Machteld Geuskens - Philosophical activism: reinstituting checks and balances


This paper argues that discontent is more than disagreement a motivation for political activism. Activism is to be understood as subversive rather than cooperative or constructive.  Activism appears to require blindness for the personal consequences of one’s act – perhaps irrationality even. (A recent example is Snowden’s action to reveal the secret mass surveillance programs of NSA). The subversive nature of the act however makes it susceptible to criticism from those who believe in the checks and balances of the current democratic structures. Because the act undermines (belief in) these structures, such an act threatens democracy: an individual is not supposed to take matters in his or her own hands. Against this line of reasoning, there is its opposite. Individuals are relied upon by the law and by law abiding citizens to make a difference when the state surpasses the mandate of its legitimate powers, especially when this can potentially harm – violate the rights of – its residents. In practice the law here only works in a negative (penalizing) sense: those who follow governmental orders can be held accountable for the execution of illegitimate acts that constitute human rights violations.  Given the powers that are, the law does not serve to positively protect its keepers. Activists are prosecuted as terrorists; nothing prevents their classification as terrorists or enemies of the state. An ‘activist’ role for political philosophers is to mark and defend the difference between activists and terrorists, and to publicly question the reactions of those in power.

Bob Brecher - Knowing and doing: why academic work does not preclude activism and often requires it


There is a common assumption that ‘disinterest’ is a sine qua non of academic work and that activism is thus inimical to academic work.  Discontent in or about the real world thus has no place in academic work. I shall seek to question these positions by developing an argument along the following lines. First, the alleged dichotomy between thought and action underpinning these positions is erroneous: thought is both a form of action and a necessary condition of it. Second, to be disinterested need not – though it may – entail neutrality. Third, as Plato rightly insisted, the point of acquiring and disseminating knowledge, of being at all concerned with and about it, is that it is a pre-requisite of action. In particular, and invoking Hume, normative knowledge not acted upon does not deserve to be called normative knowledge at all. Finally, it is normative knowledge that constitutes the basis of the university – as J S Mill famously insists.

Academics – qua academics, though not of course uniquely – thus have a particular responsibility to act on their knowledge: to act against their knowledge is a form of corruption. Unfortunately it is such corruption that characterises academic life in today’s United Kingdom – as I shall illustrate, with regret, by asking a few discontented questions.

Mathijs van de Sande - Optimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will: on discontent with the status-quo


In one of his prison letters, Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci famously described himself as “a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” During the past decades, left academics have increasingly indulged in such a state of mind: of course, we may be hopeful and dream of another, better world. But on the other hand, we need to acknowledge that the chances for radical change are minimal. Good hope “against all odds” thus is always accompanied with a skepticism that is mistaken for realism and a fetishization of critique.

Antonio Negri reverses Gramsci’s famous adage, and instead argues that a realist view of revolutionary potential presupposes an “optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will”. In practice, there always already are many radical alternatives. The task of philosophers is to recognize and understand such real and concrete forms of change – as they exist today. But at the same time, we need to remain pessimistic; the many difficulties and obstacles in our path should not be underestimated.

My aim is to conceptualise how our discontent with the “status quo” can lead us to a critical but realist stance towards current potentials for – and forms of – radical change. An “optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will” should be endorsed as an attitude that allows us both to politically support and scientifically understand and recognize such forms and potentials.

Joris Luyckx - The prefigurative ethic: a legitimate moral basis for expressing discontent


Ethical theory dealing with 'the right' and 'the good' doesn't suffice when expressing discontent. If one comes to the conclusion that something is better or more correct than something else, this won't necessarily mean the person will express or show her/is discontent with what is experienced as wrong or bad. The gap between doing (i.e. expressing-out-loud) and thinking (i.e. disapproving-in-theory) is getting ever larger in contemporary academia.

I want to argue that this is partly because of thepractical failing of traditional ethical theory. Deontological and teleological ethics (be it consequentialist or concerning virtue ethics) fail to address the need for an active strategy for doing something in the present, in the here-and-now. Theorizing about traditional ethical theory is of course an academic activity which has few in common with real-life necessities and acute problems, although it often pretends to be based on exactly those kinds of things. So why is it that those theories don't engage or enable people all over the world to “put their bodies on the gears”?

In this paper I want to offer an alternative ethic which, in spite of the theoretical character of this paper, concerns itself withdoing. This ethic is inherently anarchist: it emerges from the same premise, namely the primacy of intuitivevitality (i.e. real-life experience and reason). Through its anarchist content, the ethic also claims to be the true descendent of postmodern theory. In line with Benjamin Franks I call this kind of moral philosophy prefigurative ethics. It is built upon three theoretical principles: 1) the linear means-ends relationship is removed and replaced with a more circular relationship, which offers an alternative to deontological and consequentialist ethics, 2) the rejection of an essentialist telos, which offers an alternative to virtue ethics and 3) the emphasis on process and diversity, embedded in respectively a contingent and a manifold eudaimonia. It is the third principle which makes prefigurative ethics explicitly anarchist, not only because it resembles anarchists anti-authoritarian ethos as well as their strivings towards horizontality, but because it is construed as a practical philosophy due to its roots in activism.

Wim Vandekerckhove - Successful whistleblowing about wrongdoing in / by the organisation


In the classic definition of Near and Miceli (1985), whistleblowers raise a concern about wrongdoing in the organisation where they work, to someone who they believe can effect action to stop the wrongdoing (paraphrased definition). Successful whistleblowing is both safe for the whistleblower and effective in stopping the wrongdoing.

In this paper I explain why the wrongdoing starts once recipients of a concern respond to whistleblowers. Hence, I submit that wrongdoing in an organisation should not necessarily worry the wider public, but wrongdoing by the organisation is always in the public interest.

I use empirical findings from data collected from a whistleblower advice line to illustrate the relevance of my submission, and use Watzlawick's interactionist communication theory, Luhmann's organisational autopoesis, and complexity theory to derive implications for policy making.

Anna de Bruyckere - The paradox of discontent: a case of sexological experts and epistemic entrepreneurs


This paper presents a case from sexology in 1970s America, drawing more general lessons about the expression of civil or lay discontent. Sexology’s stance on female sexuality got challenged by what I call epistemic entrepreneurs: non-scientific writers claiming for once to let women ‘speak for themselves.’ I argue that both their work and the first-person-stories in it are actually intimately continuous with expert discourse and attitudes. My account thus shows what expressing lay discontent does not necessarily entail: the possibility of escaping entrenched discursive categories and meanings.

I offer an explanation through formulating a paradox of discontent: the origin of discontent is subjective, i.e., tied to a perspective unaccounted for by the status quo. However, the authority of its expression requires the effacement of that subjectivity, through an attempt to impose new definitions and exceptions—a new objectivity which induces novel sources for discontent. In other words: if discontent is to be taken seriously societally and/or scientifically, it needs to be expressed authoritatively. In the case that I have discussed, this leads the discontented authors back to academic and therapeutic discourse, which bestows on them the authority they claim to fight.

Finally, I argue when discontent regards a way of speaking that discounts certain experiences—rather than what is said—this paradox is likely to be strongest. Here emerges a task for philosophical activism, whether executed by professional philosophers or non-philosophers temporarily taking on that role: making explicit where the definitional powers lie and what experiences are a priori discounted.