Dateless Wonder: A response to Megahertz on White Supremacy and Philosophy

 Wow, I don’t think I could have dreamed up a better example of ideology at work in the discipline of philosophy – especially in its relation to current political-economic and ideological conditions at work in the university.

Let’s take this at two levels: first, let’s grant the central assumption, that there is such a crisis in the humanities, and see what there is to say about it. Then, let’s challenge the assumption of a crisis itself. And finally, I will take a look at philosophical exceptionalism.

So here is the description of the problem as Rosenberg states it:

“The crisis faced by the humanities is not a lack of warm bodies in freshman classes. Those classes are crowded, thanks to distribution requirements and budget cuts. The problem is the lack of interest in pursuing further study of these disciplines in advanced classes. One reason for this may simply be that students don’t really believe that the humanities hone the relevant abilities, educate them for leadership or even deal with the human condition in a way that matters to them.” (Rosenberg)

Fair enough. Some points:

1)    If it is the case that there is a disconnect in the curriculum between the lower and the upper division courses, isn’t this better explicable through the labor hierarchy in the discipline itself? That is, are the same professors teaching the intro courses and these upper division, “boutique” courses? The answer is usually no: the bulk of core education requirements are being fulfilled by contingent faculty. This creates a number of problems, few of which are seen as “problems” – or as problems serious enough to be addressed – by tenure-track faculty. To Rosenberg’s point, however, if it is the case that these “boutique” courses are alienating for students – a claim that, without numbers, I cannot substantiate – then is this because the theory is out of touch, or is it because the teachers are out of touch? If it is the case that the most important factor in a student deciding to major in an area is the first teacher they had in that discipline, then we might understand that our students are bummed when the teacher that made them passionate about a subject disappeared at the end of their contract.

2)    This is just to point to the larger political economic forces at work framing even Rosenberg’s article: if those same budget cuts have meant fewer sections on the books, even as more kids are required to take them, are these the best conditions to encourage learning? How well can a student evaluate whether a subject can help her hone her abilities under these conditions? Who is responsible for setting these conditions? And who ultimately takes responsibility for them?

3)    When Rosenberg argues that faculty in the humanities have produced these alienating, too-theory heavy, ’boutique’ courses as a result of having “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,’ who, exactly, is he talking about? Who has viewed the curriculum as a zero-sum game?

4)   This is really just a side note, but it is superbly ironic – from the point of view of philosophy, anyway – that the broadening of the curriculum to include women and people of color lead to the curriculum being more theoretical, and that this is precisely the problem.

5)    How is the incentive structure in philosophy different from that in other humanities, as Rosenberg describes it, such that senior faculty teach distribution courses? To be honest, I doubt very much that this claim bears out. There are always some senior faculty who like to teach intro-level courses, but anectdotally this doesn’t seem to bear out – that is, in my experience, the graduate students and the adjuncts are actually teaching intro courses, and ‘baby logic’ is actually often a major requirement, not a distrubution or general education course. I don’t have the data, but I’m betting if we were to look at the data the distribution of labor in philosophy departments would look a lot like the distribution of labor in other humanities departments. Except it would be whiter and more male.

Insofar as this entire account however rests on the assumption that the humanities are in a crisis – that the humanities are suffering an historical decline in popularity, that students are fleeing irrelevant humanities degrees for degrees more useful on the market – then that assumption needs to be questioned. Like a lot of crises, this one seems to have a cycle, or at least this story about the crisis in the humanities seems to reanimate every few years. However, using things called “numbers” and “arithmetic” – a few things that scientists and those who love them might be familiar with – Michael Berube argues every few years that this account of the humanities is flat wrong. Humanities enrollments have remained steady since about 1980; the bulk of the “decline” happened between 1970 and 1980, when things like “computer science” and “business school” were introduced into university curricula, and when a huge number of new folks, thanks to the GI Bill, were increasing raw numbers and diversity in universities.

What then is this crisis of humanities? It is a political crisis, but not the one that Rosenberg and other folks lamenting the idea that these danged kids just aren’t allowed to appreciate a good book anymore. The crisis is not keeping the humanities pure of politics, as these hand-wringing accounts imagine (if only those new people hadn’t ruined our humanities by politicizing it so much!) – the crisis is the humanities recognizing the politics in which it is already imbricated. What is the reason for these perennial claims about how no one like the humanities anymore? Why are humanities programs being cut, even when these claims are untrue?

This is deeply connected, I think, to your reading of white supremacy and the “health” of philosophy relative to the “health” of the (rest of) the humanities. The politics in which the humanities is already imbricated is especially a racial politics. It is also a racial politics as a gendered politics, in a certain sense – would it be too much to say that philosophy’s whiteness renders it more masculine in this case? At least there is a strong interaction between philosophy’s masculinity and its whiteness here. That is, one of the symptoms of the “ill-health” of the humanities has been its inclusion, in the curriculum, of the work of women and people of color. This is – unsurprisingly – closely related to the labor of women and people of color as they’ve gotten professorships in the humanities. As Alcoff points out in the conclusion of “On Judging Epistemic Credibility,” “It is no accident that new forms of scholarship have emerged from the academy since its democratization with the GI Bill, the passing of Civil Rights legislation, and affirmative action.” The redefinition of the work of the academy, and the shifting of the universal that this symbolizes, is bound up in political struggle.

The defense of philosophy made here – that it has avoided the crisis of the humanities because it 1) hasn’t redefined itself much, despite the women and people of color it has included, and 2) comports itself properly in relation to science – reflects the racial and gendered position of philosophy, a race politics and a gender politics that is at the heart of this defense, rather than outside of it. This politics is also fully imbricated in – and perhaps intensified by – the political economy of higher education and the particular texture of ideology at work in it. If these are the terms on which philosophy makes its claims for relevance in the permanent austerity crisis that defines the current environment in higher education, then philosophy is essentially marketing itself by means of a white supremacist masculinist exceptionalism in relation to the rest of the humanities. This exceptionalist stance is similar to the stance of the tomboy in relation to feminism – a stance I am guilty of claiming myself, a stance I imagine a lot of feminists began from. The tomboy often abjects femininity in order to prove her loyalty to the boys, in order to prove that she is one of them. She doesn’t like girls, she’s not like the others. At a certain level this is just a symptom of negotiating and combatting oppressive gender norms. But if you can’t identify the norms as the source of the problem, then you end up blaming the people with whom you are associated and identified. You resent the girls when the boys won’t let you play. When they do let you play, this is proof of your worth – a value ‘on the market’ that is watered down with each successive girl the boys let play. This makes the tomboy an incredibly effective gender “border police,” as Falguni Sheth articulates this concept in her Toward a Political Philosophy of Race.

So, where does this leave “diverse practitioners of philosophy,” as you ask? I love the depiction of them as the eternal irony of the community. We are like Sophia’s unmarriageable sisters, unschooled in femininity (as Hegel said, women gain education mysteriously, like plants, by osmosis, as it were), always asking the wrong questions at the wrong times, in front of the wrong people. We make her look bad. Sophia is just trying to teach her little sisters how to behave, how to have a sense of their place, so as to stop embarrassing her so much in front of her friends.