On reasons for diversifying the profession

In response to Eugene Sun Park’s article on why he left philosophy, Brian Leiter writes:

“What I still do not believe is that we should add Asian philosophers, or African-American philosophers, to the curriculum in order to “encourage” (on some misguided theory) minorities to enroll in philosophy courses.”

I agree. We certainly should not add anyone to the curriculum on the basis of a misguided theory. But knowing all that we know about stereotype and implicit bias, we have very well-supported theories in favour of adding demographic diversity to our syllabi. Knowledge of these theories tells us that our selections for syllabi are very likely influenced by implicit biases which it make it more likely that we will select white men. It also tells us that demographically diversifying our syllabi is no mere marketing ploy, but rather something which is likely to have real effects on the attitudes not just of students from underrepresented groups, but also on those of other students.* Those who are making such suggestions are not acting as “identity politics police”, as Leiter would have it. We are carefully examining the evidence, and working to improve our profession. Eugene Park’s testimony is a further piece of evidence (albeit anecdotal) that these suggestions are on the right track.

*For a summary of some of this, see my “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat and Women in Philosophy”, downloadable at the lower right, here.

24 thoughts on “On reasons for diversifying the profession

  1. Very well said! I wish such people would realize that we’re doing evidence based pedagogy. It’s not mere political ideology (which is the language they often use against such initiatives).

    I’m currently working on a paper with a colleague based on a study we did on students’ ability to name men/women philosophers. Our argument is that gender representation on syllabi is extra important for philosophy. And it’s extra important for us to remember that there are other axes of identity to think about, too, such as race, ability, and so on.

  2. I found it fairly unsettling that Leiter was willing to simply dismiss Park’s testimony as ‘dubious’. Here is an Asian man telling us specifically what he found alienating and why he left. Of course his experience isn’t universal. But we should still LISTEN TO HIM. There might be much that initially does seem ‘strange and dubious’. But that’s why we listen to other people’s explanations of their experiences – so we can learn things!

    But of course that’s probably just my bourgeois neo-liberalism coming out! [rolls eyes]

  3. I think that’s another feature of these push backs against taking diversity initiatives seriously: discounting people’s testimony (and thus creating epistemic injustice).

  4. Arguments that the pedagogical choices Jenny describes are merely political and/or appealing to feelings and emotions at the expense of liberatory and rigorous theory have long seemed, to me, to contribute to a view that we feminine types are making choices that are just too emotional, rather than rational and logical.

    Inclusive curriculum, in particular, arguably increases critical-thinking outcomes for all students, not just affective identity-affirming outcomes for some (and the latter is desirable, too). See Norlock, Kathryn J. “Gender perception as a habit of moral perception: Implications for philosophical methodology and introductory curriculum.” Journal of Social Philosophy 43, no. 3 (2012): 347-362.

  5. I recently experienced my own public testimony as a sexual assault victim being characterized in a course as a *rhetorical strategy* by a so-called feminist “scholar.” We’re all guilty and I think we could all do with some serious intellectual humility about all of this stuff. The problem with Leiter’s comment is that it presupposes that knowledge, all-encompassing knowledge, can be attained by an individual alone. First, it just seems false given that we have finite minds, and second, empirical studies on attention and mental heuristics illustrates that we are all biased (“us” included). How could we possibly have any orderly thinking if we did not do such things? The content of these biases, however, I do not think is fixed, and simply because they are unconscious, does not entail that their contents cannot be influenced. We can prime ourselves out of them by examples of those who buck the stereotypes, or by having people do things that buck the stereotypes. So, the idea that I cannot really know everything on my own, not even in principle, together with the fact that we all have unconscious biases, seems to be a fairly strong argument for diversity, assuming we’re really interested in the Truth. I’ve been doing some exercises with my students (without telling them why of course) that have apparently closed the gender gap with respect to participation in my classes. It’s still yet anecdotal, however. If you’re interested, feel free to email me.

  6. ps: I’d like to have a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds try this to control for (a) my own personality influencing things and (b) the influence of demographic facts.

  7. I did not mean to dismiss as “dubious” Mr. Park’s claim that he was put off philosophy by the absence of Asian philosophy; what I thought dubious was his thesis about why Asian philosophy was neglected (which had nothing to do with claims about implicit bias). The unsupported theory is that Asian-Americans are less likely to take philosophy if Asian philosophers aren’t taught. Implicit bias enjoys much more robust empirical support than the testimony of one former PhD student, but Mr. Park did not offer that as a reason for diversifying what philosophy departments teach.

  8. Brian, can you clarify? Are you now retracting your claim that the theory you described as “misguided” is misguided?

    Also, please can you clarify who exactly the “identity politics police” are?

    Many thanks!

  9. Leiter: “And should we really add East Asian philosophers to the curriculum to satisfy the consumer demands of Asian students rather than because these philosophers are interesting and important in their own right?”

    No, but perhaps we should, if there are philosophers who are interesting and important in their own right who happen to be East Asian. There are too many interesting and important philosophers we might include in our curricula, leaving us with a wide range of worthy choices and the freedom to consider include criteria in addition to, not at the expense of, those of philosophical interest and importance.

  10. Brian, your comment is surprising given what you wrote in your post.

    After quoting from Park’s article, you say: “There is much that seems to me strange and a bit dubious about this.”

    So to be clear, you say there is “much” that seems to you both dubious and strange.

    Please can you explain what is included in that “much”? It is not a plausible reading that you intended only to cast in doubt the one thing you mention in your comment above. (How would that be “much”?)

  11. Brian, you also write:

    “My own impression, from having talked to a lot more philosophers than Mr. Park and for a much longer period of time …”

    You might bear in mind here the relevance of the fact that you have had all those conversations from the perspective of a white philosopher with no research interests in Asian philosophy. Your experience, however long it has been going on, is just one person’s experience of our discipline. Others have different experiences, and we cannot make progress without listening to more voices than one.

  12. I’ll reply to the preceding question, and then that’s it, as I’ll be off-line much of the day. The other questions can, in any case, all be easily answered by reading the post to which Prof. Saul kindly linked. What struck me as “strange” and “dubious” about Mr. Park’s piece is reflected, first, in the two questions I asked: “Do we have any evidence that Asian-Americans generally expect the fields they study to feature Asian thinkers? And should we really add East Asian philosophers to the curriculum to satisfy the consumer demands of Asian students rather than because these philosophers are interesting and important in their own right?” As I go on to argue, I am highly skeptical that the reasons non-Western philosophy is poorly covered is due to philosophers in the Anglophone world thinking them inferior, another claim Mr. Park made. My reason for being skeptical is that I’ve never heard an Anglophone philosopher say anything remotely like that about non-Western philosophy (by contrast, I’ve often heard Anglophone philospohers make dismissive remarks about 19th- and 20th-century German philosophers). Others may, of course, have different experiences, so let them adduce their testimony. Mr. Park did not even claim that he heard people make such comments, it was rather his interpretation (of what evidence I’m not certain) of what they really thought, or something like that.

  13. I cannot see anywhere in your post anything approaching answer to my question as to who you think are the “identity politics police”. Nor to my question about whether given your remarks here you still think the “misguided” theory is misguided.

  14. “[L]et them adduce their testimony” …

    We cannot really expect anyone to offer philosophers their testimony about their experiences of the profession, unless there is some reasonable expectation of its being treated reasonably and with respect when it is offered.

  15. “Do we have any evidence that Asian-Americans generally expect the fields they study to feature Asian thinkers?”

    Here’s a very small and unrepresentative sample consisting of two people.

    1. I’m an Asian American, and I never expected this.

    2. But an Asian American undergraduate at UCLA, where I once taught, mentioned that she had asked Rogers Albritton why the history of philosophy taught at UCLA included only western philosophers. Why no eastern philosophers — e.g., Buddhist philosophers? His reply was that they were doing something other than philosophy. She found that reply disconcerting.

  16. Below are just two sets of two excellent articles that strike me as potentially important/illustrative here. In suggesting the four references below, I do not at all mean to exclude other forms/versions of demographically diverse philosophical work. In contrast, I mean to provide some quick references that illustrate the arguably great value of such work.

    Some readers may find interesting/relevant work by Joel Kupperman, such as the following two articles:

    Kupperman, J. 2010. Why Ethical Philosophy Needs To Be Comparative. Philosophy 85 (2):185-200
    Abstract: Principles can seem as entrenched in moral experience as Kant thinks space, time, and the categories are in human experience of the world. However not all cultures have such a view. Classical Indian and Chinese philosophies treat modification of the self as central to ethics. Decisions in particular cases and underlying principles are much less discussed. Ethics needs comparative philosophy in order not to be narrow in its concerns. A broader view can give weight to how people sometimes can change who they are, in order to lead better lives

    Kupperman, J. 2010. Confucian civility. Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 9 (1):11-23
    Abstract: A major reason that Confucius should matter to Western ethical philosophers is that some of his concerns are markedly different from those most common in the West. A Western emphasis has been on major choices that are treated in a decontextualized way. Confucius’ emphasis is on paths of life, so that context matters. Further, the nuances of personal relations get more attention than is common (with the exception of feminist ethics) in Western philosophy. What Confucius provides is a valuable aid in arriving at a more balanced sense of what ethics is concerned with. It also allows us to realize the importance of sensitivity to particulars. Finally, it highlights the importance of style (as well as the content of what is chosen) in behavior, and the ways in which relations with family and friends can connect with choices in a wider “public” sphere.

    Similarly, readers may find interesting/relevant work by Thaddeus Metz on “Ubuntu” and African ethics/political philosophy – substantially including sub-Saharan (and South African) values, such as the following two articles:

    Metz, T. 2007. Toward an African Moral Theory. Journal of Political Philosophy 15 (3): 321-41
    Abstract: In this article I articulate and defend an African moral theory, i.e., a basic and general principle grounding all particular duties that is informed by sub-Saharan values commonly associated with talk of “ubuntu” and cognate terms that signify personhood or humanness. The favoured interpretation of ubuntu is the principle that an action is right insofar as it respects harmonious relationships, ones in which people identify with, and exhibit solidarity toward, one another. I maintain that this is the most defensible moral theory with an African pedigree and that it should be developed further with an eye to rivalling dominant Western theories such as utilitarianism and Kantianism.

    Metz, T. 2014. Harmonizing global ethics in the future: a proposal to add south and east to west. Journal of Global Ethics 10 (2): 146-155
    Abstract: This article considers how global ethical matters might be approached differently in the English-speaking literature if values salient in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia were taken seriously. Specifically, after pointing out how indigenous values in both of these major parts of the world tend to prescribe honouring harmonious relationships, the article brings out what such an approach to morality entails for political power, foreign relations and criminal justice. For each major issue, it suggests that harmony likely has implications that differ from approaches that currently dominate Western thought, namely those of utility, autonomy and capability. Lacking the space to systematically defend harmony as a fundamental value, it nonetheless urges theorists not to neglect it in future work.

    – David Slutsky

  17. “The unsupported theory is that Asian-Americans are less likely to take philosophy if Asian philosophers aren’t taught.”

    I read Park as saying something much more complex than this, but supposing this is an appropriate interpretation, I would recommend those who are interested in understanding why someone might think this look up studies on professional role confidence. There’s especially good data regarding the role it plays in the gender demographics of engineering.

  18. David, thanks for this important info. I linked to it in a comment on Facebook for Regina Rini. It is very sobering to see the extent to which our conceptions of moral discourse are very limited.

  19. Yes, thanks for those papers David! (And thanks for the pointer to that comment Anne.) I was aware of Metz’s work – I’m using a different paper in one of my classes this term – but hadn’t seen the Kupperman papers. I’m hoping to teach a full seminar on cultural difference and ethical theory next year, and I’ll definitely make use of those.

  20. Anne and Regina, both of you are certainly welcome. And thank you both for your kind responses. I think many if not all of us can produce similar references (that illustrate some of the points related to the original post) if/when we listen, learn, think about it, and/or try. Perhaps of greatest importance is open mindedness to the issues/sentiments in the original post as well as subsequent comments and the extent to which we use them and/or similar approaches in our teaching and research. With that in mind, even more I appreciate your comments.

  21. What might a new Phil101 syllabus look like? Mine is pretty standard Ancient Greek- Medieval- Modern- then I divide 20th Century into Continental and Analytic. I’d want to make changes to this no matter what- but since very few of my students are white, the syllabus just seems that much more awkward to teach. But I don’t exactly know where to start. I’m pretty new to teaching, and while I’m not an expert on anything, I’m more familiar with contemporary “LEMMing” literature than anything else in philosophy. David Slutsky’s links might help me, but is there anywhere that I can find sample syllabi?

  22. Yes- I’ve always preferred a topics-based approach to a historical one myself. And the syllabi I’m using now aren’t my own. But I’ve found that in taking the historical approach, I’ve improved my own abilities to read and interpret primary texts. And I think that’s a useful skill to pass along to students.

    For now, I just tell students that Plato and Aristotle had some interesting ideas- but that doesn’t mean that a lot of other people didn’t. They just happened to write those ideas down- and what they wrote happened to survive long enough to be read by a lot of people, translated, and then read by even more people. But there’s more to the story than that- and I’d like pass that part along, and prove it to them with alternative historical texts if possible.

    Thanks for the links Rachel. I’ll check them out when I draft my syllabi for next semester.

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