Philosophy in the so-called ‘analytic’ tradition has a strange relationship with politics. Normally seen as originating with Frege, Moore, Russell and Wittgenstein in the early 20th century, analytic philosophy was originally concerned with using formal logic to clarify and resolve fundamental metaphysical questions. Politics was largely ignored, according to the Oxford analyst Anthony Quinton, before the late 1960s. Political philosophy, in fact, was routinely pronounced ‘dead’ at the hands of the analysts – so dead that the tepid output of John Rawls (whose A Theory of Justice was published in 1971) could appear as a revival.

At the same time, analytic philosophers were not uninterested in politics. Bertrand Russell is an especially well-known case, but other figures such as A. J. Ayer and Stuart Hampshire – both supporters of the Labour Party (and in Ayer’s case, later the Social Democratic Party) and critics of the Vietnam War – were also politically involved. The reluctance to engage with politics in their professional capacities might seem thus to reflect not lack of political interest, but a view of philosophy as a largely separate sphere. Russell, for example, wrote that his ‘technical activities must be forgotten’ in order for his popular political writings to be properly understood, while Hampshire argued that although analytic philosophers ‘might happen to have political interests, […] their philosophical arguments were largely neutral politically.’

While at times insistent on the detachment of their philosophy from politics – stretching to a pride in the ‘conspicuous triviality’ of their own activity that the critic of ‘ordinary language philosophy’ Ernest Gellner saw as requiring the explanation of social historians – the analysts at other times floated some quite strong claims as to the political value and potential of their own ways of doing things. As Thomas Akehurst has shown, ‘many of the leading British analytic philosophers of the post-war period made it clear that they took analytic philosophy to be in alliance with liberalism’ and ventured that certain analytic ‘habits of mind’ – in particular those associated with the ‘empiricist’ school dominant at that time – might offer a crucial protective against various forms of ‘fanaticism’.

It was less clear how this was supposed to work. The analysts’ own pronouncements on the relationship between their philosophy and politics seem to amount to little more than a declaration of a monopoly on openness, a boast of humility, a set of dogmatic and opaque assertions about the inhospitability of the analytic method to dogma and opacity (‘no-bullshit bullshit’, to borrow the moniker later bestowed on the so-called ‘no bullshit’ school of ‘analytical Marxism’ by its critics). ‘Empiricism is hostile to humbug and obscurity, to the dogmatic authoritative mood, to every sort of ipse dixit’, the Oxford philosopher H. H. Price had written already in 1940: ‘The same live-and-let-live principles […] are characteristic of liberalism too.’ In a similar vein, in his 1950 essay ‘Philosophy and Politics’, Russell describes empiricism (‘the scientific outlook’) as ‘the intellectual counterpart of what is, in the practical sphere, the outlook of liberalism’, and hailed Locke as the exemplification of the ‘order without authority’ allegedly central to both philosophies.

Between them, Russell and Price seem to be suggesting a series of links between 1. clarity, 2. the rejection of epistemic authority (amounting to a value of ‘thinking for yourself’); and 3. the rejection of political authoritarianism, a rejection which is assimilated to 4. liberalism, seemingly interchangeable with 5. democracy. Besides the looseness of the conceptual links in this chain, there are questions to be asked about its attachment to reality: about the relationship of these assertions by the analysts to actual analytic philosophy and philosophers, and to actual liberalism and liberals respectively. When Price lauds an intellectual culture ‘of free, co-operative inquiry, in which anyone may put forward any hypothesis he likes, […] provided it makes sense’ (which presumably means: makes sense to analytic philosophers), he evokes an image of a non-hierarchical, egalitarian discipline that is likely to strike those with experience of the culture of analytic philosophy as something of an idealization, to say the least. As for liberalism, Locke, and ‘order without authority’: what can you say, apart from maybe, ‘Don’t mention the slavery’?

Here we touch on another aspect of the analysts’ inchoate claim to offer a protective against political vice or misadventure. This is the wariness of ‘ideology’ and ‘theory’ (especially of the ‘grand’ variety). As Akehurst parses it, the idea is that a ‘focus on the concrete saves the empiricist from following grand theories, metaphysical chimeras and other strictly meaningless exhortations to devalue reality in favour of dangerous ideological fantasy.’ The thought here is intuitive enough, and liberals are not the only ones to feel its force – something like it is a theme of much anarchist writing, for instance. Yet whatever is to be said about it, it cannot be so simple as ‘Theory bad, Reality good.’ Rigid adherence to ideals, theories or principles can play its part in the commission of atrocities. But, first, what entitles liberals to the assumption that it is only other people who have ‘theories’? And second, can’t there be a converse and equal danger in the lack of fixed principles? Is ‘never torture’ a dangerous piece of dogma? Is it better to cast off such ideological baggage and keep all options on the table, doing as the facts of the situation (as we see them) demand? Liberalism’s history, in any case, boasts its fair share of terrible deeds committed both in the service of ‘grand ideals’ (for what else can we call ‘Liberty’?) as well as in response to the more ‘concrete’ considerations of expedience and profit.

If on the one hand analytic philosophy has presented itself as politically neutral, it has also regarded this very neutrality – this supposed freedom from dogma and ‘ideology’ – as the guarantor of liberal political conclusions. Analytic political philosophy, which has flourished and proliferated since the later part of the twentieth century, has preserved this basic posture. I wrote about this in my first book, The Political Is Political. What struck me about analytic political philosophy as a student (and what my tautological title was meant to capture) was that the subject was both paradoxically depoliticized and also political in covert ways. Under the influence of Rawls in particular, political philosophers have had remarkably little to say about actual politics or history. Armed with a sharp distinction between ‘descriptive’ and ‘normative’ (or ‘is’ versus ‘ought’), characteristic of the analytic approach, they have judged that such matters are the appropriate domain of social scientists. By contrast, the distinctive business of philosophers is to concentrate on the articulation of abstract ‘principles of justice’, often in the form of ‘ideal theory’. The contemporary political philosopher Charles Mills, while a self-identified adherent of the liberal-analytic approach, has criticized ideal theory as a form of ‘ideology’ in a loosely Marxist sense: a distortion of thought that reinforces an oppressive status quo by sanitizing and distracting from its ‘non-ideal’ features (Mills emphasises, in particular, the history and legacy of slavery in the United States).

Not only do philosophers in this tradition neglect real politics, I argued, but they also operate with a series of ostensibly neutral or ‘common sense’ methodological values  – ‘constructiveness’, ‘reasonableness’, ‘charity’ in argument – which invariably turn out, on closer inspection, to be interpreted in such a way as to favour liberal conclusions in advance, ‘begging the question’ against dissenting perspectives that might call for a more radical deviation from the political status quo. The injunction to ‘Be realistic!’, for example, commands virtually universal assent (who wants to be ‘unrealistic’?) but tells us nothing useful until filled out with some judgements as to what ‘reality’ is like and how it might be changed.

These, of course, are exactly the sorts of questions that are in dispute between people of different political outlooks. But what tends to happen in political philosophy, as in the wider world, is that taking account of reality is conflated with proposing less in the way of change, so that ‘realism’ and radicalism are assumed to be in inherent tension. Thus, while the ‘realist’ current in contemporary political philosophy is in one sense a challenge to the dominant approach (of ignoring real history and politics), it often ends up further entrenching a status quo bias, by equating ‘realism’ with small-c ‘conservatism’ and positioning ‘ideal theory’ as the peak of radical ambition.

Illusions of political neutrality, whether within the confines of academia or outside of it, are always deeply political, and usually conservative. (Think of the role that a faux-neutral, supposedly common-sense notion of ‘electability’ has played in British political discourse in recent years.) The answer, as I argued in the case of analytic political philosophy, is not to try to replace false neutrality with a ‘true’ one. The idea that this is possible, let alone desirable, is itself illusory. Judgements and assumptions about what is important, what kind of place the world is and what it could or should become – which is to say, political judgements and assumptions – are always and already embedded in the concepts and values we use to make and evaluate statements and arguments in philosophy and elsewhere. If there is an affinity between analytic philosophy and liberalism, it is perhaps in their mutual tendency to project this sort of illusion – to proceed as if their politics is no politics at all, just ‘realism’, or ‘common sense’. From this vantage point, the opponents of analytic philosophy and of liberalism can only appear respectively as obscurantists and fanatics. It’s no surprise, therefore, that some prominent analysts (Russell among them) became such ardent Cold Warriors.

The observation of G. J. Warnock, in 1958, that analytic philosophy was compatible with ‘a quite striking ideological range’ is clearly true, though Warnock also conceded that ‘there may be some deep-seated similarity of attitude and outlook’ not easily detectable to those who share in it. The political flavour of the school has been predominantly liberal, but it has not been exclusively so (think of analytic Marxists such as G. A. Cohen, or the radicals among the earlier ‘Vienna Circle’ of logical positivists). ‘Liberalism’, in any case, has meant (and continues to mean) different things to different people. Also like liberalism, ‘analytic philosophy’ is a slippery enough category to be resistant to any definitive characterization. It is not that analytic philosophy has any particular, fixed political content or valence. But its tendency toward ahistoricism and abstraction creates a vacuum at its heart, into which comes rushing, too often, too easily and too quietly, the dominant politics of the day. 

Read on: Lorna Finlayson, ‘Rules of the Game?’, NLR 123.