Mapping Thought I: Evolution of Political Concepts, Research Time, 23/04/2018

Now that’s definitely the weirdest title I’ve written in a while. I want to get back to weirdness in the philosophical entries on this blog.

My new apartment has come together, finally. What needed to be built is built. What needed to be unpacked is unpacked. I’m not sure where my iPad charger went, but I’ll figure it out.

But the weirdness. So I made some really complicated notes as I was going through Paul Patton’s books on Gilles Deleuze’s works and ideas. Patton has a pretty good rep among the Deleuze scene in academia. He’s co-translated key works, and has been a main figure among the secondary material for a long time.

It isn't just "the" political theory. For every concept, there can be many
theories. And there are plenty of concepts too.
His book Deleuze and the Political begins in a place appropriately strange for a book about someone whose ideas were as strange as Gilles’. He starts by talking about the nature of the concept, in a philosophical sense.

Deleuze himself developed a complex concept of the concept, and wrote about it in detail in his last major book What Is Philosophy?. I wrote about that theory of how philosophy worked when I was going through that book myself, and over the next few posts, I want to talk about some of the ways Patton explores that theory.

It’s called meta-philosophy in the field, literally asking “What is philosophy?”. Of all the writing I’ve come across openly discussing meta-philosophy, only Deleuze really grappled with the ideas in a genuinely thorough and deep sense. I sometimes think that most philosophers are afraid to talk about the real conceptual foundations of philosophy.

Maybe they really are afraid. Do they worry that there’s nothing behind the curtain? Or are they afraid of just seeing a man behind the curtain?

The world doesn’t need gods. Reality does a good enough job.

Anyway, back to the nature of philosophical concepts. So every philosophical concept has its own logic. By this, I mean that when you’re guided by a particular concept in your thinking, some possibilities and potentials are more easily understood than others. That’s pretty simple to start with.

Now think about how concepts change over time. Concerns shift, historical contexts change. All the reasons why people think with that concept change. Patton mentions the concept of the social contract as an example, and I think it’s a great one.

For me, Hobbes as a person and a philosopher embodies
the uncomfortable tension that's always existed in
Western political thought between the belief in freedom
of democratic thinking, and the authoritarianism of the
institutions of the modern state, colonial imperialism,
and police institutions.
The concept of the social contract, in Western philosophy, began in its modern form with Thomas Hobbes. The social contract in this original form is resolutely authoritarian.

It’s the expression of someone whose life was upended by a civil war and military government that executed a king. That revolutionary government plunged his country England into political and economic instability for twenty years, until the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.

So stability and the sanctity of authority was of central importance to Hobbes as he was developing this concept of the social contract. It was a concept that saw freedom as utterly secondary to stability and peace – a concept that saw freedom as practically indistinguishable from chaotic civil war.

Is Hobbes concept of the social contract the same as contemporary Western theories of it? Patton is, in particular, thinking of John Rawls. Rawls was the paradigm liberal democrat of 20th century American philosophy.

His concept of the social contract was a careful balance of freedom and individual desire. It’s a balance of freedom and commitment to the general welfare. Peace is a part of that welfare, but only a small part. Hobbes’ Leviathan put little thought into economic matters like social welfare, which was at the centre of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, as well as many of his other major works.

So the concepts differ in many ways. Yet we understand more about both concepts by exploring the subtle and massive differences between them, as well as the points where these concepts converge despite their differences. Tracing continuity and change in the development of concepts is how the history of philosophy should be done.

No comments:

Post a Comment