Philosophy and Politics

Understanding the relationship between philosophy and politics is, for me, one of the most interesting discussions to be had. So perhaps this makes it an appropriate starting point for Plato’s Café.

When one studies philosophy at undergraduate level (perhaps other levels too, I never studied philosophy academically before my degree), one is often told that there are very few job prospects at the end of the degree. This is demonstrably false – philosophers don’t just disappear, we do jobs too. We just don’t necessarily get to work under the title “Philosopher of suchandsuch”. If philosophy is thinking critically (and it can be many, many more things than this), then it really plays an integral role in many occupations. However, the fact that philosophy students are forewarned of their imminent self-destruction upon completion of the degree led me to ask a question – “how can I use my skills in the real world?”

To me, this seemed obvious. Take philosophy into the political realm. Help to bring clarity and light to the domain of human governance, ensure stability and equality, make people think, job done. Where do I upload my CV? As naïve as this sounds, I was unsettled to discover that the objection to it doesn’t necessarily come from politics, it comes from philosophy.

Hannah Arendt wrote extensively on the relationship between philosophy and politics, and I wrote my thesis on her analysis of that. What I really struggled to accept in her work, is the almost dogmatic insistence that the two are somewhat incompatible (dogmatic might be a little too harsh, but after 12 months of working on it, please forgive me if I sound a bit exasperated). Her position, put extremely crudely, is this: philosophy deals with the abstract, the questions of existence, goodness, knowledge, the big stuff, whereas politics deals with the day to day issues – particulars, things that are about material stuff, keeping everybody in a harmonious existence etc. Arendt also believed that philosophers lacked the common sense required to deal with these common issues. This is not an exhaustive description of her position, but it paints a picture well enough for now[1].

Okay, fair enough, hard to argue with that. But the fact that they deal with different things doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t work together for a common good. As the old saying goes, water is wet – and you could say that fire is the opposite to that, but if you put the two together, you are well on your way to becoming a fireman. So why not use philosophy to quench the incessantly tumultuous flames of politics, as they threaten to engulf the world in which we live? I find it hard to accept that philosophy can’t be of good use in politics.

The contents of my thesis go much further than this, of course, and in a different direction entirely, but, essentially, I make an argument that can be followed up by the claim that philosophers can engage in politics. Whether or not they should is a different matter.

Hannah Arendt wasn’t writing in the age of Trump, or Brexit, or terrorism. Granted – she had WW2 to deal with, and this played no small role in shaping her view of the world (Her relationship with Heidegger, and her feelings about his joining of the National Socialist movement, had a huge impact on the way she saw the relationship between philosophy and politics). But we are in the time of Brexit et al. And if you look hard enough – from Twitter to The Diplomat and much in between -people are calling out for philosophers in politics. Nobody thinks more about knowledge in the post-truth, fake-news era than philosophers. Nobody asks “what is the right thing to do?” more in a world where war can start in a heartbeat, than moral philosophers.

Surely, it can’t be bad for us to get involved – can it?


[1] It’s also worth noting that many other people have written about this relationship – but it was a great starting point for me, and creeps into this discussion on the basis of my familiarity with it.


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