Political philosophy is a social practice that has wide and significant consequences for other people. In my dissertation, I defend a conception of the political philosopher that takes this fact seriously. I conceive of political philosophers not just as theorists or truth-seekers, but also as world-builders, storytellers, teachers, and citizens. On my view, these five interconnected roles, when played well, all contribute to being a good political philosopher—much like being a good scorer, rebounder, passer, defender, and teammate contribute to being a good basketball player. This conception also functions as an interpretation of the social practice of political philosophy and as a proposal for continued engagement.
I motivate the dissertation, starting with an extended analogy between philosophy and an imaginary religion, “Justicism.” This helps us think about political philosophy as a social practice. I present my central questions about the roles of political philosophy and political philosophers and connect these questions to several other literatures. Then, I introduce my Five Roles conception—as well as a contrasting approach, Narrow Orientation, that systematically prioritizes theorizing and the pursuit of truth over other guiding aims.
Chapter 1: Social Worlds and the Roles of Political Philosophy
I begin motivating the world-builder role of political philosophers by discussing the idea of social worlds. The term is increasingly used in philosophy and political theory, including throughout Rawls’s later works, but the idea is rarely examined in detail. I present a conception of social worlds on which they are closed networks of social relations between agents. I show how attending to this idea can help us better understand the four roles of political philosophy Rawls presents. And I argue that the idea of social worlds reveals new and interesting world-oriented (as opposed to principle-oriented) approaches to political philosophy, including ones that incorporate world-building: creating and presenting non-actual social worlds.
Chapter 2: Social Worlds and the Applicability of Theories of Justice
Here, I continue to motivate the world-builder role. I argue that thinking about social worlds can help theorists of justice address “Applicability Challenges.” I link applicability to action-guidance, and present several plausible conditions for theories to be action-guiding for agents. Then, I argue that because of the specific features of social worlds, they are good objects to focus on if political philosophers want to develop theories that are applicable and action-guiding for their addressees.
Chapter 3: The Political Philosopher as Storyteller
Next, I turn to the storyteller role. I show how political philosophers have often enriched their work with stories that complement their arguments. These stories do not only plug into thought experiments or function as models: storytelling can be valuable in many other ways, and multiple ways at once. I focus on the idea of the state of nature in the history of political philosophy, emphasizing Plato, Hobbes, and Rousseau. I argue that thinking of political philosophers as storytellers helps with historical interpretation. Turning to the contemporary scene, I suggest that several important communitarian, feminist, anti-racist, and anti-ableist critiques of “mainstream” political philosophy should be understood as, in part, critiques of the stories that political philosophers tell.
Chapter 4: The Political Philosopher as Teacher
Moving on to the teacher role, I argue that political philosophy has significant pedagogical dimensions. These extend beyond the classroom into political philosophers’ engagement with their readers and with their audience more generally. I present an analogy between classroom teaching and political philosophy. And I reject four alternative ways of conceptualizing the pedagogical side of political philosophy: the Banking Model, the Engineering Model, the Skills Model, and the Social Practice Model. Then, I argue that political philosophers should think of themselves as the near-peers of their audience. In my view, this is more likely to promote a combination of four pedagogical virtues that are important for political philosophers: flexibility, humility, consistency, and commitment.
Chapter 5: Justifying Political Philosophy
I argue that political philosophers are subject to a (moral) interpersonal justificatory demand. Given the “charged” concepts they work with, political philosophers impose reasonably foreseeable risks of significant costs on other people. They ought, therefore, to be able to sincerely justify their actions, and guiding aims, to those people. I examine various possible ways of justifying an approach where one’s only guiding aim is truth-seeking, and argue that they are not promising. And I argue that my Five Roles account, including a guiding aim related to what political philosophers owe to their fellow citizens, is well-suited to be justifiable in the required way.
The term ‘social world’ is increasingly familiar in philosophy and political theory. Rawls uses it quite often, especially in his later works. But there has been little explicit discussion of the term and of the idea of social worlds. My aim in this paper is to show that political philosophers, Rawlsian or not, should think seriously about social worlds and the roles these things play and ought to play in their work. The idea of social worlds can help political philosophers think about what they do in new and fruitful ways, and enrich debates about the roles, aims, and methodology of political philosophy.
I propose a broadly Rawlsian conception of social worlds as logically possible closed networks of social relations between agents, and argue that the idea of navigating the landscape of social worlds can help us better understand the four apparently disparate roles of political philosophy that Rawls presents. Moving beyond Rawls interpretation, I use the idea of social worlds to develop an analogy and distinction between world-oriented and principle-oriented approaches to political philosophy. I propose two examples of world-oriented approaches, Political Philosophy as Navigation and Political Philosophy as World-Building, and argue that they are viable and worthy of further consideration.
The growth of non-ideal theory and of political realism has had a profound influence on methodological inquiry in political philosophy. It is now the norm for authors defending ideal theory to take special care to show that it can relate to the real world in the right sort of way. Two recent books—David Estlund’s Utopophobia: On the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy (2020), and Ben Laurence’s Agents of Change: Political Philosophy in Practice (2021)—fit this mold. Both authors argue that ideal theory can be practical, and Estlund additionally argues that it can be valuable even if it lacks practical value. In this commentary, I argue that something important is missing from these defenses of ideal theory: they both fail to be realistic in a “second-order” way. I suggest that other recent work comes closer to meeting this standard.