Skip to main content

You are here

The Demise of Political Philosophy?

Winter‒Fall 2012 - Vol. 54, Nos. 1 - 4


This review appears in the Winter–Fall 2012 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


Political Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Authors and Arguments,
edited by Catherine H. Zuckert
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Are political theorists becoming an endangered species? Pierre Manent, a French philosopher and frequent contributor to Modern Age and other ISI publications, thinks that “the twentieth century has witnessed the disappearance, or withering away, of political philosophy.” In this volume Professor Zuckert has put together a collection of essays about eighteen thinkers “to demonstrate the richness and vitality of philosophical reflection on political issues in the twentieth century in response to the many observations of its weakness, if not death.” Each essay summarizes a political philosopher’s career and discusses his principal works.

The volume is divided into four parts. Part 1 is intended to provide examples of the “three basic alternatives in the early twentieth century.” John Dewey represents liberal democracy; Carl Schmitt, a Nazi, represents fascism; and Antonio Gramsci is perhaps the most notable Marxist theorist of that time. So far, so good; but why only three basic alternatives? Conservatism also had its defenders in the early twentieth century. Vilfredo Pareto, Hilaire Belloc, and José Ortega y Gasset come immediately to mind, yet not one of them makes an appearance in this collection.

Part 2 is called “Émigré Responses to World War II” and covers four continental European philosophers who fled to America or Britain to escape communism and Nazism: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Yves Simon, and Hannah Arendt. Of these four, Arendt became the best known through her path-breaking work on totalitarianism, which outraged the Left by arguing that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were essentially alike. Voegelin came to much the same conclusion, although he used the more confusing term Gnosticism instead of totalitarianism. Indeed, much of Voegelin’s writing is incomprehensible. Here is an example from The New Science of Politics: “The attempt at constructing an eidos of history will lead into the fallacious immanentization of the Christian eschaton.” Translation: the totalitarians’ goal of constructing an earthly utopia is a corruption of the Christian belief in heaven. Strauss, in contrast to Arendt and Voegelin, reacted against the totalitarians’ ideological propaganda by retreating into philosophical detachment and skepticism. For him, ideology seeks to move the masses, while philosophy is only for the rational few. Simon was a liberal French Catholic who refused to live under the Vichy regime. Though undoubtedly a worthy figure, I don’t think that he was as important as Raymond Aron, who ought to have been included in this section.

Part 3, on “the revival of liberal political philosophy,” serves to illustrate how easily abused the term liberal is in modern America. In its classical sense, which is still used in Europe and Latin America, it meant essentially limited government and free enterprise. That is how Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott used the term, and what Isaiah Berlin meant by “negative liberty” (freedom from coercion). “Positive liberty,” for Berlin, meant securing the means to do what one wishes. He opposed this because he thought it would easily degenerate into collectivism and social engineering, which is more or less what “progressive liberals” like H. L. A. Hart, John Rawls, and Richard Rorty advocate. Hart, a legal theorist, rejected traditional morality based on Christianity in the name of liberating the individual to pursue his personal desires. Rawls sought to revive seventeenth-century social contract theory to justify income redistribution. Rorty attacks the Enlightenment belief in universally valid natural rights based on reason as being bourgeois and out of date, especially property rights. For him, what is right depends on the historical context, which is to say that “justice” is whatever contemporary “progressives” say it is.

Part 5, “Critiques of Liberalism,” carries the attacks on bourgeois society and capitalism far beyond the progressives into the wastelands of nihilism, Stalinism, and Catholic communitarianism. Jean-Paul Sartre first gained fame as an exponent of existentialism, which encouraged individuals to preserve their humanity by rejecting the values of corrupt bourgeois society. Unfortunately, his experience with the Nazi occupation of France also converted him to communism. For most of his adult life, he tried to reconcile these contradictory beliefs by refusing to recognize that Stalin’s Russia was dedicated to stamping out any sign of individuality. He never succeeded in squaring this circle but always insisted that communism would end individual alienation by creating a just society.

Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas offer a post-Marxist, New Left approach to replacing the bourgeois order. Like Gramsci, they see its downfall coming most likely through a displacement of the old culture rather than an economic collapse. Foucault saw capitalist society as permeated at all levels with power hierarchies but thought they could be overthrown by a countercultural offensive. It is unfortunate that this collection of essays does not include any neo-Machiavellians such as Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, or Roberto Michels as an antidote to such utopian pleading. The reader would learn that all politics is essentially a struggle for power in which success depends on organization, that organization means hierarchy, and therefore that all revolutions result in the rise of a new ruling elite. That is certainly more realistic than what Foucault proposed.

Habermas looks to the new professional, educational, and managerial classes created by modern communications and information systems to gradually overcome capitalism. These new classes are more cosmopolitan in their outlook and allegiances. They reject traditional values in favor of global standards of ethics and, Habermas thinks, will eventually create a world government that will impose those more humane standards. Readers who have been following the current turmoil in the European Union may have some doubts about these predictions.

Lastly, there are the Catholic communitarians, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. Both are practicing Roman Catholics and both reject the individualistic, materialistic outlook of Enlightenment liberalism. Both were attracted to Marxism in their youth and still identify with the “humanistic” Left. MacIntyre has a more developed concept of communitarianism, although he rejects the label as applied to himself. Opposing modern capitalism and its appetitive consumer society, he wants people to revert to small local communities that would opt out of the nation-state and the market economy. Taylor, who does call himself a communitarian, would presumably agree. For noncommunitarians, in which party I include myself, this sounds like a reactionary arcadia reminiscent of the early medieval hamlet—you know: before the obnoxious bourgeoisie appeared with their deplorable secularism, tawdry commerce, and vulgar tastes.

So, is political philosophy withering away? Professor Zuckert admits in her Introduction that the natural sciences’ prestige has made social scientists want to imitate them. Normative questions—the meat and drink of philosophy—are ruled out in favor of topics that lend themselves to empirical analysis and quantification. The philosophers discussed in this collection insist that, because human beings can choose how to act, or not act, they can’t be studied like rocks, molecules, or planets. What is more, the social scientist himself has opinions and values, so he cannot be completely objective about his research. So far those arguments have failed to reverse the positivist trend. Most social scientists would reply that the standards of the “hard sciences” are the correct ones, even if the “soft sciences” can only approximate them. The alternative is to write polemics and promote some ideology, which is what many of the political philosophers in this volume have done. That’s unobjectionable if your goal is to change the world, and who would deny that Gramsci, Hayek, and Foucault have influenced politics in the West? But, as Leo Strauss reminds us, ideology and philosophy are very different things. Perhaps, as he argued, political philosophy is suitable only for a few skeptical intellectuals. In that case we can say that it isn’t dying out; it’s just settling down to its natural, restricted constituency. ♦


Paul H. Lewis is a retired professor of political science from Tulane University.