Down the rabbit hole

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Down the rabbit hole


Do academic discussions belong to the world of make-believe?

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”

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  1. October 10, 2013


    How can we recognise injustice ‘outside’ without knowing what justice is? At least, Plato’s Socrates was aware of this situation.

  2. October 10, 2013

    Anthony Steyning

    Cutting them off will do it. Throwing them back into the street might heal them, perhaps restore their honesty. Oh, that rabbit-hole, nothing but the warm nest of the useless. Pious parasites, on a par with the clergy. A tragedy all right, paid for by the differently ignorant.

  3. October 10, 2013

    Paolo Palladino

    Before offering economics and public relations as the paragons of engaged and publicly relevant forms of knowledge, the author would do well to look around and start reading any of McCloskey’s writings on economics. British academics have acceded far to easily to REF and the ‘impact agenda’ … they need to rediscover the strength and courage to insist on the importance of abstract concepts such as ‘justice’ or ‘truth’ because otherwise they will truly be consigned to the ash-heap of history.

  4. October 10, 2013


    Pure thought is wonderful stuff but in no way relevant to the man on the Clapham Omnibus, he deals in the practicalities of life, whether he can hold down his job in order to feed, house and clothe his family. Academics understand the rules of their subject perfectly, unfortunately for them, we plebs are, in the main, totally irrational about parts of our lives; in electing politicians it is shown by the “I vote xxxx because may father voted xxxx”, “I vote yyyyy because I work in a factory”, these decisions are, at best, semi-rational; as is the decision to buy a 50″ television because my neighbour has. Unfortunately there is no rational way of getting a handle on these irrationalities, which is why politicians ignore the fruits of pure thought, they are irrelevant in the real world…

  5. October 10, 2013


    The author seems to think the political philosophy department is full of brilliant and powerful minds who are thinking in a Wonderland-ish way. The error in his thesis is the departments are filled with mundane minds who think drivel.

    Seriously, a brilliant mind will be heard and listened to. There are few of them.

    Academia does not get the best and brightest anymore. Those go to business now, and this has been the case for quite awhile. Academia gets those who memorize exceedingly well, know how to play the game and get good marks, and know what opinions to keep to themselves. The academy is ‘an island of repression in a sea of freedom’. It does allow for brilliant creative minds to work unfettered. One poorly phrased comment kills a career. Why would a rational intelligent free-spirited person willingly work in such an environment? So, it gets book learned bureaucrats.

    • October 10, 2013


      Let’s see. I teach philosophy at a large, public university in the lower midwest. Why would I willingly work in such an environment? Hmm. The opportunity to teach bright, energetic, forward-looking young people. A beautiful campus. A flexible work schedule. Interesting and challenging work. An overall stimulating environment.

      It’s not hard to understand at all. Unless, of course, you have a crude stereotype in mind, in which case, I couldn’t answer you.

  6. October 11, 2013


    This sounds like more cheap anti-intellectualism. One should avoid the mistake of opposing the theoretical mind to the practical mind, because the price you pay is twofold: you get short-sighted and you justify the the wounded narcissism of many attackers of the academia.

    There is a tight connection between culture and political practice and favoring one against the other will only result in a disservice to us all.

  7. October 11, 2013

    The Wet One


    If only I could share this with all my political philosophy classmates. It is the most useless of pursuits and yet the most important at the same time. It was time exceedingly well spent in my case. I still ponder practical irrelevancies to hopefully uncover something of value that may be of some use in ages hence. Plato’s Republic an utter fantasy land, (a city without slaves!!!) is a fruitful patch of ridiclousness and nonsense to get one properly acquainted with the issues. And from this, well, many idyllic hours and much wisdom.

    The architechtons always have the last word, even if (or is it especially if?) no one hears them whispering to us everyday. Bacon would approve of what we’ve wrought.

  8. October 11, 2013

    Kevin Howard

    how could Humpty Dumpty fit down the rabbit hole anyway?

  9. October 13, 2013

    arthur schafer

    The article’s basic presupposition seems (to me) utterly philistine: It is always better to be influential than to be ignored.

    This presupposition is then turned into an argument: You will be ignored if you engage in the kind of abstract thinking about issues of distributive/social justice that recognizes and explores systemic or deep-rooted problems. By contrast, you might be influential if you focus your attention on the kind of questions that interest politicians: e.g., “Which of the injustices among us can we no longer tolerate, and what shall we do now to rectify them?” Therefore, if you want to be influential, (which of course ought to be your prime goal), then you should explore piecemeal reforms rather than engage in any sort of radical analysis of systemic problems.

    Some comments.

    First, where have we heard this before? No surprise, it’s the siren song of conservatives and neo-liberals everywhere. E.g., Karl Popper, in several of his famous essays, argues in favour of piecemeal reform and against radical change, as do most of leading conservative thinkers, going back to Edmund Burke and continuing, in our own times, to Michael Oakeshott, Friedrich von Hayek and a host of others.

    “Injustices we can no longer tolerate”. Who are “we”? In a slave society are “we” the slave masters or the slaves? In feudal societies are we the lords or the serfs? In contemporary North America and Western Europe are we the wealthy financial and petro elites or the mass of radically insecure middle and lower middle class people (not to mention racial minorities, aboriginal people, the disabled, etc.) who worry about jobs (for themselves and their kids) and the affordability of health care (in the USA) and higher education?

    And what if it turns out that the piecemeal reforms advocated by the “influential thinkers and the influential think-tanks”, cons and neo-cons to a man (and woman), are invariably frustrated or watered-down to the point of homeopathic nil strength, by the corrupting power of money and the hegemony of the marketplace on the democratic process? “Obamacare” is perhaps one of many possible illustrations of what happens when the marketplace power of Pharma and Insurance and their corporate allies sets its mind against a single universal payer system of health care. Canadian style Medicare is simply not on the agenda for Americans because the ruling marketplace ideology sees it as fit only for Alice-in-Wonderland. Meanwhile, in Canada, in Britain, in Scandinavia and elsewhere, the principles of Medicare are steadily eroded and attenuated by those with a vested interest in privatization of all public services.

    Not sure why I’m so upset by the aptly named “Christopher Fear” and his essay. Perhaps because he and it seem so smugly complacent in their ideology and so blind to the ways in which it preserves a profoundly unjust status quo for most of the world’s people, including many in our own “affluent society”. He seems blind to the fact that all the progressive radical changes that have, historically, brought us liberal democracy and a deal of affluence have come about by radical challenges to the ruling slave/feudal/marketplace ideologies of the past that seemed to dictate what questions could be asked and which problems were “on the agenda”. All the democracy in the world won’t matter a hoot if the agenda is set by a powerful and privileged elite, which can and does use its power to silence radical critics and welcome only those who propose the mildest of reforms.

    Margaret Thatcher, IMHO, has been the “greatest” public educator of the last century. Her Alice-in-Wonderland ideology has had a dramatically important impact in the transformation of Britain and America (not to mention Canada and Europe, Russia, etc.) away from anything which smacks of social democracy and towards market-place fundamentalism. She carried with her, it is said, a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Abstract ideology, it turns out, can be profoundly influential.

    Keynes said it best:

    “… the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

    Apologies for this rant.

    • October 15, 2013


      What Keynes wrote is complete and utter nonsense. More often the academy and the economists are twenty years behind general society. General society advances on what can be and is accomplished. Academics write obscurely about it, and economists write foolishly about it.

      Talking to an economist or taking a course from one is like taking a course on spices at a culinary school from someone who knows absolutely everything there is to know about spices, but hasn’t actually ever cooked a meal using them.

  10. October 13, 2013


    Is there any reason why political theorists are singled out? I know plenty of smart people in many fields who have ignored the author’s abstract imperative to “change the world” or solve problems that “really” face society, and have instead tried to make a career doing something they found rewarding (financially, intellectually, or otherwise).

    And what, exactly, is the author’s complaint? Is it that political theorists do their job poorly insofar as they do not seek to effect practical political change, or is it that the job of political theory is not worth doing because it is ineffective at its (asserted) goal of effecting practical change?

  11. October 14, 2013

    Colin Wight

    But the question: ‘Which of the injustices among us can we no longer tolerate, and what shall we now do to rectify them?” Can only be answered within a framework that political theorists have discusses at length. If one takes a consequentialist then your answer will be very different from a deontological approach. Methinks the ‘Impact’ agenda has addled some minds…:)

  12. October 14, 2013

    (The late, lamented) Michael Oakeshott

    In considering the fortunes of political philosophers, their students, and the men of the world at whom they shout and for whom they might as well not exist, I am reminded of the tale of Duke Huan and the Wheelwright, which I reproduce here:

    The Duke of Huan was reading a book in the hall. The wheelwright Pian, who had been chiseling a wheel in the courtyard below, set down his tools and climbed the stairs to ask Duke Huan:

    “May I ask what words are in the book Your Grace is reading?”

    “The classic of a famous sage.” the Duke responded.

    “Is he still alive?”

    “Oh no, he is long dead.”

    “Then you’ve been reading the dregs left over by a dead man, isn’t it?”

    Duke Huan said, “How dare a wheelwright to have opinions about the book I read! If you can explain yourself, I’ll let it pass. Otherwise, it’s death!”

    W’heelwright Pian said, “In my case I see things in terms of my own work. I chisel at a wheel. If I go too slow, the chisel slides and does not stay put. If I hurry, it jams and doesn’t move properly. When it is just right, I can feel it in my hand and respond to it from my heart. I can explain this to my son, but I cannot pass on the skills to him. That is why at seventy years old, I am still making wheels. The sage who couldn’t pass down his wisdom is already dead; and that’s why I say the book you’re reading is merely the dregs of a dean man.”

    • October 15, 2013


      To Lamented….Nice story.

  13. October 14, 2013

    Ben Thompson

    Although it might be possible to think this post too fawning toward impact, I think Fear’s more interesting point concerns a different stage in the philosophical process. Fear writes, ‘But the philosophers, I think, have got their questions wrong—and wrong in every sense.’ Although he structures the peace with a gradual wind up to this, the claim is succinct. It is not the merit of philosophical enquiry that Fear questions thereby. I would not suppose it is the incremental resolution of injustices over the grand theorising of justice that Fear supports (unless we read a hypothetical supposition as his conviction). Nor is it even Fear’s apparent point to unmask academic political philosophy by juxtaposition with the ‘real world’, which actually comes out rather poorly in the comparison. Seeing, instead, political theory as, and always as, a response to questions, it is the calibre, relevance, and source of questions that demands attention. The same frames the significance of a properly philosophical approach – academic or otherwise – to political issues. Fear sets up a dichotomy between the kinds of questions political philosophers ask (too often the Wonderland questions of an initiates-only conversation) and the kinds of questions politicians and public relations people prefer, largely to bemoan their tragic incommensurability. Worse (or better) we’re left to think that none of the questions are apt. Yet, perhaps in the Socratic tradition, aporia is a starting point.

  14. October 14, 2013

    Christopher Fear

    Thanks for your extended critique, Arthur Schafer. The “basic presupposition” you’ve identified is not one I actually make, let alone base the rest of the article on. Thanks for reading.

  15. October 15, 2013

    (The late, lamented) Michael Oakeshott

    To Pulse, it is nice isn’t it.

    To Mr Schafer et al., of the article and the story: there’s a lot in there, take what it offers not what you will.

    To Dr Fear, ribald riposte old boy!

  16. October 15, 2013

    Michael Neumann

    This is just silly. The question ““Which of the injustices among us can we no longer tolerate, and what shall we now do to rectify them?” is literally meaningless until we agree on what ‘ injustice’ means and therefore what ‘justice means’. That holds for any world, real or unreal. Admittedly in the real world people often like to use words without knowing what they’re talking about, but this isn’t exactly an endorsement of the practice.

    • October 16, 2013

      Christopher Fear

      Thanks Michael, that is an important point to clear up (as Colin Wight’s comment also indicates). Take a current example: “Is it unjust that prisoners don’t get the vote?” You are obviously right that without some linguistic sense of what “unjust” means as an adjective, the question is incomprehensible — like the question “Is it niesprawiedliwy that prisoners don’t get the vote?” But where there is linguistic understanding of “unjust”, as there is for almost all English speakers, the question is not meaningless at all, even among those totally unfamiliar with academic debates concerning the nature and meaning of justice as an abstract noun. There are as many abstract accounts of justice as there are academic political theorists. But very few, if any, of those academic theories of justice speak to this question specifically. That is part of the reason why the practical debate will not, and need not, refer to them. The concrete question requires one of only two answers: “It is unjust because…”, or “It is not unjust because…”

      Colin Wight’s point, I think, is that the practical question can only be answered by referring to the concept of justice that we operate with. That is true, but only trivially so. In practice we operate with linguistic meaning, rather than with the outcomes of conceptual analysis (unless we are pedants). The idea of “frameworks” which Colin Wight refers to is one you often encounter in the mouths and writings of academic International Relations people nowadays. But it is an extremely clumsy term, which is why real political theorists don’t invoke it. No two people have the same “framework”; it has no explanatory power, since concepts are used as servants in practical debates and never as masters (contrary to the belief of neo-Marxists, for whom their own ideas are part of the conspiracy), and for the same reason the idea of a “framework” has no normative value either. Of course if you believe, as many Internation Relations people do, that the only way to navigate the world and make important decisions properly is to select a “framework” (according to what principles I do not know) and then to “apply” it — then, of course, it will make perfect sense, even if the world and your actions no longer will.

      What, then, should the political theorist do? The answer, as I’ve said above, is entirely up to him. If he wants to be listened to by politicians, he should answer the question about prisoners’ votes (for example). If he wants to be listened to by other academics, then he should continue to ask “What is justice” (the Wonderland question). The question of which is better or more valuable is insoluble, and I have not answered it above one way or the other — though I can see from other comments that that is the message most easily read into this article. My basic argument is that what the political theorist cannot do is answer the academic question while complaining that politicians are ignoring his concept of justice in the debate about prisoners’ votes.

      • October 17, 2013

        Michael Neumann

        You make a lot of sense, but I can’t completely agree, because I don’t think we do have a shared concept of justice or even agree on its ‘ linguistic meaning’. We argue about these things, and often appeal, usually for worse rather than better, to general principles – hence the huge influence on Ayn Rand. Philosophers like Nozick have a pretty direct role in these disputes. As for some gap between academic and non-academic interveners, I’d say the gap is not really there so much, as between those who venture into factual claims and those who don’t. Some academics, like Van Parijs, do, and in the past the examples are more common. Mill and Roussau had huge influence on practical politics.

        I’d also suggest, cynically, that most non-academic debates on justice are also in never-never-land. They tend to be veiled strategies for what people perceive,however misguidedly, to be in their self-interest. Even where this is not the case, the real role of principles is very limited. I don’t think, for instance, that either general or not-so-general principles of justice have much real role in debates about immigration. Those in opposed say it is ruining the country; those in favor say it’s a source of wonderful energy and diversity. When justice is invoked, it never seems to play any decisive role – we’re lucky if even the facts are honestly examined. I’m not aware of academics complaining that politicians ignore their concept of justice; that seems more the province of teenagers not yet clear on the facts of political life. Political theorists clear up concepts and get paid for it. They hardly expect more than that.

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Christopher Fear is a PhD researcher at the University of Exeter where he teaches the history of European political philosophy from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution. He specialises in RG Collingwood 

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