While some people have argued that political activism is in tension with academic research (here, for example), many reputable academics have engaged in such activism, including in philosophy.
In the following guest post*, Jill Delston, a philosopher at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, deals with the relationship between philosophy and activism, and gives information on some events on this subject.
Philosophy & Activism
by Jill Delston
What is the relationship between philosophy and activism?
Philosophers often ask themselves the question of what the good life is. If the good life includes civic engagement activities aimed at using public values to improve our communities and the world at large, activism can be central to answering this question. On the role of civic engagement in the good life, Amartya Sen argues that it is constitutive, writing that “the exercise of civil and political rights is a crucial part of the good life of individuals as social beings” .
There is a long tradition of philosopher-activists. Socrates and Diogenes were militants of a certain color. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill used their moral theory of utilitarianism to argue for political reform. Bertrand Russell was a pacifist who used his platform to oppose war, and Martin Luther King, Jr. used nonviolent direct action to oppose segregation as well as pacifism in the global scale. Today, Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Peter Singer, and Angela Davis are among many academic philosophers who use their writings in tandem with their activism to advance their philosophical approaches.
The role of activism in philosophy can also point the way forward for the future of our discipline itself and can be a way to show our value and influence. For example, Robin Fretwell Wilson writes that “Universities, especially public universities, have an obligation to ensure that the work of their academics is reflected where it matters, in policies that impact the lives of real people. Through public engagement that fosters conversation about the most important issues facing the state and the nation today, we can put scholars in conversation with lawmakers to connect experts with the needs of our state. and to help decision-makers seek objective, research-based solutions. This obligation presents an opportunity not only to translate our work to improve the lives of others, but also to demonstrate the value of philosophy. Philosophy can identify moral dilemmas where other fields do not, and it can resolve those moral dilemmas where others cannot. From this perspective, our mission is clear, our purpose is valuable, and many of us are doing the civic engagement work of translating these academic pursuits into the public sphere through philosophy and activism.
If activism (in a broad sense) is constitutive of the good life or if activism is at the heart of philosophy, then not only is the link between activism and philosophy strong, but it is also worth our time and our Warning. Of course, questions remain. And the field of philosophy of activism includes a rich literature not only of philosopher-activists or activists doing philosophy, but also of theories about activism, including those that oppose the connection.
With the aim of highlighting scholars working in the field of philosophy and activism and giving them the opportunity and means to do so, I organize the first annual UMSL workshop on philosophy and activism on May 25 and 26 in Saint Louis, with Hallie Liberto and Helen De Cruz as keynote speakers. The deadline for submitting abstracts was April 15, but for the occasion of this post, I’m extending it by a week until April 22. The conference will also include opportunities to discuss structural injustices in our profession and in academia: there will be a panel discussion on this issue and you can also submit abstracts or papers just for this part of the conference.
Also consider participating in the Philosophy and Activism Webinar Series. Today’s session (April 15) will be at 6pm EST with a talk by Will Tuckwell on Virtue Signaling.