The whiteness of philosophy?

In some of the discussion on this post I took issue with the idea that philosophy as it exists today is primarily a product of and reflection on the experience of white men. In correspondence, JJ suggested the question would make a good topic for a post. What you’re reading is the result. Content warning: I am not a historian. Please don’t yell at me if I get something wrong.

If we think of philosophy as a series of “big questions” and our resultant, flailing attempts to answer those questions, then it’s clear that philosophy has never been the province solely or primarily of white men. Thinkers from a myriad of cultural and intellectual traditions have grappled with these questions, and continue to do so. But what if we think of philosophy — or, more carefully, the philosophy that’s going on now in the English-speaking world — as specifically tied to its cultural background and intellectual heritage. Construed as such, is the philosophy we’re doing now primarily the product of white men thinking about their own experience of the world?

Arguably it isn’t, because the philosophy we’re doing today owes a tremendous intellectual debt to Islamic philosophy. Below are just a few specific examples (suggestions of further examples are welcomed and encouraged!):

Ibn Sina – his development of the existence/essence distinction (probably much more so than Aristotle’s, because he actually makes it clear what’s going on), has had a strong impact on modern theories of modality; his “Floating Man” thought experiment was also one of the original wacky-outlandish philosophy of mind thought experiments

Ibn Rushd: one of the foremost defenders of the “analogical” conception of being/existence (“being can be said in many ways”), which has recently enjoyed a renaissance in contemporary metaphysics; his defence of the “primacy of reason” had significant influence on the development of rationalism

Al-Ghazali: one of the original sources of the post-Aristotelian cosmological argument as we know it today (he certainly gives one of its clearest early formulations); perhaps the earliest clear and methodological application of the “method of doubt” familiar from folk like Descartes (and, more generally, a major figure in the transition from classical Greek skepticism to early modern skepticism)

Islamic philosophy more generally had a massive impact on the development of the theory of occasionalism (which as far as I know no one believes anymore, but was instrumental in the development of causal anti-realism), the distinction between essence and accident, the distinction between the necessary and the contingent, and medieval logic.

Does any of this go to show that *today’s philosophy* isn’t just the product of white male theorizing? I’d say that it does, but there’s obvious room for disagreement. With the exception of the kalam cosmological argument — which is defended by William Lane Craig — I don’t know of a contemporary philosopher who defends *exactly the same view* found in classical Islamic philosophy (though, it’s worth nothing, that’s the case for most of the medieval philosophy I know about, Islamic or not). The examples I was giving are cases where there’s recognizible similarity and recognizible influence. That is, a modern student of metaphysics can read what Ibn Sina wrote about essence and say “oh, right, this is familiar”, and you can trace the causal origin of current essentialist debates at least in part to the writings of Ibn Sina.

I think it’s fair to say that we tend to under-estimate the influence of Islamic philosophy on “Western” philosophy (and we likewise tend to over-estimate the influence of Greek philosophy on Islamic philosophy). Our discipline, even considered embedded in its own intellectual heritage, isn’t nearly as white as we often think.

For more information, I highly recommend the Philosophy Talk episode on Islamic philosophy and the fantastic resource Islamic Philosophy Online.

Today’s Lesson: You can get away with it if you get the scale right.

That is, don’t just deprive a few people of their just deserts.

From CNN:

The Supreme Court put the brakes on a massive job discrimination lawsuit against mega-retailer Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., saying sweeping class-action status that could potentially involve hundreds of thousands of current and former female workers was simply too large.

The ruling Monday was a big victory for the nation’s largest private employer, and the business community at large.

Imagine that!


The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has been fined $10,000 and ordered to pay one of its English professors $154,000 in lost wages and $200,000 in damages for emotional distress as part of a decision issued by the state’s antidiscrimination agency.

According to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, its June 1 decision in favor of LuLu Sun, associate professor of English, also includes the “unprecedented step’’ of ordering the university to promote Sun to full professor….

“School administrators … indulged in every presumption against her application for promotion while extending every benefit of the doubt to male candidates for promotion,’’ the MCAD said in a press release Wednesday, citing conclusions of hearing officer Betty Waxman.

Gosh, I thought we were supposed to think those days are well behind us.