Monday, October 03, 2022

The wagon has three wheels: Reimagining philosophy of action from a working class perspective

Check out the guest post by Deborah Nelson at The Philosophers' Cocoon.

Last month, Debbie completed her dissertation under my direction, concerning implicit class bias in the literature in philosophy of action.  She argues that the focus on stability over long periods of time, rational life plans, and career selves reflects the concerns and opportunities of middle-class and upper-class people, and that a focus on practical agency among people with economic disadvantage would and should focus at least as much on flexibility and managing unpredictable complexity -- relatively neglected topics in philosophy of action.


The wagon has three wheels: Reimagining philosophy of action from a working class perspective

by Deborah Nelson

There’s a story my family likes to relay about my father as a child that has had a formative impact on how I approach claims about knowledge, rationality, and the evaluation thereof.  The one-sentence summary of the story is that, when he was five years old, my dad took an IQ test and only got one question wrong.  The more interesting facet of this story, though, is revealed by examining that one question.

The test question displayed a picture of a wagon with only three wheels and asked what was wrong with the wagon.  It just so happened that there was a three-wheeled wagon in regular use in my father’s household, which still functioned perfectly well, so he could not identify the problem with the wagon.  Needless to say, when I learned this story at a young age, it gave me early ideas about the ways that experience can affect how people perceive and understand the world, and the discussions in recent years of problems with IQ testing, as well as other standardized tests, have only added fuel to this fire.  These intellectual proclivities have clearly inspired my research interests and I just recently defended a dissertation at UCR which reflects them.

In my early days in philosophy, I was excited to learn that there is a whole subdiscipline dedicated to how people reason about which actions to take, but became less enthused as I learned that the concerns within it did not resemble my experiences.  Within the philosophy of action, the concerns seem to reflect that of people who enjoy economic advantage.  The agents described (directly or indirectly) as ideals in this literature are self-complete entities, who consistently resist temptation, retain stable intentions and characters, and have life-defining projects and plans, etc.  This focus seems, to my working-class-inspired mind, to ignore some central concerns and ideals for which my background prepared me.

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Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I heard similar stories while growing up. My family was poor, on one side; comfortable on the other. Even so, there was precious little economic advantage for those in the comfortable zone. What I learned, early on, was: practical advantage trumps theory every time. My grandfather (poor side) was practical. And, creative. If he had raw-materials-enough, he would built what he needed. Building a wagon, even one with only three wheels, would have presented no challenge. Failing that, he might have either built or otherwise procured a one-wheeled 'wagon'. Also known as a wheelbarrow.

Emily said...

My mom has a similar story, except it's more geographic than social class-related. I don't remember the specifics, but the question involved snow. She grew up in Southern California. Snow is not a thing here.