It would be really nice for philosophers – at least those of us who care about injustice and oppression – if what was needed was better and more careful argumentation in order to rationally persuade ourselves out of bad ideology: if we as analytic philosophers had just the right hammer for the nail. I’m not saying that philosophy has little or no effect on political reality. It’s a very difficult thing to say, after all, just how political change happens, and without knowing that, it’s hard to know what role philosophy might and should play in that change. But I fear that the thought that what we need, politically speaking, is analytic philosophy – and in particular the tools of analytic epistemology and philosophy of language – is one more legitimation myth of which we should be suspicious. After all, it would be convenient for us as professional philosophers not only if our somewhat peculiar skills turned out to be essential for the pursuit of justice, but also if it turned out that the use of those skills could render political revolution, especially violent revolution, unnecessary. For, if the revolution did come, surely many of us here would have much to lose. Amia Srinivasan Commenting on Jason Stanley's How Propaganda Works.
There are three reasons why public reviewing and commenting is important, and why I often blog about these. First, it is a way to maintain quality in a public way. Too much of the profession’s quality control is not transparent: we referee, recommend, and make hiring decisions largely behind closed doors and protected by anonymity. Editors are accountable to nobody. Most of our professional decisions are scrutinized by a handful of folk at most. So, in many ways we run our profession as a closed shop with non-transparent rules of the game. (This is also true of grant agencies.) Second, reviews and authors-meets-critics sessions give us a look under the proverbial hood: we learn about the personal idiosyncrasies, the meta-philosophical sensibilities, and the normative and psychical commitments that animate all our works and judgments. Third, they remind us of the intrinsically social nature of professional philosophy—the reviews reveal our antipathies, comradeship, emulation, friendships, and rivalries. While we are often drawn to the agonistic elements of such exchanges, we are all uplifted by genuine mutual improvement and understanding.
Srinivasan understands Jason Stanley’s book as “an internal critique of American society” that is intended to “be rationally compelling to the privileged elite.” In so doing, Stanley uses the tools of, especially, analytic epistemology and philosophy of language. There is much evidence for this interpretation in the book (and also some of Stanley’s public opinion pieces [recall and here]).
Even so it is not entirely right. (We may say that Srinivasan romanticizes the American elite, but there is no reason to think that Stanley does so.) In fact, Stanley is not really addressing the elites – the 1% -- on their own terms. Given Stanley’s evident interest in Lippmann (an interest he shares with Bruno Latour and Graham Harman) [while recognizing that Stanley has different aims], we may reformulate Srinivasan’s interpretation as follows: Stanley offers an internal critique of American society that is intended to be rationally compelling to the intellectuals (journalists, think tank types, policy advisers, judges, professors, etc.) as well as the children of the 1% and other students that help shape the opinions of the privileged without ever really questioning their more fundamental interests.*
Stanley’s engages this intellectual elite by presupposing a kind of shared commitment to a deliberative and unifying understanding of public life (recall). For example, when he appeals to Madison’s Federalist 10, he claims that "an election campaign is supposed to present candidates seeking to show that they have the common interests of all citizens at heart." Here Stanley emphasizes the ways in which elections are meant to unify, but he does not note that Madison simultaneously insists that the elected are in some sense superior to the electors.
This is not deny that sometimes Stanley is clearly also addressing fellow philosophers when he borrows our jargon to block a possible objection in, for example, his rather technical meta-philosophical use of Tarski [recall]). But in the book the tools of analytical philosophy are used to create a shared space in which, for all its knowingness, democracy becomes idealized as one of the main loci of rationality and reasonableness. That is, Stanley is (to adopt his own terminology) producing supporting propaganda in the service of certain democratic ideals that he thinks he shares with this elite. (Stanley is not secretive about this.)
Srinivasian is too polite to mention (but her presentation has already shown it) that there is no intrinsic connection between justice and the tools of analytic epistemology and philosophy of language. These tools lend themselves as much to sophistry as they do virtue; this is because the tools of analytical philosophy have no substantive commitment to the Good—the ends are given from without which is why analytical philosophy can be found in the service of technocracy as much as it can be found promoting justice. (The more familiar, legitimation myth that developed in the aftermath of the rejection of Heidegger, that analytical philosophy is an Enlightenment philosophy is also hollow—our tools are simply too esoteric.) One can recognize the truth of the previous three sentences without accepting another myth, that is, that our cherished tools are topic neutral. (I owe you a further illustration of this claim when I turn to Stanley’s treatment of concepts some day.)
Of course, the relationship between any philosophical movement and politics is a complex one. As is well known, in a famous passage in the Republic (recall my treatment of 592ab), Socrates commits himself to a very indirect participation in politics; Socrates's private self-governance is intrinsically political because it engages in ongoing speculative political theory and his own emendation is (as it were) patterned on, and oriented toward, the heavenly political city. But the direct public expression of this politics is curtailed. As Seneca recommends, rather than trying to be philosopher-kings, the philosopher should aim to legislate for the future. Stanley deviates from this template by participating actively in our public debates of the day, while maintaining a professional profile on the edge of the research frontier.
As Srinivasan reminds us forthrightly that, unlike Socrates, contemporary (professional) philosophers have been lured into attachments of property, income, and status. (The fact that Republican, presidential candidates attack philosophy as a proxy for attacking the whole elite culture is evidence for this otherwise surprising last point.) That is to say, she suggests that our class interest aligns us with the other intellectuals that serve the 1%. It does not follow, of course, we all follow our class interest, but it is to be expected that those that deviate too far from it, by undermining it, will face professional obstacles. Of course, her official point in the quoted paragraph is that our tools are impotent to prevent the political harms that may befall us--we may imagine that we are autonomous, but we are, too, leaves that blow along with the forces of history.
An impatient reader may wonder why I am tiptoeing around Srinivasan's almost explicit suggestion that violent revolution may well be necessary in order to promote justice. (It does not follow that she advocates violent revolution because we would need to learn more about her attitude toward necessity and other ultimate ends.) Srinivasan seems to imply that there are two roads open to us: (A) a (doomed) internal critique that aims to reform what is left of democratic elite intellectual opinion by drawing on a shared fantasy of rational democracy or (B) the acknowledgment that if the internal critique fails, a violent revolution that will shuffle the classes is a live possibility. While routine state violence is bad enough, other forms of politicized violence and rhetorics that condone these are being normalized again. Unless philosophers can develop political alternatives to (A-B), Srinivasan's words may well turn out to be prophetic.**
*I am un unwilling to equate the 1% with the “elite,” (Stanley regularly uses the phrase) but let’s leave such quibbles aside.
**Of course, there are attempts to do so.