Ethnographic Philosophy? Jamming, 15/10/2013

I understand how weird it might have been to see my Assignment: Earth fiction exercise post the day after such a depressing argument on Friday. The truth is, last month, I wrote four of those posts in a night, and spread their uploads over several weeks, because no one reads the weekend posts anyway.

As I’ve been thinking about some of the central ideas of the utopias project, it occurred to me recently that the key tradition for me to engage with isn’t Marxism, but anarchism. I am, of course, talking about the political philosophy describing hypothetical societies who survive by building institutions of everyday mutual aid on community-sized scales without the necessity of a large bureaucratic state requiring heavy taxes to sustain. 

Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakhunin are the theorists I’m most familiar with, and even here I’m rusty. There doesn’t seem to be that sense of historical inevitability in anarchist thinking that appears in so many Marxisms. There appears to be much more faith in nonviolent action in close-knit communities of people working together to improve the conditions of their lives. What could be a more foolish dream than that?

Think about anarchism of this type, the ideology that says local communities can organize among themselves, and use the various talents of each person in a neighbourhood to work as a team to provide essential, or at least pleasant and beneficial, services. Yet much of mainstream political theory emerging from the last few decades has focussed on liberalism and critiques of liberalism, a typical move given that modern political philosophy in North America was literally revived from the dead by John Rawls when he published A Theory of Justice. The main reason I think anarchism isn’t a word that’s considered seriously in political philosophy is because there were actual anarchist terrorists in the late nineteenth century in Europe, and because the obvious public image of anarchism are the window-smashing people at political protests.* 

*Speaking of conspiracy theories, these black-clad hyper-violent protestors are the object of rumours that they’re undercover police officers who are assigned to damage property to turn the public against protest movements. Speaking at least from my anecdotal experience, at every gathering of anti-violence political activists, there’s at least one person who presumes this of every marcher who throws a brick through a window. I can’t say for sure. None of the black-block protestors at the Toronto G20 ever showed me their IDs.

One problem with pursuing this line of research now is that I have a lot of work to do. I’m very rusty on the anarchist tradition, having left much of my thinking in that branch of political philosophy behind when I began focussing on philosophy of mind research (yes, it’s been that long). So while I have a long way to go, I need to know the best places to start, not just to examine the classics, but who is thinking along these lines now, if anyone.

One interesting way to investigate anarchist philosophy is to look at examples of this kind of community organizing in real life, interviewing actual people working today, who, practically speaking are anarchists, whether or not they call themselves by the title. It amounts to doing political philosophy with a grounding in direct political action, using the tools of ethnography to build a conceptual starting point for a more complex set of inquiries and arguments that move in the abstract and theoretical directions philosophy can contribute to understanding. 

Steven Stitch and Jonathan Weinberg are two philosophers who incorporate laboratory techniques into our discipline, investigating how people tend to think in intuition pumps, exploring how civilian humans use the tools of philosophy, and seeing how general purpose our reasoning really is. Stitch and Weinberg’s work is very important as a critique of philosophy itself, but their most important conclusion so far applies to the limitations of common philosophical tools like intuition pumps. I’d be using the methods of ethnography to collect raw material for philosophical reasoning.

After all, there are quite a few histories of philosophy that describe the discipline as a once-broad subject that other disciplines develop inside, then diverge from. It’s time we took a couple of ideas and methods from other disciplines instead.

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