Fair Questions: Do political views always precede philosophy?

Recently, a friend linked to this post about public philosophy from Adriel Trott.  It contained many good points, and I recommend reading the whole thing.  But there was one point in particular that stuck out to me.  Trott points out that:

The problem is that philosophy as a field tends to think that theorizing out of a moment isn’t really philosophical–it’s sociology, or anthropology, feminist theory or postcolonial theory, or it’s activism.   Continental philosophy has long been saying that metaphysical, epistemological and ontological claims hide political investments (this is not to say that there are no continental philosophers who remain unaware and unwilling to address the political investments of their projects borne out of affirming a certain kind of universality to their work). The connection between metaphysical and epistemological claims and the politics and ethics they underwrite is acknowledged more and more in analytic philosophy, too. But far too many philosophers throughout the field think you have to do “real” philosophy before you can take it to the street.

I tend to think that she’s correct here that the relationship between our public lives and our philosophical work isn’t as straightforward as working out our philosophical views and then going out after that work is done and engaging in social justice activism or anthropological field studies of a sort.  Inevitably, our philosophical assumptions shape our political views and our activism, and our political views and our activism often shape the philosophical assumptions we make, these processes functioning recursively so that our philosophical and political views are gradually being mutually transformed until we have settled into our views or we die, whichever comes first.

That said, I’ve noticed a tendency in post-industrial countries (which are secular to one degree or another) to be more likely to allow their political views to take the stronger role in shaping their philosophical views, perhaps because in a secular world in which philosophical claims no longer have primacy, the claims that seem to matter most are political claims.  In that light, it makes sense to evaluate everything else through the lens of one’s political views (which have primacy) instead of doing what was often done in non-secular societies, which is to evaluate everything else through the lens of one’s philosophical views (or in theistic societies, theological views).

And so I began to wonder, is that how I have been doing my philosophical work, by evaluating my philosophical assumptions through the lens of my political views?  So I considered how and when I started building political views, which was while I was a sophomore at a university getting my first degree.  Until that point, I had been more in a quest for religious truth and transcendence through my conversion to Catholicism and then my studies of Buddhism and atheism as serious alternatives.  I didn’t have a party affiliation or a political identification other than the ever-useless term “moderate”.  If there was a Cynic party for people who hadn’t seriously thought through political issues but were against the status quo, I might have been a part of that.

So when I started taking philosophy courses, I had no political commitments. All I had was a general skepticism about the prevailing power structures and power brokers. Maybe that’s because my parents never had a favored political party or trained me in a method for determining the candidate to vote for. They just taught me that it was important to cast an informed vote and let me figure out the methods of accomplishing that for myself. As a result, my studies of philosophy led me to find political commitments and eventually write my own political philosophy after 10 years of exploring existing political philosophies didn’t work out.

Because the formation of my political views began in earnest after my philosophical studies, the methods and madness of my philosophical approach and assumptions shaped my political views far more so than my political views shaped my philosophical approach or assumptions.  That may well be why I ended up writing a political philosophy with soft edges rather than a hardened ideological manifesto intended to bring about a utopian society if only people could just follow the simple steps.

Unlike folks like Ayn Rand or Karl Marx, who pretty clearly let their political views and experiences forge their philosophical assumptions and approach into a sword and shield of utopian righteousness, I let my philosophical journey lead me through the cities and villages of many political philosophies, eventually to find my own farm in the countryside.  Though my journey may not be the typical one in these days of the primacy of the political over the philosophical as a source of values, I’m very glad for the enjoyable journey and I would gladly help others enjoy that journey as well.

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