Our books

Become a Fan

« Will the journey ever come to its goal? On comparative theology in Clooney 2013 | Main | Order of Paper Submission »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Marcus, I agree with much of what you say. First, it is obviously correct that our discipline is exclusionary, and that THIS MUST CHANGE. I'm also glad to see that the racial inequity is (perhaps?) starting to get the attention it deserves.

I am also very on board that philosophy is not science, and that it is ridiculous to say that good philosophy is unambitious and must conform to prevailing intuitions. (Though let me add that part of "good argument" is starting from common ground. Still, the orthodoxy is a highly artificial and yet all too dogmatic common ground.)

However, perhaps some of what you say is a bit misleading. I'm genuinely unsure whether we have any real disagreement; it may be just a matter of phrasing or emphasis.

For instance, I'm sure we agree that there are some non-arbitrary standards by which we can justifiably judge the worth of an argument. More, it would be a miracle if every area of philosophy met those standards to exactly the same degree. Accordingly, I think we cannot rule out that "not real philosophy" judgments are (at least occasionally) justified judgments that specific areas of philosophy do not meet the standards to the same degree as other areas. I do NOT believe that the distinction here is as simple as "core " vs. "fringe" areas. (Much of mainstream metaphysics, for example, strikes me as an abysmally bad.) But there is a qualitiative contrast between, e.g., the literature on Principia Mathematica and the literature on Of Grammatology. We cannot afford to be silent about such contrasts.

Further, I would say that the qualitative contrast owes largely to the contrast in "rigor." Some of your remarks suggest you are not wholly against rigor, though I am unsure where you draw the line. Regardless, I feel compelled to say that clarity and tight argumentation are or ought to be top priorities (though not the only ones). I've read very very few papers that struck me as too clear or too tight in their argumentation! Even if the person is dead wrong, at least it's clear where s/he is dead wrong!

As I said, I don't think we necessarily disagree. Your post did not say anything against clarity or tight argumentation per se. And let me reiterate my agreement regarding "common intuitions" and the evil of lowest common denominator, represented in "the orthodoxy".

But please allow me to say something a bit more "fringe-y". (!) When thinking about this issue, I am reminded of the apparent discrepancies between the races in SAT scores and such. We all know that some ignoramuses take it to show the superiority of some races over others. Others take it to show that the content of these tests is racially biased. I certainly think the latter is true, to at least some degree. But further, I want to say: OF COURSE certain races are underperforming! They lack all the resources and opportunities that others can take for granted! No wonder there are lower test scores! The explanation is of course not race per se (which is as biologically insignificant as hair color). It is rather all the oppression and injustice that is levied against specific races.

Now if there is any analogy to be drawn, I will leave it to the reader to draw it. But whatever analogies or disanalogies there are, I am certainly not suggesting that some areas of philosophy are *intrinsically* inferior. That would be as disguisting as saying that certain races are intrinsically inferior. But because certain races have been marginalized in the educational system, one should only expect some real and unfortunate consequences (which should be remedied as immediately as possible). It would be simply bad faith to expect otherwise. Something similar might be said of the de facto literature in certain areas of philosophy. Marginalization has real and unfortunate consequences. But here too, I would wholeheartedly advocate that there is a categorical imperative to counteract this tragedy as quickly as possible! (Said by a quasi-utilitarian no less!) Yet we have to be honest about the situation we are facing.

I sincerely apologize if anything I've said is at all offensive. Really, my intent is to dialogue sincerely and openly, and I am quite open to correction also.

Marcus Arvan

Eyeyethink: Thanks for your comment.

I do not think you and I disagree on philosophical method. I myself prize clarity and tight argumentation -- i.e. rigor. What I have a problem with is (1) how our profession *defines* rigor, and (2) how rigor often appears to be held as *the* highest philosophical virtue, one to be prioritized above all others.

First, "rigor" often appears to be identified not merely with clarity and tight argumentation, but also in terms of (a) "making one small point", and (b) appealing to "common sense" or intuitions widely prevalent in the literature. It is this incredibly conservative approach to philosophy that I have *philosophical* problems with, and which I also think is exclusionary. I think it makes philosophy overly safe and boring, and places undue burdens of proof on people (often, but not always, from disadvantaged groups) who do not share prevailing intuitions.

In terms of your more "fringe-y" point, that the literature of some areas of philosophy might be (philosophically) inferior precisely because they have been marginalized, I have to demur. I know it's popular in some quarters to say that some areas of philosophy (e.g. feminist philosophy) are rife with bad work. But, from my perspective, the people saying these kinds of things often aren't looking carefully enough at their own favored areas. It's all too easy to criticize other traditions and literatures while failing to even *see* what are, in actuality, very serious problems in one's favored tradition!

As you note, much of mainstream metaphysics strikes you as abysmally bad. I'm inclined to agree. As I've written before on this blog (and in some of my published work), I think a significant number of problems that people hammer away at in analytic philosophy are *pseudo* problems. This is not to say that all, or even, most work in analytic philosophy is bad. I'm just saying that I think people in the dominant tradition tend to not even *see* what are real problems/failures of that tradition -- problems that, if they did see them, might make them a whole lot less confident that it is only *their* tradition that is doing good work.


^Where's the 'like' button?^



"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...

Not a very inclusive conversation! (55 white men, 2 women)"

I'm not sure I get the point. If we traverse the history of philosophy, the vast majority of philosophers are going to be men because of the position women were forced into by society that precluded them for engaging in such work.

Things are different today. In an ethics class I took the other semester I probably read just as many women as men, if not more.

To say that philosophy is exclusive is just as bizarre as saying that history is racist because Africans were in large numbers sold into slavery.


"Philosophy is not like science."

Well, I disagree with your premiss here, so I guess there's not much else for me to say. It's not that we have different intuitions about what our field is about, such that we can engage in a dialogue. It's that we have different values and want different things from philosophy. Which is why I am always reminded of McGinn's point about why don't we just split philosophy into separate disciplines? Of course, the divide McGinn was concerned with was a different divide, but the principle still seems the same to me.

Marcus Arvan

Eyeyethink: :)

Gradstudentbox: Thanks for your comment. Here's the point. You may read a lot of women in your ethics class. But, for the most part, the women we read in ethics courses (Korsgaard and Foot are a few obvious examples) are those who work *within* frameworks laid out the past 2,000 years by white men . Women who want to radically challenge that very framework -- for example, feminists -- are largely ignored, and accused of doing "bad philosophy." Similarly, how much time do you spend in your ethics or political courses do you spend discussing Asian ethics or critical race theory? Maybe things have changed since I was in grad school, but in my experience grad courses in ethics and political tend to focus almost on a *very* narrow traditions (e.g. Aristotelian virtue theory, consequentialism, versions of Kantianism, etc.).

My assertion that philosophy is not like science was not a premise: it was my conclusion -- and, if you want to deny it on philosophical grounds, you need to engage with my argument. My argument was that in science, there is clearly an objective reality *outside* of our "intuitions" or "common sense" to test our (scientific) theories. This is why there has been actual progress -- i.e. theory convergence -- in the sciences. Philosophers had intuitions that space and time had to be absolute. Einstein predicted it wasn't, and the world bore his predictions out.

Philosophy is very, very different. Just go look at the philpapers survey on philosophical attitudes. There is hardly a single major philosophical issue -- whether we are talking about the mind-body problem, morality, or justice -- that we can point to and say, "There. We have achieved a body of knowledge." And for essentially one simple reason. Philosophy is based on INTUITIONS, or judgments of individual human beings (or groups thereof). And therein lies the problem. ALL we have are the intuitions...and people rarely share intuitions. Or, when they do share them, it is only because the individuals in *that* tradition share the same intuitions, ignoring the intuitions of people in contrary traditions. This is why so many philosophical debates end in deadlocks. *I*, for instance, have the intuition that there is no way in hell that REDNESS can ever be explained in physical-functional terms. Physicalists don't share that intuition. And so we keep turning over more or less the same stones we've been turning over for 2,000 years. Yes, there are new arguments -- but no, there is no consensus.

That, then, is how philosophy is different than science. Science gets *beyond* our intuitions, philosophy doesn't. Science tests its predictions against the world. Philosophy tests its predictions against the intuitions of its practitioners -- and, all too often, *only* a favored population of practitioners who like each other's intuitions.

The scientistic conception of philosophy is, for these reasons, mistaken. It is also -- in my view -- belief in the scientistic model that is precisely what is wrong with our profession. Philosophy has never been able to give us knowledge in the sense that the sciences do. The sooner we realize this, the better. What philosophy done well *can* do is provide understanding: understanding of the considerations in favor of and against different propositions/viewpoints on metaphysical, ethics, political, etc. issues.

I was talking about this with a non-philosopher yesterday, in a very different context. This person was *aghast* by the fact that our field has had so many scandals lately (McGinn, Ludlow, Oregon, etc.). He said, "I can't believe that. Aren't philosophers supposed to be wise?" Indeed, I said, the word "philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom." Unfortunately, philosophy seems to have strayed far from its own definition. We seem to have lost wisdom, and come to believe -- falsely -- that philosophy gives knowledge like the sciences do. If only we spent more time developing wisdom and less time believing that philosophy is science; if only we spent less time believing that mainstream M&E are the "core areas" of philosophy, and more time taking seriously alternative viewpoints on metaphysics and epistemology -- particularly, the perspectives of marginalized populations; if only we came to realize these things again, then maybe, just maybe, philosophy would return to what it *really* is: love of wisdom, not a science. And certainly not a science that *fails* in every respect that genuine sciences succeed. Which, imho, is precisely what the scientistic conception of philosophy has done, all the while excluding vast numbers of people.

Marcus Arvan

Gradstudentbox: A quick follow-up on your last point -- the point on splitting up philosophy into separate disciplines (which I forgot to address).

I don't think the right way to respond to exclusion is to split the discipline up. All that does is *exclude* people. It says to other groups of people, "Sure, go do your own thing -- feminism, critical race theory, Asian philosophy whatever. We don't care about that."

My message is that philosophers should stop excluding people in precisely this kind of way. It is just another instance of isolating people -- and not taking their philosophical perspectives seriously -- instead of *listening* to them. It is just another way for one group to convince themselves that they are doing "real philosophy" whereas others are not. This, I claim, is precisely what our discipline needs to get away from.

Moti Mizrahi

Excellent post, Marcus!

As you know, I am very sympathetic to your points about intuitions. For the benefit of readers who may not know, please forgive the shameless self-promotion and allow me to include links to some of the papers in which I raise problems for the method of cases and appeals to intuition:

1. Intuition Mongering: http://philpapers.org/rec/MIZIM

2. More Intuition Mongering: http://philpapers.org/rec/MIZMIM

3. Does the Method of Cases Rest on a Mistake: http://philpapers.org/rec/MIZDTM-2

4. Don’t Believe the Hype: https://www.academia.edu/4957824/Dont_Believe_the_Hype_Why_Counterexamples_Do_Not_Amount_to_Refutations

I would like to suggest, however, that the methodological problems you raise motivate a way of thinking about philosophy as continuous with science. In other words, I don’t think that the difference between philosophy and science is so clear-cut. I agree, of course, that scientific theories are tested against the empirical world. However, I submit that philosophical theories can be tested against something that is more “objective” than idiosyncratic intuitions. In philosophy of science, for example, philosophical theories about science can be tested against the historical record or scientific practices. This is also something that I have tried to do in my own work (see, e.g., http://philpapers.org/rec/MIZWIS ).

Tamler Sommers

Hi Marcus,

Great post. I completely agree that our discipline's obsession with "rigor" as you define it is a bad thing. A couple of points though. First, you say:

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.

Obviously I can't argue with your experience but I will say that it hasn't been my experience at all. I've never been a "make a small point, come up with a new counterexample or refinement" kind of guy and my mentors and peers have respected that from the beginning. From my first year in grad school, the professors at Duke all encouraged me to swing for the fences if that's what I wanted to do. Nobody asked me to make a small, careful contribution. They knew that wasn't my strength. If anything they encouraged me to be bolder both in style and content.

The idea that we have to do rigorous work--in your sense of the term--to succeed is a misconception, one that leads to more and more students going that route. I've succumbed to it in parts of my career. But you don't have to think or write that way, you just don't.

As for the exclusivity of the (worst side of the) rigorous approach, I agree--although I think it excludes the vast majority of white males as well...

Marcus Arvan

Hi Tammler: Thanks for your comment!

I'm glad to hear that you've had a different experience. I've never been a "make a small contribution" guy myself. Dating all the way back to my undergraduate days, I was always a "big idea" kind of philosopher. And, early on in my career at least, I had a few mentors who encouraged me in this. But, my experience as I went further along in the discipline is that, by and large, there is a great deal of pressure (by peers, blogs, and some very influential people) to *not* to swing for the fences. I, at any rate, was actively discouraged from it by many, many people from many different directions, and for several years I tried to be a kind of philosopher I'm not.

As a result, philosophy lost all its charm and wonder for me for a very long time -- and I floundered (so, yes, I myself was one of the white males you mention: one who felt excluded, and pressured to doing philosophy in a way that I did not think was right). It was only when I decided one day a few years ago, "To heck with everything I've been told. I'm going to swing for the fences", that I've begun to have any success, do work I'm proud of...and find joy in philosophy again.

In any case, it is good to hear that it is possible to succeed doing things differently. Perhaps there is hope for me yet. ;) More seriously, though, I do hope discussions like these will help change things for the better. The longer I've spent in philosophy (and I've spent over half my life doing it now), the more I've come to believe in plurality -- that there isn't just one narrow way to do philosophy well, or only one dominant tradition worth engaging with. Thanks again for the great comment!


"The question isn't whether prevailing philosophical standards have systematically excluded people "from the conversation". The question is: how could they not?"

I assume that what you mean is something like this: "How could the fact that virtually all canonical philosophers are white men not exclude from 'the conversation' people who should (on grounds of pure intellectual merit) be part of it?" Then the answer seems fairly obvious. There are many not-improbable scenarios under which the white-male-ness of philosophy and philosophical history would NOT exclude such people:

(1) Suppose that hundreds of white male _geniuses_ such as Plato, Descartes or Wittgenstein working in a great many varied historical and cultural settings over 2500 years have come up with a very diverse set of ideas. Suppose that these ideas are roughly co-extensive with the broad range of basic thoughts thinkable for 99% of the human population now and in the foreseeable future. Then any non-white-male thinker is very unlikely to come up with any idea that is not (a) already a part of white-male-philosophical history or (b) no more alien in relation to that history than many of its constituents are to each other.

(2) Suppose that the philosophical "intuitions" or capacities or interests of people do not correspond in any clear or systematic way with such crude identifiers as "white" and "male". Thus, for example, the mere fact that some ancient Greek or Roman was a white male does not tell us anything at all about the likelihood that he is similar, intellectually or just philosophically, to Saul Kripke or Jean-Paul Sartre or Blaise Pascal. In that case, the fact that all of the philosophers on your list are white men would not be any reason to expect that, as such, there will be certain "standards" built into their work that would tend to be inhospitable non-white or non-male thinkers.

Both 1 and 2 are plausible. They are not deeply implausible, anyway. If you want to know how people with the interests and aptitudes needed for philosophizing might FAIL to be excluded from philosophy by the sheer white-male-ness of its historical greats, there are at least two good ways of explaining how that might fail to happen.

This is not to say that the discipline does not have standards (and customs, practices, etc.) that exclude people. At any given time, there are trends and taboos with real effects: people don't get published because they disagree with some assumption that most people in the profession share, for example, and they're not famous enough for their disagreement to be taken seriously. But this has nothing to do with the race or sex of the dissidents. For example, it is obvious that nowadays a non-white woman who holds trendy views in the philosophy of mind is a commodity: departments will like what she says, and they'll like who is saying it (and like themselves for liking her, hiring her, etc.) But a white man who holds non-conventional opinions may be excluded or marginalized simply in virtue of what he believes. Suppose he is a devout traditionalist Roman Catholic or Mormon, for example. Many philosophers would regard his religious beliefs as kooky and creepy -- and him by extension. (Rightly so, maybe. I'm just noting a fact here.) Being white and male would not do anything to make him more respectable/acceptable/hirable.


Also, it would be helpful to deal with some more concrete examples. You say that you've seen students skeptical of "critical race" theory or feminist theory because -- you think -- these theories involve challenges to the "conservative" standards of philosophy. Could it be that the reason is just that theorists in these areas do often work under rather lax intellectual standards? That the typical "critical race" theorist is reasoning in ways that are objectively less logical/careful/insightful than the typical philosopher of physics or language or epistemologist? That's always been my impression. Why are you so confident that these thinkers really are operating at just the same level as people in more traditional areas? Or that, if they aren't, those traditional standards they tend to reject or violate are not worth holding on to? I'm curious to hear something more specific about (a) how exactly these thinkers are challenging received ideas in philosophy and (b) why these challenges deserve serious consideration. Every challenge I've come across seemed pretty lame to me...

Marcus Arvan

Ambrose: Thanks for your comment.

Your claims (1) and (2) are, I think -- contrary to what you say -- clearly false. The kinds of things (premises, intuitions, etc.) that women and other minority philosophers argue for are *not* represented in the past 2,500 years of philosophy. So, for instance, consider ethics and political philosophy. Just about every major theory in Western ethics today is strongly *universalist* and *impartialist*, focusing on abstract, general principles (the Categorical Imperative, Principle of Utility, etc.). Even Aristotelian virtue ethics is abstract in this way, as the canonical "virtues" defended are more or less the traditional ones that have historically favored white males. Feminists and race theorists, in contrast, often emphasize *embodiment* and *diversity* of moral experience, including most centrally experiences of oppression and domination by the disadvantaged. Almost none of traditional moral philosophy does any of this. Nor does traditional political philosophy. Race is almost never mentioned in traditional political philosophy, except to (e.g. in Rawls' case) hold that a fully just society would be one in which people are treated equally. Well, that's great and all, but we don't live in a just world. We live in a world where people have been -- and continue to be -- discriminated against. And political philosophy has by and large ignored this nonideal reality and, again, focused largely on abstract conceptions of rights and responsiblities (e.g. Lockean/Nozickean natural rights, etc) that more or less ignore race and gender -- and epistemological issues related to different perspectives -- that feminists and critical race theorists emphasize.

In short, I think your comment simply ignores reality. The past 2,500 years of western philosophical thought *haven't* included all of the "major ideas". They have systematically excluded just about everything having to do with race and gender, focusing mostly on abstract moral reasoning that has largely benefited white males.

Second, on your point about specific examples, I do not want to get into specific examples, because in order to do so I would have to call out philosophers by name and say that they do bad work. But, let me just say this: I *don't* think the typical feminist or race theorist is doing "more lax" work than the average analytic philosopher. Again, I realize that this is my judgment (and I am an analytic philosophers), but in my view there is a whole lot of awful, awful analytic philosophy. When I teach canonical articles from analytic philosophy, I am often struck by just how unclear, poorly written, arcane, and lacking in any sort of original insight they are. Let's look, for instance, at Rawls -- the single most influential analytic political philosopher of the past 100 years. Rawls spent hundreds of pages laying out his liberal-egalitarian theory of justice...but the actual arguments for his two principles of justice? *Those* arguments come on a handful of pages, and the arguments are absolutely, absolutely woeful. They are not only obscure and lacking in any real detail. They are "howlers." Rawls says for instance that maximin is rational when, and only when, 3 specific conditions hold -- and 2 of the 3 plainly *don't* hold when it comes to income and wealth (viz. the difference principle). His arguments from stability for the right reasons, self-respect, and finality, then come on, like 2 pages and are never defended -- ever! -- in detail.

Or consider theories of human rights in analytic philosophy. As I've explained in two of my published articles, I think the entire debate over human rights has been sloppy and based upon a simple confusion.

And don't even get me started on contemporary metaphysics and epistemology...a lot of which I (and I am not alone) consider to be purely verbal disputes/pseudoproblems. Not to mention intuition-mongering that takes "progress" to be a narrow cadre of specialists insisting that their intuitions are correct...even when many others don't share the intuitions.

So, when I hear people in analytic philosophy say that feminism and critical race theory work under "lax standards", I want to say, "Pot, meet kettle."

Marcus Arvan

Note: I don't mean to suggest that *most* analytic philosophy is bad. All I mean to say is that we criticize other traditions for having "lax" standards, we need to be honest with ourselves -- and I do think self-honesty shows that analytic philosophy's standards are not nearly as rigorous (in the true sense of the word) as its proponents like to make them out to be. Analytic philosophers, for all of their virtues, also have a lot of bad habits: indulging intuition-mongering, etc. And it is important to realize that our discipline has these bad habits. For, once we do, it becomes a whole lot less clear that we are paragons of rigor we (sometimes) like to make ourselves out to be.

For my part, I will say this. I am an analytic philosopher. I like a lot of analytic philosophy, and see the virtues in analytic philosophy. But I also think a significant swath of it is not very rigorous, and involves a lot of epistemic/philosophical vices (such as intuition mongering, etc.). And I find a lot of "alternative" works -- work by feminists, critical race theorists, and non-western authors -- a lot more insightful than a lot of analytic philosophy. My overall view? Philosophy is *tough*, but there is a lot of good stuff from a lot of different perspectives -- and we do none of these perspectives any favors by simply asserting (despite the problems that are often raised by critics) that analytic philosophy has a monopoly on "rigorous" standards. Again, I think a truly honest look at our field reveals just how questionable/"lax" some of our standards are. And again, I think there is a lot more to philosophy than rigor. Insight is important too, and it is insights most of all that I think some analytic philosophy is all too lacking in, and alternative viewpoints sometimes contain, that we could all benefit from.


I could care less who is doing "real philosophy." That was never a point in my argument. Heck, I'll let feminism, critical race theory, and Asian philosophy use "Real Philosophy" as their discipline's name. And the rest of us can get the discipline name of "Fake Philosophy".

And as I mentioned above, I am listening to the other side. And I've realized that what is at issue is that we have different values and goals in mind for our career. The split is supposed to be mutual, and not a one-sided exclusion. We get to preserve our values and goals with our newly named discipline, and everyone else gets to actually have their own discipline with their own values and goals. If anything this is a gain for those such people who were before minority figures stomped under the large foot of analytic philosophy.

Marcus Arvan

GradStudentBox: Thanks for your reply.

In theory -- conceived of purely abstractly -- splitting the discipline into alternative traditions needn't be exclusionary.

But that is not the issue. The issue is what the result is in *practice*. And we already know what the result is in practice. For let's take a look at what philosophy is today.

The "mainstream" tradition of western, analytic philosophy is a tradition directed by 2,500 years of intuitions primarily from white men. We *do* have splits in the discipline. There are feminists doing feminist work, critical race theorists doing critical race theory, continentalists doing continental stuff, etc. BUT, the feminists, race theorists, continentalists, etc. are marginalized. The vast majority of university courses, seminars, conferences, APA conference sessions, are driven by the dominant tradition, and cast aside alternative traditions as outside the mainstream.

This is what I am arguing is exclusionary, and needs to change. I am white male steeped in the Western analytic tradition. And yet the more I am exposed to alternative lines of thought -- and I shudder to admit that this has been a relatively recent development for me -- the more *value* I find in them. I think it is a real loss for all of us to split into largely autonomous divisions, each doing its own work and not paying attention to one another. If analytic political philosophers spent more time taking feminism, etc., seriously, I think we would gain a lot from it.

I, at any rate, have gained a lot from it. Consider, for instance, my recent paper "First Steps Toward a Nonideal Theory of Justice", which I think is the most rigorous piece of work I've done (see http://philpapers.org/rec/ARVFST) Feminists and critical race theorists have long criticized traditional political philosophy -- and Rawls in particular -- for focusing primarily on ideals (on defining a perfectly just state) while ignoring (A) nonideal questions of gender & racial oppression, and (B) the experiences of oppressed groups.

In my work, I've argued that a proper extension of Rawls' entire (analytic!) framework to nonideal theory -- something Rawlsians have never really tried before -- results in a nonideal-theoretic version of the original position the *output* of which (the outcome of free and equal persons deliberating behind a nonideal veil of ignorance) are principles of nonideal justice which require us to *focus* on the experiences and collective deliberation of groups (particularly, oppressed groups) on the ground.

In other words, if I am right, an entirely *analytic* approach to nonideal justice confirms things feminists and critical race theorists have long been arguing for. Which just lends a great deal of new support to the proposition that they had important *insights* all along -- insights which, if analytic political philosophers had paid attention to them, might have resulted in a better *analytic* political philosophy a long time ago.

In other words, rather than splitting into opposing groups -- the practical result of which, I think is (A) bad philosophy, and (B) groups getting stomped underfoot/ignored whether or not that is the intention -- different traditions (including the analytic one) have a lot to *gain* by ceasing to be so parochial.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Moti: Thanks for your kind comment--and no worries about a little self-promotion. It's hard to get one's stuff read, and I definitely appreciate the wish to draw attention to it! ;)

You may be right that philosophy and science aren't *as* discontinuous as I'm making them out to be. My point was merely that I think they are far more discontinuous than the scientistic conception of philosophy makes them out to be.


Hi Marcus.

Let's consider just one point of disagreement. You claim that there are philosophically worthy ideas, intuitions or points of view that lie outside the white-man canon. Such as ethical outlooks that are not "universalist" or "impartialist". For, you say, mainstream theories "today" are all universalist-impartialist. That's not what I was referring to, or what you referred to in the original comments under discussion. I wasn't talking only about the narrow range of ideas drawn from that long tradition that are _right now_ considered important or respectable. I was talking about the tradition as a whole.

Do you mean that in the 2500 years of white-man philosophy there are few or no examples of non-universalist or non-impartialist ethics? Now _that_ is plainly false, plainly at odds with reality. There have been loads of white-man subjectivists, localists, relativists, skeptics, etc: Heraclitus, Marx, Mackie, Montaigne, Hume, Herder, Nietzsche, etc.

What exactly is the conception of "universality" or "impartiality" that (a) is _not_ critically questioned or rejected by any of these kinds of thinkers and yet (b) is indeed questioned or rejected in some intelligent way by feminists or "critical race" theorists? Does Martha Minnow, say, actually have some criticism of objectivism or moral realism or whatnot that isn't essentially just a rehash of Nietzsche or Montaigne or Sextus Empiricus or something?

I'd have the same question about the other issues you mention -- "embodiment" or the "diversity" of experience, or race itself... What specific claim about any of this stuff coming from these supposedly marginalized camps -- all of them with publicly funded sub-disciplines, degree programs and journals and academic conferences, naturally -- is not inspired by some dead white male? Or, at any rate, well represented already in some dead white male's work? (Take the very idea of "oppression" in its modern form, to do with "race", "gender", etc. Where did that come from, do you think, if not from various dead white males?)

I am genuinely curious to know your answer. It does seem that we live in different worlds. Your answer seems though to be directed at a straw man. (I too find the conservatism and narrow-mindedness of our actual, present philosophical culture very off-putting. Though probably for reasons not like yours:))

Marcus Arvan

Ambrose: thanks for your reply.

I don't think I am attacking a straw man, and here's why. I am willing to grant that objections to objectivism and universalism have been made by dead white men (Nietzsche, Montaigne, etc.). My point is different.

Let's think about what you say at the beginning of your comment, when you reference "theories taken seriously today." Well, which theories *are* taken seriously today? Answer: for the most part, the *univeralistic* ones. Why? Here's what the feminist and critical race theorist say: because white males tend not to *experience* subjugation themselves, they tend to find abstract/universalist ethics "intuitive" or "common sense." Accordingly, since white men have dominated our field, this has become the *dominant* tradition -- and not necessarily because the arguments for it are better, but rather, because the field is drive by what "seems intuitive" to white men.

This is the point I was trying to make in my post. The point is not that feminists/critical race theorists came up with ideas out of the blue that no one had ever had before. The point is that those non-abstract/non-universalist views are given short-shrift in the history of philosophy precisely because they *don't* tend to appeal to white men, and that feminists and critical race theorists face an exclusionary, uphill battle to get what *they* find intuitive taken seriously.

And what I am doing in the post is drawing attention to how I think this kind of marginalization/exclusion occurs.


Hi Marcus,

I was responding to your question: how could it be that "our standards" fail to exclude people (who shouldn't be excluded)? And you asked the question right after providing a long list of philosophers from a vast history, the only thing common to all of them apparently being that they are white and men. So the suggestion seemed to be that white-man philosophy by its very nature simply as such tends to generate intellectual norms or ideas or whatnot that are bound to exclude non-white-man philosophers. Was that not the point of the historical/canonical list?

But your real point, I take it, is not that these historical/canonical standards do the excluding. Rather, you are saying (?) that a tiny sub-set of white-man philosophers in recent history, because of their distinctive experiences, set the tone philosophically.

Well, that is questionable too, though not for the same reasons.

Can any intelligent person really believe, on reflection, that "white men tend not to experience subjugation"? White men in my own family in living memory were imprisoned, tortured and murdered for their religious and political beliefs and ethnic identities. Others experienced brutal poverty of a kind that almost no one in any western society today experiences. Others were sent off to die in wars that had no purpose at all from their point of view. And so on. My (white) family is not so unusual. There have been millions of white men whose experiences were like this, and there still are today. It seems flatly absurd to deny that these are "experiences" of "subjugation".

Perhaps it's true that the white men _who have jobs as philosophers_ tend to not experience these very brutal forms of subjugation or injustice. But then that is also true of non-white non-men who have those jobs. All people with those jobs _tend_ to be extremely rich, comfortable and privileged compared with most people.

I am also baffled by the alleged connection between having experiences of subjugation or not, and finding universalism or impartialism reasonable, or not. Why on earth would the experience of oppression (or whatever) make you skeptical of the idea that ethical rules _should_ apply universally, or that we _should_ aspire to impartiality rather than partiality?

Moreover, in reality, it looks as if millions of people who undoubtedly do experience subjugation (injustice, etc.) have always been strongly attached to these notions. Even within the tiny comfortable bubble inhabited by professional philosophers, of whatever race or sex, we find lots of non-white non-male thinkers who endorse universalism and lots of white men who don't.

So if the challenge to "our" standards is as you describe it, I'd say there is a good reason why it is not considered especially noteworthy as philosophy. It seems like a faulty inference based on a very crude and simplistic generalization.

A possible explanation for the fact that universalism and impartiality are default notions is that these are standards or ideals that have best withstood the most serious scrutiny and criticism over 2500 years. Not that (a) white men more often tend to find these ideals plausible than other people because (b) white men tend not to experience "subjugation". Both a and b are, at best, highly questionable. My alternative explanation is not questionable unless (c) someone has produced a serious criticism of the ideals of universality and impartiality that (d) has not been given due consideration by white man philosophers (or others). Maybe conditions c and d obtain. But I have no reason to think that they do. Do you?

Marcus Arvan

Ambrose: Thanks for your reply. A few thoughts...

You write: "Can any intelligent person really believe, on reflection, that "white men tend not to experience subjugation"?

My answer: Yes. I am an intelligent person, and I believe that white men *tend* not to experience subjugation...at least, not to anything remotely close to the extent that members of historically disadvantaged populations do as a permanent feature of day-to-day life.

And let me explain why none of the evidence you give contradicts this. You mention how your family survived the Holocaust, how millions of white men have been sent off to war, etc. Fair enough. BUT...you are ignoring the obvious. White men still do *not* face subjugation on a daily basis as a permanent feature of daily life. People of other backgrounds do.

Are white men racially profiled? No.
Are they arrested disproportionately? No.
Do they get disproportionate prison sentences? No.
Is the white unemployment rate disproportionately high? No.
Do studies show that their resumes are rated disproportionately negatively? No.
Do studies show that they are treated badly in interviews on account of their skin color? No.
Are white males' average wages disproportionately low? No.
Are while males' life expectancy levels disproportionately low? No.
Do they receive disproportionately poor public education? No.
Do they have disproportionately low access to health care? No.
Are white men disproportionately sent off to fight and die in wars? No.

White men are, as a group, systematically disadvantaged in *none* of these ways. Members of other communities *are*.

So, although some men in history have faced subjugation, they have not, as as a group, faced it as a permanent condition of their lives. I, for instance, do not walk down the street and have people avoid me because of my race. I do not get pulled over while driving because I am white. I do not get pulled out of my car and have my car searched for drugs because I am white. Etc. I was also never sexually harassed in graduate school, and have never met a fellow male graduate student who was. In contrast, I have met *many* female grad students who have.

This is what is so baffling to me -- in general -- about your comments. You seem to not to want to recognize the simple fact that, no, white men do not and have not faced anything like the consistent pattern of abuse and subjugation as a matter of *daily* life that members of other groups have and continue to do (see recent empirical work on implicit bias, resume studies, interview treatment studies).

If you want to deny all this -- the many facts which show that white men do not tend to face subjugation in anything like the way that members of other groups do -- then I guess we cannot have a productive conversation. I say you are simply denying facts.

On (c) and (d), I do not think that feminists and critical race theorists *are* taken seriously by mainstream philosophers, and I think they *have* produced worthwhile criticisms of ideals of universality and impartiality.

I expect you will say in reply (as you did in your mention of Nietzsche, etc), that white men have come up with similar criticisms in the past, and those ideas have been taken seriously.

My reply is that I do not they think they have been taken seriously *enough*, and that to the extent that they are taken seriously, it is largely their male progenitors (e.g. Nietzsche) that are taken seriously, while their female progenitors (e.g. contemporary feminists, etc.) tend to be ignored and denigrated as doing "bad philosophy". (For my part, for instance, I think Minow's "Justice Engendered" is *far* more insightful, and worth taking seriously, than 90% of mainstream political philosophy. Um? Anarchy, State, and Utopia was an "influential work" of the 20th Century? Really? As though it wasn't just a bald assertion of natural rights followed by a deduction of what follows from them?).

Anyway, I do *not* think the balance of arguments favor universality and impartiality. Personally, I think this is one of the great embarrassments of our profession. We tend to teach our students that subjective and cultural relativsm are false, and that various forms of universalism (e.g. Kantian, utilitarianism, etc.) are "more plausible." And yet I think the overall balance of arguments favors relativism. And I think feminists and others have given good arguments for taking other views seriously -- views that have *not* been taken seriously in mainstream philosophy. So, yes, I think conditions (c) and (d) both obtain. I expect you'll disargee -- but that's where I stand. :)


Hi Marcus.

It seems that we would agree to some general principle such as this:

"If members of some group G do strongly tend to experience serious injustice far more often than members of some other group, then it is reasonable to expect that they _may_ have worthy philosophical intuitions or insights that others do not have"

And that we should be aware of the possibility that there are biases against G that prevent these ideas from getting due consideration, etc.

But now the question is: Do "white men" as a group really _tend_ not to experience some important set of really bad things that everyone else does strongly _tend_ to experience?

My suggestion is that the world is more complicated in that respect -- way, way, way more complicated -- than is implied by simple assertions about "white men" and the rest.

I don't expect to convince you of anything, but perhaps you'll agree that there is real _uncertainty_ and _complexity_ that needs to be examined here.

So consider a few of your questions:

"Are white men racially profiled?"

No, but as MEN they are "sexually profiled" although no one seems to think that is unjust. Everyone knows that men, regardless of race, are far more likely to commit all kinds of crimes than women. And the authorities and the general public behave accordingly. If you are a young man, especially, then regardless of race you're far more likely to be stopped by the cops, questioned, treated with mistrust or fear, etc.

Instead of comparing white men and black men, why not compare white men with white (or black) women? Then we'll find that, as men, they are arrested or "profiled" far, far, far more regularly than women. We'll find that they have higher rates of suicide, that they have all kinds of pathologies that women, as a group, do not tend to have.

What follows? I'm not sure, but I think that the same general considerations that lead people to assert "white male privilege" could be taken to support a theory of "female privilege". At any rate, far more needs to be said here.

Now maybe you'll say that "sexual profiling" is not oppression or "subjugation". Okay. But then is it just obvious that "racial profiling" is? If young black men are treated with greater fear or suspicion or whatnot, that might just be because they are far more likely than many other kinds of people to commit robberies, rapes, homicides, etc.

In addition, I don't believe that ALL black people, or even all young black men, tend to be subjected to any clearly objectionable "racial profiling". At least, if that is happening for elderly black guys in suits or middle-aged black women who work as professors or real estate agents I am not aware of any good evidence.

On the other hand, it is likely that POOR white men (like poor white men of all races) do tend to be subjected "as a group" to all kinds of cruelty and injustice, etc.

So where does this leave the assertion that, in this one respect, "white men" tend not to experience that general kind of injustice while unspecified others do so tend? It seems very unobvious to me.

"Are they arrested disproportionately?"

I don't know how you're conceiving of "proportionality". White men are arrested for violent crimes at rates roughly corresponding to victim reports regarding perpetrator race. The same is true for black men in the US. If their rates of crime are "disproportionate" then, in a civilized society, so will their arrest rates.

Now you may say that they commit a lot of crime because of poverty, oppression, etc. Maybe so. But then perhaps that is also true of many of the white men who commit crimes and get arrested?

"Do they get disproportionate prison sentences?"

Again, what is proportionate? Black men tend to get longer sentences but often for seemingly non-racist reasons. For example, when we look into prior conviction rates, etc., we find that they are not being sentenced more harshly than genuinely comparable non-black criminals. (See Heather MacDonald's work on this if you're curious.)

Now, again, you may object to all THAT. (I myself don't like the way that the judicial-carceral system works.) But I don't feel confident that the really objectionable thing here has to do with some privilege that "white men" enjoy _as_ white men, or that others lack in virtue of not being white men.


Hi Marcus,

Your post is very refreshing in a lot of ways. Just one (relatively minor) point: neither Jesus nor Augustine nor Derrida are, strictly speaking, white men (something similar could be said about many of the other ancient figures that you mentioned). It's unclear how dark Jesus and Augustine were, but it is fairly well-established that Jesus' skin was likely relatively-dark and Augustine's skin may have been quite dark. And Derrida was of Sephardic Jewish descent and was born in Algeria - not precisely "white," even as he spent the majority of his posh academic life in Paris.

All of this is, of course, of no consequence insofar as both European/"Western" society and philosophical mythology have developed along a racially-exclusive axis, thereby subsuming all of these figures to our contemporary paradigm of "white" - so, in this respect and otherwise, your point about exclusivity certainly still stands.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Subscribe to the Cocoon

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory


Subscribe to the Cocoon