Here’s a depressing thought that sometimes occurs to me: someone I teach may, one day, end up in a position of elected power. It’s not an unreasonable fear. The Houses of Parliament are stacked with former Oxford PPE students, shiny-faced and slick of hair, trumpeted by the University as proof of our continuing excellence. Many of our students seem halfway there already, constitutionally incapable of taking any stand on a position that matters. How long before one of them makes the journey from my tutorials to elected office?
The thought should be alluring. It offers philosophy, that most insecure of disciplines, the promise of political relevance. (‘Oxford Philosophy: shaping tomorrow’s leaders today.’) Plato tells us that politics needs philosophy, for “until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide… cities will have no rest from evils”. The thought is that philosophy teaches wisdom, or at least the love of it, and the philosopher – wise and careful as she is – governs with an enhanced understanding of that which matters.
What a consoling thought! Perhaps the Russian philosopher Jan Sten thought as much when Stalin appointed him as his tutor. But three years of tutorials on Kant, Hegel, Fichte and Schelling seems not to have improved Stalin’s governance, even if one can’t help but sympathise with his frustrated query, familiar to any first-year philosophy student, “Who uses all this rubbish in practice?” Nor was the appointment a good one for Sten. Stalin derided him as a desperate sluggard, and he was eventually pronounced a lickspittle of Trotsky and shot.
This wouldn’t matter if philosophy were simply neutral. I once argued for the election of a philosopher rather than an economist to a Research Fellowship on the grounds that the philosopher at least would do no harm. (I was ignored.) But things may be worse. Prime amongst the ‘transferable skills’ so lauded by philosophy’s proselytisers are those of drawing careful distinctions, of paying attention to small but subtle differences between cases.
The development of these skills is thought to be central to a philosophical education. (‘Oxford Philosophy: training tomorrow’s thinkers today.’) And when used effectively, they allow a clarity of thought shocking in its brilliance and precision.
But they sometimes lapse into institutionally sanctioned pedantry. And when they do, they have analogues in a particular kind of self-deception, that involved in rationalising our bad behaviour. It is easy for a philosopher, trained in the making of distinctions, to distinguish lying from reticence, as Kant did, when writing to a suicidal correspondent. Lying is contrary to the moral law, he claimed; reticence on the other hand…
Here is one use for philosophical thinking: to draw distinctions that make one’s immoral conduct seem permissible, even praiseworthy. It is the kind of thinking which justifies claiming light bulbs on expenses or pressuring one’s spouse into taking one’s speeding points.
It is as if philosophy provides the tools which enable us to do all that we do whilst looking in the mirror and saying: yes, you’ve done good.