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Politics or Philosophy?

David Cowles

Apr 23, 2024

“The philosopher never sees anything she likes…until she does; but when she does, she ceases to do the work of philosophy."

Politics is the arena of opinion, of choice. A or ~A. Yet it’s politics, not religion (and certainly not philosophy), that is the opiate of the people. How so? 

A or ~A. We’ve just covered the entire range of potential options; so pick one! What could be better than this; right? Wrong! We’ve reduced our many-splendored world to just one of its aspects, one variable, its A-ness. How ‘A’ are you? Are you ‘A enough’? Did you say something ‘anti-A’ once when you were in middle school?

Like kids with a model train set (do kids even have model trains anymore?), we are mesmerized by the back-and-forth motion of our engines: Red to Blue to Red to Blue, ad infinitum. We oscillate between A and ~A, oblivious of the fact that we are all the time running along a straight, fixed track, utterly heedless of any world ‘beyond the rail bed’ and utterly powerless to alter our trajectory. This is what we call freedom; in politics this is what we call democracy.  

What we need now are the services of a good philosopher; know any? A philosopher will ask, “What do A and ~A, supposed opposites, have in common?” Their ‘A-ness’, of course. They both assume that A exists and that it is a meaningful measure of some aspect of reality. In the language of high school math, A-ness is the ‘absolute value’ of A and of ~A . 

Philosophy is not concerned with A or ~A. That’s the arena of politics. To the philosopher, A = ~A; it is their ‘absolute value’ that is the philosopher’s concern. Not A, not ~A, but ‘A-ness’ per se. Consider a recent political event in a U.S. state, Massachusetts; it was a referendum question on the 2022 ballot: Should the state impose a special 1% surtax on residents who earn $1,000,000 or more in a given tax year? A or ~A. A simple choice. Yes or no?

The electorate was pretty evenly split, but to the philosopher, A or ~A is a distinction without a difference. What both sides of this debate must assume, i.e., the absolute value of A, is far more important than either A or ~A. In this case, the absolute value of A, ‘A-ness’, includes the following assumptions:

  • The State (not just a state, but the State) has the right to confiscate a portion of any resident’s income or wealth at any time for any or no reason.

  • It is reasonable and just to ‘classify’ members of society according to their income and/or wealth and to treat some such ‘classes’ differently from others.

  • A simple plurality of a state’s voting electorate has the right to impose a confiscatory scheme on the entire population.

Whether you vote A or ~A, you implicitly endorse the underlying premises of ‘A-ness’ (above). These are the assumptions that grab the attention of philosophers. My wife and I resolve a similar dilemma every morning when we eat breakfast at our favorite diner. I always order an English muffin with orange marmalade while my spouse orders toast with strawberry jam. We tease each other about our irrational but intransigent preferences; but the fate of the world hardly hangs in the balance.

A philosopher looks at our daily dilemma differently. To her a muffin is toast and marmalade is jam. The questions she’ll ask are of another order entirely:

  • Is it just that my wife and I have sufficient economic resources to eat breakfast, albeit a modest one, in a restaurant, also modest, most every morning?

  • Is the distribution of food via an archipelago of privately held restaurants and franchised fast-food chains just and efficient?

  • Is a breakfast of processed grain and sweetened fruit a healthy way for anyone to begin a day?

Of course, these ‘2nd order’ questions can themselves in certain circumstances become the stuff of politics: e.g., should the City of New York permit the sale of super-sized soft drinks? Whenever a question of philosophy becomes a question of politics, philosophy must ask new questions:

  • Should society require all able-bodied members to grow and prepare their own food?

  • Should privately or collectively owned enterprises be permitted to profit from the sale of a basic human necessity, food?

Of course, these questions could also be politicized, requiring philosophers to push the level of abstraction yet another notch higher. Theoretically, the process could continue ad infinitum.  The only limitation is imagination. 

The praxis of politics is choice, maya. Either this or that. Philosophy, on the other hand, is a form of spirituality: neti, neti (not this, not that). Bottom line, the philosopher never sees anything she likes…until she does; but when she does, she ceases to do the work of philosophy.


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