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Philosophical anarchism

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Philosophical anarchism

Philosophical anarchism is an anarchist school of thought[1] which holds that the state lacks moral legitimacy while not supporting violence to eliminate it.[2] Though philosophical anarchism does not necessarily imply any action or desire for the elimination of the State, philosophical anarchists do not believe that they have an obligation or duty to obey the State, or conversely, that the State has a right to command. Philosophical anarchism is a component especially of individualist anarchism.[3]

Scholar Michael Freeden identifies four broad types of individualist anarchism. He says the first is the type associated with William Godwin that advocates self-government with a "progressive rationalism that included benevolence to others." The second type is egoism, most associated with Max Stirner. The third type is "found in Herbert Spencer's early predictions, and in that of some of his disciples such as Donisthorpe, foreseeing the redundancy of the state in the source of social evolution." The fourth type retains a moderated form of egoism and accounts for social cooperation through the advocacy of the market,[4] having such followers as Benjamin Tucker[5] and Thoreau.[6]

Philosophical anarchists of historical note include Mohandas Gandhi, William Godwin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Herbert Spencer, Max Stirner, Émile Armand and Henry David Thoreau. Contemporary philosophical anarchists include A. John Simmons and Robert Paul Wolff.


Philosophical anarchists may accept the existence of a minimal state as an unfortunate, and usually temporary, "necessary evil" but argue that citizens do not have a moral obligation to obey the state when its laws conflict with individual autonomy.[7] As conceived by William Godwin, it requires individuals to act in accordance with their own judgments and to allow every other individual the same liberty; conceived egoistically as by Max Stirner, it implies that 'the unique one' who truly 'owns himself' recognizes no duties to others; within the limit of his might, he does what is right for him.[8]

Rather than taking up arms to bring down the state, philosophical anarchists "have worked for a gradual change to free the individual from what they thought were the oppressive laws and social constraints of the modern state and allow all individuals to become self-determining and value-creating."[9] They may oppose the immediate elimination of the state by violent means out of concern that what remains might be vulnerable to the establishment of a yet more harmful and oppressive state. This is especially true among those anarchists who consider violence and the state as synonymous, or who consider it counterproductive where public reaction to violence results in increased "law enforcement" efforts.

Many traditional conservatives identify themselves as "anarchists" on account of their opposition to state control, yet they support the ordering by rank of social groups such as families, churches, corporations, clubs, and even countries. J. R. R. Tolkien, for instance, once wrote that his political views "lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy."[10] For this reason, Brian Patrick Mitchell proposes that such conservatives be called akratists instead of anarchists because they accept the "archy" of social rank and only oppose the "kratos" of state control, in contrast to individualist anarchists, who reject both social "archy" and political "kratos."[11]

Notable philosophical anarchists

William Godwin, the founder of philosophical anarchism,[12] believed that government was a "necessary evil" but that it will become increasingly unnecessary and powerless by the gradual spread of knowledge. Godwin warned individuals against the possible evils of government and to be vigilant against what he considered "an usurpation upon the private judgment and individual conscience of mankind." Godwin believed that the government should be tolerated "as little of it as possible, and carefully ... observed" as people evolved in terms of intellectual and social abilities to interact with each other.

The 19th century individualist anarchist Victor Yarros also stated a typical philosophical anarchist position when he said,
The abolition of the external State must be preceded by the decay of the notions which breathe life and vigour into that clumsy monster: in other words, it is only when the people learn to value liberty, and to understand the truths of the anarchistic philosophy, that the question of practically abolishing the State looms up and acquires significance.
Similarly, philosophical anarchist Henry David Thoreau asserted
'That government is best which governs not at all'; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.[13]
Thomas Jefferson is also sometimes seen as a philosophical anarchist,[14] who cautioned that "law is often but the tyrant's will," and that people needed to be vigilant against any laws that "violates the rights of the individual." For Jefferson, one's liberty was limited by the presence of other individuals within a society and that people could only have "unobstructed action ...within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others."
Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law', because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.[14]

According to philosophical anarchist A. John Simmons:

Philosophical anarchists hold that there are good reasons not to oppose or disrupt at least some kinds of illegitimate states, reasons that outweigh any right or obligation of opposition. The practical stance with respect to the state, the philosophical anarchist maintains, should be one of careful consideration and thoughtful weighing of all the reasons that bear on action in a particular set of circumstances.[15]

Philosophical anarchists may not wish to disrupt a particular state, but they do not necessarily think anyone has an obligation to obey the state. According to philosophical anarchist Robert Paul Wolff, there can be no such thing as a government which "has a right to command and whose subjects have a binding obligation to obey."[16]

Mohandas Gandhi also identified himself as a philosophical anarchist.[17]

Robert A. Heinlein considered himself a libertarian, but in a letter to Judith Merril in 1967 (never sent) he also described himself as a philosophical anarchist or an "autarchist" [18]


  1. ^ Wayne Gabardi, review of Anarchism by David Miller, published in American Political Science Review Vol. 80, No. 1. (Mar., 1986), pp. 300–302.
  2. ^ According to scholar Allan Antliff, Benjamin Tucker coined the term "philosophical anarchism," to distinguish peaceful evolutionary anarchism from revolutionary variants. Antliff, Allan. 2001. Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde. University of Chicago Press. p. 4
  3. ^ Outhwaite, William & Tourain, Alain (Eds.). (2003). "Anarchism." The Blackwell Dictionary of Modern Social Thought (2nd Edition, p. 12). Blackwell Publishing
  4. ^ Freeden, Michael. Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-829414-X. pp. 313–314
  5. ^ Tucker, Benjamin R., Instead of a Book, by a Man too Busy to Write One: A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism (1897, New York)
  6. ^ Broderick, John C. "Thoreau's Proposals for Legislation." American Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Autumn, 1955). p. 285
  7. ^ Klosko, George. Political Obligations. Oxford University Press 2005. p. 4
  8. ^ Outhwaite, William & Tourain, Alain (Eds.). (2003). "Anarchism," in The Blackwell Dictionary of Modern Social Thought. (2nd Edition, p. 12). Blackwell Publishing
  9. ^ Murphy, Brenda. The Provincetown Players and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge University Press 2005. pp. 31–32.
  10. ^ Letters, no. 52, to Christopher Tolkien, 29 November 1943, Carpenter, Humphrey and Tolkien, Christopher (eds.) (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  11. ^ Brian Patrick Mitchell, Eight Ways to Run the Country, Praeger, 2006.
  12. ^ William Godwin entry by Mark Philip in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006-05-20
  13. ^ Wasserman, Louis. Modern Political Philosophies and What They Mean. Haleyon House 1944. p. 120
  14. ^ a b Adler, Mortimer Jerome. The Great Ideas. Open Court Publishing 2000. p. 378
  15. ^ Cited in Wetman, Cristopher Heath. Is There a Duty to Obey the Law? Cambridge University Press. 2005. pp. 24–25.
  16. ^ Cited in Wolff's "Defence of Philosophical Anarchism" by Rex Martin. Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 24 No 95, April 1974, p. 141
  17. ^
  18. ^ Patterson, William (2014). Robert A. Heinlein: 1948–1988, The Man Who Learned Better. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. p. 389. ISBN 978-0-7653-1961-6.

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