Approaches to the Study of Political Philosophy & Problems and Challenges of Interpretation *Notes compiled from David Boucher & Paul Kelly’s ‘Introduction’ in Political Thinkers: From Socrates to the Present, and Terence Ball’s ‘History and the Interpretation of Texts’* Political thought is thought about the State, its structure, nature and purpose. It is concerned with the moral elements of human behaviour in a society. Differentiating between the purpose of political life and life itself is difficult as it involves considerations of the conceptions of right and wrong, which differ from person to person and time to time.
Political thinkers/philosophers have attempted to explain institutions & practices, advise rulers, defend certain values or principles, and criticized the existing world around them. They have focused broadly on the character of society or people and narrowly on institutions of government, law making & the exercise of coercive power. At the most general level, political thought converges with present understandings of ethics & moral philosophy as well as sociology and theological disciplines. The sheer variety of plurality of styles, approaches, and presuppositions has made political thought an exciting intellectual pursuit.
Approaches to theorizing politics differ, and so do accounts of how and why political thought should continue to be studied. When studying political philosophy and the texts of the various historic philosophers, different factors tend to influence one’s understanding. Broadly, there is a text and a context to the text, and the study of classical political philosophy should ideally take into account both, in order to fully understand various nuances of every thinker. Philosophical Considerations: Political philosophy first began to emerge in histories of philosophy and general literature.
By the 19th century, philosophical idealism was taking precedence and emphasis was on the coherence theory of truth. Under this view, the history of political thought was largely seen as a precursor to formulating one’s own philosophy. Viewing the history of political thought as a stimulus to philosophy was not confined to idealists though, and most recent and distinguished exponents of this view include Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. In essence this approach focused on the text and emphasised the timelessness of the ideas put forth therein.
Political Thought as History: This view concerned itself with the issue of what properly constituted a historical study. Cambridge School of the 1960s and after, whose principal exponents were J. G. A Pocock and Quentin Skinner, argued for the disciplinary integrity of the historical study of political thought. This view, largely contextual in nature, stresses “the historicity of the history of political theory and of intellectual history more generally”, in the words of Skinner. For Pocock it was the historian, not the philosopher, who was the guardian of the truth.
The text of historic philosophers is thus understood in context of its historical time. Both Skinner and Pocock posit a linguistic context as the appropriate unit of analysis that elicit the types of meaning that the historian makes intelligible. Political Thought and the Claims of Science: There was a demand for the discipline to conform to scientific modes of explanation. History for its own sake was viewed as a mere collection of facts and these facts needed to be subjected to scientific considerations in order for them to be considered credible.
Frederick Pollock attributed ‘patient analysis and unbiased research’ as core signs of scientific analysis, according to which Machiavelli can be considered the greatest contributor to the dispassionate scientific study of politics. This view largely emphasised the objectivity of the inquirer and the need to formulate generalizations that might be of use to a political scientist. Political Thought and Practice: It is considered difficult, even undesirable, to separate practical from philosophical considerations.
Political questions are intensely practical and political opinions potentially divisive and emotive. This view focused on importance of bridging the divide between theory and practice and maintained that the study of the past must have practical value for the present; trying to establish the possibility of normative political theory. According to R. G. Collingwood, theory and practice overlap, and all philosophical problems arise from practical problems, and their solutions return to practice.
This view embodies the recognition that first order political theorizing cannot emerge from nowhere, but is a constructive enterprise which involves building, expanding and developing the vocabularies that are inherent in great political texts. The Straussians have vociferously advocated the importance of classical authors and their texts, and contended that it is our duty to take their claims to truth seriously. However, one does not have to be Straussian to defend the value of studying the value of classical texts.
Even defenders of disinterested historical inquiry under the heading of the Cambridge School do not avoid drawing substantive, albeit negative, lessons from the contemplations of classical thinkers. Political philosophers can be classified in different ways with respect to their opinions or beliefs on such concepts as that of the State and its importance, or of the nature of humans. Conceptions of the State and why men obey it are largely of two types: 1. Organic State: The idea that the State is and organism of which men themselves are parts. This means that the state is larger than the men who make it; it is real and they are merely abstractions.
This idea was brought forth by the Greeks, and the Stoics applied it to humanity as a whole. Consequently, it was taken over by Christianity and reigned supreme throughout the Middle Ages, until it was finally challenged at the time of the scientific revolution of the 17th century. This led to the second conception. 2. Mechanic State: The idea that the state is a machine which men create for their own purposes. Men are real; the state is merely a device. This view held its own throughout the Enlightenment of the 18th century.
Subsequently, both the conceptions were generally accepted at different periods in history, one or the other assuming prime importance at some time. A further classification allots political thinkers to three different traditions: 1. Rational-Natural Tradition: Society and the state can only be understood when related to an absolute standard, which exists in nature and is thus outside human control. 2. Will and Artifice: Society and the state are artificial and not natural and that not the Reason but the Will of man is required to produce the State.
Man’s Will has the power to alter society. 3. Historical Coherence: Rejects both the previous traditions as defective. Attempts to fuse Reason and Will, emphasises the importance of historical growth and denies that absolute standards exist. Believers of the Mechanic State belong to the Will and Artifice tradition, while those who believe in an Organic State can be from either Rational-Natural or Historical Coherence traditions. Perennial Problems: Students of political thought are aware of the variety of attitudes one may adopt towards the past and the study of classical texts.
The so called New Historians pressed the claims of history as an autonomous discipline distinct from the philosophical character of its subject matter. George Sabine epitomized the basic assumption involved in positing the existence of perennial problems by reiterating that ‘political problems and situations are more or less alike from time to time and from place to place’. Quentin Skinner maintained that understanding the arguments of the political philosophers entailed reconstructing the language context in which they were formulated.
He associated the idea of perenniality and timelessness with what he called the ‘textual’ approach. He argued that to concede that the ‘social context is a necessary condition for an understanding of the classic texts’ constitutes a denial that they ‘contain any elements of timelessness or perennial interest’. Most historians however, did not distinguish between textualist and contextualist interpretation. In fact, many argued that the social context help provide a clearer understanding of the meaning of a text.
Despite differences of emphasis, most historians of political thought tend to agree that history is self-knowledge of the mind (Collingwood). Skinner also held the view that studying how past thinkers have dealt with political concepts could enable us to see our way round seemingly intractable conceptual problems in the present. The Art of Interpretation – Hermeneutics The study of political thought or theory, involves out of necessity, attempts to understand messages or ideas sent to us by thinkers who are long dead, and whose works we read and reread in order to derive their meaning.
Thus political theory can be called a backward – looking enterprise. Interpretation of the works of the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli to Mill, becomes a necessary process for the meaning seeking creatures that we are. Naturally, therefore, there exist a number of ‘schools’ of interpretation, the chief tenets of which will be highlighted further, and so will the interpretive controversies between and among them. It should however be made clear that not all interpretations are equally valid or valuable and that they are rationally criticisable.
The vocation of political theory is in large part defined by its attention to the ‘classic works’. These authors and their works comprise an important aspect of our political tradition, which we renew and enrich by reading, reflecting upon and criticizing these classic works, the concepts, and context of which are largely unfamiliar to our modern understanding. A good interpretation is one that diminishes the strangeness of the text, making it more familiar and accessible. There is no neutral standpoint from which to interpret any text, the vantage point can differ.
This can be seen through the following ‘Schools’ of Interpretation. 1. Marxian Interpretation: According to Marx, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”, i. e. the dominant or mainstream ideas of any era, are those that serve the interests of the dominant class, thereby legitimizing its position of power in society. For example, slavery is portrayed as normal by Aristotle, who belonged to the slave owning society of Greece, where slavery was the norm, while in capitalist societies, free market is portrayed by mainstream media to be the best form of economic organization.
Thus, for Marx, the point and purpose of any ideology is to lend legitimacy to the rule of the dominant class or social order; they serve as smoke screens, hiding the underlying reality from the public and presenting a superficial false picture of a just society. For a Marxist, the task of textual interpretation is to uncover this obscured reality and expose the illusion of that epoch. This approach is sometimes known as ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’. It is a highly cynical approach that undermines the importance of ideologies.
It takes no statement at face value, and performs the function of ‘ideology critique’ focusing on delving deeper to expose realities. An example of such an interpretation is Macpherson’s critique of Locke’s justification for private property, making him out to be a propagandist for the emerging capitalist order at the time. The Marxian approach encounters certain difficulties: According to the Marxist assumption that ruling ideas serve the ruling class, this should hold true even for Marx himself, as he was not part of the working class that he championed.
By his own argument, his ideas should then be serving the interests of the ruling capitalist class, not the labouring proletariat. How their own theorizing is exempted from being interpreted as an ideological mask as opposed to all other ideologies is not explained. This approach gives the interpreter a pre-existing notion that he/she will find ideological trickery, which hampers pragmatic interpretation free from bias. 2. Totalitarian Interpretation: Rice of fascism and communism in the 20th century marked an era of the prominence of totalitarian regimes.
The totalitarian school of textual interpretation anchors these ideologies to the thinking of early political theorists, going as far back as Plato, iterating that when their theories were put into modern practice, they produced Hitler and Stalin. Once one tries to attribute pro-totalitarian tendencies, they seem to be everywhere. Plato’s perfect republic ruled by a philosopher king who employs censorship and ‘noble lies’ becomes a blueprint for a Nazi regime ruled by an all knowing Fuhrer. The same might be said about Machiavelli’s ruthless Prince and Rousseau’s all-wise Legislator in The Social Contract.
Sir Karl Popper was among the most prominent representatives of the totalitarian approach. His The Open Society and Its Enemies traces the roots of modern totalitarianism to the ideas advance by the ‘enemies’ of ‘the open society’ from Plato through to Marx. However, such interpretations of classic texts suffer from misreading of meanings, without placing the statements in their proper context. Further, an interpreter who stitches together statements taken out of their textual and linguistic context, in order to prove his pre-set idea of an underlying totalitarian theme, does not do justice to either the text or to himself.
3. Psychoanalytic (Freudian) Interpretation: This approach is based on Sigmund Freud’s famous argument that our actions are often motivated by our wishes, desires or fears of which we are not consciously aware. These interpretations (like the Marxian ones) also fall under the hermeneutics of suspicion. One can supply psychoanalytical interpretations of all sorts of texts, including those in political theory. This has been done in the case of Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, Mahatama Gandhi and J. S. Mill among others.
Bruce Mazlish’s psychoanalytic interpretation of themes in the work of John Stuart Mill is an important example. In Mill’s On Liberty, he argues in favour of a very wide sphere of personal freedom to live one’s life as one wishes, without undue interference from others. As Mill’s autobiography tells us, he had a much regimented upbringing by his stern Scots father James Mill, which took its toll on young John who suffered from a mental breakdown at the age of 20, from which he recovered slowly and in part by reading the romantic poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Subsequently, J. S.
Mill ceased to be his father’s intellectual clone and became a thinker of his own, more prolific and famous than his father. Now Mazlish interprets On Liberty less as a work of liberal political theory, and more as a declaration of personal independence that is more autobiographical than analytical. According to the Freudian theory, Mazlish suggests that Mill was locked in an oedipal struggle with his father, whom he ultimately defeated in argument. While this may seem at the onset a rather suggestive and maybe insightful interpretation, such interpretations face stiff evidentiary challenges.
This school faces criticisms of being too speculative, impressionistic and non-falsifiable. They are said to mistake coincidences for causes. 4. Feminist Interpretation: A feminist perspective puts gender issues at the forefront, and has had a lasting impact on the way we study and interpret works. It introduces a strong sense of scepticism into the study of ‘classic’ works. According to Susan Okin, ‘the great tradition of political philosophy consists, generally speaking, of writings by men, for men, and about men’.
The feminist perspective highlights the extent to which civic and legal status of women was long considered a subject unworthy of theoretical treatment. This approach began in the 1960s, when women were looking for a history that connected present struggles with previous ones largely neglected by mostly male historians. Feminist historians of political though sought those who had championed the cause of women’s rights and related causes. Men like Friedrich Engels and J. S. Mill were placed in the feminist pantheon. Jeremy Bentham was honoured as ‘the father of feminism’.
This transgender popular front was however, short lived. It turned out that the difference between outright misogynists like Aristotle and Rousseau and their more enlightened liberal brothers (above) was simply in matters of degree, not kind. By and large, male theorists marginalized women and placed them outside the public or civic sphere in which men move and act politically. In an angrier second phase, feminist scholars set out to expose and criticize the misogyny lurking in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, Mill and Marx among others.
They dismissed public/private dichotomy and the concept of consent in liberal theory as a sham, the social contract as a ‘fraternal’ construct, and the modern welfare state as a covertly patriarchal institution. A third phase turned ostensibly civic virtues of men into vices and coined the term ‘maternal thinking’ to cover ‘nurturing’ women’s gently militant momism. However, this phase of valorisation of the private realm, found many critics, even feminists like Mary Dietz, who instead held out the prospect of an active & engaged civic feminism.
It turns out that feminists must try and engage in more nuanced textual analysis and historical interpretation. The Western political tradition is not reducible to a sinkhole of misogyny and other vices; it can, if understood properly, be a wellspring of political wisdom. 5. Straussian Interpretation: This view is of the followers of Leo Strauss, and they claim that a canon of works by Plato and other authors contains the Whole Truth about politics, one which is eternal, unchanging and accessible only to a fortunate few. Strauss was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, who detested modern liberalism and distrusted liberal democracy.
He saw the history of modern Western liberal political thought as a story of degeneration and enfeeblement; modern liberalism was according to him a philosophy without foundations. Strauss announced, ‘the crisis of our time is a consequence of the crisis of political philosophy. ’ His and his disciples’ historical inquiries and textual interpretations attempted to trace the origins and diagnose the multiple maladies of liberalism, relativism, historicism and scientism that together contributed to ‘the crisis of our time’.
He criticises liberal modern thinkers such as Hobbes/Locke for negating the ‘older’ concepts of Natural law and instead propagated concepts of self- interest and security. Of course, like every other approach to interpretation, Straussian’s have also faced their share of criticism, mainly on the ground that they rely on a supposed ‘insider’s knowledge’ for their interpretation, which remains an ambiguous concept. 6. Postmodernist Interpretation: This perspective arises out of ‘the postmodern condition’ of fragmentation and the failure of systematic philosophies or ‘grand metanarratives’ like Hegelianism or Marxism.
Post-modernism is not a single unified perspective; nor is it a systematic philosophy shared by all postmodernists. The postmodern sensibility is not a single stable thing. There are two main versions of postmodernist interpretation: Foucauldian Approach, derived from Nietzsche and Foucault, which seeks to criticize the myriad ways in which human beings are ‘normalized’ or made into ‘subjects’. They portray the classic thinkers as villains promoting a surveillance state, and postmodernists like Nietzsche as heroes who dared to resist.
Derrida’s version, where the aim of interpretation is to expose and criticize the arbitrary character of claims to truth or knowledge. A process that Derrida calls ‘deconstruction’. He argues that all attempts to ‘represent’ reality produce, not knowledge or truth, but only different ‘representations’. The main criticism against this school of interpretation is that it is constitutionally unable to distinguish truth from falsehood and propaganda from fact, which makes this perspective unsatisfactory from both epistemological as well as moral points of view.
7. Cambridge ‘New History’: Since the 1960s, the Cambridge ‘new historians’ have advanced a distinctive programme of historical research and textual interpretation. The likes of J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner provided deflationary critiques of traditional ‘textbook’ approaches to the interpretation of works of political theory. According to them, most of what had till then passed as the history of political theory has been insufficiently historical, i. e.concerned with the context & situation in which earlier thinkers found themselves and the problems with which they dealt.
They viewed works of political theory as forms of political action, with words that are intended to produce certain effects in the reader – to warn, persuade, criticize, frighten, encourage, console etc. Textual interpretation thus becomes largely a matter of restoring a text to the historical context in which it was composed and the questions to which it was offered as an answer.
CONCLUSION – Pluralist & Problem Driven Interpretation Terence Ball thereby concludes that no single method will suffice to answer all the questions we wish to ask of any work of political theory. Therefore, a plurality of approaches and methods is preferable to a more confining mono-methodology that restricts the range of questions we can ask and address. He also agrees with the Cambridge new historians about the importance of intellectual, political and linguistic contexts within which theorists write.
His view further states that since our interpretive inquiries are largely problem driven, we are likely to be less interested in authors or contexts, than in particular problems that might arise as we attempt to understand the former. In sum, the historical study of political theory is a problem solving activity. It takes other interpretations as alternative solutions to a problem and goes on to assess their adequacy vis-a-vis each other. Therefore, the activity of rereading, reinterpretation, and reappraisal is an indispensable, rather defining, feature of this craft.