Philosophy and Race in the THES

Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman has an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement on the whiteness of philosophy – both our faculty and our cannon.

Literature, history and politics have treated Douglass, and other persons enslaved-as-negro, and, more generally, other persons racialised-as-black, as artists, biographers and campaigners. Yet, philosophers have not tended to treat such persons as philosophers.

Reflecting on such neglect, Anita LaFrance Allen-Castellitto, professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that “[i]f people of color are to ‘do’ philosophy, philosophers must be willing to ‘do’ people of color. When we give minorities’ issues their due we dignify them as moral agents with morally and intellectually significant lives”. Yet, as Albert Atkin (a senior lecturer in philosophy, who had to leave Britain for Macquarie University in Australia before he could write and publish his monograph on The Philosophy of Race (2012)) puts it, “mainstream philosophy has managed to make itself something of a notable exception in contributing to debates on race”.

Go read it!

16 thoughts on “Philosophy and Race in the THES

  1. Interesting, though I think Coleman misunderstands and is a bit unfair to Brian Weatherson in the end of the piece.

  2. Matt, I definitely agree with you about that. Brian’s post needs to be read in conjunction with the one immediately following – where he asks what we are omitting from philosophy, and what philosophy might include that it’s currently overlooking. His posts were – read in context – all about the deep contingency of what counts as ‘really philosophy’, and not at all (to this reader, anyway) about ‘policing boundaries’.

  3. To address the substance of Colman’s piece a bit more, I don’t think we should necessarily feel bad about saying something “isn’t philosophy” in many cases, but can be philosophically interesting and useful. Tolstoy’s _War and Peace_ isn’t philosophy, I’d say (the parts that are closest to philosophy in form are also the worst parts of the book, for what that’s worth) but of course is philosophically rich and interesting. Saying something “isn’t philosophy” can be a way to exclude and limit. (I get this about some of my own work at times, so know how annoying it can be.) But, it doesn’t have to be, and we shouldn’t always assume that it is so meant. My reading of Douglas is fragmentary, so I certainly can’t speak about all of his production. Some of it seems quite plausibly to be “philosophy”, at least if we include a lot of fairly clear cases produced outside of universities from similar times. Others parts are less clearly “philosophy”- unless we want to include all sorts of things I think we probably should not- Lincoln’s speeches and the like. But, they are still philosophically rich and useful to consider by philosophers, and no less important and useful for not being philosophy. There are obvious and good reasons for considering this sort of work more in philosophy departments. (To my mind, Tommie Shelby’s _We Who are Dark_ is a paradigm of how to philosophically address and make use of relevant work that is on the margins of philosophy.)

  4. I don’t think it’s anything like “feeling bad,” if I read Coleman correctly. It’s about how philosophy as a discipline has made deliberate choices that are in the end racialized and, when you say exclusion at the same time, racist. I have a few remarks here:

    It’s a deeper question, as well. What “counts” as philosophy is embedded in a tradition. In this case, a white tradition. Let’s not mince words unnecessarily. To then pronounce other traditions as not philosophy is a perfect example of colonial values: you take yourself as the measure, then measure another outside yourself as not worthy. Don’t lie. We all know counting something as “philosophy” means a lot to philosophers. It’s not a random classification.

    In that sense, one has to ask why so many folks are comfortable declaring certain traditions “not philosophy” when those same people have no familiarity with the tradition – not to nitpick, but it’s Douglass, not Douglas.

  5. Thanks for the correction on the spelling on “Douglass”, John. I appreciate that, and the link to your own useful and interesting post. I do think I disagree with the idea that to say that something is “not philosophy” is (necessarily?) to denigrate it, (though of course it can be done that way) but I suppose I think that because I don’t think something must be philosophy to be of value- even to philosophers. When I say something is “not philosophy”, I don’t, at least usually, take myself to be saying something about the value or worth of the thing in question. (I also don’t think that it’s necessary to limit the texts considered in a philosophy class to ones that are [clearly] philosophy, for what that’s worth. I have often had students read texts- mostly by legal scholars but also others- that were, I’d say, not philosophy in my philosophy classes, because they supplied useful meat for discussion.)

  6. I take it the more relevant issue here is something like this: to say that something someone presents in a philosophical context (a philosophy conference, journal, book, gathering of philosophers, etc.) is not philosophy, is a form of denigration. It’s a questioning of that thing’s value in that context and/or of that presenter’s judgment. It is raising the question: “Why are we talking about this here? Why do you think this deserves my attention when I have my philosopher hat on?”

    Furthermore, it is not usually a question that is tacked on to the end of a discussion about the content of the thing being presented. It is often the first or immediate question. That implies the questioner takes it to be one of the more urgent or primary issues to be considered.

    The fact that this sort of question (“Is this philosophy?”) is habitually raised in philosophy in the manner above means that, for people who want to ask the question in a different context and not unintentionally denigrate or police the thing in question, the onus is on them to make sure they are not contributing to the pattern of questioning-as-demanding-justification. Intention and personal context don’t get you very far in that regard when there’s a profession-wide pattern of usage.

  7. Gah! Sorry about leaving out the “e” in my comment 3 Nathaniel (if I may)- a typing mistake, I think, since I got it right in 1. (Typing mistakes are not the only kind I make, of course, but are common.) Still, getting people’s names right is a reasonable thing to expect, so I’m sorry about that.

  8. Coleman knocks the black white disparity by setting up a human animal disparity. Numerous recent studies have shown that animals share many of the attributes that are thought to set humans apart from animals. If a previously trained but now free living bird comes to an experimenter and solves an 8 step puzzle to get a treat, isn’t s/he showing logic? If a fox cub gets a large glass jar stuck on its head and goes to a road to approach humans who pull the jar off and it then darts off, isn’t that also logical thinking?

  9. “I take it the more relevant issue here is something like this: to say that something someone presents in a philosophical context (a philosophy conference, journal, book, gathering of philosophers, etc.) is not philosophy, is a form of denigration.”

    I just don’t see this. At conferences I’ve been to, cognitive scientists have given papers that are obviously relevant to philosophical issues but are not (I would say) philosophy themselves. That’s not denigration in any way.

    There are murky ‘boundary’ issues in my own field, philosophy of biology. The work of some biologists is so richly philosophical that it’s more important to assign to students than nearly any philosopher’s writing, but it’s not clear whether it’s philosophy or not. But although this is a difficult question… it is not a very interesting one, to me. If there were biologists who really wanted to work in philosophy departments, maybe it would be a more pressing issue!

  10. Natural Philosopher – You stated though that biologists can present work that is “richly philosophical.” That is what we talking about. There are ways that people ask whether something is philosophy that are, at heart, asking for a justification as to how the thing in question is “richly philosophical.”

    To question whether something, presented in a philosophy context, is richly philosophical, is a form of denigration.

  11. what could we could do to make this situation better? teach courses on race/racism, try to include as many non-white writers as possible within our syllabi, encourage and mentor non-white students…? is this a case where well-intentioned white people can do more harm than good in trying to help, like when well-intentioned men offer to ‘protect’ women on take back the night marches…? ideas, please.

  12. We are ignoring at least one half of Coleman’s argument–i.e. the half entitled, “Douglass doesn’t get to do philosophy.” When a philosophy department’s search committee unanimously concludes that an applicant’s area of research is not philosophy, then the candidate does not get the job. This is obvious. And this holds true even if the committee agrees that the area of research is nonetheless valuable.

    Denigration of the person is neither here nor there.

  13. In response to area of research is not philosophy, I think Coleman would have had just as much trouble if he had written about Mark Twain. As far as I know in order to push an outsider into a discipline you have to do a lot of work – organize your own conferences and seminars and summer schools. Then you have to write a book that causes as much comment as Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty is causing now. Piketty has brought Marx back into vogue. Britons consider Marx the greatest philosopher and yet the academy is not always friendly to Marx either,

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