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.

32 thoughts on “The whiteness of philosophy: Is philosophy the problem? Addition

  1. Re: “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.”

    In terms of “whiteness” – and let us not be carried away with the visual trope that Descartes “sum” was a huge white-washing of the world – it is interesting to note that in the eyes of some the most progressive and radical Cartesian of the next generation was the rather swarthy Sephardic Jew Spinoza who pushed both the radical rationalism, but also the materialist critique of the rising Capitalist state in parallel views. The Cartesian impulse need not merely result on the dissolve of all local awareness of bondage. But perhaps Spinoza’s dual position as Philosopher and ghetto’d Jew gave him this double-sight, half of which is often lost in the Institutional story of what became of Cartesianism..

  2. Hi there, in answer to your questions re. philosophy & non-white/black people (sorry I’m from the UK, I refuse to use the term ‘people of colour’) , Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze’s edited book Race and the Enlightenment : A Reader (Blackwell, 1997) is worth a look. Here’s an example of philosophical knowledge that focuses on black people, a choice quote from Immanuel Kant, “On the Different Races of Man”, in his description of the physical characteristics of black people: ‘The superabundance of the iron particles, which are present in all human blood, and which are precipitated in the reticular substance through evaporation of the acids of phosphorus (which make all negroes stink) cause the blackness that shines through the superficial skin…’ (p.46). Etc., etc.

    I’d say that philosophy itself, and the institutions it is taught in, is the problem.

    Also, saying ‘Since I’m a white women [sic], I am hardly the person to come up with a reliable answer’ is a cop out. Do you know any people who aren’t white? If you do, why not ask them?

    I’d say that as a discipline, philosophy has yet to be honest with itself. When specificity (of people, of beliefs, of perceptions) are taken into account, I will take philosophy more seriously. At present, my research often overlaps with philosophical theory, and I have to take a lot of ‘traditional’ philosophy with a pinch of salt.

  3. With respect of academic philosophy, I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced the field as being so imbued with whiteness that it makes specific topics or philosophical claims uninteresting. I don’t quite understand the attitudes you are attributing to black people as a whole, as if black folks are standing above the superficial musing of academic philosophers and saying that they don’t want to partake in such frivolity.

  4. I find it demeaning and frustrating when people act as though I am somehow out of the mainstream of philosophy, that my whole way of thinking must be unusual, because I’m female. I am as much a mainstream analytic philosopher as any of my male contemporaries. I cringe when I read about people doing the same thing to African-Americans. I’m sure there are cultural differences in how each of us does philosophy, but each individual philosopher has his or her own approach. I don’t believe that there is an “African-American way” of doing philosophy that is unified and distinct from white philosophy. I also don’t believe in a unified, distinct “white way” or “female way” of doing philosophy. What kind of lousy philosophers would we be if you could tell what position we’d take on philosophical issues just on the basis of our skin color or sex? I sincerely hope we’re all more interesting and guided by reasons than that would imply.

    My position, I think, is consistent with an appreciation of the importance of diversity. I think the differences in how individuals approach philosophy help to keep us, as a whole field, from getting stuck in a rut. One predictable way to increase diversity in how people do philosophy is to recruit philosophers with different backgrounds. The point is not to get an African-American philosopher on the faculty because you need “The African-American Perspective,” but because you think that he or she is a great philosopher, and you hope that (1) he or she has an original and promising way of doing philosophy, and (2) your African-American students might see themselves as becoming philosophers because they aren’t convinced from day one that only white people do philosophy.

  5. The original post contains a load of quoted nonsense, and Anonymous 11:04’s response strikes me as right on.

    The glorified serf, sustained by the verities of the feudal world, with all the putative authority and certainty that state of affairs conferred, had she taken the time to think clearly, would have herself arrived at foundationalism. Granted our glorified serf probably wouldn’t have had the time to think clearly about these abstract matters, since she’d be too busy cooking food for her husband while he’s farming for his Lord and basking in verities and certainty, but that’s irrelevant as far as the truth of foundationalism is concerned.

    The subordinated may not care much about matters epistemological, for the subordinated have far more pressing practical problems. But to say that it’s impossible for the subordinated person to think about these problems with clarity, should he want to, is to accuse the subordinated person of being an idiot. I find that offensive. Finding oneself in a horrible situation hardly makes it impossible to think, with clarity, about abstract matters and problems. What one wants to do, what one’s time is best spent upon, what one choose to do, what one chooses to think about, etc… can all be influenced by one’s predicament. But to claim that one can’t think about certain matters because of one’s predicament is both ludicrous and wholly unmotivated. Mills should stop jerking off himself.

    I further suspect that Mills wholly fails to understand the point of considering the skeptical challenge. I know of almost no contemporary epistemologists who think that determining whether or not there is an external world, or whether or not there are oppressors, is a serious philosophical problem. The answers to these questions are obvious to everyone. Skeptical challenges are considered by philosophers because by considering them we can discover interesting facts about the nature of knowledge. Anybody who wants to do this can do it to at least some extent, including the oppressed, downtrodden and abandoned. Of course, the oppressed have fewer opportunities to do it. We should fix that.

    Mills may not find those epistemological discoveries interesting. It sounds like he doesn’t. Fine, let him work on other matters. Perhaps more of us, or all of us, should be working on other matters. Perhaps we should devote more time to working out solutions to practical problems. But to claim that the subordinated can’t even think about the matters contemporary epistemologists find interesting is degrading, demeaning load of hogwash.

    I also suspect that the peculiar features of African-American experience are not represented in the writings of mathematicians. Will there be a feeling that a lot of mathematics is just white guys jerking off too? I’d rather die than read the rest of Mills’ nonsense.

  6. I strongly agree with Anonymous 2:31 above. Mills’ comments struck me as deeply misguided and somewhat offensive.

  7. What do you mean by ‘Whiteness’? As in, are you referring to the status privileges white men have accrued to themselves and continue to defend (erroneously)?
    Also, which philosophy are you talking about? Yours? Ms. Hope refers to a 19th Century Prussian’s prejudice and claims that a) that is “Philosophy” and b) that this philosophy is an intrinsic description of “the institutions” thereof. I would be interested to know what her research in because the research I am doing is based on specificity of people, beliefs and perceptions and why and how to change beliefs that are erroneous or damaging to people.

    While I would like to be able to deny the second point cited of Mssr. Mill. I can’t. On the other hand, this sort of genealogical critique re specifying what is “actually going on” is tiresome to me. Its power as an analytical tool can’t be denied but I believe that it must eventually become sterile. It is a way of tuning out rational enquiry. Of reducing good intentions and good argumentation to “he said, then she said” narratives and I don’t find those to be valuable.

    By the bye, does anyone still pay attention to Cartesian epistemology any longer? Aside from learning about it in History of Philosophy?

  8. It might be helpful to distinguish between two questions that may be getting run together. One is whether the subject matter of philosophy (or some subset of that subject matter) is of interest primarily to white people, or is somehow ‘imbued with whiteness’. Another is whether the subject matter of philosophy (perhaps as it’s currently investigated in the English-speaking world) is likely to be alienating to African-Americans.

    I think it’s a mistake say that philosophical questions in general are too imbued with whiteness to appeal to non-whites. For one, as Anon 11:04 points out this could come across as extremely insulting to non-whites working in philosophy (Jaegwon Kim, say, might be surprised to hear that philosophy of mind’s subject matter is only interesting to white people). But it also seems to suggest that the development of these questions, their history, was solely the province of white people. It wasn’t. Take the example of Cartesian skepticism. Descartes’ method of doubt owes a great intellectual debt to the skeptical enquiries of Al-Ghazali (among others). And that’s not an isolated incident — much of our ‘canon’ medieval and early modern philosophy is highly influenced by Persian and Islamic philosophers. To say that these questions are “white questions” is to ignore a huge and important aspect of the history of philosophy. (We do tend to ignore that history a lot, but we should stop.) It also seems to suggest that white people have historically been the ones who primarily engaged in philosophy, or at least in the questions we now recognize as important philosophical questions. Again, that just seems wrong. Buddhist philosophers, for example, did incredibly interesting work on the metaphysics of infinite descent and the metaphysics of change across time — two very ‘live’ topics in analytic metaphysics today.

    But the second question. . .I have no idea about that one. JJ, did you have either or both of these questions in mind? Or have I just missed your point entirely? :-)

  9. Anon #5 says “to say that it’s impossible for the subordinated person to think about these problems with clarity, should he want to, is to accuse the subordinated person of being an idiot.”

    I haven’t read the Mills’ article in its entirety, but I assume this quotation is referring to the snippet posted above. You seem to take Mills’ position to believe (1) and then add premise (2) to get to (3).

    1) African-Americans/subordinated people are mentally incapable of “think[ing] about these [abstract] problems with clarity.”
    2) If 1, then African-Americans/subordinated people are idiots.
    3) Therefore African-Americans/subordinated people are idiots.

    But (3) is obviously absurd, so (1) must be false. I agree. I think Mills’ would too since he doesn’t seem to say anything like (1)!

    Mills did not say (at least not in the snippet above), that African-Americans/subordinated people can’t think clearly about abstract issues. He said specifically that brain-in-a-vat type doubt would not be “possible” for people in subordinated social positions. (Note that denying that a group could “doubt x”–Mills’ claim–is extremely different than claiming that a group is incapable of any clear abstract thought–your reconstruction of Mills’ claim.)

    Now what does Mills mean when he says that global doubt is “possible” for this group of people? I take him to mean that such doubt would never occur to one given one’s circumstances and would not be at all plausible even if it were suggested to one. (If one is being at all charitable in trying to understand Mills’ view then I fail to see how one could come away with the idea that Mills is saying subordinated people have inferior mental capacities.)

    Since I am not that familiar with The Invisible Man, my attempt to understand Mills’ claim involved imagining the life a black female slave whose life involves routine rape by her owner and the selling away of her children. Can she really plausibly wonder whether the man who rapes her is real, whether she even has a body to be raped? This is not a matter of merely not having the time to ponder global doubt. And of course there’s no reason to think such a woman would lack the mental capacity to engage in abstract thought. What I take to be at issue is whether such a woman can actually have these doubts. I imagine she can’t–simply because the reality of the horror of what happens daily to her body doesn’t leave room for her to question how she knows she is actually being forcibly raped. But if global doubt gets no traction for this sort of reason, then that seems to me a reason to at least question the importance of the skeptical challenge in thinking about knowledge.

    (None of what I have just said is to draw a conclusion one way or the other about the significance of the skeptical challenge in epistemology. I am just trying to point out that it seems to me that Mills piece of reasoning here is far from absurd on the face of it and also quite different than the caricature of it that #5 offers.)

    I wonder further, for those who find Mills’ views offensive and absurd, what would your reaction be if you discovered that many other black philosophers shared his views? (I should say immediately, that I am have no empirical evidence regarding what most black philosophers think about anything. I have no idea if most black philosophers would agree or disagree with Mills’ claims–though I would be very interested to find out. I am simply suggesting a thought experiment here.) *If* it turned out that, say, 70+% of black philosophers agreed with the type of argument and sentiment Mills offers, would it then be “offensive” and a case of Mills “jerking himself off”? In other words, if many black philosophers saw the whiteness of philosophy similarly, would it be acceptable to dismiss those claims out of hand as absurd? (Though I make no assumptions about the other contributors on the thread, I wonder in particular, would it be acceptable for *white* philosophers to dismiss those claims out of hand as absurd?)

    I ask because I am trying to untangle different ways in which a claim like Mills’ might be offensive or absurd. Is the offense in implying that all blacks think similarly about these issues, when as a matter of fact they do not? (In my thought experiment, then, it seems the claims couldn’t be offensive in this way.) Similarly, are the claims absurd supposed to be at all sensitive to what racial minorities in philosophy actually think or how they actually experience the discipline? Or is the suggestion that even if most blacks agreed with something like Mills’ view, they would necessarily be wrong as it is just not possible for race/subordination to matter in the way Mills’ suggests?

    For the record, I am not black. I am a white female glbt philosopher and one of the areas I work in is feminist epistemology. Thus I am quite familiar with both the offense and absurdity objections in the case of sex/gender if not race.

  10. I want to give Anon@5 and philfemgal the benefit of the doubt, so I will assume that neither of them are aware of how offensive the term “idiot” is, nor are they aware of its etymology and history, and in particular are not aware of the role the term has played in the institutionalization and sterilization of thousands of disabled people, black people, poor people, and women (not to suggest that these are mutually exclusive categories) in North America alone. I realize that Anon@5 introduced the term, but the fact that philfemgal has uncritically reiterated it should not go unacknowledged.

    Here are some works for those readers who are interested in learning how the invention of “intelligence” and the classification (idiocy, feeblemindedness, stupidity, moronism, cretinism, and so on) of its “deficiency” were initially used by authorities of some kind to promote other social agendas (that is, before these terms became popularized and entered everyday discourse as ways to discredit someone more generally):

    James Trent, Inventing the Feeble mind: The History of Mental Retardation in the US.

    Ladelle McWhorter, Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy.

    Licia Carlson, The Faces of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections.

  11. Ms S Hope, thanks for the reference! I also changed a sentence in light of your remarks.

    Anonymous grad students: I think it is Charles Mills who speaks unguardedly of “black students”. I did qualify my claims with “some, but I added more qualifications in light of your remarks. I don’t know if I really understand anyone’s attitudes here other than my own, but I can share in the concern about slave owners and people protecting or ignoring them drawing up texts on the nature of morality. One thing one might worry about is this: much of what was written supposes that human beings have good or bad characters. But perhaps the idea of having a character is a fiction, as John Doris has in effect argued. So has moral philosophy indulged in fictionalizing that has enabled people to ignore otherwise really, really huge moral failings? Obviously, there are some connections to be made that I have attempted, but one might think the project of the learning about the slave onwers official morality is distasteful.

    Similar questions could be raised about religious communities. In the NY Times today Maureen Doud looks at the RC Church’s condemnation of gay marriage and its tolerance of pedophilia. What are we to say about moral systems whose some of whose practitioners do a lot of evil things? Should we just abstract the principles from the behavior? It is really that simple?

  12. Anonymous @ 11:04:
    I think it is extremely likely that philosophy is in part a product of its practitioners. For Mills, the differences in lives make some of the philosophy look silly, especially when it is presented as the universal truth about human nature.

    Let me explain how that might work in practice. It is a frequent statement in philosophy that we need a theory of mind because we need to predict and control other people. If that is one of the moves one has to make to enter the discussion, then it can put some of us at a disadvantage. If “predict and control” is pretty alien to how you interact with most people, then you might not be able to draw on your interactions about interactions to add to the theory.

    Of course, you could raise you hand in class and say, “I don’t think human interactions are about predicting and controlling.” Lots of luck with that. Maybe it is better now, but when I started saying things like that, I’d get “O, but you are being irrational.”

  13. Anonymous @ 2:31, I think you are helping to clarify what may have been Mills point. It isn’t that African Americans can’t do philosophy; rather, they can too easily spot its flaws and pretensions. I think the math analogy does not work. The topic of a lot of philosophy is “the nature of the human mind,” “the nature of knowledge,” and so on. If the philosophy really just describes a narrow sub-set of human beings, then it is defective, either in its content or in its claims to be about some universal nature.

    Math is utterly different.

  14. magicalersatz, really the central question is whether philosophy is confined enough to theorizing what in fact is the experience of a privileged group, almost entirely white men, that blacks can easily see it as a pretense. That is, rather than a grand inquiry into the fundamental nature of the human mind, it is closer to a narcissistic contemplation of its practitioners.

    NOTICE: that’s a question, not an assertion.

    I really left out how that might affect behavior and lead to fewer blacks in philosophy. I guess I thought it was obvious, which it seems not to be! Herman Hesse described a group of people engaged in the Bead Game, which was roughly about building elaborate conceptual structures of absolutely no use, no publicly available beauty, and so on. I would have thought that is not most undergraduates’ idea of a good way to spend their lives.

    We might extend Mills conjecture to ask how white male students do get attracted to the enterprise, and how they see it differently.

    There is a lot in feminist philosophy that contains related criticism. For example, Lorraine Code’s What can she know? Though she doesn’t put it this way, one might see arguing about Gettier examples as a parlour game, and not as getting to the most important features of knowledge. I’m not here prepared to argue for that position; I cite it to locate the kind of claim being made.

  15. philfemgal,

    First of all, I thought the discussion was regarding why present black individuals are less inclined to participate as in philosophy, and that suggestion was the issues being approached are incompatible with the black experience of the world, that certain philosophical topics, issues, and theories are bound up with a white perspective of the world. And, that a possible solution is making explicit the ways philosophical topics are relativized to this white perspective.

    I agree that a black female slave was likely not in the position to ponder certain sorts of philosophical questions. But being in traumatic circumstances causing one to focus their attention on more practical concerns isn’t something one should find surprising. But I thought the suggestion made was that the present barrier to more blacks entering philosophy was some perception that the questions asked in philosophy weren’t supposed to apply to black people. A lot of philosophy is just ‘white guys jerking off’, and how could that possibly be of interest to members of oppressed groups?

    I find Mills view somewhat absurd because it strikes me as pretty far away from my experiences I’ve had with philosophy. When I discuss philosophy with my black friends and family members, I find that black family members and friends show no more or less of an interest than my white friends. A handful find philosophy in general or some specific philosophical topics interesting. Others don’t. When I first started being interested in philosophy as an undergraduate, I had a long discussion at a black barbershop about the Ship of Theseus, and people were happy to bullshit about it. I find that there is a lot greater resistance from black family members and friends about he prospect of going into philosophy as a career, and I think there is a number of reasons for that. But I don’t see as philosophy as something that black persons find uninteresting because it’s something completely divorced from their experiences as black people, or members of an oppressed group.

    I certainly think there are barriers to entering the philosophy profession as a black person, and I’ve experienced my share of them(Pressure from family members to engage in something perceived as a more worthy career goal for someone who has the opportunity to engage in a college education, of color and disparaging remarks from others made on the basis of my race, having to deal with being the only black person in most of my professional settings, and certain self esteem issues that I brought with it). But I just find the suggestion that philosophical topics drive away blacks because it reflects the intellectual masturbation of white people as being contrary to my personal experiences. In addition the suggestion that we all keep in mind that certain philosophical topics and theories are topics by white folk, for white folks, and that certain philosophical theories weren’t meant to be applicable to me in the first place would have likely completely alienated me from philosophy in the first place. I’ve had issues, especially as an undergraduate, about whether I belonged in philosophy in the first place, and such a suggestion would have caused me to pack up my bag for good. To be told that my philosophical interests are contrary to my status as black person is something I find offensive.

    If it were to be found out that more than 70% of black philosophers agreed with this sentiment I would wonder how 70% of black philosophers who decided to pursue philosophy as a career would have decided to study topics that they thought didn’t apply to them as black persons. I find the claim wrong because I disagree with the thought hat black people in general have this attitude towards philosophy. My claim here that it is absurd is intended to be sensitive to what at least one black philosopher thinks about this issue. If many black people in general saw philosophy similarly to Mills, of course it would be reason not to dismiss it out of hand. But given my personal experience(which, of course, is merely weak anecdotal evidence) I doubt it would turn out being true. I wouldn’t think that it would be impossible for race/subordination to matter in the way Mills suggests.

  16. JJ, I guess the point I was trying to make is that philosophy *isn’t* the product of exclusively white male theorizing. We tend present it as though it is when we teach History of Philosophy 101, but that’s historical white-washing. The questions we’re asking — and the methods we’re using — have been heavily influenced by non-whites. And non-whites from other cultural traditions have asked the same or similar questions. That seems to undermine the plausibility of the idea that non-whites in general are likely to be uninterested in philosophy because philosophy only theorizes the white male experience.

    Whether African-Americans specifically (as opposed to non-whites more generally) might be less likely to be interested in philosophy because of their history of racial slavery and racial oppression is a much more specific question. Philosophy wouldn’t need to be an exclusively white product for this to be the case. It would just need to be an exclusively privileged product.

    So if we’re asking the question “Is philosophy so confined to the theorized experience of white men that blacks might easily ignore/dismiss it?” I think the answer should be: no, because the question has a false presupposition. But there are other, more specific questions in the neighborhood that are probably a lot more complicated.

    Er, sorry. The under-appreciation of the impact Islamic philosophy has had on what we generally label “European” philosophy is something of a rant-inducer for me. I’ll be quiet now.

  17. Magicalertz, that is interesting. I think, though, in looking at Mills’ views, we need to consider the respect in which he thinks whiteness and blackness are relevant to TODAY’s absence of black philosophers in academic philosophy. And that clearly has a lot to do with quite particular social position and history, and not with skin color.

    I am mostly familiar with the early medieval Islamic tradition’s conception of reference that presumably impacted medieval philosophy deeply. I think that is totally lost to today’s mainstream philosophy. I’d be really interested in how islamic philosophy has distinctly shapped our tradition and survived.

    In fact, I’ve argued that the theory of reference survives well into early modern philosophy, but the evidence that itis now dead is just about overwhelming. I do think it has also surived in ordinary language and is robustly alive in various sciences, but the number of people who share my view here is 0, except for my students.

  18. Actually, let me qualify the claim about the conception of representation, which is what I meant to mention. It is really in Aristotle that it gets its first full artculation, and the Islamic philosophers are thought mostly to be very indebted to him. the medieval use I’m most familiar withh is aquinas and following medieval philosophers. But by that time, they access to Aristotle’s philosophy

  19. Anonymous Grad Student (#14) … please do not find Mills’s view absurd until you have read at least two of his essays (including at least one of more recent vintage than 1994) and made use of charitable interpretation.

    Mills would *never* claim that people of color (Ms. S. Hope, IF there are more people in the world than white & Black, and many of the people who are not white (finding the label “non-white” demeaning) prefer to be referred to as people of color, THEN I see no reason to refuse to refer to them that way. YMMV, but I don’t see why.) *cannot* do philosophy; after all, he IS a person of color, and he does quite good philosophy, and even remains loyal to the analytic tradition in the face of friendly ridicule by many of his POC colleagues.

    Philosophy is methodology as well as subject matter; under the right circumstances, the subject matter of say, “Cartesian global skepticism” can strike anyone as interesting … but most people won’t have the time, interest, or analytic focus that Descartes did, and thus won’t ponder it to (what Descartes tried to pass off as) the obvious conclusion. So, some of the subject matter of philosophy will look like a waste of time to some people. Not everyone is fascinated by chemical interactions, either.

    What’s “white” about philosophy, I think Mills is saying, is that too many of its assumptions begin from a fictional perspective, and so have a hard time gaining purchase in the world. Further, philosophical argumentation often proceeds from examples that presume a certain worldview that does not resonate with everyone’s experience. (I’m thinking about collective action problems and the strange examples utilized by some white male philosophers, to whom it seems not to occur that human life is *always* collective action, no?)

    It *is* the case that the percentage of African-Americans (and people of color more generally) in professional philosophy is lower than any other discipline (that I know of); it is also the case that those people of color who are professional philosophers tend *not* to make their mark in mainstream analytic philosophy of mind, language, or logic (but hey! There’s Ken Taylor! So we know that Black people are totally competent to do that kind of work, if they want to).

    Yes — there’s racism in philosophy, so people of color who express interest and talent aren’t often groomed for success the way young white men are. And, I think Mills is right, that the subject matter and process involved in many ‘classic’ (not to say classical) philosophical problems is off-putting to many white women and people of color. I’m pretty sure this isn’t down to fundamentally different brain structure — this leads me to think there are some differences in experience that account for the numbers. And I think Mills is pointing to exactly the kinds of problems that make philosophy seem uninteresting to people of color.

  20. Anon grad student: all we really have are conjectures and anecdotal evidence, so your comments are in fact important.

    I think that in defense of Mills’ he is not saying that there are no black philosphers. One thing we might say is that of course the degree to which philosophy is white is actually superficial, and there will be very talented people who see clearly beneath that facade.

    I definitely can buy the deeply talented part. I’m less sure about the facade part in some areas of philosophy. We might find philosophy of mind is much more responsive toits practitioners’ material positions than philosophy of language is, for example.

  21. jj- this is a bit off-topic, but didn’t Aquinas have access to Aristotle in large part thanks to Ibn Rushd? I believe his commentaries were very important to Aquinas…

  22. “They know that what is in the books is largely mythical as a general statement of principles, that it was never intended to be *applicable* to them in the first place”

    I’m curious about the meaning of “applicable” here. “mythical general statement of principles” suggest that what’s in the books is not applicable to people of color in the sense that it is not *true of* them; theories which purport to reveal properties shared by all persons reveal properties that are really shared only by (all? some?) white people. But it’s hard to see how the quoted arguments could establish, or even really support, this. Rather, they seem to show that ‘what is in the books’ is ‘only applicable’ to white people in the sense of ‘only interesting or salient’ to white people.

    So, e.g., it may not seem like a good idea to engage in Cartesian reflections if you’re experiencing oppression. But how could this possibly show, contra the skeptical hypothesis, that you’re actually being oppressed (or, anyway, actually being oppressed by something other than an evil demon …).

    FTR: I’m happy to grant that it’s a problem if philosophy is ‘inapplicable’ to people of color in either of these ways; but given that these seem to be two different sorts of problems, we’re less likely to solve them if we don’t look for two correspondingly different sorts of solutions.

  23. Hi Kathryn, I think Aquinas had texts from Aristotle, but certainly his posited interlocutors were often Islamic philosophers. I don’t remember all the names, though.

  24. @philfemgal Don’t make assumptions. “I haven’t read the Mills’ article in its entirety, but I assume this quotation is referring to the snippet posted above.” and “I think Mills’ would too since he doesn’t seem to say anything like (1)!” I encourage you to read linked articles before commenting. But even in the here excerpted portion, we get this from Mills: “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.” Really? The subordinated black individual cannot POSSIBLY engage in a Cartesian-style meditation? This better be pure rhetoric and hyperbole, but even if it is, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be printed in any academic journal.

    @Shelley Tremain I have some knowledge of the term’s history. I am wholly unsympathetic to general attempts to police the use of language on the basis of etymological considerations and/or genetic appeals. You don’t even have a genetic case, since the term goes back to the 1100’s, and your objections rely on a historical and technical use of the term. So in this particular case, I’m not one wit sympathetic to your position, although I didn’t mean to offend you or anyone else.

    @JJ I see no reason to believe that the vast majority of philosophy describes a narrow subset of human beings. If Mills’ needs to add that as a premise, then he’s got a false premise and a bad argument. I won’t defend that claim here, but it’s my position.

  25. Anon@12:33: your language does come close to what we here consider offending, though I note your comment about not wanting to offend.

    You comment in your first para: “The subordinated black individual cannot POSSIBLY engage in a Cartesian-style meditation?” For some reason that I’ve actually discussed at lenght elsewhere, philosophers don’t want to talk about what is actual, but rather what is possible. It is endemic to our profession. It’s enough for Mills’ point that the subordinates do not in fact occupy a particular position; he is discussing the consequences of their actual socio-economic position. That does not commit him to anything about whether they could be motivated to act in a way easy to those in different positions.

    You remark: “I see no reason to believe that the vast majority of philosophy describes a narrow subset of human beings” There is overwhelming evidence coming in from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience that our philosophy of mind largely fails to describe us at all. Statements asserting this are all over the place now; here’s one:

    We all believe that we are capable of seeing what’s in front of us, of accurately remembering important events from our past, of understanding the limits of our knowledge, of properly determining cause and effect. But these intuitive beliefs are often mistaken ones that mask critically important limitations on our cognitive abilities. . . . As we go through life, we often act as though we know how our minds work and why we behave the way we do. It is surprising how often we really have no clue. (Chabris & Simons 2010)

    Rather, our philosophy tends to reflect how some of us want to see ourselves. This thought is actually pretty old hat, but now that science is asserting it, maybe it can be taken seriously.

    I am not picking up on your comment to ST, because I’d have to look at the context to understand it.

  26. Anon, you said:
    1. I am policing language on the basis of etymological considerations/genetic appeals
    2. I do not have a genetic basis for my claims since the word ‘idiot’ goes back to the 1100s.
    3. my claims rely upon a historical, technical sense, not a genetic case

    I do not know how one can hold these three claims simultaneously; nevertheless, read my comment once again. I do not say the term “idiot” is a recent invention. In fact, I say the classification of “intelligence” and (its deficiency; one designation of which was ‘idiot’) is a relatively recent invention. It is not uncommon for terms that have an initially authoritative, regulatory, or disciplining function to find their way into everyday discourse as tools to demean, discipline, or degrade people beyond the institution (as it were). That is one of the most important lessons to be drawn from Foucault’s work on discipline, biopower, and the subject. The term ‘mentally retarded’ is one example of this, the term ‘cretin’ is another, the term ‘moron’ is another. These examples are drawn only from the history of the classification of disabled people. Others can also be identified in the histories of lesbian and gay men, people of colour, poor people, immigrants, and so on. I think it is unfortunate that you are so dismissive of the insights that history has to offer philosophical inquiry. I realize that is a popular view in some circles of philosophers, particularly amongst philosophers who claim a certain “analytic” training; I however find Foucault’s genealogical approach (for instance) of tremendous value and use.

    JJ: Anon’s comment about ‘not wishing to offend’ referred to her or his initial use of the term ‘idiot,’ not to the offensive tone of her or his recent post.

  27. A version of Descartes’ ‘cogito’ argument was given more than a thousand years earlier by Augustine in City of God.

    Augustine was African.

  28. @Darius, I think your use of ‘African’ is suspect. In the context of this discussion, it would be a far truer thing to say that he was Numidian and a subject of the Roman Imperium. In this case, saying he was an ‘African’ is to inappropriately project contemporary tribal divisions into a world where they did not exist. /pedantry.

  29. Well, he was born in Africa and lived most of his life there. He was also presumably a person of colour. Since much of the criticism of the tradition has focused on Eurocentrism and “whiteness,” these seem to be rather relevant facts. It’s not like he’s a marginal figure — he’s one of the most important philosophers who ever lived. And magicalersatz is totally right about the Islamic (Persian and Arabic) philosophers of the early middle ages. The only reason Aquinas had access to the Aristotelian corpus is that those guys preserved it, and wrote detailed commentaries on it, after the destruction of the Hellenistic libraries. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this for the history of philosophy.

  30. Again, I’m not objecting to where he was physically located. I’m arguing that the concept of “African” and/or ‘Person of Color’ are both Eurocentric constructions. In point of fact, ‘whiteness’ is a similar construction and one with quite the Anglo-American pedigree.

    Also, I would say that it is even bet as to whether he was of Roman, Gallic, or Semetic heritage. The portraits of him portray him as a ‘white’ person… but they do the same thing to Jesus of Nazareth and we know THAT wasn’t the case. :)

    True enough about the Universities in Baghdad and Cordoba. A combination of Arabs (not sure if this is such a useful concept for the time period we’re talking about), Persians, Jews and Celts kept the corpus alive. Thank the gods for that.

  31. Darius, I agree. (Though it may be worth pointing out with, with regard to the preservation of the classical Greek corpus in Arabic, that – from what I understand – much of this is actually owed to non-Islamic (Arab and Syriac Christian) scholar/translators.)

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