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Ignorance of philosophy, identity politics, and the cosmopolitan ideal

By Brian Leiter.

Eugene Park, a former PhD student in philosophy at Indiana University, Bloomington, recently wrote a piece purporting to explain his departure from academic philosophy in the Huffington Post (thanks to Sarah Stroud for the pointer.) Allowing that the bad job market had something to do with it, he then went on to say:

‘But, more importantly, as a person of color, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable in my department and within the discipline at large. Granted, a PhD program in any discipline will involve a certain amount of indoctrination, but the particular demands of philosophy were, in my view, beyond unreasonable.

As I discovered over the course of my graduate career, in order to be taken seriously in the discipline, and to have any hope of landing a tenure-track job, one must write a dissertation in one of the “core areas” of philosophy. What are these core areas? Philosophers quibble about how exactly to slice up the philosophical pie, but generally the divisions look something like this:

Metaphysics & Epistemology
Logic & Philosophy of Language
Philosophy of Mind
Value Theory
Such is the menu of choices available to the philosopher-in-training today. (See, for example, the PhD requirements at these prominent philosophy departments: Penn, Berkeley, and Duke.) On the surface, this might look like a wide range of options. But appearances are deceiving. For instance, the subfield of philosophy of mind does not typically engage at all with Indian, East Asian, African, or Native American ideas about the nature of mind. It’s as if non-Western thinkers had nothing to say about the matter. Similarly, those who work in the history of philosophy work almost exclusively on the history of Western philosophy — e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.

So why don’t Anglo-American philosophers engage with non-Western philosophical traditions? In my experience, professional philosophers today often perceive non-Western thinkers as inferior. Of course, few would say this explicitly. Rather, philosophers often point to non-Western philosophy’s unusual and unfamiliar methodology as the primary reason for the disconnect.’

There is much that seems to me strange and a bit dubious about this. 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? (Mr. Park, oddly, never explains, or even affirms, the merits of these thinkers.)

But what is quite surprising, and unsupported, is the claim that the absence of non-Western thinkers is due to Anglophone philosophers thinking them “inferior.” I suppose some think that, but philosophers, who are quite opinionated as a group, no doubt hold every opinion under the sun. (My former colleague Herb Hochberg, about as unabashed an apologist for the most parochial conception of analytic philosophy imaginable, thought Kripke “inferior” to Russell.) My own impression, from having talked to a lot more philosophers than Mr. Park and for a much longer period of time, is that most Anglophone philosophers have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it. Some regret the ignorance, others think it is excusable since there are so many philosophical traditions in the world and one can only master so many, and others just don’t think about it at all because it is possible to pursue an academic career in philosophy ignorant of a lot of things, including large swaths of the history of European philosophy (and the further back in the past we go, the more the boundary lines of “what’s European, what’s not” get harder to draw).

Now consider a slightly different case.

Some fellow named Terrence Blake, who teaches English in France, wrote a quite silly defense of the charlatan Zizek and fellow travellers like Lyotard, under the heading “16 traits of Continental philosophy.” But the post-Kantian Continental traditions are quite diverse, encompassing at least ten distinct, sometimes overlapping and sometimes wholly independent philosophy movements, including German Idealism, German Materialism, Neo-Kantianism, Marxism, phenomenology, existentialism, critical theory, hermeneutics, structuralism, and post-structuralism (or post-modernism). (Merely regarding the 19th-century, Frederick Beiser’s latest book, After Hegel: German Philosophy 1840-1900 is instructive and covers in more detail, in particular, the Materialist movement that I wrote about a dozen years ago in Nietzsche on Morality.) Mr. Blake’s post has a bit to do with the last of the ten (post-modernism or post-structuralism), and nothing to do with the others: it is, in short, obviously mistitled for anyone with a knowledge of the Continental traditions in philosophy after Kant. The mis-titling is strategic, however, since the charlatans and their apologists want to convince others that they exist in a different philosophical, indeed intellectual, universe from everyone else, and thus are entitled to a kind of intellectual and philosophical insulation from regular criticism.

In any case, philosopher Justin Weinberg (South Carolina) then posted a link to Mr. Blake’s silliness under the surprising heading “What is continental philosophy?” But the original post wasn’t about Continental philosophy, it was about Zizek and some late 20th-century French obscurantists, and no one who works on the Continental traditions in philosophy would ever dream of describing it in these terms. Now Prof. Weinberg is a moral philosopher, though with a PhD from a department (Georgetown) where the Continental traditions are taken quite seriously, yet even he was unaware of how misguided the title question was. This is not a knock on Prof. Weinberg: non-culpable ignorance is all our fates in life, especially in philosophy. Ignorance of certain German and French traditions, happily, is not monitored by any identity politics police (only, occasionally, by a guy with a blog).

It is in the nature of philosophy that it is, potentially, about everything and that it has been undertaken in some shape or form just about everywhere, so ignorance, indeed massive ignorance, is inevitable. Anglophone departments do a bad job even of covering the European traditions, let alone the non-European ones. I would like to see different priorities in Anglophone departments: less armchair metaphysics, say, and more history of philosophy, both European and otherwise; less intuition-pump ethics, which is mostly just a sociological record of the moral etiquette of bourgeois academics, and more integration of the philosophical study of values with the cognitive sciences. Others have different priorities, and for different intellectual and philosophical reasons.

What we shouldn’t do–and which I’ve objected to before–is try to re-shape the curriculum not with an eye to philosophical interest or insight but to “identity politics,” i.e., to appeasing the student “consumers” who want to see “their people” on the syllabus. I hope we can remember that the neoliberal view of education is pernicious, even when it’s enlisted on behalf of the consumer demands of minorities. More importantly, the cosmopolitan impulse, which was central to the Enlightenment (and present in attenuated forms even in antiquity, especially the Stoics, as I’ve learned from my colleague Martha Nussbaum), should not be given up lightly, especially not by philosophers. Marxists, who mounted the first systematic critique of the purportedly neutral “standpoint” which prior philosophy claimed to occupy, did not abandon this impulse–their critique was in its service. The criticism of the presuppositions of world views is, indeed, integral to philosophy; to free individuals from these inherited presuppositions and biases (of nation, of class, of religion, of race, of gender) has been central to the cosmopolitan impulse of modernity. (Perhaps we should recall that the most persistent anti-semitic smear of the modern era was that the Jews were “rootless cosmopolitans,” precisely because of their embrace of the Enlightenment ideal. It’s a bit depressing that some attacks on philosophy now sound rather similar, even if the motives of the critics are wholly different.)

I certainly think that more study of non-Western philosophical traditions would be salutary and illuminating; I think that some parts of so-called “feminist” philosophy are as illuminating as their so-called “Marxist” predecessors (and some parts are as misguided–alas, if “analytic” feminist philosophers knew more history of European philosophy, they would often bey more alert to the pitfalls, but they have their own blindspots), and I certainly believe that race–like class and gender–benefits from philosophical attention, and that critical theory approaches to social-political philosophy are at least as important as the kind of work done by bourgeois liberals, whose work dominates the Anglophone curriculum. 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. Minorities (and not just minorities) have as much to gain from the cosmopolitan ideal as Jews did in the 19th-century. Philosophers, as one of the primary guardians of that ideal in Anglophone countries, should not let them down. When philosophers have let down underrepresented demographic groups in philosophy, it has been because of bad pedagogy, racism, sexism, sexual harassment, and other betrayals of the obligations of a teacher.


[Photo: Steve Pike]

Brian Leiter is Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago. He teaches and writes primarily in the areas of moral, political, and legal philosophy, in both Anglophone and Continental traditions. His interview for 3:AM can be read here. This piece appeared at his blog Leiter Reports.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 13th, 2014.