Philosophy’s Importance in “Times Like These”

The Los Angeles Review of Books has just concluded publishing a series of articles on the importance of philosophy in “times like these”.

What are “times like these”? The editor of the series, George Yancy (Emory), describes them as “trying times… moments of existential ruin, where we are 90 seconds to midnight, which is the closest we have ever been to global catastrophe.”

The contributors to the series are Elizabeth Brake (Rice), Lori Gallegos (Texas State), Jay Garfield (Smith), Kate Manne (Cornell), Todd May (Warren Wilson), and Vanessa Wills (George Washington). You can find the links to each of their pieces in the last two paragraphs of Professor Yancy’s introductory essay.

One thing I noticed about the series was its emphasis on right now. That was probably its brief, but I think it could also be worthwhile to adjust our focus, to better look at things from a distance.

Such distance might lead us to question the generalization of “times like these.” There are indeed horrible things happening, and Yancy’s references to Gaza, racism, and climate change are just a few of many well known examples. Some of these terrible things we may come to through personal experience, some mainly via ever-present news and social media, so it’s no surprise that they dominate our consciousness. Yet at any given time, countless things, good and bad, are happening. And if we take the long view (50 years? 100 years? 500 years?) we can see that in certain respects and for certain populations, “times like these” are preferable in comparison (e.g., standards of living, racism, sexism, medicine, access to information, etc.). Of course, “preferable in comparison” doesn’t mean “problem free.” It doesn’t even mean “not terrible.” But it complicates the picture somewhat.

One of the ways we’re better off—and this is building on what Elizabeth Brake says in her essay—is that we have concepts, ideas, and norms in sufficient circulation for us to better identify and understand our problems. So, in one way, things seeming worse may be a function of us having better conceptual tools by which to diagnose our situation.

Here’s what Brake says:

Too often, when pressed to defend the discipline, professional philosophers focus on philosophy’s use as a tool for rigorous argumentation and clear conceptual analysis. The idea here is that philosophy teaches the skills we need for reasoned disagreement with our fellow citizens, to avoid talking past one another and to take others’ perspectives seriously. But I find that this downplays the fact that philosophy does, and has always done, more than teach us how to argue: it generates new concepts, new tools and devices for understanding the world—and for reshaping it.

Of course, the skills of argument and critical thinking that philosophy teaches are invaluable. But these skills are valuable only so long as our fellow citizens are willing to engage in a reasonable discussion of our differences and won’t simply seek to impose their will by force. My fear is that there are times, and this might be one of them, when this condition does not obtain.

On the other hand, in the face of such things, the philosophical temptation may be quietism—the belief that the only thing to do, given our sense of powerlessness, is go inward toward the personal contemplation of Truth and Beauty, or to tend to one’s own garden. Indeed, there has lately been a resurgence in interest in the philosophy of stoicism in self-help circles.

In my view, though, both of these philosophical responses underestimate what philosophy offers: a chance to communicate with others who are interested in what we have to say and, through that communication, to initiate change. Philosophy is a powerful tool for creating and recrafting concepts that reflect our experiences and what we take to be normatively important about them; it is also a powerful tool for interrogating the ideals that guide us and asking whether we, personally and socially, really live up to those ideals. In this, philosophy offers us no less than a chance to remake the world—a possibility for creative conceptual engineering that can articulate what we previously could not and suggest alternate practices that better reflect our ideals.

Yet philosophy takes time. Not just for its production and for the filtering of worthwhile ideas, but also for ideas to get carried from academia into broader society. And it takes more time still for them to come to be a part of the predominant attitudes and beliefs in a society, the ideas people think with, such that they can play a role in efforts to “remake the world”.

So in considering the value of philosophy in “times like these,” a portion of our attention should be not on what philosophers should do now, but on what philosophers have already done that provide us with the epistemic, conceptual, and normative tools by which we make sense of these times and what we should do in them. Such an accounting may take us decades, centuries, or even millennia into the past, and show us that more of philosophy is more valuable today than many might think.

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Fritz Allhoff
2 months ago

I just finished teaching a graduate seminar on longtermism, where we read Ord’s and MacAskill’s books. They seem somewhat controversial because (among other things) they allegedly devalue the present in favor of the future. I’m not really sure that’s accurate, but I get why people would think that. Regardless, there’s also this kind of comfort insofar as “times like these” get washed out by the long arc of history. There’s still the “lock-in” problem the books deal with–like if we don’t fix climate change, there might not be a future–but I think it’s a pretty interesting perspective to think through.

Animal Symbolicum
2 months ago

Interesting. Thanks for bringing this out.

(1) What (kind of) evidence do you have in mind to support the comparative judgment that “we have concepts, ideas, and norms in sufficient circulation for us to better identify and understand our problems?”

(2) I’d like to hear a conversation between Brake and Rachel Fraser. Brake makes some claims about the benefit of finding or inventing the right concept to conceptualize certain wrongs. Fraser, in her interview with Kieran Setiya on his Five Questions podcast, claims that (philosophy helped her realize that) having the right concept to conceptualize a certain wrong she experienced wasn’t really the issue. The question of the right concept was separable from and less helpful than asking directly whether the feelings about and responses to the wrong she experienced were legitimate. (I hope I’m representing Fraser’s view faithfully — if not, please correct me!)

Patrick S. O'Donnell
2 months ago

I have a brief reply to Professor Gallegos’s essay, “Calibrating the Moral Compass: Latinx Philosophers on the Ethics of Migration,” that I posted at the Public Philosophy Network (which I would link to but I don’t know how!):
“The body of literature in the Classical Open Borders Debate tends to consist of highly abstract, right-and-principle-based arguments. It addresses philosophical questions without referring explicitly to particular borders, or to migrants with particular social identities. It also tends to occur in the realm of ideal theory.”

“The body of literature referred to as the ‘New Open Borders Debate,’ meanwhile, avoids charges of utopianism by remaining grounded in the nonideal context in which we live—one of great inequality and full of practical challenges.”

This characterization strikes me as rather tendentious and too polemical. Philosophers can avail themselves of “rights” and “principled” arguments with a clean conscience and with lucid awareness of what is happening, as we say, “on the ground,” in the real world, indeed, often their arguments make explicit assumption and assume specific descriptive realities as a contextual and historical background for their arguments (or they reference them in footnotes or endnotes by way empirical documentation or illustration). They should not be seen as somehow liable to charges of “utopianism” or “Eurocentrism” by doing so. There is plenty room for both “ideal” and “non-deal” theory, as one does not have to be epistemically purchased at the expense of the other. So called ideal frameworks are perfectly capable of “allow[ing] us to appreciate how different harms fit into larger patterns of domination of members of certain social groups, and that the impact of US policies on particular groups is not ‘random or accidental but rather a systemic, structural aspect of U.S. immigration policy that targets nations and transnational communities and their members […] only because they are members of those nations or communities.’” Marxist political economy and those involved in looking at municipal and international law from Marxist- or Marxist-like perspectives have long been keen on appreciating and analyzing the “nature of global oppression allows us to more effectively resist particular manifestations of those patterns of domination.” There is nothing intrinsically “feminist” or “Latina/o/xs,” about such matters as described here, which of course is not to say feminists or Latinx philosophers cannot bring unique insights and perspectives to the philosophical literature on immigration and migration, but rather that there is nothing said here that warrants wholesale privileging of such arguments and perspectives based on where or from whom they originate (a genetic fallacy?).

Assertions like the following are needlessly polemical if not nonsensical:

“The failure of philosophers to venture beyond the Western philosophical canon reaffirms ‘the perspective of the Global North when addressing the “immigration problem” and the belief that there is nothing of theoretical importance taking place outside of the West,’ Mendoza contends. “This, in turn, has stifled the creativity of organic intellectuals who address the issue of immigration justice from the perspective of the Global South.”

Alas, we are proffered false choices here, and essays like this may prove to do more harm than good for Leftist social justice movements around our planet, for global solidarity. I happen to have read through much of the relevant literature and find this critique hyperbolic if not overblown and strategically and politically misplaced. Perhaps I am mistaken, but it will take far more than this kind of caricature of the literature to change minds, open hearts and inspire the necessary forms of political struggle and action. Although I have not updated it in a while, some folks may be interested in this compilation:…/Immigration_and_Refugees…

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
2 months ago

The proper link to the compilation on Immigration & Refugees: Ethics, Law, and Politics

Last edited 2 months ago by Patrick S. O'Donnell