Philosophical Exceptionalism and the Politics of Respectability, Part III: Epistemic Disobedience

I’m just looking for/Just looking for a way around…

I’m just looking for/one divine hammer…

– The Breeders

One might fairly ask what all this has to do with philosophy.

In the feminist blogosphere, there is an old trope that goes, “If it’s not about you, then it’s not about you.” This phrase is primarily meant to defuse defensive posturing, whether from MRA types, or from radical feminists who call into question the right of transwomen to use the bathroom, or racism from white feminists. But it is also a call to reflection: it demands on the part of the reader reflection as to whether or not a critique is about you, or not, and what that might look like. In that vein, I’m calling myself out here as much as anyone. Curry and Drabinski’s analysis – and this entire exchange – has made me think deeply about my own philosophical practice, and what I might be missing when I center the voices of white thinkers in order to analyze race, or men when I analyze the condition of women, or white men when I’m practicing philosophy, (not that these three are so easily separable as hegemonic philosophy might wish, and as I hope we demonstrate!). I consider this not merely for liberal inclusivist reasons, but precisely for how it might change the framework, and change the work itself. It has also called me to reflect on the politics of respectability that such a practice is underpinned by and reproduces, reinforcing the notion that, while it might be nice to take up race or gender as questions, we need to turn to white men to do the heavy lifting when we need serious philosophical analysis. We have to use the hammer, and use it correctly, for the sake of our legitimacy as philosophers. We have to reproduce philosophy faithfully, in order to shore up that legitimacy, in order to advance in our careers. We have to be respectable, in order to avoid the policing we see others around us subjected to.

Meanwhile, women in philosophy are subject to subject to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Meanwhile, people of color of all genders and sexualities are subject to a state of permanent probation: presumed incompetent. Meanwhile, feminist philosophers are subject to routine suspicion, from claims that they are unqualified to objectively assess the climate for women at the department at CUBoulder, to claims that they are hardly philosophers at all.

The distinction you make between bad pluralism and good pluralism is a great analytic with which to read dynamic. On the one hand a good pluralism, one that maintains the faithful reproduction of wealth and power or the faithful reproduction of philosophy, but which can marshall a certain claim to broadmindedness as an alibi, as proof of the legitimacy of this faithful reproduction, while retaining its right to police the boundaries of respectable philosophical practice and to gender violence as one of its privileges. On the other hand, a bad pluralism, one that fails to reproduce faithfully, one that resists essentialism, insists on internal differentiation and complexity – a ratchet, disrespectable, disobedient pluralism.

A disobedient pluralism takes its lights from Kirstie Dotson’s suggestion, in her introduction to the Hypatia issue on Interstices, that feminist philosophers of color practice an epistemic disobedience that is routinely – and interestedly – misread by hegemonic philosophy. This marks a failure of philosophy to understand the work of feminist philosophers of color as central to their survival and flourishing, or as you put it in an earlier post, an instance of philosophy failing its diverse practitioners. Dotson writes,

Strict adherance to norms of current, academic scholarly inquiry and/or epistemological commitments serve to distort the deliberate epistemic disobedience of women of color feminist philosophy by generating oversimplifications of complex positions, at best, or accusations of incompetence, at worst. Such failures to serious acknowledge deliberate epistemic disobedience ensures that those reading women of color feminist philosophy are not just misreading this work, but are actively engaged in particularly colonializing scholarly engagement… Women of color feminist philosophy often actively struggles to decolonize the academy in its very performance. However, one should not take such performances of decolonizing as apologies, as they are done for the sake of one’s own survival, often at the expense of one’s place and ease in the academy (7).

I think that Dotson’s concept of epistemic disobedience offers a great alternative to the politics of respectability currently animating “good” pluralist philosophy in this neoliberal moment. Epistemic disobedience also reframes failure here, putting the responsibility for failure on hegemonic philosophy, and casting epistemic disobedience, not as a practice of failure, but instead as a practice of survival, even if it also endangers one’s position in the academy. Epistemic disobedience, insofar as it is a philosophical practice that is tied to the survival and flourishing of diverse practitioners of philosophy, and in specific women of color feminist philosophers, negotiates the distinction between negotiating failure as wounding and failure as fecund by tying style intimately to substance, and by paying attention to the conditions out of which thought emerges.

Epistemic disobedience, as a practice of breaking the hammer, asks us to consider to whom is our thought faithful? What might a disobedient pluralism look like? And where might the practice of disobedient pluralism, a practice of a different faithfulness, take us?

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  1. Pingback: Respectability, Epistemic Disobedience, & Methodological Dereliction | xcphilosophy

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