why still philosophy?

by means of introduction, i wish to introduce a philosophical question about philosophy itself: why?

if it is the case that we are claiming a place in a discipline which has shown no particular love for us or the work we do, a discipline which in the best case tolerates our work so long as it isn’t too inconvenient or embarrassing, or so long as it doesn’t make us look bad in front of the bosses (i kid! i kid. you guys are great.), and in the worst case doesn’t consider our work at all, or if it does, certainly doesn’t consider it to be philosophy, we have to ask ourselves, why philosophy? why don’t we just follow our mutant forebears (such as judith butler or iris marion young) and get a job in some other department (insofar as we *can* get a job, at all)? if what we do is not really philosophy anyway, why not just accept that and move on? why, y’all? why still philosophy?

i ask this question as an invitation, because the answer(s) isn’t/aren’t immediately apparent.

as it was with adorno, who posed this question in a radio address in 1962, my response is ambivalent. on the one hand, there is no reason to continue to commit ourselves to a discipline that won’t commit to us. there are other venues for our work, other places where our training and talents will be taken seriously, places where we will be less exposed to bullying, microagressions, gaslighting, outright harassment, and de-legitimization of various kinds. under such conditions, leaving is not giving up. it is not a second best. it nevertheless takes real work to counter an ideology that requires that we sacrifice everything to this job. that ideology is itself the product of privilege, since it assumes a straight, white masculine position, or it at least assumes that philosophers, no matter what particular identity positions they may occupy, are able to find the necessary resources for survival in whatever position, wherever they might land. i am thinking here in particular of donna-dale marcano’s “the color of change in continental feminist philosophy”, and of alexis pauline gumb’s “the shape of my impact,” her moving reflection on the meaning of survival within and without the academy.

on the other hand, i refuse to accept the narrow-minded, self-strangulating, boring, rabidly policed and provincial view of philosophy. i refuse to accept the endless circular firing squads, where we have to denounce this and belittle that in order to jockey for legitimacy. and then claim that everyone *else* is engaging in identity politics.

philosophy is already more than that. it just isn’t entirely aware of it.

my own experience of philosophy is unusual, in that i was trained in a department in which women outnumbered men, and in which all kinds of questions – questions of race, gender, sexuality, and ability, alongside and in conversation with questions about the status of reason, the workings of logic, the claims to knowledge, the meaning of history, of sovereignty, of style – were taken seriously as philosophical questions. this searching took place through a constellation of texts, both “traditional” and “non-traditional.” my training did not emphasize competition or one-upsmanship: while we had to make claims and arguments and defend them, this effort was not (for the most part) treated as a zero-sum game or a “blood” “sport.” it was instead an atmosphere of collaboration, of a common struggle to understand and to critique and to problematize and to complicate and to sharpen and deepen our questions. in it, i learned as much from the questions and concerns of my peers as i did from my faculty. this atmosphere was, as i later learned, exceptional; even more so as this atmosphere did not persist, not even in my own graduate department. nonetheless, this experience left me with an ideal of what philosophy might be, what philosophy could yet be – an ideal to which i am committed.

in the end, my answer is a protest against a too-delimited understanding of what counts as philosophy, an understanding that dictated that many of those philosophers i most admired and in many cases from whom i learned the most had to find an academic home outside philosophy in order to continue their *immensely philosophical* work.

why still philosophy?

because what is is not what ought be. and what has been is not what must be.

and because philosophy is already more, and other, than what it is.

it just isn’t entirely aware of it yet.


5 thoughts on “why still philosophy?

  1. Megahertz

    Thanks for this, EI. This is a question I struggle with a lot myself: Should I stay or should I go, right? I often rationalize my staying with a political argument: I owe it to philosophy to stick it out so that things will be better for future generations of scholars. But then I struggle with the fact that this argument doesn’t do much to shift the burden of changing/improving the discipline to the mainstream, but maintains it as an extra obligation for people already marginalized within the field. This is a more concrete point than your excellent (dialectical) meta-argument you make. Yes, philosophy IS already more, and other, than what it is. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be the responsibility of the others to raise some mainstream consciousness about this fact, to make “philosophy” aware of it. This is a manifestly non-ideal world, though, and this is where I think your meta-argument is really helpful: instead of making a sort of Du Boisian “Include us because we have valuable contributions to make!” claim, it’s appealing to “philosophy” itself–the shared value or commitment, maybe, is one way to think of it.

    At least for me, I think it is still worth doing philosophy because it offers distinctive tools for approaching these “extra-philosophical” problems and interests we could easily pursue outside the discipline. There’s something about being able to converse with people trained IN PHILOSOPHY that MATTERS. (And maybe I’ll write about that more extensively in a later post.) So I guess I’m reversing the political dynamic of Du Bois’s “Conservation” argument and saying that we should continue to bother with philosophy because IT has some distinctive things to offer US. As you put it in the title of your post (Why still philosophy?), PHILOSOPHY is what needs justification, not our work that still needs to supplicate and justify itself to PHILOSOPHY (“Is this philosophy?”).

      1. Megahertz

        Thanks, aufheben. Just to clarify my thinking on my use of Du Bois (you know, after the coffee kicks in, my ideas get more choate): One thing I’m trying to point out is that we xcphilosophers are in a DISANALOGOUS situation to WEBDB: while he strategically chose that argument because the alternative was, basically, extermination (or, “Conservation” is a response to the question, “Well, why not just get rid of them?”), we DO have other alternatives in the academy–women’s studies, cultural studies, comp lit, etc. Hence the move to scrutinizing philosophy itself.

        I actually think the survival and relevance of the discipline is kinda at stake here, at least to some extent. Philosophy programs often are easy targets to budget and program cuts. If we want there to still be philosophy departments and philosophy programs, then philosophy is going to have to change. One way it can change is to be in more intimate conversation with (a) the rest of the humanities, and (b) the concerns of students of color, women, LGBTQI students, disabled students, international students, etc.–students who will compose increasingly greater proportions of graduate and undergraduate populations. In other words, it’s not just us asking “Why STILL philosophy?”–state legislatures, boards of trustees, and deans are asking that question too. We’re just a much friendlier audience who also happens to have a deep professional and personal investment in the future of the discipline. We’re not the enemy; maybe we’re the crew of Intervention, or something.

  2. educated ice Post author

    thanks for your responses, megahertz & aufheben.

    that conversation over at SGP is incredible, as is Dotson’s article, which i think i have thought about every day since i read it. we should have a whole discussion of it, and write a bunch about it. there’s so much to say about it and it deserves the widest possible audience (not that this is the vector for that!).

    as to your point, megahertz, this puts me in mind of John McCumber’s most recent work, and what I anticipate his upcoming book to treat – this idea that in order to survive, philosophy has to be in closer contact with, as you put it, the rest of the humanities and with the concerns of folks from historically marginalized positions. Yes to all that, basically.

    in order to defend my position as a dialectical crank (and this is not really directed against your point, MH, but i’m just mapping out the territory here), i feel honor-bound to add that this doesn’t mean that philosophy has to simply accede to the contemporary. i hear this kind of logic behind every administrator in higher education who says that we can no longer afford to ignore the current political-economic forces that are shaping higher education; too often, not ignoring these forces means simply acceding to them. that’s how we find ourselves at a meeting to discuss who is going to staff all these online classes, and we’re thinking, “uh, when did we agree that this was the direction we should go as an institution?” now, these forces are not simply being ignored; they are operating, it seems to me, all the fiercer under the cover of an ideology that convinces us that we are above that – just as philosophers often operate under a cover that convinces us that we are too thoughtful, too rational, too reasonable, and our work too “profound” and too “universal” to be provincial, not to say racist and sexist and ableist and, and . in “why still philosophy?”, adorno argues that “if philosophy is still necessary, it is only in the way it has been from time immemorial: as critique…” i take this to mean that philosophy both is and is not a child of its time, as critique is a reading of and a response to current conditions. what we need is more and better readings of and responses to current conditions.

  3. Rougarou

    Thanks for this post. Like Megahertz, I’ve grappled with this question quite a bit–perhaps because, the further I get away from grad school, the more I understand “Philosophy” as a discipline and/or institution, rather than an ideal, methodology, or set of texts.

    My own response is often a bit more cynical, and less optimistic. Although I agree with you that Philosophy (even as an institution or discipline) is already more than it tends to understand itself to be, I tend to be hyper-aware that this fact cuts both ways. (I don’t take myself to be saying anything that’s new to you or anyone else here, by the way–I think you acknowledge as much in your last comment; i.e., that Philosophy as a discipline also turns out to involve all kinds of administrative and other practical crap that is worrisome, and I think that all of the folks here acknowledge as much in coming to/writing for a blog like this.) In other words, my concern is with whether the fact of Philosophy’s non-transparency to itself is necessarily a reason to stay. I wonder if the fact that you point to a positive feature of that non-transparency as a reason is, in some ways, the reason itself: namely, that we choose to recognize that which is valuable in Philosophy, rather than foregrounding its ugly other stuff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–I take it that those of us who remain in Philosophy are actively making this choice.

    But then, the more complicated question for me is, what makes that choice possible for me/us? Are there things that we could do, practically, to make that choice more plausible for others? Are there things I’m doing that are making that choice difficult for some folks? And, even more pressingly (I think about this all the time with my students), is this even a good idea–setting folks on a path in which they will be forced to make this choice over and over again? Sometimes it seems it would just be easier, and more healthy, for me to encourage them to pursue other disciplines or institutions that don’t require this continual (and for me, quite difficult) choice.

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