The Relevance of Political Thought to Contemporary Global Challenges
By: Natasha Vincent
December 20, 2019
I write this post as a follow-up to my first post titled “An Uncomfortable but Pertinent Introspection into Privilege.” During my first eight-week term at Oxford, I took the Advanced Paper in Theories of Justice as one of my two tutorials for the term. The bespoke course, typically taken by philosophy and/or politics undergraduates, aimed to examine the principles of justice as established by philosophers such as John Rawls. Each week, we examined how these principles applied to different themes and various groups of individuals, from the disabled to future generations.
Academic learning at the undergraduate level at Oxford entails much more individual learning than at Georgetown. I don’t have structured classes here per se, but instead, I have one tutorial a week for each of my two courses in the term. For each tutorial, I had to produce an essay of around 2,000 words, and I spent most of my time reading books and journal articles, delving into different arguments before writing my essay.
Spending most of my time reading required a lot of discipline to stay focused and, more often than not, my mind drifted off to other passing thoughts. A recurring one, however, was wondering why I was studying the theoretical aspects of justice, which then led to a sort of frustration upon a superficial realization that this would have limited utility in real-world policy. My reasoning went something like this: “If politicians neither quote Rawls nor appeal to his principles of justice when dealing with injustice, then what use is this stuff, really?”
Then came the tutorial in which my tutorial partner and I went to our tutor’s room at Balliol College, one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. There, our essays for each tutorial were critiqued and our tutor pushed us to probe deeper. I felt somewhat uncomfortable sitting in this room at Balliol which had an old charm to it, discussing these principles of justice without focusing much on their application to contemporary politics. I subconsciously put a limit on how much effort I put into truly understanding justice through the lens of philosophy. Simply put, if these principles of an ideal society did not apply in the real world, I was not buying it.
Admittedly, I lost interest in the tutorial for a good three weeks. In an effort to save myself from further embarrassment, I started reading about the methodology behind political philosophy and began to realize how relevant the field actually is to the real world. Political philosophy offers normative insights on what government should be and how we can apply those principles to create a just society. Just because a chasm exists between political philosophy and actual politics does not mean that political thought exists in its own bubble or that it should be relegated to the past.
Another of my initial critiques is that political philosophers hail from predominantly privileged, western European backgrounds. The discipline also has inherent institutional and cultural biases, but to dismiss it by virtue of not being entirely representative of global demographics and inclusive of other cultures does not change the status quo; it simply neglects the fact that there is a rich body of scholarship that can be adapted to today’s context.
I say this as a person of color. One of the themes we discussed was colonialism; my ancestors from India certainly encountered historic injustices during the age of the British Empire, but I do think that we need some nuance when discussing postcolonialism. Too often, postcolonial dialogue engages in an oversimplification and a generalized condemnation of “white people,” without critically analyzing the intricacies of history—which instead gives way to the popular rhetoric of contemporary social movements in postcolonial societies that fails to achieve institutional reform.
Things changed for the better after I had a more positive outlook on the tutorial, and I began to truly enjoy what I was studying. I am intrigued to integrate these philosophical insights to my next tutorials at Oxford and my courses during my senior year at Georgetown—in the hopes of learning more about how the gap between political theory and actual politics isn’t as far as we think it is.