Thursday, May 26, 2011

Political philosophy not dead. Michael Oakeshott and John Rawls give it a clear voice

Political philosophy seems to have died sometime in the 1970s as a subject. It was taught at the undergraduate level in the Indian universities as 'History of Political Thought", and it was separate from 'Comparative Governments' or some such course which focused on constitutions and forms of government. Most Indian political scientists began to focus on the science part of the subject such as electoral studies, behavioural patterns, systems theories including game theories.

The most favoured subject in the Indian political science departments was the study of political parties, statistical pattern of poll results, and now a bit on political alliances. All of these things carry with them an inestimable empirical value. But one really misses the philosophy or ideas part of politics. In India no one much cares for this antiquated subject.

Mention Plato and Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, G.D.H.Cole and Harold Laski, there is a great yawn. Perhaps understandably so.
But for those who love the subject still like good antiquarians, reading some of the stuff British conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott and American liberal political thinker John Rawls provides enough stimulation and satisfaction.

Oakeshott's "Rationalism In Politics and other essays (published by Methuen and Co Ltd., London in 1962), is a pleasure to read for its reflective and poetic prose. In the title essay, 'Rationalism in Politics', Oakshott writes:

"What I call Rationalism in politics is not, of course, the only (and it is certainly not the most fruitful) fashion in modern European political thinking. But it is a strong and a lively manner of thinking which, finding support in its filiation with so much else that is strong in the intellectual composition of contemporrary Europe, has come to colour the dieas, not merely of one, but of all political persuasions, and to flow over every party line. By one road or another, by conviction, by its supposed inevtiablity, by its alleged success, or even quite unreflectively, almost all politics today have become Rationalist or near-Rationalist."

He goes on to identify some of the features of rationalism in politics, and not in the bullet form which we are so used to nowadays, but more in the nature of careful rumination: "Two other general charatceristics of rationalist politics may be observed. They are the politics of perfection, and they are the politics of uniformity; either of these characteristics without the other denotes a different style of politics, the essence of rationalism is their combination."

Then he gives a succinct summation: "Political activity is recognized as the imposition of a uniform condition of perfection upon human conduct." He then wryly observes: "The modern history of Europe is littered with the projects of the politics of Rationalism." The sense of irony still rings down the decades as we see the welfare states, laissez faire states in a painful mess at the moment.

When we turn to the American John Rawls, we come upon a sincere and strenuous effort to establish the rational fundamentals of politics! In his classic work, 'A Theory Of Justice' of 1971 which was republished by the Oxford University Press in 1990 and in 1999, Rawls sets out the idealistic standard of political thinking; " Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust."

It is a moving conception of the political ideal.

In his second book, 'Political Liberalism' (published by Columbia University Press) in 1993, Rawls states the principle of political liberalism in a dazzling fromulation: "A modern democratic society is characterised not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable doctrines. No one of these doctrines is affirmed by citizens generally. Nor should one expect in the foreseeable future one of them, or some other rational doctrine, will ever be affirmed by all, or nearly all, citizens. Political liberalism assumes that, for political purposes, a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime."

He does not rule out problematic doctrines and states emphatically: "Of course, a society may also contain unreasonable and irrational, and even mad, comprehensive doctrines. In their case the problem is to contain them so that they do not undermine the unity and justice of society."

Now, Oakeshott and Rawls are dealing each in their own way with the issue of rationalism in politics. The British political philosopher looks at rationalism with a certain suspicion and even with intellectual contempt but he argues his case in a very persuasive manner and style. Rawls' faith in rationalism is unswerving and unconditional, but he does not want impose any kind of a perfect system or utopia. He is only too willing to discuss the complications involved in pursuing rational politics.

Unfortunately European thinkers have never engaged with political philosophy in the clear-cut sense that it is studied and debated in the English-speaking world. The French are too flamboyant and the Germans too systematic. They think that they cannot confine themselves to political philosophy in the manner of the Anglo-American thinkers, and that they have to swim in the thick soup of politics, sociology, statistics, metaphysics and poetry, all rolled into one!

1 comment:

Dr. Subbarayudu G.K. said...

Whether they roll poetry also into this exotic recipe only a Vajpayee can tell. But the reality is -- what politicians are interested in is rather different from what the political philosophers choose to observe and comment on.The here and now of realpolitik today no longer allows for the leisurely pursuits of political philosophers. Both India and the USA, besides a post Gorbachev Russia are emblems of this state.--Subbarayudu

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