Current Affairs is


and depends entirely on YOUR support.

Can you help?

Subscribe from 16 cents a day ($5 per month)

Royalty reading issues of Current Affairs and frowning with distaste. "Proud to be a magazine that most royals dislike."

Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Professor Elizabeth Anderson on Workplace Democracy and Feminist Philosophy

A fulfilling life requires more than a certain amount of stuff—people also need control over decisions that affect them.

Bad bosses come in many varieties, but they all share one thing in common—they are unaccountable for their badness, because they’re the boss. Even good bosses rarely have to answer to workers. This is assumed to be the natural order of things, like it or not.

But Professor Elizabeth Anderson has a different vision for what workplaces (and society at large) might look like. And in a fascinating podcast interview with Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson, she lays out how a practical philosophical approach can help us build a world that actually meets the needs of the people living in it. 

The following transcript of their conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Nathan J. Robinson

Good evening, Current Affairs listeners. Today I have the great privilege of interviewing the political philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson. Professor Anderson is the John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s studies at the University of Michigan, and the author of the books Value in Ethics and Economics, The Imperative Of Integration, and most recently, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives And Why We Don’t Talk About It. 

I decided to talk to Professor Anderson because, while she practices academic philosophy, her work concerns very practical and important real-world situations. She is interested in questions like: who in society really makes the rules and who is subject to them? What do concepts like “freedom” and “equality” actually mean for people and why do we care about them? What things should we commodify and sell on the market and what should be off limits? Her work ranges across many subjects including racial integration, the philosophy of science, feminist epistemology, and the history of ethics. So, thank you very much for joining me, Professor Anderson. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson 

It’s a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. 


Let’s start with private government. I love the way you framed this because it is so provocative and so counterintuitive. I am a lefty and I move in lefty circles, so the critique of the corporate structure is very becoming to me. But I think if you said to most people, “corporations are like communist dictatorships,” that would be a very surprising way to phrase it. 

So, please give us a little pocket explanation of what you mean when you talk about private governments and the “government of the firm” as a dictatorship. 


I think the dictatorship part is easier to understand than the communist part, so I will start with “dictatorship” first. A corporation—any kind of private for-profit firm—is a place with employees who take orders from their bosses. And if they disobey their orders, they are subject to a sanction known as firing, or other sanctions like demotion or a pay cut or just getting yelled at and harassed at work. 

So, whenever you have a group of people who have to take orders on pain of sanction, what you have is a little government. Now we can ask: what is the constitution of that government?  Well, it is certainly not a democracy because the people who are taking orders don’t have any opportunities to elect their rulers or to hold them to account if they behave badly. 

In fact, the constitution of corporate government is a dictatorship relative to the people who are ordered around. So, that is why I call it a dictatorship—but why is it communist?  Because by definition, any government which owns the means of production is communist in the small-c sense. Not, of course, in the capital-C sense, which would be related to the Communist Party. 


Right, and equality in it is just a centralized control and a centrally planned economy within the firm.  




There is a new book a couple friends of mine have written called People’s Republic of Walmart, where they talk about what [modern corporate structure] tells us about central planning. Because, as you mentioned, the CEOs of companies like to think of themselves as libertarians and they like to think of themselves as free market types. But they are overseeing these giant centrally-planned, top-down, bureaucratic collectivist kinds of institutions.  


Yes, I think that’s right. At Walmart, they don’t call workers employees. They call them “associates.” But that’s just the capitalist version of calling them “comrades.” Pretending that they’re equal without really being equal. 


Amazon tells you—I think they use “associates” too—and they say, “even Jeff Bezos is an associate.”  


Right. Exactly. Of course, it is absurd. 


They’re like, “I think he has a slightly different relationship to this company than I have.” Now, the first thing that anyone is going to say to you the moment they hear this, “but the worker is free to choose.”  

Contractual relationships! You opted in to this! You signed the contract! Everyone knows the conditions. So, to say that it is a dictatorship—which is a regime based on force—is insulting to the victim of the dictatorship. They say anything that you can opt out of is not forced or coerced. 


Well, what are the alternatives, really, for the vast majority of workers? Yes, you can join the very precarious gig economy and barely eke out a living. But for the vast majority of people that’s not a realistic option. They could barely survive. They have kids that make it even more difficult. So, for the vast majority of people, they don’t have a reasonable alternative to accepting employment. 

It’s a little bit like marriage before women had independent access to the labor market. In the 19th century, the vast majority of women didn’t have much choice other than to get married. And sure, their consent would be needed to marry any particular person, but the idea that any significant number of women could escape marriage altogether as a way of survival wasn’t really a realistic claim.  


You point out that if we applied the same line of argument to the state, most people would reject it. I mean, if you said, “Oh, this isn’t a dictatorship because you can immigrate. You can go to a different country.” That would seem like a joke… You don’t live in a free country just because you can leave.  


Yes, absolutely. So, we have,, for instance the citizens of Hungary protesting en masse against what they call “the slave labor law” there, even though they’re free to leave. Hungary is part of the European Union, so they can exit to any other E.U. country. Many of them have, but nevertheless they still have good grounds for objecting to the very undemocratic Hungarian state.  


To me, at least, the lines between the state and private institutions kind of end up blurring. I mean, you bring up “company towns,” like the town of Pullman, Illinois in the late 1800s and these kinds of places where it is actually very clear that the company is the state in every meaningful respect. They might have their own police force. They have basically all of the powers that any state is endowed with. 


Almost every power. We still have such places today in the United States. For instance, there are many coal mining towns in West Virginia that are virtually ruled by the coal mine owners. In fact, coal mining companies virtually own the state of West Virginia and the judiciary. 

So, ordinary people who are being abused or even murdered by the coal owners forcing them into extremely dangerous coal mines have no real realistic way of holding the owners to account. 


I read Tyler Cohen’s response to your argument. I don’t think he actually disputes the private government analogy. He is a libertarian economist, but he makes more of a “that may be true, but it doesn’t really matter” kind of case. Which is: “Well yes, these may be hierarchically organized organizations, but what are the kinds of ’abuses’ that you’re talking about?” 

There are bosses and workers, and the workers have to do what the bosses say. But what kinds of things are we talking about that are so egregious that we would invoke the word “dictatorship”?   


Well, focusing now on the United States—about which I have the most information—take the example of slaughterhouse workers, of which there are tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands). They are not allowed by their bosses to use the bathroom during their entire eight-hour shift. They’re told, “Well if you have to pee, you have to wear diapers or nappies.”  

Imagine the indignity of that. Not to mention the insanitary conditions and the health hazards involved in that kind of order. These workers are both humiliated and subject to horrible conditions. Amazon tells workers they can’t talk to each other because that would be time theft. Apple forces workers to lose half an hour in a day while their personal possessions are being intimately inspected to make sure that they haven’t shoplifted any iPhones or other devices. They’re not paid for that time waiting in line while their persons and purses are being inspected. [Editor’s note: the California Supreme Court eventually ruled Apple’s policy was illegal and ordered it to compensate workers who’d been subject to the searches.]

I could go on and on. There are thousands of abuses of this sort. 


One of the points that you make is that the discretion that employers have extends beyond the work day because people can be punished for things under American at-will employment. People can basically be punished for anything they do—even in their off hours—that the boss doesn’t like. 


Right. So, we still have workers who are routinely fired for, say, having a same-sex partner. They have very little recourse, in most American states, for adopting a different gender presentation than the one assigned at birth. 

Workers can be punished for any number of activities they might engage in off duty—for instance, attending political events or contributing to political parties that are different from the boss’ preferences. About half of states have no protection for workers against being fired due to political prejudices of this sort.    


Just to return to this kind of libertarian response… it was striking to me reading Cohen’s argument. What it basically said was, “Well, democracy is kind of overrated. Workers are bad at managing their firms. Workers need direction and control, and discretion on the part of a supervisor is a good thing.” 

So how would you respond if you were confronted with a manager who said, “I make good decisions. I don’t abuse my authority. What’s wrong with me being in charge?” If you found out that their company was a benevolent dictatorship, and most of the time their authority was used quite well, what would you say to that?


Well, British history has some benevolent monarchs, I suppose. That’s not a reason not to have a parliament. Democracy is needed first and foremost to protect workers against abuses of power by people who have virtually unaccountable authority. It doesn’t mean that workers are going to control everything. There is a role for expertise and managerial competence. 

If you look at worker-owned firms, they have a hierarchy of offices. The managers exist. Only there’s an accountability mechanism, so they can’t go overboard and turn their authority into raw power that’s used to abuse their underlings.  


I was fascinated by the kind of historical account that you provide of the egalitarian case for markets. You say that, at one point in history, it may have been the case (and probably was the case) that this demand for freedom to choose did rest on a vision of a wall of equal people entering into relationships voluntarily. But that argument, as time goes on, has not really held because that kind of vision of lemonade stand capitalism isn’t contemporary capitalism.  


That’s quite right. So, if you go back to the early days of the United States, from the revolution all the way up through the Civil War, the key feature to understand was the almost unlimited availability of capital in the form of land that was given away for free to any white person who was willing to farm it. 

Under those conditions of unlimited access to capital, you’re going to get everyone owning their own plot, or perhaps setting up their own little business—say, a little shop that is supplying the farms with fertilizer and tools. But everyone will basically be working their own capital. You won’t have an employment relationship as a significant kind of relationship if every enterprise is going to be roughly equal to every other, because one person can’t plow that much more than any other individual. 

So, under those conditions, you’ll have perfect competition with thousands of competitors in every single commodity market. No one will have market power, and everyone being able to run their own little enterprise will be equal relative to anyone else. They won’t really have a boss. 

What dashed that whole vision of free society of equals under free market principles was the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution proved that “economies of scale” with the new technologies that were being developed are absolutely immense, and larger enterprises wiped out small craft shops and small enterprises. The railroads, of course, wiped out a lot of farms. They had enormous market power because they had a monopoly. There was only one railroad that would carry grain across the country.

So, vast concentrations of power emerged, as well as the necessity of the employment relationship as individuals went bankrupt in their own enterprise and became wage workers in much larger enterprises. 


I want to return to this concept of government because you say what we need to do is—and I’ll quote you here—“to reject the false narrowing of the scope of government to the state.” So, as you look around the world, what would you encourage people to think of government as? 


So, just purely generically, government is any multi-member organization with a hierarchy of offices and authority, where the people on top get to order around the people beneath them and get to impose various sanctions on them for disobedience. It’s a very generic definition of government, and we see government popping up everywhere—it’s authority relations that are backed up with some measure of power. One of the great reasons to seek democracy in government is to protect subordinates from abuses of that power.  


You mentioned something that I never thought about or heard before. I’ve heard the concept of “positive” and “negative” liberty before—freedom to do something and freedom from invasion—but you introduced a third kind of liberty which you called “republican freedom.” 

What is that? 


Republican freedom is freedom from the domination of another, and domination consists of being subject to somebody else’s arbitrary will. If somebody has the power to coerce you into doing something without being accountable to you, if they can just do it for arbitrary reasons, then you are subject to their domination and you lack republican liberty.  


If you have republican liberty, what would it look like? 


Well, one way in which people could enjoy republican liberty is by being self-employed. Truly self-employed, right. Because then they are ruling themselves–they’re not taking orders from a boss. They are their own boss. 

However, in multi-member organizations, we don’t have that individualistic solution available to us. To achieve republican liberty in multi-member organizations, those who are taking orders need to have some voice within the organization. Some way of articulating their interests in getting heard, and having some say over the rules that govern them. 

So, that is in the broadest sense some kind of democratic voice. Democracy is the solution that secures republican liberty in contexts where some kind of cooperation or coordination among multiple people is necessary, when we can’t all just be running off on our own deciding entirely for ourselves what to do.  


I was struck, while reading your work, by this recuring theme of enriching our understanding of the relationships between people, and the character of the relationships that actually comprise economic interactions. Looking at the actual power dynamics between these people and looking at what is really going on… at the hierarchies of practice. 

You mention in various places how you revise the concept of equality to take it away from purely distributional concerns—who gets how much stuff—and to look more at how people are relating to one another. What does this society look like? Who is on top? Who is on the bottom? You could have a hierarchy consistent with equal distribution of material goods, as you might have in a communist dictatorship.  


Well, yes. In fact, in the early days of most communist regimes, we actually observe party activists and leaders consuming very little. So, it wasn’t their superiority in riches that created the inequality. It was the fact that they had the power to order other people around, and threaten them with dire consequences if they didn’t obey. This is not to say that distributive justice is unimportant, but it’s only one of many egalitarianism concerns. 

The obsession with distributive justice has, I think, often tended to obscure unequal social relations, which are at least equally important as considering how much stuff I have compared to how much stuff you have. Those relations have to do with who gets to order other people around. Who gets to make decisions without taking other people’s concerns and interests into account. Who is stigmatizing other people. Treating them as contemptible beings or beneath contempt, even.  


There was a point in your talk, “Journey of a Feminist Pragmatist,” which is sort of a brief intellectual autobiography, where you have an interesting anecdote—you were a staunch champion of the free market in your wayward teens, is that right?   




You talk about your eye-opening experiences at summer jobs, seeing things like the way that the boss could disrupt the social relations between people in the company. One example was by installing cubicles that made everyone lonely and didn’t improve any efficiency. 


Yes, exactly. Right. How come the boss hadn’t consulted us bookkeepers at this bank, and asked us how we would like the office configured both for efficiency and just for the sake of making the work more pleasant? We were at the cutting edge of the cubicleization of the American office, and we didn’t like it at all and it happened to us. 

Of course, now we see offices moving in the other direction, also without consulting workers about what they want and what enables them to actually work efficiently. Now they’ve gotten rid of a lot of cubicles at a lot of places, but the nature of the jobs is such that it takes a lot more concentration and all the noise produced by removing the cubicles now disrupts people’s ability to get their jobs done. 

Ironically, most workers actually do want to get their jobs done. They want to do a decent job, and it would be helpful both to the firm and to the workers if managers consulted the workers a lot more on what would make for decent working conditions.  


Well, it strikes me that what it implies is that some of the same criticisms that are made of centrally planned economies generally can be obliged to the many centrally planned economies of companies. 

Take Friedrich Hayek’s famous argument about the distribution of knowledge. In fact, I think you mentioned this at one point. If knowledge is distributed, the conservative critique of centrally planned economies is that—because knowledge is distributed through many different actors across society—no person standing in the center as “the dictator” can possibly incorporate all that information and make good decisions. But if we take that to be true, which it may well be, it implies that there are actually going to be real efficiency losses in places where the workers aren’t listened to.  


Absolutely. I think that’s correct. One of the ways that we’ve devised to deal with the fact that the solutions of political problems involves mobilizing information about the impact of policies on different individuals and groups, which is very asymmetrical, is getting those individuals in groups involved in politics so that they can articulate their concerns coming from very different places. 

That’s what democracy involves. So, democracy is another way to mobilize highly dispersed, asymmetrically held information for the solution of collective problems.  


I think in some of your other work, this theme of the knowledge that we lose through inequality and relationships of domination comes up. I started to dive in to some of your work on feminist epistemology and it was interesting to me. 

The first thing that struck me as remarkable was something you said about how we failed to conduct a feminist science—for example, when we failed to incorporate multiple perspectives and understandings, we lose knowledge. We take ourselves further away from objectivity, further away from the ability to make good decisions when we exclude different people. 

Philosophy loses out—and has lost out—from the inequality of the discipline, from the field’s disproportionate presence of white men. There is something that is lost in terms of doing good science, knowing things, coming to an understanding of truth.  


Absolutely. We see this happen repeatedly in the sciences, and also in engineering when only certain groups are consulted. Other groups get left out even in the design of technology. So, for example, safety standards for automobiles in the United States are rated against the presumption that the person who most needs protection is an average sized man who hasn’t buckled his seat belt. 

However, when you adjust the force of the airbags in a car so that it can restrain such a large unbelted man, it turns out to be enough to kill small, seat belted woman. Well, maybe if you consulted women, or thought about the impact of this on women—maybe if there were more engineers who are women, whose voices are taken seriously—they would have thought about this.  


In your “Journeys of a Feminist Pragmatist,” you start to discuss feminist philosophy and feminist science. You say that you didn’t actually begin your philosophical career identifying as a feminist, but it sort of came up naturally.

I love how you have this great footnote where you say, “It is remarkable how much perceptions of feminist philosophy are driven by false stereotypes of feminists, and how closely correlated disparagement of the field is with ignorance of it. It is remarkable, too, how scholarly standards are so easily thrown away when philosophers choose to disparage some fields they don’t understand. Isn’t it supposed to be a universal standard of scholarly integrity, and all disciplines, to disclaim authority to evaluate that of which one is ignorant?”  

What I love about that, again, is where you say you’re doing bad science and bad philosophy when you aren’t listening.  


Absolutely. So, another way to put the point is that what a lot of feminist philosophers of science are doing is simply applying John Stuart Mill’s views about freedom of speech and the need to bring in all different perspectives and voices to the way science operates. 

In fact, what we see often—although this is going down under the pressure of a bunch of outstanding feminist philosophers of science– is a certain breakout of gender panic among mostly men in the field, but not exclusively men, who think that they’ve been doing hard science, real objective science all along. They think that the demands for women have a seat at the table must entail something like declining standards. When in fact, it is just the opposite. 

It’s opening up scientific fields to new perspectives, new methods, new questions, questions arising from different social positions than the traditional ones which center male experience.  


Well, I know that hundreds of conservative pundits who just would use a phrase like “feminist epistemology” as a punch line. They’re like, “There’s only epistemology. There isn’t feminist epistemology. Feminist science? There is no feminist science. There’s just science.”  

How would you explain why you think it’s important to adopt the label feminist? What does it add to the scientific endeavor to explicitly identify that way?  


So, there’s another way to describe what’s going on. Instead of talking about feminist science, you could say “doing science as a feminist.” That is, doing science keeping in mind that women matter and that women often have somewhat different interests and perspectives and access to empirical information relevant to answering scientific questions than men do. 

So, the claim then is that we need to mobilize those different perspectives, different questions that might be raised—say, about seat belts design. We have to mobilize that knowledge to produce science that addresses different people’s concerns, and not just assume that the paradigm of men captures all the relevant interests that need to be addressed.  


Could you give a couple of examples, beyond the seat belt thing, of biases and errors that have occurred in science of philosophy because of this failure to listen to people who don’t share a very narrow range of experience? 


Yes, so there’s a lot of examples that also arise especially in the United States about racial inequality, and the need to listen to African Americans and other people of color when various social policies and practices are being examined. 

So, right now for instance, in the United States there’s been a movement in the past several years called Black Lives Matter, which has been protesting not just police shootings that seem to be highly unjustified but all kinds of other abuses of people of color, in which they’re doing entirely innocent things in spaces where white people feel uncomfortable that they’re even present. Then they call the police and ask that the people of color be arrested. Well, certainly there’s something going wrong with white people’s epistemology if they assume that, say, a pregnant woman who is simply barbecuing some chicken in her yard is somehow doing something dangerous. 

Maybe we need to actually take people’s testimony seriously about what’s going on, and not just the testimony of the people who are frightened. In fact, when we do incorporate the perspectives of citizens of color into an understanding of what’s going wrong with police and community relations in communities of color, we see that a lot of police conduct is actually creating the very problems that police claim brutal methods are needed to solve. 

So, for example, in Ferguson, Missouri, that city lost a lot of its tax revenue and its tax base with the closure of many businesses. The city decided that in order to fund the police and the courts, they were going to raise the fines and increase the number of civil infractions for which you could issue a ticket—a traffic ticket or some other kind of penalty. 

The result was that police were sent out on the streets basically to collect their own salaries by issuing tickets, thousands and thousands of dollars of tickets on highly impoverished people who certainly could not afford to pay those tickets. The result is that people in communities subject to this mass ticketing regime, which is just an alternative to fair-minded taxes on which the people would have a chance to vote, led to enormous distrust between members of the community and the police. People feared that if they tried to report anything it would just be the occasion for the police to look for an outstanding ticket that they hadn’t paid. So, they just stopped reporting crimes to police. 

Lo and behold, when that happens, the crime rate goes up. Police blame it on the supposed “inherent criminality” of the communities that they are policing when, in fact, it’s really due to their own abusive conduct that they’ve been rendered ineffective in controlling crime.  


Would this tie in at all with your critique of cost-benefit analysis? The way that policymakers often assume they can quantify everything— that they can look at a spreadsheet, they can add up the pluses and minuses and decide?

Obviously that’s a case in which the policy’s just being done badly because you didn’t listen to people. But then I think you also have this other point, if I understand correctly, which is that also you need to be very cautious about trying to take values that can’t be translated into the language of math and translate them into it. 

You write extensive critiques of commodification, and using the wrong measures for things or trying to measure things that can’t be measured.  


Quite right. So, a big issue here is that cost-benefit analysis assumes that the only thing that matters is outcomes for people—including what’s in their pockets or other resources that they might have available to them—and not the relationships through which people are getting access to resources or other goods that they might need. 

Once you shift to a relational perspective, you can see that social relationships are of independence, significance, and importance for people. They don’t only want goods, but they want certain goods through certain valuable relationships, and have reasons to distrust other kinds of relationships in which they are possibly subject to the arbitrary power of other people. 

Cost-benefit analysis, because it very rarely takes into account how relationships shift under different policy regimes, doesn’t really have good tools for dealing with those concerns. Just to illustrate more concretely: in the area of workplace safety, it’s assumed that the monetary value that people place on risk to their life is the same across choice domains. So, you could say from their consumer behavior, maybe they ride motorcycles or smoke cigarettes and they’re willing to take risks with their lives. Hence, it would be okay for bosses to impose risks on their lives by ordering them to go down a dangerous mine shaft that they know is liable to collapse. 

Well, no. There’s a big difference between voluntarily, personally selecting risks if you’re into skiing or motorcycle riding for pleasure, and risks to which you’re subject because your boss orders you to suffer those risks on pain of getting fired and losing your livelihood. These are two totally different things.

You can’t infer from the risks people are willing to take voluntarily, under their own authority, that they’re equally willing to take similar risks if the reason is because somebody else is ordering them to do so. 


You might find that out. You might find out what people really value if they had a voice in the decision-making process if they weren’t excluded.


That’s the point. Because it is hard to quantify these concerns using cost-benefit analysis, I think the better alternative is to let workers actually have a voice within the firm as to what kinds of risks they’re willing to take, and give them the power to discuss alternative ways of getting the job done that aren’t as risky.  


I don’t know you’ve seen it, but there’s a book called Against Democracy by Jason Brennnan, who is a libertarian philosopher at George Mason, and he argues that libertarianism has this real antidemocratic feeling.  


Absolutely. I think that’s mainly what it’s about.  


It was interesting because he says, “People aren’t capable of making good judgments about their own lives. We need to be ruled by epistocrates. We need to be ruled by libertarian philosopher kings.”  

It’s just funny to me because I think that it’s so self-evident that such people make horrible judgments and are incapable of understanding. Certainly, I would at least want the libertarian epistocrates to take some courses on feminist epistemology, for example, so they can understand the things that they don’t know.  


When I look at Brennan’s arguments, I think of them as like: first, throw out everything you know about the actual empirical results of dictatorship and democracy. Then you can go ahead and make these totally abstract arguments. But also, I think it just grossly underestimates the actual epistemic powers of ordinary citizens once they are empowered to organize themselves in democratic forms. Which means not just voting but actually gathering information and being able to utilize it to make decisions for themselves. 

Two examples: Flint, Michigan with the water crisis is an outstanding example of citizens and science. Flint, in order to save money, switched the source of its water supply, and failed to treat that new water adequately. That led to lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ disease among the citizens drinking the water. It was citizens themselves, working with the assistance of doctors and other experts, who started testing their water for lead and reporting the results. They were doing real empirical evidence gathering and collecting the results, reporting it in conjunction with complaints. Eventually this organized into a movement that managed to call the authorities to account, including the state Department of Environmental Protection. 

Another example is the citizens of Porto Alegre in Brazil, who come together to do the annual budgeting process. They articulate their needs and what they would like tax revenues in the city to be used for, and their priorities are often different from the priorities of elected officials. That system has been going just fine for many years now. There’s no reason why citizens can’t use their intelligence very effectively to gather information competently, even if they don’t have a terrific education. Neither the citizens of Flint nor the citizens of Porto Alegre are dominantly composed of college educated people. They’re still perfectly competent to make democratic decisions if they’re given the opportunity and the means to do so.  


Just to wrap up here—one thing that I think is really cool about your work is that it seems like what you’re doing makes philosophy much richer and more interesting, and that gives it so much more possibility. 

In fact, you say at the end of “Feminist Pragmatist” that, “I want to travel beyond our fortified little territory because the wide-open terrain is exciting, and we philosophers have so much to learn from engaging in the wider world outside our heads and the full diversity of humanity outside our currently constituted departments.”  

When I was an undergraduate and I took political philosophy classes, I was very frustrated because I really couldn’t see the relevance. There seemed to be this huge gap between what we were talking about and the world that I lived in. I thought, “Well how does this apply to the governance of this university, for instance? How can we think about practical questions about who should run a university? Whose interest is it supposed to operate in? Is it supposed to be the students? What’s it for?”  

That seemed to me like a really interesting question to ask. Who should govern and how do they govern and who should give the orders? Yet that wasn’t being asked. It wasn’t relevant. You make philosophy relevant to these questions because you say it is important, and I like it because if someone asks, “What is philosophy used for? Why is it any good?,” it can be hard to come up with an answer if it really is too abstract or theoretical. 

But your work makes the case known. This is important. Thinking philosophically can help us understand the institutions that we inhabit. It can help us refine our thinking, and we actually get a better understanding of the world that we do live in.  


Yes, exactly. So, I think philosophers should start from the problematic experiences of people in the world. Start theorizing from that. That’s always been a maxim in both feminist philosophy and pragmatist philosophy. Start with the issues and problems of concerns of ordinary people, and then develop your normative theory (or your philosophy of science, for that matter) in response to those concerns. 

When you do that, of course that means that as a philosopher you also have to consult the discoveries and findings of cognate disciplines, especially in the social sciences when we are doing moral and political philosophy. Then you can develop a very rich normative theory out of those materials, rather than thinking that you can think it up all out of your head, sitting alone in your office just popping out pure moral principles by examining your intuition.  


But you don’t have to sacrifice any of the analytic rigor or argumentative power. I think there’s this prejudice. Somehow it makes you mushy and analytic to incorporate perspectives, but that doesn’t need to be. What I like is that your arguments are tight. They’re always so accessible. People who are not academic philosophers can read your academic articles and profit from them.  


Yeah, well, here I think I’m even going back to the practice of Socrates—at least as it is reported by Plato. He’d be out in the streets talking to anybody and doing philosophy with absolutely anyone at all. I think that’s really the way we should be behaving. 

Philosophy is not just a discipline for expert academics who study for years in graduate school. Philosophy is for everyone. It’s for children. In fact, you talk to children and they’re natural philosophers. They’re asking questions. Really, anyone can do philosophy. It’s both fun and actually has real information on how we live our lives.  


On that delightful positive note, we will conclude. Thank you so much, Professor Anderson, for talking to me.  


You’re welcome. It’s been great. Thanks. 

More In: Interviews

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


Celebrating our Ninth Year of publication! Lots to stimulate your brain with in this issue: how to address the crisis of pedestrian deaths (hint: stop blaming cars!), the meaning of modern art, is political poetry any good?, and the colonial adventures of Tinin. Plus Karl Marx and the new Gorilla Diet!

The Latest From Current Affairs