The Anglo-American Analytic Philosophy Left

Survey showing that most philosophers (53%) identify as socialist.
Survey results from here: https://survey2020.philpeople.org/survey/results/all


As far as I can tell analytic philosophy for the most part remains a fairly a-political field. At the least, this is what my last little survey of the prestige journals suggested to me, and I just checked again and it still seems true. None the less, I agree with Brandon Warmke that there has been something of an "applied turn" wherein there is a shift towards trying to make one's work relevant to non-philosophical concerns somehow, and at least some of this has taken the form of a shift towards socio-political work. I gave my explanation for why I thought this shift was occurring here -- though see reply here, and I think a recent post at the Splintered Mind is an attempt to explain basically the same pervasive sense of decline via a different mechanism. As with most academics, philosophers lean left, and indeed per the picture it seems a majority even self-identify as socialist when given the chance! Hence, where analytic philosophers have tried to make their work relevant by being socio-politically relevant, it has tended to be with a left wing take thereon. So in the tradition of evidence free armchair sociology for which this blog is so famous, I thought I would give an insider's take on three different directions it seems to me the left wing of the applied turn is taking in philosophy. 

To do this I am going to construct three ideal types (with examples linked of the sort of work that this is meant to idealise) of possible directions for analytic philosophy to go in. It's important to note that while there are correlations these do not correspond in any straightforward way to the degree of leftwingedness of the participants, nor are these groups really felt as rivalrous by those within. In fact, "Anglo-American left analytic philosophy" is a fairly small world, and ties of affection bind many across the types I construct. And the political differences may be strongly felt, but are actually pretty minor in practice given that most do not reject electoral politics and in the Anglo-American world that just leaves few choices. None the less, as I shall try to explain, I do feel the ideal types are informative as they represent different methodologies, points of emphasis, and scholarly traditions that would have to be engaged with should one choose to enter into dialogue with someone from each type.

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Analytic Humanism: the first type I shall discuss is in many ways the most continuous with core analytic of yesteryear, though I am not sure they would always welcome that claim. People in this strand tend to be steeped in knowledge of LEMM analytic philosophy - language, epistemology, mind, metaphysics. They combine this with a knowledge of feminist philosophy and something of a humanistic bent, frequently drawing on literary examples and thinkers and doing much to stress experiential knowledge and the value of emotional engagement. In fact for these reasons often express some degree of alienation from the analytic mainstream, since these latter tendencies tend to be devalued. They produce work focussed on demographic injustices.  So typical work from this group might explicate testimonial injustice or silencing, give ameliorative analyses of intersectionality or what it means to be in a demographic group, produce analyses of propaganda, slurs, hate speech and dogwhistles, or reflections on biases. Their concerns often touch upon the third-rail controversies of cultural discussion nowadays, such as issues around consent and sexual assault, racist humour, or the relationship between trans rights and other feminist goals.

Sally Haslanger is very much a thought leader in the group to whom this type corresponds, and her text Resisting Reality would be required reading for anyone who wants to understand what is up here. Her professional call to arms "Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy" is also a bracing expression of some widely held principles among people in this group so I recommend checking it out. Srinivasan's "Radical Externalism" and Basu's "The Wrongs of Racist Beliefs" are recent works of this type that have generated a lot of academic discussion. This group has also, I think, done more to contribute to public discussion than any other, with Kate Manne's work of the type being agenda setting for many beyond the academy, and Amia Srinivasan's essays often driving cultural conversation. This essay is in fact one of my favourite recent interventions in British public life by academics.

So the ideal type of the analytic humanist is someone who produces a paper in the style of, and using the tools of, prestige analytic philosophy, but does so in the service of combatting some demographic injustice, drawing on literature and testimony concerning the experienced of the marginalised to make and develop their ideas.

My guess is this is the dominant type among the Anglo-American academic left. It is very naturally compatible with what prestige analytic departments already view as good and so often can be done well by their graduate students who are already (relatively) well positioned on the job market. It taps well into prevalent cultural concerns of the kind of people who become academics, so will naturally feel relevant and interesting to the people professionally evaluating philosophical contributions. Also, it is the closest in form and content to the sort of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X Kendi style humanities Theory that enrages the right - and since you can only be cancelled by your own political side, this actually adds to its clout. 

Red Plenty: the second type I shall discuss is probably the one I identify with most, and so far that reason the one I feel most likely to be unreliable about. Caveat emptor! But this type is somewhat similar to the above in being of the form "combine traditional analytic philosophy knowledge with pre-existing political tendency", except here the combination tends more to be "philosophy of science + socialism" rather than "LEMM + feminism". The instincts of this group are often much closer to a sort of materialist pragmatism, which ironically can give the impression of a-politicality. To take a representative example, among the group corresponding to this type there is much more inclination to try and develop methods of dealing with climate change than there is to argue that climate change is unjust, though that does occur. This is not because it is seen as an apolitical purely technocratic issue here, it is just that there is a presumed moral-political consensus that this group's skill set does not best prepare them to defend. As such, even where there is direct moral argument of this type, it is often tied to advocating a particular egalitarian policy tool or social scientific model.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò (snr) is a good representative figure here. His work is based in Marxist legal theory but he ends up being so orthodox in this regard that his analysis of the colonial roots of Africa's dire economic situation leads him to the recognisably "stagist" position that Africa must develop capitalist modernity to progress. A pretty standard Marxist theory leads to work advocating particular (basically capitalist!) economic policies, while largely burying the normative lede. 

Work of this type tends to be focussed on critiquing and improving social scientific reasoning, suspicious of hierarchy or liberal notions of autonomy, very concerned with egalitarian labour relations and the effects of new technology on the social world and work life, and has the aspiration of introducing more collaboration and democracy to various aspects of economic and political life. Explicit focus on class and capitalism is much more common among people at home with this type. The nature of the kind of work this group does means they often work with scientists, and while their topics of interest sometimes overlap with the analytic humanists there is much more of a tendency to see relevant social epistemic problems as ultimately concerning how to deal with statistical evidence. Not everyone I have linked here would actually identify as socialist/radical at all, but you will none the less do a pretty good job of predicting the behaviour of this ideal type by asking yourself "what would someone work on if they were a socialist materialist but also a total nerd?"

So the ideal type of the Red Plenty analytic leftist is someone who either has some technical scientific background or is willing to work with others who do, and whose work is focussed on promoting egalitarian or democratising political and economic ends. Sometimes this will be done by directly advocating for such a state, but very often it will be done by a somewhat more indirect method, usually arguing for some particular change or intervention that would push us in their preferred direction, or trying to reform social scientific reasoning to put us in a better position to make informed interventions in future.

My guess is this ideal type is small but relatively professionally safe. The kind of work preferred here is less likely to be perceived as "culture war hot" so does not attract as much negative attention as the above group, but also for that reason is unlikely to attract as much attention all things considered. Given increasing education polarisation in Britain and America, the Anglo-American world is probably not going to run out of techy-inclined leftist nerds any time soon so they will have a steady stream of recruits without quite capturing the heights of professional prestige.

R/Neoliberal: the third and final ideal type I discuss would probably be somewhat surprised to find themselves here, but I hope I shall persuade you that they deserve a mention here to round out our triumvirate. This group are more or less the modern expression of utilitarianism, and have seen two big changes in recent years. First, a revival of popular interest through the effective altruism movement and its appeal in rich and high powered industries like finance or technology producers. Second, the rise of popularist and nationalist conservatism reorienting their sense of who their main enemies are from the left to the right of the political spectrum. As such, they are now a functionally left wing group even if they are often culture war not as much aligned with the priorities of other elite liberals (in fact some of the heroes to this group would be hate figures to many in the first group). 

The leading light in this tendency is almost certainly Hilary Greaves. Her work has been agenda setting, and through her directorship of the Oxford Global Priorities Institute she has considerable sway over what work is considered important and who is seen as up and coming. The core theoretical debates in this group concern how to best formulate consequentialism  and other core normative concepts, while rationally responding to uncertainty. Core applied issues are typically animal rights (members of this group are very likely to be vegetarian), and greater leniency towards immigrants and refugees. Somewhat infamously, yet typically of the utilitarian tradition, they have a tendency to have galaxy brained takes on how to allocate our attention. But the plus side of this is one sometimes gets really creative and fascinating work from quite unexpected angles. There's a tendency here to be mistake rather than conflict theorists, and one thus gets pretty fascinating work on how it is that political conflict none the less seems persistent.

So the ideal type of the r/Neoliberal analytic leftist uses tools from contemporary utilitarian theorising, often Bayesian or decision theoretic, to try and sharply formulate claims about how best to be a consequentialist. When focussed on drawing out the consequences of this they sometimes have quirky left-field takes, but more often work on on migration and animal welfare. They are the group most likely to see political issues as in the end a matter of rational management of scarce resources towards a cosmopolitan net good, and see many disagreements as mostly resulting from good faith people not knowing how to do that.

My guess is this group will have a continued institutional foothold simply because they have rich patrons. What is more, while I think their work is often too technical to be of public interest (and when it does get attention the utilitarian habit of drawing shocking moral conclusions can draw ire, and mean this group attracts mere-contrarians) it has a very considerable advantage none the less. This way of thinking is highly likely to appeal to people who actually have power and are in the business of running things. For instance, Matthew Yglesias was recently found to be among the most followed political accounts by people on Biden's staff, and it is no coincidence that his thinking most resembles that of this ideal type. So while it is very decidedly a minority position both in philosophy generally and on the philosophy left more specifically, it is not going anywhere any time soon.

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These, then, are the ideal types of three noticeable tendencies on the Anglo-American analytical philosophy left. I make no claim to completeness and no attempt to deny that this is obviously just which groups (and, fuzzy, groupings) are salient from my idiosyncratic perspective. It's a blog post comrades, it is what it is. But some reflections on what I take it it means that these three types and groups stand out.

I think it is non-coincidental that the types look like intellectually refined versions of competing factions in elite left electoral politics. The kind of person who becomes a philosophy professor (or is somehow networked with those who do) is massively over-represented at upper levels of electoral politics. So the divisions one sees between Momentum, Blairites, and the Goldsmiths Student Union (or the DSA, Biden-Buttigieg-Harris, and BLM activists) are more or less just correspondents to the divisions one sees among philosophers. That also goes further towards highlighting that these are not huge political differences being tracked. Philosophy is not presently in its most creative of moods, and it seems we're in the business of rationalising what we already thought rather than really staking out new conceptual ground.

Ultimately philosophical prophesy is an attempt to shape rather than predict the future. So whereas I think that both the analytic humanists and the r/Neoliberal types (though my choice of that name was cheeky!) would see themselves more or less as consciously organised tendencies, the Red Plenty type would probably not. Since I identify more with that group I hope to change that through this blog post and other interventions.

It would be facile and undesirable to present this as some sort of choice, say to incoming grads they should pick a lane. Far from it, and I am glad that at present nothing like that occurs. One should read and learn from all these, and from sources beyond these political traditions too. But I do think that the real basis of these divisions corresponds to what sort of skills a graduate student will have to develop - it will be hard to persuade the Red Plenty crowd with arguments that would be seen as fully persuasive to the Analytical Humanists, and the r/Neoliberal lot must often be careful to state their presuppositions because they may be quite foreign to the other tendencies. Coming to self-consciousness about the emerging traditions of our field may thus help us all orient our own research, and understand the work of others.

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