Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thoughtby Sheldon S. Wolin
This is a significantly expanded edition of one of the greatest works of modern political theory. Sheldon Wolin's Politics and Vision inspired and instructed two generations of political theorists after its appearance in 1960. This new edition retains intact the original ten chapters about political thinkers from Plato to Mill, and adds seven chapters about theorists from Marx and Nietzsche to Rawls and the postmodernists. The new chapters, which show how thinkers have grappled with the immense possibilities and dangers of modern power, are themselves a major theoretical statement. They culminate in Wolin's remarkable argument that the United States has invented a new political form, "inverted totalitarianism," in which economic rather than political power is dangerously dominant. In this new edition, the book that helped to define political theory in the late twentieth century should energize, enlighten, and provoke generations of scholars to come.
Wolin originally wrote Politics and Vision to challenge the idea that political analysis should consist simply of the neutral observation of objective reality. He argues that political thinkers must also rely on creative vision. Wolin shows that great theorists have been driven to shape politics to some vision of the Good that lies outside the existing political order. As he tells it, the history of theory is thus, in part, the story of changing assumptions about the Good.
In the new chapters, Wolin displays all the energy and flair, the command of detail and of grand historical developments, that he brought to this story forty years ago. This is a work of immense talent and intense thought, an intellectual achievementthat will endure.
Winner of the 2006 David and Elaine Spitz Prize, Conference for the Study of Political Thought
"[T]he original edition . . . provided the most impressive synoptic interpretation of politics by any recent Western thinker. Measured, assured, and resolutely independent, it was also wonderfully lacking in self-importance. . . . [T]hat first book remains just as illuminating and every bit as imposing; but it is now accompanied by a second and very different book. . . . Its message is chilling . . . that politics itself, in its generous Western understanding, is well on the way to being eliminated from the experience of human beings. Each of these books is a remarkable achievement."--John Dunn, Times Higher Education Supplement
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Politics and Vision
Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought
By Sheldon S. Wolin
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2004 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Political Philosophy and Philosophy
... To express various meanings on complex things with a scanty vocabulary of fastened senses.
— Walter Bagehot
I. Political Philosophy as a Form of Inquiry
This is a book about a special tradition of discourse — political philosophy. In it I shall attempt to discuss the general character of that tradition, the varying concerns of those who have helped to build it, and the vicissitudes that have marked the main lines of its development. At the same time, I shall also try to say something about the enterprise of political philosophy itself. This statement of intentions naturally induces the expectation that the discussion will begin with a definition of political philosophy. To attempt to satisfy this expectation, however, would be fruitless, not merely because a few sentences cannot accomplish what an entire book intends, but also because political philosophy is not an essence with an eternal nature. It is, instead, a complex activity which is best understood by analyzing the many ways that the acknowledged masters have practiced it. No single philosopher and no one historical age can be said to have defined it conclusively, any more than any one painter or school of painting has practiced all that we mean by painting.
If there is more to political philosophy than any great philosopher has expressed, there is some justification for believing that political philosophy constitutes an activity whose characteristics are most clearly revealed over time. Stated somewhat differently, political philosophy is to be understood in the same way that we go about understanding a varied and complex tradition.
Although it may not be possible to reduce political philosophy to a brief definition, it is possible to elucidate the characteristics that distinguish it from, as well as connect it with, other forms of inquiry. I shall discuss these considerations under the following headings: political philosophy's relations with philosophy, the characteristics of political philosophy as an activity, its subject-matter and language, the problem of perspectives or angle of vision, and the manner in which a tradition operates.
Ever since Plato first perceived that the inquiry into the nature of the good life of the individual was necessarily associated with a converging (and not parallel) inquiry into the nature of the good community, a close and continuing association has persisted between political philosophy and philosophy in general. Not only have most of the eminent philosophers contributed generously to the main stock of our political ideas, but they have given the political theorist many of his methods of analysis and criteria of judgment. Historically, the main difference between philosophy and political philosophy has been a matter of specialization rather than one of method or temper. By virtue of this alliance, political theorists accepted as their own the basic quest of the philosopher for systematic knowledge.
There is a still another fundamental sense in which political theory is linked to philosophy. Philosophy can be distinguished from other methods of eliciting truths, such as the mystic vision, the secret rite, truths of conscience or of private feelings. Philosophy claims to deal with truths publicly arrived at and publicly demonstrable. At the same time, one of the essential qualities of what is political, and one that has powerfully shaped the view of political theorists about their subject-matter, is its relationship to what is "public." Cicero had this in mind when he called the commonwealth a res publica, a "public thing" or the "property of a people." Of all the authoritative institutions in society, the political arrangement has been singled out as uniquely concerned with what is "common" to the whole community. Certain functions, such as national defense, internal order, the dispensing of justice, and economic regulation, have been declared the primary responsibility of political institutions, largely on the grounds that the interests and ends served by these functions were beneficial to all of the members of the community. The only institution that ever rivaled the authority of the political order was the mediaeval Church; yet this was made possible only because the Church, in assuming the characteristics of a political regime, had become something other than a religious body. The intimate connection existing between political institutions and public concerns has been taken over in the practices of philosophers; political philosophy has been taken to mean reflection on matters that concern the community as a whole.
It is fitting, therefore, that the inquiry into public matters should be conducted according to the canons of a public type of knowledge. To take the other alternative, to ally political knowledge with private modes of cognition, would be incongruous and self-defeating. The dramatic symbol of the right alliance was the demand of the Roman plebs that the status of the Twelve Tables of the law be transformed from a priestly mystery cognizable only by the few to a public form of knowledge accessible to all.
II. Form and Substance
Turning next to the subject-matter of political philosophy, even the most cursory examination of the masterpieces of political literature discloses the continual reappearance of certain problem-topics. Many examples could be listed, but here we need mention only a few, such as the power relationships between ruler and ruled, the nature of authority, the problems posed by social conflict, the status of certain goals or purposes as objectives of political action, and the character of political knowledge. No political philosopher has been interested in all of these problems to the same degree, yet there has been a sufficiently widespread consensus about the identity of the problems to warrant the belief that a continuity of preoccupations has existed. Nor does the fact that philosophers have often violently disagreed about solutions cast doubt upon the existence of a common subject-matter. What is important is the continuity of preoccupations, not the unanimity of response.
Agreement about subject-matter presupposes in turn that those who are interested in extending knowledge of a particular field share in a common understanding about what is relevant to their subject and what ought to be excluded. In reference to political philosophy, this means that the philosopher should be clear about what is political and what is not. Aristotle, for example, argued in the opening pages of the Politics that the role of the statesman (politikos) ought not to be confused with that of the slave-owner or head of a household; the first was properly political, the latter were not. The point that Aristotle was making is still of vital importance, and the difficulties of preserving a clear notion of what is political form the basic theme of this book. Aristotle was alluding to the troubles that the political philosopher experiences in trying to isolate a subject-matter which, in reality, cannot be isolated. There are two main reasons for the difficulty. In the first place, a political institution, for example, is exposed to impinging influences of a non-political kind so that it becomes a perplexing problem of explanation as to where the political begins and the non-political leaves off. Secondly, there is the widespread tendency to utilize the same words and notions in describing non-political phenomena that we do in talking about political matters. In contrast to the restricted technical usages of mathematics and the natural sciences, phrases like "the authority of the father," "the authority of the church," or "the authority of Parliament" are evidence of the parallel usages prevailing in social and political discussions.
This poses one of the basic problems confronting the political philosopher when he tries to assert the distinctiveness of his subject-matter: what is political? what is it that distinguishes, say, political authority from other forms of authority, or membership in a political society from membership in other types of associations? In attempting an answer to these questions, centuries of philosophers have contributed to a conception of political philosophy as a continuing form of discourse concerning what is political and to a picture of the political philosopher as one who philosophizes about the political. How have they gone about doing this? How have they come to single out certain human actions and interactions, institutions and values, and to designate them "political"? What is the distinctive common feature of certain types of situations or activities, such as voting and legislating, that allows us to call them political? Or what conditions must a given action or situation satisfy in order to be called political?
In one sense, the process of defining the area of what is political has not been markedly different from that which has taken place in other fields of inquiry. No one would seriously contend, for example, that the fields of physics or chemistry have always existed in a self-evident, determinate form waiting only to be discovered by Galileo or Lavoisier. If we grant that a field of inquiry is, to an important degree, a product of definition, the political field can be viewed as an area whose boundaries have been marked out by centuries of political discussion. Just as other fields have changed their outlines, so the boundaries of what is political have been shifting ones, sometimes including more, sometimes less of human life and thought. The present age of totalitarianism produces the lament that "this is a political age. War, fascism, concentration camps, rubber truncheons, atomic bombs, etc., are what we think about." In other and more serene times the political is less ubiquitous. Aquinas could write that "man is not formed for political fellowship in his entirety, or in all that he has ..." What I should like to insist upon, however, is that the field of politics is and has been, in a significant and radical sense, a created one. The designation of certain activities and arrangements as political, the characteristic way that we think about them, and the concepts we employ to communicate our observations and reactions — none of these are written into the nature of things but are the legacy accruing from the historical activity of political philosophers.
I do not mean to suggest by these remarks that the political philosopher has been at liberty to call "political" whatever he chose, or that, like the poet of Lord Kames, he has been busy "fabricating images without any foundation in reality." Nor do I mean to imply that the phenomena we designate political are, in a literal sense, "created" by the theorist. It is readily admitted that established practices and institutional arrangements have furnished political writers with their basic data, and I shall discuss this point shortly. It is true, too, that many of the subjects treated by a theorist owe their inclusion to the simple fact that in existing linguistic conventions such subjects are referred to as political. It is also true, on the other hand, that the ideas and categories that we use in political analysis are not of the same order as institutional "facts," nor are they "contained," so to speak, in the facts. They represent, instead, an added element, something created by the political theorist. Concepts like "power," "authority," "consent," and so forth are not real "things," although they are intended to point to some significant aspect about political things. Their function is to render political facts significant, either for purposes of analysis, criticism, or justification, or a combination of all three. When political concepts are put into the form of an assertion, such as, "It is not the rights and privileges which he enjoys which makes a man a citizen, but the mutual obligation between subject and sovereign," the validity of the statement is not to be settled by referring to the facts of political life. This would be a circular procedure, since the form of the statement would inevitably govern the interpretation of the facts. Stated somewhat differently, political theory is not so much interested in political practices, or how they operate, but rather in their meaning. Thus, in the statement just quoted from Bodin, the fact that by law or practice the member of society owed certain obligations to his sovereign, and vice versa, was not as important as that these duties could be understood in a way suggestive of something important about membership and, in the later phases of Bodin's argument, about sovereign authority and its conditions. In other words, the concept of membership permitted Bodin to draw out the implications and interconnections between certain practices or institutions that were not self-evident on the basis of the facts themselves. When such concepts become more or less stable in their meaning, they serve as pointers that "cue" us to look for certain things or to keep certain considerations in mind when we try to understand a political situation or make a judgment about it. In this way, the concepts and categories that make up our political understanding help us to draw connections between political phenomena; they impart some order to what might otherwise appear to be a hopeless chaos of activities; they mediate between us and the political world we seek to render intelligible; they create an area of determinate awareness and thus help to separate the relevant phenomena from the irrelevant.
III. Political Thought and Political Institutions
The philosopher's attempt to give meaning to political phenomena is both assisted and delimited by the fact that societies possess some measure of order, some degree of arrangement which exists whether philosophers philosophize or not. In other words, the boundaries and substance of the subject-matter of political philosophy are determined to a large extent by the practices of existing societies. By practices is meant the institutionalized processes and settled procedures regularly used for handling public matters. What is important for political theory is that these institutionalized practices play a fundamental role in ordering and directing human behavior and in determining the character of events. The organizing role of institutions and customary practices creates a "nature" or field of phenomena that is roughly analogous to the nature confronted by the natural scientist. Perhaps I can clarify the meaning of "political nature" by describing something of the function of institutions.
The system of political institutions in a given society represents an arrangement of power and authority. At some point within the system, certain institutions are recognized as having the authority to make decisions applicable to the whole community. The exercise of this function naturally attracts the attention of groups and individuals who feel that their interests and purposes will be affected by the decisions taken. When this awareness takes the form of action directed towards political institutions, the activities become "political" and a part of political nature. The initiative may originate with the institutions themselves, or rather with the men who operate them. A public decision, such as one controlling the manufacturing of woolens or one prohibiting the propagation of certain doctrines, has the effect of connecting these activities to the political order and making them, at least in part, political phenomena. Although one could multiply the ways in which human activities become "political," the main point lies in the "relating" function performed by political institutions. Through the decisions taken and enforced by public officials, scattered activities are brought together, endowed with a new coherence, and their future course shaped according to "public" considerations. In this way political institutions give additional dimensions to political nature. They serve to define, so to speak, "political space" or the locus wherein the tensional forces of society are related, as in a courtroom, a legislature, an administrative hearing, or the convention of a political party. They serve also to define "political time" or the temporal period within which decision, resolution, or compromise occurs. Thus political arrangements provide a setting wherein the activities of individuals and groups are connected spatially and temporally. Consider, for example, the workings of a national system of social security. A tax official collects revenue from a corporation's earnings of the preceding year; the revenue, in turn, might be used to establish a social security or pension system that would benefit workers otherwise unconnected with the corporation. But the benefits in question may not actually be received by the worker until a quarter of a century later. Here, in the form of a revenue agent, is a political institution whose operation integrates a series of otherwise unconnected activities and imparts to them a significance extended over time.
Excerpted from Politics and Vision by Sheldon S. Wolin. Copyright © 2004 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Sheldon S. Wolin (1922-2015) was professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University. He taught political theory for forty years and was the founding editor of the journal Democracy. Wendy Brown is Class of 1936 First Chair of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
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