Political Concepts and Political Theories

By Gerald F. Gaus | Go to book overview

Although it makes sense of these three key convictions, Platonic conceptual realism strikes many as implausible. And though many are reluctant to accept Plato's theory of forms, they are also reluctant to abandon convictions (2) and (3). As we saw in Section 1.2, Wittgenstein's early work in the Tractatus, and the logical positivists, retain (2) and (3): they insist that words can be defined in terms of the objects to which they refer and that meaningful sentences seek to somehow picture or describe the world. But rejecting the idea that concepts such as justice are part of the world, they ultimately reject conviction (1): that such concepts are meaningful and important. The logical positivists hold that these concepts are neither meaningful nor important; Wittgenstein thinks they are important, but in a mystical way that transcends meaning. Neither leaves any room for rational analysis of our most important political concepts.

Last, in Sections 1.3 and 1.4, I turned to the later work of Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations. Here he gives up both convictions (2) and (3). Words cannot be defined, and most language is not about naming objects. Language provides a wide range of functions; naming is one, but so are commanding, asking questions, telling jokes, making complaints, praying, and poetry. To understand a term is not to grasp what it names, but how it is used in a form of life. Conceptual investigation, then, seeks to understand the uses of a term--why we use it in different ways in different contexts to perform different functions. Although this view rescues our political concepts from the charge of senselessness--without resorting to any sort of conceptual realism--and in that respect is a great advance on the first two views we considered, it seems to have strayed too far from Socrates's (and our) interest in understanding political concepts. We do not wish to simply know how "justice" is used and to understand the ways in which it functions in diverse settings. We want to know what is just; we want a well-supported and coherent concept of justice to guide our deliberation and action.


Notes
1.
Socrates ( 470-399 B.C.) was the first great Western philosopher. He did not leave any writings, but his philosophical views are reported--albeit in an edited and modified form--by his student, Plato (ca 428-347 B.C.). It is thus impossible fully to disentangle the views of Socrates and Plato, as the main evidence we have for Socrates's positions are the dialogues written by Plato.
2.
Hans Kelsen, What is Justice? ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), p. 1.
3.
Plato, The Republic, Francis MacDonald Cornford, ed. and trans. ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945), pp. 13-14 [ I, 334-335].
4.
Ibid., p. 20 [ I, 340-341].

-23-

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