Do (analytic) philosophers make bad activists?

Can analytic philosophers contribute to political and ethical improvement at a social scale?

Well, yes; we are human and anyone can (and perhaps even must) contribute to this sort of project. As a matter of fact, I know first hand that a lot of my colleagues at least try to do so. Some of them have been very active in the fight for animal rights, others have defended women’s reproductive rights, etc. So this seems like a trifle question.

But can we contribute positively qua philosophers?

This is a much harder question.

Reasons to be Optimistic

I am mostly an analytic philosopher of science and my subfield has long debated on the relationship between our professional practice and that of science. My own experience has shown me that the analytical and critical tools we develop as analytic philosophers can be very useful to scientists when applied to science. Scientists usually appreciate the clarity and rigor we bring to their conceptual toolkit.

So I am optimistic that the same applies to political action, i.e., that the analytical and critical tools we develop as analytic philosophers can be very useful to activists when applied to ethical and political discourse. As a matter of fact, I already espoused this position in a couple of 2004 papers, echoing the work of authors like Susan Sherwin. So there are good reasons to be optimistic that we can contribute something of value qua philosophers.

Reasons to be Pessimist

Activism fuels on convection, philosophy on skeptical doubt.

Again, if I look back at my own personal experience, I reckon that political movements with complex theoretical components tend to be more controversial than more goal oriented (i.e. pragmatic) movements. This must not be surprising: the more theses a position involves, the more possible points of discrepancy it contains. It is also more likely to be misunderstood. (This is a point that I remember being made by Richard Rorty in the nineties as part of his his work on solidarity, but not only by him.) A strategy of liberation that relies on a complex social ontology, for example, can (and unfortunately does) trigger opposition not only because of its political goals, but because of its ontological theoretical claims as well. Less theoretical commitments means more opportunity for alliances and just for bringing people on to the cause. Thus, the less philosophy in our politics, the better.

Of course, the reasons to be optimistic and the reasons to be pessimistic are not unrelated. On the contrary, they are different sides of the same coin. One can reply to the pessimist by saying, for example,that maybe it is good to not be able to make some alliances, and that maybe it is good to be clear on what are the real (ontological, epistemological, ethical, etc.) commitments behind a political position before it is too late. Not making this sort of commitments explicit does not make them go away. They are still there, but out of sight and this can be, yes, of practical advantage in some circumstances, but a danger in others.

But notice the modal aspect of the optimistic claim: philosophical analysis might help activists make certain mistakes, see certain possibilities, etc. However, even the most optimistic of us must recognise that philosophy need not always have something to add: that not every social movement needs strong philosophical foundations, a clear ontology, an exhibition of its internal contradictions, etc.

This brief commentary is a response to a question Itsue Nakaya Pérez raised in response, in turn, to a talk by Zenia Yébenes, but also inspired by a question raised by Alejandro Vázquez del Mercado, and based mostly on years of conversations with Ángeles Eraña.

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