The Hard Problem of Political Philosophy | Mark Seymour


There is a section in Matthew McManus’ recent piece on Edmund Burke for Jacobin where he brings up the obscure, transcendental aspect of Burke’s political philosophy, he sees this as a negative feature of Burke’s thought, and I see it as a positive feature. This conflict reminded me of a trend I noticed early on in my intellectual development as a conservative, namely how with all good conservative theory there is a necessary transcendental feature, even the most practical conservative still subscribes to certain values and duties which are grounded in a transcendental overcoming of oneself. We don’t champion towns over cities merely based on the population density, there is an intangible feature that goes beyond the town and city which, as conservatives, we try to defend. 

In the philosophy of mind, there is an identical problem. The dualist defends an intangible feature that the physicalist simply refuses to believe exists. As a dualist, when I end up arguing with physicalists the best we can reach is a stalemate, but there’s no way for me to convert them to my side without them having had the experience of that intangible feature, this is to say I can’t make someone believe that the mind and body are separate without them having had the experience to justify that position. We see the exact same with conservatives arguing with leftists, if they can’t see the full picture of the social stratum then there’s no way for us to make them see it, and having had the experience of seeing this full picture there’s no way for them to convert us to their side. When I debate with an anti-royalist leftist, they seemingly don’t even possess the mental tools for understanding the depth at which I value the royal family, and the same can be said of me in reverse- I don’t possess the mental capacity to authentically sympathize with their position. So, how do we deal with this problem? Do we just stop debating and treat it as a futile endeavour? As far as my experiences have afforded me, yes. For example, if a transgender person, who can feel in themselves that they are a woman, despite being biologically male, is challenged on the basis that they are biologically a male, won’t get very far in regard to converting the transphobe by retorting that they feel they are a woman, because the transphobe cannot engage with that feeling.

Political philosophy is never changed through debating with the other side, policies may change, and politicians might switch sides, but the driving factors for these changes aren’t found within the political philosophy of the given party, but rather the transient social and economic factors affecting the individual. When the Conservatives won the insane majority that they did in the 2019 general election, they didn’t win by purporting how significantly better Edmund Burke or Roger Scruton was to Karl Marx or Slavoj Zizek, they won through policies. If they had won by purporting how significantly better their political philosophy was, then the Labour party would never have a chance to redeem itself as it’d be viewed as fundamentally flawed (though, some critics claim this is the case regardless). The fact that Labour and the Conservatives have this feud in the first place is indicative of there being a hard problem to address here: if both are correct enough to challenge one another, then how does one side ultimately win? Well, the point of politics isn’t to win the whole thing, it’s to temporarily win so that everyone wins in the long run. If the Conservatives won every single election then the political development of the country would stagnate, there wouldn’t be any marketisation of ideas because there wouldn’t be the impetus for being better than the opposition, as you’d already be better than them. With stagnation comes laziness, and the wheels of society would slowly grind to a halt. 

To return to the issue of conservative theory having a necessary transcendental feature, those of us who have experienced this transcendental feature of the world cannot disengage from it, it is an obvious feature of the world. This is seen by critics of conservative theory as being a cop-out, a way of sweeping empty theory under the carpet, but the opposite is true. When we are engaging in politics we are mostly wasting our time, debates are ultimately futile, and I can count the amount of worthwhile living politicians on one of my hands. The transcendental aspect of conservative theory reconciles this futility, it gives us something beyond the politics with which to strive towards. This quest towards apprehending the transcendental is beyond politics, and so the left can engage with it too, but because of the structure the left has fashioned their politic into, they don’t benefit from apprehending the transcendental as conservatives do. Where the left is grounded in the surface layer engagements of politics, and are quick to discard defunct theory, conservatism develops it’s politic as a continuation of it’s history, so to have the history of conservatism united by this steady journey towards apprehending the transcendental, it prevents the infighting we see on the left. 


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