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A Philosophy of Class in the Twenty-First Century

Posted by on Monday, April 3, 2023 in Uncategorized.

Emerson Bodde is a 2022-23 Graduate Student Fellow from the Department of Philosophy

My research works within the overlap between social and political philosophy, which study normative and descriptive arguments and concepts pertaining to collective human engagement, and the history of philosophy, which organizes research by contextualizing philosophical arguments in terms of their social, political, cultural, and intellectual situation. Methodologically, I find there to be untapped value in bringing strikingly different authors or debates into conversation in order to reveal strange resonances or controversial consequences of this or that view. The hope is that through historical work that occasionally leaps into ahistorical comparisons, a more clear-sighted use of political concepts in contemporary political-philosophical debates might be able to resolve conflicts—or at least clarify abiding commitments—at the level of differences over definition. 

While focusing primarily upon the intellectual milieu of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some of the key concepts I am interested in are violence, democracy, and in my dissertation in particular, social class. My interest in class emerged from a slow realization that although a vocabulary of class inequality or injustice has proliferated in both mainstream anglophone discourse and political philosophy in the last decade, very rarely is it explicitly defined. For example, is one’s class a matter of the kind of job one works, the one’s relative amount of money and assets, cultural attunement to certain customs deemed ‘high’ or ‘low’, a relationship to the means of production, or some unintuitive combination of these and other factors? And for what reason ought one to use one sense of the word as opposed to another? Or is the very concept muddled and meaningless, such that we should abandon it? 

My dissertation attempts a two-step response to these questions. First, through historical research, I show that there had in fact been debates on what ‘class’ should mean, especially among Marxists throughout most of the twentieth century disputing what constituted a distinct kind of ‘relationship’ to the means of production, what kind of thing class was, and the political implications of different answers. Combining this historical analysis of philosophical arguments with an interdisciplinary engagement with contemporary sociologists employing clear and contrasting definitions of class for empirical research, I construct an outline of the definitions of class being used in contemporary social and political philosophy and their implicit—and often conflicting—claims about the structure of social inequality or the kinds of solutions one might propose for minimizing or eliminating class as a phenomenon. 

The more ambitious side of my project is to propose that there is a specific way that philosophers should employ class as a term, which requires recognizing what we want the concept to do. I propose, in light of the kinds of things philosophers invoke the concept to talk about, that concept of class needs to be objective, which is to say that it is accurately descriptive of the large-scale political and economic structures shaping human life; it must also be subjective, or accurately descriptive of what it feels like to inhabit a class-ed way of living or perceiving the world; and it must be normative, or in other words, it must be possible to employ the concept in a way to say whether class society is good or bad in some moral or ethical sense. To fulfill these requirements, I argue at length that the appropriate definition of class for philosophical purposes is as a “socially reproduced real identity centered on work.” It is only with this novel formulation of what class is, I argue, that philosophers can not only speak with each other clearly about this facet of social life, but actually be able to meaningfully intervene in mainstream discussions of social injustice. The oldest kind of philosophical question is the “What is X” question, and I see class as such a term through which philosophical clarity may render an important social good. 


Emerson Bodde’s research interests mainly revolve around the history of political philosophy and the development of socio-political concepts, with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries. Bodde’s dissertation project is centered on reviving the mid-20th century debate on how social class ought to be defined in philosophy, in light of the recent reemergence of class-related theories of justice, social identity, and a relative absence of both clarity about the concept or continuity with the old debates. In part, this conceptual ambiguity can be alleviated by an interdisciplinary engagement by philosophy with the theoretical debates within both history and sociology.