Do philosophers have something unique to offer in response to, or during the presidency of, Donald Trump?
Trump’s election to the highest office of our country has taken me by surprise. It isn’t that I doubted that this was a real possibility. It isn’t that I was complacent and unafraid, though surely I could have done more. It isn’t that I failed to see the serious flaws in the Democratic candidate, the risks involved in her nomination. But deep down, I guess I believed we would do the right thing. But we did not. And I can see on the horizon possibilities that range from dreadful to apocalyptic.
I have been thinking of what I might be able to do as a philosopher, to be more of a part of positive change. The question may seem absurd, on its face. What do the abstruse discussions of philosophers have to do with our current crises of race, class, culture, politics, economics, environmental disaster, social disorder? But the things that we, of all the disciplines, focus on most centrally, are precisely the tools that are most needed at present: critical thinking and inquiry into values.
“Critical thinking” of course has been co-opted into the meaningless jargon of academic managerialism; nary a set of course objectives is drafted without critical thinking in the mix. But in philosophy, there is something we practice that deserves the name of “critical thinking,” a relentless critical interrogation of premises, beliefs, practices, institutions, modes of reasoning and arguing, even ways of doing philosophy itself. Of course, every discourse and inquiry has its limits, but this kind of criticism is a core regulative ideal of philosophy. The counsel here is not denialism but anti-dogmatism, not heterodoxy for heterodoxy’s sake, but heterodoxy for the sake of understanding and truth. Learning the difference is an important part of philosophical education.
“Critical thinking” is thus not the apolitical, marketable skill that we tend to sell it as. Republicans know this, and in places like Texas, they make removal of “critical thinking” from the curriculum part of their platform. Critical thinking is an acid, a solvent that washes away habit, complacency, dogmatism, and unearned authority. Critical thinking is politically dangerous, especially for the reactionary and the exploitative. How would this election have been different if prejudice, lies, bullshit, and narrow thinking had been regularly critically assessed by the media, public figures, and voters?
Philosophy is also, I would argue, the only discipline that takes values seriously as an object of inquiry. Many areas in the psychological and social sciences study beliefs about and uses of values. Literature and the arts often express values, and the study of those expressions also adds something important to our understanding of human and cultural values. But philosophy evaluates values, wrestles with conflicts of values, argues about difficult questions of values. I happen to think we don’t do it as well as we should, most of us, because of some bad trends in methodology and metaphilosophy. But at least we do it, and in some cases we do it pretty well. Our politics is in a crisis of values, and we our experience, knowledge, and skills here are much needed.
Our public sphere today seems values-phobic. We do not debate values, or talk about how to make compromises about them. We treat them as signs of team membership: I’m on team Pro-Choice or Pro-Life, team Marriage Equality or Traditional Marriage, etc. Hillary Clinton, who in the final debate gave the most straightforward and passionate defense of abortion rights of any major political candidate in history, did not make use of any of the sophisticated arguments philosophers have made in defense of abortions, arguments that undercut mistaken premises and seek common ground with the basic values of anti-abortion arguments. Often, we fight proxy wars over supposed scientific uncertainty, when the real issue is about values.
We have skills, knowledge, and experience that offer something valuable to society. We need not only to say so, but to find ways through teaching, research, and especially public engagement to really do it. In future posts, I hope to talk about two of my philosophical heroes who have really made such contributions, and to talk about, specifically, philosophers of science should do in the time of Trump.
For more on what philosophers have to say about Donald Trump and the 2016 Election, I recommend these remarks at the Daily Nous.