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.


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.

Theses on a new aesthetics

I’m continuing my efforts to think about a theory of aesthetics that builds on Badiou, but attempts to go further in two regards: (1) I want to be explicit about how particular aesthetic practices are to be regarded as inaesthetic; (2) I want to underline the political nature of all events.  I’m currently trying to formulate an argument that would argue that the dominant ideology the state of the situation, is interconnected for all truth procedures.  Anyway, here is it what I’ve been working on:

1) All aesthetic practices are divisible into two categories: those which aspire to truth and those which aspire to entertainment.
– Those which aspire to truth correspond to Badoiu’s categories of didactic,  romantic, and inaesthetic.
–  Those which aspire to entertainment correspond to Badiou’s category of  classical.
2) All aesthetic practices that aspire to entertainment are defined by the problematic of the dominant ideology (in the Althusserian sense of these terms).
3) Within the category ‘aesthetic practices that aspire to truth’ the didactic and romantic are also determined by the problematic of the dominant ideology.
–  The dominant ideology subordinates aesthetic practices to philosophy.  This subordination is the logic of the didactic.
–  The essence of this dominant ideology is not the favouring of philosophy, but the logic of subordination.  Thus the romantic, as the inverse of the didactic, is equally placed within the problematic of the dominant ideology.
4)  Aesthetic practices in the category of inaesthetics are characterised by the following:
–  They are faithful to an event (i.e., L’année dernière à Marienbad is faithful to the event of the French New Wave).
–  This faithfulness is defined as an operation by which a medium explores itself  as a medium (Schonenburg explores the definition of the medium ‘music’ by  tonality).

Althusser, Badiou, and the Critique of Political Economy

At the recent ‘Idea of Communism’ conference at Birkbeck in London, Badiou reiterated his position regarding political economy.  If I understood him correctly, Badiou was arguing that the answer to capitalism is political not economic.  One cannot move from economics to politics (I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote).


I find this position troubling.  After all, Marx wrote on political economy, right?  It also troubles my more economically minded friends, who see a necessary economic element in the challenge to capitalism.


Though I won’t go so far as agreeing with Badiou’s argument, I came across a passage in Althusser which rendered his position clearer (for me at least).  It comes from his essay ‘On Marx and Freud,’ which can be found in his Writings on Psychoanalysis.


Althusser is here discussing the process of abandoning bourgeois or petty-bourgeois positions in favour of proletarian ones:


‘In the “displacement” that has him occupying proletarian class theoretical positions, Marx discovers that despite all the merits of its authors, political economy as it exists is not fundamentally a science but a theoretical formation of bourgeois ideology, playing its role in the ideological class struggle.  He discovers that it is not only the detail of existing political economy that is to be criticized but that the very idea, the project, and thus the existence of political economy – which can be thought of as an independent and autonomous discipline only on the condition of disguising class relations and the class struggle that it is its ideological mission to conceal – deserve to be called into question and doubt. Marx’s theoretical revolution thus arrives at the conclusion that there is no political economy… and that it is all the more emphatically the case that there is no Marxist political economy.  That does not mean there is nothing; rather, it means that Marx rejects the object that political economy was alleged to be with an entirely different reality that becomes intelligible through entirely different principles, those of historical materialism, in which class struggle becomes determinant for understanding so-called economic phenomena’ (113).


Allegiance to Marx is much more of a concern for Althusser than for Badiou, but this passage seems to indicate a potential source for Badiou’s understanding.  The accuracy of Althusser’s reading and the efficacy of Marx’s argument, of course, are an entirely different matter.


I wonder if Althusser’s statement could be reworded like this: the ideological role of political economy is to complicate the terrain of resistance by claiming that it is a network of political and economic relations that determine class relations.  In contrast, Marx is arguing that class relations are political (this fits with Engel’s definition of political power as ‘merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another’).  So without denying the reality of economic relations, one can state that these relations are simply a weapon in the arsenal of oppression of one class by another.  I think this formulation then raises a larger question: if class oppression is not reducible to economics (both in its means and its goals) what are the motivations of these tyrannies?