All Philosophy is Activist Philosophy

by David Ottlinger

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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.

Relevant Links

http://dailynous.com/2019/08/06/recognizing-gender-critical-feminism-anti-trans-activism-guest-post/

https://medium.com/@kathleenstock/discussing-law-and-policy-is-not-discussing-an-abstract-thought-experiment-4069d2b420e6

https://blog.apaonline.org/2019/08/07/on-philosophical-scholarship-of-gender-a-response-to-12-leading-scholars/

37 Comments »

  1. Absolutely incredible essay. And jaw-dropping that the DN essay and the letter were written by academics, let alone published by other academics.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Most of signatories of the response letter did not get there where they are now because of merit but because of (hiring) politics. Either that or there are no standards for philosophy and the whole discipline should be seen as performative art, providing a job for its practitioners and of interest to bystanders with a weird sense of humour.

    A higher number of women working in philosophy adds nothing of value to philosophy but is detrimental to it, if these women are recruited on the basis of politics or affirmative action. Of these 33 signatories, 33 are female (I am counting by good old sex, not the ever changing gender), despite the fact that most philosophers are male. Now, some of the biggest freaks today in the profession are male (Stanley, Lance, Ishikawa) but the main pool of future followers of this cult seems to be graduate students with an interest in “feminist philosophy”, which I think can be safely assumed to be appealing mostly to women. Ironic it is then, that the harshest vitriol of these feminists is reserved to feminists that don’t align with them on what in the grand scheme is just minutiae (Just like theological debates get more heated the more arcane aspects of the faith are discussed). Moreover, the current infestation of the academy by identity politics has a distinct flavour, namely that of caring for the oppressed and defending them against (white) male heterosexual patriarchy. Caring and the concern for those perceived as disadvantaged is a distinct female characteristic. Although I do not have a worked out theory, I venture that this whole woke thing is an outgrowth of the literal feminisation of the academy. Woke philosophy is toxic femininity and as caring really as Annie Wilkes.

    Most of the ideology directly comes from Gender and Women’s studies departments where most faculty are female. Somehow we have made a place in the academy specifically for crazy women and their warped view of society and now they have started colonising other parts of the university.

    Defeminise the academy, get rid of the (crazy) women with their toxic femininity, please.

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  3. “Caring and the concern for those perceived as disadvantaged is a distinct female characteristic.”

    That would be news to Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Marx, Dickens, Emile Zola, Steinbeck, George Orwell, Martin Luther King, etc.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Max, that is offensive and a pretty silly generalization. There are pretty of woke male graduate students out there being ridiculous (I won’t name them; but Dr. Kaufman will know who I mean). I don’t think identity politics are unique to one sex. If I was going to throw wild generalizations around, I’d blame Millenials (of both sexes).

      Liked by 2 people

      • It is a matter of basic psychology that nurturing and care of people is distinctively female. Look at the care professions and you find mostly women. A couple of prominent male examples does nothing to dispute that, just as pointing out that some death-camp guards were female does nothing to disprove the fact that men have a higher propensity for violence and psychopathy.

        To further my point, women tend to have a greater interest in people and social relations. It is therefore not surprising if a higher percentage of females among publishing philosophy lecturers leads to more publications of philosophy with a social aspect to it. Standpoint epistemology and the metaphysics of sex are such topics and among those that publish in those areas I am pretty sure women are overrepresented.

        @MacIntosh

        Why is that a silly generalisation? I just think that wokeness and its identity politics is a direct consequence of academic feminism and its hate for (white) men. I did not say that identity politics is specifically female, I said that this identity politics is female (maybe should have said “feminist”?). I am not entirely convinced of my hypothesis myself, but it is simply a fact that women are overrepresented in the woke brigade when it comes to philosophy, just look at the people who signed the letter.

        In my field of work, which is still relatively untouched by wokeness, all the attempts at tone policing or stifling debate by demanding safe spaces are made by women. And dare I say, the male woke allies , be it in philosophy or any other field do not strike me as particularly masculine, neither in appearance nor in behaviour. They are effeminate shrieking Xanthippe-like creatures, parodies of hysterical women (just like many trans-women sadly are).

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        • Max:
          Are being nurturing and caring distinctive female traits, or distinctive *feminine* traits? Is it biological, or social, or both? Or are they not related to femaleness or femininity at all? Pointing to the number of females in care professions does nothing to help answer those questions.I think it shows “women are more likely to be employed in the care professions,” and that’s it. There may be other reasons. These caring roles may have been reinforced over human history, not innate.
          In any case, caring about the treatment of women and marginalized people doesn’t strike me as a sexed or gendered trait.
          Secondly, it is not at all clear that feminists or feminism are to blame for identity politics madness. I see more men advocating for gender ideology than I do women. I don’t see any parallel between advocating for rights for women – adult female humans who have been forever and currently still discriminated against based on perceived reproductive function – and advocating against sex-segregated spaces, for the erasure of sexual boundaries, for a new brand of homophobia, and all the other insanity. This is far more than “minutiae.”
          Having re-read your comment, and in keeping with what I perceive is the preferred tone of civility on EA, I will just say this: it is reductive, insulting, and sexist.
          Like we’ve never heard of problems being laid at the feet of “crazy women” before.

          Liked by 4 people

          • Jessica MacIntosh,

            I agree with what you say above. I was going to reply to Max myself, but I imagined, correctly, that someone else could and would answer him more eloquently than I could as is the case with your answer. Like you, I was surprised to see such a sexist comment in the Electric Agora: in several years of following the blog, I’ve never seen
            any other commentaries as blatantly sexist as the one above..

            Liked by 2 people

          • I hope you are not angry at me for publishing it, but I am inclined to publish pretty much anything, unless it is abusive of another commenter or traffics in outright slurs.

            Like

          • No, I see no problem in your publishing it.

            Actually, it’s interesting to see such 50’s sexist attitudes in an obviously well-educated person. My father, born in 1915 and now deceased, used to be very sexist in the 50’s, but by the time he died, he had adopted the ideas of mainstream feminism, as have most educated people.

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  4. Can we please stop using the term ‘woke’. Talk about concept creep. The concept ‘woke’ comes from the African American community meant to denote political awareness around systemic and institutional injustice by the criminal justice system against black people. It did not originate with its current derogatory political baggage. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the first usage of the term ‘woke’ appears in a 1938 Lead Belly song “Scottsboro Boys”, and later in 1962 in a New York Times article called, “If You’re Woke You Dig It” by the African American novelist William Melvin Kelley. Its more recent modern incarnation can be traced to a 2008 Erykah Badu song called “Master Teacher”, not a particularly political song. In 2012, Badu tweeted out support for the Russian punk band Pussyriot using the phrase ‘”stay woke” from her song. From there it was spread by the African American community more widely, including by Black Lives Matter. Once BLM began using the phrase in 2014, the alt-right pounced on the word ‘woke’ as a term of mocking derision.

    It’s sad to see so many now following the alt-right’s lead, where the term now covers everything from blacks being disproportionately shot by police, to black incarceration rates, to redlining neighborhoods and gerrymandering Congressional districts, to tech companies wanting to be more inclusive, women becoming more willing to report sexual harassment, to Hollywood wanting to be more diverse, Gillette commercials, female superhero movies, and now apparently to arcane scholastic debates within academia over transgender issues.

    ‘Woke’ has come a long way. Funny how many of the same people declaiming against concept creep are the ones perpetuating it, especially given the fact that what these newly applied contexts have in common is that most of the people being referred to as ‘woke’ don’t even use the term themselves. It is always hurled as a term of abuse from the outside. Look, I am just as appalled as anyone else at the kooky far left postmodern cultural trends in academia. But let’s not succumb to using far right recuperated memes to make our arguments.

    Like

        • I’m sorry, I know it’s been 5 days but…This is sarcasm, right? Those are three of the most vaguely-defined and overused words in the discourse right now.

          Like

      • For me, the problem is personal – “woke” just sounds ugly. Remember Dennet’s attempt to establish “brights” as the term for New Atheists? “Alt-right” is also painful to the ear, especially since it references the old newsgroup phenomenon which is largely out of date, and “far right” has been around longer and makes the distinction more clear (“far right” is not conservative).

        Liked by 2 people

    • the word ‘woke’ as a term of mocking derision.

      words evolve to fit the circumstances.

      let’s not succumb to using far right recuperated memes to make our arguments.

      a word’s origins are quickly forgotten and so cease to matter.

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    • I’m not angry about you publishing it all, Dr. Kaufman. I very much appreciate the rare combination of hands-off moderation and the culture of reasoned dialogue on this site. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. David,
    You’re first paragraph is not inclusively inviting; I think you are wrong about Rorty, and while you may be right about post-modern relativists, I think you misconceive post-modernism per se, as we have discussed previously.

    However the rest of the essay is pretty much on the money, precise and insightful as to the usage of language by the trans-activists now masquerading as mainstream scholars.

    The humanities and some of the human sciences have been publicly decaying for some time now (although I hope that the actual class-room situation is not defined this way).

    Most people in America do not understand that the rise of Post-Structuralism in France was partly energized by the failure of the student rebellions of 1968. The phenomena of the rebellions on the one hand and their ultimate failure on the other, explains why many of the young academics of the ’60s had to re-think Structuralism, Marxism, Phenomenology, linguistics, psychology and sociology to come to terms with the misguided notions behind those rebellions and their public failures. However in noting that we see before these phenomena the long history of the development of certain Modernist intellectual, political and social projects that came before, not to mention the actual political history of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    I mention that as comparison to what happened in America in the wake of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. By the early 1970s, a host of disaffected radicals, realizing the political and economic aims of the Cultural Revolution were going nowhere (while it was dawning on them also that many of the fellow students they had marched with and partied with had largely marched to get to a party, and had limited interest in politics), and finding themselves with graduate degrees and no career prospects other than those to be found in colleges (which were still available at the time), went ahead and became professors. They did everything their colleges required of them, and it must be said that many were in fact highly intelligent and more than competent at the scholarly methodologies required of them. As they began receiving tenure, they came more and more to devise theoretical and critical explanations for the ideals they had developed during the Cultural Revolution. Some of these were aesthetic, some sociological, some psychological, some overtly political. Some began borrowing from the literature of Post-Structuralism. They began dominating journals and conferences, and pressured for specialized studies and more lenient critical standards for younger academics. I don’t think they wanted to revolutionize the academy. I think they did because they had wanted to revolutionize America, and the best they got out of that was longer hair for men, more numerous fashion choices for women, the Beatles playing on the public address system in the shopping malls. True, there has been progress on a number of fronts – the rights of women, the rights of gay men and lesbian women, increasing recognition of the roles African Americans and other minorities have played in shaping and participating in culture and in politics. But these narratives have histories linking back far earlier than the ’60s – although the ’60s catalystically accelerated them.

    In fact, of course, the politicization of the academy goes back much farther than most are aware. The Ivied Tower was never the neutral territory for apolitical wisdom that it is sometimes presented as. How could it be, when most colleges and universities were founded primarily as politically-invested religious institutions for the well-to-do? The academic political struggles of the early 19th century were between religious factions, factions devoted to science and technology, and factions devoted to secular law and secular social ordering.

    In literary studies the New Critics were considered the conservative Old Guard by the 1970s; in fact they had arrived on the scene early in the century as left-leaning radicals trying to establish the Romantic poets within the literary canon against the opposition of the Old Historicists – primarily conservative Christians who despised the Romantics as ‘atheists.’

    Almost no one anymore remembers the political and economic discussions that brought forth the rapid expansion of higher education in the early ’60s that produced the space that allowed the Cultural Revolution to develop within it.

    Well, I see that I am rattling on here – but there is so much more to this story that should be told and understood to get a better sense of the foolishness that we see to day. And that is my point, this “so much more.” Because we often go along, as you describe in your first paragraph, thinking the foolishness has been dealt with as a moment of the past, let’s get on with our lives. And then suddenly – ‘How did this happen?!’ But ‘this’ happened because there is a history, and there are trends unleashed within that history, that once released can never be fully undone.

    The trend is not the transgendering transsexualism, that’s mere fad. What’s interesting are the continuities – the abuse of language or power, the blend of rhetoric and presumptive rationality. Consider: “It’s disrespectful to publicly speculate about your colleagues’ genitals, about whether you wish to have sex with them, or about who else wishes to have sex with them.” The opening clause is a rhetorical hook – I mean, I certainly don’t wish to think about my colleagues’ genitals! However the rest of this sentence is really a move to close off an inevitable reasonable point in any discussion of gender and sex, because one doesn’t have to be an evolutionary psychologist to recognize that how we see and respond to gender expression and sexuality develop in large part as ways to engage others for potential sexual encounters. What’s the point of discussing such issues otherwise, except as marginal esoterica concerning fashion rather than social mores? The sentence is really an expression of, and demand for obedience to, an anti-sexual puritanism. And anti-sexual puritanism has a *long* history that links to several different ideologies, religious and otherwise. Volumes have been, and could still be, written reciting and analyzing that history. Anyone familiar with it should not be surprised to see it raise it’s ugly head again; the surprise is merely the weird context of an over-heated concern for what is really a minor and passing phenomenon.

    The radical New Critics became the conservative Old Guard. The Old Historicists were usurped, the New Critics were usurped in turn. One wonders if the real history of Modernity is the story of it’s decline and fall. Certainly reviewing the trans debate in the academy, one may well wonder whether there was ever a Modernity at all “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” – Joyce, Ulysses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One doesn’t have to be a political conservative to believe that the artifacts of the past hold something of value from which we can still learn. The Modernist fallacy – that we know so much more than those who came before us – has become exacerbated by the Post-Modern fallacy that the past is simply nonredeemable and thus best left forgotten. It is a nightmare, but without its proper memory, we are doomed – not to repeat it, but to make mistakes much worse.

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  6. Mr. Ottlinger,

    About the APA open letter you write, “This is fine and well, but irrelevant to the matter at hand. The question was never over whether certain views are allowed but whether some views are suppressed.”

    Simply in the interest of understanding both perspectives, I’d like to ask about your claim here.

    I thought one of the major complaints about woke philosophers is that they aim to suppress the expression of certain ideas *because* they see those ideas as being out of alignment with what they see as the correct view. And so I read that part of the APA open letter as denying that woke philosophers share one view which they see as the correct view. So, I imagine the argument goes, if woke philosophers are calling for the suppression of certain ideas, it’s *not* for the straightforwardly authoritarian reason that those ideas have fallen afoul of the official view. It’s for some other reason, such as the harm that expressing such ideas visits upon certain people.

    Now, the open letter’s claim that there’s no orthodoxy might be false, and the argument, such as it is, might be disingenuously made and unrepresentative of their actual motives. But if things are as I’ve represented them here, the denial of orthodoxy doesn’t strike me as “irrelevant to the matter at hand.”

    Am I misunderstanding the dialectic at this point?

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    • Mr./Ms. Symbolicum,

      I cede that there is no orthodoxy on the correct view of sex and gender. These questions are debated. But there is, as the letter clearly states, an orthodoxy on the much narrower question of whether trans people really belong to the gender they identify with. All views on the former are allowable so long as they don’t conflict with the latter. Hence I stand by my claim of irrelevance since the GCF’s are contesting the latter orthodoxy.

      Does that answer your question?

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  7. I wrote it half in jest. People talk about toxic masculinity as well. So I don’t see it as a problem if one comes up with the term “toxic femininity”. And I do think that it is remarkable that all signatories have been women, all working in “feminist philosophy”.

    There is an interesting quillette article that links feminism to transgenderism. And if feminism breeds transgenderism and if feminist philosophy as an area is mainly populated by women, then I think it is at least prima facie plausible to think that more women in the profession leads to more woke philosophy.

    ( https://quillette.com/2019/08/01/how-feminism-paved-the-way-for-transgenderism/ ) and transgenderism is at the forefront of the woke movement. One could even say that it is the core of it, it certainly is in philosophy
    .

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    • Max,
      I wrote it half in jest

      Don’t when dealing with these kinds of subjects.
      Make serious arguments that address the points made by others. Their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, hirsutism, alopecia, etc, etc, are simply not germane to the arguments they make. Or as my rugby coach urged, play the ball and not the man

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      • Arguments should be addressed on their own merits and not on the presumed demerits of the people making them

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    • Interesting article! However, I think there are some issues. For one, feminists might be sceptical that eradicating environmental forces that produce gender differences is done as easily as some trans activists might suppose. For example, they could claim that the physical differences by themselves create dynamics which reinforce behavioural differences.
      And more specifically, I think that the argument Biggs makes in relation to sport is quite weak. Physical differences are demonstrable, and directly observable; it’s not really comparable to trying to disentangle environmental and genetic causes of assertiveness. Further, he’s simply wrong that constructivists have to claim that testosterone has no effect on the brain. Fine, who the article mentions, speculates that higher exposure to pre natal testosterone for males actually desensitises them to it, to prevent excessive aggression after puberty.
      I have to admit, though, it is a generally thoughtful and well argued piece. I wonder how someone like Stock would respond.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, yes. I was failing to see that an orthodox view on sex and gender is not the same as an orthodox view on trans people. So when the letter attempts to deny the former, it is not necessarily attempting to deny the latter.

      (By the way, I know my formality is a little ridiculous, but I have my reasons. If you prefer I use “David,” I understand!)

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  8. David,
    this is another lovely essay from you. The clarity and eloquent expression of your reasoning mark you out as one of the top two contributors to EA, you and DanK.

    Sadly, but predictably, the commentariat has ignored your central thesis, that philosophers are activists. I suppose that was to be expected when you sounded the ‘dog whistle’, woke. The term ‘dog whistle’, is, as we know beloved by fascist leftists(although that certainly does not describe you!). Wait, you exclaim, aren’t you unduly extending the term ‘fascist’? No, I don’t think so, given how intent they are on silencing, suppressing and extinguishing other viewpoints through a variety of methods, some quite forceful.

    And that brings me to my dissenting view about your otherwise admirable essay. Just as I have extended the term ‘fascist’, so you too have extended the term ‘activist’, but with even less justification than I have. After all our fascist left are quite determined to extinguish alternative view points but I see a singular disinclination towards action by the body philosophic. I can see them in their studies, angrily muttering as they dash out screeds, breaking multiple pen points as they do so. Mummy quietens the anxious children, saying hush, Daddy is in an activist mood, while she brings in new pens to replenish the broken ones. If that is activism then I am an Egyptian mummy.

    Here is a typical example of activism –
    A case study on the nature and value of activism.
    https://guerrillafoundation.org/why-activism/

    and this is how the Oxford Dictionary describes activism “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” . Their description accords well with the common perception, described in the linked article.

    I grant you that a few philosophers are quite actively promoting points of view aimed at changing society and you might call them activist-philosophers. Peter Singer comes to mind. That dreadful non-philosopher, Richard Dawkins, also comes to mind. But that hardly describes the body philosophic. Thankfully, since one Dawkins is already a toxic overdose. I deliberately mentioned Dawkins since he and the New Atheist movement are examples of activism, militant atheism.

    What really then is activism, as commonly understood?
    1) It actively promotes a minority view, using unconventional means, to change a majority view, in order that some aspect of society is significantly changed.
    2) It has clearly articulated, definite goals for the nature of the change sought in society.
    3) It uses vigorous methods to first gain the attention of the majority, and second, to pressurise them into accepting the desired changes.
    4) It seeks a high degree of visibility and publicity so that the majority cannot ignore them.
    5) It often uses forceful methods that are in effect, a kind of blackmail.
    6) It often seeks victimhood to inspire the sympathy of the majority.
    7) Activists are often regarded as unmitigated pests whom we tolerate as a necessary evil because their energy awakes us from the lethargy of self-serving indolence.

    David, while I greatly enjoyed your essay, I feel it ignores these essential elements that make up activism. What I have described does not characterise philosophy. On the contrary, I believe that good philosophy promotes deep abiding change through the sheer quality of its thought that infiltrates society from within and not the force of activism that endeavours to impose change from without.

    I am sure you will disagree and we will agree to disagree, politely. But activism, you see, cannot tolerate disagreement and always seeks to impose its point of view on others, usually in the most impolite way.

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  9. David

    “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?”

    Certainly much of their respective writing is classed as philosophy (social philosophy, philosophy of law, etc., etc.). It is thus properly deemed “scholarly”. But there are different senses of the term “scholarship”. Collins: “Serious academic study and the knowledge that is obtained from it.” Unlike science, scholarship is text based. But, like science, it is about research, about building a body of soundly-based knowledge. It is not (primarily) about changing the world. This distinction matters.

    “Even at their most abstract, most philosophers want to change the world.”

    What scholars (as people) *want* is irrelevant. Their work can be judged (as scholarship) independently of what they might want.

    “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.”

    You are implicitly setting out a particular view of what philosophy is. The emphasis is on the “inner life”. (Like religion.) Not everyone will agree with you. Others will emphasize the knowledge building aspect.

    I too am interested in values, but I don’t see them as being accessible or amenable to reason (and, by extension, scholarship) in quite the way you do.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. You are implicitly setting out a particular view of what philosophy is. The emphasis is on the “inner life”. (Like religion.) Not everyone will agree with you. Others will emphasize the knowledge building aspect.

    Mark, in this respect I agree neither with you nor David. In my view the preeminent goal of philosophy is to develop our capacity for understanding of the issues that confront us in the way we conduct our lives. Knowledge building is the domain of the sciences. Understanding is an interior process and in this respect I agree with you, David. Though the predominant goal of understanding is to affect the way we conduct our own lives while activism, om the contrary, is concerned with changing the way other people conduct their lives.

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    • Peter

      In my view the preeminent goal of philosophy is to develop our capacity for understanding of the issues that confront us in the way we conduct our lives. Knowledge building is the domain of the sciences.

      Knowledge and understanding go together. There are different kinds of knowledge/understanding, of course.

      Also, not all forms of knowledge-building are classed as science.

      The predominant goal of understanding is to affect the way we conduct our own lives while activism, on the contrary, is concerned with changing the way other people conduct their lives.

      Well said.

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