What’s the Point of Political Philosophy?


Alex Worsnip in Prospect:

It is a near-truism that philosophy operates at a remove from the “real world.” Many philosophers suppose that the answers to questions in logic, epistemology and metaphysics are independent of particular empirical facts about how human society happens to be set up. But what about ethics and political philosophy? How far should philosophers concerned with these areas take into account the messy reality of everyday life?

Not far at all, says one venerable tradition that dates back at least to Kant in the 18th century, and probably as far as Plato. From this perspective, the job of ethics and political philosophy is to work out how things ought to be. This need not be closely related to how things actually are. For the philosopher trying to imagine the ideal society or specify the nature of virtue, engaging in detail with the world in its current state (or in its historical forms) may be unnecessary or even unhelpful.

This traditional picture, however, has always had its detractors. In recent years the attack has been led by a group identifying themselves as “political realists,” counting amongst their number philosophers such as Raymond Geuss and the late Bernard Williams. According to the realists, the traditional picture risks making political philosophy both irrelevant and falsely universalistic, mistakenly supposing that the same abstract principles are applicable to societies of radically different kinds. Realists have singled out many of the most prominent political philosophers of the 20th century—John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Ronald Dworkin and GA Cohen—for particular scorn.

The realist critique of these philosophers—let’s call them, by contrast, the “idealists”— encompasses a number of distinct charges, not all of which sit well together. One criticism is that the idealists’ abstract theories of justice are insufficiently engaged with real politics. Another related accusation is that their demands are unrealistic, standing no chance of being implemented. Another common charge, although a very different line of attack, is that idealists—Rawls in particular—are apologists for the political status quo, cooking up a convenient justification for the US’s particular brand of liberal democracy. Finally, the realists sometimes seem sceptical about the whole project of formulating theories of justice, suspecting that such theories are merely ideological devices that obscure power relations, or that there is in fact no universal theory of justice independent of particular societies and their convictions.