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Thomas de Zengotita Headshot

Why Philosophy Should Matter to Progressives

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Once in a while I post something about "progressives" and philosophy -- by which I mean a set of concepts that would describe the human condition at this historical moment in terms that unite us around core principles with obvious implications for policy.

I am bemused by how some people think this is an irrelevant concern -- something "elite," a waste of time. What progressives need, they say, is action. Sometimes that means something like "Congressional Democrats should rally around Murtha." But other times it means something like "forget Democrats, they are hopelessly compromised -- do something radical." Specifics vary, to say the least.

Clearly, there's a problem here. The word "progressive" is...ah...subject to interpretation, shall we say?

As someone who voted for Nader in 2000, I've had a lot to think about since then, obviously. One thing I think is that the word "progressive" caught on precisely because it fudged the difference between liberal democrats and more radical folk as the Bush administration set out to gut the New Deal domestically and impose empire internationally. If that's right, then to say that progressives need a philosophy is to say we need to do more than fudge that difference because it's convenient for purposes of uniting in opposition to the Bush regime. We need to bridge that difference with concepts that will define what it means to be a progressive in positive terms, in today's world.

Providing such concepts is philosophy's job -- so it isn't irrelevant. It calls for some intellect and education, that's true -- and if that's "elite," so be it. Tell it to John Locke -- or Marx, or W.E.B. DuBois. They had to think and study long and hard to produce the ideas they produced but, once those ideas were out there, they moved a lot of people.

Take, for example, the concept "natural" as in "natural rights" and "natural law" -- as in the founding concept of the Bill of Rights. In early modern times, it was not at all obvious that you could distinguish the natural from the traditional. Something like the divine right of kings (and by extension, nobles and bishops) seemed both natural and traditional, all in one package. It took philosophical work to articulate the concept of nature so it stood in opposition to the concept of tradition -- and in such a way that the authority of nature superseded the authority of tradition. That conceptual achievement transformed how millions of people thought about their place in the world and guided their actions, making modern representational government a reality.

We need something of comparable depth and originality now, but something new. The concept of natural rights etc. -- at least as originally framed -- no longer serves. Darwinian "nature" cannot logically anchor such notions the way Enlightenment Deism could. Postmodern progressives, both liberal and radical, moved into that breach and actually led the critical attack on Enlightenment categories like "nature," helping to create the philosophical vacuum over which we are now suspended, clamoring for action in a world that makes sense only to fanatics.