Monday, May 18, 2009

Justice-Based Critique

One of the things that issues like Hume's racism bring up is the proper way of doing what I call justice-based critique. I think that justice-based critique is an important part of the discipline of history of philosophy (which I'll call HoP to distinguish it from the actual historical course of philosophy through the ages), even, as I've said in passing on this weblog for quite some time, a crucial part. But it's also a very difficult part. There are lots of potential missteps (misleading translations, nuances of context, common misconceptions, etc.) and in many ways the serious work in this area has been scattered and difficult to produce.

I haven't really ever clarified what I mean by it, in part because my thoughts on it are only partially formed, a kind of skeleton that needs filling in. The idea behind justice-based critique is to examine the history of philosophy in light of justice. This works in a number of ways.

(1) Looking fairly at people who were unfairly overlooked. This is one of the reasons I initially began to have an interest in women philosophers in the early modern period: I felt that they deserved a more serious regard than they are usually given, and in several cases, the reason they were not given more serious regard does seem to have a lot to do with their being women. Some of them I have not found impressive, but quite a few of them -- Catharine Trotter Cockburn, Mary Astell, Lady Masham, Lady Mary Shepherd -- really repay close attention. Cockburn's arguments against divine command theory are far and away better than what people usually bandy about today, Astell and Masham have seriously valuable insights into the relation between rationality and education, and Shepherd has what I think are some stunningly good arguments against Hume and Humean views of causation generally. This is probably the easiest sort of thing to do; it's a matter of looking to see if people were overlooked for no good reason and then paying serious attention to it. It can also be an interesting exercise in its own right, since it gives you a sense of just how much richer HoP could be.

There is a common view, I think, on which people worry that this sort of thing leads to stirring up all sorts of mediocre thinkers. Certainly one does stir up mediocre thinkers, but (1) even mediocre thinkers can make solid points on particular issues; and (2) the worry implicitly assumes that there is no serious issue with philosophers being overlooked or dismissed for bad reasons, an assumption that can quickly be shown to be wrong when you get into some of the excellent philosophers who are found in this way. And it has to be admitted, I think, that we already recognize from cases of philosophers going in and out of fashion that the reasons for neglect and study aren't wholly independent of the interests and biases of those who are doing the neglecting and studying. This should be something we take into account.

(2) A second issue is precisely locating prejudices in the philosophical work of philosophers in the past. This is surely essential to evaluating them in a reasonable way; but it is also extraordinarily difficult, and sometimes in surprising ways. It's clear enough that Thomas Aquinas takes up some sexist themes from his cultural milieu, but pinning down (1) the way he does it and (2) the role of those themes in his overall philosophical view is very, very difficult, and there have been plenty of false claims made about the subject of Thomas Aquinas's sexism based on bad translations of the original Latin. And how does some sexist strain in St. Thomas's account of women affect how we evaluate his account of, say, virtue? And, equally, how does St. Thomas's account of (again, to use just an example) virtue affect how we evaluate his account of women? Is the sexism an inconsistency or something following from some defective or defectively formulated principle elsewhere in the system? And so forth and so on. And you can ask similar questions about things like Aristotle's defense of slavery or Hume's racist comments about blacks.

So we have a multiple-stage issue here: we must try be just to the philosopher in question understanding them in light of the actual evidence, we must examine the philosopher's reasoning in light of the principles of justice with a certain sort of impartiality that does not compromise on these matters, and we must be careful in selecting what lessons can be drawn from this, both for philosophy in general and for our own lives. We have to be careful about conflating different kinds of prejudice because this ends up gumming up our proper response to prejudices we find: not all sexisms are best handled in the same way, and conflating them all together leads us to overlook just how intricate, durable, and subtle sexisms can be. I think a great many people worry about talking about Hume's racism in the first place because we often tend to think that if someone is accused of being racist on a particular point it is like accusing them of putting burning crosses in someone's yard. If all racism were that blatant, it would be an easier problem to handle, but it's not that easy. And by recognizing the shades of prejudice we do more to deal with the absurd situation of everyone going out of their way to try to pretend they have no prejudice as if admission to a prejudice were a shameful admission of absolute and diabolical corruption. ("I do possibly have one prejudice," we know some people would say with mock sadness on being asked the question; "I am too easily angered by prejudiced people." How lovely; meanwhile in reality, the rest of us are trying to hold ourselves to some level of reason and justice rather than merely assigning ourselves to it by fiat. But it's easy to see why people do this.) And likewise it's important to recognize both potential sources for distorting biases (before the fact) and actual biases in oneself (after the fact), whether religious, political, personal, and to try to consider the question fairly and impartially if we are faced with the objection that our own analysis shows such a distorting bias. Each one of these is difficult, none of them are ever done perfectly, and even done well they may still leave us with serious errors. To some extent this would be dealt with if there were more people interacting on the issue, polishing away each other's biases, but as I said, there's some hesitancy to get into the work in the first place.

As I said this is very difficult; I think it's the most difficult part of justice-based critique, and often the most thankless, and the one that, by its nature, proceeds most slowly and haltingly. It's an area of thought in which everyone plays the fool sometimes. But good HoP really is much the same way all around, even if this portion of it has more pitfalls than some other portions. In HoP you are rewarded in a way proportionate to the work you put in. The highest rewards are always the result of the most painstaking labor.

(3) The third sort of element in justice-based critique is also difficult, but it involves building on what is good in our heritage, developing and nurturing it so that it may continue to do good. This is utterly essential, not only for a better understanding of justice and injustice, but also probably for our own morale, since both of the others can sometimes get very depressing. HoP is usually thought of as an entirely past-facing discipline, but it has a future-facing side too, and through this side it has been contributing rich new ideas, and excellent developments of old ideas, since Aristotle. Like the others this is something that has only been explored here and there, but there are some truly excellent models scattered through things like the Re-Reading the Canon series.

Am I missing any other elements of justice-based critique? Do you think there are any serious problems or major benefits that this summary overlooks?

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