Denken ist (Weiß)männersache: Philosophical Exceptionalism and the Politics of Respectability I

Denken ist männersache

I would like to follow up on an earlier post about substance and style in the exchange between Stanley and Drabinski/Curry. This post dealt with the question of the relationship between style and substance in the sense that Stanley argued (in his comments on the piece) that the piece he and Weaver wrote had to be styled in a certain way so as to be acceptable to the readership of the New York Times. He agreed that he and Weaver should have made an effort to include more writers or theorists of color in their analysis, but did not seem to indicate that this inclusion would significantly alter the terms of analysis. This became, for us, a question about the relationship between style and substance, the implicit knowledges contained in the performance of a particular style, and how that style is constrained by the material practices of philosophy, which in turn constrain its substance – or constrain what practices can appear as philosophical. That entire problematic was rehearsed again this past week, under the shifting signifier of pluralism, and in the wake of (as you point out) ongoing contestation over its meaning.

This seems to me to be a question of liberalism, the politics of representation, and of the difference, as you point out so brilliantly, between good and bad mixing in the event of pluralism.

This post was supposed to be about the politics of respectability, but I think our conversation has moved, to a certain degree, beyond that framework. As I see it, the politics of respectability is a strategic response to a certain set of political conditions, but both the interpretation of the conditions, and respectability as the strategic response, are framed by a certain kind of liberalism. This liberalism takes style as separable from substance in a way that doesn’t necessarily fundamentally alter the substance. That is, if we focus on the issue of representation – the inclusion of some (white) women on conference programs; the citation of (white) women in journal articles, the recruitment of (white) women in graduate programs and in departments. Liberalism marks inclusion as evidence of, or sufficient for, equality, without asking after the conditions of equality, without asking, therefore, “equal to whom?” – the question posed both by Luce Irigaray in “Egales á qui?”  and bell hooks in “Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression.”

You echo this point here and link it to the political economy of the university. I think, however, that what is at stake here is perhaps the outmoded application of a political strategy to conditions that have changed. That is: if the politics of respectability ever were an effective strategy to challenge philosophical exceptionalism, it is definitely not effective any longer, and more than that, it is damaging.

Let me explain what I mean. I think that focus on the politics of representation are potentially useful and important in response to certain conditions, or were perhaps useful and effective at a particular time. If the definition of philosophy is predicated on the more or less absolute exclusion of women from it, then perhaps demanding representation does shift the picture appreciably. That is, the substance of philosophy might be radically altered by the introduction of a new style – in this case, the inclusion of women. However, if conditions have changed, then this strategy is less effective.

Effective for what, is the question. Equal to whom? Effective for what?

If the style can be changed without changing the substance, then that would be seen as ideal to those who are invested in maintaining a certain control over the terms of philosophy. The question then becomes, who can be trusted to reproduce philosophy faithfully? Who can be included without changing the terms, without radically redefining philosophy in either style or substance, either in theory or in practice? Who can we trust to use the hammer as a hammer, and not use it as a crowbar, or bring in other things – needle and thread, glue guns and sequins?

This is meant to echo as well your point about disciplines as kinship structures. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when this was released. If we view philosophy as underpinned by or managed through a kind of kinship structure, then the whiteness and heterosexuality of philosophy comes into focus. Because we ought to remember that women have always been a part of philosophy, from Aspasia on down, although most frequently as its mirror – as again Irigaray might argue. Insofar as women can be trusted to faithfully reproduce philosophy, then they can be included. Inclusion then operates on a colonial or assimilationist model. The “health” of philosophy is then assured – in terms of both style and substance, in terms of representation and in terms of reproduction. Thus does philosophy maintain its exceptionalism with regard to the rest of the humanities, with proper deference to science, free of “scolds” and “charlatans,” of “boutique” courses and too much “theory.” Here, however, a strange confluence between style and substance, or between representation and practice, occurs: too many people of color, as you point out, is evidence of the unhealth of philosophy, of bad mixing [with or without respect to the kind of philosophy being practiced by these bodies?].

This indicates that, if philosophy is animated by the operation of constitutive exclusion, this operates differently with respect to gender and race. That is, if philosophy defines itself through the exclusion of women – and to a certain degree it must, at least historically speaking; the flute girl, or Xanthippe and the baby, must be dismissed in order for the work of philosophy to get done – then this exclusion can be managed through the inclusion of certain women who faithfully reproduce philosophy. But if philosophy defines itself through the exclusion of people of color – as again it must: see Kant on this issue, or Hegel; see Charles Mills’ searing indictment; see what kinds of claims, and from whom, pass as universal in this business – then again this exclusion can in theory be managed through the inclusion of certain people of color who faithfully reproduce philosophy. So far, however, philosophy seems less able to reproduce itself faithfully in the latter case than in the former.

In a situation in which women and people of color are explicitly excluded, irregardless of the liberal principles of meritocratic inclusion, then a politics of respectability is a reasonable response. Demanding inclusion by demonstrating that the hegemonic narrative about women and people of color is wrong, by being twice as good, is an effective response to explicit exclusion. Demanding that those who espouse these principles live up to them by including the deserving is a sensible response. However, if those principles are structured through an exclusion to which they are blind – as in the structure and operation of constitutive exclusion – then these exclusions will be displaced and reappear in new forms at new sites. Moreover, as the political logic changes – from Jim Crow to colorblindess; from women’s liberation to post-feminism; from gay liberation to marriage equality [again, equal to whom?], from the individual to the statistical, from liberalism to neoliberalism [I’m thinking Foucault here, and Lester Spence] – then respectability fails to work as a strategic response.

The Healey data published this past summer can give us some sense of the how the politics of respectability fails to serve women and people of color in the practice of philosophy. The Healey data shows a that in the top four philosophy journals, work that treats a select group of persons – pretty much all white dudes – gets published. I think that this shows us that, in a certain sense, the politics of respectability works. Working on white men and citing them works to get you publications in the top four journals. Getting along to get ahead works – depending on what is meant by that term. Nevertheless, I think that the politics of respectability, while it might certainly be producing good philosophy, does not well serve women and people of color in the profession.

I don’t mean to argue by this that women and people of color, or diverse practitioners of philosophy of whatever stripe, aren’t also amazing philosophers who specialize in traditional areas of philosophy. And certainly many people of color and women in the profession deeply resent the implication that because they are a woman they must study feminist philosophy (or ethics) and can’t just be a philosopher of language, or that if they are a person of color they must work on race and can’t be a straight-ahead Hegel scholar [though this resentment is itself a function of white supremacist patriarchy, on the model of the tomboy as I argued earlier ]. As I staid before, I’m very much a “let a thousand flowers bloom” kind of philosopher. And not just out of some libertarian, you do your thing, I’ll do mine kind of ethos. We need specialists to keep each other honest, to make our work substantively better, philosophically.

But if women and people of color can only get published if they act as nodes in the circulation of white men, then what does this say about the inclusion of women and people of color in the practice of philosophy? What does it mean about the relationship between form and content? What kinds of political forces are shaping our practice as philosophers, whether we are reflective about them or not? What does that mean for the substance of the work? If the politics of respectability limits inclusion to repetition, then what does it do to the work get if it honestly engages a wider variety of responses? What does this mean for the purported universality of philosophical claims?

Up next: the politics of respectability and its effects; breaking the hammer and epistemic disobedience.