When Is an Area of Inquiry “Political”?

Certain subfields of philosophy, such as feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, and philosophy of disability, are sometimes accused of being improperly “political.” Lately, I have seen several defenses of these subfields that consist in saying that all or most philosophy is political. For example, Magicalersatz at Feminist Philosophers writes, “I can’t see any sense of ‘political’ in which feminist philosophy is political in a way that tons of other philosophy isn’t.” And by “other philosophy” she means to include areas such as analytic metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, ethics, free will, etc.

It may be helpful to get clearer on what it means to call an area of philosophical inquiry “political.” Here are some (non-exclusive) possibilities, in which “politically relevant” concerns various aspects of the distribution of benefits and burdens, broadly construed, in a society. We might say an area of inquiry is political when:

  1. The results of the inquiry have implications for politically relevant theses.
  2. The inquiry takes place in a society in which politically relevant background assumptions operate and which may implicitly affect the inquiry.
  3. The inquiry is directly about politics or politically relevant theses.
  4. The inquiry is intentionally constrained so as to protect or promote certain politically-relevant unquestioned assumptions.

The critics of the subfields mentioned above have in mind, I suspect, something like sense 4. Now, while a lot of philosophy is political in sense 1 and sense 2, and political philosophy especially is political in sense 3, it strikes me as implausible to say that all or even most of philosophy is political in sense 4. If all this is correct, then those that respond to these critics by just saying that all or most philosophy is political are equivocating on “political,” using sense 1 or 2 to answer a charge regarding sense 4. [Edit in response to Richard’s comment, below: I don’t mean to be accusing Magicalersatz in particular of this; she doesn’t just assert this, but does go through various senses of what “political” could mean, so perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to quote her earlier.]

Does that mean the critics are right in saying that the subfields in question are improperly political? Not necessarily, for other questions remain. First, is the charge that the subfields are political in sense 4 at all accurate? (How is inquiry constrained? Are certain assumptions shielded from inquiry, and if so, which ones? Are those assumptions really unquestioned?) Second, if the charge that subfields are political in sense 4 is accurate, are other subfields subject to structurally parallel objections regarding the protection of other (perhaps non-political) assumptions? (And if we don’t critique those other subfields for this, why critique feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, and philosophy of disability for it?) Third, even if the charge is accurate, and even if there are no other subfields with structurally parallel problems, are there reasons for thinking that a field that is political in sense 4 is not thereby philosophically problematic?

Additionally, there is the question of whether there is a different sense of “political” that better captures what the critics of these fields, or those who say that all philosophy is political, mean.

Comments welcome.

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9 years ago

The charge: ‘those that respond to these critics by saying that all or most philosophy is political are equivocating on “political,” using sense 1 or 2 to answer a charge regarding sense 4.’

Magicalersatz writes, “I can’t see any sense of ‘political’ in which feminist philosophy is political in a way that tons of other philosophy isn’t.”

It’s clear that Magicalersatz is not, for one, equivocating, since the response makes explicit the possibility of different senses of ‘political’ and contends that feminist philosophy is only political in the senses that other areas are (which senses apply to other disciplines remaining an open question at this point).

Reply to  Richard
9 years ago

Richard, I agree that Magicalersatz goes through some different senses of “political,” and so I don’t take her to be making the kind of move I have seen elsewhere in conversation in person and in social media of claiming in an unspecified way that all philosophy is “political.” So her quote was probably not the best one to use here (and I added a line to the OP to indicate that). Thanks.

Reply to  Justin
9 years ago

Maybe there is here a useful distinction between the claim that 1) the content of all philosophy is political and the claim that 2) all choices about what counts as philosophy, or as important types, areas, and instances of philosophy, are political.

Michael Bench-Capon
9 years ago

As far as I could tell from Magicalersatz’s piece, they don’t really disagree with you about anything important. Your critique is fine, but it’s directed at the piece’s TLDR summary, which isn’t very accurate.

As I understand it, you both think feminist philosophers’ attitudes towards their shared assumptions are basically fine, and aren’t much different to lots of fields’ attitudes towards their assumptions. Some of feminist philosophy’s assumptions are more political-looking, but that’s inevitable given its subject matter. That’s the sense in which FP is political and mereology isn’t – and why the TLDR isn’t very accurate – but it’s not something anyone could sensibly object to.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood one or both of you.

Reply to  Michael Bench-Capon
9 years ago

Yeah, that’s basically right, Michael. I can see how the TL:DR is misleading (that’s the problem with trying to get a short and pithy summary of a complicated view.) By ‘tons of other’ philosophy I didn’t mean all philosophy, I just meant lots of philosophy. So I definitely didn’t mean that there’s no sense of ‘political’ in which fem phil is political but M&E isn’t.

Michael Bench-Capon
Reply to  magicalersatz
9 years ago

Thanks, that’s helpful. I’m glad I wasn’t misunderstanding you too badly.