What is the relationship between politics and philosophy? Is philosophy intrinsically political? Is it as a whole or in part non-political? Does philosophy exist in opposition to, or in harmony, with politics? These questions are significant indeed, not only for the political philosopher, but also for the metaphysician and the epistemologist, the ethicist and the aesthetician alike. The idea that all philosophy, whether its object of reflection be this or that particular thing, is somehow politically embroiled by virtue of the very nature of its enterprise, is bound to unnerve those who would be wont to argue that any philosophy worthy of its name must ultimately seek to divest itself of, and thus transcend, the vicissitudes of both politics and history.

At the same time, it is abundantly clear that all philosophical activity is confined to the polis (city), that is, philosophy (despite all its abstraction) is never practiced in a vacuum. Historically, philosophers such as Hobbes, Socrates, and Plato existed as real individuals in real societies (which had particular forms of government). In light of this realization, then, how should we come to understand the relationship between the philosophy and the philosopher?

Do all philosophical claims, whether they be metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical in nature, stem exclusively from the exigencies of particular historically and culturally determined communities, of which the philosopher is but a member? If we are compelled to answer in the affirmative, isn’t this, in effect, tantamount to admitting that philosophy operates solely as a function of political expediency, that is, that it serves to reaffirm those values that are already presupposed by the polis? [1] Surely, this position is not to the credit of philosophy. For, if it were true, the statements of the philosopher would no more reflect a discernment of objective reality than the bellows of a froward infant. [2] It would essentially relegate all philosophical claims to the level of idiosyncrasies that derive from the normative priorities of particular communities.

It is for these reasons that we are forced to reject, unequivocally, all such categorical assertions, while at the same time recognizing the kernel of truth that lies deeply nested within this outer shell of falsehood. Our justification shall be twofold: On the one hand, the correlation between the conditions of the polis and the philosophical claims that emerge within those conditions appears to be quite undeniable. Yet, on the other hand, the relationship between philosophy and politics is an ambiguous one that still remains to be determinably seen. Even if we were to grant that philosophy, in a genuine sense, occurs only within a community setting and that in many cases, philosophical claims carry with them political implications, it still would not follow that, ergo, all philosophical claims are ipso facto political. [3]

Moreover, if philosophy is to truly remain philosophy, it must, in some respects, maintain its autonomy. A philosophy that emerges simply as the by-product of various political and historical contingencies is no more rational (and thus philosophical) than a pre-programmed computer. [4] I would like to emphasize the point that, by making this statement, I am not discounting the prodigious influence that politics has exerted, and continues to exert, upon philosophy, but rather, freeing it from despotic servitude.

Based upon the foregoing considerations, we may now arrive at the general conclusion that, philosophy, far from being intrinsically political, is but political in part. Even in its most seemingly politicized moments, it does in fact exemplify the non-political. Philosophy can best be understood then, in my estimation, as the embodiment of the normative and the descriptive; both the political and the non-political. In fact, an analysis of Plato’s philosophy vis-à-vis Hobbes demonstrates this quite clearly, and so it is to them that we shall now turn.

A cursory analysis of Plato will quickly reveal that his metaphysics, as well as his epistemology, depend crucially on the existence of entities called "forms" which embody certain attributes (ie. Justice, beauty, etc.); and the city, to whose construction he extends so great an effort, reflects the affirmation of these immutable qualities. Plato’s goal in Republic, then, is to provide a kind of unified theory, in which all the elements commonly regarded as conducive to "the good life" are tied together in a vision of eternal unity, orderliness, and stability. Plato conceives of the polis that emerges from this unified theory as a paradigm, an absolute ideal to which we are called to approximate ourselves as best as possible (Republic, lines 472-480).

In contrast, we see that Hobbes’ philosophy, as set forth in Leviathan, is at its core, grounded upon a mechanistic view of reality. Concepts that Plato had previously held as essential to the "good life" (such as "justice," "virtue," "beauty," etc.) are, for Hobbes, not metaphysically grounded in some greater essence, extrinsic in its relation to the sensible world, but in the very stuff that constitutes our natural selves: "motion" acting within a mechanistic framework.

What emerges from Hobbes’ metaphysics of "motion" is the vision of a self-centered, psychologically, and physiologically driven mankind scurrying about in a never-ending quest to fulfill her deep-seated, carnal desires. Thus, according to Hobbes, reality ultimately consists in an arbitrary, billiard ball-like play of motion; and an effective government should be based on this realization. To cure our political ills and contain the state of war that inevitably results from the action of such motion, we may have to submit to governments we thoroughly dislike. The only form of government consonant with implacable human nature, and thus the state of motion, is one that is endowed with the absolute power conducive to the preservation of peace. Only then, argues Hobbes, can man, unbridled by the immanent fear of death, endeavor to live the "good life," in pursuit of that which satisfies his lingering, internal motion: his desires.

Evidently, Hobbes and Plato present us with two distinct metaphysical theories that are essentially contraries, and tremendous ones at that. For whereas Plato conceives of ultimate reality as consisting in the super-terrestrial "forms" (as opposed to the world of seeming; the sensible realm), Hobbes’ materialistic conception designates the sensible realm, or more specifically, "motion," as the abode of all that we call real.

Which political gestures are ascertainable directly from both of these metaphysical schemes? What is common among both Plato and Hobbes, is the tendency to ground political models upon ontological claims. Within the writings of Plato, this approach is clearly exemplified in his theory of the "philosopher-king," as well as his insistence that the key to human welfare, and thus the welfare of the polis, ultimately resided in the "dialectic", as the means by which one goes about uncovering the nature of the "good" (the forms).

Likewise, Hobbes concurs in this basic approach, that is, his model of the "ideal city," is predicated upon a fundamental ontology. This ontology, as it turns out, forms the basis for concepts that play an ostensibly key role with respect to the formation of the civil state in Leviathan. [5] In this way, then, Hobbes’ philosophy, in agreement with Plato, extends priority to metaphysics and epistemology over and above politics, and in so doing, brings politics under its sphere of influence. Consequently, for Hobbes and Plato, the structure of the polis, and thus the way in which humans’ structure their lives, should, in principle, be geared toward conformity to what is known to be objective knowledge.

So much can be said of philosophy’s political facet. What, then, if anything, is left of the non-political in all of this? Given the political implications of both metaphysical systems, what aspect, if any, could be regarded as non-political in nature? The answer to this, I think, is that despite all the political seeds that these conflicting metaphysical theories bear, the theories themselves are not in anyway vitiated by the political, or more precisely, the normative. Since both theories purport to speak about the objective nature of reality—that state of affairs which obtains irrespective of our subjective conceptions—attributing to them some sort of normative quality would be an egregious error.

I would defy anyone to demonstrate to us how we could possibly go about justifying such an attribution? If a non-political aspect to philosophy were out of the question, then all descriptive claims would, of necessity, be normative in nature; they would essentially take on the status of subjective valuations, wholly determined by political and historical circumstance. Politics as a basic problem of philosophy would, in effect, have moved up a few notches, to its new status as the basic problem of philosophy, thereby succeeding both metaphysics and epistemology.

This is precisely where the fallacy lay. While arguing in favor of philosophy’s inability to escape the totalizing effects of the normative--and thus its imminent politicization—they implicitly assume an answer to those ever-obtrusive metaphysical and epistemological questions that they sought to subordinate. Allow me to elaborate. If we assume that philosophy is intrinsically political, and that therefore all metaphysical and epistemological claims are conditioned by politics—that is, the subjective valuations of a given community—aren’t we already presupposing the inadequacy of metaphysics, as well as epistemology? And if we argue that discursive reasoning and dialectic are somehow ineffectual in the adjudication of two competing ontological schemes, isn’t there an implicit epistemological judgement involved? If so, then it is clear that philosophy is not intrinsically political, but may, in certain respects, exist autonomously.



1. Either the entire polis or the philosopher as constitutive of it.

2. I assume the term "objective" in this context, to signify a state of affairs that
Obtains, irrespective of our subjective conceptions of it.

3. ie. Ontological claims, ethical claims, etc.

4. eg. It becomes an expression of that which is pre-determined.

  •  5. This includes concepts such as "the laws of nature," "reason," "consent," "obligation," "felicity," etc.

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    Final Paper

    By D. James Sgouras

    Philosophy 001

    Dr. Rick Lee