I’ve been asked to comment upon any fresh thinking there may have been in political philosophy (my own field). In a way, that ought to be easy, for philosophy is – at core – all about thinking. Philosophers make it their business to explore ideas in fine detail, to pursue their implications to remote corners, or to try out new approaches to difficult problems. (For just three relatively recent examples of such approaches you might take ‘luck egalitarianism, ‘deliberative democracy’ and the ‘capabilities approach’ to the understanding of well-being.) Once you stop doing those things, you stop being a philosopher, which means that there is always fresh thinking in philosophy.
However, the question is whether there is any fresh thinking, so fresh that it deserves to be singled out for special attention, and – in answer to that – I’m not sure that I can put my hand on my heart and say that there is. You will see what I mean if you take any major journal of political philosophy and compare the contents of the most recent edition with those of an edition published, say, twenty years ago. Examples of what you are likely to find in each are (i) arguments between proponents of liberalism, communitarianism, libertarianism and – sometimes – socialism, each taking different sides but all working largely within – or consciously struggling to move beyond – parameters set out by John Rawls, (whose major texts were published in 1971 and 1993 respectively): (ii) a focus on the concept of justice, and related conceptions such as rights and equality; (iii) articles on issues of current ‘practical’ interest (feminism, the ethics of war, animal rights, and so on); these conducted at a fairly sophisticated philosophical level. If there is a difference between then and now, it is, perhaps, only that there has been some shift of emphasis, with increased interest in ‘practical’ philosophy, for example; (and, of course, nor should I neglect to mention the grumpy soixante-huitards of the radical philosophy movement).
There is nothing at all wrong with this. Open two editions of a scientific journal, separated in time by a similar period, and you will probably find a similar continuity. (Cures for cancer are, after all, hard to come by, as is a true account of the universe’s origins.) It simply means that we are witnessing what could be called ‘normal philosophy’. In putting it that way, I am borrowing from Thomas Kuhn who, in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, distinguished the ‘paradigm shift’ from ‘normal science’. According to Kuhn, paradigm shifts occur when there is a change in perspective so fundamental that it leads science’s practitioners to radically reorientate their approach. ‘Normal science’ is what goes on in the interim. And there are paradigm shifts in philosophy too. One came relatively recently – recently by the standards of progress in philosophy that is – namely in the middle years of the last century. This took the form of a shift of focus towards language and its workings. It was exemplified, and largely inspired by, the ‘later’ Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953, and it amounted to rather more than a mere preoccupation with language for its own sake. On the contrary, it meant the systematic deconstruction of a dualistic world-picture which had dominated thought, inside and outside philosophy, for several centuries. Another came in 1971, with the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. This breathed fresh life into the ‘contractualist’ approach to political thought, and with that – as many would argue – reinvigorated a practically moribund field of inquiry
Paradigm shifts are rare events, however, and for the moment I can offer no more than a report on the present state of play in political philosophy. But what happens next? Sometimes paradigms fade away until little is left of their influence but a trace. Arguably, that is what has happened in the case of the Wittgensteinian paradigm, the remains of which are discernible, mainly in a raised sensitivity to meaning on the part of philosophers, and a close attention to detail. At other times, they are replaced wholesale with the advent of a new paradigm. We shall have to wait and see, but to speak personally, I feel that something will have to happen soon. That’s because, as it seems to me, the world implicitly pictured by the Rawlsian model is no longer – quite – the world we now inhabit. As many readers will know, Rawls pictures a situation in which hypothesised individuals, constrained by circumstance to cooperate, select principles of ‘justice’. It is as if they were, in effect, inhabiting an area with borders, and designing a constitution. But the problem those individuals set out to solve may no longer be the only, or the most pressing difficulty with which we are faced.