Provoking Agency

Writing at the dawn of modernity, just before classical liberalism took hold, Machiavelli and Thomas More offered different roles for the philosopher. Machiavelli’s realpolitik embraced the chance to whisper in the King’s ear, plying his skills to make power more effective. In contrast, Raphael (the main character in More’s Utopia) shunned the role of advisor, arguing that it would only pigeonhole him into the very kinds of instrumentalist discourse that any good philosopher must avoid. More – acting as a character in his own book – disagreed, arguing for a philosophy that “recognizes the play that’s being staged, adapts itself to playing a part in it, revises what it has to say as the drama unfolds, and speaks appropriately for the time and place” (p. 83). This is a good approximation of what we call field philosophy.

Yet even in the modern world philosophers have managed to shape society. A few, like Kant, did so by working almost exclusively within the academy. Many others, from Descartes to Marx, wandered abroad as government advisors, journalists, and rabble rousers. The story of Locke is an interesting case in point. At Oxford he studied ‘physic’ and medicine, because he despised the disputation of the Schools in theology and the humanities, calling it ‘Hogshearing,’ the “laborious clipping of tiny hairs from the skins of vociferating animals” (Laslett 1988, p. 23). One Locke scholar notes that “It was not Locke the Oxford don who became a philosopher, but Locke the confidant of an eminent politician” (Laslett 1988, p. 28). Locke performed liver surgery on the Earl of Shaftesbury, saving his life, and in turn Shaftesbury saved the philosophic life of Locke by immersing him in the society of agents provocateurs. From this experience the Two Treatises was born.