Author: Matthew Lampert (PhD)- assistant professor of philosophy at Wheeling Jesuit University. His recent and forthcoming publications include essays on ideology theory, business ethics, and the work of Louis Althusser and Jacques Rancière.
Plato’s Republic begins with a scene down by Piraeus (the port where the Thirty Tyrants and their supporters were defeated in 403 bce): Socrates and his friends (including Glaucon, the older brother of Plato) have gone down to see a festival, and are now trying to return to the city. However, they are overtaken by a group of men, led by Polemarchus. Polemarchus has apparently caught up to Socrates in order to invite the latter and his companions over for dinner; but the ostensibly friendly invitation plays out like so:
Polemarchus: It looks to me, Socrates, as if you two are hurrying to get away to town.
Socrates: That isn’t a bad guess.
Polemarchus: But do you see how many we are?
Polemarchus: Well, then, either you must prove yourself stronger than all these people or you will have to stay here.
Socrates: Isn’t there another alternative still: that we persuade you that you should let us go?
Polemarchus: But could you persuade us, if we won’t listen?
Glaucon: There is no way we could.
Polemarchus: Well, we won’t listen; you had better make up your mind to that. (1-2)
Here, at the very beginning of the first major work of political philosophy in the Western tradition, we have a kind of primal scene of politics. Politics is what happens when we try and persuade one another; without politics—when we cannot, or will not listen to one another—there is nothing left but the brute rule of the larger, stronger faction.
Some years later, in his Politics, Aristotle writes that “a human being is by nature a political animal,” and that this is clear because humans have λόγος, which means both “speech” and “reason” (4). Speech is how human beings perceive and make clear to one another what is just and unjust, and Aristotle writes that “it is community in these that makes a household and a city-state” (ibid.). A community is a shared λόγος, a reasoning-together about what is just and unjust; such communities are our natural state, for we are by nature “political animals.” When we stop reasoning together about such things—by speaking together, and attempting to persuade one another—we dissolve (or at least alienate) these bonds; we are a community in communication, or we are animals thrown back upon violence.
To see just how strained these bonds are in daily life, look no further than the dinner table. One is not supposed to discuss politics at dinner. And why not? Because it leads to arguments. But is this not the way things are meant to go? Is politics not supposed to take the form of arguments—the giving and exchanging of reasons, in the attempt to convince one another? These “productive arguments,” however, are not at all what we get; rather, by “argument” we mean “screaming matches,” where neither party is willing to concede they are wrong, and as a consequence we neither give nor receive reasons. But could you persuade us, if we won’t listen? What’s going on here? The problem seems to lie in the fact that we don’t think about these things. We don’t form political beliefs on the basis of reasons; rather, we tend to search our feelings on the matter. And so my “political beliefs” are not rational stances open to mutual interrogation; rather, they are my feelings about the issues. And when I show you my feelings, and you attack them (or even disagree with them), you hurt my feelings. And when you hurt my feelings (Just when I was opening up to you! And while we were having such a nice dinner!), I naturally want to hurt yours right back. Hence—a screaming match.
When I have a belief, I also believe that I am correct. This would seem to follow naturally—after all, if I didn’t believe that my belief was correct, then I would already be one step into the process of changing my belief. However, as reflective beings, we are also capable of questioning our beliefs—I can ask myself, “But is this belief really correct?” While I need not always take this mental step backwards—there are plenty of times in life where the world will not force me to question the validity of my beliefs—I am always capable of doing so. To be reflective is in this way simply to be able to think critically about beliefs, motives, and perceptions. When I do take up this critical position, however, I run into a problem: For just because I ask myself, “Is my thinking really correct?” is not to say that I can automatically tell whether or not I have made any mistakes! Indeed, thinking always has blind spots; if having a belief also means believing that we are correct to have that belief, then a corollary of this would seem to be that being wrong involves not knowing that you are wrong. This is a version of that paradox so long ago described by Plato in his dialogue Meno: If you don’t already know the right answer, then how will you know when you find the right answer?
If politics is communal decision-making, characterized by reasoning together about what is right, with the aim of convincing one another rather than resorting to force and violence, then philosophy might be said to lie at the very heart of politics. But the point is not simply that politics must take the form of a philosophical debate. The more important point is that, in its best and simplest form, the practice of philosophy teaches us how to have better conversations. The kind of philosophy I’m talking about here isn’t about publishing in academic journals or working in universities; it’s about thinking for yourself, thinking freely. This is the essential practice of philosophy—and it’s the practice at the very heart of what makes politics both possible and necessary for creatures like us. Possible because it is only by thinking clearly for ourselves that we can reason together (rather than simply resorting to the rule of the stronges); and necessary because it is only by reasoning together that we are fully human—indeed, it is only by reasoning together that we can truly reason at all.
All thinking has blind spots; as thinkers from Plato through Kant have readily seen, open dialogue is therefore an indispensable tool for critical thinking. “How much and how correctly would we think if we did not think as it were in community with others to whom we communicate our thoughts, and who communicate theirs with us,” asks Kant (12). If the goal of philosophy is free thinking, then the practice of philosophy is critical thinking in community with others. The tools of philosophy—developed over the last 2,500 years or so, side-by-side with politics—are all methods and procedures for enabling this communal, critical thought. These tools include the identification and analysis of roadblocks to free, critical thinking (the various Marxian theories of ideology; Sir Francis Bacon’s four “Idols”; Nietzsche’s and Foucault’s genealogies), as well as guidelines for critically interrogating our own beliefs and assumptions (Descartes’s methodological doubt; phenomenological reduction; dialectics). In this way, the practice of philosophy—and like any skill-set, it must be practiced—enables us to move our feelings into the realm of belief, where they can be critically interrogated in collaboration with others.
Seen in this way, “politics” isn’t simply an activity one engages in; it’s an achievement, something we can attain through sustained practice and effort (and, again: collectively, or not at all). It is the practice of mutually interrogating our most cherished beliefs and values, in cooperation with one another. It is a process of collaborative decision-making. And it is the very practice of community, the conversation between free and equal humans that we call “democracy.”
Plato. Republic, trans. CDC Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004.
Aristotle. Politics, trans. CDC Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998.
Kant, Immanuel. “What Does it Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?” In Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason: And Other Writings, trans. and ed. Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.