Social and Political Philosophy: Contemporary Perspectives

By James P. Sterba | Go to book overview

1

ON THE HISTORY, NATURE AND DISADVANTAGES OF WARMAKING PHILOSOPHY

Eve Browning Cole

War is the father of all and the king of all, and some he shows as gods, others as men; some he makes slaves, others full.

(Heraclitus, fr. 80) 1

Whether or not Heraclitus’ point is true of the cosmos, it has certainly been true of the recent history of philosophy. “War,” polemos, finds its contemporary philosophical counterpart in polemic, the lifeblood of most academic philosophical careers today and the mainstay of most philosophy journal articles as well.

Philosophical warfare is supposed to be genteel, “sparring” or “scrimmaging” rather than out-and-out bloodshed. Yet it too shows “some…as gods, others as men”; to the victors go the spoils—whether these are a silenced student, an impressed lecture audience, a “downed” opponent, or an appreciative reader who enjoys the spectacle of intellectual carnage.

Philosophical combat, at least in its Anglo-American manifestations, is gladiatorial rather than modeling the pitched battles of, for example, the ancient Romans, in which organized groups of soldiers fought in regular unison. Philosophers don’t join shields and creep along in the “testudo” or tortoise formation which the legionnaires found so effective at subduing baffled barbarians; they sally forth alone packing a few footnotes like day rations. We don’t go in for attacks on schools so much as wrangling between individuals. 2

Philosophy’s particular brand of polemos has its critics. Among the most insistent critics of philosophizing-as-warfare is James P. Sterba, whose 1998 book Justice for Here and Now presents both the case for a “peacemaking way of doing philosophy” and a case-study in this method applied to some of the liveliest theoretical debates of our times in moral and political philosophy. The book also provides discussion of practical applications for each issue, which is treated along peacemaking lines: once truce is declared, one can think and talk concretely about what constitutes just action within

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