Hard Times: Public Philosophy or Political Philosophy?
21 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 11 Aug 2010
Date Written: August 1, 2010
Political theory recurrently addresses periods and situations which intuitively qualify as hard times. Though plausible, explaining political theory’s recurrent concern with hard times by appealing to their periodical occurrence seems not completely satisfying. Therefore, the paper moves from the hypothesis that hard times are not just a recurrent theme in political theory, but also, and more precisely, a privileged reference for political theorists. For better clarifying such a hypothesis, the paper develops a definition of hard times meant to enlighten their distinctive features. In particular, the paper draws from Hannah Arendt’s elaboration on dark times and from John Rawls’s characterisation of political crises and it shows that, despite appearances, the two authors rely on similar understandings of hard times. Indeed, they both connect hard times to the loss of fixed points on which established political practices rest, resulting in cognitive and normative disorientation for the involved individuals. Accordingly, hard times can be conceived as periods of rupture in which the logic ordinarily subscribed to is undermined, as situations characterised by a practically perceived mismatch between principles and practices. The paper also suggests the opportunity of grasping the specificity of hard times by describing them in opposition to ordinary or normal times and in relation to crises and emergency situations. In addition, the paper frames the peculiar challenge hard times pose to political theorists with reference to the difficulties political theory more generally faces in addressing the factual and contingent domain of politics. Finally, the paper distinguishes two approaches to political theory – namely, pubic philosophy and political philosophy – which display different sensitiveness toward contingency and endorse diverse strategies to develop their normative principles. Public philosophy detects the shared values grounding political practices and employs them to develop criteria for guiding policy decisions. It is attentive to empirical data and constraints and it provides solutions that are effective in political terms. Political philosophy takes its distance from congiuntural facts and practically subscribed principles. While sensitive to practical problems, it does not aim at elaborating practically viable solutions: it is rather concerned with the theoretical adequacy of its principles. Public philosophy seems better equipped for developing proposals serviceable during hard times, when effective political responses are in need. Yet, during hard times, when shared principles are unavailable, public philosophy lacks the very resources it relies on. The absence of shared principles does not undermine political philosophy: when common fixed points are disrupted, it can carry out its normative work by endorsing a perspective independent from the one assumed on the practical level and enlighten new cognitive frameworks or principles for thinking about politics.
Keywords: hard times, public philosophy, political philosophy
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