leiter

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.

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‘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.