Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why Do Political Theory *Today*?

In previous posts I have offered a few reflections on what political theory is, what constitutes political "philosophy", what justice requires "many-things-considered", etc.

Today I want to offer some brief thoughts on why one might want to do political theory today.

When one reflects back on the greats in the canon, like Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau and Marx, one cannot help but feel the real heyday of political theory has passed us by. This is, in fact, a view I have much sympathy with. I don't think any of the twentieth century political theorists or philosophers come even close to rivaling the true greats in the canon (though I personally think John Dewey merits serious consideration as a real contender, and has not (yet) been given his due). Perhaps history will judge things differently.

But I think that the greats of the past should inspire us to continue to tackle the big questions in theory- What is justice? What is human nature? What constitutes the good life? And in many ways the opportunities for theorists to make substantive contributions to these questions is more ripe today than it ever has been.

What is so special about doing political theory today, versus in the 17th or 19th centuries (for example)?

Firstly, we have the wealth of insights the canon itself provides. We have access to the works of the giant intellectual figures (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, JS Mill, etc.). Their works are as close as a "google" search for anyone with access to the internet. Thus the "cognitive theoretical toolbox" we can employ is much more diverse than the toolbox available to any of these historical figures.

Secondly, we have the benefit of a longer, and wider, historical lens. Thus we have a more diverse, and representative, compilation of empirical insights concerning the things that have, and have not, worked well with the experiment of human civilizations all over the globe. We also have much more knowledge in general. Knowledge from evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, and economics.

The greats in the canon would, I believe, be envious of the wealth of opportunities and insights available to the theorist of today. Rather than merely speculating on what life was like in the "state of nature", or pondering "What is human nature?" from the armchair, today we can make informed judgements about the past based on extensive anthropological evidence. We can also utilize the findings of empirical experiments that provide key insights into human cognition and behaviour.

What could be more exciting than doing political theory today? A time of (relative) peace and prosperity for humanity, a time of rapid globalization and a time of incredible technological advancement (e.g computing, the biomedical sciences, etc.)?

So the number one reason to want to do political theory today is: there couldn't be a more exciting time for doing it!

One could also make the case that there couldn't be a more important time for doing political theory than today. With so many people alive on the planet, and the novelty of the challenges that face an interconnected, warming and aging world, the stakes of good governance have never been higher.

It is perhaps human nature to look to the past nostalgically. The ancient Greeks were experimenting with democracy, and that created the rich intellectual environment of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Hobbes lived through the English Civil War, and that experience helped lay the foundations of his political theory. And Marx was writing at the time of an incredible transition from feudalism to capitalism, as human societies transformed from the countryside to life in cities, and new technologies were rapidly developed.

The past sounds so exciting. It was indeed exciting. But is the past more exciting than the present (and future?)?

I don't think it is. I think today is the best time for political theory. We can tap the wisdom of the greats of the past, as well as incorporate the empirical findings of a vast array of scientific disciplines. This mixture of "old world" political ideas and ideals, mixed in with some "new world" empirical insights and challenges, should make for some pretty interesting and exciting political theory. And that is why I think one should have an interest in doing political theory today.