The Philosophy of Power and the Power of Philosophy

“I don’t want to talk about politics” is something we hear from time to time at the beginning of discussions from people who are fatigued by the news or afraid of being the odd-one-out in their ideas. Not talking about politics in philosophy is not an easy thing to do, however, because politics seem to be everywhere and in everything.

In literature, we call novels that are concerned with power and how it’s used political novels. In philosophy, theories of power are political theory. When we step back from the news of elected officials and contentious elections to look at politics as the play of power in the world, our ideas about what is political can start to broaden.

Before and after the 2020 US election, we tried out an exercise with some of our high school students and again with a group of adults. We looked at the branches of philosophy to see how power might have a role in even our deepest thinking.

Political philosophy aside, the branches of philosophy concern themselves with right and wrong (ethics), beauty (aesthetics), knowledge (epistemology), being (ontology), and ultimate reality (metaphysics). The closer we looked during our exercise, the more we could see that the wielding of power can play a role in what we find to be good, beautiful, right, what we believe is real and even why we think anything exists in the first place.

This is not to say that there are no universal truths immune from temporal power (though that question was an interesting one to leave open). It is to say that it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish what we think for ourselves now from what has been thought by others before; and that how it is those thoughts came to be thunk in the first place has a lot to do with who has historically had any kind of power over people’s thinking.

To give just one example, when we took a close look at aesthetics, we found it was hard to separate our ideas about what is a beautiful person, plant, or work of art from our conditioning and that if we’re at all intellectually humble, we might even realize that anything we say about the nature of what beauty is and how it works may have also been influenced by our social and, yes, political inheritance.

We can always look closely at what we think about anything to ask ourselves why we think it. Another interesting question we asked ourselves in our exercise was who benefits from us thinking the way we do. Therein, the power players are often revealed.

The branches of philosophy are all about, to borrow a phrase from theologian Paul Tillich, that which is of ultimate concern to human beings. It can be understandably scary to question matters of ultimate concern, but it’s ultimately a lot scarier not to.

It’s scary to imagine a world in which no one ever examines their own thinking to determine if there is more to the world than they previously considered. The power of philosophy is that it takes nothing for granted and you can do it anywhere at any time no matter who you are and no matter what anyone else wants you to think.

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