This is a question about source materials: I'm hoping someone can point me to a modern treatment of obligations to the state incurred by the act of philosophizing, or even an argument against the notion. This could be cast in moral or structural terms. It could even be a side-comment, or in passing during a book review. I'm not picky, as long as it's been subjected to peer-review in a reasonable capacity.

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    To assume that academic philosophers have moral obligations that people in possession of a sufficiently cultivated conscience do not, seems to me, quite preposterous. perhaps changing the title to something along the lines of, "Do people have a duty to challenge their government?" would be more fitting. The opinions of many non-academics and their perceived obligations is the reason why more than 9/10 governments are in power. Jul 15, 2014 at 0:14
  • @musingsofacigarettesmokingman: Should one assume that allowing academics to have a conscience neccesarily imply non-academics don't? It isn't difficult to extend this question in the imagination at least to take in informed citizenry. Jul 15, 2014 at 0:17
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    @musingsofacigarettesmokingman I'm doing my best to assume as little as possible, but there's an easily made argument: if government interferes with medical research, some few people might claim that the field's researchers have a special duty to challenge the interference, especially as the relevant details could be esoteric and unknowable by an unversed, general public. Much of political philosophy deals with justifications for authority; it's not inconceivable that governments can act unjustly in ways that the general public may never be informed about, again due to esoteric details.
    – Ryder
    Jul 15, 2014 at 12:01
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    Seems like you want philosophers to be burdened with the duty of professional rabble-rousing. Additionally, democratic governments are based on emotion, and not reason or insight. Today it is trivial to manipulate the mood of the public through mass media, or turn people against each other. What interest does any of this have to philosophy? Better to look at politics with supreme contempt, and pass it by. Jul 20, 2014 at 9:04
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    Don't have time for a full post, but philosophers themselves disagree on this. There is, eg, Socrates/Plato, who discussed in the Republic the need for Philosopher-Kings. There is, on the other hand, Chesterton, who discusses somewhere (I think in Orthodoxy) that matters of state are too important to leave in the hands of the elite. Feb 1, 2016 at 16:43

6 Answers 6


Deleuze and Guattari argue in What is Philosophy? that it's not false to say philosophers are to blame for revolutions, even though they are not the ones who lead them.

I think among other things this may point towards the generally reactionary conditions of academic philosophy despite the radicality of particular thinkers.


I'm not sure that this is what you are looking for, but Judith Butler is well known as a radical philosopher, however, she points out in this interview, that:

As a Jew, I was taught that it was ethically imperative to speak up and speak out against arbitrary state violence ... it comes out of a certain Jewish value of social justice

She remarks, also in places, that these ethical considerations for arose out of her studies of Jewish Philosophy - she names Martin Buber as a source.

It's worth noting too, that the question assumes - or perhaps I am making this assumption - that the primary site of struggle here is national 'governments'; but Homi Bhabha, in his foreword to Fanons Wretched of the Earth, points out:

Globalisation gazes at the nation through the back-mirror, as it speeds towards the strategic denationalisation of state sovereignty.

It suggests that sovereignty has to be interpreted more broadly; if sovereignty is denationalised - where does it leak to? Who owns it when it escapes?


"The work of an intellectual is not to form the political will of others; it is, through the analyses he does in his own domains, to bring assumptions and things taken for granted again into question, to shake habits, ways of acting and thinking, to dispel the familiarity of the accepted, to take the measure of rules and institutions and, starting from that re-problemitisation (where he plays his specific role as intellectual) to take part in the formation of a political will (where he has his role to play as citizen)." -Foucault, in 'Power'

“I think that the task of philosophy is not to provide answers, but to show how the way we perceive a problem can be itself part of a problem.” ―Slavoj Žižek

I argue here that Socrates defined philosophy: What is the difference between western and other philosophies? And specifically, his 'martyrdom' for wisdom, exemplified the praxis.

I would argue that the difference between a Sophist & a Philosopher in Socrates terms, is exactly about whether or not someone listens to their conscience & acts with integrity. A Sophist becomes an instrument of their paymaster, with modern iterations being advertising executives, lobbyists, and tax lawyers. They become an enabling intelligence, for someone presumably less capable of thinking through the consequences of their goals, because the client necessarily understands the subject less well.

I'm sure we can agree there are philosophers who aren't wise - but, it is the duty of a philosopher to aspire to wisdom, that's the job, the vocation. They can be wrong, like we might consider Aleksandr Dugin to be, dubbed 'Putin's philosopher'. But if a philosopher disregards their conscience, 'sells out', they cease to be in pursuit of wisdom. They have become a Sophist. The scrutiny of Sartre and Heidegger for their behaviour in relation to the Nazi state during WW2 gain their special significance in this regard.

"When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty." -Thomas Jefferson

The idea of a Right To Revolution began in philosophy with Locke, and was developed by Rosseau. By philosophising in accordance with their conscience, they circumscribed occasions they argued that revolt is appropriate. This should be contrasted to Hobbes and Kant's total condemnation of revolution under any circumstances. The results of revolutions have certainly been mixed, but I'd say on balance the leger is positive.

The duty of a philosopher is not to be obligated to any state, but to their conscience. That can mean justifying revolution, or saying they are never justified. All that matters is to be clear and pursuasive, and history will decide who is listened to.

It is interesting to contrast this picture in Western Philosophy of the Thinker's autonomy, with Social and Political Thought in Chinese Philosophy with it's emphasis on harmony and our duty as individuals towards that.


Being a philosopher, anarchist, and academic myself, I think that the answer is no because governments are in habit of paying people to make government stronger rather than engage philosophizing that would destabilize government and leads to its downfall.

You don't come across many anarchist philosophers who think government with its legal system is bunk. Why is that? Because the government seeks to oppress anything that would compete against it that would lead to its downfall. You may think a government as a form of business with its own paradigm of belief as to what is good in life.

You can ask academic philosophers your question through an emailed survey (you want sources, right?), and I would not be surprised if they would be too scared to answer the question honestly in fear of losing their credibility toward those who give them a job that pay government-based money.

Any philosopher who would successfully challenge the government that he or she works for and win against it by causing its downfall will be out of a job. Such reminds me of computer programmers who think it's ok to program AI to automate things, such as removing the programmer from the equation. The same thing would happen, though: Job loss.

  • "You don't come across many anarchist philosophers who think government with its legal system is bunk. Why is that?" And, are there examples of successful modern living by groups who do hold that view? Or arethe people that hold it parasitic on the peace & infrastructure provided by states..?
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 28, 2023 at 18:08

This is not an answer about source materials. This is a response to the question itself.

Yes, philosophers do have a duty to question their government. As do auto mechanics, teachers, plumbers, and software engineers. Every citizen needs to question their government; and if the government starts to stray from the good; then the people need to speak out. Surely we who remember the twentieth century have seen what happens when the people shirk their responsibility.

“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”

-- Benjamin Franklin


Do philosophers have a special duty, or any particular duty by virtue of being philosophers? No. Why should they? Philosophy is a profession like any other. Is a philosopher presumed to be wiser than others? Not in contemporary society by any means. A professor of philosophy writes books and studies other philosophers and can tell you what each one said.

So if you ask a philosopher, "Should I put my suffering loved one out of their misery?" a philosopher can say, "Well, Aristotle said this and Russell said that." But they can't tell you what to do. They are not wise men. Just learned ones.

I see no connection between that occupation and any special rights or obligations in society. We license doctors and we license plumbers. But we do not license philosophers.

[Of course we do license professors of philosophy. But that is not the same thing.]

Every single person in society has an obligation to question his or her government; and to speak out as needed, according to their own conscience.

Everyone has a conscience, not just those who can quote Aristotle. What makes anyone think philosophers are special? And who thinks that, besides the philosophers?

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    Exactly right, formal education that results in encyclopaedic technical knowledge does not confer wisdom, the uneducated person on the street who does not procrastinate when it comes to his conscience possesses more wisdom then the learned man, even if he cant quote Aristotle. Jul 14, 2014 at 23:50

Absolutely. But the system is so fouled up, you're likely to run into resistance even suggesting it.

Not only do academic "philosophers" have a moral and personal duty, but anyone who calls him/herself a "Doctor of Philosophy" (i.e. PhD, yes?), has an obligation to doctor their society and its government — presuming that it is a system of the People. For them, it is supposed to be an obligation above and beyond the everyday citizen who isn't presuming to be a authority. Hence, the common complaint today of the "ivory tower" — a reference to cloistered professors who have made themselves so disconnected from their society that they can no longer even relate to it.

Most people (students) take it for granted calling their professors "Dr.", but the academic profession has simply fallen from the purpose that it had since Plato: of creating a moral, just society ("philosopher kings [and queens]") — and who else to fit the bill but the presumed masters?

Given the complete failure of this society and its democracy, it demonstrates a gross failure of the academic establishment to accept moral responsibility and authority for its society.

There is no question about it, and if anyone is interested in actually fixing this mess, please get in touch with me. I have a thorough analysis and outline for a plan to recovery as I have personally been victimized by it as has most everyone else but the system is so diseased now that most have simply [mal]adapted to it.

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