Mansplaining? inclusiveness in philosophy

One problem a woman can have when men explain things to her is that the subject matter can change in puzzling and even bizarre ways.  And at least some of us can be flummoxed since we feel obliged to absorb the ideas of an earnest interlocutor in our debate.  Such a situation may arise with today’s The Stone.

The author maintains that when we trace back the history of various ideas of contemporary interest, we may find our discussions draw on ideas originally formulated in distant times by people radically different from today’s academic philosophers.

The author concludes that unless we make an effort to include all the diverse origins of contemporary ideas, our efforts at contemporary inclusiveness will be paltry.


The idea seems to suggest this: Human beings have for millenia had ideas about, for example, how bodies get connected to thinkers; unless we includes such conjectures in our philosophy of mind courses, insisting on giving a place to voices of different sorts alive today is really a sham.

The adequate account of any conceptual innovation or discovery in philosophy would be the one that also gives an account of its place in the broader context of human culture and history, and that would reveal its inextricable connection to cultural practices and human concerns that at first glance appear rather far removed from the concerns of the philosopher. This is an impossible goal, of course, but we can at least tend toward it, as toward the limit of an infinite series, if we wish. If we do not learn to see this effort as intrinsic to the study of philosophy, the recent calls for greater inclusiveness of other standpoints within philosophy will remain mere half-measures.

We might take the article to pose this question: are there good reasons for wanting to open philosophy to contemporary women that do not commit us to wanting to open philosophy to the hunters’ and gatherers’ thought of past millennia? The idea that inclusiveness must embrace our very distant past seems to employ conceptions of doing philosophy and of inclusiveness that change the topic.

What do you think?

NOTE: I will not be able to moderate any more comments to day, so I am closing comments. It’s 4:33 pm, cdt.

22 thoughts on “Mansplaining? inclusiveness in philosophy

  1. The main benefit of looking at historically overlooked philosophers seems to be the possibility of discovering truths that have been historically overlooked, and the main benefit of placing philosophical ideas in a cultural context seems to be to detect error that’s the result of cultural or historical contingencies. The benefits of contemporary inclusiveness seem to be things like increasing the pool of applicants (raising average quality) and the personal benefits to those who want to be included in the discipline. There’s clearly no inconsistency in dedicating resources to achieve the second two benefits while dedicating little or no resources to the first two benefits. In fact, even if the benefits of these projects were identical (which seems extremely implausible) there would be no inconsistency, since we have finite resources to dedicate to inclusiveness.

  2. I think there probably are very good reasons for thinking about the philosophical views of hunter-gatherers and other non-agricultural groups. And some of these reasons seem to resemble reasons for promoting inclusiveness and diversity: hunter-gathers have been marginalized and denied epistemic agency, they have perspectives on the world that are different from the dominant one of our society in interesting and probably valuable ways, and so on.

    I’m inclined to say that the mistake in Smith’s argument is the assumption that any incomplete account — that doesn’t include every possible worthwhile perspective or every single historical influence — is not worth developing.

    First, incomplete accounts can be seen as valuable steps towards the regulative ideal of the one complete account (insofar as we hold that up as the ideal). And second, incomplete accounts can be valuable in themselves for the critical and other resources that they offer. Even if feminist work in the history of philosophy doesn’t bring in hunter-gatherer perspectives that would (also) be valuable, it does (and has) helped correct sexist and androcentric accounts and suggested new and worthwhile lines of inquiry.

  3. I’m thinking that there may be an issue of equivocation with the term “inclusiveness” and that is why there seems to be a change of focus. Perhaps inclusiveness as it is used today needs to be understood in narrower terms as being socio-political in origin. There is something important lost in opening it up to a general inclusiveness that encompasses just any past cultural tradition. It is not that those past cultural traditions may not have something interesting to contribute to contemporary discussions, but that the inclusiveness we speak about today has a certain threshold, for lack of a better word, of socio-political and epistemological significance given the particular culture(s) that we inhabit now. One could, of course, argue that a past group in a past culture was, within the dominant and normative culture at the time, excluded from the creation of meaning and the occupation of positions of power, but my initial thought is that there needs to be a further argument about why that would be significant for the type of “inclusiveness” we struggle with today.

  4. I do not see how this piece changes the subject. Including historically marginalized groups of people in our study of philosophy is something that many people–including people on this blog–think is extremely important in the quest for inclusivity in philosophy. White, European women are one such historically marginalized group, but the author is clearly thinking about inclusivity with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin. I think it’s pretty clear that just as we should strive to include women philosophers in our canon (and here “women philosophers” is usually code for “white women philosophers”) we should strive to include philosophers who come from non-european/colonial american traditions and backgrounds in our canon. If he’s changing the subject, then I embrace the changing of the subject to thinking about a much broader notion of inclusion that doesn’t just apply to white women. As a white woman in philosophy who has dealt with my “fair share” of gender-based crap (that is, a lot), I am absolutely convinced that philosophy’s racism and eurocentrism is far, far more problematic than its sexism (which is abominable). I read this piece as advocating one way to combat that by looking at the problem from its (historical) root. I agree with most (but not all) of what is said here.

  5. Some interesting points are raised in the post, and in the comments that follow, but before I engage them I’m hoping you can clarify in what respect my effort to previous effort to engage with one aspect of the difficult and multifaceted problem of inclusiveness amounts to ‘mansplaining’.

  6. I just read Smith’s article more closely and have a few other thoughts, and then I’ll stop.

    One of what I believe to be an important, if not new, insight by Smith is that “At present, the small gestures made toward greater inclusiveness can in fact lead only to somewhat more robust representation of people who are all already in most important respects members of the same society. It excludes at the outset the people whose way of life separates them from the institutions in which philosophy is practiced and transmitted.”

    As a philosopher whose focus is history, Smith does a good job uncovering some of the half-truths that were perpetuated throughout the history of Western philosophy, perhaps most fervently during German romanticism, as I seem to remember from my graduate studies in the Afro-Asiatic Roots of Western Philosophy. This, of course, has affected the narrowing of the cultural imaginary that we have of “the philosopher” in Western philosophy. The issue is that he doesn’t seem to highlight that point enough. We can dig through history and see which women and which thinkers from various cultures influenced, but were not given credit for, their contributions to our dominant traditions of Western philosophy, but without acknowledging that how history is created and told has profound socio-political material effects, we miss part of the picture.

    What Smith adds, and what he seems to want to highlight, is that this whitewashing has also glossed over the fact that what we call Western philosophy is not as “pure” (in the racial and cultural sense) as many Western philosophers in the past would have us believe. But that doesn’t mean we get to go along with our Western philosophy, now just re-conceptualizing it due to greater historical accuracy. I’m not sure right now whether he implies that or not. Regardless, it is important to understand that we still have the current issues of inequality of opportunity in the creation of meaning and the forming of questions that we deem important. Surely, what we see as relevant has an important affect on what we come to understand, and this politically and culturally connected process of discerning relevance was no less at play in the past when thinkers were trying to determine which ideas from other cultures were worth incorporating as their own.

    So one important dynamic that seems to need further exploration with regard to what seems to be his thesis (and granted he may have had limited space for articulating himself) is the practice of discerning for relevance and how one’s socio-cultural experience may affect how one does that.

  7. Anne, this post really bothers me (yours, not Justin’s).

    First, the question of inclusivity in philosophy is *not* just across the axis of gender. Let’s assume for now that if it were just about gender, then women’s voices should take some precedence. Maybe that’s true, but let’s set that aside. The thing is, it’s not just about gender. Issues with inclusivity are, well-supported by data, more seriously about race than gender (and, certainly, there are always intersectional issues, which should be at the fore). So of course men’s voices are going to be important. Dismissing a man’s voice entreating us to do better as “mansplaining” is at best disingenuous. I think it’s offensive, particularly in this instance. Why do you think this constitutes a genuine case of mansplaining?

    Second, what do you take to be Justin’s point? As I read it–and I think it’s a fairly clear reading–he’s addressing not just who is in philosophy departments, but what we *teach* (and, I suspect, how we teach it) in philosophy departments. If we just focus on having diverse philosophers, but we’re still teaching broadly sexist, racist colonial canon, then that’s not very good inclusivity. That’s a “half-measure” as Justin puts it. I think he’s right. We have to focus on canon construction, and there have been multiple posts on this blog calling for exactly that. So what do you find objectionable about that?

    Third, do you think that Justin is against work towards greater inclusivity in philosophy? If so, why? It seems clear to me that he’s on board with the project, and this article is one contribution entreating us to do better. What’s objectionable about that? That’s what we, as feminists, engage in all the time. No? Heck, the last time we spoke in person, that was *precisely* what my project was all about. So why was my project okay, but this one not?

    Fourth, this strikes me as a misrepresentation: “The idea seems to suggest this: Human beings have for millenia had ideas about, for example, how bodies get connected to thinkers; unless we includes such conjectures in our philosophy of mind courses, insisting on giving a place to voices of different sorts alive today is really a sham.” We ought to give credit and understand what has come before us. This is very often an important critique by feminists that our work isn’t given appropriate credit when “mainstream” authors re-invent our wheels. So why does that critique work when we use it, but not when people of different times and societies make it (or, in this case, someone makes it on their behalf)? We’re perfectly happy teaching, say, Descartes…but why him and not non-white male European authors? What’s objectionable about Justin’s entreaty?

    Fifth, why do you think that this changes the topic? It seems to me *exactly* what the topic is! Who should get included in inclusive philosophy? No?

  8. Rachel, I really like your response. I guess what I take the original post to be arguing was that the question of ‘who’ gets included is toothless (and really just reifying and reactionary) unless it’s also a question of HOW inclusion works. Or rather, that ‘inclusion’ is really _transformation_. Including formerly excluded thinkers/topics/subjects will actually transform what we now know as philosophy into something else.

  9. Let me start to comment on the very interesting comments by emphasizing a contrast between:

    a. taking it to be a good thing to think “about the philosophical views of hunter-gatherers and other non-agricultural groups” (#2), and
    b. holding that “the adequate account of any conceptual innovation or discovery in philosophy” requires tracing the notions back to temporally distant people very different from ourselves (Justin Smith).

    Nothing I said should be taken to deny (a), which I think a number of comments defend. (b) is different.

    “Adequate” is hardly a precise word, and certainly people can have different ideas about what is important to adequacy. But we can ask whether we think that philosophers’ practice today should conform to such standards. What would that look like, and do we think it is a good thing? For example, even sticking with Western culture of the last two millennia, we can see various concepts of different worlds, and a lot of thought devoted to cross world identity. There’s Leibniz, of course, but let’s look to a perspective more different from contemporary philosophy than his was. For example, there are the multiple worlds of Christian thought: what exactly goes to heaven when a person goes to heaven? How does it manage to be identical to that person? Do we think an introduction to Lewis on possible worlds is inadequate if it does not include such material? The question of adequacy is, we should remind ourselves, quite different from the question of whether it might be interesting or even morally desirable socially.

    Another fact that concerns me is that among the fields getting criticized for a lack of diversity and inclusiveness are mathematics, physics and chemistry. Chemistry has a long relation with alchemy, but I don’t think anyone is going to conclude that inclusiveness in chemistry requires bringing in alchemy, still less that an account in chemistry is to be counted as inadequate if the ideas are not traced back to alchemy. Engineering is another non-inclusive field, and it is true that an engineer building models of mental processes might us Gibson’s mid-20th century emphasis on motion to raise questions about using static pictures in fMRI investigations. But that’s far from going back to hunters and gatherers.

    But why, then, is philosophy inadequate in a respect in which we probably don’t think physics and chemistry are?

    In fact, my own work in neurophilosophy is much more historically inclusive than one might expect. A number of people think it is pretty weird that chapters 4 and 5 of my Keeping the World in Mind take the sorry history of “mental representation” back to Aristotle and concentrate on Hume. I don’t think that’s relevant here though, except to say that even from such a somewhat historically informed point of view, I don’t get why a philosophical account has to include the ideas of culturally far different people, or be inadequate.

    Mansplaining: Background: A lot of us are pretty much knocking ourselves out working for more diversity in philosophy. It’s very time consuming, and good-hearted attempts can be met with sickening hostility. There are many motivations among the group of women and men engaged in this effort. For me one important one is social justice. White male students are too often encouraged when equally good or better women, African Americans, disabled people, and so on, are shut out, or shut up. This is principally an equal opportunity concern. Another concern is about content. It seems ludicrous to have conferences on social justice featuring only white male speakers or, still more remarkably, conferences on moral issues regarding abortion and childbirth that do not include women speakers. Another example: At one of a number of meetings on bias at Sheffield University, one had the chance to see that a man racially identified as black might have a very different take on whether a picture was the product of bias. Without people identified racially as of different groups, we lose perspectives really very important in understanding bias.

    Justin Smith has introduced a notion of “adequate account” according to which attention to far distant peoples’ thoughts need to be included somehow in something like the content of philosophical accounts. This notion of ‘adequate account” does not seem to be reflected in the actual practice of the disciple. I take it to be a relatively new idea about philosophical accounts. To be sure, there are always complaints that academic philosophy is a sterile ivory tower investigation. I have some sympathy with this complaint. However, that by itself does not mean we think we need to recover the human race’s past. Becoming interdisciplinary is another way to respond, for example.

    In addition, the idea that our efforts at inclusion are half-way measures because we are not working toward this fairly new idea of philosophical adequacy is very worrying. It provides an excuse to ignore the complaints about current content and social justice that seem very important now to the discipline.

    So is this mansplaining? To put it unsympathetically and actually rudely (sorry!): a man comes along and explains that what we are doing are really only half-measures because we are not working on what he thinks is really important for philosophical adequacy.

    I’m going to put a question mark in the title. If you read the words I used carefully, you’ll see they contain “may” and “can,” as opposed to “does.”

  10. Let me emphasize again, in light of Rachel’s remarks, that of course I value and find fascinating all sorts of different ways of thinking about all sorts of things. But that really isn’t what’s in question.

    To put it starkly, is all the feminist writing that does not reach back into the far, far past inadequate for that fact? I don’t think I even think a feminist phenomenological investigation into rape has to include a section on FGM. I just can’t see why we would need to recover and then cover sexual brutality in Asia around the time of Buddha, for example.

  11. I don’t see discussions of philosophical canon (and as Robin helpfully reminds me) and *what counts as philosophy* (I’m reminded of Kirstie Dotson’s great paper) as a relatively new worry viz. inclusivity in philosophy. Honestly, I would have thought that you’d be fully behind that point. That’s hardly come across in the post and this thread.

    I think you’re too-focused on the philosophical “adequacy” point.

    And I still find the “mansplaining” label disingenuous. Are we to exclude all men’s voices from this topic? That can’t be right. Mansplaining is when a man comes along and explains something to a woman, as if she doesn’t know, that she already well knows. Raising an important–I think *critical*–point of critique can’t possibly count as mansplaining. He’s not explaining anything. He’s *arguing* that our methods of moving towards inclusive philosophy are only addressing part of the issue. He’s not saying that we ought not focus on increasing diversity in philosopher representation! He’s saying we should do that *and* this other stuff. If we only do the former, then he’s right that we’ve only gone part of the way towards true inclusivity.

  12. Rachel, the question is not about including other relatively contemporary voices. It’s about including temporally distant voices from people very different from ourselves.

    I am puzzled that you think the claims about adequacy are not central; that’s how he gets the claim that our efforts are only half-measures. Further, we stuck with half-measures unless we start to investigate the distant past. This idea is, among other things, potentially politically damaging.

    I get the sense that people are thinking “Inclusiveness is a feminist good; how can AJJ be denying that.” The answer is: I am not.

  13. Justin can speak for himself, but I don’t take him to be making the claim that I can’t do contemporary epistemology unless I spend all my time doing the history of philosophy. I think the adequacy point is more an issue of cannon and about whose voices get to be included as “real” philosophy. These are projects that feminists have and are taking up right now, too. Also, he wrote not that we have to do it or it’s not adequate…he spoke about how we need to do much better than we are, and that we should aim to approximate “adequacy” in the ideal sense (since achieving it is impossible).

  14. Rachel: I find your comments here largely compelling, and you are of course right that I am not making the claim that is attributed to me. I would speak for myself, as you’ve called on me to do, but I am not willing to do so here, in a setting where my ‘coming along and explaining’ what I think is important for philosophical adequacy is dismissed as ‘mansplaining’. I cannot think of a more effective way of curtailing communication, and of killing the opportunity to discover common ground.

  15. It would be helpful to know what the author understands as the limitations of current work within philosophy that calls for inclusiveness. It is difficult to know if he is speaking of those who have given much effort to the matter of understanding the unfolding of western philosophy as a discipline ensconced in socio-political struggles, and the affects that the outcomes of that history have on our calls for greater inclusiveness now. He mentions the dwindling number of philosophers who believe that just increasing numbers of members of underrepresented is adequate and don’t go beyond that to acceptance of the often accompanying diversity of interests and focus, which is the transformative force of inclusiveness in philosophy. It could be the old observation that some people, while we would expect them to hold beliefs and views consistent with their own interests, indeed do just seem to go along with the cannon as it is. There then appears not to be much diversity of perspectives, which makes it easier to claim that the issue is not with culture or color or gender of what-have-you, but with whether the individual is within the parameters of the forms of currently acceptable philosophy, determined, of course, by the canonical history and its dominant perspectives.

    While it may be the case that those who understand inclusiveness in the second sense would be well-advised to understand how the dynamics of epistemic privilege affect our understanding of ideas and their relation to forms of life and experience, I’m not so sure his plea is aimed at all of us who work on or think often about issues of inclusion that incorporate all sorts of loci of power dynamics, whether in the production of history or the hiring of a new professor–though, coming from a working-class/working-poor background, I am sympathetic to his view of the centrality of institutions as loci of power struggles when it comes to philosophy.

    Justin: I would be interested in understanding more about how you are positioning yourself in relation to the different understandings of inclusiveness that are played out in contemporary society, such as those I’ve mentioned, but if you are not wanting to engage on this forum, I would be interesting in finding out upon which forum you would be more willing to engage. On the other hand, I find it interesting that you have such a strong response to the views attributed to you such that you would rather not engage in this forum, a forum that you feel is dismissing your thoughts wholesale. I don’t see a wholesale dismissal as going on (unless A.J. is the only relevant voice here–though she has amended the seeming implication of her initial title). There have been many times where I felt my views were being dismissed because I was merely a woman (and everyone knows that a woman’s view doesn’t matter as much, or at least doesn’t get enough uptake to make it risky to ignore), and so I have a good sense of what that involves.

  16. Perhaps this discussion should close, but given that Dr Smith has left the discussion and posted his interpretations in an arena which does not allow comments, let me say a few clarifications:

    1. I think being prepared to take alternative views very seriously is very valuable. I do not think that hunters and gatherers’ ideas are unimportant. Dehaene’s recent work on contemporary groups who have had little or no contact with the industrial world show this extremely clearly, as does much else.

    2. I think much of the philosophy world is not just parochial, but also badly speciest. Too much of philosophy of mind seems to assume that only higher forms of thinking are worth attention, as though evolution aimed to produce philosophers.

    3. Where I certainly disagree with Smith is over the basis of his at least seemingly critical remarks about contemporary advocates of diversity. Viz.,

    The adequate account of any conceptual innovation or discovery in philosophy would be the one that also gives an account of its place in the broader context of human culture and history, and that would reveal its inextricable connection to cultural practices and human concerns that at first glance appear rather far removed from the concerns of the philosopher

  17. Rachel,

    I didn’t think he was talking about what each of us must now do. I may have suggested he did, but that was unintentional. He was, however, talking about what an adequate account would look like. And he does recommend that we tend towards that. Presumably we now are giving inadequate accounts. Without including the distant past our efforts at inclusiveness are half-measures. I do disagree at this point.

  18. Anthropologists have spilt quite a bit of ink over this; probably the most famous example is Marilyn Strathern’s “An Awkward Relationship: The case of feminism and anthropology”. The idea being that if you are a feminist anthropologist, aren’t you already being ethnocentric because this is a thing that pretty much no other culture anywhere ever has cared about? The idea that “inclusion” shouldn’t call itself “inclusive” when it is only talking about the kinds of things that come to mind for particularly positioned late modern late capitalist subjects [cough cough ahem feminists] is itself old hat.

    This raises a ton of interesting questions, but I don’t see them being answered in a thread that is pretty much gone down the hole of “Are we to exclude all men’s voices from this topic? That can’t be right” & (to paraphrase) “”I can’t talk here, because somebody used the word mansplain””.

  19. Kathleen, I do wish I had kept the questions you are alluding to at the forefront. J.W. may be making a similar point.

    It’s instructive to look at the comments on JS’s essay in the NY Times. It is alarming to see his comments on me at his own site. We are pledged not to use the sort of language he employs, and particularly not when no response is possible.

  20. For my part, I cannot make heads or tails out of what is being talked about here.

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