On misunderstanding politics as philosophy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between politics and philosophy – and how we confuse the two of them much of the time, treating what are often basic political necessities as matters of theory.   

We do that in explaining our own actions, seeking justification after the fact, but also in explaining those of others, criticising them for mistakes in their ‘thinking’ when it is not always evident much thinking has taken place at all.

Politics is a domain of decision-making, in the world, not detached from it. It is relentless, continuing day upon day for as long as we interact with others in society. In it, our primary reference point is not detached philosophical reflection and the theories that come out of it, but the immediate world around us, of other people and institutions and the demands they make of us.

Of course, theory is embedded in this world. But we do not typically relate to it in a detached, individualised manner – that of the ‘thinker’ sitting down and working through his or her thoughts. Mostly, we relate to it with our social beings, in our need to respond and show who we belong to (or where we belong, in existential terms); indeed if we belong at all. Any genuine attempt to find a purely rational or philosophical standpoint can only be laid aside in this sort of daily fray: as irrelevant, beyond control and likely incomprehensible.

Politics generally doesn’t have time for such questionings. As Nietzsche said, “A politician divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies.” It is primarily a matter of ‘us’ and ‘them’, of defining who is with us and who is against us and fighting it out. It is an activity of groups rather than individuals. In taking sides, we give up a part of our individual selves, for example in choosing to vote for one thing rather than something else, in joining a party or a campaigning organisation; even in our individual lives, in who we make friends with and pair up with. A marriage is an inherently political act; the family an inherently political unit; a friendship too. In them, there are bonds which are not philosophically justified, which are not the fruits of detached thought and decision-making. They are rather justified by mutual reliance and commitment, which bring their own benefits. The baby has no choice about who it is born to, who it relies upon in growing up and the culture it is brought up in.

This may seem like a pretty bleak picture if we value thinking. 

However it was thinking that painted this picture. The point of philosophy is surely to try to understand the world, which means understanding how political life works, indeed how life is inherently political.

In describing reality accurately, and not over-estimating or misunderstanding its own role and influence, philosophy can have its daily bread, even if it is a more modest meal than its advocates might like.


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