Peak Woke Philosophy
by Daniel A. Kaufman
After bearing witness to the train wreck that was the “White Paper on Publication Ethics,” I was convinced that woke philosophy couldn’t possibly get any worse. I was wrong, of course, and in hindsight, it was foolish of me even to have imagined such a thing. After all, I had similar thoughts after reporting on Justin Weinberg’s essay celebrating the Daily Nous’s anniversary, which was separated from the White Paper only by a few months. I won’t make the same mistake again. When I describe what is happening now as being “peak,” my point is not to suggest that there will be less of it in the future – in fact, I’m absolutely certain that there will be much more of it – but rather that we’ve now seen everything that woke philosophy’s got. Its hand is revealed. Its tactics are exposed. Its shills are clearly identified. Its self-serving logic is out in plain sight. (There is still one thing I remain unsure of, about which later.) The only thing left now is for the rest of philosophy to decide what to do about it, and I would be lying if I said I was hopeful, given that woke philosophy already has succeeded in capturing our profession’s primary institutions, something I also have spoken and written about at some length. (1)
So what’s happening now? Woke philosophy’s most recent moves can be found in an “open letter” to the profession, published anonymously (by “t-philosopher”) and entitled “I am leaving academic philosophy because of its transphobia problem,” as well as a lengthy essay, written by none other than the intrepid Weinberg, “Trans Women and Philosophy: Learning from Recent Events” and published at the Daily Nous. The two pieces are an exquisite pairing: T-philosopher is wounded and empowered and terrified and accusatory and defeated and defiant, all at once – sometimes, even in the same sentence – and then, suddenly, thankfully, as if out of a puff of smoke, Weinberg appears on the scene to help us sort it out so that we all might become Better People.
T-philosopher announces to the profession – all of it – that she is leaving because of philosophy’s “transphobia” and the terrible harm she has suffered at the hands of “bigots” like Kathleen Stock (who else?), whose presence renders her no longer “safe in professional settings.” Then comes the inevitable “call to action”: Journals must refuse to publish articles critical of gender identity theory and activism; conferences must no-platform philosophers seeking to present gender critical arguments; gender critical thinkers must be barred from public discourse, whether on blogs, discussion boards, social media sites, comments sections, or other online venues; and anyone and everyone who is going to engage in both professional and public philosophical discourse on the subject had better accept that “any trans discourse that does not proceed from this initial assumption — that trans people are the gender that they say they are — is oppressive, regressive, and harmful” and that “trans discourse that does not proceed with a substantial amount of care at amplifying trans voices and understanding the trans experience should not exist.”
If you’ve raised a teenager, as my wife Nancy and I have done, you’ll immediately recognize this as typically adolescent behavior. The clueless narcissism (“to the academic philosophy community…”); the catastrophizing (I know Kathleen Stock. You can watch video of Kathleen Stock. One cannot possibly be “unsafe” because of Kathleen Stock); the empty (because toothless) demands; the emotional blackmail (You see what you’re making me do!); even the proverbial running away from home (I’m leaving and never coming back!) It’s all there.
Weinberg, of course, does as only Weinberg can do, and I’ve written enough about him that it’s unnecessary to do so again in any detail. Suffice it to say that Weinbergism is alive and well and holding court: the phony even-handedness (a not-very-effective trick is to repeatedly suggest that those on his side of the issue are likely as dismayed by what he has said as his opponents); the credulous embrace of the testimony of those with whom he is already sympathetic (“Reader, what do you do when you are confronted with the anguish of another person?”); the breathtaking hypocrisy (“Be attentive to hostile rhetoric in work you are considering hosting or publishing”); the false modesty (“Yes, that’s my name up there. No, I’m not going to defend myself in this post. That’s not the point of this”); the obligatory swipe at Brian Leiter, with the equally obligatory misrepresentation of things that anyone with a pulse, two fingers, and an internet connection can check for themselves (“a well-known philosophy-blogger’s obsession with belittling graduate students who use Twitter to discuss trans issues” (2)); the by-now legendary lack of self-awareness (“Note the venues. Much of the trans-exclusionary writing by philosophers that has fueled recent controversies has been self-published (e.g., at Medium) by philosopher-activists..,” published on Weinberg’s personal site, in an essay about a politically-soaked letter published on Medium). It’s classic Weinberg; Weinberg as only Weinberg can be.
The essential thing to realize is that woke philosophy isn’t philosophy at all, but politics by another name. Philosophy, for the most part, is conducted by way of arguments and aspires to relative dispassion and (in the modern era) is largely an intellectual endeavor, the purpose of which is to raise tough, serious questions with regard to a highly diverse set of topics. It’s mode is essentially critical. The aim is not to win or to feel good about oneself or to obtain a particular policy outcome or to identify and punish wrongdoers of one stripe or another. These are the aims of social and political activism and agitprop. And yet, this is what woke philosophy is all about: specifically, the advancement and establishment of contemporary identitarian politics within the profession and the society at large. It’s what Rachel McKinnon is doing when she orchestrates Twitter flame-wars against Martina Navratilova and goes after her sponsors and those of other gender-critical athletes; it’s what the signatories to the “open letter” attacking Rebecca Tuvel are doing when they demand that Hypatia retract her already-published article (3); and it’s what t-philosopher is doing, when she slanders Kathleen Stock and Brian Leiter and advocates for the censoring and de-platforming of those in the profession who are not on board with (in this case trans) identitarian politics.
What I’m not sure of is whether woke philosophy represents the tip of a premeditated political spear – whether the hyperventilating and censoring and character assassination and attacks on peoples’ livelihoods, etc., are a tactic – or whether it is the expression of an essentially “adolescent Id”; a function of arrested psychological development on the part of a group of philosophers, almost all of whom, it should be noted, are part of the Millennial and I-generations, the unending juvenility and emotional brittleness of so many of whom has been discussed at length by social scientists and cultural critics. (4) There is much to be said for this second account, insofar as it avoids (a usually fallacious) conspiratorialism and explains so much of the infantile behavior of woke philosophers over the last several years, one of the more memorable examples of which occurred during l’affaire Swinburne, when a notable woke philosopher told an 80-plus year old Christian philosopher (who, to her shock, had said Christian things at a Christian conference) to “suck my giant queer cock.” (When I was in graduate school, it was quite clear that Jerrys Fodor and Katz couldn’t stand one another, but even given the copious amount of mind-altering substances we’d all ingested over the years, none of us ever could have hallucinated a scenario in which we would hear this sort of talk out of them.)
Woke philosophy is reminiscent of those histrionic, scripted WWF feuds I used to watch on WPIX in the early 1980’s, by which I mean that it’s such transparently melodramatic bullshit, performed by such a manifestly absurd group of clowns that a six year old should be able to see through it. But this is academic philosophy in 2019, where it seems that there is nothing so stupid or disingenuous or juvenile that a sizable portion of the current members of a discipline that once counted the likes of Wittgenstein, Quine, and Rawls among its leading lights won’t embrace it.
(2) The graduate students of whom Leiter was critical had been part of the vicious online attacks on Kathleen Stock.
(4) I’ve both written and talked about this phenomenon quite a bit.