The Demise of Political Philosophy?

By Lewis, Paul H. | Modern Age, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Demise of Political Philosophy?


Lewis, Paul H., Modern Age


Political Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Authors and Arguments, edited by Catherine H. Zuckert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Are political theorists becoming an endangered species? Pierre Manent, a French philosopher and frequent contributor to Modern Age and other ISI publications, thinks that "the twentieth century has witnessed the disappearance, or withering away, of political philosophy." In this volume Professor Zuckert has put together a collection of essays about eighteen thinkers "to demonstrate the richness and vitality of philosophical reflection on political issues in the twentieth century in response to the many observations of its weakness, if not death." Each essay summarizes a political philosopher's career and discusses his principal works.

The volume is divided into four parts. Part 1 is intended to provide examples of the "three basic alternatives in the early twentieth century." John Dewey represents liberal democracy; Carl Schmitt, a Nazi, represents fascism; and Antonio Gramsci is perhaps the most notable Marxist theorist of that time. So far, so good; but why only three basic alternatives? Conservatism also had its defenders in the early twentieth century. Vilfredo Pareto, Hilaire Belloc, and Jose Ortega y Gasset come immediately to mind, yet not one of them makes an appearance in this collection.

Part 2 is called "Emigre Responses to World War II" and covers four continental European philosophers who fled to America or Britain to escape communism and Nazism: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Yves Simon, and Hannah Arendt. Of these four, Arendt became the best known through her path-breaking work on totalitarianism, which outraged the Left by arguing that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were essentially alike. Voegelin came to much the same conclusion, although he used the more confusing term Gnosticism instead of totalitarianism. Indeed, much of Voegel in's writing is incomprehensible. Here is an example from The New Science of Politics: "The attempt at constructing an eidos of history will lead into the fallacious immanentization of the Christian eschaton." Translation: the totalitarians' goal of constructing an earthly utopia is a corruption of the Christian belief in heaven. Strauss, in contrast to Arendt and Voegelin, reacted against the totalitarians' ideological propaganda by retreating into philosophical detachment and skepticism. For him, ideology seeks to move the masses, while philosophy is only for the rational few. Simon was a liberal French Catholic who refused to live under the Vichy regime. Though undoubtedly a worthy figure, I don't think that he was as important as Raymond Aron, who ought to have been included in this section.

Part 3, on "the revival of liberal political philosophy," serves to illustrate how easily abused the term liberalis in modern America. In its classical sense, which is still used in Europe and Latin America, it meant essentially limited government and free enterprise. That is how Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott used the term, and what Isaiah Berlin meant by "negative liberty" (freedom from coercion). "Positive liberty," for Berlin, meant securing the means to do what one wishes. He opposed this because he thought it would easily degenerate into collectivism and social engineering, which is more or less what "progressive liberals" like H. L. A. Hart, John Rawls, and Richard Rorty advocate. Hart, a legal theorist, rejected traditional morality based on Christianity in the name of liberating the individual to pursue his personal desires. Rawls sought to revive seventeenth-century social contract theory to justify income redistribution. Rorty attacks the Enlightenment belief in universally valid natural rights based on reason as being bourgeois and out of date, especially property rights. For him, what is right depends on the historical context, which is to say that "justice" is whatever contemporary "progressives" say it is. …

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