Philosophical anarchism

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Philosophical anarchism is an anarchist school of thought[1] which holds that the state lacks moral legitimacy whilst not supporting violence to eliminate it. According to scholar Allan Antliff, Benjamin Tucker coined the term philosophical anarchism to distinguish peaceful evolutionary anarchism from revolutionary variants.[2] Although 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 Wordsworth Donisthorpe, foreseeing in this sense "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 the American individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker[5] and the green anarchist Henry David Thoreau.[6]

Types and variations[edit]

Philosophical anarchists may accept the existence of a minimal state as an unfortunate and usually temporary "necessary evil", but they 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 as egoistically 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". Those anarchists 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.[9]

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. 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 anarchists, who reject both social "archy" and political "kratos".[10]


Philosophical anarchism has met the criticism of members of academia following the release of pro-anarchist books such as A. John Simmons' Moral Principles and Political Obligations (1979).[11] In The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, Michael Huemer defends philosophical anarchism and argues that "both kinds of 'anarchism' [i.e. philosophical and political anarchism] are philosophical and political claims".[12]

Law professor William A. Edmundson authored an essay arguing against three major philosophical anarchist principles which he finds fallacious. Edmundson claims that while the individual does not owe a normal state a duty of obedience, this does not imply that anarchism is the inevitable conclusion and the state is still morally legitimate.[13]


  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. ^ 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. ^ Brian Patrick Mitchell, Eight Ways to Run the Country, Praeger, 2006.
  11. ^ Klosko, George (1999). "More than Obligation – William A. Edmundson: Three Anarchical Fallacies: An Essay on Political Authority". The Review of Politics. 61 (3): 536–538. doi:10.1017/S0034670500028989. ISSN 1748-6858.
  12. ^ Huemer, Micheal (2012). The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. London: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 137. ISBN 9781137281647. In the terminology of contemporary political philosophy, I have so far defended philosophical anarchism (the view that there are no political obligations), but I have yet to defend political anarchism (the view that government should be abolished). [...] [T]he terminology is misleading, [...]. In fact, both kinds of 'anarchism' are philosophical and political claims.
  13. ^ Kristjánsson, Kristján (2000). "Three Anarchical Fallacies: An Essay on Political Authority by William A. Edmundson". Mind. 109 (436): 896–900. JSTOR 2660038.

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