November 15, 2016

What do Philosophers Have to Add to the Political Discussion?

Filed under: Life,Politics — camcintosh @ 3:48 pm

The title of this post is the question my students asked me at the beginning of class the day after Donald Trump won the election. I thought about the question for a moment, decided I didn’t really have anything to say about that, and moved on. But I continued to think about the question over the weekend and shared a few of my thoughts with class yesterday. The following is roughly what I said.

My basic instinct was right: I didn’t have anything to say because, well, philosophers don’t have that much to add to the political discussion, at least as it takes place on the front lines. Academics generally, but philosophers especially, are pathologically inclined to think their opinions are worth astronomically more than they are, especially on matters about which they do not specialize. Their very livelihoods come from publishing their opinions on very specific things, which can easily create the impression in oneself and others that their opinions on things generally carry more weight. But they don’t. So be wary of, for example, the English (and, yes, philosophy) professor who waxes eloquent on politics in class. That being said, take the following with an extra grain of salt.

As a general rule, I believe instructors should aspire to teach in a fair and balanced manner, and conceal as honestly as they can their own personal beliefs on controversial topics. Students can be very impressionable, and a likable or charismatic professor can have an enormous influence on what students come to believe. Instructors, therefore, ought to take special care to respect their students’ epistemic autonomy in what they say and the way they teach. Many professors are so certain of their moral and intellectual superiority that they intentionally exploit their position of influence to manipulate students into believing what they do. Witness, for example, philosopher Richard Rorty [“Universality and Truth,” in Robert B. Brandom (ed.), Rorty and His Critics (Blackwell, 2000), pp. 21-22]:

I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities…try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own … The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire ‘American liberal establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy. The parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students … When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. … You have to be educated in order to be a participant in our conversation … So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours … I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent domination of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.

Many professors agree with Rorty’s modus operandi in teaching, if not with the content of what he teaches, although I suspect they wouldn’t be as honest as Rorty in acknowledging their manipulation. So what, if anything, can students themselves do to respect their own epistemic autonomy and resist being manipulated, especially with respect to their political and religious beliefs?

I think it’s absolutely crucial for young people to try to put their finger on the contemporary zeitgeist: become aware of the popular moral, intellectual, and political theories of one’s day as popular moral, intellectual, and political theories of one’s day. Some degree of susceptibility to groupthink can be resisted simply by becoming aware of what one’s group thinks, as opposed what others think and have thought. Obviously, what is popular is not always wrong, but it ain’t always right, either, and we shouldn’t underestimate the power of peer pressure in a culture that is able to enforce conformity and punish dissent in unprecedented fashion with mass media.

The problem with this recommendation, however, is like the problem of how a fish can know it’s wet. How can we become aware of, and honestly assess, the moral and ideological trends of our day when our thinking is so much a product of them? But there is a solution to the fish problem: the fish can know it’s wet by jumping out of the water. So how do we, as metaphorical fish, jump out of the metaphorical water of our own culture?

Here is a twofold proposal. First, unplug. Radios, TVs, the Internet, video games, music, movies, and other forms of popular electronic media are 5% educational, 5% personally enriching (e.g., soul-building art, valuable social networking, etc.), and 90% entertainment-propaganda (one category) whose subliminal messages are the ectoplasm of the zeitgeist, the source of the stream you swim in. This point is forcefully made by authors like Alan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind and Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. So, jump out of the stream on occasion. How? By reading good books (idem), especially good old books or good books about good old books. This is the second fold of the proposal. Reading such books allows us, albeit temporarily and imperfectly, to swim in a stream different from our own, so that when we jump back into ours we bring something of someone else’s perspective with us. To that effect, I recommended these books:

  • Plato, The Republic
  • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
  • Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
  • Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
  • Will Durant, The Lessons of History
  • Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present
  • Thomas Sowell, Wealth, Poverty, and Politics
  • Morton White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution
  • Alan Bloom (ed.), Confronting the Constitution

Afterward a student asked, “If you could recommend just one of these books, which would it be?” And another followed, “Are there Sparknotes on these?” I love my students. :-)


1 Comment »

  1. Some might (not unreasonably) complain that the books I recommended have a politically conservative slant, so I’m violating my own standards in being as neutral as possible.

    The first thing to bear in mind is that I merely recommended these as books to read for helping achieve a better understanding of our contemporary politics and zeitgeist. But the fact is, probably most good old books of political philosophy could be classified as conservative by today’s standards (many would have been considered liberal in their own day). But that’s just a reflection of our own culture, which is precisely why such books ought to be read. The only book that could indisputably be classified as conservative by the standards of its own day—that is, our standards today—is Sowell’s, and I included his book because there really is no other book like it in terms of its quality of scholarship and outlier perspective (and I noted this to my students). Plato can’t really be said to have a political bias by contemporary standards. White and Ryan are neutral surveys. Mill and Durant are classically liberal. Bloom is an eclectic collection of interpretive essays. Smith and Tocqueville are period pieces that are crucial background to Western and American political theory today.

    So, the complaint, if one should be inclined to make it, doesn’t have much bite, especially considering that I explicitly told the students to take what I had to say about these things with an extra grain of salt.

    Comment by camcintosh — November 15, 2016 @ 5:17 pm | Reply

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