Being a Good Philosopher-Activist

“Philosophers have an important role to play in bridging theoretical reflection with everyday life.” 

Those are the words of Julinna Oxley, professor of philosophy at Coastal Carolina University, in “How to Be a (Good) Philosopher-Activist“, an article in the recent special issue of Essays in Philosophy on activism and philosophy, edited by Ramona Ilea (Pacific University).

Julinna Oxley with bullhorn (photo by Renee Smith)

Professor Oxley is the co-founder of Grand Strand Action Together, a South Carolina non-profit group “devoted to protecting and defending our democracy and the American democratic ideals of liberty, equality, and justice.”

In her article, she draws on her experiences as a philosopher and activist to provide some advice for other philosophers interested in activism, which she takes to be collaborative action aimed at social change. With such collaborative efforts, people can do what they’re good at. For philosophers, that might mean “contributing philosophical reflection, writing skills or oral argumentation,” and doing so with “rational integrity.”

Philosopher-activists with rational integrity, Oxley writes, are honest, rational, logical, deliberative, and respectful:

  1. Honest — (a) use true, reliable, and trustworthy information and sources, (b) know the relevant and important social or historical facts surrounding their views.
  2. Rational — use reason to communicate and to facilitate communication; are careful, calm, insightful, and composed; don’t base arguments primarily on emotional appeals.
  3. Logical — use logically sound arguments, do not make blatant or obvious logical fallacies, especially informal fallacies such as circular argument, slippery slope, red herring, straw man, etc.
  4. Deliberative — know the weaknesses in their arguments; know the opposing arguments and are able to explain rationally why they disagree; understand the social and political implications of their views.
  5. Respectful — not annoying, misleading, dramatic or egotistical; can speak civilly with opponents and do not insult or attack them as persons.

A good philosopher-activist resists the impulse to “use zingers to insult the opposition” or “cut corners and be intellectually lazy” when they think they can get away with it. And they develop certain qualities:

Tact: “the ability to listen to another person and respond to them without over-reacting, being defensive, belittling them, or losing one’s cool” as well as “knowing when to make an objection and knowing when to let something go.”

Sociality: “we must recognize when it is appropriate in a conversation to take off the philosopher hat and just be a person and develop the ability to connect with a wide range of people”

Cooperativeness: “philosophers should seek to be collaborative as activists. This is, in fact, the heart of activism: connecting with others, creating new networks, building coalitions, recruiting new members, strategizing with others about how to accomplish shared goals and thinking creatively about how to address power structures”

Humor: “maintaining a sense of humor while railing at the world’s injustices is one of the best ways to avoid burnout and to remain engaged”

Some people are concerned about philosophy professors and other academics being activists. One worry is that political engagement may bleed into one’s academic work, biasing what is supposed to be dispassionate rational inquiry. That’s a risk for those who work in areas related to one’s activist interests, but note it could also be the other way around, that one’s political views are a product of one’s scholarship. And it isn’t always the case that political bias manifests itself in problematic ways in an academic context: if someone is spurred to research a particular topic because of its political significance to them, that doesn’t itself seem objectionable.

Another worry concerns academics indoctrinating their students in the classroom. No one argues for such indoctrination, of course—that’s just bad teaching. But there may be an appropriate role for the philosopher-activist as teacher, Professor Oxley suggests: “philosopher-activists can use [their] skills to help students learn how to reason well, how to detect faulty arguments, how to develop their ideas, etc., ” and through one’s choice of readings and assignments “encourage students to think about particular issues”.

My own view is that a central task of philosophy, both in teaching and research, is articulating what we don’t know and the varied ways in which it is difficult and complicated to know anything. This view of philosophy may seem to be in tension with philosopher-activism, but it isn’t necessarily. It really it is at odds with dogmatism, and activists need not be dogmatic. Philosophers are people, too, and are not disqualified by their career choice or their appreciation of our epistemic difficulties from having political opinions. And if philosophers may justifiably have political opinions, on what grounds could we object to them taking some actions to convince others of them, provided they can do that without compromising their obligations as philosophy professors? So I think a blanket rejection of the philosopher-activist is untenable.

The question is, if you’re going to be a philosopher-activist, how can you do it well? Professor Oxley’s essay is one answer. Feel free to critique it or suggest your own.

(By the way, all of the articles in this special issue of Essays in Philosophy are currently freely accessible.)


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