Category Archives: The Discipline

“Sexual Paranoia” and Trigger Warnings: Speech and Power

I have been watching the recent response to this Laura Kipnis piece in the Chronicle with knots in my stomach. Then I developed a sprain in my eyeballs from the rolling.

At the end of February, Laura Kipnis argued in “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” that new codes governing sexual conduct between professors and students exhibit a “feminism hijacked by melodrama,” a kind of hysterical feminism that exaggerates the vulnerability of students and constructs a “fiction of the all-powerful professor.” Against this dour picture of the current state of sexual affairs on campus, Kipnis reflects nostalgically on her own art college experience in the mid to late 1970s: “When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum… Lots of smart, ambitious women were doing the same thing, according to [Jane Gallop], because it was a way to experience your own power.” She argues that policies such as these – as well as trigger warnings – are part of a climate of sexual paranoia on campus that ill-serves students in preparing them badly for the “boorish badlands of real life” and treats professors as predators, making it far too easy to destroy their lives. Far from defending an antifeminist position, Kipnis argues that she herself would want to see sexual harrassers “chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the town square.” She suggests that if universities want to deal with sexual assault, we shouldn’t ban professor-student relationships, but rather fraternities; and that if we want to deal with sexual favoritism, we should end spousal hires, “where trailing spouses are getting ranks and perks based on whom they’re sleeping with rather than CVs alone, and brought in at salaries often dwarfing those of senior and more accomplished colleagues who didn’t have the foresight to couple more advantageously” (too which – I’m just not even).

The center of this piece is a series of lawsuits and counter-suits surrounding a case of sexual assault between an undergraduate student at Northwestern University (where Kipnis teaches) and her philosophy professor. Obviously many of us from philosophy departments (present tense or past) know about this case, and the role that it has played – or the ways in which it has been used – to shape responses to activism within the discipline to create a better climate for the women who work in and study philosophy. So I think that we at xcphilosophy are in a particularly good position to think about this, and to parse what’s going on in this conversation about feminism, speech, sex codes, trigger warnings, etc., from the perspective of what’s going on in philosophy – rather than the perspective of a resuscitation of the culture wars of the 1990s, complete with an Andrea Dworkin v Wendy Kaminer cage match.

So, I just want to say a couple of things about this.

First, in this piece, Kathryn Pogin, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Northwestern, points out that she contacted the Chronicle to address several misrepresentations about the Northwestern case in Kipnis’ piece. This includes the claim that the accused professor is also suing a graduate student that he previously dated for defamation, since the student alleges that he sexually harassed her. Pogin points out that it is the accused professor who claims that he was dating the graduate student as part of his defense; the graduate student herself says that they were not dating. Kipnis took this claim on its face; that is, she believed the claim the professor makes in his lawsuit against the graduate student. So, okay. Moreover, in email exchanges about Pogin’s request for corrections of these misrepresentations, she was referred to in an email sent to her by mistake as a “girl” “splitting hairs” in an “incomprehensible tirade.”

Also, as this piece points out, I have literally never heard students complaining about campus feminists violating their right to sleep with their professors? Like, never. I have more than once heard hysterically defensive claims from professors, like: “But what if the student in class is leading me on with what she is wearing?” and “We don’t need a sexual harassment policy. The pretty ones won’t mind and the ugly ones don’t need it.” If all of this worry about coddling and abridgments of free speech or whatever is truly all about affirming the agency of our students, then why aren’t we hearing much from them about protecting their rights to sleep with their professors, rather than hearing about professor’s rights to sleep with their students? The erotics implied between professors and students here are themselves a confirmation of the power imbalance: after all, do people in equal relationships often threaten each other, or feel threatened by, sexual blackmail?

These conversations are not merely theoretical for many of us in philosophy. We have heard the stories about how women in philosophy in generations before us were expected to sleep with their advisors. It was just how things were done. It’s not a big deal, really; we should be cool about it. We should in fact be so feminist about how not a big deal it is that we should prove it by sleeping with our professors (or so they said). Women who are successful in philosophy are as a result often hobbled by implications that what is valuable about them is not exactly their intellect. And many of us have  students who come to us now, crushed and filled with self-doubt, when they realize that their professors’ attention was grooming, not mentorship. Many of us therefore carry what Sally Haslanger refers to as a “deep well of rage” inside of us at the accumulation of these stories and experiences.

Kipnis’ piece generated several responses, including one from Michelle Goldberg in The Nation, and Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times. Shulevitz uses Kipnis’ piece as evidence of an overall trend towards coddling college students from scary ideas, alongside campaigns to designate certain areas or whole campuses as “safe spaces,” and the use of trigger warnings on syllabi and in classrooms. There is a lot to be said about trigger warnings – where they came from, what they have developed in to, what they do and don’t do – and some interesting and productive things said about them are here and here.

What I am most concerned about in all of this is the total lack of attention to the role played by the university’s neoliberal risk-management culture. That is, there is a huge difference between the origins of trigger warnings in online feminism – requests for warnings about content, discussions and arguments about what they mean and whether they are effective, the meanings of accessibility and difference, and the inevitable joke content warnings about Justin Bieber – and the adoption of trigger warnings or content warnings in syllabi or in the classroom as policy enforced by university instructors’ contracts.

Even further than that, my university – like many – has decided in the wake of the “new legal environment” following the “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 addressing guidelines for compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act, to make reporting of “sexual misconduct” mandatory for all faculty on campus. We are designated “responsible reporters,” meaning that we cannot keep confidential any conversations about assault that may have taken place between university students, staff, or faculty confidential. This policy is one adopted wholesale from the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), a subsidiary of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, whose CEO, Brett Sokolow, has argued that such blanket reporting structures are necessary to ensure that there is no “confusion” about compliance.

This effectively means that my syllabi, my office, and my classrooms are not safe spaces for survivors (or “accusers,” if Kipnis prefers). And if a university with this policy provides a so-called “safe space” for those triggered by particularly graphic speech on campus (as in the Shulevitz piece), given the blanket “responsible reporter” policy, it is probably not a safe space for students who report that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted on campus.

What this means is that, in several respects, this conversation about coddling students and attacks on free speech on campus is using feminism as a front. While individual feminists might advocate the adoption of trigger warning policies, or safe spaces, or better policies for students who are victims of rape and sexual assault, I don’t know any feminists who begin from the presumption that we should take away choice from survivors, and put them through a process that is not meant to ensure their healing but rather the indemnity of the institution, whether they want it or not. Let’s not get confused about who is in charge here, and whose interests are at stake.

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

Reflections on the Prison and Theory Working Group at SPEP 2014

On Friday night at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) yearly meeting, the Prison and Theory Working Group hosted a session in which participants were asked to reflect on the relationship between prison and theory. The PTWG, framed the event by introducing the group’s 10 principles. Everyone in the room was then asked to briefly state what brought them to the session. Participants included invited anti-prison activists from New Orleans and members of SPEP who attended for a variety of reasons, ranging from curiosity to direct experience of the carceral system. The group’s aim is to create spaces for relationship building, support, and accountability for people theorizing and taking action against mass incarceration.

The PTWG event was unique in my experience of SPEP – no one read papers, we were in a big circle that broke up into smaller circles for discussion, people talked seriously about accountability. In talking seriously about accountability, participants brought up problems of accountability at SPEP. There was a strikingly open conversation about the fact that people known to have committed harms, like sexual assault and sexual harassment, operate within the organization without public acknowledgement of or accountability for what they have done.

Of course, in our retributivist context, the idea of acknowledging or seeking accountability for such behavior makes a lot of people nervous. “Witch Hunt” comes quickly to people’s lips. But we need not reproduce that retributivism within SPEP. Indeed, SPEP offers us an opportunity to build a noncarceral space through practicing the very difficult work of seeking accountability, rather than retribution for the community, which usually involves the loss of autonomy for the people who have been harmed and isolation of the person who has committed harm. And I think SPEP could be one site within the larger discipline of philosophy for this accountability work. As the many public cases of sexual harassment and assault within the discipline attest, there’s work that needs to be done.

So, inspired by work at the PTWG and in the spirit of working to decarcerate all aspect of our lives, I ask: What would it look like for the members of SPEP to hold people accountable for the harms they have committed without treating them like irredeemable monsters? I am thinking specifically of sexual harassment and assault, because that is what I have heard most about, dealt with directly, and it’s a pressing issue within the discipline right now. But, as we begin this accountability work, we can and must expand the range of its concern. We will be in practice and more capable of addressing harms that are now mostly only spoken of in hushed voices among trusted friends – for instance, overt and covert exercises of white privilege and transphobia.

Every year there is harassment and inappropriate behavior that targets those of us who are underrepresented in philosophy – these interactions run the gamut from overt acts of aggression and harassment to more subtle microaggressions (there will soon be a website about what it is like to be a person of color in philosophy).  Members of SPEP, let’s be less comforted by the thought that at least it’s not the APA. It’s not, but that doesn’t make it a good place for all the people who practice or want to practice Continental philosophy. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it can be tempting for members of SPEP to think that since Continentalists are a minority in philosophy our conference spaces are therefore free of domination, or at least better than the APA. The former is simply false and the latter is not a standard.

In the spirit of the PTWG, we could start with a session in which we discuss the need for community accountability at SPEP. It is possible to address harms to members of our community without demonizing those who have committed harms, but that will take a great deal of reflection on the part of members and the broader SPEP community.

The PTWG states: “Mass incarceration is a legacy of the failure to achieve abolition democracy.” So, calling for accountability at SPEP may seem like a strange take-away from the PTWG session– like I’ve missed the point that we’ve got bigger problems than some misbehaved philosophers. But the PTWG also states:

We are committed to activism in an expansive sense. We understand activism to include any abolitionist theory or praxis—that is, any activity that unmasks carceral logic, de-centers whiteness and patriarchy, and unsettles the inside/outside binary. Such activism can occur in the university in everyday ways through the texts we read, the topics and figures we discuss, the people we hire, invite, mentor, etc.

Motivated by what the PTWG brought to SPEP, I’m calling for those of us who love Continental philosophy to work within one of the most important organizations that sustains its practice in the US to make it better – a lot better. And in the process, we’ll learn how to decarcerate other parts of the world.

There are many resources that can guide SPEP in this work, but here’s a good starting place is the decades of work done by people who are addressing harms in their communities without resorting to retribution.

What if philosophers actually wanted to talk with people who had philosophy PhDs?

When I think about white supremacy, I think of Cheryl Harris’s grandma. It’s actually not the story of her grandmother passing as white in order to make a livable wage that comes to mind first, though that’s usually not far behind. No, I think about her grandma when she’s already become Harris’s grandma, long after she quit the job she could not have as a Black woman. I think about her sitting in her chair, bent from advanced arthritis, talking to the child at her knee. I think about that old woman sharing her experience of the Great Migration and the later indignities of “[a]ccepting the risk of self-annihilation [that] was the only way to survive.” I think about this elderly Black woman philosophizing with her grandkid about survival in a world ordered by white supremacy.

Thanks to that intergenerational philosophical work, sometime in college I inherited (from the Harvard Law Review, of all places) a guide to how white supremacy became and continues to be the norm in the US. Harris traces how a property interest in whiteness itself was established and has continued to be protected by the law in the US. I learned about the power of affirmative action to expose and unsettle the settled expectations of white privilege that arise from that property interest. Affirmative action acknowledges the advantages to whiteness constructed by the US history of genocide, colonization, slavery, dispossession, and segregation and offers a systematic approach for dismantling those advantages in all kinds of institutions. And I learned that the power of affirmative action is the reason it has been the focus of so much resistance. Harris and her grandma gave me a powerful gift: a taste for questioning what is with the people you love.

So, I find myself before the latest evidence of philosophy as an academic discipline betraying philosophy as an activity, convinced that the damage being done is profound. Philosophers must certainly be contrarians. Obviously, many people have and will dislike, dismiss, and even harm people who question settled expectations (like whiteness as property) and expose the construction of normalcy (like generations of genocide, colonization, slavery, dispossession, and segregation to produce and then secure whiteness as property). I am devoted to you out there doing that questioning and you can carry my devotion with you through the day.
What is damaging is the alienation academic philosophers produce through patrolling the boundaries of philosophy. Perhaps it’s easy for some of those border guards to recognize Harris as philosophically interesting, even if she did not receive a philosophy PhD. But her grandmother?

Some people have gained fame through disparaging other philosophers and how they choose to approach philosophical work (I don’t mean only Brian Leiter). Let’s have a cheer for academic philosophers finally working together to question that practice. But we need to think bigger. A lot bigger. Philosophy, mostly, isn’t about what we do in our journals and at our conferences. Philosophy, mostly, is what adults say to kids when they are helping those kids wonder why the world is the way it is and vice versa. Philosophy is what friends, of any age say to each other when they question whether the world has to be this way. What would happen to the profession of philosophy if we who have devoted ourselves to formal training came to see ourselves in that much broader tradition?

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.”

For T.W. Adorno. —

The daughter of down-at-heel parents who, whether from talent or weakness, engages in a so-called intellectual profession, as an artist or a scholar, will have a particularly difficult time with those bearing the distasteful title of colleagues. It is not merely that her need for work is scorned, the seriousness of her intentions mistrusted, and that she is suspected of being a secret envoy of the established powers. Such suspicions, though betraying a deep-seated sense of entitlement, may occasionally prove well-founded. But the real resistances lie elsewhere. The occupation with things of the mind has by now become ‘practical,’ a business with strict division of labour, departments and restricted entry. The woman who lacks independent means who chooses it out of desire to do more than simply earn money (while also earning money) will be disposed to acknowledge the fact. For this she will be punished. She is not a ‘professional,’ is ranked in the competitive hierarchy as a dilettante no matter how well she knows her subject, and must, if she wants to make a career, show herself even more resolutely blinkered than the most inveterate specialist. The urge to suspend the division of labour which, outside certain limits, her economic situation would prevent her from satisfying, is thought particularly disreputable: it betrays a disinclination to sanction the operations imposed by society, and domineering realism permits no such idiosyncracies. The departmentalization of the mind is a means of abolishing mind where it is not exercised ex officio, on the tenure track. It performs this task all the more reliably since anyone who repudiates the division of labour – if only by taking pleasure in her work – makes herself vulnerable by its standards in ways inseparable from elements of her naïvité. Thus is order ensured: some have to play the game because they could not otherwise live, and those who could play the game otherwise are kept busy believing that they only play the game. It is as if the class from which working intellectuals have been shut out takes its revenge, by pressing its demands home in the very domain where the deserter seeks refuge.

why still philosophy? p. II

in october, i came on here and acted all tough about staying with/in philosophy. now that it’s january, i start to mentally prepare myself for another year i didn’t land a tenure track job, another year of contingency, another year wondering where the whisky money’s going to come from next semester. so i’m spending a lot of time reflecting on the pragmatics of staying with/in philosophy, rather than the philosophy of staying with/in philosophy (so to speak).

i’m thinking a lot about all of those folks in the generations of philosophers who came before us, who found a home for themselves in other departments, in other disciplines: in political science, in rhetoric, in women’s studies, in comparative literature, in ethnic studies. i’m thinking about philosophers who left to use their voices in other venues, who left to be writers, or who left to work in law or politics or art.

and i’m thinking about everyone who’s just simply not here anymore.

i have no pretensions that philosophy is the only place one can critique, reflect on, analyse, and question our cultural moment and the structures of thinking, discourses and institutions that define it. but i’m afflicted by a stubborn insistence that philosophy will have us. as it becomes clearer that, like so many of my forebears, philosophy is just not that into me, i find myself wondering what it feels like to leave, what thinking goes into leaving, what happens beyond the contingency – “these folks would actually offer me a job, so i took it.”

is it possible to to make a career in philosophy as a middle finger to the discipline that couldn’t find a place and wouldn’t make a place for our friends and forebears who had to leave? is it wise?

APA presidential address: “Philosophy’s Civil Wars”

Linda Alcoff, President of the American Philosophical Association, gave a bang-up presidential address at this year’s meeting of the Eastern APA in Atlanta. you can listen to it here.

in it, she does a great job of linking what she calls philosophy’s “civil wars” to philosophy’s “demographic problem”: she argues that philosophy marginalizes precisely the work that is most effective in challenging hegemonic philosophy, which is done, unsurprisingly, by those at the margins of philosophy, who are often enough women, queers, people of color, or people from outside the axes defining philosophy’s geography.

what do y’all think of the work she does here linking philosophy’s “civil wars” to philosophy’s “demographic problem”?


Who’s at the gate?

X-ers and others, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this article in December 10th’s Inside Higher Ed. In some ways, it argues for a lot of what we’ve been talking about on this blog: the need to re-think the entrenched disciplinary boundaries of philosophy, the relationship between that project and the rest of the humanities/university, etc. But, it’s also absent a discussion of power, which is where I understand our analysis to begin (in fact, I’d argue that the one thing that we tend to agree on most, amongst us in the collective, is the analysis of power…where we each go from this analysis of power varies…).

I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on how the article constructs the categories of “experts” and “nonexperts” in philosophy? The authors do actually say “questions about who should count as a philosopher’s peers are timely today,” but they don’t really address these questions. IMHO the article takes this question somewhat for granted, when in fact it’s probably the site of most of the conflict/tension/disagreement/power. I’m thinking particularly of the ways some people in philosophy departments get diagnosed with “thinking problems”….

But that’s enough for now. I want this to be an open thread to discuss the IHE article. So have at it!

“Questioning a Continent’s Validity”

“Europe is not and has never been a continent
Yet they teach us it is all through school
So when I raise my hand in class and ask:
‘Ey teach, continent is defined as a large land mass
surrounded completely or almost completely by water
Europe is neither large
Even almost surrounded by water
How is it a continent?”
I get looked at like a fool.
Teach tells me, Because it is.
Now this never flew with me as a kid
I aint get the answer needed
I’m disrupting the rest of yo’ class period
So now I’m in the principal’s office
Being asked to explain
why I’m questioning a continent’s validity”

Shakti Butler’s new documentary, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, released two months ago (September 27, 2012), begins with this piece from poet and hip hop artist Y. Jelal Huyler, an Oakland Poetry Slam finalist. This video is a performance of the poem at the Oakland Poetry Slam. The poem is excerpted throughout the documentary and Jelal narrates the transitions of the film.

“Europe is not and has never been a continent”

Philosophy is not European.

My mind was blown a little bit when I saw and heard this poetic argument. Not because it was hard to swallow; no, because it was so obvious and had such fantastic implications for questioning the validity of continental philosophy. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a some-time student of The West Wing, and I’ve seen the Peters Projection map of the world, which is a better representation of the globe stretched across a flat surface, and if you don’t know it, Europe and the US turn out to look even smaller than they do on the Mercator. So I wasn’t completely ignorant of the politics of geography here. But it had never occurred to me in such a direct and explicit way that Europe doesn’t fit the definition of a continent.

This got me thinking, along the lines of EI’s recent post ‘Why Still Philosophy?,’ about the Adornian appeal to immanent critique, and the question of what strikes whom as immanent. Huyler’s excerpt that opens Cracking the Codes ends like this: “You raised me to focus on facts/I’ve done what you asked/Now you let me know I’m digging too deep.” I suspect many readers of this blog will be familiar with this feeling of doing what you were taught to do by the parental/first generation (see the Manifesto)—in our case it’s methods rather than facts, per se—and then being punished for the questions you are able to ask, in some cases because of those methods. But I would suggest that these questions that we can ask, whoever we are, may not be enabled by the methods or topics of continental philosophy so much as they are by the other reading we do and the other lives we lead. That it is these other lives we lead that allow for certain questions to emerge as immanent. I think this is why we might often feel like what is most immanent to the arguments of canonical continental philosophers are the very last things we are supposed to point out or elaborate. Again, immanent to whom? As my mother likes to say when I’m looking for some physical object that is right there and yet I can’t find it: “If it was a snake it would bite you.”

“Now I’m in the principal’s office/ Being asked to explain/ Why I’m questioning the validity of a continent.”

If Europe (You’re-up?) is not and has never been a continent, what is “continental philosophy?” It is not, let me be clear here, any kind of Derridian impossibility—at least not for me. It’s not a philosophy to-come. Like EI, I hold out for what philosophy could be, but I hesitate to even use the word philosophy because I think it might have to be called something otherwise in order for it to be the otherwise that it can be.

No, this post is not about continental philosophy’s promise.

No, Continental philosophy is one tiny narrow slice of the planet’s tools for critique, critical thinking—for something like, but importantly otherwise than, philosophy. Just as the “continent” of Europe is an even tinier portion of the planet, even if you only include the planet’s land mass, when you look at a Peters map. Some readers might quibble that many other disciplines and many people from all over the planet think about and draw on the work of “continental philosophers,” but I think we need to be very careful to even concede this claim, and I think we need to be very clear about the European essentialism it trades on. In Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes, María Lugones promises herself and her readers and communities: “I won’t think what I won’t practice.” Sometimes we understand the practical, oppressive implications of certain kinds of thinking without needing to entertain the thinking, and perhaps these moments more than any others reveal that it’s the other things we read and the other lives we lead, more than the continental methods we’ve learned, that cultivate this sense.

And one final point I think we need to be aware of: the fact that most “continental philosophers” don’t draw on other disciplines and don’t listen to voices from other parts of the planet is a mark of our arrogance, not our lack of need of them.

“Europe is not and has never been a continent.” Philosophy is not European.