Must Philosophy Be So White (and Male)?

Philosophy so white (and male). So claims a trending Twitter hashtag and a recent LA Times article by Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel, two academic philosophers. As someone who exists on the fringe of professional philosophy (I’m a writing teacher, but use philosophy in my classroom), I feel I have a unique perspective on this issue. So is “philosophy so white?” Yes. But why exactly?

First off, as with any discussion of social dynamics, we should be wary of anyone who claims there’s one single answer. There’s obviously a lot of factors at play, a lot of stories which can be told. I’ll start with the most basic.

It may seem a little obvious, but one reason philosophy is mainly practiced by white men is because the books you have to read to “do philosophy” in the Western, academic tradition are mainly written by white men. Not surprisingly, people generally like to read stuff written by people who look like them. It’s therefore understandable that philosophically inclined women of color, for example, may be drawn to Audre Lorde or Gloria Anzaldúa, over Kant and Hegel. An interest in such texts, of course, would take these scholars outside the bounds of academic philosophy and philosophy departments.

Related to the above, is something that the authors of the LA Times article hit upon: quality in philosophical production is largely an aesthetic judgment, and because of the nature of the tradition, it’s easier for white men to present the aesthetic demanded. White men are, as Cherry and Schwitzgebel put it, simply better at “sounding smart” in the way “smart” is defined in the philosophy seminar room. I agree with this. What should be done about it though? It seems that the authors would like to expand the definition of philosophical skill to include a wider range of practices. For example, “woman’s ways of knowing” should come to be seen as a valid form of philosophical investigation. Again, I agree. From my perspective, more diversity in thought and practice is always good. If academic philosophy wants to remain culturally relevant, it seems that such a transition must take place.

Considering this topic though, I’m drawn back to a conversation I had some years ago with a theoretical mathematician (a sort of philosopher, I suppose). He was a pretty reasonable guy, but also adamant that no woman could do the work on which he was engaged. This belief, at least on the surface, didn’t seem to be driven by any particular hatred of women. Instead, from a reasoned consideration of his experience, he had drawn the conclusion that for whatever reason— neural makeup, social conditioning or lack of interest—women could just not do his particular brand of super high-level math.†

Now, it’s easy to dismiss this man’s claim. Let’s not do that though. Instead, let’s try to read his experience in light of Cherry and Schwitzgebel claims about philosophy. Are there modes or degrees of philosophical thought, which, by the nature of the female body or society’s innate (IE, unalterable) reaction to that body, are forever closed to women? If so, why may this be?

Of course, our monkey brains are pretty plastic. This being the case, there’s a strong argument that given the same degree of social support and personal desire, a woman, all other factors being equal, could perform any thought activity that a man could perform.‡ Obviously, throughout history the support has been missing. This should change. If it did though, would the desire be there too? Would the number of men and women doing the most abstract and obscure theorizing even out? Or, as Cherry and Schwitzgebel suggest, is the only answer to redefine “high-level theorizing,” to somehow change it into something in which women (as we now use that term) can participate? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of such a redefinition? I don’t have any answers. These certainly seem like questions philosophers should be asking though.


[†] More specifically, his claim was that there were a few hundred people in the world who could do his work and that none of them happened to be women. From this, he drew the larger, and perhaps unjustified, conclusion that no women could ever do the work.

 [‡] But while performing this thought activity, would they be “thinking the same?” Or does the body we think in indelible shape the nature of our thought?

PC Sister v. Marx Bro

Distinguished feminist scholar Sara Ahmed recently published a long, thoughtful piece in which she ties together a number of hot academic issues. Her basic claim is that critiques of neoliberalism—those which challenge the increased corporatization of the university, for example—have become a tool of racial and sexual oppression. She makes some good points. Let’s discuss the metanarrative at play though. In short, it’s a certain type of internecine squabble I see a lot in academia. Let’s call it “PC sister v. Marx Bro.”

In one corner we have Ahmed, a self-described “angry queer woman of colour.” This description gives us a good idea of her investments. This PC Sister is concerned with protecting the rights of women within the “hostile institution” which is the university. She goes about this via insistent demands that her subjective truth and that of other harassed/intimidated/excluded subjects be acknowledged. As such, her rhetoric include a good dose of what professor Laura Kipnis would call “melodrama.” Ahmed is suffering… “And so much violence,” she writes, “is not called violence because it is understood as a right and a freedom…We are up against history; walls.” And you damn well better recognize!

In the other corner, we have our Marx Bro. He has a beard and corduroy jacket. He’s into Das Kapital, Gramsci, maybe a little Rosa Luxemburg. For him, it all comes down to political economics, “scientific” analysis of big economic structures. Unlike our PC sister, his rhetoric is resoundingly not rooted in the personal. Asher Wycoff, a “speculative leftist and armchair revolutionary” with a particularly great blog, can stand in for this figure.

A few weeks ago Wycoff wrote a piece touching upon the idea of the student as consumer. Ahmed believes that the “student as consumer” trope, like other economic-based critiques, is being used by figures within the university to marginalize gendered/racialized viewpoints. Wycoff agrees that the views of students must be respected. He reaches this conclusion though using the exact economic logic Ahmed finds so problematic. Students, Wycoff says, are acting like consumers because college, in our current “post-industrial, neoliberal hellscape,” is (in an objective sense, no doubt) a commercial transaction.

I imagine that Ahmed and Wycoff, both being good leftists, share many of the same goals. Their pieces aren’t even necessarily contradictory. It is possible, after all, that economic trends are reshaping the university (Wycoff) and evildoers are referencing those trends to justify their evil deeds (Ahmed). Still though, as a pragmatist, I do get frustrated by the PC Sister v. Marx Bro dynamic.

First, I think we all need to be aware of how we justify our views (both to ourselves and others). As we’ve seen in my very reductive analysis, the PC Sister often relies on the personal, the subjective, a shared sense of wrongedness. The Marx Bro is more likely to resort to the objective, the coolly structural. Ideally, we should have respect for, and be able to leverage, both sources of authority.

Also, I worry that both discourses are too quick to posit enemies, especially within the university. For those who rail against corporatization, it’s usually administrators. For radical feminists, it’s white males clinging to privilege. Sure, administrators and white males are terrible. By attacking them though are we jeopardizing our own social influence? Should academics follow something akin to Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment?” It’s something we should consider.

A New (Conservative) Feminism?

Like many net-dwellers, I’m fascinated by Laura Kipnis’s ongoing struggles with campus activists / university administration at Northwestern. Is this a case, as one commenter put it, of “feminism eating itself”? Let’s discuss.

First, I will admit, I love Laura Kipnis. (If you want a youngish male to flirt with in a charmingly cerebral way, professor, hit me up!). As I see it, her brand of feminism is one of female empowerment—she views women as active agents, capable of controlling their own lives, sexual and otherwise. This vision informs her rather laissez faire attitude towards professor/student relationships (the topic which sparked the current row). As Kipnis indicates, this vision of feminism is quite different than that practiced by campus activists. These subjects are primarily concerned with female vulnerability. They highlight this perceived vulnerability and often, as the Title IX action against Kipnis indicates, use it as an offensive weapon.

The ideological disparity here is fascinating. And I can’t help but think it stems from a generational gap. Kipnis, I imagine, is a product of the era of high Theory. Following Foucault, she and her cohort view power and agency as fundamentally distributed, residing in discourses and structures, rather than autonomous subjects.¹ Within such a world, power, when exercised on the interpersonal level, can always be resisted. Kipnis illustrates this point vividly in her discussion of a young female writer who is sexually pestered by a “powerful” book editor. To Kipnis, this man is “nebbish, hard to see as threatening.” To the young author though, he is apparently terrifying, an embodiment of male privilege, even when he’s Skyping in his underwear.

So if Kipnis is postmodern what is this younger generation? I don’t know. Certainly their understanding of power seems, from a postmodern perspective, strikingly retrograde: women and students are weak, men and professors and book editors are strong, etc. Like Kipnis, I worry that their rhetoric infantilizes students (and women). Like Kipnis, I suspect helicopter parenting factors in somehow.

I must note though the skill with which these young people, via their Title IX complaint, used the institutional bureaucracy to punish a perceived enemy. If there’s eating going on, they seem be the ones doing the devouring.

1) Admittedly, I have not read any of LK’s many books (though I want to!). This understanding is based solely on her recent Chronicle pieces.