Diversify or Die

There’s an interesting piece in the Stone today on the consequences of philosophy’s Anglo-European blinders: If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is. Garfield and Van Norden suggest that the systematic failure to address non-Western sources impoverishes the discipline and belies any claim to universality. And what a wonderfully provocative list of addenda they suggest!

We hope that American philosophy departments will someday teach Confucius as routinely as they now teach Kant, that philosophy students will eventually have as many opportunities to study the “Bhagavad Gita” as they do the “Republic,” that the Flying Man thought experiment of the Persian philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) will be as well-known as the Brain-in-a-Vat thought experiment of the American philosopher Hilary Putnam (1926-2016), that the ancient Indian scholar Candrakirti’s critical examination of the concept of the self will be as well-studied as David Hume’s, that Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), Kwazi Wiredu (1931- ), Lame Deer (1903-1976) and Maria Lugones will be as familiar to our students as their equally profound colleagues in the contemporary philosophical canon. But, until then, let’s be honest, face reality and call departments of European-American Philosophy what they really are.

Thus, the more appropriate title for our departments would be “European and American Philosophy.” On balance, I applaud this argument: we ought to aim to live up to the universality of our disciplinary self-conception, or give up that self-conception entirely.

When I think about diversifying my own syllabi, I almost never reach for Asian philosophers. I aim for gender parity first, racial diversity second, and usually end up with only a few thinkers from outside the Euro-American tradition. Sometimes none. I am scared to get Confucius or Mencius or Wiredu wrong, and I’m worried about orientalizing or exoticizing their traditions. These are obviously resolvable anxieties, given a sincere commitment, but they exist. I have a comfort zone, I push against it in some ways but not in others, and there are biases in the patterns of which ways I leave the comfort zone that I must address.

My biases, though, largely reproduce the biases in the discipline as a whole. And it would be much easier for me to correct my individual failings if the profession would work with me, if my training had worked on me. Why didn’t my graduate school train these biases out of me? Kristie Dotson’s How is this Paper Philosophy? is my go-to answer for this question. I think it’s crucial, but it’s hard to excerpt well, so read it!

… … …

Okay, you’re back? Basically, philosophers are constantly engaged in a dual game of legitimating their work as philosophy and working to reconstitute the borders of what counts as philosophy. These practices–simultaneously forcing people to justify their projects and choices in terms of a shifting standard of legitimate philosophical research–are how we end up treating Chinese or Native American philosophy as merely “inert ideas,” or worse, as “religion, mythology, storytelling, poetry, or ‘dancing’ (as Levinas once so generously declared).”

This has the effect of making philosophy a mostly white man’s game, because what Dotson calls “diverse practitioners” usually find that philosophical borders are being continually redrawn to exclude them. Of course, she writes the essay in defense of Black American, feminist, and queer philosophy, but the point stands: Asians are excluded by the kind of discipline that philosophy has become.

So I think it’s not enough to say philosophy has a budget problem. It does! But maybe it wouldn’t have quite as bad a budget problem if there weren’t so many faculty working on the semantics of the left parenthesis. The discipline became scholastic to avoid the big ideological fights of the last half century, and now is paying the price.

Attending to other traditions might produce more majors and philosophy departments would be richer both financially and ideologically and could then be doing better work. But it’s still an open question which traditions to prioritize, since these decisions get made one hire at a time. The Garfield/Van Norden piece gestures towards African and Latin American philosophy, but it’s part of a project to specifically increase attention to Chinese philosophy. That seems good, but I do also want to see a continued? renewed? nascent? long-delayed emphasis on Black American philosophy, as well as a re-commitment to feminism.

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