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"All really great things happen in slow and inconspicuous ways." Leo Tolstoy


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

iTunesU : Political Philosophy Lectures

Of absolutely no interest to anyone here I will note down some reflections from Steven B Smith's Yale Lectures on Political Philosophy. This post will be after the first of 15 lectures entitled 'What is Political Philosophy'. And you should be able to find it HERE if you have iTunes installed on your computer.

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I have no problem recommending this specific video to anyone interested in Political Philosophy. It is an introduction, and like all good introductions it poses questions and broaden horizons ready for later instalments which - I assume, as I have yet to watch them - focus the student into the convolutions of thought required to tackle any specific topic.

His initial points and questions were as follows...

  • Political Philosophy frames the fundamental problems of political science.
  • The works of ancient philosophers give us the basic questions, if not contemporary answers.
  • There are no permanent answers in Political Philosophy.
  • There are no final authorities.
All pretty pedestrian stuff. The final authorities and no permanent answers comments chime with my own personal views. Those that see politics as a set of fixed positions which should be argued to death (mine, yours, your enemy's, whoever) tragically miss this fundamental truth. There are no truths, at best there are paths that could be scouted, cleared and made for a society to somewhere better.

As an introduction this lecture focused on questions. Questions that could spark brains into lively activity. For me the following list was exciting. It showed the building blocks of difference between political systems. A 101 checklist of things that could be used by an academic to - very quickly - analyse the qualities of a regime. And, I thought, any budding Fantasy author interested in building a new world with which to create adventures could use this to sketch out societies.

  • What is Justice?
  • What are the goals of a civilised society?
  • How should a citizen be educated?
  • Why should I obey the law? What limits are there to my obligation?
  • What constitutes human dignity? - Love, Virtue, Friendship, Success...?
  • What is God? Does he exist? What does this imply?
Political Philosophy touches, assaults, controls and expresses these topics. But what has been discussed didn't give anyone a clear idea where to start their study. This is given by the lecturer with another question; What is a regime?

  • Form of government?
  • How are the people governed?
  • How are government offices distributed?
  • What are the rights and responsibilities of citizens?
  • Regimes are intrinsically in opposition to alternatives?
...Hang on, hang on! This last point and the ones he follows up with brought me up short. 'Regimes are intrinsically in opposition to alternatives'. This concept is difficult and depressing if taken on face value, it expresses the idea within Political Philosophy that there will always, eternally and, indeed, there has to be conflict within politics. That, "politics is the organisation of hatreds", and as such partisanship and war is inseparable from politics. How to begin to accept this point... Well, the truth is I can't. And after making this set of statements the Lecturer then failed to follow up with any 'meat' of theory to back it up. As such it is difficult for me to respond in anything other than my gut feeling of revulsion for such a fatalistic thought. I wonder if this in some way reflects an American way of political thought?

Again, showing how good an introduction this is. I can only assume this will be touched upon at a later date.

Moving on. Regimes as a lifestyle and ethos was the next to be covered. This seemed to be summed up by two points.

  1. "The study of regime politics is a study of distinct character types that constitutive a regime body."
    Another concept I found slightly disturbing. With this you are forced to understand people as distinct groups. That it is only by separating and stereotyping, to some degree, the people that the character types are discernible and thus conceptually accessible  See the 19th and 20th Centurys for why I found this difficult. 
  2. "You cannot understand a regime until you understand what it stands for."
    Modern Britain stands for very little. Does this mean it is no longer a regime that could be understood by Political Philosophy?
How are regimes founded? Ancient custom and history YES or reflection, choice and statecraft NO? Next!

What is a statesman? Not particularly interesting to me.

The final key point made followed the classical question. Which is best? As political philosophy will bring you face to face with the full range of politics the question will always be there. Be in the revulsion felt such as my response above, or a calculated approach that aims to improve your own fortunes. Or, however you feel you should critique. It is subjective. To introduce this the lecture looked at Aristotle's 'The good human being or the good citizen'. A good citizen would be patriotic, and to do so would be an all encompassing good that might bring such a citizen into conflict with citizens of another regime. A good human being would transcend regimes being good everywhere. For Aristotle a philosopher could only be a good human being, and as such would not feel at home in any regime as there would be no regime that was best.

Philosophy will never feel at home in any regime.

A philosopher will never feel loyal to anyone or anything other than what is best.

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Reading: Plato's apology to Socrates.
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