In the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association for the fall of 1988, we find the view that “the power of philosophy lies in its radicalness.” The author, Tom Foster Digby, tells us that in our own day “the radical potency of philosophy is particularly well-illustrated by contemporary feminist philosophy” in ways that “could eventually reorder human life.” The claim that philosophy is essentially radical has deep historical roots.
Aristotle and Plato each created a distinctive style of social philosophy. Following Ernest Barker, I shall call Aristotle's way of doing social philosophy “whiggish,” having in mind that the O.E.D. characterizes ‘whig’ as “a word that says in one syllable what ‘conservative liberal’ says in seven.” Later whigs shared with Aristotle the conviction that traditional arrangements have great moral weight, and that common opinion is a primary source of moral truth. The paradigm example of a whig moral philosopher is Henry Sidgwick, with his constant appeal to Common Sense and to “established morality.” On the more liberal side, we have philosophers like David Hume who cautions us to “adjust [political] innovations as much as possible to the ancient fabric,” and William James who insists that the liberal philosopher must reject radicalism.
In modern times, many social philosophers have followed the more radical example of Plato, who was convinced that common opinion was benighted and in need of much consciousness-raising. Looking on society as a Cave that distorted real values, Plato showed a great readiness to discount traditional arrangements. He was perhaps the first philosopher to construct an ideal of a society that reflected principles of justice, inspiring generations of utopian social philosophers.