All Philosophy is Activist Philosophy
by David Ottlinger
I used to brag about the state of philosophy to people concerned about the humanities. Philosophy had fought valiantly on the side of the scientists in the “Science Wars” of the 1980’s and 90’s. Sociology, literary studies and anthropology may have, to varying degrees, succumbed to postmodernism and other such fashionable nonsense, but philosophy stood strong. The one real gesture in the direction of postmodernism and deconstructionism, then all the rage, was Richard Rorty. He left teaching at an actual philosophy department philosophy (in 1982), and his work slowly fell into justified oblivion. Since then, philosophy was marred by few of the excesses common to other disciplines. Anyway. I used to say that.
The past week has proven I was overoptimistic. On August 6, 2019, Justin Weinberg published a piece in The Daily Nous written by three curiously anonymous philosophers. These brave but unnamed individuals decried the influence of gender critical feminists. “Gender critical feminist” is a name given to some academics who are skeptical of the idea that transgender people are really members of the gender they identify with in the same way that non-transgender (or cisgender) people are. The details of their ideas won’t matter much for the purposes of this essay, but suffice it to say that they tend to think of gender in terms that are more tied to either biology or social structures. Such definitions seem to exclude transgender people from their self-identified gender. If gender is determined by some relatively fixed thing that is external to the transgender person, then the person cannot simply declare or identify their own gender. The anonymous authors claim that gender critical feminists are pretending to contribute to scholarship but are actually engaged in activism. Their writings, accordingly, should not be given serious consideration in academic debates.
Then, a number of philosophers signed an open letter, a very popular literary form these days. The letter is more than a bit opaque, on which more later, but seems to say that it should not be debated amongst academic philosophers whether or not transgender people truly belong to the gender with which they identify. It would seem, then, that gender critical feminists are on a lot of people’s minds these days.
I want to focus more on the Daily Nous piece and its argument that gender critical feminists are “activists,” a claim so peculiar that I find it fascinating. The first thing to note is that the piece flatly assumes, without any semblance of an argument, that activism and scholarship are mutually exclusive. This strikes the ear very strangely in a world in which many academics, indeed many of the most “woke” academics, are proud of the title “scholar-activist.” There are, of course, longstanding debates about when activism is and is not appropriate for scholars and how activism can conflict with the aims of research. But the authors seem not to be raising any of the conventional scruples about that sort of conflict. And even if they were, their bland confidence that everyone will understand that “activism” and “scholarship” are two separate categories and never the twain shall meet is, to my mind, inexplicable. This has always been a contested area, and even those who are generally skeptical of “scholar-activism” allow that some kinds of advocacy are appropriate.
I once attended a conference in which Thomas Pogge was a participant. He was absent for some of the sessions, because while he was in Atlanta, he wanted to do some work raising donations for charities concerned with the global poor. No one found this very odd. Pogge had been writing about the global poor and the immorality of our failure to address global poverty for decades. Everyone understood that global poverty was not merely something that he took as a subject of his research but something he was actually concerned to alleviate. No one particularly objected if he worked towards that end. Indeed I think most people would have found it very odd if they did.
All of this forces one to wonder: what do the authors mean by “activism”? If the kind of activism Pogge was engaged in generally offends no one, maybe the authors mean something else. And, sure enough, it becomes clear that they do. When people speak of the “activism” of scholars, they generally refer to things they do outside of their research. Such activities can include protesting, raising money, serving in political organizations, advising or assisting politicians, writing in the popular press and so on. But the “activism” these authors have in mind is accomplished not in addition to the writing that gender critical feminists do, but through it. It is the research itself that is “activist.”
In this sense I politely disagree with the comments made by Jason Brennan, who found it odd that the authors accused gender critical feminists of activism but gathered no evidence to support that claim. In fact the authors did support the claim they made, they just meant something different than what Brennan understood by it. Of course, the misunderstanding is not surprising given how odd the definition of ‘activism’ is.
What the authors seem to mean is that not only do gender critical feminists describe what they think the just and equitable relations between sexes should be, they actually expect, through writing gender critical theory, to influence the world in order to bring it closer to those ideals. This is, again, very odd, but the authors are absolutely clear about it. To quote their own words:
The current crop of trans-exclusionary ‘gender-critical’ philosophers is first and foremost an activist movement. Their writings and behavior are best understood as aimed at achieving their activist ends, such as preventing trans women from using facilities designated for women, or making it more difficult for trans women to be legally recognized as women.
The above statement serves to define the authors’ notion of “activism.” Not only do gender critical feminists explicitly write that transgender people should be excluded from some single-sex locations and that transgender people should have to provide some proof of their gender status before being issued official ID, they’re actually trying to make those things happen! In the minds of our anonymous authors, this renders their work unscholarly.
Hopefully everyone can see the problem with this. For all that I can see, this conception of activism would extend to all moral, social and political philosophy, if not to all philosophy tout court. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were not just writing about prison reform. They wanted to reform actual prisons. English prisons. On Fleet Street. Will anyone raise their hands and say that their works are unphilosophical? Or unscholarly?
Even at their most abstract, most philosophers want to change the world. I have always assumed that Christine Korsgaard actually wants to build the kingdom of ends. Axel Honneth actually wants us to recognize one another. Even when they don’t have consequences that would dictate changes in our material circumstances or our politics, philosophical ideas matter. They shape our attitudes and values. Two people can be sitting staring at a book, occasionally turning the page, yet only one of them is reading. In the same way two people can be going through the same lives, working the same jobs, having the same sort of families but yet have deeply different inner experiences. They might be leading totally different interior lives. One might be rich and fulfilling, the other barren and empty. Philosophy deals, in part, with these kinds of differences. The changes philosophy can make are often subtle but they are profound.
It is a testament to the state of this apolitical age that anyone should find it remarkable that political philosophers actually want to change politics. To my mind philosophy is most unphilosophical when it is inert. As Plato illustrated all those centuries ago, philosophy is something we are all already doing. If academic philosophy does not change what we are doing, what is its use?
But, to be fair to the authors, there is a little more to their argument (though not much). The authors further criticize the way gender critical philosophers go about debating:
Like other activists, they will denigrate or vilify their opponents, make use of dogwhistles, appeal to people’s baser emotions to increase support for their cause, and ignore inconvenient facts. Far from being worthwhile contributions to a scholarly discussion, their writings rehash discredited claims from the 1980’s (if not earlier), express demeaning and offensive ideas about trans people, and inhibit truly careful, critical, and thoughtful scholarly debate.
In essence, they claim that gender critical feminists are not really debating but engaging in rhetorical tricks to further their cause. They don’t appeal to reasons but “to people’s baser emotions.” They are unempirical, as they “ignore inconvenient facts” and “rehash discredited claims.” They break the rules of reasoned debate so often and so seriously that what they are doing cannot be considered debate. Accordingly they should be suppressed as they “inhibit truly careful, critical, and thoughtful scholarly debate.”
This argument is strange in a way that mirrors the strangeness of the prior argument. I began by wondering why the authors saw such a divide between scholarship and activism. Here I have to wonder why they see such a divide between philosophy and rhetoric. Certainly many past philosophers wrote very unusually. Most who did so felt they had to in order to express the kinds of ideas they had. Some of the titans of philosophy felt that in order to express their ideas adequately they had to write very beautifully (Nietzsche), very oddly (Wittgenstein) or very badly (Hegel). And even the supposedly dull grey Analytic philosophers often engage in rhetoric to further their ends. T.M. Scanlon wrote in What We Owe to Each Other about how deeply affecting he found the writings of Peter Singer. And all jokes aside, plenty of Analytic philosophers have been excellent prose stylists.
I go into this because we simply cannot rule out of bounds all philosophers who engage in rhetoric. For one thing, it will have to be debated when an author is engaged in rhetoric and when she isn’t. In what one reader dismisses as rhetoric, another my find an argument. And when arguments are appropriate or needed is itself a philosophical question. Sometimes it is quite necessary to “appeal to people’s baser emotions.”
Another point is that the authors’ characterization of the gender critical feminists is clearly overwrought. In a response to this controversy, Kathleen Stock, of the University of Sussex, wrote the following: “If…you mean that transpeople should be respectfully left alone to get on with their lives, free from discrimination, harm, and fear, and to self-describe as they wish in most but not all contexts, then we agree. All of us. And have said so repeatedly. And mean it.” Compare that to the picture of a foaming-at-the-mouth bigot you get from the passage quoted above.
But it is clear that the authors are not really applying this standard consistently. At a revealing moment late in the essay, they get down to their real objection: “Making arguments for policies that threaten the health and well-being of trans people based on false empirical claims is bad science, bad philosophy, and bad citizenship.” This quote helpfully repeats the word ‘bad’ three times, making clear what it is really being objected to. It would seem that the authors are not so much against “activism” or “rhetoric,” but activism and rhetoric in services of causes which they think are bad. Hopefully I don’t have to go into why as a standard for what should be considered serious scholarship, this simply will not do.
But the authors also leave themselves an out. For one, we don’t know who they are. For another they can always deny that they wanted to suppress gender critical feminists, given how they dance around the issue. I am not inclined to let them off that hook, so I want to spend a moment establishing that this is clearly what they mean and that there will be no point to denying it in the future.
Take this passage, which starts the essay:
A recent letter published at Inside Higher Education argues that we should not censure writings by so-called “gender-critical” philosophers. We agree with the authors of the letter that philosophy should be “a discipline in which sensitive and controversial issues are investigated with patience, care and insight.” But “gender-critical” writings, which the letter defends, do not advance us toward this ideal.
This is immediately noteworthy for its construction. It consists of a statement, “we should not censure writings,” followed by a “we agree,” followed by an all-important “but.” It does not come right out and say that writings should be censured, as that actually would require moral courage. But it is so strongly implied that it may as well have. It makes not being censured conditional upon “advancing toward the ideal” of “a discipline in which sensitive and controversial issues are investigated with patience, care and insight.” It then argues that gender critical writing does not meet this condition. It does not “advance us toward this ideal.” Therefore, by a simple syllogism, it should be censured. This passage is remarkable and I will remember it for a long time. The censors usually try to avoid the “c-word”. These three nameless philosophers practically came right out and said it. Keep that receipt.
The same problem haunts the bizarre open letter published at the APA blog. It starts out with an argument that is pure sophistry, stating that there is no orthodoxy in feminist philosophy on the nature of sex and gender because there are “[m]any feminists holding significantly different philosophical views.” This fine and well, but irrelevant to the matter at hand. The question was never over whether different views are allowed but whether some views are being suppressed.
Things just get worse from there. The signatories clearly believe that gender critical feminism should be suppressed and excluded from discussion. But they are clearly shy about saying so. In light of such calculated ambiguity, I feel obliged to reproduce the whole relevant section of the letter in all its winding, evasive glory. Apologies in advance:
We do, however, think it is important, when exercising our academic freedom, that we consider how our views may impact others. Academic responsibility requires us to consider differences of power and vulnerability in speaking of and to others and the effects of our words in reinforcing structures of oppression. There are many diverse, contentious views about gender and gender identity that can be–and are–engaged with in ways that do not call into question the integrity and sincerity of trans people nor the validity of their own understanding of who they are. We should conduct our research freely and responsibly, without treating other people’s lives as though they are abstract thought experiments. [My emphasis]
So, in case you missed it, feminist scholars are free to explore “many diverse, contentious views about gender and gender identity,” but they must not “call into question the integrity and sincerity of trans people nor the validity of their own understanding of who they are.” Accordingly they must not be gender critical feminists.
This passage makes clear what this letter is. It is an attempt by some academics to silence a group of their colleagues on purely ideological grounds. That is shameful and it should be decried by all academics who care about real research.
Lastly I want to note what is to me a quite important fact. I am not a gender critical feminist. In fact, I am somewhat disconcerted by some of what people Stock propose. I am worried that by excluding trans-people from shelters or women’s prisons we may do some very serious harm to a deeply vulnerable population while sheltering women from harms that are relatively slight or in some cases even imagined. Yet, I have just sat down and written two and a half thousand words defending these people from ludicrous attacks. Frankly, I resent having to go so far to carry water for an ideology not my own. But if I disagree with gender critical feminists, I will not try to rule them out of bounds. I will get up off my ass and make an argument of my own. And you can be damned sure I will put my name on it.