When Politics Becomes Like Philosophy
Trouble is on the way
In philosophy everything is up for grabs. Politics is becoming like this. There is less and less on which we agree. We can't even agree that nations need enforceable and enforced borders!
Widespread and deep-going lack of consensus in philosophy casts serious doubt on the cognitivity of the discipline, its claim to be knowledge. If that is what it is, why have none of its problems ever been solved to the satisfaction of a majority of its competent practitioners? This is perhaps no big deal as long as the controversies of the cognoscenti are confined to the ivory towers. Technical academic controversies rarely spill into the streets. No one literally gets up in arms over the correct analysis of counterfactual conditionals. But when weightier controversies seep into the general culture, trouble of a non-academic sort is on the way.
Widespread and deep-going lack of consensus among the citizens of a country on matters of fundamental philosophical importance can lead to civil war. The USA is now in a state of mainly cold civil war, but things have been heating up and getting uglier by the day.
The denigrators of philosophy typically dismiss it as so much hot air. What they don't realize is that many if not most of the hot-button issues that exercise people, the denigrators included, are philosophical at bottom. To see what I mean, consider some of the issues that divide Left and Right:
For the Left, people are basically good; for the Right, they are not. The answer you give presupposes an answer to question number four on Kant's list: What can I know? What ought I do? What may I hope for? What is man? This is the main problem in philosophical anthropology.
For the Left, (material) equality trumps liberty; for the Right it is the other way around. This is obviously a central question in political philosophy.
For the Left, the differences between the sexes are socially constructed and therefore malleable; for the Right, socially constructed gender roles are secondary to biological and perhaps even metaphysical differences between males and females that cannot be socially engineered. This a variation on the ancient conflict of idealism and realism. The social constructivists are a species of idealist.
For the Left, abortion is a woman's reproductive right and simply a matter of health care; for the Right, the human fetus, at least in the later stages of its development, is a biological individual with its own right to life that ought not be violated. Abortion is a bloody enactment in concreto of competing positions in metaphysics about questions regarding time, change, and personhood.
For the Left, the purpose of art is to "challenge the status quo and bourgeois sensibilities"; for the Right, "to produce works of beauty and profundity to elevate the individual and society." (I quote from Dennis Prager.) Questions about the nature and purpose of art belong in aesthetics.
These are very deep philosophical disagreements. Time was, when most of us didn't disagree about them or even raise them as serious questions. The answers in broad outline were provided by our founding documents and the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian heritage that underpin them. But now these and other philosophical disputes are political disputes. In this sense our politics have become like philosophy. Everything is up for grabs, including what it is to be woman!
And that means trouble. ‘Interesting’ times up ahead! I advise you to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.