In the most general sense, politics is the art of deciding what ought to be done about matters of common concern.1 When we engage in politics, no matter how partisan, the ultimate question is always, ”What should we do?” This is a prescriptive question, asking what a future course of action should be. It is tempting to call this area of inquiry political epistemology, because epistemology is the study of knowledge. But the term comes from the Greek word episteme, which means understanding or measuring something that is. In politics, however, what has to be known is what should be or what we should do, not what is. In this chapter I want to investigate the ways of knowing needed for politics, how relational subjects can develop this knowledge, and what it encompasses. Borrowing from Richard Rorty, I’ll say that there have been two approaches to political ways of knowing: objectivity and solidarity.
Objectivity is the view that the best way to decide on a course of action is to step outside our context and culture so that we can dispassionately examine what course of action to take. The idea here is that we cannot grasp “the truth” so long as our particular situation colors our thinking. We need to think clearly, without bias, in order for our knowledge to be valid. To do so, we must imagine ourselves divested of our actual circumstances, culture, history, and material
1 This chapter is adapted from an essay published in Standing with the Public: The Humanities and Democratic Practice, Kettering Foundation Press, 1997.