Why A World History of Political Thought?

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J. Babb discusses how he came to write A World History of Political Thought.

One long-standing criticism of the political thought and philosophy, not to mention literature and art, is that it only reflects the viewpoint of “Old Dead White Guys”. This complaint has been raised again in recent years by those who demand to know “Why is my curriculum so white?” and seek to “decolonize the curriculum”.  This movement is important but the problem is not as easy to solve as one might think.

Consider the history of political thought. History is about dead people so any history is going to have that problem. Not all thinkers were old when they began to put forward their key ideas though most were when they acquired followers. Whiteness is a problematic category because one can imagine some of the ancient Greeks and Romans might have had dark skin but I guess the notion is that the key thinkers usually taught are all European in some sense. The point about the lack of women is well-taken but if they were denied the opportunity to engage in political thought, how can one discuss their views meaningfully? The same applies to the non-elite because most thinkers were part of the elite, speaking to the rest of the elite, for the benefit of the elite. Male and elite voices have been dominant throughout most of world history so this is difficult to escape.

A lot of work has been done to make political thought and philosophy more diverse historically but these have had their limitations. Books have tended to deal with small pieces of the problem such as a neglect of women or specific regional thinkers. The greatest progress has been in the study of East Asia, with the Middle East/ North Africa and India not far behind. Often this material has constituted a chapter in an edited volume that was only a token effort to acknowledge the existence of non-Western, non-male or non-elite thought. Usually, non-Western perspectives were ghettoized and overwhelmed by the main focus on men, the elite and the West. Another problem is that attempts at comparative thought also often stop well short of the present but there is a need to make clear the present relationship between Western and non-Western thought now or the continuing problem of ignoring the non-West will persist.

A few years ago I was asked if it would be possible to write “A World History of Political Thought” and my initial reaction was that it would be impossible.  Nonetheless, the idea gnawed at me for a few days before I sat down to draw up a list of political philosophers from throughout world history. The Western ones were easy—Plato, Aristotle, and so on—this is the bread and butter of the curriculum from my student days and as a profession academic. I was also very familiar with the key thinkers from East Asian political thought after teaching it for nearly 25 years. From East Asian thought I also had some understanding of Indian philosophy through Buddhism even though it took some time to identify the key thinkers and pour through the relevant texts. I knew some Islamic political philosophy from a course on medieval political thought I took many years ago as an undergraduate but I realized that my understanding of them had been subordinated to the narrative of Western political thought. I have to admit that I was surprised and impressed with the quality of the Islamic thinkers when considered in their own right. At first I believed that world political thought after the nineteenth century would be too dominated by the West but I recognized I already knew many important thinkers I had come across in various ways, such as Gandhi, Mao, and Fanon, who could challenge the Western narrative. It soon became clear a world history of political thought was not only possible, it needed to be written.

There were problems that I can admit now but were a worry for me when I started. Significantly, I decided to focus on great thinkers and major texts. Admittedly, this was from my own training in the “Western civ” (civilization) general education approach to political thought that was a pervasive feature of university education in the United States for most of the twentieth century. I felt US universities had been wrong to largely abandon “Western civ” and its focus on core texts and thinkers with which every educated person should be familiar, but I understand that the so-called “culture wars” in the US since the 1990s made its retention impossible just as “class war” in Britain has undermined an education ancient Greek and Roman “classics” that used to be standard for those seeking to apply to university. The problem from my point of view was that the alternatives to “Western civ”, where they existed at all, were often a poor reflection of what had constituted an education beforehand.

I knew the problem well for many years. One of my first jobs at Stanford University was the opportunity to work as a teaching fellow on an early alternative to “Western civ” focused on the world outside the West, specifically in this case China, Nigeria and Peru. It was good effort but lacked coherence and focus. Moreover, my belief then and now is that the best solution is not to separate Western and non-Western. It is better to integrate the two and tease out some shared themes and approaches, particularly those focused on ethics and aesthetics. Later I also realized that the hermeneutic skills needed to negotiate the material was lacking so needed to be constructed as well. As a result, I decided to focus on key texts and thinkers because it made the most sense to best integrate and discuss the major themes in the history of political thought using an explicit hermeneutic strategy.

The emphasis on great thinkers and texts, however, meant that societies without texts (originally or lost) might be ignored. I spent a lot of time trying to reconstruct the political thought of North American Indian and African tribal practices as well as Inca and Mayan civilizations. The results were interesting and suggestive of the potential of these ideas but in the end I decided to use none of it because it was too speculative. I think this is what Anthony Black is hinting at when he says I focus on ‘literate’ cultures. Reconstructing political thought where it is not explicit is different challenge and, in the case of this book, such a strategic omission that was inevitable given the ambitious scope of the project in the first place.

There was the related problem of a focus on men and the elite as noted above. However, if one looks, there are quite a few women who naturally emerge in the history of world political thought as important and interesting, and not just as the subject matter for male elite thinkers but also as thinkers in their own right. They are hidden in both Western and non-Western history but have begun to emerge due to the work of others upon whom I was glad to rely. I have also focused on those outside the elite, though admittedly through both through popular reaction and the eyes of the political elite itself. In the end, this effort to take seriously women and ‘the masses’ became essential to my narrative and was not a token exercise. It became part of the standard for assessing the metaphysics and ethics of all the thinkers and trends in world political thought.

I did feel that sometimes I was up against the paradox of cultural domination.  That is, even the oppressed themselves may have once dominated and still may dominate others so that no one or very few are not dominant in some way. The West dominated much of the world through imperialism and colonization but West had defeated those had controlled and colonized others. It is difficult to find a group that was not an oppressor as well as oppressed, and even if one could, the lower down the hierarchy one goes, the less likely that an authentic voice can be discerned. One can use techniques to try to recover this voice but that has difficulties and dangers of its own.

I have tried to focus on the substance of the world heritage of political thought wherever and whenever it was found. Of course, it easy to imagine more feminist versions of what I wrote or a version focused on the subaltern or using more extensive decolonization techniques. I can even imagine a version focused on consciousness and political thought to address the problem of beings with artificial intelligence who will be part of our lives someday soon. I simply have shown that an inclusive history of political thought can be written and there are benefits in doing so.

J. Babb, University of Newcastle, UK

A World History of Political Thought is available now.


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