A Philosopher’s Diary, #1 — Changing Social Institutions From Without Or Within.

By Michelle Maiese

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” by Francisco Goya (Los Caprichos, #43, 1799)


Now, nine years later, after more than 300, 000 views of the site, this new series, A Philosopher’s Diary, will finally literally instantiate that description by featuring short monthly entries by one or another of the members of the APP circle, in order to create an ongoing collective philosophical diary that records the creative results of critical, synoptic, systematic rational reflection on any philosophical topic or topics under the sun, without any special restrictions as to content, format, or length.

This first installment, by Michelle Maiese, is about the dynamics of radical change for social institutions, including not only radical devolution and change inside existing destructive, deforming social institutions–an obvious, close-to-home example is contemporary professional academic philosophy–but also exiting such institutions and the design and creation of radically new constructive and enabling ones.


A Philosopher’s Diary, #1 — Changing Social Institutions From Without Or Within

To bring about positive change, it is important to acknowledge that there are reciprocal feedback relations between individuals and social activity. The basic idea is that the individual agent is not simply shaped, but also is also an active shaper of both other people and her social environment. Through their unique contributions, individuals can influence the workings of social institutions (whether small-scale or large-scale) and succumb to or resist these socializing practices to varying degrees. Likewise, smaller-scale social communities/collectives are shaped by dominant ideology, but also can play an important role in resisting, reshaping, or reinforcing that ideology. Given these complex, reciprocal dynamics, radical change needs to occur at multiple scales in order for genuinely constructive sociopolitical change to occur.

One question that arises is whether it is more productive for these communities or collectives to be inhabitants or members of the social institutions which need to be altered or transformed. If a group of people wish to bring about significant changes to the institution of the Catholic Church, for example, is it more productive for them to remain members of that institution (and attempt to bring about change from within) or to exit that institution in protest?

On the one hand, change from within may seem to be more feasible and to have a greater chance of success. Many social changes take place through collective actions and social movements that are inspired by grassroots movements. Often these groups are composed of individuals who are part of the institutions in question; thus, their collective acts of resistance feed back into the institution with which they have direct contact. Because they are “insiders” in the sense that they are familiar with the everyday workings of the institution, these individuals or groups may have special insights as to how to disrupt dominant practices. In addition, these individuals or groups are in a good position to point to tensions between the institution’s stated ideals and its actual day-to-day practices, expectations, and norms of operation. Pointing out these inconsistencies to other subjects that inhabit the institution can pave the way toward a shift in people’s patterns of thought and agency. As more and more people within the institution begin to change their attitudes and behaviors, or at least acknowledge that some sort of change is needed, there is potential to initiate significant shifts in patterns of behavior and attention. What is more, those operating within the institution may possess various forms of power that they would no longer possess were they to simply exit that institution.

But on the other hand, those who remain within institutions that are destructive and deforming will continue to be molded by those institutions in pernicious ways, even if they self-consciously attempt to resist these harmful social influences. And there is always a danger that continuing to operate according to the prevailing norms of that institution (simply in an effort to navigate successfully) will make someone less attentive to non-dominant understandings and ways of life. For example, a cisgender, heterosexual woman who remains part of the Catholic Church may continue to be impacted by that institution’s view of gender relations (for example, the prevailing belief that her husband should be viewed as the “head of the household”), even if she self-identifies as a feminist and wholeheartedly believes that traditional gender norms should be rejected.

The truth may be that we need not only people who remain part of an institution, but also those who choose to exit it, in order to generate sufficient friction to dislodge the destructive and deforming aspects of it. But even once we have broad participation from both of these groups, will it be enough to generate significant change?

This is especially interesting to consider in the context of higher education in general and professional academic philosophy in particular (Hanna, 2022a, 2022b). In The Mind-Body Politic, Hanna and I describe how the institutions of higher education operate according to neoliberal norms and assumptions. Associated ideology enforces the notion that pursuing an education is first and foremost a matter of positioning oneself for a decent-paying job. Due to economic pressures and certain fields’ perceived lack of direct connection to gainful employment, these fields frequently are deemed unimportant or even expendable. Philosophers are well-aware of this, of course; however, rather than resisting or critiquing these trends, there is a tendency to get distracted by various forms of competition. A preoccupation with citation counts and the Gourmet Report are but two examples.

Still, there are academic philosophers who fully recognize that much of what goes on in academia involves posturing and pernicious forms of competition, and that it’s utter bullshit. Perhaps more modestly, they identify various ways in which the institution of higher education might be changed so that more productive forms of collaborative learning and engagement are possible. What, then, should a professional academic philosopher do if they wish to resist neoliberal trends and promote positive transformation of the institutions of higher learning?

Such change will require steps at multiple scales. Communities of like-minded scholars need to come together to push for change. But of course, higher education does not exist in a vacuum; the economic pressures that have shaped the institutions of higher education are very real and cannot simply be dismissed. Real change of these institutions needs to go hand-in-hand with broader social-institution changes such as a move toward socialized health care, the provision of universal basic income, and a move away from privatization; it also needs to be accompanied by a change in general attitudes and a heightened emphasis on cooperation, solidarity, and empathy.

How do I, as a professional academic philosopher, work to promote such change from within my institution of higher education? I try to embody my own commitment to solidarity and collaboration through the way that I teach and my modes of engagement with colleagues. But there is so much work to do. It becomes more and more evident that the social institutional changes I am hoping for require a tremendous shift in prevailing attitudes and patterns of behavior. Being a philosophy professor isn’t nearly enough, and it has struck me vividly that greater political and social activism on my part is needed. What is more, I need help not just from those who have chosen to exit the field of professional academic philosophy, but also from policy makers, politicians, and business leaders.

And so I arrive at the overwhelmingly important and perhaps also obvious conclusion that in order to bring about constructive, enabling social-institutional change, we need everyone’s help. We’re the only ones who can save us.


(Hanna, 2022b). Hanna, R. “Material Conditions for the Real-World Implementation of Life-Shaping Philosophy.” Unpublished MS. Available online HERE.

(Maiese and Hanna, 2019). Maiese, M. and Hanna, R. The Mind-Body Politic. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Also available online in preview HERE.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 11 April 2022

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.