Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Charles Mills

Charles Wade Mills (1951-2021) died yesterday; he did a great deal of important work in political philosophy and in philosophy of race. I only met him in person once, probably about ten years ago at something or other on the subject of standpoint epistemology. But he was a very charming man with an excellent sense of humor and an ability to condense complicated arguments in a vivid way. All of his work was extremely was interesting. He doesn't shy away from controversy, but he often had a good sense of the actual reasons why people might have for thinking it controversial, and made an effort to address those. 

He was also -- and this is a bit of quirky reason for respect, but it's one of mine -- he's one of the few academics I have ever come across who work on controversial topics like racism and colonialism who has been willing to look full in the face at the role that academics played and still structurally play in these things. For instance, it's all the fad to talk about colonialism and decolonizing, but academics have a tendency to fail to regard straightforwardly the way in which the modern university is the colonialist institution, and that it still functions very much as it did in the days of the colonial empires -- to be an academic is historically and in some ways even today still to be a participant in colonialism. (It is, frankly, refreshing in picking up Mills to find someone talk about such things who repeatedly ties it to evidence and assessment of facts about what he's talking about rather than to vague assumptions about how things must have worked.) But one of the notable features of Mills's entire approach was recognizing that something could be severely flawed and yet nonetheless still immensely valuable, and that when one recognized the flaws in (say) social contract theory or Kant, the next rational step was not simply washing one's hands of them but considering how one can learn from the valuable while correcting the flaws. This is more rare than you would expect; academics often erase their own complicity in things they criticize, and for whatever reasons critiquing a system or position or institution is not always treated in academia as an opportunity for learning from the same system or position or institution. I have my own criticisms of Mills's actual position -- it is a totalizing account like Hegelianism and Marxism, although not specifically dialectical, and I think runs smack into the common problems of 'this set of concepts captures the way the whole of our society really works' totalizing accounts and their vulgar cousins, the conspiracy theories -- but I think if something like such a position were viable, you'd have to build it like Mills builds his. And it is very well built; probably one of the most well thought-out philosophies of history and society in the twentieth century. His name doesn't seem always to be widely known even among academic philosophers, but I think it fair to say he was one of the most important academic philosophers of the early twenty-first century.

In any case, Liam Kofi Bright has an excellent tribute to him.