Feb 282016

Link to PDF:
The Impossibility of Politics, Howard Richards

Introductory Paragraphs

The Impossibility of Politics
and how to make politics possible

Howard Richards
Limache, Chile
February 2016

I begin with the word “politics”. The English language does not allow me to assign any meaning to that word that I may fancy, but neither does it limit me to only one option. There is a vast literature on politics and political science. Although most of it I have not read, I have read enough to know that there are many definitions of politics. Many revolve around something called “power”. The definitions never stand alone. They are always embedded in theoretical contexts, in historical contexts, in their authors’ Sitzen im Leben, in academic Methodenstreiten and/or in the Weltanschauungen prevailing at particular times and places. Without knowing these contexts one cannot appreciate the true dimensions of the thoughts summarized in a short definition.

Faced with a situation that does not give me either full freedom or a single command, my choice is to distill a definition of politics from two founding works of traditions that have given meaning to the English word “politics” and to its counterparts in other Western languages. They are Politeia by Plato and Politiká by Aristotle. Although the Greek words that are the titles of the two books are slightly different, they reveal that they deal with the same issues and that both are ancestors of the current word “politics.” The practice of assigning to English translations of Plato’s Politeia the title “The Republic” and only to the Politiká of Aristotle the title “Politics” conceals similarities that the original Greek titles disclose.

I do not claim that my option to distill a definition of “political” from two founding texts of Western thought is the only permissible option. I maintain only that this option is within the range of permissible options. Then I will derive from texts of Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault and others grounds for assigning a specific meaning to the word “impossible.”

Roots of the concept of politics (Part One): Plato

I will call attention to a few key points in Plato’s Politeia. I highly recommend reading the entire work. I trust that a full reading will confirm the conclusions that I draw from my selections.
Plato’s Politeia is divided into ten books, each a dialogue with various speakers. The first book already introduces typical themes of the philosophy of its author. What most needs to be investigated is justice (dikaiosyne) i.e. rules. In a first approximation justice is defined as “pay what you owe”. Socrates, Plato’s spokesperson poses a question: Put the case that you loan a friend a knife. Then the friend goes crazy and becomes dangerous. He demands what you owe him, the return of the knife. Should you return it? Of course not.

Thus another typical theme of Plato is introduced: Adjusting moral standards to the infinitely varied circumstances of human life requires necessary conversations, endless conversations, without unquestionable premises. The authority of those conversations is not located in any person, but in the logic of the arguments (the logos).

Please read the entire document online.