Wissenburg for dummies

We're not all academic political philosophers. There'd be a lot of people on the dole if we were, and the welfare state isn't what it used to be. Anyway - what I do for a living won't be all that evident to most visitors of this web site. I'll try to explain it on this page by answering seven questions as clearly and concisely as I can. You'll notice that particularly brevity is not one of my qualities - apologies in advance.

  1. What does an academic political philosopher do all day?
  2. What is political philosophy?
  3. Can you be a bit more specific?
  4. If it's so important, why don't I know you?
  5. So what are your convictions?
  6. And what is the answer to It All?
  7. If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?

1. What does an academic political philosopher do all day?

Most of the time I don't 'do' political philosophy at all, if 'doing' means 'doing research'. Most of my time goes into teaching or facilitating research.

Teaching can include 'doing' philosophy, but most of the time one is busy introducing students to the existing body of literature that they need to know about before I can introduce any new contributions to the field. That does not mean that they do not 'do' philosophy - but what is new to them is usually old and familiar to me.

Facilitating research means dull things like staff and committee meetings, and the ceaseless compilation of an endless variety of work assessment reports and plans for departmental, faculty, university, national research school and national research assessment committees. But it also means fun: visiting conferences to present your own draft texts, or reading other people's drafts and commenting on them, as a friend, colleague, supervisor or anonymous referee for journals and publishers.

This fun part is also perhaps the most important work an academic can do: testing and criticising one another's work, so that it can be improved. The official publication of one's research in books or journals is only one part of this process. Unfortunately, it is also the only part of the process that bureaucrats can measure (in terms of numbers of pages 'produced'), and the only thing on which they can base their assessments of the quality of research. Hence, 'scoring' a publication is often the end of research for many of my colleagues - 'end', both as in 'aim' and as in 'finish'.

Bureaucrats cannot measure the quantity or quality of work spent on 'facilitating research', therefore it does not count, therefore it counts as wasted time. Bureaucrats do to Academia what the Nazis did to Warsaw.

Anyway, to make a long story short: when I'm not busy with these things, and manage to get away from anything that can interrupt me, and can actually concentrate - then I try to 'do' political philosophy.

2. What is political philosophy?

Political philosophy is 'philosophising' about 'the political'. OK - that begs the question.

Philosophy, at least as I see it, is the branch of 'knowledge discovery' (or 'science', but that sounds too much like natural science) that in a way precedes all other branches of knowledge - not to mention all forms of voluntary action. It investigates questions that cannot be answered in laboratories, by experiments and observation, or through opinion polls. It investigates the concepts that are used in formulating the theories tested in laboratories, experiments or opinion polls, and more generally, the concepts we use to make sense of everything and anything we do. It investigates their meaning, their validity, their value.

Political philosophy asks these questions about - surprise - everything that has to do with 'the political', the organisation and design of society.

A few simple examples: How do we 'know' that we 'know' something to be true? What is knowledge, what distinguishes it from opinion, conviction, belief, prejudice, superstition?

Or, more typical for political philosophy: What is a good society? Hence: what is 'the good'? What is so good about the good - why should we be good or live good lives? What if we cannot agree on a common good - does that necessarily imply anarchy, a war of all against all?

3. Can you be a bit more specific?

OK. One example. Let us say that the government raises taxes, saying that it will spend it on something they call 'mobility', which they interpret as 'building more roads'.

Academics and politicians, and with a bit of luck some ordinary citizens as well, usually have their doubts about government policies. Some will want to know if the government really spends the money on roads, and if it spends it efficiently and effectively. Some will want to know if the public supports the government's policy. Some will want to know if building more roads really contributes to mobility. Some will even want to know - and now it gets complicated - if this tax raise says something about whether the almighty sovereign state is still almighty, or whether it is perhaps fighting a losing battle with international regimes or against loss of control due to economic globalisation.

All of these are interesting questions, but they're not philosophical questions. They can be answered in laboratories, or through experiments or opinion polls.

The kinds of questions a political philosopher could ask are different: is mobility an end in itself or a means to something else? Is this 'something else' (liberty, economic growth, happiness?) best served by mobility - and what are the costs in terms of liberty, welfare, happiness? Is the end (whatever end) worth pursuing? Given that we differ on what ends are worth pursuing, how can we live together at all? Is the rule according to which the new tax burden is distributed a just rule? What is 'justice'? Is it that which is accidentally accepted by an accidental majority of an accidental collection of accidentally existing individuals - or is it that which can be justified in reason, independent of the gut feelings expressed in opinion polls or elections?

In brief then: political philosophy reflects on the nature of political order, and on the criteria for and conditions of a good political order - which in turn is (probably) the most important prerequisite for any life worth living.

4. If it's so important, why don't I know you?

Because I try not to go 'public' - I try not to operate beyond the academic community. I tend to avoid my 'local' (Dutch) philosophical community as well, but that has more to do with differences in academic interests.

I do not go public, I do not operate in political circles (or not that often), because politicians are seldom interested in questioning their convictions, and far more in quick and easy ways of putting their convictions into practice. I do have convictions of my own, but they are usually far too abstract to imply that I should 'absolutely' be in favour of more roads, less taxes, more prisons, less welfare or whatever. And yes, I do get involved in politics behind the scenes, in liberal think tanks – first and foremost my favourite, the Telders Foundation.

Moreover, the public life is not my cup of tea. Democracy is ideologically more devoted than any other system to the idea that better answers to political problems can only be found through free and open debate in which the better argument wins - much like Academia. Yet to succeed in politics, one needs qualities like a lust for power, self-righteousness, commitment to one's own point of view rather than the truth, and a willingness to compromise even oneself. It is all too easy to get used to these qualities, and even turn them into virtues. I doubt if I have these qualities, but I know that I may not have the courage to resist making virtues out of them - and that is not the kind of person I want to be.

5. So what are your convictions?

Since I try to take my job seriously, I do not have any final answers, only guesses and hypotheses that I try to elaborate and test in my research. I do however draw inspiration from three ideas that I have so far failed to refute - and the more I fail, the more I believe in them.

The first is Brecht's saying that Zuerst kommt das Fressen, und dann die Moral (fodder first, morality is secondary). The second is the Enlightenment ideal of human emancipation. The third is the Aristotelian idea of virtue, interpreted as 'proper' use of one's capacities in dynamic harmony with one's social and natural environment.

I must admit that I don't rightly know what that third idea really means. It's complicated, that's for sure. I'm still working on it - I hope you'll forgive me if I ignore it for now.

As for emancipation, I am a firm believer in the Enlightenment's humanistic ideals. I consider an unexamined life, an unreflective life, to be a wasted life, and if it is a chosen path, the life of a moral coward. An examined life presumes freedom of thought, freedom of life style, and the freedom and courage to reject every prejudice, taboo and superstition. By implication, it presumes rejection of each and every instance of oppression, exploitation and ignorance, whether self-imposed or not.

But fodder comes first. For a great majority of the earth's population, the freedom to seek the life of one's choice is an unimaginable luxury. Emancipation therefore implies, in their case, empowerment, which, for the record, includes empowering them to free thinking. There can be no trading off of liberty for welfare, of empowerment for paternalism and consumerism.

Hence, in part at least, my interest in questions of justice and in the proper relation between humanity and nature.

I guess that most of this makes me a liberal (in the European sense of the word). In everyday life, I used to be a floating voter – nowadays I vote liberal and am even a member of the main liberal party, though not an active one – I want to remain neutral as an academic. Liberal parties tend to attract not only the greatest champions of the Enlightenment, but also bragging egotistic narrow-minded materialistic proles, company I prefer to avoid.

6. And what is the answer to It All?

Political philosophy is a branch of philosophy, and there is a common misunderstanding that philosophy can give answers to 'the questions of life' - why am I here, what is the aim of the universe, and so on. Philosophy cannot answer these questions: they are the wrong questions. They involve what is known as 'category mistakes': mixing concepts that cannot be mixed.

Examples are 'the smell of success' (it's poetic but success does not have a smell - garlic does) or 'the speed of liberty' (unless Liberty is a horse, of course). Likewise, if you've had even only theoretical instruction in human procreation, you should know that 'why am I here?' should read 'how did I get here?' - or it is a question for your parents. If this does not answer your questions of life, please join an occult branch, or save yourself time and seek professional psychiatric help. And please stop bothering philosophers.

7. If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?

I could answer this by saying that university life does not pay well, certainly not if you don't make atomic bombs, life extensions, Frankenfood, new techno-gadgets or new methods of raping the planet. I do not make anything that can be sold at an outrageous profit, i.e., by exploiting accidental advantages over buyers - nothing that can be sold with a straight face, dry eyes and a clear conscience.

I could say that, but it would not explain why I chose not to pursue any of these courses.

The right answer is that I had no choice - if I had had a choice, well... every soul probably has its price.

When I started to ask myself how I could make the best of my life, I simply got stuck trying to understand what a good life in itself is - and I made that my life. In Luther's words: I can do no other.

A note on the irony of history

The Peter Principle states that in a professional environment, anyone exhibiting any degree of competence will be promoted upwards in management-slash-bureaucracy and away from the tasks in which he or she actually appeared to excel, up to his or her personal level of incompetence, i.e., up to the point where he or she no longer has a clue and starts to mess up seriously. In the autumn of 2011 I unexpectedly become Head of the Department of Public Administration and Political Science (including the Centre for Conflict Studies Cicam). I now carry my oyster card (= public transport) in one of those kinky black holders with the text ‘I am not a minion of evil. I am upper management’. See above for my remarks on bureaucracy. I rest my case.