needs. Some socialists believe in the importance of state control of the economy – others (‘libertarians’) argue that workers can organise society without being ‘managed’ by the government.


4. Marxism and communism.

The search for an ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ - that is, quantifiable - way of thinking was basic to not only utilitarianism but also to Marxism (pp16). Marx believed that the present economic system – capitalism – was based on contradictions and subject to constant class conflict, since the owing class was an exploitative class, taking from the working class the wealth it has created. Capitalism would eventually be replaced by a ‘communist’ system in which classes were abolished, and the state (an instrument of class rule in capitalism) would ‘wither away’. Based on the ideas of Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895), Marxism and communism have had an enormous impact on the world.


Some of the socialists who followed after Marx modified his ideas somewhat - or, in their own terms, brought his ideas up to date. In particular, in the 19th century, it seemed increasingly unlikely that the working class would bring about a revolution, so social democrats (Eduard Bernstein, 1850 – 1932, Tony Crosland 1918 – 1977) advocated a peaceful transition to socialism. Others (e.g. Gramsci 1891 – 1937) tried to retain and develop Marxist ideas.

(See pp 17: Bernstein  and the social democrats, e.g. Tony Crosland, Gramsci and western Marxism, Maoism, critical philosophy etc).


5. Anarchism.

Alongside socialism - but now commonly seen as a more extreme (or idealistic) type of ideology - was anarchism (pp18), which advocates the complete abolition of the state.  Most anarchists have links with socialism, communism or syndicalism – some are individualist. Most are non-violent, believing that human nature is essentially good and we can therefore lead satisfactory social lives without the state and its coercive institutions. I will take Kropotkin (1842 – 1921) as an example here, but there are many strands of anarchism! These radical socialistic and anarchistic ideas were particularly widespread at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. They were also, we could say, founded on the slogans ‘equality and fraternity’ of the French Revolution…


6. Conservatism.

The reaction against the excesses of the French Revolution we saw in Part 1, with Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797): his key idea was that that society needs to progress slowly and naturally, and not be forced into new patterns. This belief was developed in different ways in conservatism (pp19), although I would say that there were no great innovations in conservative thought after Burke, perhaps until more recent times (e.g. Michael Oakeshott 1901 - 1990). This is not to say that conservatism (a belief in the importance of tradition) was not a significant strand in politics. Sometimes conservatism went hand in hand with another ‘ism, one which has for centuries been a powerful force in political thinking, but which was strengthened in the late 19th century by the reaction against Napoleon’s imperial ambitions, viz. nationalism. This was represented in some aspects of the thinking of Hegel (1770 – 1831). However, Hegel was a complex figure, and whilst some of his followers were conservative, others (the ‘young Hegelians’) were radicals who influenced Marx. I will take Hegel as an example of conservative thinking, though it has to be stressed that this could be seen as a distortion.


Fairly recently, conservatism underwent significant changes – often influenced by (the re-discovery of) classical liberalism – and some see themselves as part of the ‘new right’. Here, as I see it (and to stick to the device of ‘isms) neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism meet, for example in the ideas of such thinkers as Robert Nozick (1938 – 2002), who emphasised individual freedom as well as tradition. These ideas were strengthened by the ‘crisis’ in western economies in the 1970s, which blew up after a long period of stability that many attributed to state intervention and to ‘Keynesian’ ideas – which ironically are back in fashion now!!.


7. Existentialism.

Thus, all through the 19th and into the 20th century there were examples of all these strands or ‘isms. (Most of them can still be found around us in politics today, even if only held by small groups of people!). However, from time to time a new way of thinking is developed – though again I would argue that such new ideas never come ‘out of the blue’, but often reflect either pre-existing ideas, or new ideas in other fields (e.g. science). Of course new ways of thinking also nearly always reflect some change in social conditions. For example, a strikingly new and distinctive way of thinking developed late in the 19th and flourished early in the 20th century, largely in reaction against the influence of religion in philosophy, and as an attempt to bring philosophy into contact with real life, and this was called existentialism (pp20). Existentialism also took on board the ideas of Freud about the sub-conscious, and in doing so posed fundamental questions about human freedom. To represent this (perhaps strange!) way of thinking I will take Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986).


8. Feminism.

De Beauvoir was also a forerunner of another ‘break’ with previous ways of thinking – that is, reacting against the exclusion of women from both philosophical thinking and from politics, in other words: feminism (pp21). Feminism was strengthened by the changing role of women during and after the second world war.


9. Environmentalism.

Most recently an awareness of the damaging impact humans are having on the natural environment has led to some thinkers developing a philosophy that takes into account our place in the natural world – i.e. environmentalism (pp23). Although environmentalism is – as I see it – a social movement, and it is not possible to identify a single philosopher (or philosophy!) behind it, nevertheless ideas such as ‘deep ecology’ (e.g. Arne Naess 1912 - 2009) and ‘social ecology’ (e.g. Murray Bookchin 1921 - 2006) are attempts to combine an understanding of the natural environment with an understanding of human life. 


10. Postmodernism.

Finally, from time to time philosophy suffers a ‘crisis of confidence’ (as I see it!) – early in the 20th century this took the form of linguistic positivism, and the declaration that since all argument comes down to disagreement about the meaning of words, then philosophy is dead. With the radical questioning of the role of philosophy in relation to modern politics, and the argument that all pre-existing philosophies were built on the viewpoint of some group that exercised political power in the ‘modern’ world (western nations, men, the white races…) postmodernism (pp24) (e.g. Jacques Derrida 1930 - 2004) argued that the ‘modern’ outlook (even the view that there is such a thing as objective truth) needed to be superseded. As with ‘positivism’ there were some who predicted the end of philosophy when postmodern ideas gained ground. However, I for one believe that whilst some of the ideas in postmodernism were useful, others were a dead end, and philosophy – including political philosophy – goes marching on.


(*) Later a school of philosophy called positivism tried to do the same thing – to make philosophy scientific and objective - and it nearly destroyed political thought in the process! This was because one claim that was made was that all philosophical disputes come down to disagreement about the meaning of words, and if we could all agree what exactly we meant by e.g. ‘equality’, or ‘freedom’ then there would be no point in arguing about which was more important. Fortunately for political philosophers, this idea did not go very far!


References and Useful Reading:


(**)McClelland, J.S: A History of Political Thought (Routledge 1996)

Haynes, Natalie: The Ancient Guide to Modern Life (Profile Books 2012, £8.99) – shows how many of our modern ideas come from the ancient world (though she also describes ideas which have not caught on). Deals with the politics, religion, philosophy and literature of ancient Greece and Rome).


Plan of ‘Political Philosophy Part 2 – the ‘isms of modern politics’ by weeks:


1:       Introduction, a note on ideology (pp12)

2:       Classical Liberalism (Adam Smith) and modern Liberalism (Rawls) (pp13)

3:       Utilitarianism (Bentham and Mill) (pp14)

4:       Socialism (Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, William Morris…) (pp15)

5:       Marx and Marxism (social democracy, western Marxism, Maoism, critical philosophy… Labour Party today) (pp16, 17)

6:       Anarchism (Kropotkin) (pp18)

7:       Conservatism (incl Hegel, Oakeshott, New Right, Conservative party today) (pp19)

8:       Existentialism (Sartre) (pp20 )and Feminism (de Beauvoir and others) (pp21)

9:       Environmentalism and a wholistic political philosophy (pp22)

10.     Postmodernism (Derrida and others) (pp23).