Saturday, August 23, 2014

Academic Philosophy's Homogeneity

Eugene Sun Park has an interesting article, Why I Left Academia: Philosophy’s Homogeneity Needs Rethinking:

The pressure to accept and conform to a narrow conception of philosophy was pervasive. When I tried to introduce non-Western and other non-canonical philosophy into my dissertation, a professor in my department suggested that I transfer to the Religious Studies Department or some other department where “ethnic studies” would be more welcome. When I considered exploring issues of race in my dissertation, my advisor remarked that she had always thought of Asian Americans as “basically white,” so she was genuinely surprised that I would have any desire to pursue such topics.

Underlying these remarks are highly problematic assumptions about who “we” are and what historical figures and texts comprise “our” intellectual heritage. This is certainly a complicated and contested set of issues. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve vastly oversimplified matters with my naïve talk of West vs. East, and my use of broad categories like Asian philosophy and analytic philosophy. But one thing is absolutely clear and indisputable: “We” are no longer mostly white men of European descent. (In fact, it’s doubtful “we” were ever this.) At colleges and universities across the country, women and minorities are now frequently in the majority. While much of the rest of the academy has evolved to reflect these demographic changes, philosophy remains mired in a narrow conception of the discipline that threatens to marginalize philosophy even further.

That many academic philosophers are extremely parochial is certainly true. The only philosophers I've personally met who deny this are philosophers who would without any doubt be high on other people's lists of the preeminently parochial-minded. To some extent this is just the comfort of inertia. Modern philosophy departments were originally founded in opposition to psychology departments; they were places within the academic structure in which people could come together who thought the methods of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century psychology were misguided; they were built to provide a political counterbalance within university life to the rising influence of psychology as a field. That's simplified, but the bulk of definite early academic institutions devoted to philosophy were formed in opposition to psychology; there's a reason (to take just one obvious example) why one of the oldest and most eminent philosophy journals is called Mind. In any case, the core of the academic philosophy we have today grows out of this historical circumstance. In analytic departments one often comes across references to LEMM -- Language, Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Mind -- and the centrality of these four is due almost entirely to the early intensity with which academic philosophy opposed psychology. Those philosophers trained students who were exposed to philosophy taught this way, who continued on in the same vein, and so it went, always changing, but only slowly broadening, until the present day, in which people stick with what makes them comfortable, and what makes them comfortable is usually an advanced kind of thing that they got a taste of as undergraduates.

But there is surely more to it than inertia. One sees this in arguments about 'philosophical quality', which are almost always in reality arguments about use of resources. People clearly attack the quality of feminist philosophy or continental philosophy, for instance, because they don't want competitors to their preferred way of doing things. The attacks are rarely any good. Yes, some of the specific criticisms hit their targets, but this is easy to set up anywhere in philosophy. Analytic philosophers who dismiss continental philosophers for scientific ignorance rarely dismiss analytic philosophers talking about (say) C-fiber firings, despite the fact that the latter are practically never better informed about the actual science than the former. Indeed, I have repeatedly come across analytic philosophers who dismiss out of hand any attempt to correct them as irrelevant to their point. A couple of years back someone criticized the feminist philosophy journal, Hypatia, as too 'narrow' to be considered a first-tier philosophy journal; a criticism that in and of itself shows that the philosopher in question had never bothered actually to sit down with a few issues of Hypatia before making a judgment, regardless of whether it is a first-tier philosophy journal or not. What people are usually talking about when they speak about 'philosophical quality' is 'what I have to treat as worth part of my time'; this is why so many discussions of 'philosophical quality' so often seem to involve an extraordinary amount of ignorance and childishness. It's always unclear why philosophical quality requires self-appointed guardians, but even that aside quality can hardly arise from dogmatic parochialism, even if it occasionally does so despite it.

But it's hard to know, of course, what to do about it. Experts in East Asian philosophy will not appear in departments overnight, and often the worst offenders are people who can hardly be convinced to treat Plotinus or Rosmini seriously, much less Akṣapāda Gautama. I remember being shocked in graduate school that I had fellow grad students who didn't know the difference between Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius and Boethius of Dacia, but the sheer naivete of that has been made more clear every year since.


  1. Enbrethiliel3:11 PM


    So LEMM is like STEM, but for philosophers? =P

    I find the historical context really interesting because I tend to be suspicious of nineteenth- and twentieth-century psychology myself . . . but at the same time, I don't want philosophy to be merely a counterbalance to it. There's nothing modern about all the Plato I've been reading, although it remains as relevant to us as it was to the ancients; so I shudder to think of what a "modern approach" to it might be.

  2. When I learned that there were two thinkers of note who were named Boethius, it was from a footnote in some extra-curricular study. B of Dacia is far from the accepted Cliff-note trajectories of the history of thought.

    I was interested in your genealogy of academic Philosophy departments; this agenda (differentiating a rear-guard from the 19th c psychologism) is probably something I ought to have guessed, but I hadn't thought about it.

    While I strongly defend a pretty old-school sounding philosophical notion of "tradition," aka "canon", and so tend to resist attempting to re-cast the question of philosophy qua philosophy in terms of identity groups ("feminist philosophy", "Asian philosophy,") there is no question that departmental politics, like most other politics, can be cripplingly parochial. I don't think much of the "changing with the times" argument, but anyone who gets huffy and defensive over being asked to examine their assumptions is probably not being very philosophical.

  3. branemrys4:39 PM

    Certainly the LEMMings think of themselves as STEM for philosophers!

    I think a lot of what gets lost through this early focus on the mind is any sense of the big picture -- to fit Plato (or many others) into academic philosophy has too often required chopping them up into little bits.

  4. branemrys4:43 PM

    Edward Reed's From Soul to Mind is a good look at the process, although Reed is looking at it from the other side, since he was a psychologist; while he doesn't get everything right on the philosophy side, he does a good job of showing how psychology and philosophy, considered as academic divisions, developed.


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