What Place Does Philosophy Have in Politics?

Simon Hewitt takes a philosophical approach to political engagement.


An active socialist, and supporting Labour in the election, I doubt that philosophy had very much to do with the formation of my politics. It wasn't an argument or a thought experiment that moved me to oppose the kind of society that we live in, but rather the experience of low-waged work and a growing realisation of the injustices in the wider world – it is a matter of experience, emotion, and (sometimes) necessity. Far too often philosophical engagement with politics is a one-sided narrowly cerebral affair that disregards much of what it means to be human. Ironically, this mechanical approach does not escape political entanglements itself, but that is for another time.

Philosophy cannot substitute itself for life experience and the development that comes through collective engagement with the world, of which the kind of campaigning that happens around elections is one example. There is however a place for activities that look philosophical in tandem with “real world” political involvement. Thinking systematically about society, developing pictures of how it works and how it could be transformed, is a safeguard against the dulling of imagination and critical intellect that machine politics brings in its wake. Of course our pictures must themselves be tested against the ongoing realities of life and struggle; this is a process with no obvious end.

Similarly, there is an important job of showing the ways that our lives and ideas are caught up systematically in structures of oppression and exploitation, in which the very ways we think about political life limit the possibilities we will admit. That the word “politics” evokes what happens once every five years – but for the intervention of Theresa May – rather than the decision about who has to cook the dinner, or the likelihood of a pay-rise in one’s workplace, is one example of the kind of phenomenon Marx would have called “ideological”. In thinking of politics in this way we think of most of our lives as apolitical, and that is far from innocent. The use of critical thought to puncture ideology is nearly the most useful thing that philosophers can do politically.

I say “nearly the most important” because of the sentiment Marx expressed famously, “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it”. He was not condemning the effort to understand the world. The point is that this understanding has a purpose, namely transforming the world in order to rid it of exploitation. Thought and action go hand in hand. So, my advice for the coming weeks would be: vote Labour, go campaigning, and then philosophise. But I can't here do more than invite you to do these things. There is no philosophical argument that will convince all comers. Indeed, it is profoundly ideological to suppose otherwise. The best I can do by way of persuasion is invite you to step outside your front door and look at the world around you. The efficacy of even this, however, will depend on where your front door is situated.

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Simon Hewitt is in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds. He has interests in the philosophies of logic, language and religion and in social philosophy. His website is www.simonhewitt.org