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




This is a guest post by Deborah Nelson

Bio: Deborah Nelson received a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Brandeis University in 2014 and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from UCR in September 2022.  Her dissertation examined the philosophy of action literature for class-centrism and proposed advancing this literature by balancing the current focus on stability with flexibility in order to address increasing complexity in agents’ lives. She now works as an Instructional Designer at XCITE, UCR’s center for teaching and learning.

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.  

For the present, however, I don’t plan to criticize the current state of the literature.  Not only does it take a significant amount of space to argue for the structural biases that would inform this kind of gap between theory and experience, I just defended a whole dissertation on this topic.  Instead, I want to explore what taking up the perspectives of economically disadvantaged agents could add to the dialectic.  To that end, I want to propose three concerns which would likely garner more attention were the philosophy of action literature written by people whose backgrounds more resemble my own.  In doing so, I am not implying that the current literature could not take up these norms, but I am suggesting that were they to be taken up in a more substantial way, it would help to make that literature more salient to economically disadvantaged agents.

1. Flexibility

One of the more prominent ideals in the existing literature is that of stability; reasoners should keep their intentions and plans stable, display stable traits and characters, and must resist giving into temptation. 

However, one of the more visible ways that my background has prepared me for being a good reasoner is in my ability to adapt flexibly to changes in circumstances.  This instantiates in ways such as always having a form of backup plan as well as being especially responsive to situations which seem unlikely to pan out in ways conducive to my success in my endeavors.  I’ve often had to shift my plans or respond to setbacks quickly and efficiently.  This facet of reasoning has been given some attention in recent years, specifically in terms of Sarah Paul’s work on Plan B and Jennifer Morton’s Ecological Rationality view, as well as to some extent in these theorists’ mutual discussion of Grit as a form of epistemic resilience.  Flexibility, however, has retained a marginal status in comparison to norms such as stability in the literature overall. 

2. Preservation

Insofar as the reasoning of economically disadvantaged agents does appear in the current literature, the focus is often on their apparent tendency to discount the future, i.e. the narrative is that people who lack resources tend to focus on short term efficacy rather than larger long-term benefits.  And to that extent, economically disadvantaged agents are perceived as not engaging in long-term planning. 

I believe that this is a gloss which loses an important facet of thinking for those with limited financial resources.  That is, the issue is not so much that economically disadvantaged agents lack concern for the future but that their relationship with the future is framed more in terms of conservation or preservation.  For my part, for instance, I tend to not make detailed plans for the future, but I do spend significant effort on figuring out how to make what I do have last.  It is more important for me to maintain what I do have than it is for me to actively seek to attain more.  And this kind of a ‘sustainability’ relationship with the future has also been noted by developmental scholar Robert Chambers and economist Joan Martinez-Alier.  

3. Interdependence

This last concern is one which is represented in the current literature, but the place it holds is a subsidiary one.  That is, shared agency is often seen as a problem to be overcome in light of the commitments within the literature prioritizing the individual as the central case of agency.  How can a series of individual agents with their own values, concerns, and commitments aggregate to amount to a single unit acting together? 

I honestly do not have an answer to this puzzle, but I would like to highlight an implicit premise operating in the background.  That is, I want to ask, what makes it the case that we can entirely isolate the individual from their contexts in order to understand them acting as a wholly individual agent in the first place?  

One reason I raise this question is that our individual successes in most endeavors rely upon other agents, as well as the world, to cooperate in order to facilitate our actions in the first place.  As someone who recently defended a dissertation, got a job, and moved into a new apartment, I can tell you that my success in each relied on several other agents and administrative bodies cooperating.  And, while interdependence is necessary for all agents in our increasingly connected world, it is amplified for economically disadvantaged agents.  Cooperative efforts, whether it be trading childcare responsibilities, bartering for goods or services, or simply providing each other the much-needed support of friendship, often lay the baseline for individual success.  Furthermore, these collaborations, whether overt or covert, have effects on the outlooks, values, understandings, and strategies of the agents involved.  All of this is to say all agents are reliant on several factors outside of our ability to accomplish virtually anything. 

Yet theoretical representations tend to imply that individuals are not affected by and reliant on these factors.  They imply that were we to extrapolate away all of the external factors from the agents, we would have a fully functional agent capable of making decisive choices and being effective in the world.  I think it is clear that this is a fiction, and that the perspective of economic disadvantage highlights this. Community and interconnectedness are amplified in these circumstances because they also play a pivotal role in survival (and often create the conditions for thriving as well). 

These three suggestions are surely not exhaustive of the concerns which would be central in a practical reasoning literature built from the perspective of working-class agents, but they are a gesture in that direction.  Much more would also need to be said to flesh these thoughts out into components of a theory.  I suggest, though, that we examine these alternative priorities not just as a step toward academic justice (see Reyes Chapter 6), but as addressing an epistemic gap in the existing literature.  If what we are doing in proposing theories of action is attempting to capture human experience, when our theories leave out less familiar parts, they are lacking in effectiveness.

Works Cited/For Further Reading

* Chambers, Robert and Gordon Conway. “Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century.” IDS Discussion Paper 296, 1992. Brighton: IDSfor the 21st Century,

* Martinez-Alier, Joan. “Ecology and the Poor: A Neglected Dimension of Latin American History.” Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 23, no. 3, 1991, pp. 621–639. doi:10.1017/S0022216X0001587X.

* Morton, Jennifer. “Reasoning Under Scarcity.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 95, no. 3, 2017, pp. 543-559. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/00048402.2016.1236139.

—. “Toward an Ecological Theory of the Norms of Practical Deliberation.” European Journal of  Philosophy, vol. 19, no. 4, 2011, pp. 561-584. Wiley Online Library, doi: 10.1111/j.14680378.2010.00400.x.

* Morton, Jennifer, and Sarah Paul. “Grit.” Ethics, vol. 129, no. 2, 2019, pp. 175-203.EBSCOHost, doi: 10.1086/700029.

* Paul, Sarah. “Plan B.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol 100, no. 3, 2022, pp. 550-64. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/00048402.2021.1912126.

* Reyes, Victoria. Academic Outsider: Stories of Exclusion and Hope. Stanford University Press, 2022.

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More