Political Philosophy Part 2




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Under the numbered sections below you will find:

(a) Summary notes (as given in the handout for my WEA class).

(b) Further notes.


1. Modernism.

(a) The philosophies and ideologies that we have examined came into being in the ‘modern’ period – along with (as Heywood 2003, p 21 – 22 (* reference below) puts it) the following historical features: industrialisation, market-oriented capitalist economies, new social classes, democracy, and ‘Enlightenment’ values (reason and progress). Such philosophy (‘modern’, ‘Enlightenment’ philosophy) argued that it is possible to ‘establish objective truths and universal values.’ Heywood describes this as ‘foundationalism’.


(b) This ‘modern’ way of thinking replaced the religious-based outlook of the previous centuries. Moreover, the ‘scientific revolution’ lead to a completely new way of understanding the world: rather than relying on religious or other authority (The Bible, Aristotle, and of course the Church, which had a monopoly over education…) from the 17th and 18th centuries ‘truth’ was to be established by observation and experimentation, (and anyone can observe and carry out experiments), and by the subsequent identification of physical laws. There were those (e.g. William Blake) who criticised this new outlook, particularly when it became too ‘mechanical’ – i.e. when it was claimed that everything (even the emotions and the mind) could be explained  in terms of the movement of physical particles (Hobbes is an example of this ‘materialist’ way of thinking).  However, it was fairly easy to put down opposing arguments either by demonstrating the power of the new scientific knowledge, or by accusing those who believed in non-material forces of ‘witch-craft’.


[See my course on the Enlightenment which deals with these issues in more depth: Introduction to 'How Enlightened is the Enlightenment?'] 


2. What is post-modernism?

(i) (Heywood’s approach):

(a) If (a big ‘if’?) the world has now changed and these historical features (industrialisation, market-oriented economies, etc) are no longer important, then we might expect philosophy to change also. Has a concern with ‘class, religion, ethnicity’ been replaced by ‘individualism, life-style and identity issues’? What are the consequences for our view of the world if we now live in a fragmented, pluralist, consumer-oriented, individualistic information society? (Again, this is Heywood’s approach to the question).


(b) We are back to the question of ‘ideology’ here, it seems to me: just because we are told that we are all free individuals (we are not trapped by the class or status – there is social mobility), able to make rational choices (even over our ‘identity’ – as well as choices of goods to consume, mobile phone networks, schools for our children) in a democratic (no one is making us think a certain way) post-industrial (production is not governed by the processes of factory manufacture any more) society, and that this is progress – do we have to believe all this?! Postmodernism – as the expression has it – ‘questions all meta-narratives’. Heywood hasn’t quite done this in his formulation (in (a) above). It may well be that there are still power-groups (the wealthy, multinational companies, men…) that are at the least limiting our choices, if not determining how we think: but in order to get away with this they first have to convince us that we are free.


(ii) (A more radical formulation):

(a) Another view of ‘modernism’ – originating with radical (often Marxist or feminist) thinkers – is that in the ‘modern’ period, one class dominated the rest (traders and manufacturers who replaced feudal lords), one group of nations (Britain, Spain, Portugal especially, since they set up the most extensive colonies), and one race dominated the (non-white) inhabitants of ‘their’ colonies and empires, and one gender (masculine) dominated social and cultural life. Consequently, ‘modernist’ philosophy must be tainted by these power-relations.


This is because (to borrow and extend Marx’s insight) ‘the ruling ideas of any time are the ideas of the ruling class’ or race, nation or gender... The philosophy of the ‘modern’ period was, then, formulated by well-to-do, white, men; and (and here we return to the question of ‘ideology’ vs. philosophy) it was bound to - explicitly or implicitly - express their interests.


Thus ‘modern’ thinking can only be understood if we look for the underpinning power relations.


(b) Another approach is to argue that one of the ‘problems’ with philosophy, since the time of Plato, has been its desire to find answers to ‘everything’ – to build one ‘system’ of knowledge that encompasses all aspects of reality. Perhaps reality is not ‘homogeneous’, perhaps there is no ‘unifying’ theory? No ‘truth’?


(c) Others argued that, since the revolution in understanding the mind and the emotions that was brought about by Freud – and especially the concept of the ‘subconscious’ – the whole notion of ‘objectivity’ (and, again therefore, ‘truth’) has been thrown into doubt. Do we not often see what we want to see? Isn’t it possible that our psychological needs distort the way we think about the world around us?


In other words, (as Lechte 1994 - * reference below) puts it: the very distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ is thrown into doubt. On a personal note: how easy it is to dismiss others’ ideas by calling them ‘subjective’… And yet (I think of existentialism here – see Existentialism) how can we avoid being ‘subjects’ in our perceptions of the world? On the other hand, there are surely some very problematic consequences – to take the other side of the dualism – if we insist that only what is ‘objective’ is ‘real’ or important. One version of this is ‘scientism’: the belief that science will explain everything, and that whatever cannot be explained by science is therefore somehow ‘trivial’ or even ‘unreal’.


(d) Some feminist thinkers (see Feminism and postmodernism) have found these ideas useful; to put it crudely: in a “man’s world”, (see point 2 below) women’s experience is bound to be disregarded – and note how often women are classified as ‘feeling’ creatures rather than ‘rational’…


Perhaps (again!) what happened with ‘modern’ philosophy (and even with science…) was an attempt by one group of people to define the world as they saw it. Moreover, of course, the way each of us sees the world is bound to be, to some extent, self-interested – and this is especially dangerous when we try to get everyone else to see it the same way, (whether or not we do this in order to benefit ourselves). Thus: science (modernism tells us) tells us the truth - and it enables us (that is, usually wealthy educated men) to control nature (with all the negative consequences that trouble us now – environmental degradation, anthropogenic climate change, etc.) Men (we are told by ‘modern’ philosophers) think more clearly than women - and men should therefore exercise political power. The peoples of the non-industrialised world are primitive - and it is our duty to civilise them, and to use the materials they had such as gold in a more efficient way… etc... As can be argued, against the position taken by Plato: this is a worldview formulated by philosophers to give themselves a position of power (in Plato’s case ‘philosopher-kings’).


We can also see this self-interest at work if we think about how most (European) historians have described the world – in terms of ‘progress’ based on the development of industry and the spread of market relations. One consequence has been to exclude whole continents (Africa, Latin America) from having any history at all! Then, when sophisticated artifacts were found in the continent of Africa, it was doubted that Africans could have produced the buildings (Zimbabwe), sculpture and jewelry (kingdom of Ife) by themselves! The terminology used to describe the centuries between the ‘classical’ era and the ‘modern’ – viz: ‘middle ages’, and ‘dark ages’ – also reveals a sense of superiority that is unwarranted.


A question that I find interesting is: does this (postmodern) approach - rejecting as it does the idea of ‘progress’ - also require a rejection of Aristotle’s teleological philosophy? If Aristotle is read as arguing that the highest and best kind of human is a leisured male who cultivates his mind and meditates on the nature of existence – then clearly we have a problem! However, if we strip away the contingent, historical part of this, and argue that all humans are at their best when they are able (allowed, and have the time etc) to think deeply – then I feel we have a radical idea: no one can be at their best without the basic requirements of life (as millions find themselves in the world today), without loving nurturing, without education and cultural opportunities; and to me this is a demand for justice, equality and freedom for the underprivileged.


I feel also that the conventional ‘teleological’ view of history, based on ‘progress’, is clearly linked with the growth of the modern entrepreneurial class – backed up by Christian (particularly Protestant, Calvinist) ideas of the importance of working to better oneself in this life, in order to demonstrate that one is a true Christian. It can be argued that these ideas are also derived from Aristotle… (No great thinker has all the right ideas – and Aristotle was a mixture of some nefarious ideas [e.g. on women] alongside some very positive ones!). 


3. Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 - 1998) and postmodernism.

(a) Lyotard was a member of ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ from 1954 – later he taught at universities in Paris and in California. He developed the ideas now associated with postmodernism from the 1970s (The Postmodern Condition 1979). He summed up post-modernism as ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’ (or ‘grand narratives’) - such as ‘the progress of history’ ‘the possibility of absolute freedom’ and ‘the knowability of everything by science.’(Wikipedia). He drew on Wittgenstein here (see below).


After all, the ‘grand narrative’ about ‘historical progress’ has actually come to mean a move towards liberal democracy… ‘freedom’ means the so-called freedom of the market, and most science serves the interests of the most powerful: western-based multinational companies and their white, male, multimillionaire executives. 

Thus, postmodernism questions whether the ‘objective, absolute, universal truths’ that philosophy (politics, history…) have claimed to identify are in fact what they claim. Is there any ‘foundation’ for our beliefs? As Heywood puts it (p 323): ‘Emphasis is instead placed on discourse, debate and democracy’. But what does ‘democracy’ mean? Lyotard says there are many ‘communities of meaning’… (See the next point, about language).


There is clearly a danger here of total ‘relativism’ – i.e. any values are acceptable… but this is not what postmodernism intends. Rather, we need to look more closely at what our values are (are they what we claim they are?) and re-define them, taking care that we are not falling into the trap of simply promoting our own interests or the interests of the most powerful once again.


4. Discourse. The mystery of language.

(a) In the 20th century a number of philosophers (Wittgenstein 1889 - 1951) and linguists (de Saussure 1857 - 1913) raised questions concerning how closely (if at all!) language corresponds to reality. Wittgenstein said (roughly!) that we play ‘language games’… that is, words have their meaning in the context of the ‘game’, but not outside it (so they do not correspond to anything real).


The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure examined how language works, and realised that: (i) language follows a ‘structure’ - a system of differences (‘p’ is not ‘b’…), and often in binary pairs (dualities); and (ii) the signs that we use (letters, sounds, words etc) – whilst they relate to each other within a structure – have an arbitrary correspondence to reality. (We could call a rose a ‘pig’ – and vice versa!). (Again, what does ‘democracy’ mean then?). From this followed structuralism (5 below).


(b) Psychologists such as Lacan, influenced by Freud’s ideas of language, have developed a new way of thinking about both language and the mind – and this has in turn influenced some feminists (e.g. Kristeva – see Feminism and postmodernism). It seems to me that there are two aspects of this psychological-cum-linguistic approach that are central: (i) Freud’s belief that in our everyday use of language we sometimes unintentionally reveal what is going on in our subconscious – through slips of the tongue and the use of words which are not quite what we intended and (ii) the distinction between ‘signs’ and ‘symbols’. In other words, what has been said and written by philosophers, and what we ourselves say and write, should not be taken as a literal presentation of some absolute ‘truth.’ Language is a ‘game of differences’ (my expression), and the thing to remember is that there may be normative assumptions behind the differences or an ‘asymmetrical’ relationship between two terms – e.g. subjective/objective (see above), rational/emotional, image/reality (as in Plato…). Perhaps, as Derrida argued (see below) we need to ‘deconstruct’ texts to find the authors’ subconscious meaning. We can also (and Kristeva does!) play with language in order to challenge the generally-accepted usage.


For me, one of the appealing aspects of all this is precisely the emphasis on ‘play’… when it comes to pursuits that (we) men regard as serious (philosophy, politics especially) we are too often too ‘serious’ (I am reminded by this of Simone de Beauvoir – I am also reminded of Kropotkin's observation that play seems to be important to animals, as well as to our children in their development).


Marxists demand the ‘right to work’ – anarchists respond that this means they want to perpetuate wage-slavery; what we should demand is the ‘right to play’. We want to have the bread, (and the bakery!) – and the roses…


5. Structuralism.

(a) Under the influence of the new linguistic theories, and of the work of the anthropologist Lévi- Strauss (1908 – 2009), some social scientists and philosophers (notably Louis Althusser 1918 - 1990) suggested that society could be understood in terms of ‘structures.’ Then (i) just as a letter or sound ‘carries’ a meaning (the letter is not the meaning but an arbitrary symbol) so members of society ‘carry’ a ‘role’: and ‘individuals’ (contrary to the liberal humanist tradition) have no ‘real’ identity; and (ii) the structure of society ‘determines’ (even ‘over-determines’) our behaviour. Althusser was a Marxist, and believed that his theory was a development of Marxism – some on the left (for example E.P. Thompson 1924 - 1993) argued that his theories must be rejected as they were de-humanising, and disempowering.


(b) I hope to write up some notes on the discussion/argument between Thompson and Althusser… Meanwhile, Seyla Benhabib’s questions (* reference below) – if I understand her correctly - (see Feminism and postmodernism) seem related to this difference of views: are there not two different kinds of postmodernism - strong and weak, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’?  In terms of the debate between Althusser and Thompson, I would use the terms: structuralist vs. humanist.


And so, when postmodernists speak of the "death of Man/the subject" - does this mean the death of any subject (the ‘hard’ position), or (the ‘soft’ position) does it mean the death of a certain kind of subject (‘modern’ ‘male’ etc – i.e. representing, as argued above, the dominant power-groups in our time)? Does the fact that the context determines the subject mean that we should try to remove the subject altogether (‘hard’ view), or is the aim rather (‘soft’) to free the subject in order to allow radical change?  Does the "death of philosophy" mean a literal death (no more philosophising is possible!!!), or should we not rather be asking "how (under what conditions) can a community of enquirers make warranted assertions about truth and the real?" The "death of history" may mean the end of teleologically determined ‘progress’ – but that is not the ‘end of history’, since what is left to be answered are questions about the relation between the narratives and the interests of historical actors.


6. Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004) and ‘deconstruction’.

(a) Perhaps the best-known late 20th century philosopher, Derrida developed an approach to texts that has been highly influential (if controversial!) – an approach that challenges the fixed ideas of traditional/‘modern’ philosophy. In particular, it questions the ‘dualities’ and ‘dualistic hierarchies’ (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that abound in philosophy (speech/writing is one area that Derrida focused on – and this has been used by Kristeva and others).


Thus Derrida (* reference below) draws on structuralism (examining - and playing with - the dualities that are at the basis of structures) but he also goes beyond structuralism: ‘within structure there is not only form, relation, and configuration. There is also interdependency and a totality which is always concrete’. (Writing and Difference, 1967). To reduce anything to its structure is (if I understand him right!) to strip it of its meaning or content: ‘like the architecture of an uninhabited or deserted city… no longer inhabited… but haunted by meaning and culture.’ ‘Haunting’ is a key idea for Derrida.


In ‘deconstructing’ a text Derrida’s aim is to ‘rigorously scrutinize’ the intended meaning, and to seek to find ‘hidden’ or ‘alternative’ (ghostly?) meanings. For him a text will always include elements that when drawn out destabilise the meaning that the original author intended. Derrida has said that his work operates ‘in the margins’ of philosophy, rather than being philosophy itself, and yet what he writes challenges conventional ways of thinking in a way that gets us to stretch our minds. Is this not philosophy?


(b) I hope also to write more notes on Derrida….


(*) Books referred to:


Benhabib, Seyla: Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, Routledge 1992.

Derrida, Jacques: Writing and Difference, Routledge Classics 2001.

Heywood, Andrew: Political Ideologies, an Introduction, Palgrave 2003 (3rd edition).

Lechte, John: Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers, Routledge 1994



Modern art...  I hesitate to take the pee, as too many people don’t even try to understand contemporary art, (or postmodernism!) but sometimes... Here is a quote from a Metamodernist Manifesto, written by Shia Labeouf (who was raped during an art installation in which he waited in a room for visitors to the installation who were told to come in and do whatever they wanted...): ‘it must be art’s role to explore the promise of its own paradoxical excess towards presence... Thus postmodernism shall be defined as the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt.’  (Article by David Batty, Guardian 6th Dec 2014).