Lorna Finlayson’s book has the deceptively simple aim of showing that there is no distinction in kind to be drawn between the methodology of political philosophy and the philosophy itself. And, she suggests, since the methodology is in turn really just a way of trying to sustain the distinction between political philosophy and politics, the collapse of this distinction also supports the claim that the political philosophy/politics distinction is itself untenable. Political philosophy—or, it turns out, mainstream analytic political philosophy—has a mistaken understanding of itself as standing outside or above the messy power-ridden realm of actual politics, Finlayson argues; this misunderstanding is ideologically motivated, and the methodology of political philosophy serves to exemplify and buttress it. Showing that the distinction between the methodology of political philosophy and political philosophy is ideological, in the pejorative sense familiar from critical theory since Marx, will help to emancipate us from this misunderstanding and allow us to see that political philosophy is political all the way down. Thus emancipated, we will be better placed to see that much of what we have taken to be neutral philosophical virtues—constructiveness and charity are her examples—have been serving the ideological purpose of bolstering liberalism, while what presents itself as dissent from the primacy of analytic liberal political philosophy is already disciplined by this methodological buttressing in ways that mute its ability to challenge the dominance of liberalism.
In the second part of The Political is Political, Finlayson turns to consider two potential sources of dissent within analytical political philosophy: the first is feminism, and in particular the fate of the so-called ‘silencing’ argument associated with Catherine MacKinnon, whose case was that pornography is in itself harm against women; the second is non-ideal and realist political philosophy, and here her focus is the issue of ‘fact sensitivity’ as a control on philosophical elaboration. In both cases, she suggests, these dissenting voices are disciplined in ways that limit their critical potential.
It is important to be clear about Finlayson’s goal because, while the book is clearly written, its voice is often obstreperous. This is, I take it, deliberate. In a way reminiscent of early punk, Finlayson’s writing appears designed to demonstrate an ‘in-your-face’ attitude, a militant refusal to give a damn about niceties of social (here, philosophical) etiquette. This is signalled almost immediately in an introduction that includes a mocking attack on what is presented as the boringly conformist character of standard introductions to works of political philosophy, and this iconoclastic thread runs throughout the text. ‘How to Screw Things with Words’ is the title of the chapter on the silencing debate, for example, and indeed, in both her opening and closing discussions, Finlayson brings an often witty but intensely reflexive attitude to bear on the question of how political philosophy is written—and for all its punk demeanour and use of exaggeration and caricature, her book also demonstrates intelligence, insight and wit, communicating an abiding sense of this work as the product of a passionate attachment to political philosophy, a conviction that it really matters how we go about engaging in it and a sensitive (perhaps at times hyper-sensitive) feeling of frustration with current practice. No one gets this upset about things they don’t care deeply about.
Finlayson’s starting point is the widely acknowledged dominance of liberalism (in a broad sense) in Anglo-American political philosophy, but her critical focus is on the ways in which she thinks this dominance manifests itself in the construction of norms for the ‘proper’ conduct of political philosophy (hence her performance of impropriety). Finlayson was a student of Raymond Geuss’s at Cambridge, now teaching at Essex, and The Political is Political is her first book. In the opening chapter, she begins by neatly vivisecting a series of rather too easy (and hence perhaps suspiciously easy) arguments for the claim that liberalism is the only game in town because history has buried socialism, demonstrating that they are either confused, ideological or both (in the sense of deploying covert double standards). The second line of defence for liberalism’s intellectual hegemony is the demand that the critic must propose a constructive alternative—and this, or rather a version of it, is her main target. To clarify the issue, Finlayson restates the demand of ‘constructiveness’ in terms of three elements. First, criticism as contrastive: ‘we can criticize the world for being one way (the “fact”) rather than some other, better way that it could be (the critical “foil”)—and the contrast (the critical “foil”) that is intended by the critic, or that in any case is available to her to invoke, partly determines the kind of criticism that she can be construed as making.’ Second, a demand for modal proximity: the critical foil should be a possible world that is not too far from our actual world. Third, it should be ‘one which might actually come to be, given where we are now.’ This third point also hides an ambiguity between two distinct claims:
(i) to propose something compatible with the fact that F obtains now; or, (ii) to propose something compatible with F’s continuance, that is, something that could coexist with F.
Finlayson has two points to make here. The first is the charge that the demand for constructiveness illicitly slips from, or assimilates, (i) to (ii) in a way that obstructs recognition of the fact that we ‘might need to criticize things, knowing that they could not (“realistically”) be otherwise under the present system, but also believing that the system itself could—and should—be otherwise.’ The second is that judgements about what is or isn’t compatible with F and, hence, also judgements about (i) and (ii) are themselves likely to be subject to political disagreement. Further, identification of what comprises ‘the system’ and hence also arguments about whether it could or should be changed (and if so how and in what ways) are also liable to political disagreement. Recognizing this second point should make us wary of any claim that methodological considerations can be fully divorced from political stances.
Finlayson’s second target is the appeal to ‘reasonableness’ in liberal political philosophy. This involves, first, a critique of Rawls’s political liberalism—and the criticisms that she advances here are fairly common (and widely contested) in the analytic literature, amounting to the claim that Rawls’s appeal to reasonableness cannot bear the weight he puts on it in justifying his account of the possibility of an overlapping consensus on a political conception of justice. Her second, more original, step is to argue that if this criticism is valid then, like ‘constructiveness’ in her account, the appeal to ‘reasonableness’ serves methodologically to chill various forms of dissent. Thus, the liberal construction of ‘reasonableness’ can serve as a standard for excluding some radical views that deny the terms in which the liberal account of public reason is proposed. It may be the case, for example, that a liberal state cannot act on ecocentric reasons of the kind advocated by radical Greens because, on Rawls’s view, animals and nature are not part of the political community of justice; they lack standing-in-justice because they lack a capacity for a sense of justice. If that is the case, radical Green views that hold animals and nature to be part of the community of justice may not be able to find adequate expression within the bounds of public reason alone.