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"The Roles of the Political Philosopher" by Andrew Stewart (Keywords: Metaphilosophy; Theory; Truth)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

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What is a political philosopher? Here is one way of replying to this question. Philosophers study and reflect on deep, abstract matters. They seek the truth above all else. Long ago Socrates did this in a marketplace, Plato in an academy, Aristotle in a gymnasium; today, according to the cultural stereotype, philosophers dwell in book-filled offices and stuffy seminar rooms. Someone who does these things, one might say, is a philosopher. Now for a political philosopher. “Political” refers to politics, a complex and often frustrating jumble of phenomena linked to justice and injustice, government, power, and public debate. Putting philosophy and politics together, we get one possible view of what political philosophers are: philosophers who study politics. They do so like the stereotypical philosopher does, chasing after the truth in quiet places using their powers of reasoning.

But political philosophy is not just an activity pursued by individuals in isolation. Nor is it only a search for truth. We should reject the Simple Picture of political philosophers according to which they are merely philosophers who happen to study politics. Political philosophy is a complex social practice. Political philosophers are practitioners, participants, much like football players, French speakers, or sellers of insurance. No one is truly alone when they do these things. A new football player, French speaker, or insurance salesperson learns how to engage in the practice in question by observing and interacting with other people directly or indirectly. Practitioners coordinate and jostle with each other, each one pushing and pulling the others, the practice, and the world at large in various directions. The same goes for political philosophy and for political philosophers.

The Simple Picture gets in the way of genuine understanding and dialogue between political philosophers and their fellow citizens. To help everyone get on the same page, I will present an analogy, introduce some questions about the roles of the political philosopher, and finally sketch a richer, pluralistic picture of five of these roles.

An analogy

Imagine I tell you that an ancient religion called Justicism has survived to the present day. It demands neither prayer nor belief in gods, but rational inquiry. Its main ritual is to reflect upon the nature of justice and other political concepts, values, or principles, including fairness, equality, freedom, and legitimacy. These things happen to play a variety of important roles in human lives already, including those of non-Justicists. Ideas about justice and the like can motivate people to condemn, punish, apologize, and vote; stir spirits when evoked by a skilled orator; and help preserve or erode institutions. Justicists want to know justice itself; the nature of politics; what’s really going on and what ought to be done. “Why” is their favourite word. In pursuit of truth and understanding, Justicists read, write, and argue with each other. And over centuries of debate they have developed a variety of competing doctrines.

Justicism has never been anywhere close to a majority religion. But it has its own system of institutions and a public presence. Some of its most devoted practitioners spend their lives teaching and researching as clerics in Churches of Justicism. Though these clerics are sometimes mocked as if they were hermits or monks, they are not completely isolated. Clerics are part of the modern division of labour. Many Churches receive public funds. Moreover, many Justicists, clerics or not, are not content circulating their ideas in private conversations with their fellow believers. They defend Justicism and its variety of doctrines in the classroom, the town square, and the halls of high courts; in textbooks and editorials and manifestos. Many Justicists also try to influence social policy in light of their reflections, even to mould the minds of their fellow citizens by shaping public culture. While most practitioners can hope to observe only minor, indirect influence, some have advised politicians or even attained office themselves. And a few Justicists are canonized after their deaths, to be studied and venerated by generations of believers and nonbelievers alike.

You can join. Admittedly, acquiring an official position in a department of the Church is difficult and costly. There are relatively few openings, and it is easier for the privileged to obtain the necessary credentials. For centuries this was nearly impossible for anyone who was not a wealthy man. In any case, the chances that you will be canonized or get to personally advise the powerful are very, very low. But all it takes to start practicing Justicism is to think about Justicists’ favourite questions, explore some possible answers, and read a book or watch some videos on the Internet. Justicism helps people of an introspective and bookish sort understand their social world and dream of moving mountains. Many practitioners attest that their rituals generate a deep sense of fulfilment. Indeed, some of the most famous Justicists have thought that a life in their faith was one of the best lives, if not the best for a human being.

The influence of Justicism on society at large, like that of any religious tradition, has always depended on how its doctrines interact with human psychologies and historical contingencies. Its impact on the world is often gradual, indirect, and difficult to track. But the trick that has preserved Justicism for centuries is that it attracts followers and exerts influence by latching onto ordinary, even natural thinking. The political concepts and values of justice, equality, etc. – the objects of Justicism’s main ritual – play important roles in the lives of most people. This has helped Justicism bring about wonderful things, including large-scale social progress. It has saved and bettered many lives. That said, Justicism has also contributed to widespread suffering and death. Ideas and arguments produced by Justicist rituals have supported bloody crusades and stability for the wrong reasons. Justicism has inspired freedom fighters and spawned just institutions, but also given ideological cover to bigots, tyrants, and génocidaires.

With all of this in mind, would you become a Justicist? Would you take pride in the presence of Justicism in your society? Would you think Justicism ought to continue to exist? What about its institutions? How should it present itself and what should it preach? And how should its practitioners conduct themselves? Should they keep dreaming of moving mountains; should they actually try to move them? Should they present themselves as experts, or even proselytize? Should they withdraw from society as much as possible? Should they worry about how their ideas might be taken up by others in five or ten or one hundred years?

Compare political philosophy. Political philosophy extends beyond philosophy departments and beyond academia. It is filled up with books, journals, draft PDFs, scribbled notes, and conversations: in classrooms, among judges and community organizers, under the stars, even at the pub. Some of its practitioners have been part of the modern academic discipline of philosophy, or adjacent disciplines such as political science or sociology. Others predated these disciplines. Still others engage in political philosophy as public intellectuals, visionary activists, or amateurs with time on their hands. And this social practice has had a significant impact on the world. John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx inspired revolutions. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. led resistance movements. Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir were pioneers of feminism. Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, T.M. Scanlon, and Judith Jarvis Thomson joined together to brief the U.S. Supreme Court on assisted suicide. The ideas of Philip Pettit directly influenced policymaking in Spain. And although political philosophers do not share a single religion, organized or not, their collective contributions to human life over expansive time scales are similar to those of the world’s major religions. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism have also shaped and continue to shape the world by transmitting ideas and practices of reflection.

Conceiving of political philosophy as somewhat like a religion helps one attain a synoptic view of its place in human history.

The analogy doesn’t have to be perfect. Conceiving of political philosophy as somewhat like a religion helps one attain a synoptic view of its place in human history. In playing various social roles, political philosophy and political philosophers have had a significant impact on our shared social world. And playing these roles differently, or playing different ones, can make a difference.

Questions about roles I hope to have helped you see political philosophy through a social lens. I will now introduce two questions: which social roles do political philosophy and political philosophers play, and which social roles should they play?

When investigating the actual roles played by political philosophy, one might develop an account of its impact, just as I did for Justicism above. One might also devise a list of the practice’s core activities or its participants’ main aims. For example, in Justice as Fairness (2001), John Rawls describes four roles that political philosophy plays:

  1. a practical role resolving societal conflicts through reason;

  2. an orientation role that helps individuals think of themselves as citizens in their societies;

  3. a reconciliation role that “calms our frustration and rage” against existing societies; and

  4. a realistically utopian role probing the limits of “practicable political possibility.”

In On Justice (2020), Mathias Risse identifies seven distinct characterizations of the political philosopher’s role that have been articulated by historical and contemporary practitioners:

  1. guidance counsellor (Max Weber);

  2. guide to knowledge (Plato);

  3. obstetrician of the revolution (Karl Marx);

  4. conservator of the discourse (Jürgen Habermas);

  5. theory-providing citizen-discussant (John Rawls);

  6. critic of ideology (Raymond Geuss); and

  7. seeker of moral truth (Jean Hampton).

We should not expect a deductive argument that some mixture of these roles encompasses everything important that political philosophy does. Identifying roles of practices or practitioners is to engage in interpretation. It is, as it were, an “art” rather than a “science”. And it is likely that there are many fruitful ways to interpret social practices and their histories.

Normative or moral questions about what roles a social practice should play include ones about what it ought to be like, how it might be better, and how it should relate to other practices. These questions are challenging for several reasons. Since describing social practices and their roles depends on interpretation, we do not have a perfectly comprehensive and neutral set of facts readily available to help us evaluate them. We should also expect the answers to our questions to be sensitive to context. For example, whether and in what ways a social practice is good depend on which other practices, institutions, technologies, etc. exist alongside it. Imagine shopping at the mall without line etiquette or consumer protections. No existing social practices, and perhaps no feasible ones, are ideal; few were designed intentionally; most are highly complex.

That said, thinking about the social roles that individual practitioners play and should play can make normative questions about the roles of a practice more tractable. The ancient framework of role-based ethics, often associated with the ideas of Confucius, is still quite familiar in the contemporary world. We commonly think that as citizens, friends, colleagues, professors, children, parents, etc., we have special duties and reasons for action. Perhaps we can make some progress on questions about what the social practice of political philosophy as a whole should be like if we zoom in on what individual political philosophers should do. We would then need to zoom back out from time to time to see whether our conclusions make sense in light of the entire practice.

I think there is a moral burden on political philosophers to think about the social roles that they and their social practice play.

I think there is a moral burden on political philosophers to think about the social roles that they and their social practice play. Just about any adult human being ought to critically examine their priorities, memberships, career choices, and social identities from time to time. “Is this what I want to be doing with my time?” one might ask. “Is it consistent with my values?” Moreover, as I suggested above, political philosophers can have a significant impact on human history by thinking and talking about some of humanity’s most charged ideas. The activity of political philosophers therefore imposes risks on other people. So they should be able to provide some sort of justification of what they are doing and how they are doing it.

Five roles

In response to the questions and problems raised so far, I propose that political philosophers should think of themselves as playing not just one role but five roles: theorist, world-builder, storyteller, teacher, and citizen. These five interconnected sub-roles, when played well, all contribute to being a good political philosopher.

Each of the five parts of this picture has a corresponding guiding aim. Compare a doctor’s aims to promote health and to do no harm, a CEO’s aim to make a profit, a soldier’s aim to defend their homeland, a parent’s aim to give their children the means to happiness, and an artist’s aim to create art. Guiding aims are most salient to an agent when they are unsure how to proceed, when they experience internal conflict, or when they must defend their actions against others’ objections. Here are the five guiding aims of a political philosopher according to my preferred picture:

  1. Theorist Aim. To understand and present the truth about political concepts, values, or principles (justice, legitimacy, freedom, etc.) in the form of clear, rational argumentation.

  2. World-Builder Aim. To create, present, and understand non-actual social worlds that are relevant to political reasoning.

  3. Storyteller Aim. To tell good stories about politics.

  4. Teacher Aim. To cultivate a mutually beneficial pedagogical relationship with the audiences of their philosophical work.

  5. Citizen Aim. To use their engagement in political philosophy to act on their citizenship-based moral reasons.

While these five aims can be pursued together, we should also expect them to conflict at times. It is not generally true, however, that the first aim should take priority.

In some ways this picture is traditional. While theorizing may have come to be viewed as the central activity of political philosophers in recent decades, world-building, storytelling, teaching, and (engaged) citizenship have also been fundamental to the canonical texts of Western political philosophy and the lives of their authors. Plato wrote dialogues starring a fictionalized version of his teacher, Socrates. In response to a concrete political situation, the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes crafted a terrifying account of life without government. Rousseau fancifully described humanity’s fall from a peaceful natural state into inequality and corruption. Marx and John Stuart Mill engaged in practical politics themselves and tried to advance their own visions of a better society.

Yet this picture of the political philosopher is also revisionary. The pedagogical, creative, and – ironically – political dimensions of political philosophy are discussed far more often outside of contemporary analytic political philosophy. Many analytic political philosophers are in fact dedicated teachers and citizens who engage with fascinating worlds and tell powerful stories. But these other roles are not usually made explicit. (A notable exception can be found in the work of Martha Nussbaum, though it is usually philosophy in general that she links to literature, education, and practical politics.) In the continental tradition, political theory, and across the humanities and social sciences, discussion of the pedagogical, creative, and political dimensions of political philosophy is quite common.

Why might one choose a pluralistic view, rather than one according to which a political philosopher ought to be simply a theorist?

Why might one choose a pluralistic view, rather than one according to which a political philosopher ought to be simply a theorist? I think the latter will not do for a world in which expertise on justice, equality, and the like is reasonably contestable. Despite the division of intellectual labour in society, it is at least not obvious that political philosophers, however we identify them, know more about justice, equality, etc. than their fellow citizens, though they likely know more about what other political philosophers have said about such things. Thinking of oneself only as a theorist is also likely to interfere with communication with society at large. One reason this is important is that people in other life circumstances know things that are important for doing political philosophy well: people who are oppressed, activists, members of legislatures, public school teachers, psychologists, etc. Moreover, given the vastness of injustice and human suffering, I do not think that political philosophers can in good conscience view theoretical truth as their sole target.

This bundle of challenges for a theorist-only picture can be combated by introducing the four other roles I have suggested. Here is one way things might go for a political philosopher who plays and thinks of themself as playing all five roles. They work on developing theories that are not only accurate and rationally defended, but also intelligible to their fellow citizens. In the course of theorizing they imagine a variety of alternative social arrangements, presenting some of them to defend their arguments and to pique the interest of or even motivate their readers to pursue social change. They write creative stories that can function as thought experiments while doing all the other things that children know stories can do. They try to encourage their readers to think more about the questions that they find so interesting, like a good teacher does in the classroom with their students. And they reply to the claims and interests of their fellow citizens as their fellow citizens, trying to use their work to make the world a better place.

What, then, is a political philosopher, and what should they do? I have explored several partial answers to these questions. My account of the five roles of a political philosopher points us in one direction. It would be too restrictive to say that someone must be a theorist, world-builder, storyteller, teacher, and citizen in order to be a political philosopher. So it will not work as a definition. But I think a political philosopher ought to be, or at least to try to be, each of these five things.

I put forward this picture as a template. It doubles as a model for those on the outside, as well as for those who are just taking their first steps into the great sea of political philosophy. My hope is that it reveals what makes political philosophy a practice worth practicing.

Andrew Stewart is a philosophy Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California, with primary research interests in social and political philosophy, ethics, the history of political thought, and metaphilosophy. Website:


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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