Academic Politics between Democracy and Aristocracy

Article excerpt


The Republic's account of the relation between talking about politics and doing politics illuminates the nature of political action. Plato's Socrates argues that those who ought to govern are those who know about politics and who know what politics is about, since political things are images of ideas. Socrates' alternative to democracy is thus an academic rather than an aristocratic elite-an elite of those who know. Yet the academic elite Plato imagined does not dispute the right of the people to decide between it, the aristocrats, and the men of the people.


Plato, Republic, democracy, aristocracy, education, Karl Popper, John Austin, Wittgenstein, Heidegger

Academic politics, it is often said, is "so nasty because the stakes are so small." This article will not reveal any department secrets. Instead, I will discuss the relation between talking about politics and doing politics. In particular, I want to use Plato's quite extreme views on this relation to think about the nature of political action. I use the Republic to talk about the sorts of things that there are in political discourse as against the sorts of things that there are in academic discourse, in short the distinction between political ontology and academic ontology. Ontology is the discussion of the sorts of things that there are; and it is the examination of what each thing is, Socrates tells us, that is the peculiar concern of dialectic (Republic 533b, 534b).1

First, political ontology: political action is accomplished principally through language.2 To work in the field in politics is to meet with people and talk to them. This kind of talk is talking as acting: ordering, persuading, cajoling, promising, threatening, begging, pleading, inspiring, demanding, and so on. Voting, too, is a performative use of language, the use of words to do something: we poke a hole (or two), write a party name or pick out a preprinted slip, put it in the appropriate box, and thereby cast a vote. Legislation is perhaps the most awesome performative use of language that one can imagine, (apart from "I do"). A text is produced, changed, amended, voted on, published appropriately, and then becomes a law, often a matter of life and death. Political speech is primarily performative, constructive, constitutive, or creative, and not, we might think, representational or descriptive. We talk politics and thus do political actions for reasons, but these actions are not usually intended to present our reasons for performing them.

In the academy, we talk about things more than we talk to do things. Zoologists talk about bears, but they don't do bearlike things, economists talk about foreign currency traders, and political scientists talk about citizens and politicians. In the academy we describe things in our research, and we teach by inculcating in our students the methods and results of our descriptive efforts. What we call "academic politics" is the contest within the academy about what descriptions are correct, and which of the contesting descriptions ought to be taught to our students, especially to those of our students likely to proceed to positions of power or influence.3

I can now state the thesis put forward by Socrates in the Republic: those who ought to govern are those who are trained to know about politics and are trained to know what politics is about. To know about politics is to be able to produce and assess accounts of political processes; to know what politics is about is to be able to produce and assess accounts of the issues that people engaging in political processes use these processes to deliberate and decide.

Socrates' thesis implies that there is something that politics is about. Or, in Platonic language, that political things are images of something which is not itself an image: they are images, he says, of ideas. In particular, all the talk about what it would be good or useful for us to do is but a dim reflection of the true meaning of "the good" (Republic 520c). …