Philosophy Philosophical Anarchism
William A. Edmundson, Bas van der Vossen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0194


Philosophical anarchism is a branch of political philosophy that is highly skeptical and sometimes even eliminative of the state. At their most ambitious, anarchist theories endorse a comprehensive ideal of social and political (if there should be such a thing at all) life in which the state does not play an essential role. Less ambitious versions attempt primarily to deny the legitimacy of the state. The reasons animating anarchist theories are diverse. Some regard the state as essentially an unjustifiably coercive institution. Others regard the existence of the state incompatible with important values, such as community. Yet, others merely object to the pretensions of authority by existing states. Philosophical anarchism has provided both negative and positive theses. Among its negative theses are the claims that existing states are illegitimate, that the typical uses of coercion by existing states are morally unjustified, and that citizens do not have a moral duty to obey the law. Among its positive theses are the claims that social stability is possible without centralized powers of legislation and enforcement as well as the more fundamental claim that people would in principle be able to treat each other justly if no state existed. Philosophical anarchism, then, refers to a particular set of philosophical views about the nature of political society. It should be distinguished from the political movement of anarchism, which typically calls more directly for resistance, including violent resistance, to the state. In the first instance, philosophical anarchist theories are committed only to regarding all existing state institutions as unjust, and not yet to any practical responses to these.

General overviews

Miller 1984 is good for historical overview. Gans 1992 and Simmons 1996 each articulate and defend a position, but with careful treatment of competing views. Edmundson 2004 details the state of discussion as it had unfolded since the 1970s. Lefkowitz 2006, Dagger 2010, Christiano 2012, and Green 2010 are online encyclopedia entries, with the last three being updated regularly.

  • Christiano, Tom. “Authority.” Sections 3 and 4. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2012.

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides state-of-the-art encyclopedia entries. This entry gives an overview on the debate over political obligation. Articles in the Encyclopedia are updated at least every four years in order to remain current. Each concludes with a bibliography and list of web resources.

  • Dagger, Richard. “Political Obligation.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2010.

    Similar in scope to the previous section, with particular focus on defenses of political authority and the anarchist challenge to it.

  • Edmundson, William A. “State of the Art: The Duty to Obey the Law.” Legal Theory 10 (2004): 215–259.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1352325204040236

    This somewhat technical article critically surveys almost the entire field of argument at the time of its publication, including the dispute between Simmons and Klosko over the principle of fairness defense of the duty to obey, and the “associative obligation” account offered by Margaret Gilbert and Ronald Dworkin. Reprinted in Michael Freeman, ed., Lloyd’s Introduction to Jurisprudence (London: Sweet and Maxwell, 2009). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Gans, Chaim. Philosophical Anarchism and Political Disobedience. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511898235

    Gans focuses on the contemporary version of philosophical anarchism, which primarily denies a duty to obey the law. This critical but thorough discussion is best suited for advanced undergraduates and above. See especially chapters 1 and 2.

  • Green, Leslie. “Legal Obligation and Authority.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2010.

    Similar in scope to the preceding Stanford Encyclopedia entries, with special focus on applications in legal contexts.

  • Lefkowitz, David. “The Duty to Obey the Law.” Philosophy Compass 1 (2006): 571–598.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2006.00042.x

    Overview of the literature on the duty to obey the law. Similar in scope to the “State of the Art” (Edmundson 2004) above, but aimed specifically at familiarizing newcomers to the debate with the challenge of anarchism and its various responses. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Miller, David. Anarchism. London: Dent, 1984.

    Very clear, detailed discussion of the anarchist “ideology.” Miller focuses primarily on the positive anarchist proposals of a society without the state made by classical anarchist thinkers. While slightly dated, this is still one of the best introductions to the classical anarchist philosophy available. Suitable for all levels.

  • Simmons, A. John. “Philosophical Anarchism.” In For and Against the State: New Philosophical Readings. Edited by John T. Sanders and Jan Narveson, 19–39. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

    Seminal overview and classification of different anarchist arguments against the duty to obey the law. Contains A. John Simmons’s article introducing the now-famous distinction between a priori and a posteriori anarchism.

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