The impact of political philosophers

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 10, 2008

In the interview with G.A. Cohen that Jon linked to last week, Cohen closes by saying that in the long run political philosophy has an enormous impact on society. He gives as an example Mill’s liberty principle, which he sees as having been implemented a hundred years later; he concludes that ideas of contemporary political philosophers, such as Rawls and Nozick, have “enormous social effect”. We should just not want to see results within a few years, but rather look at a longer time scale.

I am sceptical about this optimism. At the very least, the “enormous” should be replaced with “some” social effect. Surely some political philosophy has some social effect; but in my judgement, it is especially the work of those philosophers who either are also well-informed about empirical matters and those who are willing and able to translate their insights for a broader public of citizens and policy makers, and who are effectively going into debate with citizens, are having most chance of having any effect. So I think the impact of scholars like Amartya Sen and Philippe Van Parijs will be much bigger, both in the short and the long run, then the Cohen-school of political philosophy. The higher the level of abstraction, the more ‘technical’ and (let’s face it) unaccessible the writing style, the more ideal-theoretical the work, the more based on hypothetical models and simplifying-assumptions-based reasoning, and the less informed by at least some empirical knowledge, the less the impact of a particular piece of political philosophy. Moreover, even the most socially relevant of political philosophy has probably only a modest effect in comparison with the impact of charismatic intellectuals, social activists or politicians. In short, I think Cohen & Co are way too optimistic about the societal and political relevance of their work, though of course I’m happy to be proven wrong.

{ 58 comments }

1

Matt 01.10.08 at 3:25 pm

Does it really seem to you that Sen and Van Parijs are less abstract and ‘technical’ than Cohen? I must admit that it doesn’t seem so to me, perhaps especially for Sen, whose best work involves some pretty serious economic and econometric theorizing. It’s certainly not clear to me that either Sen or Van Parijs have a more accessable writing style than Cohen (or, perhaps especially, Nozick.) I guess I’d like to hear a bit more about what you have in mind. Do you mean that they are more practically focused? That seems true but is somehwat different from the stated worry, I think.

I would note that the philosophers who seem to have had the biggest impacts on public thought (probably various utilitarians) were deeply involved in reform activity and politics in a way that’s quite unusual for most philosphers today. (Peter Singer might be an exception.) This was even so (though to a lesser extent) of the more academic of the utilitarians such as Sidgwick.

2

Neil 01.10.08 at 3:25 pm

I have no evidence you’re wrong (how would one measure this?) But here’s a suggestion. Sen and Van Parijs certainly read the more abstract political philosophy of people like Cohen, so they may have an impact as filtered through more policy-oriented or inter-disciplinary intermediaries. There is a big difference in the degree of accessibility between something like *On Liberty* and *Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality*, and it is too much to expect the average educated person to read the latter. That’s the price philosophers pay for becoming more technical (but there are benefits as well).

ps. John Emerson doesn’t agree. Have I put paid to that thread? Thought not.

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harry b 01.10.08 at 3:36 pm

Just to agree with Neil — surely Rawls and Nozick (and even Cohen) had a significant influence on the thinking of Sen and Van Parijs (they seem to think so, from what they say about things). And there’s direct influence too — its hard to measure but someone reading CT could probably tell us how many members of the current Labour Cabinet in Britain studied A Theory of Justice at University — its a non-trivial number. Rawlsian themes and citations of Rawls occur in public policy papers read by policymakers in the UK on issues like education and tax policy pretty frequently.

Cohen, to be sure, less often, but Cohen’s critique of the report of the Social Justice Commission (drafted by current Foreign Secretary David Miliband) was widely circulated, and certainly most serious Labour politicians of that generation will have engaged with Cohen’s critique (unfortunately not convinced by it).

Even in Wisconsin, a friend of mine who was recently elected to the legislature reported that a veteran colleague walked into his office, perused his bookshelves, and picked out TJ with an exclamation of how great it was and how pleased he was to find it on a younger colleague’s shelf.

Of course, Nozick has had more influence on what actually gets done because things have been going to badly the past 40 years…..

4

notsneaky 01.10.08 at 3:45 pm

The higher the level of abstraction, the more ‘technical’ and (let’s face it) unaccessible the writing style, the more ideal-theoretical the work, the more based on hypothetical models and simplifying-assumptions-based reasoning,

Not that I disagree in general (in fact I don’t really know) but I just wanted to mention that higher level of abstraction and more technical does not necessarily go with more simplifying assumptions. It’s true that usually the higher the level of abstraction the more difficult and technical something is but that because you’re going for more generality – in other words fewer simplifying assumptions.

Take the Arrow Impossibility Theorem. It’s very technical and very abstract (still not sure what it means exactly – as in its implications) but that’s because it’s fairly general, IIA assumption aside. It’s the things like ‘single peaked preferences’ which try to get around the theorem by making some strong simplifying assumptions which are less abstract and technical

5

John Emerson 01.10.08 at 3:56 pm

Allow me to troll this:

Although John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971), as well as what many consider to be its ideological and philosophical counterpart, Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), could be construed as alluding to or reflecting, or in some way speaking to or about, politics, they were distinctly contextless works written by professional philosophers which lifted the perennial debates about liberalism and the ground of values to a new level of abstraction while apparently allowing academic commentators to believe that they were actually saying something about politics.

John Gunnell, The Descent of Political Theory, Chicago, 1993, pp. 272-3.

6

Chris Bertram 01.10.08 at 3:56 pm

It has been said already above, but I don’t think it right to describe Cohen as “technical”. In fact he is much less so than Sen and VP. He _is_ more oriented towards non-applied theory, but that’s a different dimension from the technical/non-tech one.

I wouldn’t bet on the empirically-oriented being more influential in the long-run, either. Their work is much more vulnerable to being seen as of its time and place and irrelevant to later generations.

I’d think that there’s a good chance that people a hundred years hence will be most influenced by someone who is currently thought of as a marginal obsessive, someone with one big hedgehoggy idea, who we don’t really “get”, but whose neglected work will get picked up by someone in the next generation who will show us its importance, generalise etc. So it goes.

7

Matt 01.10.08 at 4:08 pm

It’s not exactly Chris’s point but I remember reading somewhere someone making a (partial?) joke that 200 years from now the future version of John Dunn or Quentin Skinner will be telling people that, while it’s clear that Brian Barry was the dominant political philosopher of the 20th century, to really understand him you have to read this obscure work “A Theory of Justice” by this minor figure John Rawls. While that particular version sounds unlikely we shouldn’t be surprised if who we think is important turns out to be not so important later

8

John Emerson 01.10.08 at 4:14 pm

I liked Sen in “Rationality and Freedom”, but he seemed to be bringing simple, reasonable ideas into economics which the science had been perversely ignoring for five to seven decades. Social choice and comparisons of utility have never been regarded as impossible or illegitimate except by economists, and most economists had tendentious reasons for rejecting these possibilities.

These seems to be pretty prevalent in today’s cutting-edge economics. Gintis’ sociobiological and empirical studies showing that individual self-interest is not the sole human motivator give scientific grounding to an idea that most people have always assumed, but which economists have tended to deny.

In one place in Coyle’s recent “The Soulful Science” (recommended by Gintis) I see her slowly and painfully acknowledging the reality of “institutions” (while still grounding them ontologically on individual choice) in apparent complete ignorance of a century of sociology.

Likewise, DeLong and Krugman now are talking about “power” as an explanation of why labor hasn’t seemed to be doing to well recently. As far as I know “power” has hardly been an economic concept at all so far, but it’s one that scholars in history and political science use all the time.

9

aaron_m 01.10.08 at 4:23 pm

“even the most socially relevant of political philosophy has probably only a modest effect in comparison with the impact of charismatic intellectuals”

Aren’t you proving Cohen’s point a bit here? Sure a charismatic intellectual can have a huge effect over the short-term, but a charismatic intellectual/leader is very short lived compared to a good argument and a good argument is almost impossible to kill off. Of course you are right that a decent argument communicated in clear and accessible way has much more effect than a great one that most cannot understand.

I have to admit though that when I started reading the replies to your paternity leave post my scepticism welled up and I didn’t have the heart to read on.

10

Ben Alpers 01.10.08 at 4:30 pm

I just recently read Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries, which I think is very smart on the relationship between political philosophical ideas and popular social conceptions, but I’m at the end of a long day of teaching and am too exhausted to do anything but gesture vaguely in Taylor’s direction.

11

John Emerson 01.10.08 at 4:36 pm

Gunnell’s conclusion is that political actors change political philosophy more than political philosophy changes political reality. His example was Cromwell, who was probably deliberately chosen for shock effect. He might have said Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin, or Lincoln instead.

12

harry b 01.10.08 at 4:41 pm

Well, the quote in #5 seems like ignorant nonsense to me, but the conclusion reported in #11 seems not only true, but obviously so. Who thought otherwise?

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Neil 01.10.08 at 4:45 pm

Gunnell’s conclusion is that political actors change political philosophy more than political philosophy changes political reality

This isn’t quite a truism, but I’d be surprised if any political philosopher would deny this.

14

Tom Hurka 01.10.08 at 4:48 pm

The other view is the Hegelian one: that philosophers only theorize a set of political ideas after those ideas have had their greatest real-world impact.

As I’ve said before, that seems to fit Rawls, or at least his egalitarian side. Post 1971 economic distribution has become less equal, unions have been weakened, the welfare state has been scaled back, etc. So where’s the big Rawlsian influence?

Nor do I think it’s because Nozick had more influence. Surely the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions would have happened in essentially the same way without Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

I’m not saying this is a good thing. I just think that most political philosophy has much less real-world influence than we’d like it to have.

15

John Emerson 01.10.08 at 4:48 pm

People should read Gunnell. He put in his time on political philosophy, and came up with very negative conclusions. He cannot be called ignorant. He also had been a high-level behind-the-scenes political player before getting his PhD, which might be held against him.

16

s izadi 01.10.08 at 5:12 pm

I think there are two distinct questions that need to be separated: (1) What is it for some work in political philosophy to be of societal and political relevance or importance for some given span of time? and (2) What are the factors that determine its actual impact for some given span of time?

In distinguishing these questions, we acknowledge the basic point that although some philosophy might be extremely important for some period (in some sense yet to be defined sense), there can be factors that make the work irrelevant, whether these be factors internal to the work itself—its difficulty or language—or external, such as an anti-intellectual ethos in society or the preoccupation of the work’s audience with more pressing matters. Moreover, there is no such thing as societal or political “importance” per se—it is always relative to a given span of time (which, at the limit, can be all time).

Regarding question 2, there are going to be many factors, and philosophers who want their work to have actual impact need to be somewhat conscious of these.
Regarding question 1, here too there seem to be a number of dimensions that contribute to a work’s relevance. Here, issues of technicality and abstractness are not at play because the matter has to do with the relation between the truth of what is expressed and the implications of this for social and political practice. What matters here are things like the range of issues a work addresses, the depth with which it addresses them, what it gets wrong and what it gets right in addressing them, and the implications this has for actual practice.

17

Hidari 01.10.08 at 5:12 pm

‘It’s not exactly Chris’s point but I remember reading somewhere someone making a (partial?) joke that 200 years from now the future version of John Dunn or Quentin Skinner will be telling people that, while it’s clear that Brian Barry was the dominant political philosopher of the 20th century, to really understand him you have to read this obscure work “A Theory of Justice” by this minor figure John Rawls. While that particular version sounds unlikely we shouldn’t be surprised if who we think is important turns out to be not so important later’.

This is an extremely profound point, and one usually forgotten. It applies not just to political philosophy but to science, literature, art…you name it. Remember in the late 19th century Karl Marx was a little read (at least in English) ‘extremist’ who was widely thought to be on the lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe by the few who bothered to read him. And yet I read recently a book on Marx that, without any irony described the 20th century as ‘The Century of Marxism’. Surely this is an example of a ‘political philosophy (that had) an enormous impact on society’?

We shouldn’t ever make the mistake of thinking that in five hundred years (or even one hundred) intellectuals and scholars will still be sitting around writing about ‘Martin Amis’s contribution to the Post-Modern Novel’ or ‘Damien Hirst’s 21st century art’ or discussing whether the 21st century was Rawlsian or whether Hayek defeated socialism. We shouldn’t even make the mistake of assuming that your averagely educated book (or ‘book’) reader of the year 2525 would even have the faintest idea of who any of these people were.

Perhaps instead they will be discussing whether or not it was Henry Farrell’s thoughts on Game Theory that led to the 4th World War, or whether Chris Bertram’s seminal text on Rousseau was directly responsible for the creation (and bloody suppression) of the New York Commune of 2050.

Perhaps indeed the 21st century will be Bertramian?

Many stranger things have happened………….

18

mpowell 01.10.08 at 6:33 pm

Here’s something to consider:

Did Mill’s writing drive changes in government or did those changes happen independently? If things had gone a different direction, would we be looking back on a different set of philosophers and saying: wow, these guys really influenced long-term political thought? How would we know which was the case?

19

tim quick 01.10.08 at 6:56 pm

“At the very least, the ‘enormous’ should be replaced with ‘some’ social effect.”

My take: You just need to insert the word “potentially”.

With just a moment’s reflection, surely Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Marx have had enormous impact, full stop. It’s not about how technical or accessible they are, it may not even be possible to pin it to some one thing. But undeniably it happens.

Contemporary (therefore, speculative) example: has much as I like and admire Cohen’s work, I doubt it will have enormous impact on society in the future. But you know who worked in the same genre – analytic political philosophy – who will and already has had some impact? John freakin’ Rawls. That’s who.

Have a nice day, Brits.

20

tim quick 01.10.08 at 6:58 pm

Yikes! Sorry for not editing.

21

Geert Lovink 01.10.08 at 7:06 pm

Examples like Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt prove that one can be deadly wrong with predictions about the possible impact of political philosophy on society, decades later, in circumstances that are rather hard to imagine. Obscurity and abstraction do not matter. In fact it could be the other way around. The more general, the better encrypted, the more likely it is that theory can withstand the craze of day. However, it is not that hard to design memes that can trough time. It’s merely technique.

22

John Emerson 01.10.08 at 7:16 pm

I don’t think that Schmitt was influential. Hitler was on his way, and didn’t listen to him. But I think that within the elite, Strauss was very influential (though he needed certain circumstances to become so: 1968, etc.)

23

Greg 01.10.08 at 7:18 pm

Obama channelling late Rawls:

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.

I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible.”

http://obama.senate.gov/speech/060628-call_to_renewal/index.php

Modest effect indeed…

24

Akshay 01.10.08 at 8:05 pm

Greg @23: Obama might be channeling Rawls, but haven’t similar principles been defended for centuries by advocates of the secular democratic state? Going back to what? Spinoza? If ideas are influential here, they are far older ones.

But, OTOH, isn’t it political reality which forces Obama to use this argument? He can’t oppose abortion. He wants to appeal to at least some people who do. So he uses any damn argument which will help him.

I suppose it is impossible to find out whether a thinker is interpreting the world, or changing it. Only a very few individuals, like the founders of some world religions, have had an obvious overwhelming impact.

And OT, I have to agree with Michael Sandel on the merits of the above argument about abortion: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19390

25

Seth Edenbaum 01.10.08 at 8:46 pm

The question (as usual) comes down to whether theory or history should be considered more important. Are our own ideas more interesting, more efficacious, more significant in themselves than our reflections on the ideas of our grandparents? Also at the root of a similar discussion at Leiter Reports.
The answer, simply: no.

And Cohen’s logic: that living by example is too hard on the children to bother defending, is less rationalism than rationalization. It’s good enough for a novel, maybe even a good one, but defenseless on its own. I laughed.

26

Colin Farrelly 01.10.08 at 9:49 pm

Interesting discussion. I’d like to think political ideas have been (and can be) somewhat powerful instruments of social change. It’s of course hard to confirm that this is true and it is likely to be the case that political philosophers will overemphasis their importance in this respect.

But if we think about the real greats of political thought- Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill or Marx- I think it is hard to deny that the ideas they advanced have had an important impact on human societies. At a minimum their work helps us better understand how we arrived at where we are (and the virtues/limitations etc. of our moral and political sensibilities and institutions). And so I agree with Cohen that the measure of real impact needs to be measured over centuries (not a few years).

However, when assessing the likely impact of actual living political philosophers (employed in institutions of higher education)… eh, well… I think that that is another story. Partly because I think the constraints of working in academia severely limit the likelihood that something of true, lasting importance and insight will be produced. If it does, it is probably something that doesn’t get published in an academic philosophy journal (or indeed by any academic publisher), and would probably be something many of us academics would simply dismiss as nonsense.

So I guess that, at some level, I agree with Marx’s famous base/superstructure metaphor. While I don’t think ideas are simply inert, the contributions from academic political philosophers probably come pretty close to that. The ideas that really drive human history, and have “enormous social effect”, are the ideas that drive technology (the productive forces). So compared to the Henry Ford’s and Bill Gates’s of this world, the contributions of Rawls/Cohen and Co. look pretty small.

This doesn’t mean we should give up the aspiration to make political ideas have greater impact. Maybe the next Marx or Mill is already out there waiting to be discovered. And keeping the spirit of political philosophy alive and burning is, I believe, integral to the health and vitality of a democracy.

Finally, I agree with a good deal of what Ingrid says about the lasting importance of theory that is informed by, and engages with, empirical work. All of the greats named above were interdisciplinary in their interests. And they would probably be bewildered by the great divide that currently exists between science and political philosophy.

Cheers,
Colin

27

Seth Edenbaum 01.10.08 at 10:09 pm

Partially in response to Colin Farrelly, I think it makes more sense to return to a crossing of theory and criticism and a reciprocal relation of reflection and action. “Science” does not have the same meaning in did in the 19th century and its current definition renders it problematic in discussions of the social.

28

Neil 01.10.08 at 10:57 pm

Are our own ideas more interesting, more efficacious, more significant in themselves than our reflections on the ideas of our grandparents?

I have no idea how to distinguish our ideas from our reflections on the ideas of our grandparents. I strongly suspect any such distinction is a bad one.

29

Jacob T. Levy 01.11.08 at 2:18 am

NB: “Ideas” =/= “political philosophies articulated in seminal works of political philosophy.” Marxism and liberalism are misleading cases from which to generalize. Modern democratic ideas didn’t have a work like Capital or Second Treatise/ Wealth of Nations/ Spirit of the Laws at their genesis much less as their cause (Social Contract was too quirky, What Is The Third Estate too parochial). Nationalist ideas famously lack a founding text of that sort, too– we read Government of Poland and Fichte and Herder in order to have something to read, but the nationalist idea didn’t at its core come from a book. I think nationalism and democracy have been two of the most powerful ideas over the past 2.5 centuries, and have had force *as* ideas, but that ideational force doesn’t derive from any Great Books. Arguably the same is true of democratic conservatism– Burke’s Reflections is a tremendously important book, but it’s not a philosophical brief for a general position and wasn’t very influential outside England for a long time.

30

Seth Edenbaum 01.11.08 at 2:19 am

Politics is not like chemistry. The theory and history of chemistry do not have the relation to each other and to the practice of chemistry that the theory and history of politics have to each other and to politics. Rawls wrote a theory of justice, not a history of it. I would be more interested if he had. There are numerous arguments about how constitutional change should occur. I’m not aware of that many studies of how it has. Not just the history of doctrine but the history of culture and context. Go here, and then google Richard Taruskin.
The age of rationalism is fading. Theory without criticism, without critical engagement with the social world (where Platonism is largely irrelevant) is seeming more like one of those awful baroque monstrosities so overwhelmed with complex detailing that the building itself is lost.
Language is created in use. It should be studied in use. Among other things, it’s just more complex that way.

31

chris armstrong 01.11.08 at 10:44 am

On the subject of political theorists / philosophers influencing political leaders, I might be generalising too much from the case of New Labour, but my general impression is that leaders occasionally cast around for new ideas, and sometimes pick up ideas floating around in academia that are perceived to be sexy, but rarely want to follow them through to their conclusions: they just don’t want to be bound in that way by the logic of a normative position. And on other occasions, they’re not looking so much for ideas, as academic ‘authority’ for ideas they’ve already got. So occasionally they invite the philosophers in, let them do their thing, feel good about themselves, and, again, rapidly realise that if they want to go along with philosopher a or b, then darn, they’re going to be committed to electorally unpopular policies like x or y. So the relationship fades out.

I don’t imagine that it goes beyond that very often, at least in the context of the wonderful Punch and Judy politics we have in the UK. This is not to say that there aren’t great resonances, often, between academic and political discourses (I’ve drawn a comparison, maybe not a convincing one to everyone, of some resonances between New Labour’s social inclusion speak and certain aspects of contemporary liberal egalitarianism). But I would be very reluctant to argue for causation, rather than correlation.

And if we’re talking about historical hindsight, as some people were above, it might be that sometimes the reputation of a political philosopher grows after their death because of the extent to which their ideas resonated with he times they lived in, or our times now, rather than because they really directed events. I suspect you could tell a similar story about Mill’s supposed influence on Wolfenden, etc. Perhaps it is (at least partly) the politics of the 60s that made Mill seem relevant again, rather than Mill really influencing events?

32

Tracy W 01.11.08 at 11:29 am

The higher the level of abstraction, the more ‘technical’ and (let’s face it) unaccessible the writing style, the more ideal-theoretical the work, the more based on hypothetical models and simplifying-assumptions-based reasoning, and the less informed by at least some empirical knowledge, the less the impact of a particular piece of political philosophy.

What do you think of the argument that the more obscure a piece of work, the more people will be forced to write articles and books arguing about what the author really said, and therefore the more influence it will have?

Certainly the version of Das Kapital I tried to read scored highly on “level of abstraction” and “unaccessible writing style” and Marx has had a pretty impressive real-world impact. (I can’t comment on how informed Das Kapital was by empirical evidence, after 100 pages I decided that I didn’t want to understand Marx *that* much.)

33

enzo rossi 01.11.08 at 12:00 pm

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is greatly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval.”

– J.M. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (London: Macmillan, 1939), p. 383.

34

Sam C 01.11.08 at 12:50 pm

Here’s a crude model of the impact of political philosophy: Cohen sets out a blueprint for a society in which the only inequalities are the result of responsible choice; magic elves implement it. If this fairytale model of impact is what we have in mind, then pretty obviously Cohen and other political philosophers don’t have much impact. But there are subtler ways in which academic political philosophers do have effects: (1) We teach claims, theories, arguments, modes of argument, and standards of rigor to people who go on to work in business, government and NGOs, and who will (hopefully) be voting in elections. For instance, on Monday I’ll start lecturing on an introduction to political philosophy course for first-years. Many of them will not previously have thought of society in the way Rawls directs us to, as a collaborative system which gives rise to questions of just distribution of the benefits of cooperation. Giving them that idea (and counter-arguments to it) isn’t going to change their lives overnight, but it can have an effect. Perhaps more importantly, it introduces the idea that one can have a rational argument about these questions. (2) At least in the UK, public policy is influenced by advisory bodies (e.g. the Nuffield Council on Bioethics) which include political philosophers (e.g. David Archard). Clearly, neither of these modes of influence is the power to impose a utopian blueprint (who’d want it to be?) but neither are they completely ineffectual. Political philosophy is part of the public conversation, and the conversation is better for it.

35

novakant 01.11.08 at 1:57 pm

what tracy w said – Kant and Hegel are just about unbeatable in this regard, yet nobody would deny their massive impact

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seth edenbaum 01.11.08 at 2:52 pm

Are great thinkers “original” or exemplary? Who has and who hasn’t been “ahead of their time”? Frankly I can’t think of any major figures who have in retrospect. The most I can think of are minor figures from one period who became interesting as anomalies: as people who in awkward half-formed ways presaged what was to come.
I remember arguing with an art history professor of mine, a specialist in Gothic architecture, over van Gogh. He said van Gogh was a 20th century painter born too soon; I argued that he was exemplary in ways his contemporaries did not understand. The data sides with the latter I think. Putting away wishful thinking and arguments from authority [see Keynes above], history documents again and again that we’re creatures of our time.

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seth edenbaum 01.11.08 at 2:52 pm

comment in moderation for some reason.

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chris robinson 01.11.08 at 3:11 pm

I agree with John Emerson that people should read Gunnell. His work on the history of poltiical theory and political science go far in redressing the ahistoricism of much of graduate education in the fields. His work, however, is not entirely negative. There is something to be learned from the history of political thought,he would contend, and if political theory does not have much political effect, this can be explained, in part, by its alienation from political science (an alienation that cuts both directions). I’m not exactly sure about the charge of being a “high level player” before going into political theory, however. That sounds conspiratorial. He did do some work on the state constitution of California, and he was an officer in the Navy, but I can’t imagine how these things could possibly be “held against him.” Gunnell is simply an excellent and creative scholar, a wonderful teacher (as I know first hand), and a genuinely nice person. His work deserves far more recognition and attention than it has received.

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Ingrid Robeyns 01.11.08 at 3:28 pm

Well this is an interesting discussion, with some good examples of people we nowadays regard as political philosophers (but not all of them, I think, were regarded as such when they lived and wrote), and who had an “enormous” impact on society.

Of course the question is how many of such names we want to be able to list before we conclude that political philosophy has an enormous impact. In each century there are a few that have had such impact, but there are thousands who did not (although I grant, as sam c. (#34) rightly points out, that trough good teaching each living political philosopher has a chance to make a difference). So I still think more modesty (or pessimism?) would be appropriate.

Reagarding the Sen and Van Parijs examples – in Sen’s case I am thinking not of his social choice work, but rather of his more political philosophy work (such as on capabilities), which I know many philosophers think of as not very sophisticated (too applied, too much engaged with empirical work, etc.) – yet through the UNDP and increasingly other actors, it is being used to change policies and development discourses. Of course I am not a neutral observant, since I have been and am using these concepts in my own work and am probably very influenced by Sen, yet I do think that this kind of work (not his social choice work) has more impact on societies.
As far as PVP is concerend, — he is writing many articles which directly address citizens and policy makers — probably comparable with Cohen’s study that harry (#3) mentioned. I don’t know how many of these societial critiques Cohen has written — PVP has written many of such propsoals and critiques, and it is this body of work (not his papers in PPA etc.) that make me believe that he has societal impact. Of course the two bodies of work are related – I can see his more abstract/’difficult’ philosophical work influence and nurture his more accessable work written for a broader audience.

Final thought: perhaps there is a case to be made that what leads political philosophy to have relatively short-term impact are different factors than what increases the probability of impact in the long run.

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John Emerson 01.11.08 at 3:37 pm

Gunnell was an aide to Big Daddy Unruh, who was a (or the) dominant figure in California politics for a long period. As I remember, Gunnell was an important aide of Unruh’s for a considerable period. I call that “high-level behind the scenes”; California is bigger than most European nations.

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John Emerson 01.11.08 at 3:39 pm

Which I know many philosophers think of as not very sophisticated (too applied, too much engaged with empirical work, etc.)….

Low hanging fruit for Emerson.

42

chris armstrong 01.11.08 at 3:58 pm

Of course, the very fact that some of the historical figures mentioned (Marx, Mill etc) have been ‘influential’ in times different to their own should give us pause for thought about the nature of that ‘influence.’ Does it take the world a while to come round to basically powerful ideas? Or do the times themselves dictate which philosophers are ‘important’? And if the latter, is ‘influence’ really the right term to use? I guess Cohen’s example of Mill and the 1960s just leaves me not wholly convinced. I’m not an expert by any means, but Mill’s sudden prominence a hundred years later MIGHT tell us his ideas were driving social change, or it MIGHT tell us that social actors cast around for rationalisations for changes that were already upon them, and that Mill fit the bill for a while. Marx may be a different kettle of fish, though…

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aaron_m 01.11.08 at 5:23 pm

“in Sen’s case I am thinking not of his social choice work, but rather of his more political philosophy work (such as on capabilities), which I know many philosophers think of as not very sophisticated (too applied, too much engaged with empirical work, etc.)”

I do not think that the problem political philosophers have with the capabilities approach is that it is too applied or empirical. As an alternative to the truncated utilitarianism of welfare economics/economic choice theory (i.e. consumptionism) it is clearly a better answer to the question ‘what do people need?’ I do however think these criticisms of consumptionism economic theory and public policy where quite common in political theory and what Sen really contributed to was at least some degree of acknowledgement of them in the economics field and thus in turn in public policy. But the first problem with the capabilities approach is that it seems to claim that it is better than Rawls’ political liberalism for getting around the conflict between liberal universalism and respect for cultural diversity. Yet the capabilities approach is a pretty transparent attempt to argue for a set of typical liberal standards of justice while it only feigns openness to alternative views. The capabilities approach says that public policy should be grounded in the normative argument that functioning X is a necessary part of a life worth living, society should be organised (i.e. public policy and spending) so that each individual has a reasonable chance to achieve functioning X (i.e. capabilities), but we allow people not to choose functioning X therefore we are open to alternative views. It is the first two steps where the action is and the last step follows for liberal universalism as well. This is not to say that at the end of the day Rawls’ political liberalism actually achieves what it sets out to any more than the capabilities approach or that the project of retreating from liberal universalism is sensible, but the capabilities approach does seem to be less sophisticated in its approach.

The second and I would say more serious problem is that the capabilities theory is only about half of what a normal theory of social justice is. It is a theory about what people need but not a theory about who, if anybody, has a duty to provide these needs. Neither Sen nor Nussbaum offer very much of interest on this in their capabilities writings.

44

Josh R. 01.11.08 at 9:01 pm

Jacob says:

“I think nationalism and democracy have been two of the most powerful ideas over the past 2.5 centuries, and have had force as ideas, but that ideational force doesn’t derive from any Great Books.”

What about the pamphleteering of Thomas Paine, in particular Common Sense? Or, I guess, one could also bring in the Federalist Papers. Or would those be insufficiently philosophical, with the former dealing with the specific fact of British rule and the latter with the specific pros/cons of a specific type of constitution, to count in this discussion?

45

engels 01.11.08 at 10:23 pm

In 150 years time all serious political philosophy will be written in Chinese. Philosophy written in other languages or reflecting political values other than those of the world hegemon will be relegated to humanities departments, considered to be too lacking in intellectual seriousness to be worth the time of professionals. Cohen and Van Parijs will be forgotten. Mill will be largely ignored but a small group of ‘rational Millians’ will labour to make his ideas intelligible within the prevailing anti-individualist conceptual framework, but will render them unrecognisable to his followers in the process. In the end, they will give up on the whole project, devoting themselves instead to ever more recondite ‘liberal’ critiques of Mao, and piecemeal proposals for rendering Chinese socialism more ‘humane’.

46

Martin James 01.12.08 at 12:06 am

Engels,

What’s the Chinese character for Allah?

47

ashok 01.12.08 at 2:04 am

Is there an argument to be made for political philosophy, at its best, purposely being useless?

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aaron_m 01.12.08 at 11:06 am

“but a small group of ‘rational Millians’ will labour to make his ideas intelligible within the prevailing anti-individualist conceptual framework, but will render them unrecognisable to his followers in the process. In the end, they will give up on the whole project”

Engels, do the Chinese have some genetic feature that makes them not want freedom and equality?

49

John Emerson 01.12.08 at 7:41 pm

This is an enormous question and I don’t want to take sides, but in Taiwan in 1983 I was amazed at how illiberal well-educated Chinese were, even the dissidents (Taiwan Independence people). In general principle, they just matter-of-factly accepted a authoritarianism.

50

engels 01.12.08 at 8:00 pm

Aaron, I hope that by 2158 the Chinese people will have achieved freedom and equality. Maybe the British people will have done so as well. If they do though I am doubtful that it will be thanks to the efforts of Philippe Van Parijs…

51

aaron_m 01.13.08 at 12:05 pm

“I hope that by 2158 the Chinese people will have achieved freedom and equality. Maybe the British people will have done so as well. If they do though I am doubtful that it will be thanks to the efforts of Philippe Van Parijs…”

Aha I see, but a pretty short time frame for evolution to get rid of the said gene.

By the way who said that Philippe Van Parijs would bring freedom and equality to the Chinese?

As to the matter you originally raised, it is about as plausible to think that most Chinese political philosophers will not know who Mill was or said as it is to think they will not know who Marx was.

52

Stephen 01.13.08 at 4:16 pm

I’m sure it’s reasonable to suggest that 150 years hence much of the most influential writing in political philosophy will be in Chinese, but I’m not certain it’s reasonable to claim that “all” will be (I would hazard a guess that there will be important writing in Hindi, Spanish and Portuguese, as well as in Arabic, as martin james suggests).

More importantly, however, I am amazed at the idea that we can predict that Chinese writing will fit a “prevailing anti-individualist conceptual framework” for two reasons. First, it is unclear to me that most *contemporary* writing in Chinese political thought is anti-individualist. There are important “liberal” voices in Chinese academia (sure, liberalism with a Chinese face, but that’s not so strange). Furthermore, the Chinese “new left”, which is in some sense collectivist, often seems to view itself as out-of-step with current trends in government policy. This relates to my second concern: China is undergoing extreme, and under-reported, political, economic and social changes. The introduction of democratic voting procedures in rural areas, for example, is a fascinating experiment, and it is unclear that these elections are any less “democratic” than local elections in India (the obvious contrast case here). How these changes will affect China’s development in the future seems to me to be impossible to predict.

I’m not certain how any of this fits into claims about the causal relationships between political philosophy and political action. However, I am quite certain that any discussion of these matters isn’t helped by sweeping essentialist generalisations. Perhaps some political philosophers at some points in time have influence over some events, whereas others don’t!

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engels 01.13.08 at 5:01 pm

I am quite certain that any discussion of these matters isn’t helped by people who are incapable of detecting humour or irony. :) Since apparently many people are not: #154 was intended as a cheap swipe at these guys, not a serious prediction about the future course of Chinese history.

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engels 01.13.08 at 5:02 pm

Er #45 that would be…

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aaron_m 01.13.08 at 7:18 pm

“I am quite certain that any discussion of these matters isn’t helped by people who are incapable of detecting humour or irony.”

Oh quite so, quite so!

Still I think we can all agree that it would be a sad state of affairs should we let Engels’ ideas on humour, irony, and what ought to be detected to act as our test of membership.

56

engels 01.13.08 at 7:42 pm

Membership of what?

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aaron_m 01.13.08 at 8:24 pm

The right kind of people for this discussion club. I took #53 to have a ‘get lost’ vibe to it, but maybe I am still not getting it.

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engels 01.13.08 at 8:55 pm

No, it was primarily a snarky response to Stephen’s penultimate sentence.

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