Should Philosophers Get Political?

08 June 2017

Should philosophy be a politically engaged practice?

More specifically, should philosophers, when doing philosophy, think, speak, and write in ways that address contemporary political problems?

There are (at least) two schools of thought on this. The Politically Engaged School thinks that philosophy—rigorous reflection on ideas and relations among them—should tend toward addressing intellectual problems that arise in politically vexed arenas (race, gender, power structures). David Livingstone Smith, for example, posted recently:

We philosophers still primarily talk to one another, and not enough to non-philosophers about matters that people actually care about. Stop worrying about theories of reference and start worrying (publicly) about the Trump presidency (among other things). We need to organize. We need conferences that are geared towards communicating to non-philosophers rather than just to one another.

Smith, who is a friend of Philosophy Talk, is one of the best examples of a philosopher who does stay politically engaged.

On the other hand is the Politically Detached School. That School’s view is well summarized by Timothy Williamson, who said recently, “I find the current atmosphere of self-righteous moralizing and vindictive internet mobs in the discipline deeply disturbing (whether the mob is on the left or the right).”

Williamson continued:

The moralizing atmosphere spreads into philosophical theorizing itself, lowering standards of argument and evidence. As moral stakes rise, epistemic standards fall: ‘This is too important for quibbling’. Philosophers compete with each other in the virtue stakes. There are inevitably pressures to say things because saying them is politically convenient, rather than because you know them to be true. There are even greater pressures to not say things because saying them is politically inconvenient, or even a career-killer. Philosophers don’t have the best track record of resisting such pressures.

Williamson’s idea is that psychological pressures that arise when doing philosophy in a socially engaged way undermine the intellectual qualities that are supposed to be distinctive of philosophy: clarity, rigor, reasonableness, and generality—among others.

Is either School right?

My view is that both outlooks contribute to a distorted picture of what philosophy should be. I’d like to make two points.

  1. Different kinds of minds, even within philosophy, are good at different things.

  2. Some philosophical minds are exceedingly bad at political engagement, while others are good.

I take the general idea for 1 from Temple Grandin, the famous autistic designer of more humane abattoirs. Grandin, who is a visual genius but lacks the attentional control and social sensitivities of neurotypical people, has long argued that society should embrace cognitive diversity. In making her point in The Autistic Brain, Grandin writes:

During the Japanese tsunami catastrophe of 2011, the Fukushima nuclear power plants melted down because the tidal wave that came over the seawall flooded not only the main generator but its backup. And where was the backup located? In the basement—the basement of a nuclear power plant that is located next to the sea. As I read many descriptions of the accident, I could see the water flowing into the plant, and I could see the emergency generators disappearing under the water.

Her point is that if the designers of the plant had included more visual thinkers (like herself), the risk of flooding the backup generator would have been recognized and avoided. Having non-visual thinkers do jobs that visual thinkers would have been better at (certain kinds of trouble shooting) helped cause the meltdown. Recognizing cognitive diversity could have been the solution.

I think a similar point applies to philosophy. Many philosophers are skilled at logically analyzing the most stripped-down, elementary examples of speech, thought, or rational choice—and then assembling the analyzed components in theoretically illuminating ways. However, the attentional focus it takes to think in such a fashion might leave one bewildered and prone to missing necessary context in fraught political situations. On the other hand, a philosopher who can see the bigger picture of a fraught political situation may not have the laser-like attentional capacities of the other philosopher. 

The banal but important point, then, is that some philosophers should do politically engaged philosophy, while other shouldn’t. A philosopher who is prone to missing context may just not be good at doing politically engaged philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that her skills lack value or that someone else also shouldn’t do politically engaged philosophy. Smith’s repeated use of the word “We” (three times!) seems to overreach.

At the same time, Williamson may be overly cautious. He’s certainly right that many philosophers may not have the restraint not to “compete…in the virtue stakes.” But a rare kind of philosopher (I know a few) may have the fortitude to write in a politically engaged way, without lowering epistemic standards. What’s needed, then, is frank self-evaluation (perhaps with some help from friends) before jumping into the fray, in order to get clear where one stands in philosophy’s vast forest of cognitive diversity: can I write with an awareness of a broad historical and cultural context? will I be tempted to compete in the “virtue stakes”? can I maintain epistemic standards in a politically fraught discussion? If the answers to these questions are a clear “yes,” then go ahead. But otherwise…maybe critiquing the latest theory of reference is more for you. 

And critiquing the latest theory of reference is not a bad thing. The politically disengaged philosopher is often a paradigm of rigorous thinking, who is apt (through technical skill) to find the holes in need of repair in any given argument. Obviously, anyone who makes arguments, including more politically engaged philosophers, can benefit from having someone like that around. 

The deeper point, of course, is that one shouldn’t succumb to the thought that philosophy must be done only one way or another. People who seek detailed technical achievements are great, but it’s good for them to hang out with people who seek to rearrange the broader political picture. We should listen to each other—and ask ourselves what our skills enable us to contribute. If we do—as Grandin might emphasize—we might avoid a meltdown.


Comments (3)

David Livingstone Smith's picture

David Livingsto...

Thursday, June 8, 2017 -- 12:19 PM

Neil, I pretty much agree

Neil, I pretty much agree with a lot of what you say -- HOWEVER (there's always a "however") I do not think that philosophers are, as a group, in any danger of being excessively engaged with the immensely serious problems that confront us. I think, rather, we are pulled in the direction of disengagement--of remaining purely in the conceptual realm, rather than getting our hands dirty. This is a function of a set of professional norms and values that, I believe, need modifying. Recall that It is only quite recently that public philosophy has acquired a modicum of respectability, and is still looked down upon in too many academic circles. As for lowering epistemic standards, I actually think that it is quite important to adjust one's epistemic standards to the type of project that one is engaged with--and that implies that it is "epistemically correct" to "lower" one's epistemic standards when dealing with certain sorts of issues.

Neil Van Leeuwen's picture

Neil Van Leeuwen

Saturday, June 10, 2017 -- 8:34 AM

David, thanks for the comment

David, thanks for the comment. I guess the issue I take is with your use of the word "we."

I definitely agree with you about two things:

1) There should be more involvement in the political realm on the part of philosophers.
2) There should more acceptance of such involvement as a route to professional advancement.

But I can maintain those two things while still holding that many (maybe even most) philosophers aren't suited for entering the political fray. I think it's great that many philosophers get heavily into semantics or modal logic or whatever. I wouldn't want it otherwise. Furthermore, I think many people who are skilled at such things would make a mess when it comes to difficult contemporary political issues. Consider this: would you really want Saul Kripke to weigh in on sensitive issues of race and gender? I suspect not!

David Livingstone Smith's picture

David Livingsto...

Saturday, June 10, 2017 -- 3:28 PM

Yes, I'm pretty much on the

Yes, I'm pretty much on the same page as you. I'm prone to hyperbole when discussing these matters because I find it difficult to escape the impression that we're fiddling with modal operators while Rome burns. In fact, some of the ostensibly otherworldly stuff--actually, Kripke's work is a great example--is IMMENSELY useful when thinking about issues like race. I want to encourage philosophers to do what they are passionate about doing, but am aware that what people are passionate about is, in part, a function of the system of values and incentives that are sedimented into the profession.