Political identity and Common Sense

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The identity of  limestone, gold,  a plant or a bird is a rather pedestrian matter unless one wishes to scientifically explore the constitution and function of the material that composes these items. If one wants to know what these things are in their nature, the analytical method of dissecting something into its parts is unquestionably the route to understanding the objects identity, even if that “dissection” is as abstract as the division of  Gold and limestone into their chemical elements. The ability of these objects to remain the same through change will be primarily a question of the constitution and function of the material they are composed of.

The identity of a human being cannot however be reduced to the constitution and function of their physical matter/body although this material identity will certainly be a part of the story of that human being: of how they came into existence, where their bodies moved during their lifetime, what those bodies did and  how they ceased to exist. I would maintain that what those bodies did  would be very difficult to characterise  without reference to non material , non functional  characteristics: characteristics we normally  call mental or “psychological”. Personal identity requires perhaps two or three types of non material component which if we are to understand them requires a conceptual method rather than a scientific one. The method must relate to the non observational form of awareness that we have of ourselves and our actions. Action,indeed, is one of the central pivots of the account of personal identity  because it is quite clear from both a Philosophical and common sense point of view that our destinies are shaped by what we choose to do, how we choose to act. This concept of destiny is crucial to the way in which we characterise personal identity  for two reasons: one classical and one modern. The classical reason is Aristotelian: we are fundamentally ethical beings and ethically we seek to lead and have led(after death), flourishing lives. The modern  reason comes from the Analytical Philosophy and the work of O’Shaugnessy(The Will: A Dual Aspect Theory). O’Shaugnessy claims that a fundamental aspect of being human is to posses a mind which is temporally oriented toward the future. Combining this with the classical reason we could say that one of the characteristic properties of the mind is its teleology, that  is, that it is directed toward an end or a “telos”. The teleological explanation of action or the mind is one of the 4 kinds of explanation Aristotle refers to in his Metaphysics. The scientist, of course, thinks of this aspect of the mental as “psychological” and this is a term O Shaugnessy uses. His use of this term, however, does not correspond with the idea that the scientist has of the “psychological”. For the scientist polarises the realm of explanation into the objective and the subjective and praises the objective and blames the subjective for not being objective. In  Aristotelian and  Kantian accounts  the psychological is divided into what is empirical and related to subjective experience whereas  the objective is related to the philosophical or the  conceptual . There is that is that which is subjectively psychological and that which is objectively, philosophically, or conceptually psychological. This distinction illuminates the reason why science cannot talk sensibly about the realm of ethics because this  falls within the realm of the philosophically or conceptually psychological. Ethics and politics for both Aristotle and Kant are intimately related to this realm of the philosophically or conceptually psychological which Kant preferred to call “anthropology”.

Plato maintained, and Aristotle probably agreed that there is a fundamental analogy between the way in which we conceptually characterise the minds or souls of the person and the way in which we characterise the nature and  essence of the state. In modern terms we would say that the Political must be characterised in terms of the conceptually or philosophically psychological.

Hobbes attempted to apply the Scientific method, concepts and explanations to the  political world and  was unable to provide  an account which allowed room for ethical  or human values.  Hobbes, that is, gives us a good material account of the body politic but  significantly fails to help us to understand the non substantival “substance” of the political world. For him the actions of a man or a state are just like the mechanical working of springs and cogs in a watch. The ultimate political consequences of such a materialist metaphysics is encapsulated in his quote that “Covenants without the sword are just words”. Covenants that are written down are  to be defended with the sword because words are “psychological” in the sense that the scientist understands the term(not in the sense in which the philosopher understands the “conceptually psychological”). Words are just behaviour for the scientist. For the philosopher action is a concept which incorporates behaviour as characterised by the scientists but also incorporates another aspect which refers to the role of consciousness or non observational awareness in the process. Words are actions and political words are political actions. The best account of the difference between mere behaviour and action occurs in Hannah Arendt’s work “The Human Condition”. She differentiates between three levels of human activity: labor, work and action. Labor  is that which typically is automated, almost machine-like/instinctive and is repetitive cyclical and habitual requiring little or no thought. Work is typically characterised by  activity which requires more thought and judgment , and is therefore more psychological because it is instrumentally directed toward the fabrication of something which can physically stand in the world as a result of the activity. We speak of a house in different terms to the way in which we speak of a consumer goods produced by labor in a factory,e.g. a box of corn flakes whose lifetime is to be probably measured maximally in terms of months. There are also works of art which are the result of value-judgments which are more complex than those which are involved in the building work that results in the building of a house. But above these two forms of activity  is action, and Hannah Arendt thinks that political action is one of the  paradigmatic forms of human action.

Political action is of course going to be crucial to the idea of political identity which I wish to discuss. Political action is twofold: there are words and the actions which are based on the words, namely the voting for the passing of laws. Now, if Hobbes is correct and words are nothing without swords then we will not understand what is happening in a political debate. Nor will we understand what Hannah Arendt has to say concerning political action. For her political action is fundamentally teleological. The point, that is, of political debate and deliberation is to seek the truth, is to reveal the political truth of the issue one is discussing. This is done by coordinating complementary and conflicting viewpoints not into a compromise but into a synthesis of thesis and antithesis. This process may require that each synthesis becomes a thesis and is confronted by an antithesis until a final synthesis is arrived at and the law is voted on and passed into law. Now this process cannot be characterised  by the methods, concepts and explanations of science. The kind of  explanation required to characterise it is conceptual or philosophical. Even the application of the law cannot be characterised in scientific concepts. Take the example of the thief who is caught and prosecuted for the stealing of a car. Thinking like a true scientist he will try to defend himself by claiming that he could not help himself. The theft “happened to him” because his mother left him when he was 6 months old, his father became an alcoholic, he played truant from school and became involved with criminals, needed money to pay his rent: therefore he stole the car. The judges response to this is in terms of the philosophical conceptual psychological point of view. He will claim that the psychological is divided into two aspects: that which happens to one(in accordance with the principle of causation) and that which one does. Whenever one decides to do something  one overrides what has happened to one because of the value of what one is doing. Confronted with the events of his life the criminal ought to choose what is right(not steal the car) and ignore what is wrong(steal the car). In ethical terms the judge will claim that the criminal is “free” to choose what is right: he is not an animal directed by causal factors such as instinct. The self consciousness humans enjoy enable them to transcend causal  agencies with their ideas of what is right and wrong. Determinism reigns in the physical world of the scientist but not in the human world of the politician and the judge. The way in which the judge thinks about human action is the way in which the politician ought to think about human action: in conceptual terms, in terms of the ideas of what is right and what is wrong.

In talking of the politician and how he self consciously and ethically ought to think about human action we are now raising the question of political identity. The Politician belongs to a party and relates to the manifesto of his party in an analogous way to the way in which the judge relates to the written law the politician is responsible for. Written law of course takes three forms: criminal law, civil law regulating contracts, and law regulating governmental distribution of benefits and burdens in the society. The action of promising is central to the second two forms of law which are not regulated by the sword as is criminal law. These latter two forms of law are fundamentally humanistic and ethical  entities and Kant’s categorical imperative is central to analysing what is involved in these cases.  So ethics is a central aspect of the politicians identity. What he promises(as distinguished from that he promises) is related to the party manifesto and central  value system. An important part of personal identity is the Aristotelian idea of continuity. A persons identity is what stays constant throughout change. Similarly a party’s identity depends upon the continuity of its value system(what it promises) as well as its substance(its relevance to the idea of a future flourishing society).

Common sense, for both Arendt and Kant is the name for what was referred to above as the process of coordinating compatible and conflicting perspectives which in its turn is a natural result of the pluralism of our modern societies where a manifold of forms of life thrive and prosper. A political party  identifies itself with a set of perspectives  instantiating a set of values which typically conflicts with the set of values other parties choose and this is an important aspect  of a party’s  identity.  These values can change and we characterise this in terms of its shifting position on the political spectrum. It has, for example been observed that  parties traditionally placed on the right or left of the spectrum have moved into the political middle ground to compete for the votes of the growing middle class. If there are more than two or three parties competing for the middle ground it becomes very difficult for the voters to identify the difference between the parties: the political identity of the parties is not clear. The voters are confused. This of course is the natural consequence of chasing voters instead of initiating them into ones value system. If ones value system(workers rights) becomes antiquated there may of course be no choice but to formulate a new value system(human rights) but this is a difficult business and can not be done without thinking philosophically about values, and of course counting the people to whom the new approach appeals

All parties, of course have to, on universal ethical grounds, make and keep the promises they make. This looks simple and obvious but common sense often points to the phenomenon of politicians promising to do things which for various reasons do not get done. When mistakes like this occur and the issue is an important one , one does not meet with confusion  but rather with ethical indignation. This is a powerful political force. If the society is undergoing significant change(increasing climate consciousness, increasing automation, increasing corporate dominance, movement from a manufacturing to a service economy) and a large percentage of voters are left behind in this process this ethical indignation will become a highly emotional affair and be dominated by fear and impulse. Voting will not be positive and for anything but rather negative and against something and if someone in the political sphere begins to speak the language of these voters they will find themselves in power irrespective of whether they are competent politicians or not . Here common sense will not reign. The rules of politics will be changed. Promises, for example will not need to be kept(we are all against the same things)and there is a danger that serious politics will have difficulty in re-establishing itself in such an environment. Understanding the concept of political identity is therefore essential in such circumstances.