Political Philosophy Can Enable Social Change

I often wonder if there is a relationship between philosophy and social change. As I both study the humanities and want to further positive social change, this question is practically important to me.

One way in which philosophy is thought to be able to generate new political and ethical ideas is by changing people’s ideas about the type of society in which they want to live. For example, the works of Karl Marx dramatically changed the course of world history. Whether his ideas were wrongheaded or not depends on who you ask, but no one can deny that his ideas at least seem to have made an impact.

I wonder, then, what the mechanism by which those ideas were translated into real political action was. Answering this question satisfactorily is beyond my ability (and beyond the scope of a short op-ed) but it seems true that much of the visible effect of philosophy on political reality occurs dramatically and infrequently. At very particular moments in history, older political structures are overthrown and replaced with new political structures. Those doing the overthrowing decide the nature of these new political structures, often with the aid of their favorite books of political philosophy. This group is usually small and exclusive. Yet a much larger group of people make indirect and less visible contributions to the political ideas that end up being transformed into concrete political institutions.

Consider a paradigmatic example of political thought being transformed into political reality–namely, the American Revolution, and the subsequent debates regarding the political structure of the newly independent confederacy. There were only a few people who actually drew up the Constitution. However, they drew on the ideas of several other political theorists in writing the Constitution. Moreover, the political and philosophical debates of the day influenced the framers greatly, and many people who were not part of the small group that actually ended up writing the Constitution contributed to those debates.

Some of the founders were proud of the intellectual nature of the United States’ founding. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the first of The Federalist Papers that “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”  It is true that there were certainly many less rarefied motivations for the decisions that the founders made regarding the structure of the society that they were building, but it is equally true that many of them were determined to shake the grip that these less rarefied motivations had previously exerted on the founders of previous societies.

While few people end up getting the opportunity to directly choose the form that a new society takes, most people have the opportunity to be aware of the nature of the society that they already live in. In order to understand how the political structures of the society you live in work as well as the motivation behind the political structures, one must be well-versed in political philosophy. This awareness is necessary to use “reflection and choice” to make political decisions, rather than leaving the form of our institutions to “accident and force.” Philosophy’s contributions to our public life are often concealed, yet it is what endows us with political autonomy

William Schumacher PO '18 is a philosophy major from San Jose, Calif.

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