Philosophy: Posts

Interview with Robert B. Talisse, author of Engaging Political Philosophy

Engaging Political Philosophy is a fabulous introduction to the subject that not only teaches students philosophy, but how to think philosophically. Talisse provides a wonderfully lucid and engaging guide that will benefit anyone with an interest in political philosophy.’Thom Brooks, Durham University, UK

Engaging Political Philosophy is the new textbook from author and philosopher Robert Talisse. We interviewed him to find out more about the book.

1 – What sparked your own interest in this area of philosophy?

My earliest philosophical interests – interests that developed even before I was aware of philosophy as an academic field – had to do with politics.Perhaps this is due to the fact that I entered teenage during the Reagan era in the US, and at that time it was difficult to escape philosophical questions about the political world. The television, movies, and especially the music I was encountering all were driven by political concerns.By the time I was 16, I was convinced that the world was soon to be destroyed by madmen with inordinate political power.The question was whether anything at all could be done, and if so, what.This introduced me to the idea of political critique, which naturally raised philosophical issues about what proper criticism is.In a way, then, my political concerns as a teenager brought me not only to political philosophy, but to broader philosophical questions about reasoning, argument, disagreement, and knowledge.When I began studying philosophy as an undergraduate, I was fascinated by two quite different books, Mill’s On Liberty and Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism. In college, I began thinking, with Wolff, that some form of democracy was the only fitting response to the anarchist’s challenge to political authority.But whereas Wolff famously concludes that no proper version of democracy is practically feasible, I started thinking, with Mill, that individual liberty and autonomy requires there to be a social environment that enables and encourages free thinking and the open expression of heresies; and I also began to think that this kind of social environment can persist only under conditions of democratic governance.As a professional philosopher, my central research is focused on the relations of democracy to epistemology – the ways in which the project of collective self-government is related to the projects of forming, sustaining, and exchanging warranted beliefs.It seems strange to think that a few overly-anxious teenage years could be so formative.

2 – How did you approach writing Engaging Political Philosophy?

I’ve been teaching political philosophy at all levels for a while, and I’m continually struck by how frequently students come into Political Philosophy courses with the view that the fundamental philosophical questions about politics and society are settled.They tend to think it obvious that there should be states, and laws, and political institutions; they tend to simply presume that democracy is the only acceptable form of government, that democratic citizens are free, and that there is generally a duty to obey democratically-decided laws.The central question, they seem to think, is how to implement their preferred policies (or, how to prevent their opponents on policy matters from getting their way).In other words, the overriding impression is that the philosophically big questions have been answered, and all that’s left are relatively minor details.Now, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that students come to political philosophy with these presuppositions.After all, we live our lives within a seemingly inescapable system of states, institutions, laws, and policies; it makes little sense to proceed day-to-day as if these structures were optional or up for grabs.But that the states and their institutions are seemingly inescapable seems an awful reason to conclude that they obviously should exist or should be as they are.In fact, the seeming inescapability or obviousness of the existing political order is an excellent reason to question its justification.Engaging Political Philosophy, then, is an attempt to expose the reader to the thoughts that in fact it’s not at all evident that there should be states, it’s not clear what individual freedom is, we do not yet know what social justice is, and democracy is notobviously the best form of government.To be sure, the dispiriting thought that haunts the book is that anarchism is true but existing political orders are indeed inescapable – that we are inevitably prisoners of political structures that are unjustifiable.However, the central aim of the book is not to instil a kind of political nihilism; it is rather to re-open the classical questions of political philosophy by first showing that they are as yet in need of firm answers.The book proceeds incrementally – and very tentatively – to develop ways of understanding four central concepts in political philosophy (liberty, authority, justice, and democracy) that fit together into a defensible conception of the political order.Importantly, it is left to the reader to further reflect on the question of whether this conception is indeed acceptable.The challenge of anarchism looms. So there’s more philosophy to be done.And, perhaps unsurprisingly given what I said in response to the first question, a further question emerges about what political order would be required if we are to continue to philosophize about politics.

3 – What makes this book different from others on the market?

Political philosophers tend to introduce their field in a way that I resist.They present political philosophy as a series of great texts, beginning perhaps with Plato or Aristotle, continuing through Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Marx, and concluding with Rawls and some of his critics.The subject-matter of political philosophy is then often construed as the theories that are presented in these texts, and, accordingly, students are given the task of mastering the details of the theories.Many of the introductory texts in political philosophy on the market replicate this model by offering summaries of the central figures’ most important writings, and then comparing and contrasting the different theories proposed therein.According to this trend, one has been “introduced” to political philosophy when one is able to accurately associate central figures and texts with central theories in a way that shows a command of the differences between the major theories.Engaging Political Philosophy is an attempt to introduce political philosophy in a way that’s not tethered to the great figures and texts; one might say that the book aspires to engage the reader in the activity of thinking philosophically about the political order.Accordingly, each chapter explores a range of more-or-less intuitive thoughts that one might have about, for example, liberty, and then proceeds to explore with the reader the philosophical prospects of those thoughts.Along the way, many of the tradition’s central ideas are examined, but not under the description of, for example, “Locke’s conception of liberty,” but as an intuitively attractive idea about what liberty might be.

Consequently, Engaging Political Philosophy contains no footnotes, no extended discussions of the important theories and figures in the field, and no quotations from the core texts.The book is nearly entirely argumentative, following out the implications of ideas and thoughts that are likely to have occurred to the reader.No background in political philosophy, and no previous encounter with the great texts and big ideas in the field, is presumed.Each chapter concludes with a discussion of the texts and figures the reader should consult in order to explore matters further.

4 – How do you see the book being used in courses?

Engaging Political Philosophy was written with the aim of being maximally versatile.It is a short book, and so can be used as a “primer” to be read at the beginning of a Political Philosophy course that covers the traditional texts and figures; it also tries to synthesize some promising ideas about liberty, authority, justice, and democracy, and so can be read with students at the end of a Political Philosophy course as an example of how one might try to fit the philosophical pieces together, as it were.It is also topically organized, so it could also be read alongside the traditional readings from Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and the others as a way to stimulate students’ own critical thinking about the primary readings.Finally, the book is written to be both accessible and freestanding, so it could be assigned as background reading for students to do on their own.

5 – What do you hope students will take from the book?

My main hope is that students who read Engaging Political Philosophy will emerge with a fuller appreciation of the complexity of the philosophical questions, problems, and issues which surround our day-to-day social and political lives.Again, we are inclined (and often encouraged) to simply take it for granted that the existing political order is well-justified and properly-structured.But with only a little philosophical reflection it can be shown that this cannot be taken for granted.The basic questions of political philosophy are still very much open questions, and one doesn’t need an advanced degreein philosophy to begin developing very sophisticated ideas about the political order which surrounds us.In fact, by the time we’re teenagers, we often have developed some pretty complex ideas about politics, but we too often allow these to calcify and take on the appearance of being obvious or unquestionable.In large part, philosophy in all its forms is the self-conscious attempt to render things non-obvious, to show that what may seem commonplace and settled is in fact puzzling and odd.The hope is that Engaging Political Philosophy will re-open the questions that readers have come to regard as closed.

6 – What do you see for the future of political philosophy?

Presently, the discipline is enjoying a real rejuvenation.It is often said that John Rawls stimulated a renaissance of normative political philosophy at the close of the 20th Century, and this is surely true.But the past twenty years have drawn from the Rawlsian program new energies and inspiration; so we now find political philosophers asking a broad range of new questions and examining wholly new issues. In this way, political philosophy has been doing a good job of keeping up with emerging real-world problems regarding the environment, immigration, technology, poverty, and war.But, interestingly, at the core of this new work lies all of the central concerns that one finds in the traditional texts of political philosophy: Can human liberty be reconciled with political authority? Assuming that we are bound to live together within a political order, what do we owe to each other? How can we sustain the social and political conditions under which it is possible to continue arguing about these matters?

  • Engaging Political Philosophy

    An Introduction

    By Robert B. Talisse

    Engaging Political Philosophy introduces readers to the central problems of political philosophy.  Presuming no prior work in the area, the book explores the fundamental philosophical questions regarding freedom, authority, justice, and democracy.  More than a survey of the central figures and…

    Paperback – 2015-10-09