On The Importance of Philosophical Frameworks in Politics

Humans are social by nature. We live in groups. What, then, ought to be the relationship between the group and the individual or even between individual members? How do individuals co-ordinate group activity? Those questions are essentially the subject matter of all of Political Philosophy. How we answer those questions dictates the kind of society we have. At the risk of an oversimplified definition, public politics in its democratic form is really a discourse about what the answers to those questions should be.

Therein lies the importance of philosophical frameworks. Concepts like Liberty, Justice, Laws, Rights, Duties etc., help us frame our political arguments and without their aid, political discourse reduces to a crude, directionless power game. I don’t mean to say that ethical frameworks have an objective truth to them, but to use an analogy, it’s akin to attempting to solve a problem of the dynamics of right bodies without the aid Newton’s Laws. It just gets messy.That, I submit, is what’s fundamentally wrong with the conduct of politics in India. It isn’t so much the lack of a meaningful political discourse, like many bemoan, that is the problem, as it is the lack of necessary thought frameworks. In other words, I suggest that we cannot have a meaningful dialogue precisely because we lack the necessary frameworks.

It is only a very vulgar historical materialism that denies the power of ideas, and says that ideals are mere material interests in disguise. It may be that, without the pressure of social forces, political ideas are stillborn: what is certain is that these forces, unless they clothe themselves in ideas, remain blind and undirected.–Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin.

Democracies, more than other forms of government, are prone to the quality of dialogue because of their very nature. If I were to make a utilitarian argument, I would suggest, considering the quality of dialogue we conduct, that we might be better off under a benevolent dictator than as a democracy. Perhaps, that’s the charm of dynasty politics then?–we can’t conduct a meaningful dialogue, so we better let someone we trust conduct affairs for us. Maybe. I don’t know. Of course, that’s trivializing the issue and ignoring other, perhaps more powerful, social forces.

Here is Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the issue of the freedom of speech in India:

“Neither Hindutva groups, nor Islamic groups who take offence at any lampooning of Islam, have an interest in delineating the justifiable contours of what counts as offensive speech. What they have rather, is an interest in demonstrating their power.” [source]

That isn’t an isolated case. It is merely symptomatic of the general malice that afflicts affairs in our public sphere. Forget politics that appeals to the masses. How about our higher institutions? I tend to think things, though marginal better, don’t measure up there either. Consider our legal system–those institutions which ought to reflect in the most profound manner on the values of our society. Mehta has this to say further down in that article and elsewhere in reply to a blog post:

While the court makes expansive rhetorical claims on behalf of free speech, it equally makes expansive jurisprudential claims on restricting it.

..it[Maharashtra High Court] does what a court should try and avoid. It directly engages in an interpretive battle with the petitioner over certain ayats of the Quran, trying to produce an “authorised” interpretation. This is disturbing because it frames the issue of religion in a bizarre way. Indian courts keep going to great lengths to show that there can never be anything offensive or bizarre in a religious text (and come up with claims like no religion can even preach violence, all religions are progressive if not the same and so forth)”

And although Courts routinely make a distinction between criticism of religion and offensive criticism, they have blurred the lines in a way that even criticism becomes difficult.” [source]

Perhaps Mehta isn’t damning the entire judicial system, and merely questioning their actions in one area, but in the cases that make it to national news, I rarely felt the courts display a clarity of thought befitting those higher institutions. This too I see as the result of an undernourished philosophical framework. If you don’t have the framework to peg your thoughts on, how else are you going to make a complicated argument?

Yes, we inherited our legal frameworks from our colonial history. But, to quote Ortega, ‘the quality and influence of an idea [is] not so much in the idea as in a man’s relation to it. Has he made the idea his own, or merely inherited it?’, and I don’t think we have ever made those inherited ideas our own.

The Milky Way

I was looking for this mosaic of the Milky Way stitched together from images shot by the Spitzer Space Telescope. And since a good place to look for stuff like that is the Wikipedia, I duly headed there to find the beautiful image below, instead. Beautiful, not just because it is a 3600 panorama, but also because in the foreground is a very fascinating phenomenon — the sailing stones of Death Valley. (click on the image to see it in its full splendor.)

Milky Way over Death Valley

Perhaps I find those things beautiful that cause me to contemplate, but the Milky Way is by far the best sight I have ever seen, and I’ve been to quite a few scenic places! I had seen pictures of it in textbooks and elsewhere in lithographic print, but nothing quite prepared me for the awesomeness of the sight when, one night, about 15 years ago, in a village, while I lay on one of those fold-able cots, the power went off, and there it was! The sight that inspired mythologies and poets. That was perhaps the closest I had ever come to a religious experience, and not once since then did I get to see it again. Blame that on modernity and too much light pollution.

My inspirations aside, if you don’t already know, virtually all the objects you see in the night sky belong in the Milky Way. Our closest neighbor, Andromeda (not counting two smaller satellite galaxies of the Milky Way), is but a tiny patch of light to the naked eye. Doesn’t that cause you to contemplate the scale of things in the Universe? And if you need an aid doing that, head here. But before that, let me leave you with this time lapse of the galactic center rising:

Downloads: (please rely on these links only if the embedded links don’t work)

Scale of the Universe (flash object)

Two Concepts of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin

The Two Concepts of Liberty is Isaiah Berlin’s attempt at seeking to understand how the two political systems embattled in the cold war, while both claiming to further freedom or liberty, came to be so different and at odds with each other. The simplest answer, and the one peddled by both sides, is to claim one is truer than the other. That serves fine as rhetoric, but it isn’t in the least bit clarifying.

The answer, then, Berlin tells us, is that the two political systems embody two very different concepts of liberty. The first of which he calls Negative Liberty and the other Positive Liberty. That answer in and of itself isn’t very clarifying either, unless one addresses how they are different and how the concept of liberty came to take on two very different forms in the first place. And it is precisely that task Berlin sets himself up to address for the bulk of the essay.

Your Negative Liberties are what you would answer to the question: What are the areas within which you are free from interference by other persons?. The Positive Liberties, on the other hand, are what you would answer to the question: What are the areas in which I’m empowered to act? On the surface, the two definitions might seem at no great odds with each other, but traced through their historical development, we find, they came to evolve in very divergent directions until they ended up in direct conflict.

Contrary to what many on the ‘net seem to believe, Berlin doesn’t prefer(and rightly so) negative liberty over the positive variety. Though he does say that the Positive concept lends itself much more easily to the conceit of ‘final solutions’, it is at the same time at the heart of ‘the most powerful and morally just public movements of our time’.

Though the part of the essay that defines and traces out the historical development of the two concepts is the most influential and deservedly celebrated, I think the latter part which deals with the assertion of status and the errors of presupposing the existence of an objective, rational ‘final solution’ is the real clincher and goes a little under-appreciated.

In a series of posts over the next 10 days, I hope to summarize the essay and perhaps interject a few of my own thoughts. I’ll probably devote a post to the Negative concept, a post to the Positive concept, and a post to the final part of the essay. Later, if I manage to develop the seeds of arguments I’ve against Murray Rothbard’s essay, I’ll try and address some of its objections. Also, in a different post, I’ll try and juxtapose some of Berlin’s ideas against those in this Ayn Rand’s essay, and show that Objectivist ethics are just as prone to the corruption that Positive liberties are prone to.

Isaiah Berlin’s essay is available for download here.

Download links (Please rely on the following links only if the embedded links above don’t work):

First Post!

This Traveler IQ was calculated on Wednesday, December 24, 2008 at 05:03AM GMT by comparing this person’s geographical knowledge against the Web’s Original Travel Blog‘s 3,467,230 travelers who’ve taken the challenge.

(24.12.08) Test your Geographical Knowledge here.

Update (09.03.10): I just couldn’t make up mind whether to keep this post or delete it. One the one hand, it really is the first ever blog post I’ve ever written, it served me well as a test post, it serves to flaunt my geographical knowledge, it has the first ever comment on this blog and is by a very dear friend, while the other two, though spam, are quite flattering! On the other hand, the post doesn’t fit into what I hope to make of this blog, was written a long time ago making it stick out in the chronological order, and I just didn’t like the way I wrote it.

In the end, I decided to let it be in this modified form with the dated edited to the first of this month.