Diversity, “Neutrality,” Philosophy

May 11, 2016 John Drabinski

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.

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Comments (24)

  1. Jeremiah Gaster

    Aristotle is another good example, albeit, less “racial” than “Greek oriented”.
    He defended slavery, the subjugation of women, the rule of the rich, the end of Athenian Democracy, Aristotle was wholly concerned with defending property and other social relations of power, and in fact, naturalizing them.

    Having said that, he lays this out clearly enough that he’s quite interesting.

    • John Drabinski

      I read the ancient Greek philosophers first as part of my great books program. So, read them as expressions of “Greek-ness.” It was strange, after that introduction, to later encounter them as tiny little Europeans from the past! I do think there is an honesty in the ancient Greek tradition: it’s about how to be a good Greek. Emphasis on “Greek,” of course, and not a universal human something or other.

      • Jeremiah Gaster

        Oh for sure, but at the same time, what is universal is their defence of power relations, and while the Greeks thought they were the best, this was not racism.

        Anyways, my point about Aristotle was also that he was completely honest in this defence. He was anti-woman, anti-slave, anti-demos, and pro-aristocrat (who just by chance, was probably rich).

  2. Marc Brenman

    Is this really true: “the student bodies we teach are more and more diverse”?

    • John Drabinski

      That’s a snippet from the piece. And I think it’s obviously true in the long view of higher-ed (say, a fifty year frame), more true in certain institutions these days than others.

  3. DrA

    Hey John, this is Rita – we went to grad school together. Your lovely blog doesn’t have any social media links so is harder to share but I’ll tweet it out. Hope you are well!

    • John Drabinski

      Thanks for noting that, Rita…fixed!

      Hope you’re good these days, it’s been forever. Since SPEP in Salt Lake City, I think!

  4. Pete

    Hope all is well John. Saw this post come up on a reddit thread and had a response that I wanted to share with you here. Who better to respond and maybe help me learn some things along the way. Just to give a little bit of background, philosophy was one of my majors during the undergrad years, though my interests within the field (metaphysics, epistemology, phil of math, phil of science) are likely very different from yours. The response is reproduced below!

    I’m having a somewhat hard time taking this seriously, and I’ll try to explain:

    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.

    1) Does John fail to consider the fact that throughout the entire course of human history “slaving, conquering, and subjugation” has been the unfortunate name of the game. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at white Europeans, brown Barbary (Ottoman) corsairs, black rulers of the Kingdom of Dahomey, Asian elites of the Shang/Qin Dynasty’s, or any other group that enslaved large segments of their own/other societies.* This is my problem with grand narratives like this, they totally neglect issues of slavery and oppression by non-European actors, something that in many cases far exceeds** the disgusting actions of those who participated in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

    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.

    2) Yes, the racial classifications that people like Kant and Hume embarked on are brutal. And some of that can be attributable to the absurd scientific “truths” about the races that many subscribed to in that era and that we now know are falsehoods.

    But what does any of that have to do with, say, Hume’s critique of induction? Or Kant’s revolutionary work on (ironically enough) morality/ethics? If you said “nothing” you’d be correct. You’ve got to be able to separate the idea from the person***. In fact, in general I think its a very bad idea to hold particular philosophers (or anyone else) as hero’s. I can, and do, appreciate the brilliance of many of the ideas that European philosopher’s have expounded on over the centuries. I also understand that any asshole or scumbag can do brilliant things. Michael Jackson may have been a diddler, but he’s still a legendary musician. MLK was a minister that cheated on his wife numerous times, and I still appreciate the magnitude of his achievements when it comes to Civil Rights. Ghandi was a racist that despised black South Africans, and yet his quest for independence is still something we should look on with awe. This is not a terribly hard thing to understand, but it seems like John would have us believe that race and “destruction of the inferior people” infects the entirely of Western Philosophy. That is a notion I find patently absurd.

    3) Final thought. I appreciate the work that’s been done by philosophers trying to understand race, society, and the power dynamics that are inherent within civilization. That being said, personally, I love philosophy for it’s pondering the grand questions of existence and truth. I will never say its not important, but I really don’t want to spend time better understanding social constructs than trying to get at the very nature of reality itself. The Universe is far more massive than the infinitesimal portion we call humanity, and I want to know as much about it as I possibly can before I enter that long sleep.

    Any input from others would be great!

    *Yes, I understand the difference between older forms of slavery and the particularly brutal form of racial chattel slavery that would come to be known in the Americas. That being said, I think you’d have a hard time convincing a slave about to be killed in Western Africa during a ritualistic sacrifice that he/she is actually doing pretty well compared to those shipped across the Atlantic.

    ** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_slave_trade

    *** http://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/22399/how-to-approach-or-consider-racist-philosophers

    • John Drabinski


      A few thoughts:

      1) The post to which I was responding concerned European and American philosophy. So, my comment is parasitic on that in some sense. As well, if one were reading North African philosophers, one would be well advised to consider the long historical and cultural context of that thinking – that goes for any place and tradition.

      At the same time, let’s not equivocate: what Europe and England did to the world is absolutely unprecedented in scope, mass murder, mass enslavement, mass subjugation, and centuries of sustained, unrelenting, uncompensated human suffering. It’s singular. And has to be treated as constitutive of the culture and politics of those parts of the world – colonized and colonizer. It went on for centuries. Rather than arguing why this is important to take seriously, I’d challenge the other way: how could we possibly not take it seriously?

      2) I never go the way of “well, that’s just the bad science people believed” and ignore bits and pieces. For the thinkers themselves, their work was a coherent whole, each part interconnected. These were the best and brightest of their parts of the world, systematic thinkers trying to bring a grand vision to bear on the entirety of life. Why would we read them so differently? I think to do so is naive.

      What it looks like to decolonize these thinkers? That’s part of scholarship – to undertake the decolonization process, do it, debate approaches, discuss results, return to the process, etc. You can’t answer everything up front.

      3) Saying “I really don’t want to spend time…” is an expression of unrigorous reading and thought. Perhaps that is something one does as a drive-by glance at philosophy. But the scholarly discipline needs to push deeper than just affection for stuff that sounds good to you. You’re in the majority on this issue. And I think that’s part of why the discipline is slowly dying on the vine. Other disciplines have been undergoing rigorous self critique for decades. Philosophy needs to start.

      • i concur that philosophy needs to start. as pete says he wants to seek past our infinitesimal humanity that keeps him afloat it’s seems symptomatic of a distantiation from the thing in itself that we are actually looking for as a d.i.y. philosophical starter kit. no offence. because we shouldn’t get caught up in so and so is a racist or an anti semite, unfortunately for hegel the slave master dialectic can just be thrown out the window, as for heidegger, he was swept up in his own convictions and those of nazisms powerful program that coincided in technical determinism. is that not a viable start? if these texts are rendered valuable only in economy with 2 things they are the deconstruction and decolonization of existing epistemic and phenomenological hegelian hegemonic structures OR the perpetuated tautologies of praised oppressions. there’s no arguing you can’t understand the impetus of this article, and if you can’t then consider where you stand after choosing whether or not to decolonize or die (as an apathetic accomplice of colonizer).


      • Ed

        John -grad student here- can I ask for your take on my experience. I see quite a few posts like yours giving well sustained arguments but that use reasons and concepts I find difficult to get a grasp on. I then see what I take to be a reasonable comment (such as above) about how it seems like we can separate the person from the idea (e.g. Hume as someone who had brutal racial classifications, and the problem of induction) and this gets responded to with another concept and reason that I don’t understand (“their work was a coherent whole, each part interconnected”). I often don’t recognize what words like ‘interconnected’ mean and why they matter e.g. in this case I don’t understand how to tell if something is interconnected in the sense of espousing racist views is ‘interconnected’ with harming people (i.e. yeah, clearly it’s wrong, don’t do that) or in the sense that my breathing out carbon dioxide is ‘interconnected’ with the effects of global warming and thus the damage of the earth (i.e. yeah but it’s not going to guide my behaviour, and I’d feel justified in asking anyone who says that ‘we should end all activities interconnected with climate change’ to specify exactly what they mean, why, and what things count as relevantly connected).

        In personal discussions and other online pieces whenever I ask for clarification of phrases such as “reproducing ideology” “rooted in x” “knowledge is situated” “critically inspect x” “it perpetrates x” I encounter this problem or these get explained with other things I do not understand. These are phrases that I could use in a sentence, which I could describe with synonyms to students, and give the general sense of, but I feel I have no understanding of and no means of distinguishing correct usage, like in the above example. It seems to me that when I teach students about the problem of induction, I explicitly am not teaching them about Hume’s body of work or aiming to get them to look further into his other thoughts, I am doing so because the idea seems crucial to whatever we’re studying for that day. But even if I accepted this interconnected reason, did mention his context, and a student pressed me on why, I would not feel equipped to tell them why they needed to know it and connect it to various other reasons they would eventually agree with (think of how hard it is to convince someone that living an authentic life matters/ has intrinsic value beyond mere happiness if they say they would, in fact, get into the experience machine).

        Whilst I would never say the onus is on people such as your self to teach us ignorant folk (the student’s not going to learn if they don’t first show up and do the readings) I feel like this is playing a large part in people’s lack of enthusiasm for diversifying the canon, amongst other changes. I don’t think the people most in power to change said canon, who supposedly listen and talk about say diversity, aret really talking in the same way as you. They might understand some broad benefits of diversity simpliciter and mention the value of new perspectives, but if you pressed them to explain back to you the reasons you’ve listed above, I don’t think many of them would be able to do so because they don’t actually understand, and won’t say “I don’t understand”. Obviously people such as myself should go and teach ourselves, but much of the time I feel too busy just trying to stay afloat in the current system, let alone trying to change it, and in my experience it’s difficult to understand new ways of thinking without having someone there in front of you to explain it piece by piece (I know there’s many online efforts but it’s not a great medium – one word or concept the reader doesn’t get and they stop following).

        Sorry that was a lot, just wondering to what extent you think this ‘not actually understanding’ is had by those who talk about change but don’t act, and thus plays a causal role in said problem, and how to get around this without having to enroll them in undergrad classes.

    • There is so much I agree with in Mr. Drabinski’s piece, and so much I disagree with. You, Pete, perfectly captured my sentiments.

    • Paula

      “I will never say its not important, but I really don’t want to spend time better understanding social constructs than trying to get at the very nature of reality itself.”

      ?? I’m sorry but…. aren’t social constructs part of reality?? Isn’t this what Haslanger’s work (as well as many others’ works) argues… which is obvious to many of us who have to explicitly contend with these aspects of reality??

  5. Hahaha I’m dumb. Just realized you were the reddit user I responded to over on r/philosophy! Feel free to delete the big post above and this one and respond over there (or vice versa). Sorry for the confusion

    • John Drabinski

      Hi Pete, I will reply to the longer comment shortly. But I wanted to note that I am NOT that user on Reddit. So here is where you can get my reply.

      (Just wanted to clear up that confusion)

  6. Marc

    It seems like you want to diminish the accomplishments and great thinkers of western civilization under the guise of “political correctness”

    Should we also get rid of all the achievements of Analytical Philosophy, since its founder, Gottlob Frege was an anti-semite

    should we also stop listening to the music of Richard Wagner and stop reading the literature of HP Lovecraft since both were known racists and antisemites

    this kind of thinking is a pseudo-progressiveness

    • John Drabinski

      That isn’t what I’m saying at all. I think we have to take seriously how each of these thinkers is deeply embedded in troubling visions of the world – and they indeed understood themselves that way, so I’m just saying we should take them on their own terms. Decolonization doesn’t mean “getting rid of,” whatever that would mean. Decolonization is a form of critical reading that requires taking the political content of a writer’s work seriously and drawing out how it is entwined with other, seemingly less political aspects.

      • Jeremiah Gaster

        Completely agree with your (John’s above) statement. Have you read any of Neal Wood’s or Ellen Wood’s work on the social history of political thought?

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