Critical Self-Reflection and Opening Up Philosophy

As we announced April 23, Feminist Philosophers is shutting down. This is one of a series of posts by FP bloggers looking back on the blog and bidding it farewell.

I started blogging here in the summer of 2012, four years into my Ph.D. program. When I began that program in the fall of 2008, I didn’t know much of anything about feminist philosophy, and I didn’t care to know anything about it. I thought gender was a shallow and inconsequential human category, so there was surely nothing interesting for philosophers to say about it. Furthermore, since it seemed like there weren’t many women in philosophy, I had a suspicion that any sub-field dominated by them (applied ethics, feminist philosophy) was probably not that good.

By the time this blog invited me to join, I had had some major shifts in my epistemic and ethical worldviews, and had switched from specializing in philosophy of physics to philosophy of psychology, with plans to write a dissertation on gender & race stereotypes and self-identity. I had discovered, in large part through blogs and connecting with philosophers over social media, that there was, in fact, a lot of interesting things for philosophers to say about gender (and other socially hierarchical categories.) I had also discovered that the demographics of the field were not such an obvious case of how the meritocratic chips had fallen.

Another half a decade later, I view social & feminist epistemology as my intellectual home base. One of my current interests is how phenomena like epistemic injustice and active ignorance may be playing out inside the philosophy profession, especially in terms of boundary policing and teaching practices. While there is so much work left to do, it is also striking to me what has changed since 2008. Many critiques of the profession that would have been laughed at (that I remember being laughed at about) are now taken up seriously in many places. You can even get published (in philosophy journals!) talking about them.

There is still so much work left to do, so much critical self-reflection the discipline needs to undertake. But there are people doing this work, opening up philosophy to new subfields, new methodologies, new conceptions of itself. I would like to highlight some of the work being done to help us let go of these unnecessarily rigid and hierarchical boundaries…though in some cases a more apt analogy may be that people are taking up sledgehammers to those walls and gates.

Opening Up the Canon

Although by 2014 (my 6th year in grad school) I had heard lots of stories of people leaving the profession, and already knew about criticisms of our eurocentric canon, the discussion of Eugene Park leaving stood out (Park’s Original Post). The way he framed it made it really sink in for me that there’s lots of collective bad faith and active ignorance regarding philosophy’s narrow and eurocentric canon. (The collective part is important–it’s a lot harder to maintain active ignorance if the rest of your peers and role models aren’t also succumbing to it.)

Bharath Vallabha’s commentary similarly emphasizes this point, that we should find it fishy that a discipline that claims to care about universal human truths doesn’t seem that motivated to actually investigate what life (and thought) is like for huge swaths of humanity. These posts fueled my own motivation for getting outside my philosophical comfort zone and exploring areas of philosophy I was/am ignorant about. Two resources I’ll point out are The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, which has short podcasts on the history of Islamic, Indian and Africana philosophy, along with more well-trodden areas. The second resource is The Deviant Philosopher, which has resources for incorporating marginalized areas of philosophy into your teaching, even if you’re not trained in these areas.

Breaking Up White Supremacy in Our Universities

One worry that some have when discussing initiatives such as The Deviant Philosopher is that if we ‘spoon feed’ reluctant white/privileged philosophers fragments of marginalized philosophical traditions (including disability studies, trans studies, etc.), they and their departments may take that as justification for not hiring marginalized philosophers with expertise in these areas. If they think they can teach a bit of Confucius here, the medical vs. social model of disability there, with maybe a sprinkling of Egyptian ethics or the metaphysics of gender somewhere in an elective, then they don’t need to ‘sacrifice’ a whole hire on someone who does Chinese/Africana/Disability/Trans philosophy. In this way, we could crack open the door for some non-standard inclusions in the canon, but maintain an overwhelmingly and disproportionately white university, in terms of tenured faculty and upper administration.

This means that, besides thinking about the canon, we must also continually think about bodies in the room. One philosopher who has continued this work is Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, who outlines some of the initiatives he’s organized in a post for Discrimination and Disadvantage. With a gadflyish knack for calling a spade a spade, he points out that there is clear interest among students, faculty, and the public to address questions such as “Why Isn’t my Professor Black?” and “Why Is My Curriculum White?” He says of a more recent project,

“It is my duty as a Black British Millennial to exhume the hidden histories of my own generation, in order that I may, through a better knowledge of myself and of how I belong, act as a bridge between the two generations either side of me. Indeed, this is the motivation underpinning my current participation in the Global Warwickshire Collective’s project, Windrush Strikes Back: Decolonising Global Warwickshire, which aims, within the Caribbean community in Britain, to train members of the generation that comes after us, in the tools of historical research that will enable them to recover and record the stories of the generations that came before us. And I think that’s quintessentially what I’ve come to realise my belonging is: it is the role I have to play in an ongoing multi-generational struggle.”

Ed Kazarian at New APPS wrote about Coleman’s experience, and pointed out the structural features by which marginalized junior faculty can be pushed out or set up to fail.

“It would be difficult to write a better recipe for blocking someone’s progress and setting them up to fail. To return to the dance metaphor above, it’s the second phase in a classic two-step: the institution is challenged, so it offers the person issuing the challenge a limited, poorly constructed, and unrealistic ‘opportunity’ to ‘shake things up’ and bring about real change, only to see them fail a year or two later.”


Queering Philosophy

A further aspect of opening up philosophy, one that Coleman and others are excelling at, is demonstrating the need to queer philosophy, and how to do that at a structural and institutional level. Annika Thiem argues in 2015 in a post at Philosopher’s Eye that,

“The goal then has to be not to establish queer theory as a recognized subfield in philosophy, but to elaborate how the questions and methods of queer thought can more generally inform and transform the practice of philosophy and its standards for knowledge production.”

Thiem argues that one strategy for accomplishing this is “to reject the rhetorical gesture that renders queerness as something that “is studied only out of personal interest” or something studied “objectively” from a distance. This gesture positions the “ideal” philosophical authorial voice at a distance to queerness”.

I think another effort that is working to queer philosophy in this way is Shelley Tremain’s extensive series of interviews, Dialogues on Disability, hosted at Discrimination and Disadvantage. (She is now at the blog, Biopolitical Philosophy.Tremain’s interviews demonstrate a broad understanding of disability, and  that philosophers are indeed embodied creatures with embodied experiences that play a role in our research, teaching, and thinking.


Public Philosophy, Leaving Academia, Health, and Hazing Culture

This is already a very long post, and there is a lot more work I could talk about. One huge topic is Public Philosophy (post by Eric Schwitzgebel at The Splintered Mind), which is now taking off in lots of corners of philosophy. Two quick shout outs to public philosophy that I personally enjoy: the podcast Hi Phi Nation and the youtube channel ContraPoints.

Another topic is rethinking what a philosophy Ph.D. program is for, and how to address the increasing numbers of people with training in philosophy who leave academia (by choice or not) and obtain non-academic employment. Recently, Matt Drabek has written, “Leaving Academia: A Guide” at his blog, Base and Superstructure.

As part of thinking about graduate programs and academia, philosophers have also started to talk more openly about mental health and the ableist stigma they often face. One example is Peter Railton openly discussing depression in his 2015 Dewey Lecture.

Lastly, I think that philosophy (and academia more broadly) has a hazing problem. In many places, we normalize patterns of cruel, humiliating, or abusive behavior that’s meant to ‘toughen up’ people or build a collective identity (“everyone goes through this”). As a result, many graduate students report feeling too terrified/hopeless/unsupported in their programs to work/sleep/ask for help. Furthermore, there is evidence of  disproportionately high levels of depression and anxiety in academia, with no reason to think this does not apply to philosophy. To say the least, the onus should be on those who think that cruel and callous trials by fire (on papers, in referee reports, at job interviews) are reasonable actions or sound pedagogy. My sense is that what we frame as ‘rigorous’ criticisms of one another are, often in truth, lazy and unreflective defenses of convention. (See: Dotson’s How is This Paper Philosophy?)

Thankfully, some corners of philosophy are pushing back on this sink or swim (while we fire cannon balls at you) approach to graduate education. One place that I’ve benefited from is the Philosopher’s Cocoon, which “aims to be a supportive environment for early-career philosophers,” including graduate students. I envision a future for our discipline where this type of resource is the norm, instead of an exception.

I’m grateful to have been part of Feminist Philosophers, and to have benefited from those whose advocacy and argument have opened up opportunities for professional flourishing, for myself and others. I look forward to a career of critical self-reflection and contributing to the further opening up of what philosophy can be. (If you’re interested, I talk about this at the end of my paper on women’s ‘interests’ in ‘philosophy’.)

Although some think that most of the worthwhile questions and ideas in philosophy have already been asked and thought, I think we’re just getting started.

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