“I WANT TO TALK as a philosopher today—a practical and engaged philosopher. I won’t argue for particular policies, but I also won’t remain at the level of abstract principles. If philosophy is to engage with politics, it had better be political, not metapolitical philosophy.” Most readers will no doubt feel a strong sympathy with these words from the beginning of Michael Walzer’s article “Pluralism and Social Democracy” (Dissent, Winter 1998) and with Michel Foucault’s insistence that we should immerse ourselves with patience and persistence in the problems of everyday life. I wish nevertheless to introduce a note of caution.
It is certainly unexceptionable for leftist thinkers to aspire to be “practical and engaged philosopher[s]” but only if this stance is not compared invidiously with that of speculative, metaphysical, or truth-seeking philosophers. We need to keep our minds open to the possibility that an “engaged philosophy” may be practical and at the same time metaphysical. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that the term praxis was used in leftist circles to highlight the intimacy of philosophy and politics. But Walzer seems at times to suggest that metaphysical or truth-oriented reflections on political practice hover idly above “real political life,” and Foucault is adamantly opposed to any form of truth-seeking political philosophy. I want to argue that left intellectuals should be explicitly and unashamedly truth-seeking, despite the reservations of Walzer and the outright hostility of Foucault to such a suggestion.
Walzer is right when he says that we no longer “admire people who make themselves organs of historical necessity, instruments of an all-powerful party, disciples of a sectarian leader, ideological or religious zealots,” and Foucault is right when he insists that left intellectuals should cease to be “masters of Truth.” But surely what this means is that we should strive all the harder to be “seekers and servants of Truth.” We need to think as hard as we can about what is happening in our society. Families and communities are breaking up; poverty and inequality are still very much with us; large sections of our youth are confused and uncertain about life, and too many of them are close to suicidal despair: we need to know why. We need to find the real reasons for these things and to provide a true account of what is happening in our society (or to get as close to reality and truth as we can). We should seriously consider every truth-seeking metanarrative and every grand theory that claims to illuminate our current malaise.
But what exactly are metanarratives? Given the intense hostility they have aroused among postmodernist critics, I want to pause for a moment to consider this question. A metanarrative is a story that provides an account of how the humanity of each of us interweaves with the humanity of all of us. It links the story of my/our orig...
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