The political field and it´s entities
The three entities of political theory, political philosophy and ideology are as I will aim to show interwoven into what could be called the political field. Though interwoven which one another, they are at the same time constituted by distinctive features which separate them both empirically and methodologically.
At least since Plato’s Republic there has been a debate about the disposition of power in society which accounts for the discipline of political theory. It’s aim is towards the production of power in society, how it can be applied, analyzed and criticized (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 4). Empirically, its subjects are political practices and organization and often the understandings produced by political theory are have a practical dimension through which they can aimed towards and be applied to these very same organizations and practices (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 9). Political theory thereby is what I would describe as the theory of political organization.
However this dimension doesn’t tell us much about the meta levels of political life. It doesn’t generate any insight into what it is that politics is about, that is, about the society in which political organizations act within. What are the foundations upon which for example democratic institutions build? On what basis can a liberal marked economy exist? To answer these questions we need to turn to political philosophy which is the application of philosophic thought and method upon the political field, concerning itself with normative questions like what the good life is, what it is that is morally proper, what justice is, etc (Gaus, Kukathas 2004;4). In contrast to the hard facts of political theory, political philosophy deals with what roughly could be described as the underlying values and beliefs upon which society builds, thereby acting as a compass for the organization of social life and political institutions (Gaus, Kukathas 2004;4). Political philosophy however can often be said to hold certain limitations which are directly related to it being a tradition within philosophy. Philosophical enquiry and it’s understandings can be hard to implement on a practical and pragmatic level. Philosophical methods and understanding do not merely pursue methodological purity or self-critical understanding, but are characterized by the search for certainty and truth through qualitative normative thinking. Its aim is toward an essential understanding of the truth about things. As a result, philosophical arguments can be seen as often being incompatible with the social or political field within which philosophy operates (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 5, 7, 9). In other words, whilst philosophy is determined to work out the essential truths about human life and the world it is situated in, it often fails to take into account the premises given by the world surrounding it and how these premises define what knowledge is practically applicable. Analytical philosophers do not necessarily study politics or any related field at all, but often apply their insights to the realm of politics(Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 4). If philosophy was to claim an undisputed position from which it should be applied to political or social life, the critique against it would be that it is fallible to its own methodological discourse (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 9). A good political argument for instance, which could be applied to actual life, would hold both ethical and analytical dimensions, something which would be depicted by philosophy (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 5).
However, philosophy should not be abandoned as a meta science which seeks essential truths that cannot be of any use to us. The connection to political theory has already been explained, but political philosophy also bears a clear link to the cultural and social realm within which ideology operates. The product of philosophy can be seen as ideology in itself with both entities tending to being based on abstractions from the individual or micro perspective to a generalized macro perspective (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 6, 7). Both are effective ways to normatively construct a system of belief or conduct, an aim towards ideals instead of rational pragmatism.
Turning to the field if ideologues, these are by many being defined as ubiquitous and patterned forms of thinking about politics. They are clusters or containers of beliefs, ideas, opinions, values and attitudes held by groups, providing them with guidelines for political actions. It is this function that tells us something about their functions and about necessary services they perform for such a community. All societies necessarily engage in such patterned thought about what is right and wrong, what actions should be rewarded, etc (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 6). It also provides people with a political identity and contains the logical and cultural constraints that make sets of political concepts intelligible, attractive or legitimate (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 7, 8). With respect to culture and social life, ideologies, working within these realms, are not merely entities directed to groups but are also group products reproduced by social action. Some carriers of these socially reproduced ideologies have often been philosophers, with Mill and Marx perhaps being the most clear examples, thereby again underlining the ideological dimension of philosophy and vice versa (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 11).
As the focus on groups, culture and symbols imply, ideologies, in contrast to political philosophy and partly political theory, are often not created by professional thinkers but social sectors with varying interest in political ideas and ends (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 9). Political theory and philosophy is to be understood by professional thinkers with the emphasis on the quality of their production, a contrast to ideologies’ understanding of effectiveness which lies mainly in their consumption, what effect ideologies and their promotion have upon social groups (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 11). Ideologies are public forms of language intended to be consumed by large groups of people and create shared understandings supposed to be turned into political practices (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 11). Furthermore, the broad audience needed for ideologies to have these effects limit the argument’s complexity. Aiming at public support, ideologies wrap rational discourse in varying layers of emotive idiom, assign emotional import to their key values and openly recognize centrality of emotion in socio-political interaction (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 11). Of course ideological arguments must always contain something logical, but in their pursuit they may fall short of the philosophic criteria of good reason. On the other hand, political philosophy, as mentioned, will not consider public emotion at all, which again can be viewed as part of its lack of ability to be practically applied to the actual world, if this was to be its aim (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 12).
The fabric of political thought
Just as political philosophy provides insights into the world within which political and social life is lived, lived ideologies together with philosophy make up the whole political life (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 7). These entities make up both methods and fields of investigation when trying to understand political life. In such an attempt one is often being led to what could be called the fabric of political thought, often summarized within the interrelated concepts of history, language and culture.
The position of history within political thought becomes clear when considering that political thought today still is necessarily concerned with the history of politics, its monumental texts and characters, its students still concerning themselves with the texts of, Plato, Machiavelli, Mill, Marx, etc. Political theory can be seen as backward looking, trying to interpret messages, their sender and its circumstances (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 18). This fascination of classic works forms a coherent line of study with each new generation reading the same texts anew and, since they can be thought to read them in ever different ways, gain new perspectives on them and their meaning (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 19). This turn to history has several implications. When reading a text written in a time before ours and trying to understand its context one may argue that we are actually trying to understand an alien culture from a time which we cannot know anything about for sure, and the best thing we can do is try to get some form of translation (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 19). This implies that time does bring with it change which cannot be undone, an anti-deterministic view which amongst others has been championed by Karl Popper and often is held to be relevant to the liberal tradition which rests upon the belief that human beings are the always present producers of what we call history (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 102). Also for conservatives history plays an important role who traditionally take history as their starting point. Conservatives however do disagree on what history can teach (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 131). Rationalistically inclined conservatives see history as pointing towards more fundamental considerations, a trait which can be seen as being shared with philosophy. History to them is the dimension which, if observed correctly, may reveal the true nature or essence of political, social or human life. Deriving from this position is also the belief that phenomenon such as social disorder may be related to a lack of coherency with certain eternal orders which can be observed through time (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 132). This position is not only relevant to conservatives but is an important part of many left wing ideologies. Marx history historical materialism for instance, which he inherited from Hegel, provided an account of an endogenous process of development and transformation which he used to analyze capitalism and other modes of production (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 80).
On the other hand, skeptical conservatives doubt that human beings are capable of understanding the lessons which may be learned through history and point towards an evident human fallibility (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 132). Evidently, how history is used within political analysis has a lot to do with the way one views human beings, in what degree they are able to determine themselves and create history, if they are able to gain insights by turning towards history or if humans underlie some form of eternal order which should be upheld or even upholds itself.
When addressing the question if history, and if what we are trying to learn from it is at all intelligible, one usually will have to deal with the question of culture. We have already shown that interpreting an old text to many requires diving into an alien culture. But the connection between culture and political thought is more distinct than that. Ideology for instance is intrinsically connected to culture, the difference being that culture is a social arena for the construction of community and cohesion, an arena where ideology, as we have shown may (re)produce itself (7, 8, Stråh 2006;32). Separated from economy and politics by enlightenment thinkers, the cultural turn within social sciences has resulted in a more integrative mode, viewing culture as providing repertoires on which political ideologies both draw and contribute. Cognitive structures are a constitutive dimension of both culture and ideologies (Stråh 2006;32, Griffin 2006; 83). Both culture and ideology interact mutually and change each other.
If culture, and ideology for that matter, can be said to be a structure of (re)productive symbols, social practices and meaning, language plays a vital part in this (re)production since it is the medium through which these structures can be mediated and spread. Why language plays such an intrinsic role is also implied in the observation that ideologies compete over the control of political language which is essential to political power (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 6). Language hence is the third entity which marks a main focus point in political analysis. In our time, hermeneutics as developed by thinkers as Gadamer, and language as understood by thinkers such as Wittgenstein, brought it and its interpretation to the front of social and political analysis. Thinkers such as these were able to point towards games of language and the conceptual inputs which shape human understanding (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 14). At the dawn of a new understanding of language, the meaning of spoken and written language was no more a given, as hermeneutics for instance would show that for instance political words such as liberty may stand for very different things depending on its context (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; ). As a result, interpretation of language turned into a premise for seeking meaning (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 18).
Discourse theory includes both spoken and written language and claims that the way people talk about politics uncovers shared assumptions and assumed capabilities within, but also surrounding, the political field (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 155). As shown in the interpretation of history and culture, the way language is analyzed is connected to the way one views humans and human conduct and in discourse analysis a pervading question is if the discourse is to be found within what is said or if language itself should be viewed as consisting of discursive practices (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 157).
When analyzing language it also seems as if a theory would be needed to guide the reader to what he or she is looking for. Marxian interpretation views each historical epoch as being ruled by ideas which serve the ruling class. Ideology for Marxists then is a set of system of ideas which legitimate the ruling class and the task of interpretation is aimed towards uncovering this system, to present what really is being said (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 19,20). Psychoanalytic interpretation, like Marxist interpretation, is a hermeneutics of suspicion, which bringing forth unconscious, tries to trace what really is being said (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 22).
Another system of interpretation, which amongst others has been developed by Karl Popper, analyses a line of thought which has been inherited over time and traces the root of totalitarian ideas (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 21, 22). In the same kind of mode, feminist interpretation tries to trace gender discourse (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 23). Here the connection between history and language becomes clear, viewing language as revealing what either is part of an inherited historical process or what through human action had been (re)produced and developed throughout history.
Another view upon language, interpretation and history can be found in the Straussian interpretation which holds that canonic works of Plato and others contain the whole truth about politics. Since this truth is eternal one is left with the task to read these texts in a special way if one is to acquire these truths (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 24, 25).
Postmodern interpretation in many ways breaks with all of these traditions in not viewing history as a line going forward. Within postmodern interpretation, progress is nothing more than a discursive interpretation in itself and according to thinkers like Foucault the concept of progress in itself often has been used as a means to oppress others (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 25). Postmodern interpretation is reluctant to believe in any form of coherency and instead uses as its starting point a view upon society and history as featured by fragmentation, discontinuity, disillusionment and contingency (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 25). Within this tradition Nietzsche and Foucault are two thinkers who saw interpretation as exposing and criticizing the ways in which human beings are being normalized or made into willing participants in their own subjugation (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 25). Whilst Nietzsche was a great moral critic, Foucault used interpretation to focus on the ways in which earlier thinkers have contributed to the mentality that paved the way for the creation and legitimization of the modern surveillance society (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 25).
Another aim of postmodern interpretation, as championed b Derrida, is to expose and criticize the arbitrary or constructed character of claims to truth or knowledge by examining various binary oppositions or dichotomies within language. Deconstruction in this sense means uncovering the discourse which builds up language, to uncover language as discourse in itself (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 26).
Gaus, Gerald F, Kukathas, Chandra (ed.) – Handbook of political theory – Sage 2004
Stråh, Bo – Ideology and history – Journal of Political Ideologies (February 2006),
Griffin, Roger – Ideology and culture – Journal of Political Ideologies (February 2006)