Education, Philosophy, recent

The Role of Politics in Academic Philosophy

Recently Quillette published an exchange about the low proportion of conservatives in academic philosophy departments, consisting of an article by Tristan Rogers and a response by Shelby Hanna. This interesting exchange largely concerns the status of conservative political philosophy within the discipline and the interpretation of the PhilPapers survey results regarding philosophers’ stances on political philosophy. But this is a very limited way to understand the role of politics in academic philosophy. In fact, political philosophy is perhaps one of the least political places in philosophy at the moment, precisely because it is in political philosophy that conservative ideas must be, as a matter of intellectual integrity, taken seriously.

Activist philosophers, and philosophical activists, increasingly find themselves publishing work on topics in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on. The problem here is precisely the opposite of what Hanna seems to be thinking about: It’s not that there is little conservatism within political philosophy but that there is little political philosophy within the politicized work of philosophers in other subfields. Activist scholars in these subfields never seem to get around to questioning their political views, which turn out to be near the center of what Willard Van Orman Quine would have called their “webs of belief.”

Metaphysics, traditionally a highly abstract and impractical area of inquiry, is the area of philosophy that has had perhaps the most high-profile political scuffles in the past few years. This is because there are significant political overtones to questions about the nature of race and ethnicity, or the nature of sex and gender. The Hypatia affair, which I wrote about for this magazine two years ago, crystallized many of the dynamics surrounding these issues. My contention is not that questions about race/ethnicity and sex/gender are improper for philosophical inquiry, but that philosophical inquiry is threatened by the political fervor that surrounds these questions. In the debates between gender-critical feminists and their detractors (who call them “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists”), for instance, it is often taken as a given that the political demands of feminism should determine our views on the metaphysics of sex and gender; at issue is which version of feminism is given pride of place.

But to many less politicized observers I expect that this will seem backwards. More than any other domain, metaphysics is about what’s fundamental, not about the practical exigencies of this or that historical moment. But the approach of viewing many important categories of experience as social constructions—which is again to some degree shared by the two sides of the debate about the metaphysics of gender—is resistant to claims about fundamentality and ultimate reality. Participants in these debates are often trying to change what they view as an already ideologically-determined reality, not to describe a common world that underlies our political differences. And, of course, the changes these participants attempt to make are absolutely never in line with conservative political principles. So that’s an area in which the representation of conservatives in philosophy might matter to Rogers and Hanna. Conservative representation might involve a rejection of the politicized model, or it might involve an implementation of that model on the basis of conservative rather than progressive values.

A similar absence of conservatives in the philosophy of science might trouble Rogers and Hanna. It is increasingly the position of philosophers of science that scientific research should—or even must—involve various kinds of value judgments; judgments not only using epistemic values, like simplicity and elegance, but using ethical and political values, as well. The most common source of such values is feminist philosophy, leading to the prominence of subfields such as feminist philosophy of science and feminist epistemology. As with the influence of feminism within metaphysics, conservative philosophers might produce counterarguments against the idea that political values ought to be central in scientific inquiry, or they might embrace that idea and offer a vision of science in which conservative political values are crucial. Either of these would be interesting roles for conservatives to play in areas outside of the value theory subfields emphasized by Hanna.

I’m a political liberal. Ultimately, my problem when it comes to the under-representation of conservatives in philosophy is the same problem Jonathan Haidt has frequently noted with regard to the under-representation of conservatives in psychology: It leads to poor scholarship. If articles on the epistemology of political conspiracies are written as though there are no progressive conspiracy theories, or if articles on top-down changes in the meanings of words (called “concept inflation” in this magazine in a terrific article by Spencer Case) take as their only examples the manipulation of language by powerful progressives toward left-wing political ends, then we will end up failing systematically to understand what’s actually at stake in the topics under discussion.

Philosophers—who, despite their political convictions, are usually incredibly naive when it comes to political strategy outside the academy—seem constantly to be tempted by their colleagues’ assurances that some line of research will pay dividends in the form of progressive political outcomes. Because philosophy is so dominated by political progressives, it is possible to get the sense that some philosophical approach is inherently politically progressive, simply because there are no conservatives around to engage in it. This leads to the adoption of philosophically poor ideas out of misplaced political passion.

A year and a half ago a popular philosophy blog posted—approvingly, though to mostly negative comments—an introductory course syllabus from a successful young professor. It had a section on metaphysics, which was limited to articles on the metaphysics of social construction; a section on the philosophy of language, which was limited to articles on slurs and hate speech; and a section on epistemology, which was limited to articles on standpoint theory and similar topics. Virtually every piece of writing in this introductory class had been produced in the past decade or two; this was meant, somehow, to promote “diversity” on the syllabus (as though there are more differences among social justice-oriented activist philosophers of the past twenty years than there are between present-day philosophers and, say, the ancient Greeks).

Clearly it is possible to do politics in philosophy without doing political philosophy. In fact, that is just about the trendiest sort of philosophy there is—what all the coolest philosophers are doing, and what outlets like the New York Times publish “public philosophy” articles about. Engagement with conservative political philosophy is a sad consolation prize, at best, and at worst, a distraction from these developments in every other aspect of the discipline.


Oliver Traldi is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. You can follow him on Twitter @olivertraldi

Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

Filed under: Education, Philosophy, recent


Oliver Traldi is a writer living in the United States. He has a bachelor's degree in classics and a master's degree in philosophy.