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Fr. 686

November 24, 2015

Recent student backlash has stemmed from the perceived lack of equal representation of minority voices in class syllabi and academic canons. Philosophy has been no stranger to this development, and calls have grown in places to fill out the philosophical canon with non-Western thinkers from Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Although resistance on the part of philosophers to such a development is understandable, it remains just as important to sort out the good from the bad in matters of identity politics.

A 2014 blog post from Brian Leiter explains his own reasons for resistance to bad identity politics but, in its formulation of the problem, also shows the need for greater care when approaching the matter. In response to the calls for including more non-Western thinkers in departments, Leiter makes note of both philosophy’s vocation and its structural peculiarities:

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.

If philosophy can take as its point of departure any number of topics and can be adapted to any number of social and intellectual contexts, then it is understandable that its practice encompasses such breath and number of instantiations as to resist the purview of a survey course. To this we might add that a survey class comprised of thinkers from wildly divergent backgrounds would require a similarly heterogeneous approach in that each thinker would be concerned with distinct questions, answers and cognitive contexts. These thinkers would perhaps have to be made, disingenuously, as interlocutors in some greater background. Although this does not stand as an argument against non-Western survey courses as such, for purposes of perspicuous contrast, it can prove more worthwhile to compare the differences between thinkers working with similar questions and answers, within similar cognitive contexts.

For Leiter, the foregoing considerations do not preclude changes in English-speaking departments. He opines:

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.

Certainly, dominant trends in English-language philosophy dictate whether one area receives greater attention and support than another, and there is a need for greater diversity in the discipline. But this shift should not be predicated by students making of their own identities and backgrounds consumer goods and lifestyle packages for which there is more or less demand. Just as much as a view which attempts to bring philosophy into line with standards of profitability and practicality, the demand for greater diversity can quickly fall into neoliberalism:

What we shouldn’t do […] 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.

Leiter’s arguments to this point seem on point. When students make calls for diversification within institutions simply on the basis of appealing to more students of a particular background, they set themselves up as consumers in a consumer society and subordinate institutions to a capitalist logic from which these institutions should otherwise try to free themselves. Instead, and as Leiter wants to suggest, diversification within the institutions should aim at getting students out of their comfort zones and at confronting them with standpoints which are not their own.

This much seems right, but it remains to be seen how students might reply in turn.



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