Can we teach philosophically about unspeakable human suffering?

Some recent attempts by philosophers to comment on the war in Gaza have been met with harsh criticism. When the war ends, it will, by some measures, be one of the worst in recent history, and against this backdrop, armchair concept-parsing about it has appeared frivolous to many. As Tena Thau (2024) put it in her guest post on the Daily Nous: ‘The hellish reality of this war is transfigured by philosophers into abstract thought experiments and technical prose’. Criticisms such as Thau’s raise the question of whether any philosophical approach — and therefore, any approach to teaching philosophy (whether in educational settings or the public sphere) — can be appropriate when its object is other people’s urgent and widespread human suffering. Considering the substance of such criticisms, I argue that attempts to philosophise about urgent and widespread human suffering ought to culminate in a praxis-oriented solidarity. Against this criterion, I weigh potential approaches from two philosophical traditions. First, I consider anti-colonial approaches, which themselves have been both widely used and widely criticised in the current discourse about the war in Gaza. Second, I consider phenomenological approaches, which have been seen to be useful for understanding private experiences but have been less influential so far with respect to exploring political questions. Following on from this, I attempt to reconsider how the task of teaching philosophically might be understood, and propose a phenomeno-political approach that benefits from the useful analyses of power provided by anti-colonial traditions.