We the undersigned would like philosophy to remain quite useless

A recent op-ed in the ‘New York Times’ argues, foolishly, that philosophy is in danger of becoming too political.

We the undersigned would like philosophy to remain quite useless

A recent op-ed in the ‘New York Times’ argues, foolishly, that philosophy is in danger of becoming too political.

Petitions, such as they are, take various forms. They might be called “petitions,” or they might also be called “open letters.” They might collect signatures from the neighborhood about some particular local issue, or from members of some particular interest group about some issue that primarily affects them.

The UK government has a website dedicated to official state petitions, which citizens can use to suggest their own. Most are rejected out of hand — either because they are asking the state to do something beyond its jurisdiction, or because the person submitting them has gotten the wording slightly wrong (the Twitter account @rejectpetitions is helpfully dedicated to archiving the ones that don’t make it). But any accepted petition which manages to collect more than 100,000 signatures will be considered for a debate in parliament.

Which is not to say these petitions are in any sense an effective democratic tool — of the 10 campaigns which received the most signatures in 2016, four were denied a debate entirely; none led to any real change. Earlier this year, more than six million people signed a petition calling for the government to “Revoke Article 50 and Remain in the EU” — the motion was debated in parliament, but the answer was simply, flatly: “no.”

In a way, the problem with petitions — particularly petitions which position the general public as addressing the state — is that they are simply not political enough. Typically, a petition calls for some political action to be taken, but it is unable to back this up with anything beyond: “We the undersigned would like to ask nicely.”

But Agnes Callard, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, has had almost the exact opposite problem with petitions. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Callard relates being asked (she does not say by whom) to sign a petition “opposing the deplatforming of philosophers on the basis of their views on sex and gender.”

Now, I would not personally have signed this particular petition in a million years (even if I both loved filling out forms and thought petitions were genuinely effective) — owing to the fact that the phrase “deplatforming of philosophers on the basis of their views on sex and gender” is a dogwhistle translation of what most people would call “criticizing the views of philosophers who deny the lived reality of trans people” (academic philosophy, as some readers may know, has a massive transphobia problem). But Callard objected to it for different reasons. According to her, no true philosopher should be in the business of signing petitions at all — she claims that they violate the “Socratic version of the Hippocratic oath,” according to which “philosophers must commit to not doing a certain kind of epistemic harm.”

“I refused to sign,” Callard writes, “because I believe that petitions, regardless of their content, compromise core values of intellectual inquiry.” Callard says that philosophers should only attempt to, as Socrates did, “bring people to believe only what they, by their own lights, can see to be justified.” But according to Callard, petitions seek to persuade not only by setting out a particular argument, but through the weight of numbers that is attached to it:

“There is something aggressive about the way in which voices gain strength and volume by being joined together. Numbers generate a pressure to believe that isn’t grounded in explanatory force, because having more and more adherents to a view doesn’t give rise to better and better accounts of why the view is correct... Persuasion by majority or authority is an unsound way to inquire; the employment of such a procedure constitutes a kind of philosophical malpractice.”

So why are philosophers, Callard asks, ever even tempted to sign petitions at all? She writes:

“We’d never approach questions such as ‘Are possible worlds real?’ or ‘Is knowledge justified true belief?’ by petition, so why are we tempted to do so in the case of questions around sex, gender and hurtful speech? The answer is that the latter question involves real feelings and real people, and it is about something that is happening now — for all these reasons, it strikes us as being of grave importance. The petition writers are thinking to themselves, this time it really matters. I think it is a mistake for a philosopher to take the importance of a question as a reason to adopt an unphilosophical attitude toward it.”

In short then, Callard argues, philosophers are driven to issue and sign petitions when their engagement with the world has become “politicized.” And this, according to Callard, is a bad thing — because if philosophers are doing politics, they can't really be doing philosophy. The politicization of philosophy is in violation of the Socratic oath.

At this point I feel driven to ask: if it isn’t supposed to be political, then what’s philosophy even for? Callard talks of philosophers being committed, as a matter of professional ethics, to “not doing a certain kind of epistemic harm.” But that defines the discipline far too negatively. Who the hell would dedicate the best years of their life to graduate study just so they can not do certain kinds of epistemic harm? (I mean: I suppose I can imagine someone pedantic enough to do this, and I can also remember having met them at an academic philosophy conference, but that guy shouldn’t have dedicated his life to something so negative). When I consider this question, I always think of what Adorno writes in the opening ‘Dedication’ to Minima Moralia:

“The melancholy science from which I make this offering to my friend relates to a region that from time immemorial was considered as the true field of philosophy... the teaching of the good life.”

Granted, Adorno then goes on to tell us: “What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own... Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.” Perhaps as a result of this, Adorno claims, philosophy itself has been “(converted) into method” — with the teaching of the good life thus “(lapsing) into intellectual neglect, sententious whimsy and finally oblivion.” But in a way what this really tells us is that the failure of contemporary politics to teach the good life is precisely something political:

Transphobic philosophers often want to insist on the “merely” philosophical nature of their inquiry — but for the minority groups their thought most affects, its political force cannot remotely be avoided.

The contemporary philosopher John McDowell has used the phrase “frictionless spinning in a void” to describe what happens when thought is insufficiently beholden to how things are. McDowell doesn't make this point with any particular political purpose in mind — indeed, he is often referred to by critics as an utterly apolitical “quietist.” But it nevertheless speaks in favor of philosophy’s thoroughgoing politicization. If thought is to be responsive to the world, then it must be responsive to the real experience, the real desires and demands, of those who exist within it. This is exactly what Callard appears to be suggesting that philosophers should be suspicious of. But as far as I can tell the political is unavoidable, just if we are engaged in the act of thinking at all.

Thus even if petitions are not as I have argued “political” enough to be politically effective, they nevertheless communicate a certain sort of epistemically relevant political content. That some critical mass of people think x (or, perhaps better, are willing to endorse x by signing their name to it) is no sort of argument for x in and of itself, and if their belief in x means they think y ought to happen, it won���t necessarily help with that either. But it could nevertheless prove relevant, when we are inquiring into x, considering (for instance) the nature of the arguments people cite in support of it.

A useful example was given to us in June when a group of 30 “gender-critical” (read: anti-trans) academics, led by the philosopher Kathleen Stock, published an open letter in The Times about how having to respect the pronouns of their trans students and colleagues was somehow compromising their freedom of thought; they were then met by a petition, signed by more than 5,000 university professionals, forcefully decrying their bigotry. It is relevant, when considering an issue like this, to consider both the arguments and rhetorical tone of anti-trans philosophers in relation to their willingness (as Stock’s open letter makes clear) to treat certain of the people they will most likely encounter every day at work almost as test subjects for their own abstract thought to ride roughshod over; in relation to the fact that one of the names attached to Stock’s letter was that of Stuart Waiton, a lecturer at Abertay University who also was a candidate for the far-right Brexit party in Scotland. Transphobic philosophers often want to insist on the “merely” philosophical nature of their inquiry — but for the minority groups their thought most affects, its political force cannot remotely be avoided.

“Facts,” as the right-wing slogan goes, “don't care about your feelings.” But the problem with this is that, when it comes to certain sorts of facts, they really do. Reality must be responsive to our feelings, at least one some level — because certain aspects of reality are precisely constructed through them. The fact of someone's gender identity, for instance, does not exist independently of their own individual perspective on it, waiting to be (independently) discovered — by some intrepid “gender-critical” philosopher, perhaps. Callard cites (favorably) Socrates’ scorn of the views of the majority: “Why should we care so much for what the hoi polloi think?” But for cis philosophers (like me) to pronounce on gender identity, without taking the lived experience of trans people (including that of our trans students and colleagues) into full and proper account, would leave us open to a particular form of idiocy: thought spinning frictionless in a void.

Perhaps this can help us make sense of why Wittgenstein wrote that, when reading the Socratic dialogues, “one has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time! What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?” This is certainly something that often happens — a number of Platonic dialogues deliberately end in an argumentative impasse, what the Greeks called aporia. But a more charitable reading, of course, is that in doing this Plato is making his dialogues precisely about the failures of what we might call “merely” philosophical debate — hinting at the space, beyond abstract discussion, where the matters involved might really be settled: real interests, real politics.

Regardless of what the Ancients thought: it is imperative that philosophers today inquire into reality in a way that is openly, nakedly political. Anything else is dishonest: the adoption of a “neutral” stance is just that — the adoption of a stance. Even metaphysical questions — Callard names, for example, the question of whether merely “logically possible worlds” are real — have a political basis: if nothing else, it is relevant to ask why a philosopher would be dedicating their intellectual energies to this question, “why now?” (when outside, the world burns).

“One thing that is distinctive about philosophy,” Callard tells us, “is that unlike other disciplines, it is philosophical all the way down. ‘What are mathematical objects?’ and other such foundational questions fall under the purview not of the discipline in question but of philosophy.” This may well be true — but then, this philosophical questioning is also political. Regardless of what the various divisions of the faculties set out from university to university might suggest, “politics” is not some special discipline which spins frictionless of philosophy, the sciences, etc.

Anything less than philosophy’s full and open politicization would violate the norms of the discipline: even, let's face it, by Callard’s own minimal lights. It is epistemically harmful for philosophers — as it is for anyone — to conceal the political force of the practice they are engaged in behind an empty façade of neutrality. There is no thought but political thought.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.