Philosophical Exceptionalism & White Supremacy

I want to consider the racial and gender politics of a common conception of philosophy and argument, based on this conception, for philosophy’s continued relevance in the contemporary and future university.

Philosophy is one of the humanities disciplines, but it doesn’t look a lot like the other humanities disciplines, both its content and its population is significantly more white and significantly more male than most other humanities disciplines.

Some philosophers take this as an argument in philosophy’s favor: unlike those other, waward humanities that got lost up their own arses during the theory wars, “we” philosophers stuck to the canon and didn’t go down a race/gender/sexuality rabbit hole (note how the “we philosophers” excludes from philosophy all work in feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, Non-Western philosophy, etc.). This argument is made, for example, by Alex Rosenberg in 3AM Magazine:

…For the problems of the humanities are self-inflicted wounds well recognized by their colleagues in other faculties. First, over the last two generations the humanities (except for philosophy) have lost faith with their callings as the bearers of a continuous cultural inheritance–a canon, for want of a better word. They have viewed the need to widen their curricula as a zero sum game, in which the entrance of more women, underrepresented minorities, nonwestern peoples has required the exclusion of more dead white dudes. Maybe it has. But the result has been an advanced curriculum their students find foreign and their colleagues educated before this sea change cannot appreciate.

For now I’ll leave aside the assumption that the students in question find it difficult to identify with non-white men, women, and other minorities (and are thus not themselves minorities). Instead, I want to focus on Rosenberg’s claim about philosophy’s exceptionalism vis-a-vis the rest of the humanities:

Philosophy, at least analytical philosophy–has been something of an exception to the enrollment crisis of the humanities. Its other differences from the rest of the humanities provide evidence that their problems stem from these three self-inflicted wounds. Philosophy has never surrendered its canon: we are still teaching Plato, Hume, Kant, along with Amartya Sen, Judy Thompson and Ruth Marcus. Senior faculty still value and often teach “baby” logic, the foundation of all reasoning in the humanities as well as science. Philosophers who take an interest in science know enough of it to convince scientists that the conceptual problems they locate in biology or physics are real. But philosophy doesn’t pretend it can supersede science as a mode of knowledge. Maybe these are the reasons why many science students still take our advanced classes.

So, philosophy survives because (a) it hasn’t abandoned its dead white European dude canon, (b) it has nominally included women and men of color who don’t work on feminist, critical race, or queer critique, but on established topics and areas, (c) it is married to science in a way that other humanities aren’t (FWIW I chose “married” quite intentionally–I don’t have the time to do this here but I would like to push the question of how philosophy’s posited relationship with “science” (whatever that is) functions to distribute property (NSF grants!), legitimacy, and status, just like marriage does. Note also how philosophy stands as the ‘wife’ in this marriage–Sophia is obedient to her better half, science.)

In a sense Rosenberg’s article reads thusly: Philosophy has survived because it conforms itself to society’s normative, hegemonic values and institutions. Or more narrowly: the philosophy that survives is the part of the discipline that is most neatly supportive of hegemonic institutions, structures, and ideologies. “Philosophy” survives by kicking critical theory out of the city; we “diverse practitioners” are something like the eternal irony of the disciplinary community.

But maybe there’s something more insidiously, strategically white supremacist about this conception of the discipline and this type of argument for philosophy’s exceptionalism?

Remember, Rosenberg’s argument is that philosophy is exceptionally relevant–it teaches students relevant skills and content. This argument about relevance is particularly pressing because philosophy departments are often the first to be cut as states and institutions continue to experience budget strains. Rosenberg and I teach in the same state university system (North Carolina); our current governor has publicly derided both philosophy and gender studies as wastes of state money. In this context, Rosenberg’s argument for philosophy’s exceptionalism reads like an attempt to distance philosophy from gender studies (which is left to function as the symbol for less relevant humanistic inquiry, humanistic inquiry gone astray, like Antigone throwing dirt on Polynices). Philosophy departments should be saved because they, unlike gender studies, cultural studies, or black studies programs, are truly relevant and, to use Rosenberg’s term, “healthy.” [1]

It seems really bizarre to call a discipline that is so disproportionately white and male “healthy.” But perhaps that’s the point–in the eyes of the academy, viable programs and faculty are generally white and male.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom points out, the university as an institution has long treated black faculty and black studies programs as vestigial at best, pathological at worst. It is common to sacrifice black faculty and black studies programs to preserve the health of the university (um, Society Must Be Defended, anyone?):

That “long-term fiscal crisis” the AAUP cites? It came first for all the places black folks gather in groups of two or more. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education predicts it will come first and stay longest for black faculty, who are often last hired, first fired. Departments with a lot of black faculty are “more likely have to surrender faculty slots,” JBHE warns…Black faculty and the departments where they are found in the greatest numbers have been the most vulnerable since their inception.

If vulnerable, “unhealthy” programs tend to look black, both in their content and their faculty, then philosophy’s exceptional whiteness is evidence of its “health.” Or, more strategically, the argument is: “if the institution is cutting subjects and people who are too black, then we philosophers can use our discipline’s overwhelming anti-blackness in our favor, to argue for our continued relevance and preservation.” And, while this might be brilliant strategy, it’s totally racist and unjust. It throws black colleagues and black studies under the bus to save philosophy’s own skin (while in the same gesture excluding blacks/black studies from philosophy).
Reading Rosenberg and McMillan-Cottom together, it seems like arguments for philosophy’s exceptionalism are white supremacist arguments that play on the longstanding vulnerability of black scholars and black studies (and women/women’s studies, queers/queer studies, etc.).

And, for a fabulous response to Rosenbergian-style arguments, you should check out Natalia Cecire’s post.


[1] ““Cura te ipsum.” It’s latin for “take care of your own self.” To regain their health the humanities need to get back to basics. That includes getting faculty back to being valued, rewarded, lionized, tenured for what they do in the freshman classroom instead of in the pages of the PMLA.”

One thought on “Philosophical Exceptionalism & White Supremacy

  1. Marnie

    So many philosophers are big manchildren hiding behind their big books based on their parsing of big names.

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