Diversity, “Neutrality,” Philosophy

I was really happy to read a new opinion piece by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden in The New York Times, reflecting on the state of philosophy as a discipline. Though I now identify professionally as an area studies person (Black or Africana studies), my disciplinary orientation is broadly philosophical. That orientation is not a limit. It is the frame with which I read texts in the Black intellectual tradition. So, when Garfield and Van Norden propose to rename philosophy departments as Departments of European-American Philosophy, I was pleased and drawn in. I’ve been saying these sorts of things for years. Good to have it spelled out by folks inside the discipline.

Garfield and Van Norden make a nice, concise, and for me a pretty airtight argument. They point out the nature of what we call, out of habit, the canon (and not a canon). They point out the “diversity problem” (it could also be called a crisis of justice) in the discipline, even as the student bodies we teach are more and more diverse. And that is mismatched with what we think of when we think of – or what we see when we look at – philosophy departments. Their’s is a call to do better and make different departments. I think the renaming of philosophy departments is supposed to be (and should be) a kind of shaming moment: once you see what’s going on, you know things need to be different and hopefully folks change.

At the same time, the opinion piece raised some serious questions for me, in terms of the kind of critical intervention this “diversity” approach can do. I like diversity as a crass strategy for getting what you want. The fact is, critical approaches – decolonization, historical justice, deconstruction – don’t get you new positions. Administrators hear “diversity” and you have a chance. But that’s not thinking. Garfield and Van Norden ask a question that calls for some thinking.

A thought about it all.

I teach a course every couple of years called “Black Existentialism.” Around halfway through, I stop the seminar and ask “why don’t philosophy departments call their courses ‘White Existentialism,’ since they pretty much just teach white thinkers? I mean, I call this ‘Black Existentialism,’ right?” I extend to courses that a no longer with us colleague used to teach called “Black Political Theory” and “Black Marxism.” Why not attach “white” to those titles in the Political Science department? Since that’s what they are, white theorists debating white worlds.

This question gets three distinct responses. First, those who know what I mean and laugh a critical laugh of “yeah, right, as if whiteness could ever be made visible in this kind of world.” Second, those who laugh nervously because they hadn’t put this together, the racialization of syllabi and the like, but are doing it now. Third, those who laugh because naming whiteness in a Black Studies classroom seems like something you should laugh at. The second and the third quickly become the first, however, as we talk. Conversation unfolds the same way each time.

That laugh at the absurdity of visibility cuts to the heart of what we do in that particular course and classroom: whiteness doesn’t just hide from visibility, it is in fact defined by its insistence on being invisible – what Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks calls the colonial measure.

In some ways, what Garfield and Van Norden do in the opinion piece points in this direction. By naming departments racially and nationally, I think the aim is to underscore and make visible whiteness. I would argue with the national characterization in that, however; it is premised on a problematic, if not plainly racially naive, interpretation of U.S. history as white history. Black people aren’t marginal in that history. Black people are completely central. And the Caribbean is the Americas, as is Latin America – all three regions are in fact Western, not non-Western or non-American. But that’s another argument. One that’s as much about taking the visibility of whiteness thing to its logical conclusion as it is about breaking with habits that conflate “Western” and “America” with white people. I’d revise this part of their piece and call it what it is: Department of White Western Philosophy. (There are problems with this too, as not all practitioners are white, etc., but I think if we’re naming traditions, let’s name the tradition as it should be: nationally and racially, because not all nations are racially homogeneous.)

What I find problematic about their piece is rooted in this moment. If we think of this dominant tradition, which is as imperial as it is omnipresent, as a racial and not just geographical project, then we have a very different conception of – even imperative for – how to read that tradition. Garfield and Van Norden write in summary of their position:

This is not to disparage the value of the works in the contemporary philosophical canon: Clearly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with philosophy written by males of European descent; but philosophy has always become richer as it becomes increasingly diverse and pluralistic.

Great argument to a Dean for new positions (don’t get me wrong, we all need positions). As an argument about what’s going on in philosophy and philosophical texts, I’d call it critically (and crucially) naive. What happens in those canonical texts is more than just pursuits of truth and the like. They are also texts that reproduce base ideological forms – or revolutionize them – that are key to reproducing certain kinds of societies. In the case of white Western societies, this means slaving, conquering, and subjugating societies. This is why Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, etc. all had theories of race, nation, genesis of human difference, and justifications for all sorts of slavery, conquest, and domination. In the contemporary academy, most of this part of the white Western Tradition has been forgotten. It’s been relegated to tertiary or boutique concern. But it is not, actually, in terms of the kinds of intellectuals white Western thinkers have always been and wanted to be: genius people who had something to say about the central concerns of their era. Kant’s conception of race is central to his ethics and politics, same with Locke and slavery and conquest, and Hegel’s conception of history has no accidental relation to his depiction of Africa. (I always find it odd that the same people who want to excise Heidegger from the discipline because of his antisemitism gloss over and shrug off the awful stuff in the history of white Western philosophy.) One could make similar arguments for the place of women in so much of the white Western philosophical tradition, where whole societies are built on the subordination of women and the feminine (thinking here of Philosophy of Right and especially Irigaray’s critique via the figure of Antigone).

If those text reproduce ideology, and therefore reproduce empire’s projects of conquest, enslavement, and colonialism, then we can’t just say “nothing is intrinsically wrong.” We in fact have to be open to the notion that these texts are entangled in the most violent, destructive ideas in world history. That they are rooted in whiteness and what whiteness meant in those moments: the right to murder and steal and subjugate.

On the one hand, this is a radical notion. One rarely reads the White Western tradition in this register or with this frame. On the other hand, this is absolutely normal as a general principle of interpretation. When, say, we read Aimé Césaire, we read him as writing out of the struggle against colonial domination and in the name of the Black marvelous called Négritude. Fanon the same way, especially as he goes to Algeria and writes The Wretched of the Earth. Or Du Bois describing the nature of consciousness as doubled.

Why do we read them that way? Because we understand that philosophy, like all creative thought, comes from somewhere, from our sense of situatedness in the world. When it comes to philosophy written from the margins, it’s our habit of reading. We wonder about how they’re reflecting on their condition, their era, and how they imagine things differently in the future. I’m saying we should return that habit to the colonizer. White philosophers have written from that same situatedness. It’s just been hidden because philosophers don’t pathologize the condition of being white. We don’t think about whiteness and white writing as a site of decolonization. Well, some of us do, but that’s not my point. My point is that if we’re to think more broadly about philosophy, diversity talk only gets us so far. The gaze needs to stop being so “neutral.” It needs to be deeply critical and decolonizing, not because I have an agenda, but because that’s the nature of texts and authors and ideas. We know that when we read texts at the margins. Let’s return that knowing to texts at the center. Even if what we find is profoundly disturbing and difficult, because the white West has been profoundly disturbing and violent and so is difficult to reckon with honestly. We can be honest readers. Even when it means reading with tears.