How Can Philosophy Be Important in Times Like These?

By Elizabeth BrakeDecember 11, 2023

How Can Philosophy Be Important in Times Like These?
The aim of this curated series of essays is to address the question: why is philosophy important at times like these? For many, philosophy is a field of inquiry that remains so esoteric, narrow, and specialized that it has little or no relevance to the everyday world of “ordinary” people. Indeed, philosophers are often characterized as introverted, absent-minded thinkers who are obsessed with analytical minutiae, isolated in their academically cloistered spaces (offices and personal studies) in a monologue with dead white guys, and prone to encouraging dispassionate argumentation and one-upmanship. For the thinkers writing for this series, however, philosophy is a social enterprise that strives for clarity of thought and encourages the formation of multiple cultural spaces of philosophical practice that are welcoming to a diverse range of scholars and laypeople, rather than simply those who look alike and share the same hegemonic meta-philosophical assumptions about the field.


YEARS AGO, I was the victim of stalking. At the time, I didn’t have the language to describe the violation I was experiencing. Not just the fear of physical assault, although there was that, or the intrusive anxiety of expecting unwanted contact, though there was that too, but the sense of my own life and person being wrapped into someone else’s plans, whether I wished it or not. A relationship I did not want was being forced on me, and I experienced this as a violation. But I struggled to communicate this to well-intentioned friends who had not had similar experiences. We lacked the concepts to identify this particular violation.

In considering such traumatic experience, philosophy might be the last subject to come to mind. After all, what does the highly personal experience of stalking have to do with the search for Truth? For me, however, that experience resonated with wider and philosophically freighted issues: the nature of misogyny, the concerted legal attacks on women’s rights, the nature of wrongdoing and resilience. My situation seemed to reflect the larger-scale political situation—and the accompanying sense of hopelessness—while remaining deeply personal. This experience has led, years later, to my current research project of developing a moral conceptual vocabulary of the hidden but very real wrongs of intimate partner violence.

I believe that this issue demonstrates what philosophy has to offer in times of crisis. 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.

The example with which I started is one such case. What my personal experience showed me was that we lack a normative language for certain experiences of intimate partner violence: that the thinkers who conceptualized rights focused on violations of the body and of property, not the less tangible violations of stalking from a distance or of emotional abuse. But ethical philosophy offers a method and a context to remedy this neglect: to generate the concepts we need in order to identify such wrongs and to locate them within wider theories of justice.

The lack of terminology is no accident. No doubt, the canon of Great Philosophers has included more stalkers than stalking victims. That is, theorists of rights and wrongs have not tended to come from social groups that would usually have experienced the harms of stalking and intimate partner violence, and may even have had an interest, by virtue of their social power, in denying that such acts count as wrongs.

On the other hand, from the perspective of the victim, lacking the concepts and terminology for experiences of oppression is itself a feature of oppression, as feminist theorists have argued. Philosopher Miranda Fricker has termed this lack “hermeneutical injustice.” For example, at one point, there was no concept of sexual harassment, nothing to identify—and categorize together—experiences of women being propositioned, groped, pressured for sex, and otherwise harassed in the workplace. Being able to name our experiences and their normative features has the potential to empower. It allows those affected to communicate and connect—a first step toward working for change. If you cannot identify the problem, you cannot address the problem. And the communication itself, the fact that the terminology is out there, gives hope and inspiration. Knowing you are not alone can be galvanizing—a move from shame and bewilderment towards understanding and resisting.

Philosophy is not unique in furnishing such terminology; in fact, what it sometimes does is translate what oppressed people already know into philosophical theory. To take a recent example, philosopher Julio Covarrubias draws on the vernacular concepts of immigrants to name a social vulnerability to conditions of grinding labor that wear down the body. What he terms “la friega” translates, into the language of political philosophy, a harm that philosophers not of an immigrant background had not previously identified: the distinctive embodied experience of cumulative harm that is created by exploitative migrant labor. Introducing this term allows a more accurate understanding of social reality, potentially affecting social or political movements. Likewise, consider feminist arguments that pornography is a speech act, not free speech. If it is an act of violence (and not merely protected speech), the law can address it in ways it cannot address mere speech.

Philosophy does not simply help us craft concepts to articulate experiences; it enables us to criticize our arrangements and envision better alternatives. It encourages us to ask what a society predicated on our deeply held values would look like, while it also encourages us to interrogate those values. Its emphasis on consistency and reflection can reveal tensions between our ideals and reality.

Consider the device of the social contract. The essential idea is a familiar one: we can understand social cooperation as an agreement that we would enter out of self-interest, as we are all better off cooperating than not. The flaw of classic Hobbesian social contract theory is that it provides no internal objection to some groups entering a contract to oppress or enslave other groups—the contracting parties are, after all, cooperating on the basis of their own self-interest, and not on the basis of anyone not party to the contract. As philosophers Carole Pateman and Charles Mills have pointed out, such an oppressive contract often happened along race and gender lines.

John Rawls, in the 20th century’s most influential work of political philosophy, A Theory of Justice (1971), asks us to imagine that we choose the ideal rules that will govern society from behind a “veil of ignorance,” so that we do not know our own race, gender, class, religion, and so on. This device is supposed to eliminate bias, so that the rules chosen to govern society are fair: they could be agreed upon from any relevant subject position. But once again, as Mills and Pateman have observed, this could generate principles that would perpetuate real injustices in the actual world. Gender-neutral policies, for example, can perpetuate inequalities when applied in a context in which women and men are systematically unequal.

To address this problem, Mills developed a normative “racial contract” procedure: instead of creating rules for an ideally just society, the contractors create rules for the society we actually live in, replete with racial injustice. In other words, imagine what rules you would adopt if you knew about the history of slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy, redlining, and attacks on critical race theory, and you did not know your own race.

Is this tool still flawed? Inductively, based on how flawed past iterations have been, it’s quite likely. Perhaps any attempts to imaginatively enter the position of others will necessarily reflect our own subject position. Perhaps the interests of infants and children, or adults with certain cognitive disabilities, or nonhuman animals, or nonsentient nature, or future generations, can never be represented fairly. Perhaps the guiding ideal of moral equality is itself a fiction that only serves to distract from real power inequalities. But this is just to continue philosophical debate. In other words, these questions themselves demonstrate the need for more philosophical work.

Finally, all of this underscores the fact that philosophy doesn’t just allow us to evaluate reality and thereby envision better alternatives; it also allows us to make and remake the world we inhabit through the concepts with which we engage it. The world is not simply given to us; from infancy, we are taught to categorize and judge. And the categories we discern, as well as the responses we deem appropriate, our normatively laden perceptions, are conceptually beholden. But once we see how the world is made by ideas, we see how those ideas can change, and sometimes how our moral ideals require such change.

The recent cultural conflict surrounding sex and gender identity illustrates this. Some of those desiring to enforce traditional gender identities deny that how we perceive sex and gender is a product of social norms; their opponents argue that biological categories do not simply identify natural dichotomies but rather construct those divisions, at the cost of marginalizing those who do not fit into them neatly. As trans philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher argues, there are different concepts of “woman” available to us—metaphysically distinct concepts, such as that of the dominant majority versus that derived from trans culture. Which concepts, which worldview, are we to choose? That choice, she suggests, is guided by moral commitments. Do we want to choose a worldview that respects the dignity of someone who has lived her life as a woman—or not?

I was asked to write on the importance of philosophy in times like these. But what are these times like? Perhaps more than any previous time, we face threats of extinction arising from our own behavior. As someone who was coming to political consciousness when Francis Fukuyama’s essay on the “end of history” was published, I’ve seen unexpected threats to liberal democracies, resurgent nationalism, and a frightening backward turn on reproductive rights. There’s also, of course, the recent backlash against LGBT+ rights, the emboldening of white supremacists, and ongoing attempts to stifle education about sexuality and racism. But why is philosophy important for any of this?

Of course, we can choose to tend our own gardens, withdrawing from the world, and philosophy, if it has a role in such quietism, can offer consolations. But the fact is that we live in a world shaped by ideas. This is why fascists are so eager to control our exposure to them. In times like these, then, it may be the case that to withdraw is to choose to side with those who would seek to oppress.

Philosophy can suggest where to go from here and why. It can provide imaginative tools for reenvisioning the future and motivation for change, by showing which practices would reflect our most deeply held values. In short, it can offer a vision and a rallying cry against the rising tide of social and ecological catastrophe. But philosophy can only do this if it is informed by all perspectives. If professional philosophy excludes those who have experienced discrimination and oppression on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability, its attempts to understand the world will be impoverished. So too if it disregards the interests and value of those who cannot be included in the academy—such as nonhuman animals and the natural world.

In my own case, the experience of being stalked led me to consider what moral rights we should acknowledge from the standpoint of stalking victims, and to consider how our social norms would have to change to respect them. It led me to consider critically what is usually found to be acceptable in approaching others—and where our society romanticizes what it should condemn.

So, is philosophy important? Philosophy, as an academic discipline, will remain important only insofar as it continually changes to meet the world and welcome all those who are in it. Whether or not academic philosophy does this to the degree it needs to, individual thinkers will keep asking why, and generating new concepts in line with their ideals. And that they do so is vitally important.


Featured image: Alice Rahon, Luciérnagas [Fireflies], 1946. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Thomas Cranfill, 1977; Transfer from the Harry Ransom Center, 1982.1129. CC0. Accessed December 5, 2023. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Elizabeth Brake is a professor of philosophy at Rice University. She is the author of Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law (2012) and is currently writing a book on wrongs in intimate personal relationships.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!