Featured Philosop-her: Michele Moody-Adams

I am very pleased to welcome Michele Moody-Adams as a featured Philosop-her. Michele Moody-Adams is Joseph Straus Professor of Political Philosophy and Legal Theory at Columbia University. She has also served as an academic administrator for much of her career,  most recently as Dean of Columbia College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education at Columbia from 2009-2011.  Moody-Adams has published broadly in ethics, political philosophy and the history of philosophy, and is the author of a widely cited book on moral relativism and moral objectivity, Fieldwork in Familiar Places:  Morality, Culture and Philosophy.  She is currently working on a series of interrelated concerns for democratic theory:  including the problem of democratic stability,  the problem of democratic disagreement,  democracy and civic virtues, and  the relationship between memory and democracy.  She is also completing a book length project on the moral demands that history makes through calls for reparations, reconciliation, national apologies and forgiveness.

Her post follows.


Political Philosophy or Political Theory:  A Distinction without a Difference? 

How do we distinguish political philosophy from political theory?  This has been a lively topic in the academic blogosphere for at least a decade.  After reconsidering the opening pages of Rawls’s Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (JFR),  in which Rawls raises the question of what role political philosophy might play in political practice, I want to extend the debate.  I want to argue that Rawls’s account helps to counter the charge that political philosophy is too prone to “abstraction” and too detached from political life to be capable of making a difference in the “real” world, and to suggest that his account generates reasonable doubt that we can reliably distinguish between political philosophy and political theory.

In Section One of JFR, Rawls considers four ways in which political philosophy can have practical political impact:

(1)  by helping to settle divisive political conflict, through uncovering deeper bases of agreement underlying the conflicting views;

(2)  by serving as a source of conceptual “orientation,” to assist  those who seek a reflective understanding of their society’s political institutions;

(3)  by encouraging “reconciliation” with generally defensible political institutions, displaying their (overall) rationality and calming “frustration and rage” at institutions which may depart from important tenets of our individual comprehensive conceptions;

(4)  by “probing the limits of political possibility,”  to yield a “realistically utopian” and hopeful vision of a shared political  future. 

It is relatively unproblematic to hold that political philosophy might help to resolve disagreement and contribute to shaping the self-conceptions of reflective citizens.  But we may worry that the (broadly Hegelian) project of “reconciliation” might seem to encourage an uncritical quietism that is likely to silence social criticism and change.  Reconciliation, however, is only one of the roles that Rawls thinks political philosophy may play. That project is dwarfed by the majesty of Rawls’s lifelong effort to understand the requirements of justice in a liberal democratic society, and to do so in a fashion that richly extends our understanding of the limits of political possibility.  This effort has profoundly affected how reflective people (both outside and inside the academy) think about liberty, equality, and the relation between them—even among critics of Rawls’s views.  Rawls’s work has also influenced efforts to reshape the basic institutions of liberal democratic societies (as well as the relations between them and other less well-off societies).   In fact, the extraordinary reach of Rawls’s work makes it difficult to maintain convincingly that political philosophy is too abstract or detached to make a difference in political society.

Even the difficult and systematic political philosophy of a thinker such as Rawls, then, is deeply engaged with political practice.  Still, there will be those who want to defend the claim of broad philosophical detachment from political reality.  Some will argue that political theorists simply care more than political philosophers do about the real world of political action and institutions.  It may also be said that political theorists who are interested in the history of political thought typically attend more fully than political philosophers to the question of how political ideas emerge from particular socio-historical contexts, and to the problem of what role political ideas play in reshaping the contexts from which they emerged.  Those who understand “political theory” in these terms will insist that even when political philosophers begin by professing interest in historical context, or the data of political life, they quickly become preoccupied with analyzing the concepts and commitments that underwrite political life and with addressing questions more at home in epistemology, metaphysics, the philosophy of language, and logic.  When the focus of their work turns primarily to answering such questions, it will be urged, political philosophy becomes unavoidably “abstract” and “detached” from the real world. Michael Walzer has defended this view by seconding Wittgenstein’s observation, in Zettel,  that “The philosopher is not a citizen of any community of ideas; that is what makes him a philosopher.”

Walzer goes on to claim, in Interpretation and Social Criticism, that political philosophy’s detachment from practice is revealed in philosophical attempts of to discover or invent new political or moral principles that bear insufficient connection to everyday life.  Rawls’s work on the difference principle, he argues, is a crucial example:  for Walzer, the difference principle can be understood only if we see it as the outcome of an elaborate process of invention.   Yet, Rawls consistently (and I think convincingly) maintained that the difference principle is an interpretation:  it as a way of articulating a conception of reciprocity, and an attempt to produce a reasonable interpretation of the idea of mutual benefit.

Some will reject Rawls’s interpretations of the concepts of mutual benefit and reciprocity either as intrinsically indefensible, or as incompatible with institutions that might allow us to realize other important political values.    But it is one thing to produce an unconvincing interpretation of a familiar concept, and an altogether different thing to invent a new political concept or idea.  More important, any attempt to elaborate disagreement with Rawls’s interpretations will bring home just how fully engaged Rawls’s work was in drawing out, and systematizing, the considered convictions that shape reasonably just, but actually existing,  liberal democratic institutions.  From the early arguments in the 1950’s, through the late work in  JFR (2001), Rawls’s engagement with political practice consistently confirmed that moral and political philosophy are unavoidably connected to the data and experience of everyday life, and that genuine moral and political inquiry are fundamentally interpretive projects.  [I elaborate various aspects of these claims in my “Theory, Practice and the Contingency of Rorty’s Irony” (1994);  Fieldwork in Familiar Places (1997); and “The Idea of Moral Progress,”  (1999).]

It may be true that what is typically called political theory tends to have a closer link with contextually rich details of political institutions and empirical data than do the projects we typically designate as political philosophy.  But anyone who reads the work of contemporary political thinkers concerned about such topics as global justice, human rights, multiculturalism, and gender and racial inequalities, will appreciate that, whether it comes from self-described political philosophers or political theorists, the most compelling work in this area is deeply engaged with contextual details.  As a result, it is sometimes difficult to know when to treat the relevant work as political philosophy and when to see it as political theory.   But, in many instances, such work is effective for precisely this reason: it challenges our sense of how to draw the boundary between the two disciplines.

Even when we feel relatively confident drawing the boundary in a particular case, the fact that a theory has a central focus on “practice” and “the empirical” does not guarantee that it will have a practical impact on political life and institutions.   In the realm of the political (as, indeed, in any kind of theorizing) the “gap” between theory and practice can be bridged only by agents who are able to draw out the lessons of a theory and who are also willing, sometimes in the face of resistance, to try to put those ideas into practice.   Political theory and political philosophy, alike, have effects in the world only by means of such agents—some of whom may also be political theorists and/or political philosophers, but many of whom (perhaps understandably) are not. (I discuss this issue at length in “The Idea of Moral Progress”).  It bears emphasizing that some of the most influential and effective “gap-bridging” political agents have been inspired by the thought-experiments produced in political philosophy, and that this work, by re-interpreting familiar concepts and practices, expands the limits of political possibility and encourages us to see ourselves and our institutions in new ways.  Indeed, an inspiring thought-experiment in political philosophy can sometimes be more effective at inspiring and empowering agents of political change than even the most empirically rich political theory.

Yet whether political thought self-consciously adopts the label of political philosophy or political theory, or claims to be a complex hybrid, too often it still remains insufficiently attentive to facts about liberal democracies that reveal just how far we are from even a “realistic” utopia.  (Regrettably, even Rawls’s treatment of these issues in his late work seems to fall short of the mark.)  An important virtue of continuing work on gender inequality, racial discrimination, class inequalities, and the challenge of global justice, is the clarity with which this work reveals some of the shortcomings of conventional political thought.  Lasting remedies for these shortcomings will depend upon three developments: (a) widespread recognition that neither political philosophy nor political theory can be done apart from a serious engagement with political reality; (b) broader appreciation of the fact that the best work in each discipline has always reflected such engagement; (c) finally, greater intellectual openness –particularly within the academy—to work that straddles any supposed boundaries between political philosophy and political theory.  In short, further progress in political thought depends upon facing the very real possibility that the distinction between political philosophy and political theory may be a distinction without a difference.


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