Jonathan Wolff (aka Jo Wolff) Professor of Philosophy at University College, London, is, amongst other things, the author of the best introduction to political philosophy that I have come across, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (I'm not the only one to think this - see comments on the first edition). He kindly agreed to an e-interview about this book for Virtual Philosopher…
Nigel: How did you come to write the book?
Jo: After I finished writing my first book, which was on Robert Nozick (published in 1991) I realised that I enjoyed writing for students, and that there was no introductory text in political philosophy that I would recommend to my own students. The two things together led me to think about how I would write such a book; an idea came to me of linking together a series of questions with contemporary discussion and the ideas of the great political philosophers, and I wrote a two-page plan. However Will Kymlicka's Contemporary Political Philosophy came out just about then, and I thought it an excellent work that filled the gap in the market. A year or two later, though, I got an invitation from OUP to write a book in what was then their OPUS series. By this time I had realised that Kymlicka's book was a bit hard for beginners, and also covered much less ground than I wanted to, and so I dusted down the plan I had in my drawer and sent it off. They liked it, and signed me up. The aim was to write a book that was 'problem' driven, rather than 'concept' or 'thinker' driven. The point of this was to engage and inform readers who like to think in an active, philosophical way, rather than simply giving them a lot of information to remember.
Nigel: Do you think that philosophy has anything to offer politics or is political philosophy just an interesting and intellectually stimulating activity focussed on what we'd like to happen, yet which leaves everything as it is?
Jo: My own research over the last ten years has aimed to bring political philosophy into greater contact with issues in social and public policy. I started with the naïve view that one could formulate abstract theories of social justice and then use them to assess the actual world and suggest reforms. This turns out to be a poor idea. First many of the recommendations are utterly utopian, and ignore issues of feasibility, context and compliance. To take one example, many theories have the implication that there should be 100% inheritance tax. But if we did pass such a law, the main effect would be that clever lawyers and accountants would work out ways round it. Just as importantly, though, there is a lack of ‘fit’ between the concepts used in theory and practice. People in policy fields worry about health, education, housing, the material environment, land use, agricultural policy, and so on. Theories of equality, couched in terms of ‘preference satisfaction’ or ‘resources’ have no obvious direct contact with these issues, and so a lot of work is needed to make political philosophy applicable. For anyone interested, I have a book coming out in 2007, co-written with Avner de-Shalit, called Disadvantage, which tries to give one model of how it could be done.
I don’t want to give the impression, though, that I oppose very abstract, idealistic, political philosophy, which I think is very important. It is inspiring and a source of ideas that can then be used by others. I have chosen not to work that way because plenty of other people do, while the more applied side is terribly neglected.
Nigel: Which political philosophers do you most admire, and why?
Jo: There are not many surprises here. The political philosophers I find myself re-reading are Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, and Mill, and among contemporary figures Rawls, Nozick, Dworkin and my teacher Jerry Cohen. I have also found myself thinking about the ideas of Michael Walzer increasingly, and I also have a lot of respect for Alasdair MacIntyre. There are many younger people who do really excellent work, but I don’t want to pick anyone out in particular. The people I admire generally combine two features: imagination and argument. They make you aware of new possibilities - a new landscape of ideas - while at the same time showing how their ideas are connected, can be supported, and defended against opposition.
The most problematic figure for me at the moment is Mill. I am a huge admirer of him as a writer and public intellectual, and his courage and rhetorical force is quite possibly unmatched by anyone else. However the more I read On Liberty and Utilitarianism the less able am I to think of him as a political philosopher. The arguments are more often hinted at than given, and often cannot be reconstructed in any plausible way. Opponents are dismissed rather than refuted, objections are noted but their implications ignored, and often repetition does service for argument. It is, perhaps, an irony that Mill’s most read works were those published for the ‘educated general reader’ rather than those intended for a serious philosophical audience, such as A System of Logic or An Examination of the Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton, where the exposition is much more careful.
Nigel: What changes did you make for the second edition of your book?
Jo: Oxford University Press were keen for me to do a second edition, essentially to kill off the second-hand market, and to boost library sales. I didn’t find these especially honourable motives and so resisted for a few years. However the design of the book was looking more and more dated and old-fashioned, and eventually I had to agree that a ten-year old ‘Guide to Further Reading’ was less helpful than it could have been. There were also some mistakes in the book I wished to correct. I read through the text wondering if I should make substantial changes, but decided that if I started I couldn’t be sure that I would make it better, rather than worse. After all, the original version was the result of a period of intense engagement and concentration and I was unlikely to be able to recreate this mood of work. So I more or less left the text as it was. There is a new cover, an updated reading guide and a typeface that no longer makes me cringe when I look at it. Anyone who has the old version has no reason to update.
Nigel: You are unusual in managing to communicate to a wide readership without being patronising or oversimplifying the issues. Do you read your work aloud, get others to read it, or have some other way in which you edit your writing into a form that makes it accessible but avoids the charge of simplification?
Jo: On the whole, I do my all my reading and thinking before I start writing, formulate in my head the basic plan of a section or chapter, and then write very quickly with minimal revision. There are various traps I try to avoid. One is constantly to hint that you know a lot more than you are saying, as if you are worried that your old supervisor is going to jump on you for over-simplification. Another trap is that philosophical writers often introduce a distinction and then illustrate it with an example, which sounds like good technique but in fact makes the text flat and dull. It is much better to introduce a puzzle by means of an example, and then use a distinction to show how the puzzle can be solved. Exactly the same material is used but in a more engaging way. In general I try to use whatever tricks I can to have a dynamic driving the text forward. When thinking about writing for students I realised that it is not at all uncommon for me to simply stop reading a work of philosophy at some point, whereas this rarely happens for me when reading a novel. I wanted to write philosophy in a way in which the reader always wants to keep going, with enough tension or suspense to make the reader want to return.
I don’t read my work aloud; actually it has never occurred to me that this would be useful. But I do get others to read it. Because I write largely from memory, rather than with a pile of books on my desk, it is very helpful to have other philosophers read my work to point out ways in which I have got others wrong. My wife – a philosophy graduate who worked for many years in publishing – reads the work I write for students. If she has to read a passage twice to understand it, or gets too bored, I know I need to make changes. She also tells me when my attempts at humour fail. I’m not going to reveal how often this happens.
Nigel: Are there any other introductory books on Political Philosophy that you'd recommend to someone new to the subject?
Jo: I've mentioned Will Kymlicka's book, with is very good for somewhat more advanced students. Ian Hampsher Monk’s A History of Modern Political Thought is a very useful guide to the major political philosophers, and I also like Adam Swift’s Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians. None of these are direct competitors to my book. I have tried to avoid reading the many other introductory books in political philosophy competing for the same market slot as my book. I’m certain one will come along which will be better than mine, and maybe it is already published, but I’ll leave it for others to make that judgement.
Nigel: What part does writing more popular works like this one and your book on Marx play in your academic life? Are there any other books like this that you're planning to write?
Jo: This is a tricky area. My books for students do include original ideas and arguments, but I don't make a big fuss about it so they are easily missed, especially by people who do not know the area well. I was amused to see that a first year undergraduate wrote on a blog site that he got nothing from my Marx book as he knew it all already. I’m a bit slower than that: it took me about 25 years of thinking about Marx to come to the views I argued for there. [Listen here to Jonathan Wolff on San Francisco radio talking about Marx]
In a couple of cases I have written up ideas in my student books for a more academic audience, or given papers on the topics. There is a continuity between my writing for students, my teaching, and my other academic writing, but I don’t have any general plan to try to bring it all together systematically.
I am always having ideas for new books, but my enthusiasms typically only last a few months and then I get another idea. At the moment I’m thinking about a couple of possibilities, and have talked to various publishers about them, but experience suggests that it would not be sensible to say what they are at the moment.
Nigel: Thank you very much.
© Jonathan Wolff, 2006.