What is Politics?



Summary of Lecture I:


1) talked a little about the ancient greek root of the word Politics


2) Distinguished between  a) Politics as an academic discipline and b) Politics as a set of activities, processes and systems that the academic discipline of politics studies.


3) Introduced a few important 'concepts' that we use to talk about things e.g. 'empirical' (stuff that can be known about  by being seen/experienced, observed); discourse = talking about; theory = to generalise about the empirical world



4) Considered what are the limits of 'politics' and we discussed whether very ordinary things and events can be 'political'...perhaps because many ordinary social processes involve some measure of power (a classic definition being: getting 'getting people to do what they would not otherwise do)..so if I deliberately intend  to.. AND get an enemy to smile at me because I smiled at them (given norms of politeness)...even when the don't want to ..Is that 'political' in some sense.  And is an essential sense of what is political, captured by 'any attempt or successful act of power?



5) We reflected on how theory might relate to practice for instance,


how theories


ideas/ideologies - systems of values by which to organise political life e.g. liberalism, socialism, anarchism...(or even just the implementation (practice) of an idea of justice (theory) politicians learned from philosophers)...


relate to practice


BUT...Is political activity essentially led by a kind of theory - say a vision of a better world (we try to fashion the world in accordance with an ideology) This might be seen as the 'Utopia-led' character of 'Politics'


6) We talked about whether politics should require reason rather than feeling and whether feeling and attitude had a valid place in political life



7) We talked about a 20th century political thinker Michael Oakeshott took a different idea of what is politics


We may see that he argued that politics was about activity and practice and was SCEPTICAL (doubting of) politics as the pursuit of utopia.


As such he was anti-utopian in his conception of politics.


Utopia is often  taken to mean 'the perfect system'  there can be no better...so time and change ends - no more history! Politics is finite


But people like Oakeshott see politics as infinitely varying and rather unpredictable


and the best the good politician can do, is try to stabilise  the ship of state- of politics. Balance things out a bit and make politics not rational (e.g. by imposing an ideological bluprint) but reasonable.


and this probably requires political people to be of good character - kind, fair, having sense of justice and equal freedoms of all...not loonies!


8) We concluded by the suggestion that there are two divergent conceptions of what is politics...


a) the utopian 'rationalist' view: political activity in pursuit of  an ideological (theory - abstract reason-derived) programme




b) the non-utopian 'being reasonable' view: an activity of governing - of keeping a difficult tumult in balance by good careful decision-making (policy - police/polis) and being adaptive to changing circumstance rather than simply pursuing the 'vision' come what may.






The modern word ‘political’ derives from the Greek politikos, ‘of, or pertaining to, the polis’. (The Greek term polis will be translated here as ‘city-state’. It is also translated as ‘city’ or ‘polis’, or simply anglicized as ‘polis’. City-states were relatively small and cohesive units, in which political, religious, and cultural concerns were intertwined.



As an opening intuition: we may draw a distinction between:

Politics as a study area and politics as a form of practice



'Politics' as an academic and theoretical discipline (a 'scientia' = organised knowledge) that studies and generalises - theorises (BTW: what is 'THEORY'?)  about aspects of political life: DISCOURSES that reflect on what is politics (looked at from some angle or another:



a)  explaining behaviour (voting, participating in social movements; protesting; membership of 'momentum' etc, UKIP);

b) understanding institutions - systems of Goverment - UK system as against USA or France's, role of the President v role of PM and so forth;

c) evaluating impact of ideas = ideologies - Liberalism, Conservatism, socialism, marxism, anarchism, populism...


studying ideas as systems of thought independent of their impact = what are the key ideas that identify named ideologies as 'that' ideology - e.g. what makes 'anarchism', anarchism?

d) determining the best ANALYTICAL accounts (definitions) of political systems/concepts = political theory/political philosophy:  e.g. what is (the meaning of) 'justice'; 'power'; 'legitimacy'; liberty (freedom)


NORMATIVE accounts of political concepts: i.e. what OUGHT justice (or freedom, or rights, or the 'right' or the 'the just' state) to look life = an account of the best form of X.



Aristotle's word for ‘politics’ is politikę, which is short for politikę epistęmę or ‘political science’. It belongs to one of the three main branches of science, which Aristotle distinguishes by their ends or objects. Contemplative science is concerned with truth or knowledge for its own sake; practical science with good action; and productive science with making useful or beautiful objects. Politics is a practical science, since it is concerned with the noble action or happiness of the citizens (although it resembles a productive science in that it seeks to create, preserve, and reform political systems). Aristotle thus understands politics as a normative or prescriptive discipline rather than as a purely empirical or descriptive inquiry.



So the above various forms of reflection ABOUT politics,  typically is what 'politics' in Politics (political science) Departments in Univs tend to ask about...


BUT then:


Politics as an EMPIRICAL  (by experience/observable) practice - something that people do in the real world - presumably in relations to other people who may, or may not be mediated by collectives (parties, institutions, ideologies, religions )



Q) What concepts count as part of the everyday language of 'Politics' that we, the media, politicians etc use? (By the way - what is a concept?)



OK...but what IS it?




Is Politics an activity? a connected series of doings of a certain sort that...


respond in some way to another set of doings of a similar sort? e.g. a struggle for power, control, resources, dominance, authority...


Q) And if this right then, where does politics end and everyday life begin?


That is...what sort of things count as political as opposed to say, the social, or the cultural or the economic?



Silly example:


a) Kissing your girl/boy friend in public because you love them...Political?


b) Kissing your girl/boy friend in public to gain admiration of others and to generate envy in your girl/boyfriend-less friend...Political?


Another example:


a) having controversial political opinions - Political?


b) shocking your parents with those opinions - Political?




Theory into practice and vice-versa:


to what extent does reflecting (theorising)  on the nature and doings of the political shape the practical world of politics?


If  I have theorised normatively (or have accepted a theory) about the best form of justice and have theorised its principles - a theory I believe will make people happy; then should I not try to get it implemented?


Q: Should and does Theory (a coherent set of principles for action) precede practice?




Let us take a look at what Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) says in his essay On Political Education' in the collection  'Rationalism in Politics':

In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea: there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel: the sea is both friend and enemy: and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.

For Oakeshott, clearly habit, tradition, routine and stability of conduct will tame the wilder shores of others's political activities - that is to say, either people who engage in occasional and unreasonable acts (post-Brexit attacks on strangers who happen to be East Europeans) in politics and society, or equally who try to impose ideologies and programmes irrespective of situations or consequence (e.g. Stalinism)

But is then the good politician the one who gently mediates amongst interests to maintain societal balance and the existing order of power but also through practice has a sense of what is conducive and perhaps, works - GOVERNMENT

...for why would we wish for freedom...or democracy etc unless we had already as a matter of practice, tried it?

And though Oakeshott was on the 20th century's greatest political thinkers, we can trace the idea of attending to and shepherding political arrangements back to Aristotle in the 5thC. BC.

For Aristotle, political science studies the tasks of the politician or statesman (politikos), in much the way that medical science concerns the work of the physician (see Politics IV.1). It is, in fact, the body of knowledge that such practitioners, if truly expert, will also wield in pursuing their tasks. The most important task for the politician is, in the role of lawgiver (nomothetęs), to frame the appropriate constitution for the city-state. This involves enduring laws, customs, and institutions (including a system of moral education) for the citizens. Once the constitution is in place, the politician needs to take the appropriate measures to maintain it, to introduce reforms when he finds them necessary, and to prevent developments which might subvert the political system.


But it through practice - practical wisdom and virtue that citizens and legislators come to grasp what is just - what is appropriate (well-fitting) to the situation and thus link actions as well as laws and constitutions to the nature of humans and their contexts. This is surely the way of the good politician rather than the ideological politician?


and should this be how politics is done?


...And thus that against Machiavelli, politics is not the art of being cunning in maintaining power and the love of your people but is about doing the right and the good?


But should political virtue be about the right and the good - the maintaining of principle or the fitting of principles to the circumstances and abandoning them if they don't fit even if they are 'the right thing to do'


Machiavelli cited in his celebrated short book The Prince' the example of the Prince who won the love of a people his favorite General had conquered by having that general brutally killed in from the those people.



Q: Has real politics got time for theory? for morality? for principle?