Philosophy in an Unjust World

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“Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern.” – Karl Marx, These über Feuerbach.

A 2009 article in the Miami Herald describes the policy at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp library.[1] The policy is outlined on a slip of paper that was returned to a Pentagon lawyer along with the book he tried to donate to the library—an Arabic translation of Noam Chomsky’s Interventions. The book was refused; the slip of paper offers some explanation why.

The document divides potential Guantanamo literature into two classes: Authorized and Restricted. On the Authorized side, one finds a ragbag of categories: “Poetry”, “Fiction”, “Nature”, “Sports”, “Mathematics”, “Puzzles and Sudoku”, “Chemistry”, “Agriculture”, “Electronics” etc. The categories are rough-and-ready and pitched at differing levels of generality (call me crazy, but I’m willing to forgive the authors for lacking a fully worked out taxonomy of literary types). On the Restricted side, meanwhile, things get a little edgier. One finds categories like “Military Topics”, “Excessive Graphic Violence”, “Racial and Cultural Hate Groups and Ideologies (i.e. Anti-American, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Western)”. In a touch of dark irony, the Restricted list also includes “Travel Offers”. You know… in case the detainees get any ideas.

For me, the most interesting part of the document, however, is a small and unique parenthetical qualification on the Authorized side. Sat awkwardly between Sudoku and Sociology (a wry comment on the state of the discipline, perhaps?) is the entry: “Philosophy (limited)”.

Limited. Why? A little reflection is enough to begin answering this question. Among philosophy’s hallmarks—the normative, the conceptual, the a priori etc.—is the discipline’s skeptical attitude. Philosophy is an art form that questions even the most fundamental assumptions, including some of the deepest commitments, real or alleged, of other disciplines—the existence of numbers, or the prospects of scientific progress, for example. In a similar vein, philosophers also question social practices and institutions such as modern norms of feminine appearance, the distribution of goods in a society, or the circumstances that make war permissible. This kind of thoroughgoing skepticism, I propose, makes the people who run an institution like Guantanamo uncomfortable. The Guantanamos of the world can only survive to the extent that they evade critical eyes. Philosophy—at least, some kinds of philosophy—has the potential to expose injustice and thereby incite the slighted and their supporters to action. Gitmo no likey.

Modern professional philosophers are in many respects perfectly suited to take such action. Philosophers are able to bring an incredible potential for critical thinking to any given problem, coupled with their relative wealth, access to incredible informational resources, and ability, if they’re lucky, to manage much of their own time. It’s for these reasons that I’m often disappointed at how much time philosophers, myself included, spend on mastering sometimes incredibly arcane bodies of knowledge at the exclusion of other more pressing demands. It’s partly for these reasons that I decided to protest the injustice the U.S. government is perpetrating at Guantanamo Bay.

The action—a week-long fast and a few days distributing literature about the state of Guantanamo—is largely symbolic. And I don’t imagine it will achieve much. But I do hope it reaffirms in fellow philosophers, and similarly situated others, to recognize their position as highly-trained critical thinkers in an unforgiving world, and the responsibility that comes with that. Just one day into the strike, I find the response encouraging.

Man I’m hungry.


2 Responses to Philosophy in an Unjust World

  1. hypocrisykiller says:

    There is a difference between applied philosophy and speculative philosophy. Both have their place. Here is some applied philosophy that appeals to reasons rather than emotions!: I hate to HAVE TO say this. The STATEMENT USES THE WORD KILL AND KILLING 4x AND IN DOING SO UDERMINES ITSELF. I DO NOT THINK CLEVER RHETORIC IS A VALID SUBSTITUTE FOR RESPONSIBLE LOGICAL ARGUMENTS THAT AVOID USING WORDS EQUIVOCALLY. WHO IS THE “WE”? KILLING IN SELF-DEFENSE IS NOT WRONG. THIS RHETORIC SKIPS OVER THE COMPLEXITIES OF THE ISSUE.
    All we are saying is give peace a chance.
    Photo: All we are saying is give peace a chance.
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    Mary Anne Hopgood Santaella likes this.
    Thomas Hazard I PREFER THIS THOUGHT-PROVOKING QUESTION: Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong?
    about an hour ago · Like
    Thomas Hazard PEOPLE WHO USE WMD’S ARE KILLING INDISCRIMINATELY. THE PEOPLE WHO DO SO, IE-KILL INDISCRIMINATELY, CAN ONLY BE STOPPED FROM KILLING MORE PEOPLE INDISCRIMINATELY, CAN BE KILLED IN SELF-DEFENSE BY RESPONSIBLE AUTHORITIES WHO ARE THEIR TO PROTECT SOCIETY. kILLING SUCH PEOPLE IS NECESSARY LIKE SURGERY IS NECESSARY TO REMOVE TUMORS TO SAVE THE PATIENTS. I HOPE MY ARGUMENT HELPS PUTS FORTH THE ISSUE MORE RESPONSIBLY THAN THIS POSTER DOES! DIPLOMACY AS AN OPTION TO STOP INDISCRIMINATE KILLING,STOPS BEING AN OPTION WHEN THE KILLING BY WMD’S OCCURS LIKE IT HAS IN SYRIA…
    39 minutes ago · Like

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