The Fallacy of the Good Philosopher-Activist

Julinna Oxley’s article “How to Be a Good Philosopher-Activist” is the focus of a post over at Daily Nous. I hadn’t previously read Oxley’s article, so I’m glad that it’s showcased on the Daily Nous blog.  Although I read the article quickly, I derived from doing so the impression that it’s timely, instructive, and provocative. I’m sure that I will return to it on other occasions.

Since I consider myself to be a philosopher-activist, I nevertheless (even on a quick reading) have some reservations about the 5 virtues or skills that Oxley identifies as elements of the “rational integrity” that good philosopher-activists exemplify: (1) honest; (2) rational; (3) logical; (4) deliberative; and (5) respectful. I think that we can probably identify how all these virtues (skills) follow from particular social positions and distinct ways of doing philosophy. I am especially concerned to challenge the assertion that the good philosopher-activist is “logical” (#3), at least in the way that Oxley understands this term. Oxley describes logical philosopher-activists thus:

Logical — [good philosopher-activists] use logically sound arguments, do not make blatant or obvious logical fallacies, especially informal fallacies such as circular argument, slippery slope, red herring, straw man, etc.

I want, first of all, to point out that the identification of this skill (or virtue) of the good philosopher-activist—in particular, the identification of circular argumentation and slippery slope arguments as forms of intervention to be avoided—actually transports certain assumptions about the nature of power and indeed is not indifferent with respect to endorsement of conceptions of power insofar as it implicitly advances a certain conception of power and disqualifies another. To put it directly, that is, this understanding of rational discussion about social phenomena as a way to instigate social change actually relies upon a very specific understanding of power, namely, that power is repressive rather than productive.

How so?

The aforementioned conception of power relations is of course a paradigm of Anglo-American analytic philosophy (and, in my view, is one of the most glaring shortcomings of much recent and current mainstream and marginalized social and political philosophy). As I have noted in various publications and in posts here at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, Foucault used the term juridico-discursive (or simply, juridical) to refer to this conception of power and how it operates, how it enables the concealment of its own operations, and so on. On juridical conceptions, in short, power is centralized, authoritative, and operates downward in a linear fashion from this centralized authority, subtracting liberties, rights, goods, and so on from the subject.

For Foucault and authors whom he has influenced, however, power is more complicated than this generally accepted conception of it as repressive assumes. Indeed, Foucault, Judith Butler, and philosopher-activists who draw upon their insights have made “circular arguments” to identify how power naturalizes kinds, objects, apparatuses, etc., that is, advance arguments about how power effectively produces the subjects it subsequently comes to represent, produces items, social categories, and states of affairs as natural, as prediscursive, as prior to the operations of power, and so on. Note, for example, that the innovative, or rather pathbreaking, character of Butler’s argument for the performativity of gender is almost entirely a function of the circularity of the argument. Should Butler’s credentials as a good philosopher-activist be contested?

In the context of philosophy of disability, I (drawing upon Foucault) am able to examine and advance arguments about the social constitution of impairment (as the naturalized foundation of the apparatus of disability) while Barnes, Kittay, and other philosophers of disability do not do so and indeed cannot do so, due to the “circularity” of my approach, that is, because I understand power relations as productive rather than merely repressive, as constitutive rather than negative, operating to naturalize social power and its artifacts. (At the outset of Barnes’s book, in fact, they dismiss my work on impairment and disability due to the “circularity” of my argument.)  Even the analytic philosopher-activist Ian Hacking, who acknowledges his debt to Foucault, observes that his idea of the self-authentication of styles of reasoning—an idea that he has used to talk about many social and cultural phenomena—is “apparently” circular, a circularity that he readily embraces.

In Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability and elsewhere, I argue that the charge of “slippery slope reasoning” has been used by bioethicists and other philosophers to delegitimize the criticisms that disabled people (including scholars, activists, and so on) have directed at arguments for medically-assisted suicide, prenatal testing and screening, and other eugenic practices. As I have pointed out, however, bioethicists and other philosophers who argue in this way fail to recognize that these criticisms astutely identify the incremental normalization of neoliberal configurations of power. In short, preoccupation with the supposed errors in the “logical structure” of the criticisms that disabled people make has led bioethicists and other philosophers to ignore the veracity of our arguments, while continuing to assume outdated notions of social power in their teaching, writing, research, public philosophy, and activism.   

The preceding paragraphs indicate some of the reasons why we should not limit the esteemed qualities of the good philosopher-activist to the presuppositions and practices of a particular way of doing philosophy, a particular tradition, a certain methodology, certain texts, etc.  The preceding paragraphs also indicate how that which philosophers have assumed to be among the most unencumbered, disinterested, value-neutral, and politically neutral elements of philosophical discourse—namely, informal fallacies—can themselves be mechanisms of historically and contextually specific social power relations.

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