Africana Pluralism and the Future of Philosophy of Race

This is a guest post by Chike Jeffers.

Hello all. I intend, in the first part of this post, to talk about how and why stylistic or methodological diversity in philosophy can be comparably comfortable from the non-mainstream perspective of those who are committed to bringing about more demographic and thematic diversity in philosophy. Specifically, I will talk about what I see as the necessity and naturalness of pluralism in the field of Africana philosophy. In the second part, on a very different note, I will raise the question of the need for those of us in the field of philosophy of race to become uncomfortable in relation to the question of how pluralistic and how demographically varied we can expect it to be in the future.

The first part of my remarks, on Africana philosophy, require me or at least give me licence to indulge in some autobiography. I began my undergraduate studies at York University in Toronto as a film production major but, by the end of my second year, realized I didn’t see myself going into that industry. Realizing my attraction to the academic side of things, I switched from film production to film studies and took on a minor in philosophy. Then two things happened during my third year (or my “junior” year, as they would say in the States) that made me see that philosophy was precisely what I wanted to do with my life. I bought George Yancy’s book, African American Philosophers: 17 Conversations, and I took a course on African philosophy from York’s Esteve Morera (an old grad school friend of the philosopher who would later become my dissertation advisor, Charles Mills).

Up until I read Yancy’s book, philosophy had seemed fun to me but it had never seemed like a way that I as an individual could contribute to the collective advancement of people of African descent. Given role models like Spike Lee, I had had a sense of how a filmmaker could be of service and I think I had a sense of how a film critic could contribute as well. But it was Yancy’s book that gave me black role models in philosophy, people doing work that seemed to me to be of fundamental importance given my identity, interests, and aims. The course in African philosophy also enthralled me and so I came to recognize myself as dedicated to philosophy, but please notice that what made me realize philosophy was for me was my exposure to Africana philosophy (i.e., philosophy as practiced by and as concerned with the thoughts and issues of Africans and people of African descent in the diaspora). Not only did I apply to graduate school feeling absolutely sure that I wanted a career in philosophy, I applied with no doubt about the area of philosophy to which I wanted to contribute: Africana philosophy.

Consider, now, the schools to which I applied: UNC Chapel Hill, UIC, CUNY Graduate Center, Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Depaul, and SUNY Stony Brook. Those of you familiar with philosophy in the US will notice that, of the schools I’ve named, some are very much analytic, some are very much Continental, and some count as pluralistic or other. I knew about the difference between analytic and Continental, by that point, but it was of pretty much no importance to me while applying because what I was looking for was a place where I could study the philosophizing of black people with a black philosopher. As it happens, that meant cutting across the divide and applying to schools in and between both traditions. When it came time to choose between the places I got into, I eventually narrowed it down to Chapel Hill or Northwestern and part of why I chose Northwestern was that when I visited as a prospective, I was struck and impressed by its pluralism – i.e., by the way it seemed to really cut across the divide.

To recap the above, I came into philosophy committed to the central importance of Africana thought and Africana thinkers and thus I came into philosophy committed to advancing its thematic and demographic diversification. That primary commitment happened to have as its consequence a sense of openness in terms of diversity in style or methodology. I saw myself as ready to fit anywhere on the analytic-to-Continental scale and as most comfortable where I could be equally exposed to both. It is useful at this point to consider something Lewis Gordon says in his Introduction to Africana Philosophy. He writes:

The designation “analytical philosophy”… poses some difficulty in the Africana philosophical context. This is because, although nearly all African-American philosophers have had some contact with analytical philosophy, many African-American philosophers consider what they do to transcend the analytical-continental rubric. Thus there are only a small handful who outright identify themselves as “analytical philosophers.” (111)

It is tempting for someone like me to strongly endorse the self-perception that Gordon speaks of here, not just for myself but for the field. It is tempting, that is, to idealize Africana philosophy as managing to transcend the nettlesome divide, as ultimately floating above Continental and analytic philosophy, happy in its purity and in its unity.

This, however, would not be accurate. The very section of Gordon’s book from which I have quoted not only describes a distinctively analytic tradition in Africana philosophy but it also goes on to sharply criticize Africana analytic philosophy. Gordon claims that “the analytical approach faces severe limitations… the most crucial of which is the presumption of the validity of interpretation within the dominant system” (119). In other words, Gordon believes that to work within analytic philosophy is to work within an area of philosophy that takes far too much for granted. When one reaches the subsequent section in which Gordon describes the existential phenomenological tradition in Africana philosophy, it is clear that one has come to the tradition that Gordon inhabits and which he is therefore invested in defending rather than criticizing. The section on existential phenomenology is, by the way, kept separate from an earlier section on Continental philosophy, but it is admitted in that section that the at-that-point-yet-to-be-discussed topic of existential phenomenology fits under the Continental umbrella (121, 122n80).

Gordon’s approach to writing an introduction to Africana philosophy is therefore enough by itself to falsify any depiction of the field as completely transcending the Continental/analytic divide, whether in the sense of its content not being categorizable in those terms or in the sense of Continental and analytic approaches co-existing in complete harmony within it. When I say there is comparable comfort in stylistic/methodological diversity for those for whom Africana philosophy is an entry point into the discipline, I am not intending to pretend that there are no tensions between those in the field on the two sides of the divide. What I am claiming is, for such people, it becomes natural and inevitable to engage with work on both sides of the divide. Africana philosophy is, I would argue, necessarily pluralistic because one cannot simply escape the tensions between the sides and pretend that the other side is not there, as is so very possible for many, perhaps most, who work in the traditional areas of analytic philosophy or the various lineages of Continental philosophy.

Consider, first of all, that the term “Africana philosophy” itself was created and popularized by Continental figures. Lucius Outlaw, with his roots in critical theory and hermeneutics, is generally credited as the inventor of the term. Gordon, the existential phenomenologist, is the only person to have written a book-length introduction to it. Yancy, whose book of interviews pulled me into philosophy, can also be seen as working within the Continental tradition and, when thinking about the development of Africana philosophy, one must also be careful not to omit the importance of a certain non-black philosopher working in the Continental tradition, namely, Robert Bernasconi. In addition to doing lots of work on Africana philosophy, he has famously worked to create a constant pipeline of black students into the discipline. These students have furthermore been mostly female and thus one can speak of the interesting fact that while the great majority of senior black philosophers in North America are male, black women are very well-represented among up-and-coming philosophers, so much so that a recent study found that there is gender parity among black graduate students in philosophy, in striking contrast with the situation in the discipline as a whole. This fact is directly linked to the high numbers of black women at places where Bernasconi has held positions and most of the black women who have studied at these places are both (a) trained in the Continental tradition and (b) have at least some interest in Africana philosophy.

On the other hand, it is not at all clear that one could call the Continental tradition more dominant in Africana philosophy than the analytic tradition. From pioneering figures still active, like Bernard Boxill, to stars who have emerged in the 21st century, like Harvard’s Tommie Shelby, there is no shortage of prominent analytic figures in the field. Indeed, the most famous practitioner of Africana philosophy working in a philosophy department today is probably Kwame Anthony Appiah, who began his career doing philosophy of language in the analytic tradition. One should also note important people coming up, like my good friend Luvell Anderson, who got his Ph.D at Rutgers and who had Appiah and the pioneering analytic Africana philosopher Howard McGary on his dissertation committee, and Vanessa Wills, an example of young black woman philosopher who did not study with Bernasconi but rather, like Shelby, was trained at the University of Pittsburgh.

With the mix that results from the above situation, it is impossible for anyone who takes Africana philosophy seriously to not take people from both sides of the Continental/analytic divide seriously. For a demonstration of this, consider the session at SPEP, on the same day as the session at which I first gave this post as a paper, that focused on the work of Charles Mills, who I am proud to call one of my mentors. Mills is an important figure in Africana philosophy and he is also clearly a representative of the analytic tradition within the field… and yet, there he was, the subject of a session at SPEP, featuring Kathryn Gines, who recently co-edited an anthology of Continental black feminist philosophy, and Derrick Darby, an analytic philosopher who studied at Pitt at the same time as Shelby. This is Africana pluralism in action and it is simply normal.

Let me switch now to saying something about philosophy of race, a field which is of course very closely related to Africana philosophy, although they are not the same thing. While pioneers like Boxill and McGary were exploring ethical issues involving race in the 1970s, the growth of philosophy of race as a field with not only ethical and political dimensions but also importantly a matter of metaphysics and philosophy of science is generally traced back to Appiah’s 1985 article, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race.” The subsequent development of the field in the first couple of decades following this essay is closely tied to the story of Africana philosophy, because most of the major participants were black and, as a result, we see in this early development the same pluralism I have described above. A vigorous debate emerged over Appiah’s interpretation of Du Bois and his declaration that there are no such things as races. Outlaw was the first and most prominent to push back against this and the Appiah-Outlaw debate became symbolic of the metaphysical controversy at the heart of philosophy of race. Note the pluralism in action here. In 2004, Paul Taylor published the first introductory text on the philosophy of race (entitled Race: A Philosophical Introduction) and he too, with his training at Rutgers but his Deweyan pragmatism and distinctly pluralist approach to philosophy, is symbolic of not only the Africana influence in philosophy of race but its initial inability to be tied clearly to one side of the divide or the other.

The 21st century has brought interesting developments. Philosophy of race has grown at an exponentially fast rate. As an example of this growth, consider the two special issues on philosophy of race that appeared in 2010 in the Journal of Social Philosophy and The Monist. As a philosopher of race, I am indebted to both issues for the exciting work they feature – I have especially spent time thinking about Josh Glasgow’s “The End of Historical Constructivism” and Lawrence Blum’s “Racialized Groups: The Sociohistorical Consensus,” both in The Monist, and in JSP, I have been fascinated by Ron Mallon’s “Sources of Racialism.” It is interesting to note, however, a certain demographic shift. While Boxill has an article in The Monist, he is the only black philosopher out of a predominantly white bunch. There is an even more striking pattern in the JSP issue, which was edited by Taylor and Ron Sundstrom. There are two symposia in the issue, the first called “New Thinking in Race Theory,” and then a 25th anniversary symposium on Boxill’s 1984 book, Blacks and Social Justice. Gines and Shelby comment on Boxill’s book and Boxill responds in the symposium that looks back toward an important work on race from the 1980s. In the first symposium, on the other hand, the one that looks forward to new thinking in race theory, all the authors are white. As I note that, let me also note how Taylor and Sundstrom begin their introduction to the special issue: “After some delay, critical race theory has arrived in analytic philosophy.”[1]

Indeed it has. Today we have prominent analytic political philosophers like Elizabeth Anderson and metaphysicians like Sally Haslanger doing cutting-edge work in philosophy of race. But how exactly should we feel about this growing whiteness and growing prominence of work in the analytic vein? There is reason to think we should simply celebrate. After all, philosophy of race, unlike Africana philosophy, is not an area defined by a particular racial/ethnic experience, but rather an area in which philosophers of all backgrounds ought to participate. The growing whiteness and analyticness of philosophy of race should perhaps be taken as a welcome sign that the area is now fully accepted as mainstream, the topic now appreciated for its importance.

I think there is nothing wrong and something definitely right in taking the growing whiteness and analyticness of philosophy of race as an at least partly positive sign of growing mainstream acceptance. It is not weird, however, to experience this development with a sense of ambivalence. It is not weird to be concerned that non-white voices could begin to be drowned out. It is not weird to lament the possibility – perhaps already an actuality – of analytic practitioners of philosophy of race becoming able to completely ignore non-analytic work while still being regarded as widely knowledgeable about the field.

In closing, though, let me say that I think there are at least two reasons to be optimistic that philosophy of race will remain pluralistic. The first is the California Roundtable on Philosophy of Race conference, the only annual conference focused on the field and one which is definitely pluralistic (to the extent that it leans one way or the other, it leans Continental). Secondly, there is the new journal, Critical Philosophy of Race, which is run out of Penn State. Given the nature of that department and the editorial board, there seems good reason to think that it will be a pluralistic journal. I think it has already established itself as a very important place to publish. With regard to the possibly overwhelming whiteness of philosophy of race in the future, though, it seems to me that this can only be avoided in two ways. The first is wholly undesirable, namely, a reversal of the increased interest in race among philosophers generally. The second is extremely desirable: a change in the overwhelming whiteness of philosophy generally. This is a hot topic these days and I leave it up to you, the reader, to decide whether that is a reason to be hopeful or whether all the talk is not yet enough to build up optimism.

[1] JSP