How Philosophical Work Can Change The World

When I was an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Pittsburgh, where I was trained in the analytic tradition, it wasn’t clear to me what philosophy meant beyond the clarification of concepts. Yet I have held onto the Marxian position that philosophy can change the world. Any thoughts on the capacity of philosophy to change the world?

So asks George Yancy (Emory), of Noam Chomsky (MIT). Chomsky replies:

I am not sure just what Marx had in mind when he wrote that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Did he mean that philosophy could change the world, or that philosophers should turn to the higher priority of changing the world? If the former, then he presumably meant philosophy in a broad sense of the term, including analysis of the social order and ideas about why it should be changed, and how. In that broad sense, philosophy can play a role, indeed an essential role, in changing the world, and philosophers, including in the analytic tradition, have undertaken that effort, in their philosophical work as well as in their activist lives—Bertrand Russell, to mention a prominent example.

This is from an interview in the New York Times. In a related part of the exchange, Yancy laments that

Many of my students are just concerned with graduating and often seem oblivious to world suffering.

Chomsky replies:

My suspicion is that those who seem oblivious to suffering, whether it is nearby or in remote corners, are for the most part unaware, perhaps blinded by doctrine and ideology. For them, the answer is to develop a critical attitude toward articles of faith, secular or religious; to encourage their capacity to question, to explore, to view the world from the standpoint of others. And direct exposure is never very far away, wherever we live—perhaps the homeless person huddling in the cold or asking for a few pennies for food, or all too many more.

Later, he adds:

It’s easy to condemn those we place on the other side of some divide, but more important, commonly, to explore what we take to be nearby.

Russell is an interesting example here. He was an outspoken political voice against war and nuclear weapons, for women’s right to vote, and generally for freedom of thought and education. Yet, according to Andrew Irvine’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry on Russell, “Russell himself repeatedly maintained that he saw no significant connection between his philosophical work and his political activism.” Irvine quotes Alan Wood on this, who disagrees with Russell’s self assessment:

Russell sometimes maintained, partly I think out of perverseness, that there was no connection between his philosophical and political opinions. … But in fact I think there are perfectly obvious connections between Russell’s philosophical and other views. … To begin with, it is natural enough to find an analytic anti-monist philosopher like Russell upholding the individual against the state, whereas Hegel did the reverse … [In addition, the] whole bent of Russell’s mind in philosophy was an attempt to eliminate the a priori and to accentuate the empirical; and there was exactly the same trend in his political thinking … Unless it is realized that Russell’s approach to political questions was usually empirical and practical, based on the evidence of the moment and not on a priori principles and preconceptions, it is quite impossible to understand why his views appeared to vary so much. This was perfectly legitimate, and even praiseworthy, in a world which never stays the same, and where changing circumstances continually change the balance of arguments on different sides. (Original quote from Wood’s Bertrand Russell: The Passionate Sceptic)

There are examples of other philosophers whose social and political impact is more straightforwardly tied to their philosophical work. Some well-known examples include Marx and communism, Peter Singer on altruism and animal welfare, and the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum on using human capabilities as a measure of quality of life. Additional examples welcome—and note that the impact needn’t be worldwide or famous. Examples of local impact—such as Adam Briggle’s work on fracking in Denton, Texas—would be especially welcome.

Of course, there is the question of whether we should want philosophers to have a significant social and political influence. And also whether, if one wants to influence politics and society, one should become a philosopher.

There’s Joseph Heath’s worry that “philosophers have simply written themselves out of any and all policy discussions, by abstracting away so many features of the real world” (though note that idealization has been a hot topic in political philosophy for nearly 20 years now).  And there are concerns like those of Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman, who both study philosophy’s impact, that academic philosophy training doesn’t prepare philosophers for engagement with the policy world.

It’s also worth noting that the call for philosophers to engage in efforts for political and social change is not one that all philosophers should feel compelled to answer.

Discussion welcome.

USI Switzerland Philosophy
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dean Klarew
Dean Klarew
6 years ago

Questions about the applicability of philosophical knowledge, like so many questions about our discipline in general, are largely motivated by the tacit view that philosophy is, or should be, science-like.

The picture is that distinctly Philosophical Research yields Results that Have An Impact, or adds Truths to the common store. (Just check out the 8000 Hours page linked to in the post above, for a particularly flagrant illustration of this idea.) The wanted applicability of philosophical knowledge is envisioned to be relevantly similar to the applicability of natural- or social-scientific knowledge: in both cases, applicability is thought to be, or to involve, using the knowledge won to engineer our lives. When a philosopher doesn’t ostensibly engineer her life according to her Results, or doesn’t contribute to the engineering of others’ lives, it appears anywhere on the spectrum between scandalous or to-be-expected, depending on the nature of the distinctly Philosophical Subject Matter she investigates in her Research. (It appears more scandalous for a political philosopher, less so for a philosopher of mathematics.)

But maybe philosophy isn’t altogether science-like. Maybe philosophical knowledge and its acquisition aren’t altogether like natural- or social-scientific knowledge and its acquisition. Maybe the application of philosophical knowledge doesn’t altogether look like the application of natural- or social-scientific knowledge. Maybe philosophy isn’t altogether meant for life-engineering; maybe philosophy’s Impact isn’t altogether meant to be so direct.

I’m reminded of M, a character from Iris Murdoch’s “The Sovereignty of Good,” whose attainment of moral knowledge consists not in any change in behavior toward her daughter-in-law but in a new, warmer way of seeing her. It’s an achievement, but an unphotographable and deeply personal one. Maybe that’s what the application of philosophical knowledge can also look like — namely, nothing, from the third-personal perspective anyway.

Maybe the Impact of Philosophy is also on the soul, and not directly on the world. Maybe the world can get changed by philosophy not only or necessarily because we identify Problems or Issues and then apply our Theories About How The (Ethical or Political or . . .) World Works. Maybe the world changes also because philosophy first changes sensibilities, perceptions, understandings, poises, attitudes, and ways of looking and seeing and feeling — profound changes we’d be strained to describe as Important Results or Theories meant to Solve Problems, philosophical or extra-philosophical.

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

We certainly aren’t going to change the world by coming up with official answers to the big philosophical questions. In this, we are quite different to science. However, we can help people make informed decisions of their own, and help them to be consistent in their views.

Kenny Easwaran
6 years ago

I’m not exactly sure if “entertaining” is the right word, but there is definitely something awe-inspiring about Lyndon LaRouche’s hatred for Bertrand Russell.

“Britain’s Lord Bertrand Russell has been, beyond any reasonable doubt, the most evil public figure of the passing century. England’s murdered Christopher Marlowe might have said fairly that the Thule Society’s monstrous Adolf Hitler was but a picaresque rogue cast as Dr. Faustus, whereas Russell was a true Mephistopheles.”

(LaRouche notably thinks that all of history is a conflict between Plato on the side of good and Aristotle on the side of evil, that Ronald Reagan and FDR are the two greatest American presidents, and that William Weld and Mikhail Gorbachev once plotted to assassinate LaRouche.)