Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Exclusive Philosophy

Prof. Anita Allen offers some provocative comments on the discipline:
“I have not been able to encourage other people like me to go into philosophy because I don’t think it has enough to offer them. The salaries aren’t that great, the prestige isn’t that great, the ability to interact with the world isn’t that great, the career options aren’t that great, the methodologies are narrow. Why would you do that,” she asks, “when you could be in an African American studies department, a law school, a history department, and have so many more people to interact with who are more like you, a place where so many more methods are acceptable, so many more topics are going to be written about? Why would you close yourself off in philosophy? I feel that philosophy is hoisting itself by its own petard. Its unwillingness to be more inclusive in terms of issues, methods, demographics, means that it’s losing out on a lot of vibrancy, a lot of intellectual power.”

It's hard to know what to make of this. I tend to think that almost any topic can benefit from being thought about in a philosophical way (that's why I blog!), so I'm all in favour of topical inclusivity. But philosophy is already by far the most topically diverse discipline, spanning everything from applied ethics to formal logic. Perhaps the worry is that within these subfields, there are a limited number of issues that one's academic colleagues will find interesting. But what is the complaint, exactly? Is everyone else obliged to share one's idiosyncratic interests?

I guess I'm more partial to the 'marketplace of ideas' metaphor: academics should simply pursue their personal passions, and communicate the grounds for their excitement to others, and the best will tend to rise to the top. There's no obligation to support academic work you find uninteresting or otherwise not so worthwhile. There's something to be said for quality control, after all. (One should be receptive to new work, of course, but not uncritically accepting.) The only legitimate complaint I can imagine in this vicinity would be if non-mainstream ideas were not receiving a fair hearing, as opposed to being heard and just not especially well-liked.

So much for issues. Should we be more methodologically inclusive? Well, that surely depends on what new methods are being proposed. In general, I don't see that anything is gained by taking non-philosophy and calling it "philosophy". If you want to do history, for example, there's already a place for that. I wouldn't consider it a gain for philosophy if we attracted new students precisely by changing the discipline into something it's not. (It's like curtailing civil liberties in the fight for freedom.) I certainly wouldn't want to see rational argumentation replaced by wishful thinking, or political convenience, etc., as the standard against which we assess claims. Or, for a less straw-mannish example, I have my doubts about experimental philosophy. But it really depends on the specific proposal. If, for example, there are valid inferences that philosophers traditionally haven't recognized as such, then by all means bring that to our attention.

Finally, is philosophy as a discipline really "unwilling" to be "more inclusive in terms of... demographics"? I simply can't imagine anyone in this day and age willing to sacrifice "intellectual power" for the sake of maintaining white male hegemony. I mean, that's just crazy. It's another thing to be suspicious of affirmative action, but that's precisely because it seems to be elevating concern for demographics over intellectual merit, and it's the latter we care about. So, again, I'm not quite sure what to make of the criticism.

As for her earlier remarks, I think Nick at the Feminist Philosophers blog hit the nail on the head:
This is an odd list. Consider salary and prestige. If these are reasons to avoid philosophy, they’re reasons to avoid most academic disciplines. But is this right? We should encourage black women to avoid the academy because the pay is only middle-class and the prestige is only so-so? That hardly seems right.

And who says the career options aren’t that great? They’re not that great if you don’t love philosophy. But if you do, then what career options are better? Being an investment banker? Not for me, I think (and thank God).

Can anyone else make better sense of Allen's complaints?


  1. Finally, is philosophy as a discipline really "unwilling" to be "more inclusive in terms of... demographics"? I simply can't imagine anyone in this day and age willing to sacrifice "intellectual power" for the sake of maintaining white male hegemony.

    They wouldn't call it 'white male hegemony' of course. But I think one seems to find in philosophy departments the view that there is nothing really wrong with the demographics at all, so when women or minorities complain about practices or approaches that isolate them or interfere with changes they would like to introduce, they are ignored or deliberately resisted. One of the things I've come to realize is that philosophers actually tend to be very intellectually conservative -- they're not (usually) irrational, so they can be persuaded, but there's a strong tendency to resist approaches that are very different from the ones they are comfortable with, and to affirm approaches that confirm the superiority of the way they like to do things. 'Stubborn' might be a better term than 'intellectually conservative': being able to argue cleverly for whatever one sees fit is not always a good quality to have, because it sometimes gets in the way of serious listening. And one of the things this means is that while there are just a few bad eggs -- and they definitely do exist -- who are dismissive of women or minorities are never counteracted, because no one feels they have to go out of their way to make sure that women and minorities can reasonably feel welcome.

  2. Ah, okay, that's certainly a fair point.

  3. I went to a meeting for students applying to graduate school last night, and the demographics there were abysmal. 40 people showed up, two of whom were women, three "Asian" (but not from Asia), and I the only dark skinned person. If philosophy were recruiting a sample of the population based solely on intellectual merit, then the applicant pool should look more like the real world.

    One thing David Finkelstein (dir. of placement at UC and one of the panelists last night) said about graduate school admissions is that, "We don't care about your personal life." Let me say that certainly true in the ideal case, and should be true in the real world--but the bare fact is that if you are a minority, your personal life matters a whole lot more than if you are part of the status quo. And what I mean by that is a black student might see philosophy as a means of self-liberation because such an approach is important to him as a person, whereas a white student might see philosophy the way a tenured professor might see it--something he does because he is better at it than others and one of the many career choices at hand. A minority has more restriction in his life, hence less of that Aristotelian freedom required for an academic life.

  4. >If philosophy were recruiting a sample of the population based solely on intellectual merit, then the applicant pool should look more like the real world.

    I am not so sure about that,

    1) Your application pool may be influenced by all sorts of things notably the pressure on Asians to get 'real degrees' or on native people (and ex Africa Africans I presume) to get 'culturally sensitive degrees'.

    2) Different groups may have differences in their average ability to pass specific tests for cultural or genetic or other reasons.

    For example, I can imagine debating philosophy the way it seems to get done in English might be increasingly difficult the more distant your native language is from English. A lot of things discussed here for example have a semantic component that could be impossible to translate or seem totally trivial in another language.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.