Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman's piece in Times Higher Education, "Philosophy is dead white--and dead wrong", is receiving a lot of attention (see here and here), and, I think, deservably so. Coleman raises a lot of important questions about race and the sociology of our discipline -- questions the discussion of which, I agree with Coleman, are long, long overdue.
Rather than recapping Coleman's piece (which I think I could hardly do well), I would like to share some thoughts that it raised in my mind -- thoughts which Kristie Dotson's paper, "How is this philosophy?", also gave rise to in my mind a while back.
In her paper, Dotson argues that philosophy's "culture of justification" is not an attractive working environment for many diverse practitioners. According to Dotson, it is not the (legitimate) demand that philosophers justify their arguments that makes philosophy unattractive to people from diverse backgrounds. Rather, it is the illegitimate demand that people justify what they are doing as philosophy (a demand which, in practice, tends to exclude work done by diverse practitioners as "not philosophy").
I want to suggest that the problem is even deeper than Dotson believes. Again, Dotson doesn't think it is the way we require justification in arguments that excludes people. I want to suggest, to the contrary, that it is the manner in which our discipline requires justification in arguments that excludes people. That is, I want to suggest the very way we do professional philosophy today -- the manner in which our profession requires justification in arguments, and the dominant standards for what counts as a "good argument" or "good paper" -- may be exclusionary. Allow me to explain how.
It is no secret that our discipline prizes "rigor." Roughly speaking, rigorous arguments are good arguments. Rigorous papers are good papers. Etc. But how is rigor defined? Here is a sketch. First, prevailing philosophical standards test arguments against "common sense" or "common intuitions." One must begin with premises your audience is liable to accept. Also, if the conclusion of your argument conflicts with "common sense", then your argument is considered "less plausible." But now how are "common sense" or "common intuitions" defined? Roughly speaking, in terms of the preexisting literature, and the intuitions of philosophers steeped in that literature. In my experience, as graduate students and professionals, we are constantly told that "a good paper makes a small, careful contribution" to whatever literature already exists. You must "situate your project" in the literature -- basically, working within prevailing paradigms -- and you cannot deny a premise in the literature that everyone accepts unless you can do so on the basis of some other premise(s) that people steeped in that very literature are apt to accept.
In this way -- and I am far from the first to note this -- professional philosophy today aspires to be like the sciences (or, at least, "normal" science, as Kuhn termed it), where each published result builds in some small way on "already accumulated knowledge."
Here, though, is I think the problem with this (well, one problem at least; I think there are others too -- for more, see here and here). Philosophy is not like science. In science, the objective world outside of us dictates the facts. The Sun is in the sky whether anyone likes it or not. In contrast, in philosophy, the "accumulated knowledge" that professional philosophy takes as given -- as the "jumping off" point for a "good paper or book" -- are simply the intuitions or judgments of persons. And yet the intuitions/judgments that comprise received wisdom in philosophy are primarily the intuitions/judgments of a privileged few. For instance, it is not as though professional philosophers today tend to, say, begin philosophy papers with Frederick Douglass' intuitions about justice. No, they tend to begin with "mainstream works" in philosophy -- which tend to be comprised by individuals from a very narrow array of backgrounds. If someone wants to challenge that mainstream body of work, one is expected to do it in a "careful, rigorous way", which, unfortunately, still means from within the perspective of the very intuitions (about, say, justice) that have comprised the dominant, non-diverse philosophy up to the present day.
What I am suggesting, in other words, is that the very focus on "small, rigorous arguments" -- the dominant conception of what counts as a "good argument" in professional philosophy today -- may itself exclude people from our profession. Our discipline's conception of what counts as a "good argument", however much we might like to consider it nonideological or "objective", is ideological, privileging an "established body of knowledge" arrived at primarily by a very narrow body of people.
Or so it seems to me. Moreover, I think I've seen these forces play themselves out in the classroom, in philosophy seminars, and in professional conferences. I've taught in classrooms, for instance, where -- after spending, say, an entire semester teaching "The Greats" on ethics, or epistemology, or whatever -- I'll assign something by a feminist, or a critical race theorist...and my students will seem so much more skeptical than they did about the "Greats". Why? Here again, my feeling is this: the students are skeptical because the things the feminist or critical race theorist are saying conflict with the received "body of wisdom" they have been steeped in. Similarly, I've sat in philosophy talks where someone -- often someone from a different background from the majority -- tries to raise an alternative point-of-view, and the "feel" in the room is something like, "Okay, can we get back to Kripke/Rawls -- the "real stuff" -- now?" Finally, I've sat in APA sessions on feminist philosophy or African philosophy, and here too a couple of things stood out to me. First, the audiences in the room were pretty homogenous, with few representatives of dominant backgrounds or philosophical viewpoints in attendance. People working within dominant traditions in philosophy, by and large, just didn't bother to even attend these sessions (at least the ones I have attended). Second, in these cases I was struck by just how unlikely it would be for many of the arguments given in these sessions to "fly" with, say, a journal referee or editor of a mainstream philosophy journal. The more I listened, the more it seemed to me that our disciplinary standards for what counts as a "good argument" would immediately rule out the arguments given as bad arguments. Why? In my view, very roughly: because the premises people were appealing to "conflicted with received wisdom." Few things could drive a person from a field more, I think, than saying to them, "Well, the premises you find attractive conflict with the premises we find attractive -- and our premises are the ones you must work with if you don't want to be an outsider."
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I think our discipline's obsession with "rigor" is bad. Not that rigor is bad -- but rather, a certain conception of it, and preoccupation with that conception, is bad. Philosophy is not science. In science, working with an established body of knowledge makes sense. For in science there is an established body of knowledge. But, philosophy is not like this. After thousands of years, there are precious few things that professional philosophers agree upon. Philosophy is driven my the intuitions and judgments of people (philosophers!), and insofar as the mainstream tradition has been dominated by white men, the unfortunate result is that the "received wisdom" professional philosophy builds upon is, by and large, the received wisdom of white men.
As an illustration, I was just reading this (otherwise great) paper by David Chalmers, and I couldn't help but be struck by the following sentence:
Despite this lack of convergence, it is hard to deny that the insights of Plato and Aristotle, Hume and Kant, Frege and Russell, Kripke and Lewis have involved signiﬁcant philosophical progress.
Maybe these individuals' insights comprise "progress" (though, for my part, I am skeptical about several of the names listed). But notice anything about the list of individuals given? It is not exactly a very diverse list of people. Or consider the table of contents from The Great Conversation, a fantastic introduction to mainstream Western philosophy which, alas, reveals just how insular the tradition has been. Here's the table of contents, with each chapter's covered authors in parentheses:
- Before Philosophy (Hesiod & Homer)
- Philosophy Before Socrates (Thales, Anaximander, Xenophanes, Pythagoras, Hericlitus, Parmenides, Zeno)
- The Sophists (Protagoras, Gorgias, Aristophanes)
- Socrates (Socrates!)
- The trial and death of Socrates (Plato)
- Plato (Plato!)
- Aristotle (Aristotle!)
- The Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics (Epicurus, Leucippus, Democritus, Zeno from Citium, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Pyrrho, Sextus Empiricus)
- The Christians (Jesus)
- Augustine (Augustine!)
- Anselm and Aquinas (Anselm and Aquinas!)
- Medieval to Modern (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, da Vinci, Erasmus, Martin Luther, Montaigne)
- Descartes (Descartes!)
- Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley (H, L, & B!)
- Hume (Hume!)
- Kant (Kant!)
- Hegel (Hegel!)
- Kierkegaard & Marx
- The Utilitarians (Bentham, Mill, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft)
- The Pragmatists (Pierce, Dewey, and James)
- Wittgenstein (Russell, Wittgenstein)
- Simone De Beauvoir
- Postmodernism (Derrida, Rorty)
Not a very inclusive conversation! (55 white men, 2 women, and no one else)
So, then, have prevailing philosophical standards -- standards which are clearly conservative, requiring people to begin with "common sense" and make "small steps" in prexisting bodies of "received wisdom" -- themselves worked, by their very nature, to systematically exclude people, and diverse points of view? From my perspective, this is almost the wrong question to ask. The question isn't whether prevailing philosophical standards have systematically excluded people "from the conversation". The question is: how could they not?
Our discipline's standards of what counts as a good argument seem to me to be so conservative that they are systematically designed -- albeit, I think, probably unwittingly -- to exclude alternative points-of-view (or, at least, place such a high burden of proof on alternative points-of-view that proponents of those views can never, or almost never, meet the burden). After all, if you are told that one must work within a body of received knowledge, with premises the dominant tradition accepts, and you do not find those premises the least bit attractive yourself, the burden of proof you face in order to make a case for the premises you find attractive are almost impossible to meet. You will find yourself not being able to appeal to premises you find attractive. No, you will have to appeal to premises that the dominant majority finds attractive -- premises that you may not buy at all. But there you are: you have to work with their premises, not yours. (Or, of course, you can always set up a society of Philosophers-like-you -- but then your society will be seen as outsiders, outside of "the conversation").
And so, it seems to me, if you come from a different perspective, you will find yourself faced with a choice: you can either work within the received body of wisdom against your personal belief that the body of wisdom is backwards (thus going against your own feelings of personal integrity), or you can leave the profession. And which of the two options can seem like the more sensible choice: working within a tradition that seems systematically designed to marginalize your point-of-view, or leaving it altogether? Is it any real surprise, then, that philosophy has a diversity problem? What else can a discipline expect when its very method and disciplinary standards are stacked against minority points-of-view?
This post, obviously, has been very critical of our history and dominant standards. I do not mean to suggest that we should jettison all traditional methods or standards of what counts as a good argument. I do mean to suggest that we should have a conversation about our methods, the extent to which they may (or may not) marginalize people, and how we might revise our methods and standards to foster greater inclusion. My next post will be more positive. I will try to advance a more open-minded approach to doing philosophy -- one that I think may provide some concrete guidelines for making philosophy more open and inclusive, without jettisoning standards altogether.