An Extraordinary Social Philosophy Project
By Jacques Fierens, professor emeritus at the University of Namur and ATD Fourth World Ally
Social philosophy project
When I participated, although somewhat from the outside, in ATD Fourth World’s social philosophy project from 2019 to 2022, it felt like a remake of Plato’s Republic – only better. That brilliant dialogue, written almost 25 centuries ago, is concerned with justice – how to define it and how it can be achieved. On a return trip from Piraeus to Athens, Socrates, with young Glaucon, is stopped by friends who ask him to join a discussion with a group of people of varying ages and opinions. They begin conversing about the advantages and disadvantages of old age and providing justifications for material wealth, before settling into a long meditation on the idea of justice, reflecting on the question of what constitutes a just city.
A life of leisure
In a discussion with Theaetetus, Plato recounted how he got Socrates to say that one must live a life of leisure to truly be a philosopher. He believed that the mind must be educated far from material and down-to-earth concerns, which prevent it from reaching the world of ideas.’ Without saying it explicitly, ATD’s Social Philosophy Project brought the question of poverty, wealth, justice, and the just city back into the forefront. This was because people with a lived experience of poverty were involved in the project. They successfully contradicted Plato, adding their expertise to that of the father of Western philosophy.
No, justice is not the property of only a few, as Platonic language would have it. No, it is not true that only philosophers think and those in poverty, to be just, must only work, suffer and die in silence.
The excluded, the ostracized, those in poverty, they think too. People with a lived experience of poverty are perfectly capable of participating in the search for truth, which is so central to the human condition.
Even more, entering into a philosophical dialogue with them is essential to moving a constantly changing world, forward.
As was the case in Piraeus long ago, a group was formed around the thinking of a wise man, the late Joseph Wresinski, founder of ATD Fourth World.
A group of some thirty people were determined to think and work together, making the voices of those rarely listened to, heard in the world of academic philosophy.
These voices came from Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, and Mauritius. They were divided into subgroups with distinct names. First, there was the group of “activists” with a lived experience of poverty – a curious name in my eyes. It’s as if all the participants and all members or sympathizers of ATD were not already activists against poverty. Then there was the group of “practitioners,” which mainly brought together ATD “Volunteer Corps members”, that is people working full-time in ATD, as well as a few “allies”.
Finally, there was the group of “philosophers,” all French speaking and mostly university professors. Although I obtained a degree in philosophy long ago and taught law philosophy for 30 years, I recoil at calling myself a philosopher. I feel that would undermine those who, unlike me, do not have a piece of paper that reflects their thinking power. These philosophers undoubtedly represented many schools of thought and research approaches. But they all seemed to cling to what is commonly known as social philosophy. Ultimately, the essential question is not what the participants were called but rather what they accomplished together.
In this adventure, I accompanied Carine de Boubers-Van Den Elshout and Rudy Befahy. They are hardly alike, neither in age nor in what drives or pains them, except that they are Belgian and activists who know what poverty is and its power to make one feel unworthy.
My position as a sort of guide was privileged because I did not belong to any of the three subgroups. I was, as it were, on the balcony witnessing a truly unprecedented philosophical blossoming over almost four years. As I drove Carine and Rudy between sessions, I heard their thoughts on the social philosophy project. I also discovered their concerns with their children and grandchildren. I heard how thinking philosophically gradually transformed how they perceived their lives.
Well, well, classic or renowned philosophers never or rarely talk about their children, while those with a lived experience of poverty talk about them constantly. The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was particularly interested in childhood, preferred to speak of an imaginary Émile rather than of his own offspring, whom he sent to an orphanage in Paris. Childhood is an area where established philosophers would do well to listen to those less recognized. What does it mean to think about the meaning of life, the world and history, and what needs to be done, to ask God-like questions based on our capacity to reproduce and raise children? I was struck by the fact that childhood and separating children from their families are included in the three final texts of the social philosophy project. These texts will be published at the end of 2023.
Rights, resistance and epistemic injustice
However, this is not the main theme of the project’s final writings. The first text is on rights, the second, resistance, and the third, “injustice linked to knowledge”–epistemic injustice. The final chapter discusses how these themes were chosen and about ATD Fourth World’s Merging Knowledge technique. (Videos about the social philosophy project are found on ATD Fourth World’s website and YouTube channel. You can also read about the presentation of the project on December 9 and 10, 2022, at Paris-Cité University).
Carine and Rudy worked on different subjects. Carine worked on the theme of resistance. She utilized her own experiences of what it takes for a family to defy poverty. Something not often seen as working to overcome poverty. Rudy worked on the theme of epistemic injustice. I was with him more than with Carine during work sessions. I heard everything he had to say about the profound unfairness of epistemic injustice. Those with higher education or power are the only ones seen as ‘knowers,’ who maintain their own ignorance by believing that those with a lived experience of poverty do not think or have any new knowledge to provide. Basically, Rudy was our Socrates. It shows that those who think they know something in matters of justice, in fact, know nothing.
This project wasn’t easy – the first obstacle was fear – as initially, everyone was afraid of everyone. The activists feared meeting the smooth-talking philosophers with their big heads. The philosophers felt those with a lived experience of poverty were empowered by their poverty to call into question the philosophers’ knowledge,’ role, and profession. Practitioners, who, by definition, work at the grassroots, wondered if they had any place in a philosophical research project. The implication was that there needed to be a suspension of preconceived notions, including ATD Fourth World ideology. It also implied an acceptance of the value of dialectical research for its own sake, independent of practical results.
I probably sound a little harsh discussing ideology when I have been an ATD member for almost half a century. I mean rather, there was the risk in the group of readily accepting established ideas, be they Joseph Wresinski’s, whose value we certainly cannot underestimate, or ideas from ATD’s rich experience. As was the case, you had to think for yourself and say what had not yet been said. During this project, people with a lived experience of poverty went above and beyond the passive role too often expected of them. They did this by talking about their lives. They fully contributed to completing what Plato and others started; they even surpassed it.
There is a phrase from the bible that still resonates in my head: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will destroy the intelligence of the intelligent.”