Imagining Other


Political Philosophy Part 2:

 – political ideas since the French Revolution.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Links: Imagining Other Index Page Introduction to Part 2



Summary guide to the ‘isms and ideologies to be covered (numbers indicate weeks):


2. Liberalism. Key thinkers: Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), John Rawls (1921 – 2002). Liberalism - Adam Smith, Liberalism - John Rawls.


Classical liberalism stresses the importance of freedom for the individual, and consequently the need for the state to have only limited powers – mainly to ensure the freedom (and rights – especially property rights) of the individual citizen. It is based on the ideas of John Locke, 1632 – 1704, whom we dealt with in Part 1.


3. Utilitarianism. Key thinkers: Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), JS Mill (1806 – 1873).  Utilitarianism


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, and we can measure, how useful anything is to us in terms of the amount of happiness it will bring– this is its utility (iii) if government is based on policies that bring the greatest happiness to the maximum number of people, only then will government be satisfactory.


4. Socialism before/besides Marx. Key thinkers: Robert Owen (1771 – 1858), William Morris (1834 – 1896) a Marxist, but who added to Marx’s  ideas. Socialism.


Socialism stresses the equality of all, and the dignity of labour. Some socialists believe in the importance of state control of the economy – others (‘libertarian socialists’) argue that workers can organise society without being ‘managed’ by the government. British socialism often has an ethical and an aesthetic dimension to it that is missing in Marxism.


5. Marxism and communism. Key thinkers: Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895). Eduard Bernstein (1850 – 1932), and Tony Crosland (1918 – 1977) (social democrats). Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) Italian Marxist. Marx (part 1)


Marx believed that the present economic system – capitalism – was based on contradictions and subject to constant class conflict. It would eventually, as a result of these contradictions and the class conflict they entail, collapse in a revolutionary upheaval, and be replaced by a ‘communist’ system. In communism, classes are abolished, and the state (an instrument of class rule in capitalism) would ‘wither away’. 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 advocated a peaceful transition to socialism. Others tried to retain and develop Marxist ideas. Socialism since Marx


6. Anarchism. Key thinker: Kropotkin (1842 – 1921). Anarchism   


Anarchism 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.


7. Conservatism. Key thinkers: Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) we dealt with in Part 1, Hegel (1770 – 1831) for his nationalism, and Michael Oakeshott 1901 - 1990), a recent conservative intellectual. Robert Nozick (1938 – 2002) a key figure for the new right.  Conservatism (part 1)


Simply put, conservatism is based on a belief in the importance of tradition, which is seen as natural and safe because based on experience. Radical, revolutionary ideas are seen as dangerous, and society needs to progress slowly and naturally, and not be forced into new patterns. Often, conservatism went hand in hand with nationalism. Recently, conservatism has (in opposition to ‘socialism’) stressed its liberal roots and we now have ‘neo-liberals’ and ‘neo-conservatives’ and the ‘new right’.


8. Existentialism; and Feminism. Key thinkers: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) Existentialism and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986) an existentialist feminist. Simone de Beauvoir


Largely in reaction against the influence of religion in philosophy, and as an attempt to bring philosophy into contact with real life (‘existence’, ‘being’), existentialism also took on board - but challenged - the ideas of Freud about the sub-conscious, and in doing so posed fundamental questions about human nature and human freedom.


Reacting against the lack of freedom women had, and their exclusion from politics and power in society, feminist thinkers also realised how women had been excluded from philosophical thinking (see also postmodernism, week 10). Simone de Beauvoir was one of the first modern feminists, and she used existentialist ideas to try to explain the continued subordination of women. Since then, feminism has profoundly influenced modern philosophy. There are several different strands of feminist thought (liberal, socialist, radical, etc). Feminism


9. Environmentalism. Key thinkers: Arne Naess 1912 – 2009, Murray Bookchin 1921 - 2006)  Environmental philosophies


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. Environmentalism is a social movement, and it is not possible to identify a single philosopher (or philosophy!) behind it, nevertheless ideas such as ‘deep ecology’ (Arne Naess) and ‘social ecology’ (Murray Bookchin) are attempts to combine an understanding of the natural environment with an understanding of human life. 


10. Postmodernism. Key thinkers: Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 - 1998), Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004)  Postmodernism


Postmodernism represents a radical questioning of the role of philosophy especially in relation to modern politics. Postmodernism suggests that all ‘modern’ philosophies (which were thought up by representatives of the ‘modern’ – i.e. colonial – nations) were built on the viewpoint of the group that exercised political power in the ‘modern’ world (western nations, men, the white races…). Philosophy therefore is said to represent how these people see the world, not how the world is. The ‘modern’ outlook therefore needs to be superseded, by (i) identifying the hidden assumptions in modern thought which exclude the views of the non-powerful, and by (ii) exploring ways of understanding the world through the eyes of the non-powerful (inhabitants of the less-developed world, women, those with non-traditional sexuality etc). [This is in my own words...]

Some postmodernism seems to even question the view that there is such a thing as objective truth (since the concept of ‘objectivity’ has been used by the powerful to exclude others’ views).