How to Philosophize with a Hammer and a Blue Guitar, #4–Eight Varieties of Philosophical Activism.

By Robert Hanna


1. Introduction

2. What I Mean By “Philosophy,” “Politics,” and “Rational”

3. Philosophical Quietism and Philosophical Activism

4. Seven Varieties of Philosophical Quietism

5. How and Why All Seven Varieties of Philosophical Quietism are Rationally Unjustified and Morally Unacceptable

6. Eight Varieties of Philosophical Activism

7. How and Why the First Eight Varieties of Philosophical Activism are Rationally Unjustifiable and Morally Unacceptable

8. The Ninth Variety of Philosophical Activism, the Mind-Body Politic, and How and Why It is Rationally Justifiable and Morally Acceptable

9. Philosophizing with a Blue Guitar

10. Conclusion



6. Eight Varieties of Philosophical Activism

PA1: The Gadfly

According to The Gadfly conception, philosophy should be engaged with politics because it’s in the nature of philosophy to philosophize in the marketplace, by means of dialogue, and critically analyze the political status quo, but ultimately obey the commands of the State.

A prime example of The Gadfly conception is Socrates, as presented by Plato in The Apology and other Socratic dialogues.

Correspondingly, here’s the concise Wikipedia summary of the relevant parts of The Apology:

The jurors of the trial voted the guilt of Socrates by a narrow margin (36a). In the Apology … , Plato cites no numbers of votes condemning or acquitting the philosopher of the accusations of moral corruption and impiety; … although Socrates did say he would have been acquitted if thirty more jurors had voted in his favour…. In such cases — where the penalty of death might arise as legal sanction for the accusations presented — Athenian law required that the prosecutor and the defendant each propose an administrative penalty to punish the actions reported in the accusations.

Socrates antagonises the court by proposing, rather than a penalty, a reward — perpetual maintenance at public expense. He notes that the vote of judgement against him was close; thirty votes more in his favour would have acquitted him. In that vein, Socrates then engages in dark humour, suggesting that Meletus narrowly escaped a great fine for not meeting the statutory requirement of receiving one-fifth of the votes of the assembled judges in favour of his accusations against Socrates. In that way, Socrates published the financial consequence for Meletus to consider as plaintiff in a lawsuit — because the Athenian legal system discouraged frivolous lawsuits by imposing a financially onerous fine upon the plaintiff, if the vote of the judges was less than one-fifth of the number of judges required by the type of lawsuit.

As punishment for the two accusations formally presented against him at trial, Socrates proposed to the court that he be treated as a benefactor to the city of Athens; that he should be given free meals, in perpetuity, at the Prytaneum, the public dining hall of Athens. Receiving such public largesse is an honour reserved for Olympic athletes, for prominent citizens, and for benefactors of Athens, as a city and as a state.

Finally, after the court’s dismissal of the proposed reward — free meals at the Pyrtaneum — Socrates considers imprisonment and banishment, before settling upon a punishment fine of 100 drachmae. Despite his poverty, this was a minor punishment compared to the death penalty proposed by the prosecutors, and encouraged by the judges of the trial. In defence of Socrates, his supporters increased the amount of money to pay as a fine, from 100 to 3,000 drachmae; nonetheless, to the judges of the trial of Socrates, a pecuniary fine was insufficient punishment for the philosopher Socrates, the social gadfly of Classical Athens.

In the Trial of Socrates, the judgement of the court was death for Socrates; most of the jurors voted for the death penalty (38c), yet Plato provides no jury-vote numbers in the text of the Apology of Socrates; but Diogenes Laërtius reports that 280 jurors voted for the death penalty and 220 jurors voted for a pecuniary fine for Socrates (2.42)…. Moreover, the politically provocative language and irreverent tone of Socrates’s self-defence speech angered the jurors and invited their punishment of him….

Socrates responds to the death-penalty verdict by first addressing the jurors who voted for his death. He says that instead of waiting a short time for him to die from old age, they will now have to accept the harsh criticisms from his supporters. He prophesied that his death will cause the youngsters to come forward and replace him as a social gadfly, who will spur ethical conduct from the citizens of Athens, in a manner more vexing than him (39d).

To the jurors who voted to acquit him, Socrates gives encouragement: his supernatural daimonion did not interfere with his conduct of the legal defence, which he viewed as a sign that such a defence was the correct action. In that way, the daimonion communicated to Socrates that death might be a good thing; either death is annihilation (release from earthly worry) and not to be feared, or death is migration (higher plane of existence) in which reside the souls of personages and heroes, such as Hesiod and Homer and Odysseus.

Socrates concludes his self-defence by saying to the court that he bears no ill-will, neither towards his accusers — Lycon, Anytus, and Meletus — nor the jurors. He then asks the Athenians to correct his three sons if they value material wealth more than living virtuously, or if they become too prideful. And in doing these, justice will finally be served.[i]

PA2: The Philosopher-King

According to The Philosopher-King conception, philosophy should be engaged with politics because it’s in the nature of philosophy to know about the ideal structure of political life, and therefore philosophers, as Kings, should control the State.

A prime example of The Philosopher-King conception is Plato in The Republic.

And here’s the concise Wikipedia summary of the Philosopher-King conception in The Republic:

According to Plato, a philosopher king is a ruler who possesses both a love of wisdom, as well as intelligence, reliability, and a willingness to live a simple life. Such are the rulers of his utopian city Kallipolis. For such a community to ever come into being, “philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize” (…Republic, 5.473d).

Plato defined a philosopher firstly as its eponymous occupation: “wisdom-lover.” He then distinguishes between one who loves true knowledge (as opposed to mere experience or education) by saying that the philosopher is the only person who has access to ideas — the archetypal entities that exist behind all representations of the form (such as Beauty itself as opposed to any one particular instance of beauty). It is next and in support of the idea that philosophers are the best rulers that Plato fashions the Ship of State metaphor, one of his most often cited ideas (along with his allegory of the cave): a “true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship” (… Republic, 6.488d).[ii]

PA3: The Philosophical Absolute on Horseback

According to The Philosophical Absolute on Horseback conception, philosophy should be engaged with politics because it’s in the nature of philosophy to grasp and express the world-spirit of any historical age, and therefore philosophers, in times of national crisis, should control the State, just as if they were Napoleon.

A prime example of The Philosophical Absolute on Horseback conception is Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation, e.g.:

True philosophy … is in a special sense German only — that is, primordial. Vice versa, a true German could philosophize in no other way but this.[iii]

More generally, as Sluga puts it,

Fichte’s Addresses, in sum, rested squarely on the belief that a point of crisis had been reached in German history — a crisis that was at once political and philosophical, a crisis that concerned in particular the German people and the understanding they had of themselves, a crisis of leadership calling for the reestablishment of a true order. This crisis demanded above all the reeducation of the German people and, hence, the involvement of those educators par excellence, the philosophers. To these assumptions Fichte added his belief in the primordial character of the Germans and their language, in the contrast between what was German and what was un-German, in the unique calling of Germans to the business of philosophy and their affinity with the Greeks. He added his call for the discovery of the true philosophical order, the resolution of the crisis through a new system of education, the total education of the students through service in science, practical labor, and the military.[iv]

PA4: Changing the World

According to Changing the World conception, philosophy should be engaged with politics because it’s in the nature of philosophy to change the world, not (merely) interpret it, and to revolutionize and re-create the State by radically changing its socio-economic structure.

A prime example of the Changing the World conception is early Marx, in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, “Theses on Feuerbach,” and other writings of the mid-1840s, in which he wrote sentences such as these —

Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it.

Natural science will one day incorporate the science of human beings, just as the science of human beings will incorporate natural science; there will be a single science.

Political emancipation is, at the same time, a dissolution of the old society, upon which the sovereign power, the alienated political life of the people rests. Political revolution is a revolution of civil society…. Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself…. Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed in himself the abstract citizen, when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a social being, and when he has recognized and organized his own powers … as social powers, and consequently no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.[v]

PA5: The Fascist Philosopher Engagé

According to The Fascist Philosopher Engagé conception, philosophy should be engaged with politics because it’s in the nature of philosophy to grasp the nature of Being, and to show the State how to defend itself against the essentially inauthetic technological West and the essentially inauthentic collectivist East alike, by means of fascist politics.

A prime example of The Fascist Philosopher Engagé conception is Heidegger’s notorious 1933 Rectoral address at the University of Freiburg, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” delivered just four month after Hitler and the Nazis came to power, which contains sentences such as these —

[T]he will to the essence of the German university is the will to science, which in turn is the will to the historical mission of the German people as a people that knows itself in its [S]tate.

[A]ll science is philosophy, whether it knows it and wills it, or not.

The primordial and full essence of science, whose realization is our task, provided we submit to the distant command of the beginning of our spiritual-historical existence, is only created by knowledge about the people that actively participates and by knowledge about the [S]tate’s destiny that always keeps itself prepared, both at one with knowledge about the spiritual mission.[vi]

and other writings during the early to mid-1930s.[vii]

PA6: The “Western Marxist” Philosopher Engagé

According to The “Western Marxist” Philosopher Engagé conception, philosophy should be engaged with politics because it’s in the nature of philosophy to take radically free responsibility for revolutionizing and re-creating the State as a new intersubjectively authentic social collective, by means of a revised and “westernized” Marxist politics.

Prime examples of The “Western Marxist” Philosopher Engagé conception are the writings and political activities of the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács in the first half of the 20th century, and Sartre’s writings after World War II, and especially in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, and his political activities in the same period.

Here’s the concise Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy description of Lukács’s philosophico-political activities from the 1910s to the mid-50s:

Georg (György) Lukács (1885–1971) was a literary theorist and philosopher who is widely viewed as one of the founders of “Western Marxism”. Lukács is best known for his pre-World War II writings in literary theory, aesthetic theory and Marxist philosophy. Today, his most widely read works are the Theory of the Novel of 1916 and History and Class Consciousness of 1923. In History and Class Consciousness, Lukács laid out a wide-ranging critique of the phenomenon of “reification” in capitalism and formulated a vision of Marxism as a self-conscious transformation of society. This text became an important reference point both for critical social theory and for many currents of countercultural thought. Even though his later work could not capture the imagination of the intellectual public as much as his earlier writings, Lukács remained a prolific writer and an influential theorist in his later career and published hundreds of articles on literary theory and aesthetics, not to mention numerous books, including two massive works on aesthetics and ontology. He was also active as a politician in Hungary in both the revolution of 1919 and during the events of 1956.[viii]

And here is the concise Wikipedia description of Sartre’s philosophico-political activity after 1945:

[Sartre’s] 1948 play Les mains sales (Dirty Hands) in particular explored the problem of being a politically “engaged” intellectual. He embraced Marxism but did not join the Communist Party. For a time in the late 1940s, Sartre described French nationalism as “provincial” and in a 1949 essay called for a “United States of Europe”…. In an essay published in the June 1949 edition of the journal Politique étrangère, Sartre wrote:

If we want French civilization to survive, it must be fitted into the framework of a great European civilization. Why? I have said that civilization is the reflection on a shared situation. In Italy, in France, in Benelux, in Sweden, in Norway, in Germany, in Greece, in Austria, everywhere we find the same problems and the same dangers … But this cultural polity has prospects only as elements of a policy which defends Europe’s cultural autonomy vis-à-vis America and the Soviet Union, but also its political and economic autonomy, with the aim of making Europe a single force between the blocs, not a third bloc, but an autonomous force which will refuse to allow itself to be torn into shreds between American optimism and Russian scientificism….

About the Korean War, Sartre wrote: “I have no doubt that the South Korean feudalists and the American imperialists have promoted this war. But I do not doubt either that it was begun by the North Koreans”…. In July 1950, Sartre wrote in Les Temps Modernes about his and de Beauvoir’s attitude to the Soviet Union:

As we were neither members of the [Communist] party nor its avowed sympathizers, it was not our duty to write about Soviet labor camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrel over the nature of this system, provided that no events of sociological significance had occurred….

Sartre held that the Soviet Union was a “revolutionary” state working for the betterment of humanity and could be criticized only for failing to live up to its own ideals, but that critics had to take in mind that the Soviet state needed to defend itself against a hostile world; by contrast Sartre held that the failures of “bourgeois” states were due to their innate shortcomings… The Swiss journalist François Bondy wrote that, based on a reading of Sartre’s numerous essays, speeches and interviews “a simple basic pattern never fails to emerge: social change must be comprehensive and revolutionary” and the parties that promote the revolutionary charges “may be criticized, but only by those who completely identify themselves with its purpose, its struggle and its road to power,” deeming Sartre’s position to be “existentialist.”[ix]

PA7: The Captive Mind

According to The Captive Mind conception, philosophy should be engaged with politics because it’s in the nature of philosophy to be pragmatic, prudential, and realistic, and therefore align itself with the commands issued by governments of post-World War II States, whether socialist or neoliberal democratic, and even if those commands are rationally unjustified and morally unacceptable on independent ethical grounds.

A prime example of The Captive Mind conception is Sidney Hook, aptly described by John McCumber as “the distinguished pragmatist philosopher who later turned avid Red hunter.”[x]

More specifically, here’s the concise Wikipedia description of of Hook’s “Red hunter” activities:

After embracing communism in his youth, Hook was later known for his criticisms of totalitarianism, both fascism and Marxism–Leninism. A pragmatic social democrat, Hook sometimes cooperated with conservatives, particularly in opposing Marxism–Leninism. After World War II, he argued that members of such groups as the Communist Party USA and Leninists like democratic centralists could ethically be barred from holding the offices of public trust because they called for the violent overthrow of democratic governments.

In 1939, Hook formed the Committee for Cultural Freedom, a short-lived organization that set the stage for his postwar politics by opposing “totalitarianism” on the left and right. By the Cold War, Hook had become a prominent anti-Communist, although he continued to consider himself both a democratic socialist and a secular humanist throughout his life. He was, therefore, an anti-Communist socialist….

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hook helped found Americans for Intellectual Freedom, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. These bodies — of which the CCF was most central — were funded in part by the Central Intelligence Agency through a variety of fronts and sought to dissuade American leftists from continuing to advocate cooperation with the Soviet Union as some had previously…. Hook later wrote in his memoirs that he, “like almost everyone else,” had heard that “the CIA was making some contribution to the financing of the Congress.”[xi]

PA8: Multiculturalism

According to the Multiculturalism conception, philosophy should be engaged with politics because it’s in the nature of professional academic philosophy, following on from the Black Power, Second-Wave Feminist, Gay Liberation, and “gender trouble”/queer theory movements of the late 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, for professional academic philosophers in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, to be “woke” identitarian social justice warriors inside the professional academy.[xii]

A prime example of the Multiculturalism conception is Kate Manne’s Down Girl,[xiii] and also her activities on social media, e.g., on Twitter, as per the tweet from 14 August 2019 pictured in section 3 above, in which Manne explicitly recommends “politicizing metaphysics, epistemology, social philosophy, and ethics.”


[i] Wikipedia, “Apology (Plato),” (2019), available online at URL = <>.

[ii] Wikipedia, “Philosopher King,” (2019), available online at URL = <>.

[iii] As quoted in H. Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), p. 38.

[iv] Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis, pp. 40–41.

[v] K. Marx, Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology & Social Philosophy, trans. T.B. Bottomore (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), pp. 69, 70, and 233–236.

[vi] As quoted in Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis, pp. 26–27.

[vii] Corresponding to The Fascist Philosopher Engagé conception, covering all the philosophers who like Heidegger have directly collaborated with, or would directly collaborate with, identitarian totalitarian fascist regimes like the Nazis, one could also formulate The Communist Philosopher Engagé conception, covering all the philosophers who have directly collaborated with, or would directly collaborate with, identitarian totalitarian communist regimes like Stalin’s Soviet Union. But the next conception I’ll consider, The “Western Marxist” Philosopher Engagé, exemplified by Lukács and Sartre, is subtly and interestingly different from that, because it’s not directly collaborationist but instead only accommodationist.

[viii] T. Stahl, “Georg [György] Lukács,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.), available online at URL = <>.

[ix] Wikipedia, “Jean-Paul Sartre,” (2019), available online at URL = <>.

[x] J. McCumber, The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 9.

[xi] Wikipedia, “Sidney Hook,” (2019), available online at URL = <>.

[xii] See also, e.g., R. Rorty, “The Unpatriotic Academy,” The New York Times (13 February 1994), available online at URL = <>.

[xiii] K. Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2018).


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 12 November 2019

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