Philosophy fails the political influence test

Photo by Giammarco Boscaro

hilosophers are disengaged from the political process, content to babble amongst themselves in academic journals and clubby conferences.

“Never did so many owe so little to so few.” That could be the inscription on the grave of academic philosophy. Given the brilliant minds and efforts that have been applied to big issues, it’s odd that philosophy has had no influence on the power of politics to change history. And yet academic philosophy still tries to brand itself as a worthy and influential field of human endeavour.

Rachel Anne Williams says she left academic philosophy for many reasons but chiefly because of its low career prospects, especially for women and non-whites, its failure to value and promote merit, its toxic culture, and its “embarrassing” failure to engage or influence pressing political issues that are affecting people and the planet: race, gender, environmental destruiction and climate change to name a few.

“I will never forget sitting in our auditorium listening to a long talk about meta-ethics when, right outside the doors of the university, Black Lives Matter activists were marching (this was in St. Louis at the time of Ferguson),” she wrote two years ago.

“I could hear them chanting; the stark contrast between the esoteric subtleties of meta-ethics vs. the concrete realities of what would be considered “applied ethics” — a term usually uttered with slight contempt — made me deeply uncomfortable. How could I justify this exuberance of abstraction when there were so many real-world problems that needed the minds of intelligent people?” [i]

80,000 Hours is a London-based organisation that provides research-based career advice about which careers have the biggest positive social impact. It provides advice through web articles, podcasts and one-on-one advisory sessions. It’s part of the Centre for Effective Altruism, affiliated with the University of Oxford.

It’s advice to people considering a career in philosophy? Don’t. There are few jobs, the training and skills of philosophers don’t transfer to the job market, career incentives don’t support social or political impacts, and “almost all nearly professional philosophers who have written publicly on this topic advise against aiming to become a professional philosopher unless ‘there is nothing else you can imagine doing.’” [ii]

Gray Dorsey, a law professor at Washington University argued that the rationalising influence of Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates affected “legal and political questions and problems” during the era of the Roman republic but this influence disappeared when it was “subordinated for centuries to the official reason and revelation of the Church; and then of Kings.” [iii]

“In Western civilization, philosophy has had an influence upon the norms of law and politics and upon attitudes toward legal and political questions and problems,” he wrote in a 1960 issue of the Washington University Law Quarterly.

“The basic influence, as might be expected, occurred early in the course of Western civilization. It produced a central tradition of natural law and humanism that has had setbacks and various interpretations, but has continued to serve as the guide for law and politics in the Western countries except for the Communists, and for a time, the Germans.”

He’s right about Stalin and Hitler. Western philosophy didn’t stop German Nazism or the Holocaust and it didn’t stop the atrocities of the Gulag, the Great Purge or the devastating famine perpetrated under the 1930–50 Soviet system of government.

Even if we concede Dorsey’s caveat that philosophy’s influence on western political decision making faded due to the corrupting anti-democratic power of Catholicism during the post-republican are of the Roman Empire and that of monarchic power during the Middle Ages (Europe, 476–1453) and Early modern period (Europe, 1453–1789), consider some of the key legal and political documents of western democracy.

Did philosophers influence or write the publication of the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), or the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791)?

Did it stop slavery during the Roman Empire, the Early Middle Ages, The Byzantine–Ottoman wars (1265–1479) or the Ottoman wars in Europe from the 14th to 20th centuries?

Meanwhile, beyond Europe and the civilising, rationalising “influence” of Western philosophy, the Arab slave trade spread through parts of Western and Central Asia, Northern and Eastern Africa, and India.

From 1600, the Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, British and many West African kingdoms also participated in the Atlantic slave trade until its abolition. Did philosophy do any heavy lifting to avert these long-running human rights abuses?

Even after 1789 did philosophy man the barricades to stop human slavery perpetrated by the democratic governments of Great Britain or the United States of America?

Did it stop the occupation by England of Ireland from the 12th century to today and the long history of its human rights abuses?

Has it stopped the overthrow of sovereign governments and “regime change” by western governments in the Middle East, Africa, or Central and South America?

No it didn’t. But let’s examine the language.

Dorsey’s claim that the democratic impulses and civilising influence of Western philosophy have served “as the guide for law and politics” is an example of weasel words, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “something that someone says either to avoid answering a question clearly or to make someone believe something that is not true.”

The era since the breakup of the Soviet Union has seen a shift towards right-wing nationalism in Europe and beyond.

In part, citizens are frustrated with political establishments and have concerns about globalisation and immigration, and in the European Union and former Soviet states, the dilution of national identity.

In the European parliament, nine far-right parties have formed a right-wing bloc, called Identity and Democracy. In Hungary, Austria and Switzerland nationalist parties have elected 25 per cent or more of MPs to the European parliament. They comprise 17–24 per cent of MPs from Denmark, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Italy. [iv]

Right-wing populism is used to describe groups, politicians and political parties known for their opposition to immigration, especially from the Islamic world, and for Euroscepticism. Right-wing populism in the Western world is generally associated with ideologies such as anti-environmentalism, neo-nationalism, anti-globalization, and protectionism.

Some of these ideologies have been used as rationales to defend or justify discrimination, violence, murders and terrorism by individuals, extremist and white-supremacist groups in dozens of Western countries. Philosophy and public intellectuals from academic philosophy have brought no political pressure or influence upon these growing developments.

So now we have Trump and rampant culture wars. The post-truth era of politics and news media mean we are living in a world rapidly approaching the frightening dystopian vision of Orwell’s 1984. In that imagined future, the world has fallen victim to perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, historical negationism, and propaganda. Sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it?

What are philosophers up to?

“Philosophers spend a lot of time writing things and trying to get them published in journals nobody reads — not even other philosophers,” says Rachel Anne Williams.

“Nobody reads this stuff because most of the journals are behind paywalls so expensive that only large libraries at academic institutions can afford to access them. Even within the halls of academia, where people do have access, there are simply so many papers published every year, even within niche fields, that nobody has time to read anywhere close to all the papers/books being published.”

Furthermore, Williams says academic philosophy fosters an inward-looking culture typified by “contrarian assholes” who aren’t remotely interested or engaged in political solutions to human and planetary challenges.

“Academic philosophy is primarily an experience in constant rejection and criticism. Everyone is taught how to brutally attack the arguments of their peers. Have you ever hung out with someone who disagrees with everything you say? Philosophy conferences are pretty much like that. All the time. It’s a never-ending parade of people attempting to one-up each other in verbal combat, all under the pretence of being lovers of wisdom.”

Dan Gaffney is a teacher and author. His book and podcast series, ‘Journey Home — Essays on Living and Dying’ was published in 2019.

[i] Rachel Anne Williams, 8 April 2018. Why I Left Academic Philosophy, Medium

[ii] Arden Koehler and William MacAskill, August 2019. Philosophy academia, 80,000 Hours

[iii] Gray L. Dorsey, THE INFLUENCE OF PHILOSOPHY ON LAW AND POLITICS IN WESTERN CIVILIZATION, Washington University Law Quarterly, Volume 1960 (2), p128

[iv] Europe and right-wing nationalism: A country-by-country guide, 13 November 2019, BBC News

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Dan Gaffney

Dan Gaffney is a teacher and author. His book and podcast series, ‘Journey Home — Essays on Living and Dying’ was published in 2019.