Sunday, November 12, 2006

Philosophy, politics, and the citizen

One of the interesting things about philosophy, at least to me, is that we all do it whether we want to or not. We all at times use words such truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality, and justice, to name a few. To use those words in any intelligible way, we must have some sort of conceptual and theoretical framework we apply either consciously or unconsciously. These frameworks may be sparse or rich, but I cannot imagine that we do not all possess them.

A large gulf exists between what a professional philosopher does and what a layperson does when she thinks philosophically. The standards of logic and argumentation are not the same. The background reading of the layperson is paltry and spare compared to the depth and richness of the philosopher. The layperson has not spent the large amount of time thinking through problems that a philosopher does in the normal course of her career. However, what we have is a matter of degree and not kind when comparing the philosopher to the layperson.

When it comes to politics in a democracy, the philosophical commitments of the layperson and the philosopher both translate as one vote for each, whether people are aware of their commitments or not. Let us say I study the prospects of establishing freedom and democracy in Iraq by using my best understanding of the concepts of freedom and democracy, two terms as conceptually complex as philosophical terms get, and I find the prospects remote. Let us also say a philosopher arrives at a different conclusion using a richer conceptual framework and more rigorous argumentation. Let us further say that freedom and democracy in Iraq never takes root. Was I right because I argued correctly, or did I merely predict the event by chance?

If I am doomed to never being right, in the sense of having a rich enough conceptual framework for argumentation, then seemingly good or ill fortune will always buffet me. The best I can hope for is finding ways to reduce the number of mistakes I make, and even the chances of achieving that seem dim. We also have the problem of the philosopher whose predictions go wrong. She made a mistake in her reasoning somewhere along the way. Her mistake was different from mine, but she is wrong about a very serious issue and I was right. The consequences of who is right is no small matter.

The sloppy thinking of the popular pundit has far more influence on public opinion than the philosopher who weighs in on public matters. TV trumps learned journals and conferences. Even the most politically engaged citizen seldom has the time to think matters through as thoroughly as they would like. When election time comes, you must put an X on the ballot somewhere.

Not all is lost for the citizen philosopher. Ideologies frame and inform our decisions. These ideologies form and change over the years. My ideology today is not the one I possessed forty years ago. I did not stop thinking about my ideology even when I was at my busiest in life. One also observes when an ideology fails on its own terms. Inconsistency creates dissonance even if it is a low-level dissonance difficult to describe.

The recent election was a victory of sorts of one ideology over another, but the victorious ideology will be short lived should it not press its advantage, not only over the next two years, but also decades into the future. We all do philosophy, whether goodly or badly. We are the raw material on which philosophy in general works its magic. The issue is whether we take advantage.


At 4:41 PM, Blogger Renegade Eye said...

The word ideology is often misused. It is actually false consciousness, as racism, sexism etc.

The philosopher interprets the world, while the revolutionary changes it.

At 5:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, renegade! - how delightful to hear the old Marxist doxa again!

It's like a long-forgotten heirloom in the attic. Even if it is dusted off, it still smells of the past and nobody knows what to do with it.

But I love your tango connection. My wife and I have traveled a lot in South America. Two years ago we spent Christmas and New Year in Buenos Aires. Check out La Boca:

Like Marxism, it is faded glory, but...VERY charming.

Orla Schantz

At 1:03 AM, Blogger Lynn said...

renegade eye -

I know that is the original Marxist conception. I have come to doubt that ideologies are merely false consciousness, although they may be at times.

Ideological beliefs infect us all whether we like it or not. Which parts of ideologies match reality are another matter.

I do not view ideologies as good or bad per se. They are natural.


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