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Yale University Press
Thinking Politically: Essays in Political Theory

Thinking Politically: Essays in Political Theory

by Michael Walzer, David MillerMichael Walzer


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A collection of the most important writings of Michael Walzer, one of the world’s most influential political thinkers

Michael Walzer is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading political theorists. In a career spanning more than fifty years, he has wrestled with some of the most crucial political ideas and questions of the day, developing original conceptions of democracy, social justice, liberalism, civil society, nationalism, multiculturalism, and terrorism. 

Thinking Politically brings together some of Walzer’s most important work to provide a wide-ranging survey of his thinking and the vision that underlies his responses to contemporary political debates. The book also includes a previously unpublished essay on human rights. David Miller’s substantial introduction presents a detailed analysis of the development of Walzer’s ideas and connects them to wider currents of political thought. In addition, the book includes a recent interview with Walzer on a range of topical issues, and a detailed bibliography of his works.

This collection will be welcomed by scholars in politics and philosophy, as well as anyone keen to engage in discussion on some of the key issues of our times.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300143225
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 02/24/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 438,526
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Michael Walzer is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He has published extensively in political philosophy and is equally well known for his contributions to contemporary political debates. He lives in Princeton, NJ. David Miller is professor of political theory and official fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford. He is a fellow of the British Academy and the author or editor of fifteen books, including On Nationality and Principles of Social Justice.

Read an Excerpt

Thinking Politically
Essays in Political Theory

By Michael Walzer
Yale University Press
Copyright © 2007 Michael Walzer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11816-2

Chapter One
Philosophy and Democracy

[ 1 ]

The prestige of political philosophy is very high these days. It commands the attention of economists and lawyers, the two groups of academics most closely connected to the shaping of public policy, as it has not done in a long time. And it claims the attention of political leaders, bureaucrats, and judges, most especially judges, with a new and radical forcefulness. The command and the claim follow not so much from the fact that philosophers are doing creative work, but from the fact that they are doing creative work of a special sort-which raises again, after a long hiatus, the possibility of finding objective truths, "true meaning," "right answers," "the philosopher's stone," and so on. I want to accept this possibility (without saying very much about it) and then ask what it means for democratic politics. What is the standing of the philosopher in a democratic society? This is an old question; there are old tensions at work here: between truth and opinion, reason and will, value and preference, the one and the many. These antipodal pairs differ from one another, and none of them quite matches the pair "philosophy and democracy." But they do hang together; they point to a central problem. Philosophers claim a certain sort of authority for their conclusions; the people claim a different sort of authority for their decisions. What is the relation between the two?

I shall begin with a quotation from Wittgenstein that might seem to resolve the problem immediately. "The philosopher," Wittgenstein wrote, "is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him into a philosopher." This is more than an assertion of detachment in its usual sense, for citizens are surely capable, sometimes, of detached judgments even of their own ideologies, practices, and institutions. Wittgenstein is asserting a more radical detachment. The philosopher is and must be an outsider; standing apart, not occasionally (in judgment) but systematically (in thought). I do not know whether the philosopher has to be a political outsider. Wittgenstein does say any community, and the state (polis, republic, commonwealth, kingdom, or whatever) is certainly a community of ideas. The communities of which the philosopher is most importantly not a citizen may, of course, be larger or smaller than the state. That will depend on what he philosophizes about. But if he is a political philosopher-not what Wittgenstein had in mind-then the state is the most likely community from which he will have to detach himself, not physically, but intellectually and, on a certain view of morality, morally too.

This radical detachment has two forms, and I shall be concerned with only one of them. The first form is contemplative and analytic; those who participate in it take no interest in changing the community whose ideas they study. "Philosophy leaves everything as it is." The second form is heroic. I do not want to deny the heroic possibilities of contemplation and analysis. One can always take pride in wrenching oneself loose from the bonds of community; it is not easy to do, and many important philosophical achievements (and all the varieties of philosophical arrogance) have their origins in detachment. But I want to focus on a certain tradition of heroic action, alive, it seems, in our own time, where the philosopher detaches himself from the community of ideas in order to found it again-intellectually and then materially too, for ideas have consequences, and every community of ideas is also a concrete community. He withdraws and returns. He is like the legislators of ancient legend, whose work precludes ordinary citizenship.

In the long history of political thought, there is an alternative to the detachment of philosophers, and that is the engagement of sophists, critics, publicists, and intellectuals. To be sure, the sophists whom Plato attacks were citiless men, itinerant teachers, but they were by no means strangers in the Greek community of ideas. Their teaching drew upon, was radically dependent upon, the resources of a common membership. In this sense, Socrates was a sophist, though it was probably crucial to his own understanding of his mission, as critic and gadfly, that he also be a citizen: the Athenians would have found him less irritating had he not been one of their fellows. But then the citizens killed Socrates, thus demonstrating, it is sometimes said, that engagement and fellowship are not possible for anyone committed to the search for truth. Philosophers cannot be sophists. For practical as well as intellectual reasons, the distance that they put between themselves and their fellow citizens must be widened into a breach of fellowship. And then, for practical reasons only, it must be narrowed again by deception and secrecy. So that the philosopher emerges, like Descartes in his Discourse, as a separatist in thought, a conformist in practice.

He is a conformist, at least, until he finds himself in a position to transform practice into some nearer approximation to the truths of his thought. He cannot be a participant in the rough and tumble politics of the city, but he can be a founder or a legislator, a king, a nocturnal councillor, or a judge-or, more realistically, he can be an advisor to such figures, whispering in the ear of power. Shaped by the very nature of the philosophical project, he has little taste for bargaining and mutual accommodation. Because the truth he knows or claims to know is singular in character, he is likely to think that politics must be the same: a coherent conception, an uncompromising execution. In philosophy as in architecture, and so in politics, wrote Descartes: What has been put together bit by bit, by different masters, is less perfect than the work of a single hand. Thus, "those old places which, beginning as villages, have developed in the course of time into great towns, are generally ... ill-proportioned in comparison with those an engineer can design at will in an orderly fashion." Descartes himself disclaims any interest in the political version of such a project-perhaps because he believes that the only place where he is likely to reign supreme is his own mind. But there is always the possibility of a partnership between philosophical authority and political power. Reflecting on that possibility, the philosopher may, like Thomas Hobbes, "recover some hope that one time or other, this writing of mine may fall into the hands of a sovereign, who will ... by the exercise of entire sovereignty ... convert this truth of speculation into the utility of practice." The crucial words in these quotations from Descartes and Hobbes are "design at will" and "entire sovereignty." Philosophical founding is an authoritarian business.

[ 2 ]

A quick comparison may be helpful here. Poets have their own tradition of withdrawal and engagement, but radical withdrawal is not common among them. One might plausibly set alongside Wittgenstein's sentences the following lines of C. P. Cavafy, written to comfort a young poet who has managed after great effort to finish only one poem. That, Cavafy says, is a first step, and no small accomplishment:

To set your foot upon this step you must rightfully be a citizen of the city of ideas.

Wittgenstein writes as if there were (as there are) many communities, while Cavafy seems to suggest that poets inhabit a single, universal city. But I suspect that the Greek poet means in fact to describe a more particular place: the city of Hellenic culture. The poet must prove himself a citizen there; the philosopher must prove that he is not a citizen anywhere. The poet needs fellow citizens, other poets and readers of poetry, who share with him a background of history and sentiment, who will not demand that everything he writes be explained. Without people like that, his allusions will be lost and his images will echo only in his own mind. But the philosopher fears fellowship, for the ties of history and sentiment corrupt his thinking. He needs to look at the world from a distance, freshly, like a total stranger. His detachment is speculative, willful, always incomplete. I do not doubt that a clever sociologist or historian will detect in his work, as readily as in any poem, the signs of its time and place. Still, the philosopher's ambition (in the tradition that I am describing) is extreme. The poet, by contrast, is more modest-as Auden has written:

A poet's hope: to be like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.

The poet may be a visionary or a seer; he may seek out exile and trouble; but he cannot, short of madness, cut himself o from the community of ideas. And perhaps for that reason, he also cannot aspire to anything quite like sovereignty over the community. If he hopes to become a "legislator for mankind," it is rather by moving his fellow citizens than by governing them. And even the moving is indirect. "Poetry makes nothing happen." But that is not quite the same thing as saying that it leaves everything as it is. Poetry leaves in the minds of its readers some intimation of the poet's truth. Nothing so coherent as a philosophical statement, nothing so explicit as a legal injunction: a poem is never more than a partial and unsystematic truth, surprising us by its excess, teasing us by its ellipsis, never arguing a case. "I have never yet been able to perceive," wrote Keats, "how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning." The knowledge of the poet is of a different sort, and it leads to truths that can, perhaps, be communicated but never directly implemented.

[ 3 ]

But the truths discovered or worked out by political philosophers can be implemented. They lend themselves readily to legal embodiment. Are these the laws of nature? Enact them. Is this a just scheme of distribution? Establish it. Is this a basic human right? Enforce it. Why else would one want to know about such things? An ideal city is, I suppose, an entirely proper object of contemplation, and it may be the case that "whether it exists anywhere or ever will exist is no matter"-that is, does not affect the truth of the vision. But surely it would be better if the vision were realized. Plato's claim that the ideal city is "the only commonwealth in whose politics [the philosopher] can ever take part" is belied by his own attempt to intervene in the politics of Syracuse when an opportunity arose, or so he thought, for philosophical reformation. Plato never intended, of course, to become a citizen of the city he hoped to reform.

The claim of the philosopher in such a case is that he knows "the pattern set up in the heavens." He knows what ought to be done. He cannot just do it himself, however, and so he must look for a political instrument. A pliable prince is, for obvious practical reasons, the best possible instrument. But in principle any instrument will do-an aristocracy, a vanguard, a civil service, even the people will do, so long as its members are committed to philosophical truth and possessed of sovereign power. But clearly, the people raise the greatest difficulties. If they are not a many-headed monster, they are at least many-headed, difficult to educate and likely to disagree among themselves. Nor can the philosophical instrument be a majority among the people, for majorities in any genuine democracy are temporary, shifting, unstable. Truth is one, but the people have many opinions; truth is eternal, but the people continually change their minds. Here in its simplest form is the tension between philosophy and democracy.

The people's claim to rule does not rest upon their knowledge of truth (though it may, as in utilitarian thought, rest upon their knowledge of many smaller truths: the account that only they can give of their own pains and pleasures). The claim is most persuasively put, it seems to me, not in terms of what the people know but in terms of who they are. They are the subjects of the law, and if the law is to bind them as free men and women, they must also be its makers. This is Rousseau's argument. I do not propose to defend it here but only to consider some of its consequences. The argument has the effect of making law a function of popular will and not of reason as it had hitherto been understood, the reason of wise men, sages, and judges. The people are the successors of gods and absolutist kings, but not of philosophers. They may not know the right thing to do, but they claim a right to do what they think is right (literally, what pleases them).

Rousseau himself pulled back from this claim, and most contemporary democrats would want to do so too. I can imagine three ways of pulling back and constraining democratic decisions, which I will outline briefly, drawing on Rousseau, but without attempting any explicit analysis of his arguments. First, one might impose a formal constraint on popular willing: the people must will generally. They cannot single out (except in elections for public office) a particular individual or set of individuals from among themselves for special treatment. This is no bar to public assistance programs designed, say, for the sick or the old, for we can all get sick and we all hope to grow old. Its purpose is to rule out discrimination against individuals and groups who have, so to speak, proper names. Second, one might insist on the inalienability of the popular will and then on the indestructibility of those institutions and practices that guarantee the democratic character of the popular will: assembly, debate, elections, and so on. The people cannot renounce now their future right to will (or, no such renunciation can ever be legitimate or morally effective). Nor can they deny to some group among themselves, with or without a proper name, the right to participate in future willing.

Clearly, these first two constraints open the way for some kind of review of popular decision-making, some kind of enforcement, against the people if necessary, of non-discrimination and democratic fights. Whoever undertakes this review and enforcement will have to make judgments about the discriminatory character of particular pieces of legislation and about the meaning for democratic politics of particular restrictions on free speech, assembly, and so on. But these judgments, though I do not want to underestimate either their importance or their difficulty, will be relatively limited in their effects compared to the sort of thing required by the third constraint. And it is on the third constraint that I want to focus, for I do not believe that philosophers in the heroic tradition can possibly be satisfied with the first two. Third, then, the people must will what is right. Rousseau says, must will the common good, and goes on to argue that the people will will the common good if they are a true people, a community, and not a mere collection of egoistic individuals and corporate groups. Here the idea seems to be that there exists a single set-though not necessarily an exhaustive set-of correct or just laws that the assembled people, the voters or their representatives, may not get right. Often enough, they get it wrong, and then they require the guidance of a legislator or the restraint of a judge. Rousseau's legislator is simply the philosopher in heroic dress, and though Rousseau denies him the right to coerce the people, he insists on his right to deceive the people. The legislator speaks in the name of God, not of philosophy. One might look for a parallel deception among contemporary judges. In any case, this third constraint surely raises the most serious questions about Rousseau's fundamental argument, that political legitimacy rests on will (consent) and not on reason (rightness).

[ 4 ]

The fundamental argument can be put in an appropriately paradoxical form: it is a feature of democratic government that the people have a right to act wrongly-in much the same way they have a right to act stupidly. I should say, they have a right to act wrongly within some area (and only, following the first two constraints, if the action is general over the area and does not preclude future democratic action within the area). Sovereignty is always sovereignty somewhere and with regard to some things, not everywhere and with regard to everything. The people can rightfully, let us say, enact a redistributive income tax, but they can only redistribute their own income, not those of some neighboring nation. What is crucial, however, is that the redistributive pattern they choose is not subject to authoritative correction in accordance with philosophical standards. It is subject to criticism, of course, but insofar as the critic is a democrat he will have to agree that, pending the conversion of the people to his position, the pattern they have chosen ought to be implemented.


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