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Monday, May 16, 2011

Michael Ignatieff: The Philosopher King that Almost Was

Sadly Michael Ignatieff will not be the prime minister of Canada.  Ignatieff announced that he would step down as leader of the Liberal Party after last week’s elections in which the party lost more than half its seats in parliament.  Why, you may wonder, should an Israeli/American academic who knows next to nothing about Canadian politics be saddened by this?  Good question.

Well, beyond a natural affiliation with the moderate left that comes with the academic territory, this was the one chance of having a true philosopher king on the world stage.  Ignatieff is a world-class academic and writer whose books have been a source of great inspiration to me.  Ignatieff’s work on human rights and international affairs is measured and brings a much-needed balanced approach.  Moreover, his biographical work is equally good.  This includes an exceptionally engrossing book on the life of Isaiah Berlin, who was Ignatieff’s teacher, as well as Ignatieff’s wonderful book on his own family’s history entitle The Russian Album I.  Here is a favorite passage:     

No one I know lives in the house where they grew up or even in the town or village where they once were children.  Most of my friends live apart from their parents. Many were born in one country and now live in another.  Others live in exile, forming their thoughts in a second language among strangers.  I have friends whose family past was consumed in the concentration camps. They are orphans in time. This century has made migration, expatriation and exile the norm, rootedness the exception.  To come as I do from a hybrid family of White Russian exiles who married Scottish Canadians is to be at once lucky – we survived – and typical.

            Michael Ignatieff / The Russian Album

The loss to Canadian politics (assuming there is one, for all I know he might have been a lousy politician) will be the gain of the academic.  But it would have been nice to have had a true philosopher king, for Plato’s sake even if for no other reason.        

Posted by Ori Herstein on May 16, 2011 at 11:17 AM | Permalink


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Thanks for clarifying. I tend to agree about the “serious political philosopher bit” as well as about what you say about the “who counts as a philosopher” issue (which always struck me as a silly question). I guess I still like Ignatieff's stuff: biographical, historical as well as reflections on international affairs and human rights, whether it is good philosophy or not (or philosophy at all) and think he would have added something of value to the political landscape (which really was the point of the post). You and Brian appear to agree in not agreeing with me on that.

So there are so far two “likes” for Ignatieff and two “dislikes.”

In any case, thanks for taking the time to read my post and comment.

Posted by: Ori | May 17, 2011 9:09:42 PM

I guess that having an advanced degree is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a philosopher, but, like Brian, my impression is that most philosophers think Ignatieff isn't that great at philosophy (some of his work I like more than other parts, but much of it is pretty fluffy, and not up to the standards of serious political philosophy) and given his support for some pretty terrible positions, philosophers are happy to not claim him and not take any responsibility for him, given that his advanced degrees are in politics and history. So, I don't think Brian and I are disagreeing here, for what that's worth.

Posted by: Matt | May 17, 2011 8:31:28 PM

Brian and Matt,

I am not sure Brian is with Matt. Matt seems to think that Ignatieff is not a philosopher (based on his degrees and the fact that those Matt counts as philosophers presumably do not tend to view Ignatieff as one of them). Brian seems to think that Ignatieff is a bad philosopher, but by implication a philosopher none the less.

I should say that my use of the term "philosopher" in "philosopher king" was rather loser. The terms "intellectual," "a man of letters," or "theorist" would have all done just as well.


I am not a Plato scholar, so I cannot really comment. But thanks for pointing this out.

Posted by: Ori | May 17, 2011 4:39:04 PM

Have to agree with Matt--Ignatieff is as good a philosopher as he was a politican!

Posted by: Brian | May 17, 2011 8:09:51 AM

Given Ignatieff's positions on the Iraq war and his semi-support for torture, I'm not sorry to see him go, and don't consider him to be of high moral stature. (My impression is that most philosophers are not overly eager to claim him, either, and are glad to note that his degrees are not in philosophy.)

Posted by: Matt | May 16, 2011 3:02:57 PM

Of course some of us (like Julia Annas) don't believe the "philosopher king" model was intended to be taken literally, the ideal polis sketched so as to illuminate the order and ruling principle of the soul, it being easier to examine in the large and by analogy, as it were, than through a direct examination of the the thing--the soul--itself. All the same, I wish it was in fact the case that more politicians were of the stature and integrity of Ignatieff.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 16, 2011 2:24:04 PM

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