Writing in 1942, the Oxford Professor of Metaphysics, RG Collingwood, said that dismissing academic discussion for insignificant speech is like “scolding little girls for giving dolls’ tea-parties with empty cups and little boys for playing with wooden swords.” Academic discussions, he added, “belong to the world of make-believe.”
Collingwood was specifically talking about my field, political philosophy, as it is done in universities. Reflecting on his words over the last year, I’ve begun to realise how right he was. Political theory seminars and conferences have been getting “curiouser and curiouser.” Like everyone else, I already knew that academia was populated by the kind of characters Lewis Carroll warned us about. There are the Hookah-Smoking Caterpillars, of course, and any postgraduate knows that supervisors are like White Rabbits: always unavailable on account of some other undisclosed urgent deadline. But now I’ve started to realise that academia is in fact an internally-coherent language world presided over by Humpty Dumpty, and that it doesn’t work beyond the context of its rabbit-hole—and perhaps it is best that it doesn’t.
What I’ve been wondering is, do political philosophers know that their world is mostly make-believe? It seems to me that they do, and it seems to be rather a sore point among them. They have long bemoaned the fact that real politicians don’t pay attention to anything they say. In fact the utopians among them are quite indignant about it, because they believe that they are rationally modelling the kind of society that reality should imitate. It is easy to blame philistine politicians and their democratic habit of courting voters by saying what will be popular, rather than what is right. But the philosophers, I think, have got their questions wrong—and wrong in every sense.
Back in May, Alex Worsnip tidily summarised the debate between so-called “idealists” and so-called “realists”: two tribes split over the question of whether political theorists should aim at abstract, universal, normative ideals, or merely empirical descriptions of reality. The battle between “idealists” and “realists” is, fittingly, only an academic one, and is itself an effect of philosophers getting their questions wrong. It is not a matter of universals against particulars, or of “ought” against “is”. It is, quite simply, a question of whose questions belong only in Wonderland.
It is not political philosophy as a whole that is “academic”, or “make-believe”. It is most of the questions that political philosophers pose that are academic. There is nothing inherently academic about philosophical thinking. It is true that there have always been great political philosophers who were ignored by politicians, and it is true that this is not a recent development. But philosophical dealers in abstract truths have always also had contemporaries from whom politicians do take guidance. The difference between them has always been that where the ignored offered answers that politicians didn’t need to questions that didn’t interest them, the influential offered solutions to problems that politicians wanted or needed to have answered. David Hume’s Essays Moral and Political speak closely to the political concerns and controversies of the time. The practical influence of Hume’s Essays was fragmented by the varying importance of the questions Hume had dealt with. The Social Contract however, by Hume’s one-time friend and later bitter enemy Jean-Jacques Rousseau, answers a question that is at once everywhere and nowhere, which is why the established politicians of Rousseau’s lifetime had little use for it.
One of the central questions of academic political philosophy, the supposedly universal question “What is justice?” is a Wonderland question. That is why only academics answer it. Its counterpart outside the rabbit-hole is something like “Which of the injustices among us can we no longer tolerate, and what shall we now do to rectify them?” A political thinker must decide whether to take the supposedly academic question, and have his answers ignored by politicians, or to answer the practically pressing question and win an extramural audience. That decision is not as easily made as you might think. There is a good living to be made by throwing yourself into “make-believe” problems; you will encounter powerful, unique minds and eccentric characters in that world. But if you wanted your ideas to effect political action, you would have to find your way back to the world where theoretical solutions speak to practical demands. You would have to imitate economists and PR people, who are useful to politicians precisely because politicians need what they sell. If he is accustomed to academic questions, asking a political philosopher to fix an economic crisis or a shattered public image would be like surrendering your broken watch to the March Hare and his butter-loaded bread-knife.
Like Carroll’s characters, political theorists are people whose intellectual power has the potential to change the world. But their preference for their own academic problems, rather than those which really face society, means that the world in which their narratives exist could never survive outside the rabbit-hole. That is the brilliant and surreal tragedy of academic political theory. Like the inhabitants of Wonderland, the interests, personalities and habits of academics make them incapable of understanding resource management, marketing, the lives of normal people, or the nuances of public relations. But the rest of the workforce might do well to remember that, as for Carroll’s characters, the really weird stuff for academics is what happens outside the rabbit-hole. In the strange world we call “real” there are people who shy from “deep” conversations, do unpaid internships, and communicate in a language of fatuous job titles and corporate jargon that even the Mad Hatter couldn’t have made up. All things considered, Wonderland is probably the safest place for us.
More philosophy in Prospect:
Intellectual motion-sickness: Martha Nussbaum is one of the few philosophers who engages with a broad audience. It’s a shame that her new book is such a mess, says Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson
What’s the point of political philosophy?Alex Worsnip warns against attempts to make political theory “relevant”