Month: September 2014

More on Leiter, philosophy and identity politics

Over at New APPS, Christian Coseru also takes issue with the Leiter report post I criticised here.

I was thinking of the issues raised by Coseru today as I read through the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement for Philosophy (it’s as exciting as it sounds). In the section on the ‘Nature and extent of philosophy’ we read:

The study of philosophy’s own history, including the investigation of its diverse traditions. In the UK, the main focus of study is Western philosophy. This has its own canon in the study of the classics of Western philosophy from the Presocratics onwards, but the membership of this canon is not fixed. Philosophy can include study of texts and traditions from outside the Western world, such as Indian and Buddhist philosophy. It is characteristic of philosophy that it engages with past thought as living argument and as a challenge to contemporary modes of thinking.

Statements such as this one go some distance in acknowledging the inherently contingent nature of the shape of our canon, but still don’t address the fact that voices from outside the established canon(s) do not just broaden or otherwise enrich a pre-existing discussion. They are not spices we add for exotic flair while continuing to serve the same basic meal. If the canon is not fixed, not including a more diverse range of voices is an active choice not to recognise the contributions of those ‘non-canonical’ voices and a failure to acknowledge the role this history of exclusion has played in contributing to other forms of discrimination and marginalisation.

‘Identity politics’ and the philosophical canon

Yesterday, Brian Leiter offered his thoughts on identity politics and the study of philosophy. Leiter perpetuates a line of thinking I often come across – surely they don’t expect us to include non-whites in the curriculum purely for the sake of diversity. As Leiter says, ‘should we really add East Asian philosophers to the curriculum to satisfy the consumer demands of Asian students rather than because these philosophers are interesting and important in their own right?’

A few things: first, as far as consumer demands go, this doesn’t seem that bad. If there are philosophical traditions which stem from the same cultures as your students, at the very least incorporating those traditions alongside the western tradition seems like a good goal. If a university can invest in new cafes, new study carrels and add more options in the dining hall, adding an elective module on Asian philosophy feels like a reasonable concession.

Second, Leiter’s phrasing of the question implies that the rich philosophical traditions of South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia might not be interesting and important in their own right. He references Nussbaum later in the post and perhaps she would be a good place to start. Her work is part of the established tradition, but she finds it worthwhile to engage with Indian philosophy. The Durham philosopher of Law Thom Brooks does as well. These aren’t examples of people pursuing some radical agenda – they find interesting patterns of thought in Indian philosophy which challenge and push Western thought. The fact that they, and many others, find philosophy from outside Europe and North America ‘interesting and important in their own right’ is a good reason to begin to include it in our teaching.

Third, there’s the problem of teaching what you don’t know:

most Anglophone philosophers have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it.  Some regret the ignorance, others think it is excusable since there are so many philosophical traditions in the world and one can only master so many, and others just don’t think about it at all because it is possible to pursue an academic career in philosophy ignorant of a lot of things, including large swaths of the history of European philosophy…

It’s simply not acceptable for a philosopher to ‘have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy’. Even the phrasing points to the historical relationship between Europe, North America and the rest of the world – a relationship in which the humanity and agency of any not-white person is denied, oppressed or, at best, begrudgingly and partially acknowledged. To have no opinion on that state of affairs as it bears on your field of research is inexcusable. To return to the previous point, this objection only makes sense if you think there’s a real possibility that traditions of thought developed over thousands of years might not have interesting things to say.

I have more sympathy for the ‘one can only master so many’ forms of philosophy argument. How do you teach a philosopher whose name you struggle to pronounce? But this objection is based on a problematic understanding of teaching. It assumes that teaching consists of a master dispensing knowledge to students who retain and repeat that information for a mark or grade. I’ve been trying to frame undergraduate education in a different way, one which is more collaborative and based on discussion (I do realise I work at a small institution that affords me this luxury). Why not structure a course around trying to create a better course? Allow them to construct an alternative history of philosophy incorporating marginalised perspectives. This provides a forum in which students can explain why they think a new canon is needed. If the lecturer thinks the students are wrong, allow for discussion and debate (sorry I’ve been reading Ranciere lately so now I’m filled with lofty notions about education and liberation). I’m certainly guilty of not teaching material because I feel that I haven’t yet sufficiently mastered it and I don’t want students to ask questions for which I have no answer. We need to ask what kind of message this conveys. ‘I see your point about the exclusion of huge portions of humanity from the history of thinking, but I’m too worried about stepping outside what I know to do anything to address that problem’?

Finally, what I find most frustrating about the post (as indicative of a fairly common attitude) is that it, yet again, reduces everything to a series of problems that matter. The people who count are the ones who speak and write about these problems. We only need to incorporate non-Western philosophers if they have something interesting to say about those problems that matter. The fulfilling thing about picking up African or Chinese philosophy, though, is finding different questions, or similar questions asked in different ways. Not including groups from historically (or contemporarily) marginalised communities, reinscribes that marginalisation. Our syllabi say that they don’t count. This isn’t about identity politics in philosophy. Arguing that it is abstracts the teaching of philosophy from the racial, cultural and gendered contexts in which we teach.

Gramsci’s Ashes

I was in Rome this past spring and went to an exhibit on Pasolini at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, which included an excerpt from his poem ‘Gramsci’s Ahses’. I particularly like this bit:

Here are the seeds – I testify –

still undispersed by the ancient rule,

these dead men chained to ownership

that over centuries submerges their shame

and their grandeur: at the same time, obsessed –

the striking of anvils, stifled,

quietly grieving – of the lowly

quarter – attesting to its end.

And here I am… a poor man, dressed

in clothes the poor ogle in store windows

of coarse splendour, that have faded,

in the filth of more lost streets,

of streetcar benches, from which my day

is removed: more and more rarely

I have these days off from the torment

of deciding to live; and if it should happen I

love the world, it’s not with a violent

and ingenuous sensual love

like I had, a confused adolescent, a season

I hated; if in it I hurt the bourgeois

affliction of my bourgeois self: and now, the world

– with you – cleft, that part which had the power

doesn’t it seem now an object of bitterness,

almost mystical contempt?

Yet without your rigour, I exist

not because I choose to. I live in the non-will

of postwar decline: loving

the world I hate – in its distress

contemptuous and lost – in a dark scandal

of consciousness…

Read the whole thing here.


History of Ideas module

With the start of term arriving tomorrow, I’m finishing up my teaching plans. The module that I’ve struggled most to pin down is ‘The History of Ideas: Greeks to the Modern Day’. 

The biggest challenge is the lack of time – we have an 11 week term which includes reading week. So I have 10 sessions to teach the history of ideas. The first week it’s hard to assign reading (especially since it’s my first year – I couldn’t tell students at the end of last year to keep an eye on Moodle for preparatory readings). I’m going to try to work around this dilemma by doing an in class reading. This has two advantages. First, I don’t lose the first week. Second, in reading a text together, we can talk about how to engage with a text.

My instinct is to read a selection of great canonical works, alongside the less canonical, more disruptive critiques that emerge from feminist and post-colonial perspectives. It’s hard to do that, though, in 9 sessions. I was thinking about this this morning when I was reading a blog post by Scu on teaching canons.

I’ve pretty much set the reading schedule and it’ll be as follows: Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant and Foucault (together), Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir. This will allow students to engage with some classic texts that come up a lot in philosophy of religion (Aristotle’s Physics, for example) and familiarise them with basic debates about transcendence, immanence, analogy, subjectivity, empiricism and nihilism. The reading from de Beauvoir, I hope, will recontextualise the work we do over the course of the term, showing how these histories of rational development and progress are built upon a foundation of invisible contributions of others. The week on Kant and Foucault will look at ‘What is Enlightenment?’ and will provide an opportunity for students to read a text followed by a philosophical critique of the same text. Students often go to secondary sources to understand assigned reading, but I want to push them to engage directly with the issues raised by Kant. Finally, I’m encouraging students to supplement their readings with Clack’s Misogyny in the Western Philosophical Tradition.

Still, I have 8 weeks of white men. Even if I push students to think about the history of Western philosophy from a wider context in which we consider race, gender and sexuality, I can’t avoid the fact that by structuring the module this way I’m denying the agency of philosophers and theorists who have worked to combat this lopsided view of history. In future years I could propose making the course last the entire year or breaking it into two separate modules, but that won’t help now.

I tend to think it’s important to teach both the canon and the important work which deconstructs the very notion of the canon. Without both, I run the risk of installing a new master (to use Lacanian terminology) rather than pulling apart the master’s discourse. It’s the techniques of questioning and dismantling a canon that is key, but in order to engage in that work students need to first come to terms with the ways in which the western philosophical tradition has structured many people’s experience of the world.

Of course, this is one module in a degree progamme. We don’t have to do everything in one term. Nonetheless, this remains one of the most difficult issues for me. How do you balance tradition and critique for the purposes of undergraduate education?



The other day I was thinking about the term micro-agression. I was mostly thinking about the term because of James KA Smith’s unhelpful article and Anthony Paul Smith’s satisfying smack down. At the same time, I’ve been looking at Gramsci, popular education and the relationship between philosophy and the politics of resistance.

In moments of great tension (IS, Ferguson, Gaza) talking about philosophy and resistance/liberation can feel foolish and cheap. True revolutions happen in the streets, collaborating with other workers, not in the comfortable isolation of university offices banging away on a Macbook. Yet the classroom provides a valuable opportunity to teach patterns of resistance – a basic refusal of accepting things as they come to us. Exposing the contingent nature of systems of meaning and production opens up the space for alternatives.

This understanding of micro-resistance highlights what is so disturbing about Smith’s piece (the core message of which is strikingly similar to the Faith and Theology post about apocalypticism that I discussed earlier). A student who has just discovered Freud, Marx, Focault or Said is developing an alternative view of the world. I remember when I was in high school and read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It was utterly disorientating. Facilitating those moments of disorientation and helping students decide how to respond is the greatest part of undergraduate humanities.

Recordings from Malabou event

During my blogging hiatus I gave a short response to Catherine Malabou’s philosophy at an event called ‘Bodies in Movement’. My remarks focused on the resonances between plasticity and the apocalyptic. The event helped me solidify some key aspects of my PhD, especially the contrast between eschatological and apocalyptic political theologies and the connections between Bloch, Taubes and Malabou as readers of Hegel. There are recordings from the event available here.