The Philosopher-Politician Reflects


We all think we can teach politics, but there is some almost tragic sense in which it can only be learned… by the mistakes you make…. You can go to any number of lectures about what politics is like but it doesn’t survive contact with the enemy…. It’s not a seminar room. It’s not an exercise in persuasion…. Politics is an alternative to war, but you live it as war–that’s what you feel, you feel you’re in battle–and that, for an academic, for a philosopher, is just extremely difficult to get used to. It’s so unpleasant. But good politicians just think, ‘that’s the way it is,’ and they have that aggressive temperament, and it makes them successful….

We’re overly cynical about politicians precisely because we have unrealistic understanding of the necessity of certain forms of moral ambiguity in politics.  One of the glories of politics is what Machiavelli did understand… for the sake of the good of the republic you have to do some things which in private life would be regarded as moral errors.

Political philosopher, theorist, historian, and novelist Michael Ignatieff (Harvard) reflects on the differences between academia and politics in light of his leadership of Canada’s Liberal Party in an interview at Philosophy Bites, touching on what works in practice, how to deal with the immorality of politics, and on the enduring value of political philosophy, elaborating on some of the ideas in his Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics. It’s a good listen, especially for anyone interested in questions about the relationship between philosophy and the “real world.”

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Brandon Beasley
7 years ago

Just a note, I believe Ignatieff divides his time between Harvard and the University of Toronto: http://munkschool.utoronto.ca/profile/michael-ignatieff/Report

Chad Kautzer
Chad Kautzer
7 years ago

I haven’t listened to the interview yet (I will soon – thanks so much for posting it), but this line really struck me: “Politics is an alternative to war, but you live it as war–that’s what you feel, you feel you’re in battle–and that, for an academic, for a philosopher, is just extremely difficult to get used to. It’s so unpleasant.” It’s wonderfully honest and reveals a lot about the various social positions and divisions within philosophy (by not acknowledging them). I think many philosophers working in areas dealing with race, gender, class, disability, queer studies, etc. know this battle, this war, both within and beyond their institution’s walls… because those rough and tumble politics happen for many of us, not just “out there” when we engage these issues in our community, but within the university and our departments as well. And this is to say nothing of the brutal battles fought to create the space and departments and centers for these kinds of social and political philosophy (and many ongoing to keep them). Perhaps Ignatieff even acknowledges this point (i.e. that when he speaks of the lesson learned for “an academic, a philosopher” he only means a certain sort) elsewhere in the interview. If so, my apologies for only repeating it here.Report