12 June 2007

But What is Political Philosophy?

The most interesting replies to a question will reformulate that question.

This I find in Malcolm Schofield's answer to the question of whether the Republic or the Laws counts as the first work of political philosophy proper.

What gives life to the question, he allows, is that the Republic cannot be conceived to be a work in any branch of philosophy, not simply because at that time there simply weren't any departments within philosophy, but also because:

Philosophy as the Republic conceives it involves a passionate desire for unifying comprehension of everything there is. No doubt Plato could recognize points of view from which such knowledge might properly be parcelled out into different departments, but philosophy itself is basically undepartmental. Any reader who asked Plato, "But what sort of philosophy--moral, political, metaphysical--are you doing in the Republic?" would be entirely missing the point.
Nonetheless, the Republic is a work in political philosophy--among other things--because "a lot of philosophy in the dialogue is preoccupied with political questions" and "[m]any subsequent contributions to political philosophy in antiquity ... make the Republic their main point of reference".

But that is only a provisional answer. Schofield goes on to the suggest that the question itself is misguided, because it presupposes that the 'political' is a matter of the legal and the constitutional--and thus that a philosophical discussion could count only as a 'sketch' in political philosophy, if it failed to reach detailed conclusions about laws and constitutions.

What is at issue, rather, is what should properly be meant by the notion of the 'political' at all. Here Schofield centers his discussion on what Plato meant by the title, Politeia:
Translators of [Aristotle's] Politics have found that for Aristotle 'constitution' works fairly satisfactorily as an English equivalent for politeia, preoccupied as he is with the system of offices or positions of rule operative in a city. The politeia, on his definition, is a certain ordering of positions of rule, particularly the one that is sovereign over all the others ... Armed with this formulation, [Aristotle] is well placed to address the merits and demerits of monarchical, oligarchic and democratic forms of government and associated constitutional arrangements. In the Republic and much other writing on politeia, however, the focus is rather different.
Schofield then argues that Plato's Republic falls within a tradition of politeia writing, according to which "the core meaning of politeia is 'citizenship', 'the condition of being a citizen'":
Education, upbringing, rules governing marriage, the role of women in society: these are the subjects a contemporary reader would have expected to find discussed in a work entitled Politeia.
But then, from this point of view, the Republic and Laws are not to be contrasted, but are rather different attempts to address one and the same thing. On this, Schofield approvingly quotes Diskin Clay: "the greatest part of the Laws is devoted to acculturation rather than to legislation" .