Philosophy in Times Like These
By Vanessa WillsNovember 27, 2023
PHILOSOPHY DREW ME IN by offering something highly unique and valuable to a Black teenage girl from an immigrant working-class family in 1990s Philadelphia. Among the logical puzzles, the formal linguistic analysis of abstract metaphysical concepts, and the thought experiments about possible worlds, the concrete limitations of the actual world hardly seemed real. Where worldly obstacles of privilege and prejudice made themselves nonetheless felt, I could console myself with the logical certainty that these were irrational, unjustified, and perhaps, therefore, impermanent.
Like science fiction, philosophy was fun, wild, and creative, rebelling against any tyranny of what is over our license to imagine what might be. The union of imagination and reason promised to reveal new truths that might remain hidden were we to restrict scholarly inquiry to the actual and not explore the conceptual terrain of the as yet merely possible. Constantly to ask, “But what if things were otherwise?” seemed to be philosophy’s main business.
Contemporary academic philosophy largely self-identifies with a Socratic tradition of rigorous challenge to received wisdom and the status quo. Ask the right question, apply the right logical test, wield the right objection like a scalpel, and—if all goes well—then down tumble our ill-founded assumptions, sophistical fallacies, and logical inconsistencies. But something seems to happen on the way between the abstract notion of philosophy as the love of wisdom and actual philosophical practice. The fearlessness of asking about the counterfactuals can easily become a manner of safe and even cowardly retreat from the world, with not much to offer back to the world or to our attempts to make sense of it.
The question “What if things were otherwise?” has no real content except when grounded in a rational and empirical accounting of how things now are, and of what follows logically from the fact that they are as they are. This space is too brief to attempt exhaustively to describe our current times, but I can mention briefly what I take to be some particularly salient features about them. Then, we might say more about what philosophy has to offer us who are living in them.
Let us start with the implacable reality that looming before us at the end of our current path is a future on a dying planet. As of this writing, it is summer 2023 and we have recently experienced Earth’s single hottest day on record. The planet will only get hotter and hotter from here. Crops will fail, seas will rise, and resource conflicts will heighten and spread.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that, at the end of 2022, 108.4 million of the world’s people had been “forcibly displaced.” This number steadily increases year by year—exponentially so over the last several years—as war and conflict drive people from their homes in places like Syria, Sudan, Palestine, and Ukraine. It does not include “voluntary” economic migrants— people who risk their lives to reach metropoles in the United States and Europe for a chance to survive, rather than remain in places where the vicissitudes of global capitalism have consigned them and their families to poverty, starvation, and death.
On June 14, 2023, a boat containing about 750 people seeking better lives and economic opportunities sank into the Mediterranean Sea, killing as many as 500 of its passengers in what EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson has called possibly “the worst tragedy ever” to take place in those waters. Amid conflicting reports, what remains clear is that Greek Coast Guard ships present at the site of the tragedy did not render aid to the distressed ship as it drifted for hours before sinking.
In the German town of Sonneberg this June, the notoriously far-right Alternative für Deutschland won its first district council election ever, having surged in popularity among voters across Germany over the past year. This marks the first time that a far-right politician has been elected in Sonneberg since the end of the Third Reich.
Since national borders require a massive infrastructure of state violence to defend them, especially as conditions grow more desperate and unlivable for more and more people, it is unsurprising that far-right political parties, promoting authoritarian policies, have capitalized on the crisis to make large electoral gains throughout Europe. That the interests of the nation-state trump the interests of vulnerable human beings is the fundamental premise of restrictive and exclusionary immigration policies. Where all mainstream political parties agree on this, the Far Right distinguish themselves as the most consistent and committed adherents to that tenet.
To say just a bit more about our times: the trend towards greater authoritarianism characterizes the political situation in the United States domestically as well. American cities devote about 25 to 40 percent of their annual budgets to policing, on average. In the years following the Black Lives Matter protests in spring 2020, city governments mostly further increased police budgets despite activists’ calls to defund police and fund necessary social services instead.
This past year, politicians across the US have instrumentalized transphobic talking points to justify bans on gender-affirming care for young people, with some states, such as Texas and Florida, going so far as to consider the provision of medically appropriate care to trans youth “child abuse”—paving the way for the state to seize children and prosecute their parents. The state of Texas has passed a law that effectively issues a $10,000 “bounty” on patients who seek abortions and anyone who assists such patients. There has been an uptick in book bans in schools and libraries across the country. None of this is even to mention recent Supreme Court decisions that blithely shed the appearance of judicial neutrality and reveal the court’s character as an organ of unaccountable power.
Overwhelmingly, these are times of rising geopolitical tensions, of ascendant far-right extremism, of increasingly authoritarian state bureaucracies, and of looming climate disaster. This all transpires against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the WHO estimates has killed three million people worldwide, providing a template for how the world’s governments will handle the further waves of mass death to come—“sacrificing lives for the economy.”
I say all this not to depress the reader but to concretize the question at hand: what can philosophy offer anyone in times like these?
I do not think there is just a single answer. In my philosophical work, I tackle racism, capitalism, human rights, and other similarly worldly and practical concerns. I practice and advocate socially engaged, socially aware philosophical research that grounds itself in the tradition of liberation struggle and the resistance of the oppressed, seeking not merely to “interpret” the world but also to transform it radically for the better. Yet, just as philosophy once represented for me a kind of mental retreat or escape from the world’s troubles, it would be disingenuous of me now to say that years of activism, historical study, and professional experience have taught me that philosophy is only ever wrongly or illegitimately approached in that manner.
Philosophy does offer us an array of charming puzzles and opportunities for free, creative, intellectual play; this is good. Students, however challenging, eye-opening, and enriching the rest of their coursework might be, often find that philosophy classes offer them their first experiences of something like thinking done for its own sake, as an intrinsic pleasure. In a political environment where the aims of education are increasingly narrowly subordinated to the immediate staffing needs of “job creators” and every human endeavor seems to be valued just for its “usefulness” (read: profitability), this role for philosophy and philosophical education should be defended.
Philosophical inquiry, however, even when apparently unmoored from some particular practical end, is always sociohistorically situated. This remains the case despite all our representations of philosophical methods and truths as somehow “eternal” and abstractly universal. Indeed, for a field that often represents its concerns as being far removed from contingent worldly matters, the ideas that overwhelmingly shape the mainstream “canon” of Western philosophy have tended to arise out of periods of great social and political upheaval. For Hobbes, it was the English Civil War that led him to wonder how the individualism of the modern age could be rationally reconciled with the order and stability of the old world. Both Kant and Hegel were heavily influenced by the tumult of the French Revolution. Even the consolidation of analytic philosophy as the dominant tradition within Anglophone philosophy departments during the mid-20th century is difficult to comprehend outside the context of the Cold War and the chilling effect of McCarthyism on the American academy.
Central to many of the defining political conflicts and existential challenges facing us today is an attack on reason and rationality. Denialism about the medical dangers posed by COVID-19, for example, is a posture that has moved from the fringes of right-wing nihilism to become a mainstream response, with the needs of vulnerable populations especially relegated to the margins. COVID denialism is of a kind with climate change denialism, which is committed to delegitimizing the consensus opinion of climate scientists worldwide regarding the urgency of drastic measures to slow global warming.
Not only patently unjust, policing and imprisonment in the US are also flagrantly unscientific, rooted in racism and retributivism. They are conducted in a manner practically guaranteed to produce more crime and social ills rather than less, even while politicians and law enforcement agencies insist that the most rational response to crime is to hire more police officers and build more capacity to mete out state violence. Transphobic movements—growing internationally and, not coincidentally, acting as recruitment grounds for the Far Right—claim an interest in “biology” even while promoting an anti-intellectual, anti-science agenda that dismisses decades of medical research and expert consensus as mere “woke” opinion.
Bad arguments, faulty reasoning, shoddy premises—these are just the sorts of things that philosophy ought to criticize and provide an antidote for. Yet, too often, philosophers have tended to resist putting philosophy to that use, preferring not to risk the objectivity of their reflections by sullying them with matters in which they might take some personal interest—like the survival of humanity.
In the 2000s, the start of my graduate education coincided with the further hardening of the US state into a permanent war bureaucracy through the Patriot Act, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the initiation of the so-called “war on terror.” The philosophy seminars I attended could not have seemed more eerily removed from the reality of mayhem and death being rained down upon innocents in the name of peace, the arbitrary torture and detention spuriously cloaked with the rule of law, and the massive protests, in cities across the United States and elsewhere, fighting to uphold and extend the legacy of the anti-war movement of the 1960s.
It was learning more about the importance of revolutionary ideas, and their centrality to and emergence from popular struggles, that reinvigorated my love of philosophy. The more that I came to understand that philosophy itself has a history—one that is living, dynamic, contested, and shaped in and through mass upheaval—the more I realized that its main usefulness was not in transporting me away from the world but in bringing me into closer connection with it. Philosophy can then be not mere escapism or retreat but, at least in part, the art of considering real alternatives to what now exists.
Where philosophers retreat from practical, worldly concerns, they leave open a space for the kind of pseudoskeptical posturing that is now all-too-familiar from far-right discourse. The pose of “just asking questions” soon gives way to an irrationalist, anti-intellectual nihilism, attracting those who seek meaning in an increasingly grim and chaotic world while running cover for those who prefer we do nothing to prevent the mass suffering that our current sociopolitical arrangements necessarily produce.
But to engage in what Karl Marx once called the “ruthless criticism of all that exists”—asking of every single thing why it is this way; what caused it to be as it is; what is its essential character; what, if anything, justifies it in persisting in its current form; and what might come to be the case if some things, or maybe all things, were otherwise than they now are—is central to philosophy and to humanity’s best attempts to make sense of the world. As authoritarianism spreads and gathers strength around the globe, philosophy’s capacity to liberate and exercise our critical imaginations becomes only more vital and necessary, with each moment bringing us closer to a future that we are creating now, consciously or not.
Featured image: Frank Weitzel. Abstract design no. 2, 1931. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Gift of Rex Nan Kivell, 1953. tepapa.govt.nz, CC0. Accessed November 21, 2023. Image has been cropped.
Vanessa Wills is associate professor of philosophy at the George Washington University. She is a founding co-editor of Spectre, a biannual journal of Marxist theory, strategy, and analysis. Her monograph, Marx’s Ethical Vision, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Andrew Koppelman reviews Stephen Vladeck’s “The Shadow Docket: How the Supreme Court Uses Stealth Rulings to Amass Power and Undermine the Republic.”
What the linguistic character of Trumpism tells us about the authoritarianism it lubricates.
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!