Most of us believe that the questions of political theory are not merely academic, in either sense of the word. We may be partly motivated by philosophical curiosity, seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but that is not the only reason we want to understand what justice requires, what equality means or how to meet our obligations to one another. Most of us think the answers to these questions have practical implications as well. If we discover what a better society looks like, we don’t just want to keep that to ourselves – we want to help make that society come about.
That implies that the ideas of political theorists ought not be limited to universities and scholarly journals, but that they should seek to influence the outside world of ‘real politics’. Indeed, many of the most venerated thinkers in the history of political thought have sought, with varying degrees of success, to put their ideas into practice – from Marx trying to direct international revolutionary socialism, to Rousseau’s constitution writing, to Burke and JS Mill sitting in parliament. Yet as political theory has professionalised, there is a concern that it has withdrawn into abstraction and esoterica and become detached from practical political concerns.
The purpose of Beyond the Ivory Tower is to speak to prominent philosophers that have, in different ways, managed to bridge the divide between academic political theory and ‘real politics’. In part, this is because their stories are interesting in their own right. It is also to help us understand the position of political theory today, and how other political theorists might achieve wider impact.
We want to use these interviews to understand both the ‘demand side’ and the ‘supply side’, so to speak, for philosophers in the public debate. On the ‘demand side’: how much appetite is there for the ideas of political theory among political actors, decision makers and the wider public? How do they view the discipline? What problems, if any, are they looking to philosophy to solve? On the ‘supply side’: are political theorists asking the most useful and relevant questions? Are there ways they can better ‘sell’ their expertise? How can such activities be combined or balanced with the imperatives of academic success?
We are extremely pleased by the eminence, experience and insight of the people who agreed to speak to us. Today we publish our first interview, with Baroness Onora O’Neill, who sits in the British House of Lords as a cross-bench peer (i.e. not aligned with any party). In the coming weeks, we will also publish interviews with Marc Stears, formerly chief speechwriter to British leader of the opposition, and Jonathan Wolff, who has written about the role of philosophy in public policy, drawing on his experiences contributing to committees such as the Gambling Review Body and the Nuffield Council of Bioethics. We will continue to add to this list of illustrious interviewees over the course of the year.
You can read our write-up of our interview with Onora O’Neill here.