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After Identity: Questions Of Interpretation

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Gadamer conceives of the so-called hermeneutic circle of whole and part as an interpretive check that allows us to reject certain understandings. The circle describes the way we understand the parts of a text in terms of our anticipation of the meaning of the whole and the way we project the meaning of the whole in terms of our understanding of the parts. Where we cannot integrate parts and whole, we have to admit that either that which we are trying to understand is unintelligible or our attempt to understand has failed and we must begin again.’

For Gadamer prejudices are interpretive resources. They are historically effected anticipations of meaning that we inherit as part of our participation in historical traditions and that give us a preliminary purchase on our world without which we could not understand it at all. For this reason, he thinks what he calls the Enlightenment’s prejudice against prejudice is misguided.’

In a series of conversations with Riccardo Dottori, he also suggests that we ought not talk solely to those who are so like us that their views and positions will only reinforce whatever “fancies and popular conceptions” we already possess. Rather, we should seek out encounters and conversation with those who are not like us at all.’

In Legitimate Differences I tried to argue for viewing our political debates as the sort of interpretive debates we have in the humanities. Here we expect and even value our interpretive differences and see them as differences from which we can learn. We do not accept just any interpretation but we can clearly find more than one plausible and illuminating.

I understand both sex and gender as interpretations, as ways we have of understanding people. Human bodies differ from one another in various ways. Some have outie belly buttons and some have innie ones; some are tall and some are short; some are pigeon toes and some are duck footed and finally, some have vaginas and some do not. Gender, then, may be a further way of framing the latter.’

The status of “Driving while Black” is jarring precisely because it reflects a failure to integrate part and whole. Racial identities are not a coherent part of the context of driving. Nor can we be always or only women.’

Can we plausibly integrate an understanding of police activity as the explicit effort to incarcerate African Americans and Latinos as an intelligible part of our understanding of the U.S. political history, the state and the U.S. Constitution?

We may never agree, but if we regard our political differences as differences less of principle than interpretation, our debates will be less strident and our polarization less unforgiving. We may even learn to compromise.’

White non-trans faculty are not meant to study issues of race or transgender – witness the controversy over Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism” – and non-white faculty are meant to study nothing but issues of race and the consequences of racialization. For the most part we find LatinX scholars, for example, in Hispanic Studies and Ethnics Studies departments, rather than, say, Philosophy ones. We are all, then, to study ourselves. This outcome seems to me to be both a travesty of the promise of diversity and a dogmatic account of identity.

Georgia Warnke’s research interests include critical theory, hermeneutics, democratic theory and issues of race, sex and gender. Recently she has written articles on Jurgen Habermas, Richard Rorty and Clifford Geertz. Recent graduate courses have focused on Habermas, the third generation of the Frankfurt School, Hans-Georg Gadamer and issues of identity. Here she discusses hermeneutics, Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Gadamer’s hermeneutics, Gadamer’s response to Heidegger, whether Gadamer’s approach is a break with the hermeneutical tradition, perspectivism and opportunistic interpretation of texts, feminism and deliberative democracy, approaching questions of women’s identities from a Gadamerian perspective, contrasting traditions within feminism, whether all identities are a matter of interpretation, what legal and policy consequences follow from her views, whether liberal theories of justice can go far enough, whether gadamer was interested in ethical and political issues, and what can be done about the toxicity about identity politics.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Georgia Warnke: As an undergraduate, I went to Reed College where the smartest students seemed to be philosophy majors most of whom were going on to graduate school in philosophy. Although I was not a philosophy major, I wanted to be smart, so I thought I’d go to graduate school in philosophy too.

Gadamer

3:AM: Hermeneutics is a key tradition for you and Gadamer an important figure in that tradition. Before coming to Gadamer could you perhaps introduce us to this tradition in philosophy – sketch for us the conventional ‘Romantic’ history and the key questions that it raises and tries to answer generally – in particular the distinction between explanation and understanding – so that we can see what it is that Gadamer is challenging?

GW: Hermeneutics concerns the interpretation of textual, spoken and artistic expression. Its modern form is often said to begin with F.D.E. Schleiermacher who generalized hermeneutics from what he called a “collection of observations” specific to particular fields of discourse into a systematic set of procedures applicable to any field. Schleiermacher also distinguished between a “laxer” and stricter hermeneutic practice. While the former assumes that we usually understand one another immediately and only occasionally need to follow explicit interpretive strategies, the latter assumes that misunderstanding is pervasive and that understanding stems from rigorous hermeneutic methods. Wilhelm Dilthey then takes up this methodologically oriented hermeneutics as the key both to distinguishing the human sciences from the natural sciences and to securing for the former the same objectivity attributed to the latter. Whereas the method of the natural sciences is explanation that of the Geisteswissenschaften or humanities is understanding. In “The Rise of Hermeneutics” Dilthey describes understanding as the grasp of the psychic or mental reality expressed by a set of fixed external signs. At work is a re-experiencing or re-comprehension of “alien states of mind” that is made possible by the continuity of life encompassing both the subject and the objects of historical knowledge.

In the mid twentieth century positivistically oriented philosophers dismissed this attempt to distinguish the natural and the human sciences. Theodore Abel, for example, saw in what he called the method of Verstehen simply an attempt to by-pass rigorous scientific methods through a kind of empathetic internalization of responses to stimuli. On this analysis, science is science whether applied to human beings or natural processes.

Gadamer’s response to this sort of claim is to clarify the aim of understanding. It is not an alternative method of explaining why a piece of human behavior, action, practice or event happens but is an effort to grasp what it is. One of Abel’s examples is the decrease of marriage rates in rural areas experiencing crop failures. He thinks those committed to the method of Verstehen try to explain this decrease by imagining the anxiety they would feel about taking on financial commitments under precarious economic conditions. Yet in simply assuming that marriage involves financial commitments, Abel skips over understanding’s domain. It is geared not to explaining a decrease in marriage rates but to figuring out what marriage is and, indeed, what any action, event, text or institution is for a given group of people in a particular culture, at a particular time. As such, understanding typically precedes explanation. Unless we know what a certain behavior, action, event or the like is our attempts to locate its causes are likely to be at sea.

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3:AM: Gadamer wrote Truth and Method as a response to Positivism but as you are well aware, there are few of those around anymore. Nevertheless it does raise serious issues around whether objective knowledge is possible given the influence of history – does Gadamer give up on objective knowledge or does he try and show that history can enable as well as restrict knowledge? I guess this is really a question about what Gadamer’s attitude towards history is – and the possibility of objective knowledge in a post-positivist world?

GW: Gadamer would actually support Abel’s view that understanding cannot involve re-experiencing or re-comprehending states of mind; for Gadamer it cannot because of the researcher’s or inquirer’s own participation in history. On the one hand, this participation means that we always already understand in one way or another because we are always already involved in particular cultural and historical worlds that are heirs to particular interpretive traditions and take certain ways of being and acting for granted. On the other hand, we can never understand actions, texts, events, institutions and the like the way our ancestors did because we are privy to what came next. Terence Hawkes says of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. ‘‘At one time this must obviously have been an interesting play written by a promising Elizabethan playwright. However, equally obviously, that is no longer the case.’’ Although Hawkes and Gadamer differ on other points, Gadmer would agree with this claim. What we inherit when we inherit the understandings and assumptions of our predecessors is their after-history, or what Gadamer calls their effective history.

To answer your question about objectivity, this conclusion means that understanding changes but it does not mean that anything goes. We have access to many different interpretations of Hamlet both because the text acquires relations to different texts, events and the like and because changing interests and concerns expose different aspects of it. Nevertheless, Gadamer conceives of the so-called hermeneutic circle of whole and part as an interpretive check that allows us to reject certain understandings. The circle describes the way we understand the parts of a text in terms of our anticipation of the meaning of the whole and the way we project the meaning of the whole in terms of our understanding of the parts. Where we cannot integrate parts and whole, we have to admit that either that which we are trying to understand is unintelligible or our attempt to understand has failed and we must begin again.

3:AM: Gadamer questions the account of the development of hermeneutics as a process of overcoming dogmatic assumptions and prejudices. What are his two accounts of understanding and how do they help him critique the approaches of Schleiermacher, the Historical School and Dilthey?

GW: For Gadamer prejudices are interpretive resources. They are historically effected anticipations of meaning that we inherit as part of our participation in historical traditions and that give us a preliminary purchase on our world without which we could not understand it at all. For this reason, he thinks what he calls the Enlightenment’s prejudice against prejudice is misguided. His critics sometimes take this claim to be a skeptical one: despite the methods and procedures Schleiermacher and others develop, we cannot rise above our own historical and cultural situation to understand the past or texts or works of art in any “objective way.” Yet Gadamer’s point is somewhat different. Rather than posing a difficulty for understanding the “actual meaning” of the past or texts or works of art, the vantage point or horizon provided by our cultural and historical situation makes understanding possible. This is so even or especially where our attempts to integrate part and whole reveal problems with our understanding. Prejudices serve as our initial take on that which we are trying to understand and therefore as the foil against which problems with that understanding can become clear.

3:AM: Heidegger writes: ‘“Our first, last and constant task is never to allow our fore-having, fore-sight and fore-conception to be presented to us by fancies and popular conceptions, but rather to make the scientific theme secure by working out these fore-structures in terms of the things themselves.” How does Gadamer respond to Heidegger’s (and Husserl’s) phenomenological approaches, and why do you think that Gadamer takes the Heideggerian question more seriously than Heidegger does? How does he answer it?

GW: Both Heidegger and Gadamer stress the extent to which understanding is part of our practical immersion in our world. For Heidegger, fore-having, fore-sight and fore-conception constitute fore-structures of understanding that reflect an engagement with and pre-understanding of “the things themselves.” The question then is how we can work these fore-structures out in terms of “the things themselves.” Heidegger seems to rely exclusively on the hermeneutic circle insofar as it asks us to modify our understanding where we cannot integrate part and whole. Nevertheless, although such experiences may allow us to reject certain understandings as inadequate, examples such as conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies indicate the possibility of understandings that manage to integrate parts and whole but that we would still reject as off base.

I think Gadamer’s attention to the dialogic aspects of understanding reflects his awareness of this problem. In reading texts we engage in a dialogue with other perspectives and views and put our own assumptions and claims in play in the process. Instead of relying solely on the capacity of the hermeneutic circle to reveal glitches in our understanding, we engage in an activity more like that which Socrates practiced in order to question even those understandings that appear glitch-free. In considering a topic with others, we are interested in a satisfactory disposition of the subject matter we are discussing and we therefore follow out the logic of a position with one another until we reach agreement on it. In the course of this engagement, we are reciprocally pushed to reveal our assumptions to both others and ourselves and to consider challenges and alternatives to them.

Inheriting Gadamer

3:AM: Is Gadamer’s approach actually a break rather than a continuation of the hermeneutical tradition (as well as science) in that he’s less interested in the truth and focuses more on the intentions behind a claim?

GW: Actually, it’s the opposite. Schleiermacher breaks with the hermeneutic tradition that precedes him by focusing on the risk of misunderstanding. As long as we assume that we generally understand the claims that other people are making we can devote ourselves to engaging with them in an inquiry into a subject matter. We can consider with them the content of a particular law or policy, for example, or where we should meet for coffee. In contrast, if we assume that we generally misunderstand one another, as Schleiermacher does, then we must devote ourselves to ensuring that we correctly understand. Two consequences follow. First, we will need to discover the methods that can ensure this sort of precise understanding – Schleiermacher looks to grammatical and what he calls psychological or technical interpretation. Second, those methods will focus primarily on trying to figure out the intention or thought behind authors’ and speakers’ expressions: what exactly they intended with a law or policy or just which coffee shop they have in mind. Following Schleiermacher, Dilthey then sees understanding as a recreation of the original creative act. One of Gadamer’s efforts is to reverse this move in hermeneutics, away from the question of intentions and back to the question of content or subject matter. To be sure, we do sometimes have to try to decipher an author’s or speaker’s intentions. Yet in the main we are focused on the content of what they say. Moreover, even where we are interested in the intentions behind their speech or text, our access to those intentions relies on text, speech and evidence the meaning of which we still need to interpret.

3:AM: If understanding is always perspectival then does this apply to textual understanding and avoid practically motivated misinterpretation of history that was Dilthey’s fear?

GW: This question raises the issue of opportunistic interpretations of texts or events. In a speech Gadamer gave on Herder in France in 1941, he claims that Herder gives the concept of folk a new power and depth remote from “the political slogans of democracy” and that it “demonstrates the force for a new political and social order.” He subsequently leaves this claim off the re-publication of the speech in his collected works. But I do not think we need draw from this incident the conclusion that Gadamer’s hermeneutics is nothing but an excuse for opportunism. Instead, there are many points in his writing where he points to the desire need to preserve the integrity of a text or discourse and its difference from our own views.

Of course, this desire does not guarantee that his hermeneutics allows us to do so. Yet he thinks the Socratic dialogue to which he appeals has self-critiquing and self-reflective capacities. In a series of conversations with Riccardo Dottori, he also suggests that we ought not talk solely to those who are so like us that their views and positions will only reinforce whatever “fancies and popular conceptions” we already possess. Rather, we should seek out encounters and conversation with those who are not like us at all. Gadamer also alludes to such diversity conditions in one of his responses to Jacques Derrida, asking that conversation “seek its partner everywhere, just because this partner is other, and especially if the other is completely different.”

3:AM: Clearly this is all important when you apply it to your work on feminism and democracy. You’ve asked whether what stymies democratic justification is not the failure to offer or accept public reasons but rather that its not acknowledging that different groups will understand them in different but equally compelling ways that causes problems? Have I got that right – can you say something about this issue.

GW: In its classic form deliberative democracy asks citizens and policy makers to justify their proposals, preferences and programs before all those affected and to come to an agreement with them on the basis of reasons and considerations they can all accept. I have used the issue of abortion as an example of the problem I think the view confronts. Considerations appealed to as support for a ban on abortion include respect for the sanctity of life. But this is also a consideration that might support abortion’s continued legality. At issue here is not only whose life is at issue – the mother’s or the fetus’s – but also what we mean by respect for the sanctity of life. Is our respect directed at human biological life or at the lives human beings create for themselves? If the former, we will likely insist on the inviolability of human life from its embryonic state on and therefore condemn abortion. If the latter, we will be concerned with capacities for flourishing and self-development and we will wonder if we should require a twelve year-old to take a pregnancy to term or a mother knowingly to bear a child with a disease that will make its life unrelentingly painful. Reasons and considerations need to be interpreted. If we can interpret them in different plausible ways, then agreement on them fails to secure agreement on the policies or programs they are meant to underwrite. In Legitimate Differences I tried to argue for viewing our political debates as the sort of interpretive debates we have in the humanities. Here we expect and even value our interpretive differences and see them as differences from which we can learn. We do not accept just any interpretation but we can clearly find more than one plausible and illuminating. Moreover, we are interested in these alternative interpretations because we think they can help us expand our own understanding. If we take our norms and principles as texts in need of interpretation and if we allow for multiple plausible interpretations of texts, then we can allow for multiple plausible interpretations of norms and principles we share. We might, then, look towards possibilities for compromise and accommodation. At the very least, we might eschew the kind of dogmatism, entrenched partisanship and hysteria that currently attend debates not only over abortion but a series of other controversies.

After Identity

3:AM: You have written about how thinking about women’s identity after Simone de Beauvoir’s influential work on this can be fruitfully approached via Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Can you say what your approach is and why it is an important alternative to other  continental feminists here such as Iris Marion Young’s Sartrean approach and the work of Irigarary and Spelman?

GW: Simone de Beauvoir’s famous claim, “One is not born but rather becomes a woman” can be seen as signaling a distinction between sex and gender. One may be born with a certain bodily configuration, a sex, but the use of this configuration to assume and inculcate certain behaviors, attitudes and aspirations constructs a gender. In 1988 Elizabeth Spelman pointed to what are now termed intersectional issues attending this distinction. On the one hand, de Beauvoir seems to recognize that one does not become simply a woman but a woman of color or a white woman, a rich or poor woman and so on. On the other hand, she contrasts women in general to proletarians, aborigines, blacks and Jews, making it unclear where working class, aboriginal, black and Jewish women stand. This tension raises the question of what oppression women are meant to have in common that would serve solidaristic struggles. Young tries to respond to this question by defining women in terms of Satre’s distinction between a series and a group. Women comprise a series, analogous to people waiting for a bus – they do not identify with one another and have no common aims or experiences but are related to one another only indirectly – in the case of women via heterosexual norms. Women can become a group, however, to the extent that they take up certain common aims.

My hermeneutic view is not unrelated to these views. One is not born but becomes many things, among them a sex and a gender. That is, I understand both sex and gender as interpretations, as ways we have of understanding people. Human bodies differ from one another in various ways. Some have outie belly buttons and some have innie ones; some are tall and some are short; some are pigeon toes and some are duck footed and finally, some have vaginas and some do not. Gender, then, may be a further way of framing the latter. To call people men or women is to focus on certain aspects of their bodies and behaviors and not on others. There may be reasons for doing so but seeing sex and gender as interpretations allows us to discuss these reasons. We have already rejected some of them – as qualifications for certain careers, for example and we are in the process of questioning others – as criteria, for instance, for entry into certain bathrooms. This account makes some sense out of the tensions in de Beauvoir’s account and provides a basis for solidaristic struggles. Some of the contexts in which we live and act may furnish reasons to distinguish between women of color and white women while others might supply reasons to talk of women as a whole. In neither case, I would add, can we take sex or gender as a foundational identity. Within certain contexts we may be intelligible as men and women and in others as white women and women of color; in still others we may be young people and the elderly.

3:AM: How would you characterise the approaches to feminist issues by analytic and continental philosophy? You’re a continental: is there anything you find converging with the likes of Nussbaum in the analytic camp?

GW: Much of what differs between continental and analytic feminists are the theoretical resources to which they appeal: analytic feminists typically take their starting point from the English speaking philosophical world and the philosophy of language while continental feminists typically take theirs either from Germany – Hegel, Marx, the Frankfurt School etc. or from France – Lacan, Kristeva, Saussure, Derrida etc. While there may be some overlaps, there is probably more of a distinction between the German and French groups of continental philosophers than there is between the German group and analytic feminism. Nancy Fraser for instance, is as critical of Lacanian feminism as any analytic feminist. And while analytic feminists sometimes try to claim as their own the pursuit of clarity and precision in argument, many feminists in the broadly speaking Hegelian-Marxist tradition would be surprised. The same holds for the attempt to cut notions of rationality, justice and the good off from their androcentric interpretations. Indeed, Fraser and Nussbaum are equally focused on issues of social justice and economic equality even though one works in the tradition of Frankfurt School critical theory and the other in the Rawlsian liberal tradition. If there are characteristics that mark feminists in the Hegelian-Marxist tradition off from analytic feminists they might be the formers’ interest in social theory (Weber, Habermas), attention to social movements and recognition of history. Because of its own concern for history and focuson the strength of interpretations, a hermeneutic feminism belongs in this camp as well.

Legitimate Differences

3:AM: It might seem strange that there is a need to interpret whether someone is black or not but for you all identities are a question of interpretation aren’t they, not just gender but race and sex identities too. Can you first say how some who might object to your position?

GW: An interpretive approach to identity may not seem to deal adequately with power even though identities, particularly racial, gender and sexual identities, seem to have almost everything to do with power. What we need according to this criticism is not interpretation but genealogies that uncover the contingency of the social identities we possess and the state and juridical actions that have created and enforced them.

3:AM: So how do you answer these objections and make the case for a hermeneutical approach?

GW: We can inquire into the history and contingency of existing social identities. But we can also ask what they are. I think they are interpretations the validity of which depends on their integration with the context of which they are a part. The possibly controversial part of this view is not the idea that identities are ways of understanding who we are but rather the attempt to secure criteria for rejecting certain the intelligibility of certain identities in certain contexts. Here I make use of the hermeneutic circle. We participate in broad historical, social, and cultural contexts, and these determine the range of the identities we can possess or, in other words they ways we are legible. We cannot be medieval serfs outside the context of European feudalism, for example, with its hierarchies, laws, religious conceptions, and social practices. In hermeneutic terms the identity is part of a medieval whole and cannot be what it is within, say, the United States in the twenty-first century. Efforts to give our contemporaries or ourselves identities as medieval serfs will fail because they will be unable to integrate these understandings of who we are within an understanding of a modern democracy or contemporary capitalist economy.

The same holds of the narrower contexts in which we participate. We are active in schools, religious organizations, market places, families and so on and insofar as the identities we have are ways of understanding who we are, their intelligibility depends upon the wholes of which they are part. We are students or teachers in the context of education, Muslims or non-Muslims in the context of religion, buyers or sellers in the context of economic activity. The status of “Driving while Black” is jarring precisely because it reflects a failure to integrate part and whole. Racial identities are not coherent part of the context of driving. Nor can we be always or only women.

To be sure, the integration of parts and wholes or identities and contexts does not guarantee adequate understanding. Nevertheless, where we cannot integrate parts and wholes, we have reasons to suspect our understanding. So I think we need to be suspicious of our tendency to insert social identities such as race and gender in all contexts. It is akin to supposing that one could lift Captain Ahab out of Moby Dick and put him in The Importance of Being Earnest. Specific characters are who they are because of the texts to which they belong. The same holds of identities.

Justice & Interpretation

3:AM: What legal and policy implications does this have – and what advantages does your Gadamerean approach have over other non-essentialist approaches to power and identity?

GW: From the sort of hermeneutic viewpoint I try to develop, discrimination against African-Americans LGBTQ#, women, ethnic minorities, and the like reflects a failure to understand. It takes certain identities to be parts of wholes into which they cannot be intelligibly integrated. Conversely, we can see anti-discrimination law and anti-racism and anti-sexism struggles as commitments to stripping workplaces, organizations and the like of those interpretations of people, including interpretations or identities as white, male, able-bodied and so on, that have nothing to do with what the institutions and organizations are. In the context of driving, we are drivers; in the context of work we are workers. If identity as a white male constitutes an identity that is therefore illegible within most institutions and organizations, then it is not clear that white males can retain an exclusive hold on their traditional prerogatives, such as higher pay and release from most care-giving duties.

Of course, this analysis supposes particular interpretations of the context in question. If our understanding of care-giving is already gendered then women will be an intelligible part of it. Or take a context such as police activity. If we understand it not as crime fighting but as the effort to incarcerate African Americans and Latinos, then the latter are identities that are intelligible parts of the activity. Yet our gendered understanding of care-giving and racialized understanding of police activity themselves are understandings of parts in terms of larger wholes. Can we plausibly integrate an understanding of police activity as the explicit effort to incarcerate African Americans and Latinos as an intelligible part of our understanding of the U.S. political history, the state and the U.S. Constitution? A hermeneutic approach is a species of immanent critique. If the entire context of U.S. history and culture is racist and corrupt, then, granted, the approach is fangless. But if the entire context of U.S. history and culture is racist and corrupt, the status of a hermeneutic approach is probably the least of our problems.

3:AM: In terms of political theory why don’t Rawls and Habermas extend liberal political theory far enough to instantiate the hermeneutical approach you feel necessary? Can liberal theory ever go far enough and how far is your thinking around politics in line with Gadamer – some might say that he wasn’t really interested in political and ethical theories – are they wrong in that?

GW: Darren Walhof’s recent book, The Democratic Theory of Hans-Georg Gadamer suggests that those who think Gadamer is not interested in ethics and politics are wrong. Certainly, Gadamer wrote a great deal about the ethical theories of Plato and Aristotle and Walhof makes a very good case for his contributions to political theory, emphasizing his contributions to issues of political truth, democratic deliberation, the place of religion in the democratic political sphere and solidarity. In my work I’m interested in developing the tradition of hermeneutics as a basis for democratic deliberation. Both Rawls and Habermas focus on the justification of norms and principles through the veil of ignorance in Rawls’s case and in terms of uncoerced agreement in Habermas’s case. Both also consider differences over justified norms and principles to be issues of application. While we might agree on norms and principles, they concede that we may apply them in different ways. I think this division between justification and application overlooks interpretive issues. Take the case of abortion again. Here our differences are not just differences in our views of whom the right to life applies to but what the right to life is. The same issue arises with regard to the principle of equality. If we think equality means equal opportunity, we may be critical of affirmative action policies. If we think equality means equal participation we may be less so. Nor do I think we should assume there is a right answer to these questions of meaning. Rather, as I said, I think democratic politics might take its cue from debates in the humanities where we assume and even value differences in interpretation. We may never agree, but if we regard our political differences as differences less of principle than interpretation, our debates will be less strident and our polarization less unforgiving. We may even learn to compromise.

Debating Sex and Gender

3:AM: As a final thought, identity politics seems to have become a very toxic issue especially on university campuses. What’s happening, and are you optimistic that debate and disagreements can be handled in a more calm way in the future?

GW: I agree that identity politics has become toxic, especially in university humanities, social sciences and arts departments. Here we seem to have developed clear norms about what different “sorts” of scholars can and cannot study, teach and learn. White non-trans faculty are not meant to study issues of race or transgender – witness the controversy over Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism” – and non-white faculty are meant to study nothing but issues of race and the consequences of racialization. For the most part we find LatinX scholars, for example, in Hispanic Studies and Ethnics Studies departments, rather than, say, Philosophy ones. We are all, then, to study ourselves.

This outcome seems to me to be both a travesty of the promise of diversity and a dogmatic account of identity. Diversity enhances scholarship and advances science by including the widest possible range of experiences and perspectives. As currently practiced, it creates silos instead. Moreover, it creates silos based on only the limited identities we have within certain contexts.

The uproar over Dana Schulz’s painting of Emmett Till’s mutilated body, “Open Casket,” at the Whitney Biennial, shows that this issue is not one only on university campuses. Here some of the furor seems to depend on the claim that, given her race, Schulz could not have an experience close to that of Till or his mother. Quite apart from the question of whether Schulz’s race is the only aspect of her identity that matters here – what about her identity as an American for whom Till’s horrific lynching ought to have meaning? – even if she could not have Till’s or Till-Mabley’s experience, surely that is the point of diversity – to see and hear (and perhaps criticize) how things appear to those who have not had our experiences. Do we not want to hear from women about men, African Americans about whites and so on? If we were limited to studying only our own gendered selves so that only men studied men how would we know about sexual harassment or mansplaining?

To be sure, if standpoint theory makes sense, people in certain positions will have insights that people from others do not. But standpoint theory does not entail that we stop listening to or being interested in one another or learning from what other people have to say about us. Am I optimistic about the future? Yes, because I do not think younger people will stand for being silo-ed in their interests or pigeon-holed in the identities on which their elders seem to insist.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you can recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

 

Deliberative Democracy

GW: James Bohman and William Rehg (eds.) Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics

Truth and Method

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

Justification and Application

Jürgen Habermas, Justification and Application

Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development

Thomas McCarthy, Race, Empire and the Idea of Human Development

Identities and Freedom

Allison Weir, Identities and Freedom: Feminist Theory between Power and Connection

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 27th, 2018.