What is philosophy?

Many philosophy professors first encountered this form of question as about the  kind(s) of truth that philosophy aims to uncover and clarify.  Or so I would suppose.  Certainly for my peer group, there was also a strong and uncomfortable sense that philosophy is somehow irrelevant, but for some of us at least that was just one more very hard problem.  And against it we could balance thousands of years of human enquiry.

Yet so fast has been the change in the philosophical community that for many of us – again I am assuming – Anita Allen’s concerns about what philosophy is are now deeply important.  Perhaps  this is due to the fact that enough women are in philosophy and have experienced its exclusionary nature without being co-opted by it.  We know that acceptance  involving passing is at best a painful tool to use.

Or so it  seems here and now, and other takes would be very welcome.  But all this is a lead up to another version of the title question.  While Allen’s statement

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.”

clearly in some ways rings true, I’m wondering whether the exceptions are also significant.  To say this is not to defend philosophy against the charges of sexism and racism, but I’m wondering now how uniform the field is.

What exceptions, you might ask.  Well,  a lot of philosophy of mind has gone empirical while at the same time taking some account of the phenomenological tradition. And though the now closely related cognitive psychology is hardly a feminist stronghold, it seems a lot better than philosophy has been.  A consequence is that there are more women at conferences, though journal publication remains significantly exclusive.  Perhaps ethics has also changed; the cadre of female virtue ethicists, for example,  is certainly notable.

Such changes can actually lead one to despair, since they can make the socially regressive  attitudes of philosophy departments all  the clearer.  And such attitudes obviously create  a very major problem for combating the field’s racism.   But one might wonder whether the field is starting to fracture in a way that at least creates opportunities feminist department members might be able to use to more the field further forward.

Is it time to think about strategizing perhaps more broadly?  Any recommendations?  Additions?  Objections?

Anita Allen on Philosophy

crmallen1.jpg The Philadelphia Inquirer has an interesting interview with Anita Allen, philosopher and law professor, about her view of philosophy and her experiences as both philosopher and law professor. It makes for depressing reading. At the time of the interview, Allen was about to give the keynote address to the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers.

“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.”Despite delight at the birth of the collegium, the existence finally of a “critical mass” of black female philosophers, she admits “philosophy still feels to me like an isolated profession. I don’t think I would encourage a black woman who has big ideas necessarily to go into philosophy,” Allen says. “Why? What’s the point? Go out and win the Pulitzer Prize! Don’t worry about academic philosophy. On the other hand, I would like to see that world open up to more women and women of color.”  

And to some extent Allen seems hopeful:

“My hope,” Allen says of the Nashville gathering, “is that this meeting will be for black women philosophers what the first meeting of black women lawyers was for us in the early ’90s. . . . We have now arrived. And I think women in philosophy can also arrive.”  

See below for more on the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers. Thanks, Sally, for the article!

Collegium of Black Women Philosophers

The Collegium of Black Women Philosophers has now met!  This photo is organizer Kathryn Gines and first US black woman PhD in philosophy, Joyce Mitchell Cook.
Gines and Cook
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