Was Ayer’s philosophy of no use?

The followiing is from AN Wilson, the eminent novelist and essayist; the full text is in this week’s New Statesman.  If we want to think about how philosophy may be limited by being white, then we might also find some relief from such serious reflections in  some other questions about philosophy and its neglect of full human experience.  This one should, like Wilson’s reflection, follow on a good dinner with lots of wine:

I remember one evening, a quarter of a century ago at New College, Oxford, sitting next to A J Ayer at dinner. I was the most junior of college lecturers; he was the Wykeham Professor of Logic and a renowned philosopher. He told me that no medieval philosopher was worth reading and he was proud to be able to say that he had not read one word of Thomas Aquinas.

Ayer was a genial man but his arrogance could take your breath away….

As the evening wore on, wine flowed and it would not be possible to outline his argument (if it existed) in any detail. But I do remember what he said at the end of the dinner: “Even logical positivists think love is important!”

No doubt he had trotted out a recitation of his non-creed – namely that most aesthetic, moral and spiritual judgements were “meaningless”. But if even logical positivists thought that love was important, was it not strange that they had not set their nimble minds to saying why they thought it was important and what they thought it was?

Cycling home under the starry Oxford night sky, I felt that there were more interesting philosophical questions and answers in Dante’s Comedy than in Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. Love dominates our lives. Its rampages dislocate the heart. Sometimes, it seems linked to sexual desire; sometimes, it seems different. Religion, especially the Christian religion, uses the word to describe the life and activity of God. But when we are kept awake by the thought of the beautiful face of the girl (N.B.) we currently adore, is this love at war with the love of God or is it, as Dante apparently thought, somehow connected? What use was a philosophy that refused to ask such questions, let alone provide an answer?

It is interesting, and not at all surprising, that a feted British man of letters still thinks of himself as sleeping with girls.  Still, AN Wilson is an outsider to academic  philosophy, and in fact rather a decided one at that, I believe.  So to that extent, his position is occupiable by many feminists.

The whiteness of philosophy: Is philosophy the problem? Addition

Added Prologue:

My sense from many of the comments on this post. as of Sunday the 19th morning,  is that people are reading it in a very different way than I had hoped. I may not change that, but since I took out quite a lead-in, putting it back may help something.

First of all, the blog setting: There have been a lot of posts recently on this blog and Leiter’s about the scarcity of black philosophers in our profession; many of them are referred to in the post mentioned at the bottom of this one.. A number of explanations of this lack have been offered; in reporting them, I’m not endorsing them or the supposed facts on which they are based. One is racism, though some people seem to be unaware of any racism. Another is that black students in general do not have the sort of financial family setting that makes undertaking a risky profession a reasonable idea. Another has been that black students just don’t much like philosophy, along with the fact that black philosophers are largely ignored. My sense was that some people thought that that was just too bad. The absense of blacks wouldn’t be a reason for changing anything in the millennia-old discipline.

Faced with such an array of conjectures, one might wonder why the idea that there is something wrong with philosophy isn’t among them. That would be interesting. It’s got to be valuable to critique a discipline, even if we decide eventually that’s wrong.

Let me say that the last sort of explanation I like is one that says the problem is to be located in the individuals left out. There’s a whole range of explanations of the low numbers of women in philosophy that appear to what’s different in some pretty deep way about women; they often strike me as a distraction, and they provide an excuse for ignoring sexism. But that isn’t what Mills is doing, which is why his arguments were appealing to me. He is really doing what is a very traditional kind of critique that aligns characteristics of a discipline with the social setting of its practitioners and suggesting that those from very different social settings might find the enterprise unappealing. Of course, the social setting is that of different races, but when he wrote the piece, color made a huge and systematic difference to social position, and perhaps still does.

Within philosophy this critique is seldom done in mainstream philosophy. So we might ask whether there is any plausibility to attempting it. I think there is. I am going to put the material backing this thought in another blog. 


Are there some ways in which philosophy is so imbued with whiteness that we should expect people of color at best to think it is very unclear why one would find this field  interesting?  Might the natural reaction for many people of color be to see philosophy as a kind of pretence which, through years of subordinate positions, they have seen time and time again?

Since I’m a white woman, I am hardly the person to come up  with a reliable answer by meself.***  Charles Mills in 1994 took up a similar question, and his answer is worth a look, to say the least.

To anticipate a question:  why say that what Mills argues shows that it is philosophy that should change?  Philosophical theories purport very often to tell us how things are, for example what a theory of mind is and why we need one, or what the important problems for knowledge claims are, and so on.  If Mills is right, the claims really ought to be relativized to how white people like to think of things.  At the very least, philosophy might be very enriched by its practitioners trying to adopt that perspective, even if only occasionally.  And a whole lot of people might be delighted to see us stumble out of the cave.  Or horrified.  :)

Mills 1994 article, “Non-Cartesian Sums: Philosophy and the African-American Experience,”  occurs in Teaching Philosophy (vol 17, Issue 3, 1994). Here are two of the important claims he makes.  In giving these snippets, I’m leaving out a very great deal of his detailed and revealing text:  do read it for yourself.

1.  The personal experience of sub-personhood:

An illustration:  The enunciation of the Cartesian sum can be construed as one of the crucial episodes of European modernity. Here we have vividly portrayed the plight of the individual knower torn free from the sustaining verities of the dissolving feudal world, which had provided authority and certainty, and entering tentatively into the cognitive universe of an (as yet unrecognized) revolutionizing individualist capitalism, where all that is solid would melt into air. So the crucial question is posed: “what can I know?” And out of this, of course, comes modern epistemology, with the standard moves we all know, the challenges of skepticism, the danger of degeneration into solipsism, the idea of being enclosed in our own possibly unreliable perceptions, the question of whether we can know other minds exist, the scenario of brains-in-a-vat, etc. The Cartesian plight—represented as an allegedly universal predicament—and the foundationalist solution of knowledge of one’s own existence, thus becomes emblematic, a kind of pivotal scene for a whole way of doing philosophy, and involving a whole program of assumptions about the world and (taken-for-granted) normative claims about what is philosophically important.

Contrast this with a different kind of sum, that of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel of the black experience, Invisible Man.Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 1972). 16 What are the problems facing this individual? Is the problem one of global doubt? Not at all; such a doubt would never be possible, because the whole point of subordinate black experience, or the general experience of oppressed groups, is that the subordinated are in no position to doubt the existence of the world and other people, especially that of their oppressors. One could say that those most solidly attached to the world are the only ones with the luxury of doubting its reality, while those whose attachment is more precarious, whose existence is dependent on the good will or ill temper of others, are precisely those compelled to recognize that it exists. One is a function of power, the other of subordination. If your daily existence is largely defined by oppression, forced intercourse with the world, it is not going to occur to you that doubt about your oppressors’ existence could in any way be a serious or pressing philosophical problem; this will simply seem frivolous, a perk of social privilege.

2.  Philosophy as white guys jerking off:

Thus there will be a feeling, not to put too fine a point on it, that when you get right down to it,  the peculiar features of the African-American experience—racial slavery, with its link between biological phenotype and social subordination, and chronologically located in the modern epoch, ironically coincident with the emergence of liberalism’s proclamation of universal human equality—will be no part of the experience represented in the abstractions of the European or Euro-American philosopher.

And those who have grown up in such a universe, asked to pretend that they are living in the other, will be cynically knowing, exchanging glances which signify “There the white folks go again.” They know that what is in the books is largely mythical as a generalstatement of principles, that it was never intended to be applicable to them in the first place, but that,as part of the routine, within the structure of power relations, one has to pretend that it does.

Thus there will be a feeling, not to put too fine a point on it, that when you get right down to it, a lot of philosophy is just white guys jerking off…A lot of moral philosophy will then seem to be based on pretense, the claim that these were the principles that people strove to uphold, when in fact the real principles were the racially exclusivist ones.   (My stress.)

Readers interested in other recent posts on racial diversity in philosophy will find a number of references to them in this post by Stoat.

***changed in light of comment 2.