The Demographic Problem and the Divide: At Least Bad Pizza is Still Pizza.

I want to focus my analysis around two questions, or two problems. They are separate because they are always taken up or treated as separate; or we are told that we must be careful to keep them separate, that we shouldn’t confuse one with the other. What others call confusion I call dialectics, so my aim will be to take these problems/questions as separate and then, hopefully, to show their mutual implication – or at least show a way forward common to both.


The first question treats the so-called “divide” between continental and analytic philosophy, and the efforts aimed at overcoming this divide – most often represented by the term “pluralism.” The divide is most often framed as stylistic or as merely sociological.
This piece argues that in order to discover the distinction between the two,

We should look for differences in founding fathers, exemplars, sources of authority, core concerns, patterns of citations, and family resemblances between works. (Note: I am not using ‘founding father’ for someone who actively founded something but for someone who is generally seen as having originated something.)


The good news is, if the divide is merely stylistic or sociological, then this is not an indictment of the substance of the work; style, and/or the sociological condition of the development of these differing styles, is/are seen as external to the content of the work itself. Great! Even for those of us (like feminists perhaps? philosophers of art? critical theorists? continental philosophers?) who have called into question the very distinction between form and content, substance and style, this interpretation of the divide is much better than other possible interpretations, such as “analytic philosophy simply doesn’t exist, it is known as ‘philosophy,’ whereas ‘continental philosophy’ is simply ‘not philosophy.’” These attempts at defining the two schools/approaches/ are however all rather interesting or instructive, as they tend to devolve into a kind of ghost-chasing: continental gets rendered as “Party-Line Continental”; this gets conflated with “Postmodernism”; everybody denies that they (or anybody really) are “Postmodern” (well maybe Lyotard), we all agree that at least we aren’t closed-minded party-liners, like “them” (whoever “they” are at this point), and we all leave feeling better about how ecumenical we are.

Treating the divide as a matter of style or as merely sociological does not always avoid the ghost chasing described above, but at least it leaves open the door to the possibility that work done by “continentalists” can still be described as “philosophical.” Perhaps the clearest proof of this is that more and more philosophers trained in “analytic” departments now claim “continental philosophy” as one of their specializations, or one of their subfields. To which, Huzzah! The more the merrier. But I’ve got a feeling that folks trained in continental departments aren’t necessarily going to be getting a whole lot of Facebook requests or invitations to put together a panel for the APA from their colleagues trained up under different circumstances. As one blogger put it,

When philosophers cannot make themselves understandable by other philosophers, there is a breakdown. When philosophers do not care about making themselves understandable by other philosophers, they are no longer doing philosophy…
Continental philosophy, under current sociological divides, and given the interest in making sense of the primary sources in such a way that almost precludes making sense of them to others outside the tradition, is thus almost fated to be, for the most part, quite bad. Even when it strives for clarity—and I want to commend here Gary Gutting’s spectacular history of French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century—massive problems remain in terms of making sense of how these thinkers or anything they say could be made relevant to analytic philosophy today. This is the problem. People like Gutting, Lee Braver, Linda Alcoff, and many others have tried seriously to undertake such tasks. This is the kind of “continental” philosophy worth supporting, with the hope that it will transcend the parochial divides and challenge the self-enclosed continental establishment in order to make it better, to force it to do philosophy rather than focusing too exclusively on how others have done philosophy, and to bring it to the fold of the universal.

Cool story. But wait: who is the philosopher, and what is philosophy, if it has to be “forced” be philosophical, and brought into “the fold of the universal”? This marks a curious moment in the development of philosophy as Hegel would have understood it. If philosophy has to be forced into the universal, then was it ever properly philosophical at all? Who authorizes the practice of philosophy? And what philosophies get authorized in this practice?


The second question takes up what Linda Alcoff calls the “demographic problem” in philosophy. As a result of a combination of both hard work and circumstance, this problem has gotten much more attention in discussions of the discipline as of late. All the immense (self) organized labor by the Gendered Conference Campaign, bloggers at feministphilosophers and newapps, anonymous contributors to the “What Is It Like To Be a Woman in Philosophy?” website, the Society for Women in Philosophy, the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, new journals and special issues, and the generosity and tenacity of several senior philosophers such as Linda Alcoff, Tina Chanter, Sally Haslanger, Sandra Harding, Jenny Saul (and many others) gained new traction this past summer when famous philosopher Colin McGinn resigned rather than be investigated for allegations that he sexually harrassed a graduate student, and wrote a series of increasingly bizarre pieces defending himself by means of what zinester Al Burian called the ‘genius defense.’ Increased attention to the abysmally low percentages of women and people of color employed in philosophy have definitely started to shift the needle. But these steps forward are marked by certain persistent problems.

First, feminist philosophy – the only subfield of the discipline in which women predominate – continues to be met with suspicion or outright derision. As Erin Tarver points out, the situation of women in philosophy cannot be entirely separated from the situation of feminist philosophy, since the devaluation of feminist philosophy disproportionately affects women.

Second, race – including the particular situation of women of color in philosophy – continues to be occluded in this conversation. Frequently conversations that begin with the topic of race in the discipline are derailed – or threadjacked, in the parlance of our times – and end up as conversations by and about (one may assume, white) women.

Moreover, as Leigh Johnson has indicated, the disjunction between the territory marked by the situation of women in the discipline and that of people of color can be shown by the essentialist assumptions at work in the former. She breaks down the usual logic:

1. Professional philosophy is, if not by its nature then at least in practice, a fundamentally antagonistic, aggressive, combative discipline. (See Brian Leiter’s “The Aristocracy of Sex in Philosophy.”)
2. Philosophy ought not be (or ought not be only) an antagonistic, aggressive, combative discipline. Or, stated positively, Philosophy can and ought be practiced in a way that is more cooperative, caring, mutually affirming, cognizant of and attentive to the value of difference. (See Jonathan Wolff’s “How can we end the male domination in Philosophy?”)
3. Women would be better represented in professional Philosophy, and/or would be better at Philosophy, if the dominant professional culture of the discipline practiced Philosophy in a way more like (2) and less like (1).

Johnson argues that this last point – that women would be better represented in the discipline if the practice of philosophy weren’t so antagonistic, aggressive, or combative – indicates an essentialism about gender that would be shown to be more obviously, um, problematic if it were applied to race. That is, if we assume that 1 is true of the practice of philosophy, whether or not we agree that philosophy simply is this way by nature or could be done differently, this does not help us to explain why there are so few people of color in philosophy. If it did, we would have to assume that people of color, just like women, are turned off of philosophy because they are not given to antagonism, aggression, or combativeness. But no one ever argues this – because white supremacy dictates that people of color are usually already viewed as antagonistic, aggressive, or combative. Or usually just angry – irrationally so.

Moreover, as I’ve argued previously on this blog, the dominant framework for understanding the “demographic problem” in philosophy – that of “implicit bias” – has significant limitations. Implicit bias, and the psychological and sociological research from which it stems (the Harvard IAT project), is certainly useful in disarming arguments that philosophers simply cannot be oppressive, discriminatory, misogynist or racist if they do not consciously, willfully intend to be so. However, especially given the long history and wide variety of (philosophical!) analyses of gender, race, sexuality, and power available to philosophers, it is incredibly frustrating that we remain at the level of convincing our white male friends and colleagues 1) to believe us and 2) anyway, their ignorance isn’t really after all their fault.


Richer analytical tools are available to us, I argue, if we explicitly treat both the “divide” and the “demographic problem,” as political, or as operations of power. By taking up these questions or problems as political, I mean both seeing these problems in the practice of philosophy as implicated in institutions and economies that benefit some at the expense of others, and seeing the discourse of philosophy as in part constituted by those practices of philosophy – that is, seeing the discourse of philosophy as white, straight, able-bodied and cismasculine. If the New York Times in their article on the McGinn debacle can forefront the permanent probationary status of women as thinkers, I think we can probably manage it ourselves.

First, as regards the “divide.” In his reading of the “normalization” of continental philosophy (using as his primary evidence the Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy), Simon Glendinning distinguishes acceptable Continental philosophy, or work that “‘establish[es] connections’ with the Anglophone mainstream” (187) – work presumably “forced” to be philosophical or brought into “the fold of the universal” – from work that belongs to “‘the so-called ‘Continental’ traditions of philosophy’” or “‘Continental’” philosophy (185), or work that has sought to detach itself from the Anglophone mainstream (187). This work is largely French, or French-inspired: Beauvoir, Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, Lacan, Irigaray, Kofman, Kristeva, Butler. Is there any connection between the normalization of (some) continental philosophy and the re-inscription of the marginality of (feminized) French philosophy, work that has been hugely influential in the development of feminist and queer theory? Or is this merely sociological?

Second, as regards the “demographic problem.” The condition or situation of women and people of color in philosophy (and, speculatively, of queers, disabled folks, trans folks, or simply what Kristie Dotson calls “diverse practitioners of philosophy”) would be more usefully analyzed through the lenses of patriarchy and white supremacy as political systems. Though not all of these folks define gender or race exclusively or entirely within political terms, feminist philosophers and and critical philosophies of race or critical race theorists – such as Sara Ahmed, Linda Alcoff, Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Angela Davis, Emmanuel Eze, Lewis Gordon, Sally Haslanger, Sandra Harding, Luce Irigaray, David Kim, Julia Kristeva, María Lugones, Howard McGary, José Medina, Charles Mills, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Lucius Outlaw, Tommy Shelby, Falguni Sheth, Garyatri Spivak, Ron Sundstrom, George Yancy, Iris Young, and many, many others besides – have developed useful concepts and analyses that go beyond issues of will, intent, and consciousness, situating their analyses at the level of institutions and discourse. Recourse to these concepts and analyses is critical in order for us to adequately understand the whiteness and maleness of philosophy, and in order for us to grasp the essentializing logics the discussion of the “demographic problem” has apparently got stuck in.

Without such a political analysis, we get versions of pluralism that blame jobseekers with Continental training for not getting jobs, because they arrogantly refuse to read the work of their interviewers – What interviews? For that matter, what jobs?

Without such a political analysis, we are less able to understand situations like this one, in which feminist philosophers are told we must drive Judith Butler out of the club in order to protect the good name of philosophy, in order for us to prove ourselves worthy of philosophy.

With such a political analysis, we can begin to put a finger on the specific logics – hegemony, ideology, white supremacist hetero cis patriarchy – at work in these problems, and to formulate effective practices of resistance to them.