Thursday, May 12, 2016

Philosophy's Gatekeepers

Yesterday's piece by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden's in NYT's The Stone ("If Philosophy Won't Diversify, Let's Call It What It Really Is") has already generated some of the most interesting online discussion about the discipline and profession of Philosophy that I've seen since our last salacious exposé. (What are we at now, philosophers? 190 days since the last major breaking-news story about sexual harassment or assault in our discipline?  That must be a record!) Anyway, Garfield and Van Norden's central thesis is that what gets called "philosophy" in the United States is, in fact, an "area study" with a decidedly limited Euro-American focus.  If departments are going to continue only teaching courses in what Garfield and Van Norden call "Western" philosophy, they argue that we ought rename those departments in a manner that is more descriptively accurate. Garfield and Van Norden recommend "Department(s) of European and American Philosophy" and, in doing so, imply a number of complicated presumptions about philosophy, about "Western" philosophy, and about what counts as better or worse ways to "diversify" the discipline.

There are a number of excellent critical engagements with Garfield and Van Norden's piece already out there in cyberspace --see in particular the response essays by John Drabinski ("Diversity, Neutrality, Philosophy"), Eric Schliesser ("On the Very Idea of Non-Western Philosophy"), and Justin Smith ("Garfield and Van Norden on 'Non-European' Philosophy")-- so what follows is just a few passing thoughts on this very interesting discussion.


In my view, it's difficult to be a working professional in the discipline of Philosophy today and not be deeply concerned with its woeful lack of "diversity," broadly speaking. I say that realizing full well, of course, that in reality for the majority of philosophers, it isn't in the least bit difficult to be a working professional in the discipline of Philosophy today and not be concerned at all with its lack of diversity. So "my view" is more aspirational than descriptive.

To wit, I'm sympathetic with the basic concerns of Garfield and Van Norden.  Anglophone philosophers in particular-- even the most well-meaning ones-- have long indulged a tendency to think of "philosophy" as synonymous with "catholic": its concerns are universal, its claims are universalizable, its truths are apodictic. Anything idiomatic, uncommon, bound to the particularities of site-specific histories or bodies has to earn special dispensation to be permitted into the fold, to be recognized as or counted as "philosophy," to be taught as "philosophy."

And the gatekeepers to Philosophy's fold are straight outta Kafka: "If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other." 

It is exceedingly difficult to get past the gatekeepers in the discipline of Philosophy.  Everybody recognizes that, I think. Some with despair... but many, many more with considerable pride.

Drabinski's and Schliesser's essays both take issue with Garfield and Van Norden's deployment of the category "Western" to describe philosophy in the U.S., especially the manner in which that descriptor either (in Drabinski's argument) elides the many and varied resistant, critical, oppositional discourses that emerge out of what we call the "Western" philosophical tradition but which are not wholly reducible to it or (in Schliesser's argument) flattens the diachronic, dissonant, oppositional influences within the "Western" tradition that frequently escape the attention of everyone who naively takes The Western Philosophical Canon to be a text without redactions or margins.

You should read both Drabinski's and Schliesser's essays.  They are both really excellent, not least of all for the fact that neither Drabinski nor Schliesser take "diversity" (or the real grit-and-grind work of "diversifying" our discipline) to be anything less than the historically, politically, socially and intellectually complicated hornet's nest that it is.

For all that, though, here's another $0.02: let's not fail to notice the way that these discussions, commendable as they are in many respects, remain oh so very androcentric.  (The inside-baseball term here is #philosobro-y.) Even as the arguments are made that "Western" is an inadequate descriptor of "philosophy" in the U.S. -- that what we take as "Western" philosophy has always-already been defined via erasures and refusals consistent with its primarily colonialist, racist, biopolitical, Christian, rationalist, nationalist, and, more recently, neoliberal meta-projects-- mentions of that same tradition's constitutive patriarchy and heteronormativity are more or less relegated to "et al" status.

Claim: Even so-called "Western" philosophy ought to recognize the role of its oppositional discourses in its constitution of itself.
Evidence: Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. DuBois, Aimé Césaire, Ibn Rashid, Ibn Tufayl, Averroes, Confucius, Candrakirti, Lame Deer.

Oh, and also by the way, Maria Lugones.

Full disclosure: I'm not sure I'm ready to put forward a definition of what does or does not count as "philosophy."  (As a woman philosopher, that may be evidence that I am very well house-trained.) What I am ready to say, however, is that if the status of African(a), Asian, Native American, Jewish, Latin American, Indian, and Islamic philosophies are being debated by gatekeepers, then what Charles Mills called the "just add women and stir" approach to this discussion is not working for me.

And neither, I suspect, is it working for the many (though still too few) African, Asian, Native American, Jewish, Chicana, Latina, Indian, and Islamic women philosophers.

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