A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

The Philosophical Is Political: A Response to Agnes Callard

An argument that philosophers should sign petitions

by Brandon AbsherSeptember 9, 2019

This article was co-authored by Tanya Loughead, Brandon Absher, and Richard Schmitt

In her recent opinion, “Why Philosophers Shouldn’t Sign Petitions,” Agnes Callard criticizes philosophers who choose to be “political” by writing or signing petitions. As Callard presents it, she was asked to sign a petition to oppose the practice of excluding philosophers from standard academic opportunities such as publishing or speaking because these philosophers held supposedly unpopular views about sex and gender.

This petition had to do with how philosophers treat each other. Philosophers, Callard asserts, should resolve such issues through reasoned debate, and not persuade each other by signing petitions in order to show how many people hold the same view.

The problem with this argument is that it misconstrues the purpose of petitions. Do you author or sign a petition to persuade people of the truth of your beliefs? We think not. When any of us mean to persuade our fellow philosophers, we write articles and books; we do not circulate petitions. Petitions are not meant to persuade. They call attention to issues or positions previously ignored by those in power.

Petitions show, if they work, that many, or many important, people share a belief, value or concern. Petitions demonstrate to people in power that a view they have been ignoring, because they think it does not deserve being taken seriously, has widespread support and should therefore be considered carefully. Petitions are political tools, not means of persuasion.

Callard calls our attention to two well-known logical fallacies which she associates with petitions, appeal to popular belief and appeal to authority. Undoubtedly, philosophers, like everyone else, should avoid bad reasoning. As radical philosophers, we are only too aware that unpopular ideas like communism, veganism, or unpopular sexual practices are not wrong just because most people in the USA disagree with or dislike them. And we certainly also believe that an opinion is not correct just because a well-known person says so (be that person Donald Trump or Judith Butler) – though, of course, the opinions of experts should be weighed very strongly when considering matters related to their field of expertise. But these are not good reasons to avoid signing petitions since their purpose is not, in the first instance, to persuade.

Philosophers have a duty, like everyone else, to oppose injustice wherever they may find it. This duty involves an active, practical component. Rendered as a faculty of abstract debate and impotent reflection, practical reason is anything but practical. All practical persuasion, regardless of its philosophical pedigree or basic soundness, must come to an end in some kind of decision. All of which is to say, debate, sure, and good arguments, absolutely. But also, at the end of the day, action in opposition to injustice.

As we see it, Callard’s fear of contaminating the purity of philosophy is symptomatic of a deeper misunderstanding. She believes that in order to be a good philosopher one needs to violate one’s moral obligation to oppose injustice and oppression. In the interest of “the core values of intellectual inquiry,” Callard claims, one needs to stay aloof when others are treated unjustly.

As leaders of the Radical Philosophy Association and editors of its online publication, we, by contrast, support the overtly political aims of our organization. Further, we do not believe that there is a morally defensible way to be “a-political.” We agree with Iris Marion Young when she says that “the philosopher either reinforces or struggles against oppressions.” The dispassionate intellectual purity to which Callard aspires does not and cannot exist. Indeed, as educators, we have a responsibility to teach towards the liberation of our students and the world.

In our view, signing petitions is only one, relatively ineffective, method any of us have at our disposal for combatting injustice. One certainly should sign a petition drawing attention to injustices done to LGBTQ philosophers, including the promotion of hateful and harmful ideologies in otherwise reputable philosophical venues. But this is only a bare minimum. Among other things, one should speak out in lectures and in one’s teaching and writing. Moreover, one must defend unjustly targeted or systematically oppressed and marginalized colleagues —even if that may endanger one’s “career.”

Callard cites Socrates in support of her rejection of taking public political stands. She forgets that Socrates spent his days questioning the legitimacy of prevailing authorities and the basis of dominant values, and that he went to his death in defense of this public activity. In short, the philosophical is political.