From a philosopher’s eye-view one remarkable feature of the excellent GODZONE series on the state of the Australian union is that none of the articles was written by a philosopher. I am not privy to the secret thoughts and plans of Meanjin Quarterly‘s editor (whom God preserve!) and I do not know whether he solicited a philosopher for the GODZONE series and was rebuffed, or whether on the other hand he deemed a priori that no Australian philosopher would have anything very useful to say on the condition of Australian society. If it were in fact the latter I must say that I can only sympathize with Meanjin‘s master, for (with the profoundest of bows to my philosophical colleagues) most Australian philosophers have, alas, abjured any interest or concern (at least qua philosophers) in political and social issues. Following their British philosophical brothers in the analytical tradition, most of them take the view that political philosophy is dead and that theorizing about politics in general is a slightly disreputable business that no respectable philosopher should be seen dead doing.
In an article in Partisan Review some years ago, Iris Murdoch traced the enervation of the English socialist movement to the decline in England of political theorizing and this latter in turn to the climate engendered by contemporary British analytical philosophy. For the analytical philosopher the only properly philosophical points of interest in politics are the purely logical ones (what kind of a judgment is a political judgment? what kind of theory is a political theory? or as an Oxford examination paper once put it, what kind of a question is a question in political philosophy?). In this view political recommendations or judgments, or the construction of political ideals and utopias such as the classical political theorists went in for, are simply not the business of the philosopher. For the follower of Wittgenstein the philosopher is no longer a sage dispensing world-views and pronouncing on any and every political and social issue; he is rather a therapeutic analyst (like the psychoanalyst) dissolving the logical and conceptual puzzlements that prevent us from seeing straight So it is that in England philosophers have opted out of any concern with political theory and criticism. On the continent of Europe, of course, the philosopher still plays the part of the public sage, and thinkers such as Sartre are actively concerned in the business of political criticism. In the English-speaking world, however, the socially concerned sages are historians, psychologists, literary critics-in other words, of the ilk of the present GODZONE writers.
In the essay already cited Iris Murdoch has this to say: ‘Our socialist ancestors had ideals but no techniques. We are often amazed at their naivete. We have the techniques; these we can explain clearly. But we can only give a rather brief and denuded explanation of our ideals. We have reached the stage where the amount of theory is decreasing while the social need for it increases.’ And she concludes: ‘We need, and the Left should provide, some refuge from the cold, open field of Benthamite empiricism, a framework, a house of theory.’ These remarks on English socialism apply even more to GODZONE where socialism and, for that matter, all politics have always been ‘sans doctrines’, and where we have, in all sectors of our national life, tended to make a virtue out of unprincipled pragmatism. In the long term, however, as a recent biographer of President Johnson has put it, pragmatism does not pay; if anyone has any doubts about that he might consider the present state of Australia’s external affairs policy (or non-policy).
There is, then, a real need for a ‘house of theory’ in GOD ZONE, and if philosophers will not attempt to provide it then historians, psychologists, literary critics and others will. However, though the latter are of course all honourable men, I am not sure that the philosopher is not, all other things being equal, better at the theorizing business than they are. I wish very much that the philosophers would indeed climb down from their logical towers and start theorizing about God’s Own Country.
Max Charlesworth (1925 – 2014) was an Australian philosopher and public intellectual.