Tijdschrift voor filosofie
sinds 1969

De pen

Dissident theorizing

Mari Mikkola

   Voice: “So, you're a philosopher?”
   KRS-One: “Yes, I think very deeply”.
   Boogie Down Productions, ‘My Philosophy’

What is it to be a philosopher? Many outside of academic philosophy (I suspect) would concur with the lyrics of Boogie Down Productions’ song ‘My Philosophy’ noted above: it is to think deeply about things sitting in quiet, solitary contemplation like a Rodin statue. This is what philosophizing conceivably consists in – at least, on prevalent popular views. Many academic philosophers understand their profession differently, and the time we have to think very deeply is fleeting and scarce. More importantly though, one might hold that philosophical theorizing isn’t equivalent to philosophizing in the above popular sense: it isn’t (just) about finding oneself in deep thoughts conducting private intellectual exercises. Rather, philosophical theorizing is about engaging in a social practice that crucially involves theoretical reflection in order to think systematically about some subject matter, and to explicate ideas and concepts with argumentative means. With this in mind, I am currently writing a book that aims to develop and articulate how we can philosophically theorize in (what I will call) a dissident manner: following a typical dictionary definition, this means in opposition to some accepted orthodoxy. Engaging in dissident theorizing in philosophy, however, isn’t just about holding and/or expressing opinions different to those commonly or officially held; it is importantly about producing philosophical knowledge in ways that challenge received wisdom and (bluntly put) go against the grain.

The idea of dissident philosophy may initially strike many as puzzling and opaque. One might think that philosophers in general, if not almost entirely, are dissidents. Much of the history of philosophy has involved challenging accepted views and opinions. Just think of Kant’s famous Enlightenment call for us to have courage in our own reason. Or as J.S. Mill famously held, accepted views must be interrogated to prevent them from becoming ‘dead dogmas’: if no genuine dissenters are to be found, someone must play the role of a devil’s advocate to challenge commonplace convictions. Then again, the idea of philosophers as dissidents might strike one as deeply erroneous. Dissenters typically oppose the dictates of some totalitarian or authoritarian order. But since philosophy is ideally premised on the open and unprejudiced search for truth and knowledge, there is no authoritarian order to oppose. Or to put the point somewhat differently: if there is an accepted orthodoxy that fixes the nature of good philosophical arguments that lead us to truth and elucidate existing states of affairs, how could anyone oppose such arguments unless they are manifestly irrational or simply disdainful of what really exists (opting for wishful thinking instead)? In a sense, to be a dissident in philosophy would be to challenge something that need not be challenged and to do so on misguided grounds. Either way, one would be doing something infelicitous: conjecturing a straw position that needn’t be contested or failing to see where our arguments logically take us. If one wishes to be a good philosopher, it seems one ought not to be a dissident.

And yet, some philosophers implicitly or explicitly take themselves to be dissenters and ‘outlaws’ relative to more traditional investigations in challenging established philosophical assumptions and ideas. Most notably, though not exclusively, feminist philosophers and philosophers of race often claim to be methodologically committed to nonideal theory, which is dissident in spirit: for instance, the examination of normative concepts like justice should start by attending to actual oppressive social relations, instead of aiming to articulate an unachievable abstract ideal of a perfectly just society. The latter task is commonly linked to John Rawls’s highly influential theory of justice that covers ‘well-functioning’ societies. However, nonideal theorists (such as Charles Mills) hold that Rawls’s theory of justice has in fact done a deep injustice to the concept of justice. Ideal investigations overlook real-world complexities generated by gender, race, ability, class, and sexuality (among others) and are therefore theoretically impoverished while still squarely part of the philosophical ‘mainstream’. Although not all nonideal investigations are feminist and anti-racist, and not all feminist and anti-racist work is committed to nonideal theory, feminist and anti-racist philosophy is frequently pitted against more ‘mainstream’ investigations.

This highlights an important aspect of what makes some position a dissident one. Opposing accepted orthodoxies in one’s philosophical work prima facie suggests that any minority position counts as a dissident one. For instance, early proponents of analytic metaphysics look like dissenters in radically challenging ordinary language philosophy. And insofar as the latter is currently in the minority, it might look like a dissident position as well. However, there is a difference between minority positions and marginalized positions, and the former are not eo ipso dissident in spirit or letter. Although the distinction is rough and ready, marginalized positions are characterized by a sort of credibility deficit, they are often quickly dismissed, and are typically seen as somehow irrelevant to the matter at hand by the ruling ‘philosophical elites’, so to speak. I might view some position as a minority one and still robustly engage with it, taking the position seriously as a piece of philosophy; but in taking some view to be marginal, one often takes the view not to be worth preoccupying oneself with. For instance, one way to marginalize nonideal insights is to hold that philosophy is about how things ought to be – not about how things are. Hence real-world complexities need not be attended to when fixing (say) what justice amounts to.

Feminist philosophers and philosophers of race professing to be nonideal theorists typically challenge philosophical orthodoxies that keep in place hierarchies of social power; hence, their work is characteristic of those who dissent. Good arguments may lead us to the truth; but what makes an argument a good one tends to be fixed in ways that comes close to an orthodoxy enforced in authoritarian ways – it is such fixing and enforcing that nonideal theorists seemingly oppose. My book in progress, then, is about philosophical knowledge production practices, which challenge accepted views and norms about the goodness of arguments. It is not primarily about the value of feminist and anti-racist interventions in analytic, systematic philosophy. Rather, I aim to do something more thoroughgoing: to investigate and demonstrate the transformative potential of dissident insights when thinking about the methodology of analytic philosophy. In short, my investigation is about dissident ways of theorizing in philosophy, which means engaging in a social practice involving theoretical reflection – thinking systematically about some subject matter, and explicating ideas and concepts with argumentative means.