One man's "cogito" is another's "white mask"
March 26, 2015 11:06 AM   Subscribe

 
No doubt he has a point here, but at least in my limited philosophy studies at university, Homer was not considered a philosopher and the Iliad was not on the curriculum even in the Intro to the History of Philosophy course. But yeah, St Augustine could probably use some company in a lot of philosophy departments.
posted by Hoopo at 11:23 AM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


The irony in this situation of course being that Sophia (as in "Love of Sophia" [philo-sophy]) is one of the oldest pagan representations of the feminine divine still going strong today...
posted by saulgoodman at 11:24 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


(And in the Gnostic traditions, Sophia existed before God, and was his childhood playmate.)
posted by saulgoodman at 11:27 AM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


Is the white-centric focus something that's unique to the UK, or a deeper problem with the field in general outside that country? I ask because when I took philosophy 101 and 102 in college here in the US, the classes initially centered on concepts from the Ancient Greeks, Romans, then Europeans and Americans, but definitely included classes that focused solely on African, Latin and Asian (especially Japanese) philosophers. I was actually introduced to the poetry of Bashō in my 102 class. This was a couple of decades ago.
posted by zarq at 11:30 AM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


My only real problem with this article is that it doesn't go far enough. Teaching more non-white, non-male philosophers is vital, but we have a fundamental problem with the basis of thought, and we need to address it more radically and rigorously than just in philosophy departments. It's not just that our dominant teaching of metaphysics is white and male, it's that our dominant metaphysics itself is white and male. That's a profound challenge, but not an insurmountable one.
posted by howfar at 11:31 AM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


Definitely need a lot more diversity in philosophy 101 to start with, so people don't think of it as old white guys talking about existence.

I'm curious whether there are any philosophy professors or the like here who can tell us with some confidence about a few philosophers that would have been core curriculum if they'd been white. The field is so foreign to me really that I don't even know where to start when it comes to who said what first, or best, or what have you. The author does have the right idea I think, but his casting of Homer as philosophy renders his recommendations somewhat dubious for me.

Also, is not there much to say about west vs east in this case, in addition to white vs nonwhite?
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:35 AM on March 26, 2015


If anyone's interested in knowing more about Zera Yacob, I found a blog that started presenting a translation of his (very interesting) treatise. Here's a link to the first chapter, the link to the next chapter is at the bottom. Unfortunately, the project seems to have been abandoned, but most of the treatise us up, I think.

While it's certainly a fascinating work, there's a lot of good reasons why you wouldn't call Zera Yacob "the father of modern philosophy." If you're studying the history of Philosophy the issue isn't just "who had some interesting ideas?" but "who had ideas that were influential." Yacob had one local follower, and then his "school" seems to have essentially petered out without leaving any legacy. Descartes starts a series of conversations that have continued, unbroken, down to the present day. You simply cannot understand the course of modern philosophy without understanding Descartes (or Kant or Hegel or whomever). Not knowing about Zera Yacob means a sad loss to one's sense of the diversity of human endeavor in general, but will not affect your understanding of any subsequent philosophical argument one iota.
posted by yoink at 11:36 AM on March 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Yeah, I wasn't sure where the Iliad remark came from.

JEH Smith had an interesting piece on non-western philosophy.

"Philosophy" is a kind of weird case because it seems to both indicate a particular kind of cultural practice (albeit one that's certainly more diverse than you'd gather from most university curricula), and something much more diffuse and general, the sort of thing at play when someone talks about having "a philosophy".
posted by kenko at 11:38 AM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Hoopo: “No doubt he has a point here...”

Er – I hate to have to point this out, but – it's she, actually.

And I think she's distinctly wrong. This is not so easy as digging up a few more writers who are women and "non-white." This, in particular, seems factually incorrect and sort of reaching to me:

from article: “One man’s 'cogito' is another’s 'white mask', if I may be existentialistic. What is referred to as 'philosophy' in British universities is actually 'white western male philosophy'. And, frankly, it is often myopic and verbose.”

I cannot, much as I try, sort out exactly how the work of Descartes is particularly and peculiarly white, western, or male. In particular, "white" did not exist in Descartes' time – if it's necessary to point this out, "whiteness" is a false concept coeval with the ethos of white supremacy of the past three hundred years, as critical theory is generally quick to establish. Nor can I discern anything particularly "white" or "male" or "European" in writers from Plato to Kant. That is kind of the point of these thinkers and their importance. If they are particularly provincial, then they instantly become useless anyhow in the context of philosophy.

Here is the difficult fact that it's hard to get around: philosophy is a leisure activity; it has been recognized as such since the time of Aristotle. Historically, women and people not of the dominant power group have not been granted leisure time or encouraged to write and spend their time thinking through these important problems. We can't pretend away that history. We can't ignore thousands of years of injustice just because we want to believe that the dominant power groups of the past gave women and the disadvantaged the time and leisure necessary to build up bodies of philosophical work.

And we can't pretend the development of philosophy happened differently than it did. The Islamic philosophers of the medieval period, who were profoundly important, are currently being rediscovered. Their existence casts some much-needed doubt on silly, nonexistent categories like "Western" and "Eastern." We should be busy dismantling ideas like "whiteness" and "blackness" and "brownness" – it makes no sense to call Aristotle "white" anyway. And we should be attempting to find useful and worthwhile thoughts wherever they are – regardless of the extraction of their authors. Anything else is oppression or patronizing; we must avoid both temptations.
posted by koeselitz at 11:39 AM on March 26, 2015 [36 favorites]


Plus, they were all on drugs. (on hard drugs)
posted by telstar at 11:44 AM on March 26, 2015


The "cultural practice" thing makes it much less excusable that Angela Davis is excluded than that Yacob, or Oriki, are; if yoink is correct that Yacob had a single follower and little or no influence, then it makes some sense that a historical survey (e.g.) wouldn't mention him (though one might think that a specialist in the period would, in specialist writing); Oriki are not recognizably part of a practice in part defined by self-conscious engagement with previous practitioners. But Davis is clearly not just "doing something else". It's odd to run all these things together.
posted by kenko at 11:45 AM on March 26, 2015


I'm 100% in favor of diversifying field of philosophy, and it's worth noting that in all my years of advanced study of the history of philosophy, this is the first time I've heard of Zara Yacob's Hatata (which I immediately ordered through ILL after reading this), but I do want to point out a bit of a leap of logic here. Maybe this is beanplating but the implication that Foucault's work is more influential than Davis' just because one is a white dude and the other a black woman is just lazy. If I wasn't on my phone I'd say more but Foucault's work came at a perfect moment in French intellectual life to catch fire, like many of his contemporaries (like lacan and kristeva). Add to that that Foucault was a genius. Davis does good work, but the world she moves in is different. Philosophy doesn't have geniuses like that anymore. Even Butler seems like an epigone. Davis is too late to be Foucault. They're just not comparable.
posted by dis_integration at 11:46 AM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


Here is the difficult fact that it's hard to get around: philosophy is a leisure activity; it has been recognized as such since the time of Aristotle. Historically, women and people not of the dominant power group have not been granted leisure time or encouraged to write and spend their time thinking through these important problems. We can't pretend away that history. We can't ignore thousands of years of injustice just because we want to believe that the dominant power groups of the past gave women and the disadvantaged the time and leisure necessary to build up bodies of philosophical work.

There are literally dozens if not hundreds of Latin, African and African-descended and Asian philosophers -- both ancient and modern -- whose work has been documented, analyzed and that often complement or contradict each other. All are rich traditions. I understand what you're saying, but there's no excuse for deliberate ignorance.
posted by zarq at 11:47 AM on March 26, 2015 [12 favorites]


Nevertheless, koeselitz, there were lots of talented female philosophers hundreds of years ago; Elisabeth of Bohemia is now, I believe, recognized as having got the better of Descartes in their correspondence. (Elisabeth of course had a lot more resources than the average woman of her time.) There are other examples that I can't recall because, guess what, I never really learned about them.
posted by kenko at 11:47 AM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


zarq: “There are literally dozens if not hundreds of Latin, African and African-descended and Asian philosophers -- both ancient and modern -- whose work has been documented, analyzed and that often complement or contradict each other. All are rich traditions. I understand what you're saying, but there's no excuse for deliberate ignorance.”

Right – and they're discussed and dealt with thoroughly in philosophy classes. So I assumed she must mean something else. Right? And if she does, I can't imagine who it is.

I mean, seriously – my own philosophical studies have focused on the Muslim world, which I guess is "non-Western," although, as I indicated above, "western" and "nonwestern" are inherently exclusionary categories that I object to in the strongest terms. And I'm aware of many women who were philosophers, and who are and should be included in philosophical curriculums. There are not as many of them as there are men; this is an artifact of the injustice of the past.
posted by koeselitz at 11:51 AM on March 26, 2015


I'm not saying that philosophy is useless, but I will say that it doesn't and cannot play the same role in society that it did in days of yore, when scientists were called "natural philosophers." Before modern science truly got its footing, the dearth of quantified empirical evidence gave credence to the practice of questioning the nature of the universe based on one's internal experiences.

These days, even if you think that this is just as legitimate and important a pursuit, society at large certainly doesn't deem it as such. For that reason, a lot of what is called "philosophy" could be easily recast as the history of Western thought. As such, this naturally implies the need for similar branches of study into other intellectual histories.
posted by Edgewise at 11:55 AM on March 26, 2015


Given the incredibly rich traditions of philosophy in eastern Asia that often comingled with religion and given that there are many schools that continued for hundreds if not thousands of years, how much work is done by general philosophers on east Asian philosophy? I know there are specialists in the fields, but do "philosophers" as in the professors at universities look at the work of, say, the neo-Confucianists? I'm not trying to score a rhetorical point here, I honestly do not know how the study of philosophy is conducted at the upper levels these days.
posted by Hactar at 11:57 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Right – and they're discussed and dealt with thoroughly in philosophy classes

Um what? What classes are you thinking of, here?
posted by kenko at 11:59 AM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think, therefore I have privilege
posted by Renoroc at 11:59 AM on March 26, 2015


Stanford used to have a faculty member who studied Chinese philosophy, David Nivison. When I arrived there he was already emeritus, and I asked the then-chair if he'd be replaced by someone else doing similar work. I got a scoffing "no", as if I had been foolish to ask at all.
posted by kenko at 12:01 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Edgewise: “Before modern science truly got its footing, the dearth of quantified empirical evidence gave credence to the practice of questioning the nature of the universe based on one's internal experiences.”

This sentence seems to reflect a broad and thorough misunderstanding of the history of philosophy and of science.
posted by koeselitz at 12:01 PM on March 26, 2015 [11 favorites]


kenko: “Um what? What classes are you thinking of, here?”

Look, this really isn't important – it's not an important part of what she's saying. We all agree that they should be studied. I will agree they should be studied more than they are. But Salami claims that philosophy as it exists is in its content particularly male, white, and European. That's clearly false. If it's not false, I'd like to know how anyone can justify such a statement.
posted by koeselitz at 12:03 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, but I want to know what you meant in saying "they're discussed and dealt with thoroughly in philosophy classes". I mean, I'm assuming you don't mean someone like, say, Héctor-Neri Castañeda in talking about Latin philosophers, or Du Bois in talking about African or African-descended philosophers, or Hao Wang for Asian philosophers. I simply do not think it's true that "dozens if not hundreds of Latin, African and African-descended and Asian philosophers" are "discussed and dealt with thoroughly in philosophy classes", nor do I even know who are intended by that description (and I have a phd in philosophy!). I do think there really is a classificatory issue about "philosophy", per my previous comments.
posted by kenko at 12:07 PM on March 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


These days, even if you think that this is just as legitimate and important a pursuit, society at large certainly doesn't deem it as such. For that reason, a lot of what is called "philosophy" could be easily recast as the history of Western thought. As such, this naturally implies the need for similar branches of study into other intellectual histories.

Let's take a concrete example or two. We study Lamarckian genetics and its concepts when we look at both the history of science and also modern genetics. In science, it's important to be aware of what theories have been tested and rejected, just as much as it is to study current understanding. In doing so, we prevent ourselves from making mistakes or re-doing someone else's failed work. But we also gain understanding of how and why people reached conclusions, and often that's just as important as knowing what we've figured out is right or wrong.

Lamarckian genetics and its theory of inherited genetic traits usually makes logical sense to people it's described to, until one gives them additional examples and the theory falls apart. This is part of the learning process.

In other words, thoughtful mistakes teach us how to be better scientists. As long as we remember them.

Platonism (to choose another example) similarly teaches people concepts (Theory of Forms, The Ideal, etc. ) that even though though they have been rejected as we came up with better ways to understand our universe, still have a place in descriptive thought and teachings.

In most things, we build our knowledge upon the hard-earned lessons and mistakes of others. Philosophy is no different.
posted by zarq at 12:08 PM on March 26, 2015


kenko: “I simply do not it's true that ‘dozens if not hundreds of Latin, African and African-descended and Asian philosophers’ are ‘discussed and dealt with thoroughly in philosophy classes’, nor do I even know who are intended by that description (and I have a phd in philosophy!). I do think there really is a classificatory issue about ‘philosophy", per my previous comments.”

This is a fair point. And honestly I agree; this is why I abandoned the philosophy establishment. It's radically exclusionary.

If my earlier statements can be justified, then it's in this way: there are literally people lining up to do philosophical work in these subjects, and they would happily do it if anyone would let them. But philosophy departments in the United States at least are so broken and corrupt that I doubt that will ever happen.

Regardless: a good philosophy program (such do exist) will teach students about nonstandard philosophers and their work.
posted by koeselitz at 12:12 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


As someone who has taken very few formal philosophy courses (but knows way too many people who have)...

Averroes, Avicenna and Rumi seem to get covered, but Islamic philosophy does feel under-explored or glossed over; Indian and Chinese philosophy are entirely off in their own corners (sorry Shankara), where they tend to mingle with "New Age" wonk more than "serious" philosophy; and African or Latin American philosophy are assumed nonexistent.

Formal philosophy does seem dominated by European men, and even dominated by particular fields within that group (analytic philosophy seems to get treated as more "serious;" but maybe the prickles and goo trade places every now and then). A lot of the major philosophers that really rise to the forefront of philosophy courses (Kant, Heidegger) are really pretty buried in multiple historical contexts and layers of abstract thought that should be covered before even getting into them. It'd be cool for the baseline overview to be a lot broader and more global.
posted by byanyothername at 12:14 PM on March 26, 2015


I know barely anything about philosophy but this article comes off a bit weird. Stuff like:

"Or why the Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yaekob, who long before Nietzsche declared that “God is dead”, daringly criticised organised religion in his 1667 treatise, Hatata, where he also said: “He who investigates with pure intelligence … will discover the truth.” But despite promoting reason in this way, he is not dubbed the father of modern philosophy, Descartes is."

So I found that interesting and looked both of them up.

Hatata was written in 1667. Descartes died in 1650. So, uh, that statement doesn't make sense to me. Am I missing something?
posted by I-baLL at 12:15 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


"I'm curious whether there are any philosophy professors or the like here who can tell us with some confidence about a few philosophers that would have been core curriculum if they'd been white. The field is so foreign to me really that I don't even know where to start when it comes to who said what first, or best, or what have you."

The main problem is that the vast majority of philosophers, I am one, can't do this either. We get trained on the Europeans and Americans and that's pretty much it. In many departments taking the time to acknowledge the contribution of (white, European or American) women is considered progressive.

"I cannot, much as I try, sort out exactly how the work of Descartes is particularly and peculiarly white, western, or male."

The fact that you (or I (I'm a white, Hispanic male, I don't know your demographic niche)) can't see it, does not mean it isn't there. One view that I'm aware is not that his method (or any Enlightenment era method), but rather, that it's his particular focus on probably the most abstract areas of philosophy (and subsequent scene-setting for the next 360 years) is particularly male and European. Virginia Held has a nice essay on the concerns in ethics: "Feminist Reconceptualizations in Ethics"

And to be honest whether that anecdotal example that I just offered is accurate or not is beside the point. When our (non-white, non-male) peers are telling us there is a problem. We should listen and take them seriously.

To return to the first concern I quoted, I'm in the process of putting together a "Philosophy Part 2" class that focus on non-canon voices in philosophy. It's a real pain in the ass just getting people to share names and ideas to read-up on.
posted by oddman at 12:18 PM on March 26, 2015 [15 favorites]


I think it's meant to be more like, "Here are two contemporaryish philosophers, but notice which one we value and remember, and which one we don't."

(edit: at I-baLL)
posted by byanyothername at 12:18 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


byanyothername: “Averroes, Avicenna and Rumi seem to get covered, but Islamic philosophy does feel under-explored or glossed over...”

This is a tragedy, and I agree. It's really a hideous problem. I don't know of any philosophy department anywhere in the United States that treats Islamic philosophy justly. I will say that that's quite often because philosophy departments under the influence of critical theory are in a rush to be nice to Islam and its thinkers, and therefore they tend to listen closely to modern religious Muslims and ask them in particular what thinkers they should be looking at – hence the emphasis on Rumi and Avicenna. Even Averroes is often denigrated. I have actually heard people suggest that interest in Ibn Rushd is inherently "Orientalist," apparently because some Latins were interested in Ibn Rushd or something like that. It appears that these thinkers are approached not on their own terms, not because they might be right, but because they are ostensibly Muslims.

Which is absolutely the wrong reason to approach a thinker. This is the main problem with critical theory: it's deeply patronizing. If Avicenna deserves to be read closely, it's not because he called himself a Muslim, or because some Muslims told you to read him; it's because he himself is a deep and worthwhile thinker whose writings hold original and important thoughts.

Regardless, particularly the big four – al-Farabi, Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and Averroes – ought to be studied more; and of these, especially al-Farabi, who is in my view the greatest and most important philosopher of the medieval period.
posted by koeselitz at 12:29 PM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


byanyothername: Yeah, I think that's what she was going for but that last part of the sentence was a bit awkward since the earlier comparison to Nietzsche seemed like a much better example of "Hey, guys, same idea, earlier time!" which is cool.
posted by I-baLL at 12:35 PM on March 26, 2015


the earlier comparison to Nietzsche seemed like a much better example of "Hey, guys, same idea, earlier time!" which is cool.

Nietzsche meant something quite particular by "god is dead", though, so just an attack on organized religion doesn't really establish the "same idea" thing.

I think it's meant to be more like, "Here are two contemporaryish philosophers, but notice which one we value and remember, and which one we don't."

Sure but in this case it really seems as if a better example would have been Elisabeth. Descartes' work is deeply contextually embedded in a long-running practice with its own traditions and customs; it's really not surprising that he should be remembered … by practitioners of the same practice.
posted by kenko at 12:39 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Augustine was African.
posted by fraxil at 12:49 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sure but in this case it really seems as if a better example would have been Elisabeth.

Isn't there something a bit sexist about the lionizing of Elisabeth of Bohemia, though? It all smacks a bit of "gosh, that's jolly good work for a woman." I mean, she puts forward essentially no novel or independently derived philosophical ideas at all. She just points out some places where she either disagrees with or would like clarification of Descartes's arguments. She's clearly enormously intelligent and well read--truly a remarkable achievement for someone who is also deeply engaged in her public, political life, but I don't think anyone would be claiming that she was a significant "philosopher" if she had been "Philip of Bohemia."
posted by yoink at 12:57 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


"I cannot, much as I try, sort out exactly how the work of Descartes is particularly and peculiarly white, western, or male."

This is like saying "well, I don't have an accent!"
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:58 PM on March 26, 2015 [9 favorites]


Back when I had aspirations to be an academic (before I decided to become an elephant instead) I had an idea that it would be interesting to structure a class exploring the history of ideas around texts by Jorge Luis Borges. That would allow jumping around between Bishop Berkeley, Averroes and Confucius, and also authors as diverse as Cao Xueqin, Snorri Sturluson and Kafka. It would obviate the need to move around the past in a narrative way (e.g. by region or time period) while retaining the sort of rigid constraint that university courses need. However, I grew less enamored of the idea when I realized how few women Borges references. However, I think the basic idea is still workable.
posted by Kattullus at 1:03 PM on March 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


yoink, about Elisabeth - we have a bunch of letters from Descartes' other correspondents, and going through the arguments in them (offered by the correspondents in critiquing Descartes' stuff) is a standard part of any Descartes course... so there are a bunch of people of at least that same level of intellectual contribution who we still study - Gassendi, Arnauld, others. So she would be a minor figure anyway. It's hard to say if she is unduly promoted among those minor figures - she really does offer the decisive objection to Cartesian dualism, such that if one of the male correspondents had offered that objection, it seems likely it would be called 'Surname's Objection' today, so it's hard to say what counts as "undue" promotion.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:11 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


This sentence seems to reflect a broad and thorough misunderstanding of the history of philosophy and of science.

Alright, but I would appreciate some illumination rather than a comment that exists just to say "you're wrong." If this is representative of how philosophy explains itself, is it any wonder that someone would think it has limited relevance in the modern day-to-day? Maybe you're tired of your niche being misunderstood, but there's only one way to change that. I'm not asking for a dissertation, just something slightly less rudely dismissive and slightly more informative. Well, maybe a lot less rudely dismissive, and a little more informative.
posted by Edgewise at 1:12 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


showbiz_liz: “This is like saying ‘well, I don't have an accent!’”

Yeah, but typically in academia people actually offer reasons for assertions, rather than just making assertions without saying what they mean or why.
posted by koeselitz at 1:13 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Edgewise: “Well, maybe a lot less rudely dismissive, and a little more informative.”

You were dismissive, then I was dismissive. I guess I figured that was fair.

Specifically, philosophy has never been pecularily "the practice of questioning the nature of the universe based on one's internal experiences." Insofar as it does this, so does science. There is no difference. You reach back through philosophy and this is the same – from Plato to Aristotle to St Thomas Aquinas on down, philosophy has always explicitly proceeded on the basis of observed phenomenon and physical experience.

The trouble is that it's rather hard to draw a distinction between "science" and "philosophy." It appears that you only want to draw the distinction in order to dismiss several millennia of thinkers. I can only say: that's a mistake, and one you'll have to work harder to make honestly.
posted by koeselitz at 1:17 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


so there are a bunch of people of at least that same level of intellectual contribution who we still study - Gassendi, Arnauld, others

Yes, but Gassendi would still be studied even if he'd never written to Descartes. Arnauld is a major figure in theological history. They both produced their own independent works. And criticisms of Descartes's dualism were not hard to find; I am unpersuaded that if one of the male correspondents had voiced Elisabeth's criticisms it would now be known as "Male-Surname's Objection"--there would simply be too many people to put into that slot. The C17th is hardly lacking for materialists who would ask Descartes "o.k., so how does the spirit move the body if they're not of the same substance"?
posted by yoink at 1:19 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Maybe this is beanplating but the implication that Foucault's work is more influential than Davis' just because one is a white dude and the other a black woman is just lazy.

I'm not sure this follows. The presumption of meritocracy in Philosophy is that these individuals "just happen" to be white men who became hugely influential, and the demographic details are just a sideline. I personally think the claim that white men "just happen" to be more influential, while ignoring that they are more influential with other white men, while ignoring how works created by women or racial minorities were sidelined as specific to their demographics rather than generalizable, while ignoring how male and white is still considered default in a lot of places even when factually it makes no sense, is the lazy response.

It's the presumption that the status quo is equitable as a baseline, thus all evidence points to white men just happening to be more influential. Challenging that presumption is a lot more difficult than simply accepting it and then explaining that a woman of color can't be as influential because "Philosophy doesn't have geniuses like that anymore".

---------

I was reading Nietzsche a while ago, as one does*, bobbing along quite happily until he started talking about how women were too stupid to understand his stuff. Unfortunately, I lacked a time machine; at least Socrates just completely ignored us - Nietzche was outright rude. I'm still happiest with Machiavelli, though he and I - like Socrates and I - disagree on a number of important points.


*I didn't take much philosophy in school, but I read some primary sources afterwards - starting with Socrates - which lead to the memorable event of me storming down the stairs to rant at my roommate, who had his degree in philosophy, about Socrates' Lysis (ok Plato's Lysis but WHATEVER) and how it was a series of Socrates saying idiotic things which didn't follow on basic logic (something he had previously managed despite our violent disagreement on facts), while everyone around him said, "Oh Socrates, you're so smart, won't you have sex with me???" Said roommate asked if I'd considered Socrates might have been sarcastic, poking fun at his sycophants. Best. Explanation. Ever.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:20 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Er – I hate to have to point this out, but – it's she, actually.

Noted, thanks, now why did that need pointing out?

Anyways, "the point" I was referring to was that there's definitely room for more than the Western philosophical tradition even at the intro level. I was in university around 10 years back and no, we didn't get much (or anything) in the way of Islamic or Latin or African philosophy (outside Augustine). It is a sloppy polemic to be sure, but I take the overall point.

But Salami claims that philosophy as it exists is in its content particularly male, white, and European.

No she doesn't. She says how it is dealt with by British Universities is, because it focuses almot exclusively on the work of white, male, and European philosophers.
posted by Hoopo at 1:25 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm curious whether there are any philosophy professors or the like here who can tell us with some confidence about a few philosophers that would have been core curriculum if they'd been white.

Confucius. Mencius. Xunzi. Zhuangzi. Mozi.LAOZI! It's not as though the Daodejing is obscure.

There's a big advantage to teaching philosophers who are not part of the same conversation: different concerns get emphasized. The Mencius-Xunzi dispute over the relationship between human nature and moral education has no parallel in classical philosophy.

And yes, if it needs to be said, it was philosophy. Mozi's proof all by himself; a Peter Singer style utilitarian thousands of years early. Noteworthy in part because his students became pacifist commandos; war tends to produce far more pain than pleasure, so they would try to prevent war by traveling to weak countries offering training in defensive warfare.

Students may have heard of Sun Tsu's the Art of War. They almost certainly have not heard of Xunzi's rebuttal.

In political philosophy, Warring States China has more to contribute than anywhere else in the ancient world. Our unwillingness and inability to teach it is shameful.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:26 PM on March 26, 2015 [17 favorites]


Well, don't we first have to determine what philosophy is before we start criticizing how it's taught and who's in the canon? The Philosophy Bites folks asked a bunch of (Western) philosophers that question, and no one could really agree on what philosophy is.
posted by stargell at 1:27 PM on March 26, 2015


yoink, I think it's hard to evaluate these counterfactuals (I wouldn't know Gassendi if he hadn't written to Descartes, for example, because that's not where my studies ran to) and weigh the proper treatment of Elisabeth alongside the historical barriers there were to her having a philosophical career, to her contributions being taken seriously enough to publish etc - if present day syllabi have us teaching her in a Descartes class alongside her intellectual peers who made objections of similar importance, I don't think that "sexist" is an illuminating way to describe that.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:27 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


There's usually very little time spent on any medieval philosophy, you just cheat code ahead to Descartes. But that depends on the department I suppose.
posted by thelonius at 1:31 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Historically, women and people not of the dominant power group have not been granted leisure time or encouraged to write and spend their time thinking through these important problems. We can't pretend away that history.

Which calls into question the relevancy of philosophy. If a given discipline is a product of a limited, privileged minority, then it can't really make claims to universality, can it?

Philosophers like to claim that philosophy is still relevant to the modern world, yet at the same time says that the vast majority of people are irrelevant to it. If there's no room for expansion and diversity, if the discipline has been set in stone by the great white men of the past, does it really need to be its own discipline?
posted by happyroach at 1:32 PM on March 26, 2015


You were dismissive, then I was dismissive. I guess I figured that was fair.

You figured wrong. Here's the difference: I was not trying to be rude to you, nor was I. If you're going to make that kind of mistake, you're going to have to work harder to make it honestly.

It appears that you only want to draw the distinction in order to dismiss several millennia of thinkers. I can only say: that's a mistake, and one you'll have to work harder to make honestly.

You're also misunderstanding what I'm trying to say. I'm not even remotely trying to "dismiss" any thinkers. I'm trying to classify them differently (as intellectual history).

Also, I'm obviously saying that my understanding of the difference between philosophy and science is that it was once far less distinct than it is now. My point is that philosophy does not serve that kind of role today. Do you truly disagree? What I said about "empirical evidence" may have been off-base, but clearly philosophy and science are very different disciplines in contemporary times. This should not be considered controversial or dismissive.

If the participation of someone lacking a graduate degree in philosophy is so troubling, just let me know and I'll keep my half-informed and awkwardly-worded opinions to myself. Of course, that robs you of any chance to either educate or insult me (your choice).
posted by Edgewise at 1:53 PM on March 26, 2015


Augfh, why does this thread have to exist directly after finals? I really ought to be grading my Phil101 essays...

Anyhow, as someone who is trying to put together a woman-centered philosophy curriculum that still meets department standards, I understand the frustration here. The problem is triply-horned though: in the western tradition, the dominant paradigm tended to support itself--so, Descartes responded to Plato and not the Muslim scholars who had been busily poking away at the texts while the Christian world was doing the Medieval thing...and then everyone responded to Descartes, because he was rich and probably an assassin spy (haha) and white, and notable in that way that rich, white men who essentially created geometry are.
So there's a thread that tells a clear story, which leads us to the second horn: not only did most of us teaching philosophy in the trenches learn the story of the history of philosophy in this way, and no others, but we recognize the pressure from above to teach this story in order to "prepare" our students for other institutional racist, sexist curriculae. So the story, as presented, keeps supporting itself and we all keep responding to that story, rather than uncovering hidden or fragmented stories...the third horn. The best way to be outside of the white dude box in the field is to respond to white dudes, which not only perpetuates the white dude thing, but ignores the rich possibilities of cultural philosophical analysis and histories. I know what I'm saying, I wrote a thesis on Kant that was actually supposed to be about Debeauvoir and Irigaray. If you aren't really fitting in with what a philosopher is supposed to look like, and you aren\t writing about the philosophers who do look right, someone will eventually ask you to take your funding requests to Sociology or Woman's Studies (if you aren't persuasive enough, which hello the underclass in Western society is socialized to be polite, retreating and obedient).

I like the story that Western philosophy tells, by the way. I push to make my classes more diverse, but really. When you have a random dude responding to Descartes or a random lady, it's all just dead people to the students who are responding to a dead white dude. If you're Korsgaard responding to Kant or Fichte, you\re still responding to Immanuel Fucking Kant...

I need to grade things, and now I'm all cranky :(
posted by zinful at 1:55 PM on March 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


I personally think the claim that white men "just happen" to be more influential, while ignoring that they are more influential with other white men, while ignoring how works created by women or racial minorities were sidelined as specific to their demographics rather than generalizable, while ignoring how male and white is still considered default in a lot of places even when factually it makes no sense, is the lazy response.

Yeah, I have no problem with that as a general critique. There is no doubt that there are those who succeeded in the philosophy profession without much merit, because of their race and gender, and those who had great merits but failed because they diverged from the normal image of what a philosopher should look and sound like. And Foucault certainly has his critics. But his status as one of maybe the top 5 most cited figures in the humanities period, across all manner of disciplines from Criminology to English, is due both to a combination of his inestimable merit (he's just incredible to read; maybe wrong, and always a little squirrelly about both the details and the broad strokes, but brilliant. He's not on a level with the rest of us) and a certain sociological situation in postwar French intellectual culture which was dying for figures whose thought would help them overcome the burden of history, here intellectually represented by phenomenological Hegelians like Sartre and Beauvoir. The past was too terrible, and the French seemed to be just chomping at the bit to reject Hegel and along comes Foucault who gives them what seems like a framework to conceive of History along non-Hegelian lines (really, Nietzschean lines, Foucault also, along with Deleuze, helped edit the first real critical edition of Nietzsche's works in French). Foucault quenched their thirst and did so with gusto. It helped that he was white and male and a product of the French intellectual establishment, and that he aligned himself correctly during the upheavals of May '68 (although he was already quite a sensation by then), but those were not sufficient to cause him to be such a giant. Neither was his genius. Neither were the times he wrote in. They all had to come together.

Davis is a good thinker but she's fundamental a Marxist theorizer, and an intellectual descendant of the Frankfurt School. That, even more than her race and gender, explains her lack of influence in contemporary American philosophy. I'd say she's about as equally influential as most other intellectual children of the Frankfurt School except Habermas, which is to say: not that influential. And Habermas is basically dead, and nobody is really picking up the torch in the same way. (Axel Honneth will never be Adorno or Habermas, and he's probably got the same degree of influence as Davis in Continental social-political philosophy circles.) (The real question is why everybody is so damn gaga over Zizek!).
posted by dis_integration at 1:55 PM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


[koeselitz and Edgewise, the conversation will be better if you can each just choose to walk it back a little and let the personal stuff rest. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:57 PM on March 26, 2015


Regardless, particularly the big four – al-Farabi, Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and Averroes – ought to be studied more; and of these, especially al-Farabi, who is in my view the greatest and most important philosopher of the medieval period.

(Bit of a de-rail, but can you recommend an affordable translation of Averroes' commentaries? Just an abridgment or "best of" would be fine, particularly if it came with a lucid introduction and footnotes. I wouldn't mind some primary text recommendations for al-Farabi, either.)
posted by Iridic at 1:58 PM on March 26, 2015


Also, re: philosophy being relevant still. It so absolutely is, oh my god but nobody believes us. The tradition of rigorous discussion of non empirical concepts like free will, propositional knowledge, even belief structures relative to the meaning of non-empirical propositions and my personal favorite, ethics...those conversations aren't going to be happening if philosophy explodes into the departmental diaspora. It's a legitimate field for the categories it examines and analyzes, if maybe not so much for the applied historical foci.

Now, if one is, as many are in this enlightened age, an empirical monist, than perhaps these things are not important to you. The facts of the matter might not be, but teaching people to examine, address and pursue these types of concepts is still valuable to their functioning as rational, critical agents in an often frankly irrational and uncritical culture.
posted by zinful at 2:05 PM on March 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


"Yes, but Gassendi would still be studied even if he'd never written to Descartes. Arnauld is a major figure in theological history. They both produced their own independent works. And criticisms of Descartes's dualism were not hard to find; I am unpersuaded that if one of the male correspondents had voiced Elisabeth's criticisms it would now be known as "Male-Surname's Objection""

So, I can give you an exact example of this phenomenon from Locke's works. Two such examples, even.

The Molyneux Problem and Bishop Stillingfleet's objection to Locke's conception of substance (which doesn't have the catchy name, but is an example of a one-problem wonder). Neither men are studied in philosophy (or any other humanities field, as far as I know) for anything other than their single problem/objection to Locke (both, as with Princess Elizabeth, delivered via correspondence). Note that the SEP doesn't even give the men their own entries.
posted by oddman at 2:12 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Edgewise: “If the participation of someone lacking a graduate degree in philosophy is so troubling, just let me know and I'll keep my half-informed and awkwardly-worded opinions to myself. Of course, that robs you of any chance to either educate or insult me (your choice).”

For the record: I don't have a graduate degree, or even an undergraduate degree, in philosophy. So I guess – maybe that's a good reason not to take my silly comments here too seriously.
posted by koeselitz at 2:20 PM on March 26, 2015


This is just a typical gripe about the existence of a "canon" of work in philosophy.

I'm studying philosophy at the moment and there is no way I would want to take a course on Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yaekob or any of the dead ends of philosophy that the article mentions. There is a canon, if you want to do "philosophy" today you need to know as much of it as possible rather than spending time on random dead ends that had no significant influence on the rest of the canon.

I did do a course on Chinese Philosophy in undergrad - It was ok... but ended up having no real significance in any other subjects. Unlike say Kant's Critique of Pure Reason... or Descartes meditations..
posted by mary8nne at 2:20 PM on March 26, 2015


There is a canon, if you want to do "philosophy" today you need to know as much of it as possible rather than spending time on random dead ends that had no significant influence on the rest of the canon.

But . . . that's the whole point of the article? That the canon was established through a limited selection process.
posted by Think_Long at 2:23 PM on March 26, 2015


Neither men are studied in philosophy (or any other humanities field, as far as I know) for anything other than their single problem/objection to Locke

That would seem evidence for my side of the argument, however. I'm not saying that people studying Descartes shouldn't study his correspondence with Elisabeth of Bohemia, I'm saying that trying to claim her as a significant figure in the history of philosophy on the basis of that correspondence is forced. That no one tries to do thii with Stillingfleet or Molyneux (and Stillingfleet, after all, actually engaged in a published debate with Locke) seems to confirm my point that if Elisabeth had been Philip of Bohemia no one would try to make the same kinds of claims.

Molyneux strikes me as a good analogue for Elizabeth: he was a well-read, intelligent man who posed thoughtful questions to Locke which spurred Locke on to offer deeply-considered and influential responses. I'm glad Molyneux existed, but he's clearly not a significant philosopher just because he had intelligent and fruitful conversations with one.
posted by yoink at 2:25 PM on March 26, 2015


George Eliot serves as a fine exemplar of a woman engaged with philosophy. Here is a very good essay on the subject. The writer of the essay has other pertinent work.
posted by No Robots at 2:35 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Locke is actually an interesting example, since he is subject to a serious objection not from other thinkers or writers but from his own life and writings: though he espoused liberty, and claimed to be against slavery, he was instrumental in establishing slavery in the Americas, and the "Constitution of Carolina," which he helped to draft, is quite firm in supporting slavery as an institution.

Iridic: “(Bit of a de-rail, but can you recommend an affordable translation of Averroes' commentaries? Just an abridgment or ‘best of’ would be fine, particularly if it came with a lucid introduction and footnotes. I wouldn't mind some primary text recommendations for al-Farabi, either.)”

Charles Butterworth has made a number of good translations of Averroes' middle commentaries on Aristotle: the De Interpretatione, the Categories, the Rhetoric, and the Poetics. As far as a one-volume "taste" of these is concerned, he also translated the short commentaries on the Topics, the Rhetoric, and the Poetics.

However, the central text in Averroes' corpus is generally seen (I believer rightly) to be his trilogy: the Epistle Dedicatory, the Decisive Treatise, and the Exposition of Religious Arguments (and in particular the Decisive Treatise.) The first two of these are available in a good translation by Butterworth and a fine bilingual edition in BYU's beautiful Islamic Translation Series. The last is in "Faith and Reason in Islam" [PDF excerpt] translated by Ibrahim Najjar.

As far as al-Farabi is concerned, Muhsin Mahdi has two books of good translations to start with – "Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle," which I regard as the founding work of Islamic philosophy, is the better of the two, although "Political Writings" has some very fine excerpts from other works.
posted by koeselitz at 2:47 PM on March 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Thanks!
posted by Iridic at 2:54 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Molyneux strikes me as a good analogue for Elizabeth: he was a well-read, intelligent man who posed thoughtful questions to Locke which spurred Locke on to offer deeply-considered and influential responses. I'm glad Molyneux existed, but he's clearly not a significant philosopher just because he had intelligent and fruitful conversations with one.

…And yet he is a philosopher who literally has a "[Surname's] Objection" accepted as part of the philosophical canon: Molyneux's Problem (which I learned, many years ago, as Molyneux's Conjecture).
posted by migrantology at 3:01 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think there are definitely valuable points made by the piece, but setting aside that argument, this article is just riddled with so many basic factual errors I'm not sure this author has any background in philosophy at all. Some of these have been noted up thread, but to summarize:

1. "massacres of some of our earliest thinkers such as the Aztec": The peoples we call the Aztecs didn't arise until around the 13th century, and their empire wasn't established until the 15th century. Aztec and Mesoamerican ideas are very interesting and certainly worthy of discussion, but in no way could they be called some of our earliest thinkers.

2. Zera Yaekob's Hatata, as noted above, was written 17 years after Descartes died. Descartes wrote his Discours de la méthode in 1637.

3. Also noted above, Nietzsche's “God is dead” line is not about attacking organized religion in the way she's implying.

4. Maybe it's a British thing to teach the Iliad as philosophy, but I've certainly never seen or heard of any place in the US that does this.

I don't know, I respect her passion, but it seems like she didn't bother to do even the most fundamental research on what she's writing. She's getting all sorts of the most basic things like dates and what people said, which even a casual glance at Wikipedia would tell her, wrong.

I feel like she just tossed a bunch of people and concepts she had vaguely heard of into the mix. Seriously, these aren't highly obscure, nuanced, debated points, she just had to look up when a book was written.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:16 PM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


Why do university Philosophy departments rarely produce any philosophers?
posted by rankfreudlite at 3:44 PM on March 26, 2015


I've taken low level philosophy courses that cover the basics (going from the classical period, to enlightenment philosophers, modernists, and a few contemporary post-structuralists), although my memory of them isn't great.

One of the most interesting classes I took for my Masters program was called Information Ethics, which deliberately took on world-wide historical perspectives (like Daoism, Utilitarianism, Objectivism, Ubuntu, Feminist perspectives, etc.). Having us compare ethical behavior within different situations from across perspectives and learning the historical context for each has ended up being really useful even though I don't consider myself an ethicist. It's helped me to understand both mainstream political debates, as well as giving me an entry point to some of the denser theory-based works I've had to read.

I realize that ethics is a different discipline from philosophy (perhaps even a sub-discipline), but I can imagine that a similar approach would be really useful. Throw it in as a series of core classes, in addition to the western canon stuff that already exists. You could potentially even give it an appealing name in the course catalog, and have a skilled undergrad teacher helm the class - I would think the best case scenario would be to attract new people to your program as either majors or minors, and drive up attendance numbers, which I've seen from other articles linked here have been descending throughout most of this decade.
posted by codacorolla at 3:59 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Why do university Philosophy departments rarely produce any philosophers?

The idea of professionalized philosophy culture is fairly new. I think it came about in German Universities, which in many ways became an archetype for American Universities.

Mostly it produces scholars, not original thinkers, sure. But Kant, Hegel, Russell, Heidegger and Wittgenstein all had University posts, although for greater or lesser parts of their adult lives. And there is a lot of diversity and originality in contemporary philosophy, I think. But it is esoteric, and the professional culture, in America at least, discourages grandiose ambitions to write Great Philosophy now. In Europe, you will still see the swing for the fences, though, with thinkers like Badiou, who I do not know much about, but I think he has published a book that's like a new Theory Of Being, very ambitious and metaphysical.

Probably what many students want from the subject is not what they get, at universities. They want to read and discuss stuff that philosophers would dismiss as "wisdom literature" (at best), and to talk about values. They get an austere, (but pious about Rationality), academic treatment of a line of thought from Plato through Kant and maybe Hegel. There the road forks and you have disagreements about who is even a philosopher, or what the subject is even supposed to do.
posted by thelonius at 4:03 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Peter Adamson's 'History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps)' podcast is a pretty great attempt to provide a pithy, accessible but scholarly history of philosophy that isn't limited to the major canonical figures. More than two hundred episodes in, he's only just getting to the early medieval period, and there have been dozens of episodes on philosophy in the Islamic world - an area Adamson is clearly particularly enthused by and knowledgable about.

I couldn't remember how/whether he was planning to incorporate Eastern philosophy into the series, and checking the website was pleased to discover he's beginning a strand on Indian philosophy later this year, with the intention to include Chinese philosophy further down the line. His blog has some interesting thoughts on the importance of taking "minor" figures seriously, and he's a very witty and lucid writer/presenter, so the podcasts are good fun.

(Given that my philosophy undergrad course did indeed jump from Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment, I had plenty of gaps to be filled. As it were.)
posted by MazeNoCentre at 4:18 PM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


There's a weird sort of "Jeopardy answer" crib sheet conceptualization of philosophy throughout this:

Father of modern philosophy...who is Descartes? Nietzche --> "God is Dead" guy, Foucault --> influential thinker on prisons (but should be Angela Davis!) Aztecs --> who are our Earliest Thinkers?

The article doesn't really give an impression of wanting any particular conversations or debates to be happening, so much as that a certain stable of trivia answers have a different profile.
posted by batfish at 4:21 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Philosophy" is a kind of weird case because it seems to both indicate a particular kind of cultural practice (albeit one that's certainly more diverse than you'd gather from most university curricula), and something much more diffuse and general, the sort of thing at play when someone talks about having "a philosophy".

This seems to summarize the entire issue pretty well. Studying Philosophy is like studying Peru or Iceland. It's a particular conversation that's been happening over the past several hundred years, mostly in Europe and America. It's a big, rich thing that's worth studying.

On the other hand, the love of wisdom is a love that has been pursued in all times and places in a huge number of ways, most of which are ignored by Philosophy because they have a form and context that's hard to make compatible with the particular conversation that is Philosophy. The various ways people have pursued the love of wisdom are also a big, rich thing that's worth studying, but it's a different thing, and expecting the study of Philosophy to be that thing is like expecting a course on Icelandic history to include more information about Peru.

The real problem is the extent to which Philosophy has claimed to comprehensively embody the love of wisdom. This is a problem (1) because it's false; (2) because a lot of students who want to study the love of wisdom get mislead into thinking they want to study Philosophy when they actually want something else; and (3) because universities have often funded the study of Philosophy to the exclusion of funding the study of the love of wisdom, often for reasons that would be served as well or better by funding the study of the love of wisdom.

But I don't think the solution to that problem involves either destroying Philosophy or trying to squish the love of wisdom into a box that would fit into a Philosophy class.
posted by straight at 4:38 PM on March 26, 2015 [13 favorites]


straight, I think that's a good way to illuminate a dichotomy that often confuses discussions about philosophy, on Metafilter and elsewhere, including in the article that is the subject of the FPP.

But I can't see either camp relaxing their grip on the term 'philosophy' itself. There's a fundamental war about the referent of the term.
posted by Kwine at 4:58 PM on March 26, 2015


I'd be very happy for all PHI101 classes to start with an overview of why they're studying classical (ie Mediterranean) philosophy, followed by English / European / American philosophy, and maybe with some more obvious bits of Asian philosophy thrown in:

- because philosophy is rarely taught outside universities

- because universities are a product of established urban civilisations with an affluent leisure class that have a lot of free time and money to think, and to talk, write and teach about thinking

- because the philosophy likely to be taught by these institutions is likely to be stuff interesting and relevant to current members of the affluent leisure class of urban civilisations

- chances are good this philosophy was developed by past members of affluent urban leisure classes

- there are sound geographical reasons (a la Diamond) why perfectly intelligent people haven't built the kinds of urban civilisations that give rise to affluent leisure classes who like universities

- even if they had 'done philosophy', there's a good chance it was burned to the ground by roaming members of affluent urban leisure classes from more northerly climes

- even if it wasn't burned, it isn't likely to be interesting to people who live in affluent urban societies who have a lot of free time

- if somebody does find it interesting, those people can do anthropology or archaeology, which is where affluent urban civilisations put people who aren't like them

- even if you're really determined to dig, almost universal patriarchy across human civilisations means you've got three-fifths of fuck all chance of hearing about philosophy done by women, because we've been very good as a species at making them have children and carry water

- as lovely as it would be, we can't go back in time and promote the development of a flourishing philosophy built on the world views of impoverished women in sub-Saharan Africa that would be avidly sought out by upper-middle class teenagers in Nottingham as an awesome way to spend their time

- and so we'll start with Plato, a bloke with enough free time on his hands to start a university in a city.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:31 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't think people take Medieval philosophy seriously enough, and the greatest Arabic philosophers are Medieval. But I don't think they're ignored because they're Islamic. They're ignored because they're between Aristotle and Descartes.
posted by persona au gratin at 6:33 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


yoink@1:19 is right. Though I really do like E's phrasing of the problem.
posted by persona au gratin at 6:39 PM on March 26, 2015


They're ignored because they're between Aristotle and Descartes.

You have to put Descartes before the Andalusian.

enjoy the veal
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:57 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


I guess looking at it from another perspective, you have a lot of the underrepresented philosophers that the article talks about. The author knows about them from research done by other philosophers, right? Who are those academics, and what's the structure of their department that enables research into otherwise marginalized perspectives in the field? I would imagine that if there are departments that are doing stuff along the lines of what's recommended in the article, then those would be the places to look.
posted by codacorolla at 8:05 PM on March 26, 2015


Peter Adamson's 'History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps)' podcast

I was going to link to this also, but held off because of needing to do other things and thinking it might be big enough to warrant its own separate post (if there isn't one already). I'm not a podcast person at all (I haven't listened to more than two episodes of any other, unless Nightvale counts), but I would still highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in philosophy and/or history, and regard it as an amazing resource. It is a treasure.
posted by byanyothername at 9:43 PM on March 26, 2015


The real problem is the extent to which Philosophy has claimed to comprehensively embody the love of wisdom.

To be fair, though, the word philosophy is greek and was coined by Socrates, so teaching Philosophy as the Western, footnotes-to-Plato tradition isn't completely nuts. It's kind of like having a class in "Buddhism" or "Confucianism" - the history of thought based around and following a particular great thinker.

Even so there are plenty of women and people of color who could be included, of course - sometimes they are, but the averages aren't good.
posted by mdn at 9:45 PM on March 26, 2015


But I don't think they're ignored because they're Islamic. They're ignored because they're between Aristotle and Descartes.

I think they were ignored for a while because Aristotle was on a low swing for a while (Bertrand Russell thought he was crap, and everyone knew he was a misogynist...) but now that he's back on the upswing, the arabic commentators are too...
posted by mdn at 9:50 PM on March 26, 2015


straight: “The real problem is the extent to which Philosophy has claimed to comprehensively embody the love of wisdom. This is a problem (1) because it's false...”

I feel like that's a rather difficult proposition to verify. Specifically, it should be noted that philosophy, classically understood, is not so much the love of wisdom as a way of life which comprehensively embodies the love of wisdom. And, furthermore, it should be noted that this "classical understanding" was something which was apparently shared in common by a steady stream of students stretching from Plato to Averroes and a bit beyond there. Outside that tradition, "philosophy" meant something else; but this particular tradition made decisive claims about the political structure of cities and the place of those who seek the truth about the world within them. You can say "well, but they didn't understand the variations of the love of wisdom," but "love of wisdom" isn't some grandly variegated cultural thing, it's specifically the pursuit of the truth, and as such they were able to make those decisive claims about its pursuit. It was specific and universal enough for intelligent enemies of philosophy, the greatest of whom was al-Ghazali, to understand what was meant by it, to the point where even those enemies were able to communicate its import and meaning relatively well.

This isn't to say that the classical philosophers were necessarily correct; but across a millennium and a half, they shared a common understanding, writing about it and discussing it and constantly repositioning according to the times this way of life probably most cogently elucidated in the works of al-Farabi, who himself claimed a direct lineage from the teacher of Plato.

Outside of this classical tradition, philosophy has meant rather different things; "love of wisdom" is still implied, but it has been looser and more vague, and the specific and distinct way of life to which the term referred for a millennium and a half has no longer been what was looked to when it was used.

It's easy to believe that this old tradition is relatively useless, and to suggest (as you have) that its pretension to universality is illusory. I will point out in response that in order to say this you've got to make a claim to higher universality, and making such a claim is difficult; I'll also say that many of the people in this tradition accepted that people would sometimes think this. Al-Farabi explicitly anticipated it, suggesting that, while he believed philosophy (the way of life he described) is utterly necessary for society, it would sometimes die out, and that it would be necessary to revive it.

He might have been completely wrong about this. Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Porphyry, al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and the rest might have been utterly wrong about the specificity and universality of the life pursuit they attempted to describe. But saying that they were wrong and proving them wrong are two different things; and the latter is much more difficult than the former.
posted by koeselitz at 10:54 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think Plato and Aristotle were concerned with questions of the form, "what is x?", where 'x' included things like virtue, justice, the good life, knowledge, human persons, etc. Today philosophers are still concerned with all of these. And much more! I think to claim that philosophy is the love of wisdom because of the origin of the word is to miss what the ancients thought they were doing when they did philosophy.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:17 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


koeselitz, you're taking my shorthand too literally. I just mean that the philosophical tradition represented by most philosophy courses in most European and American universities is a particular conversation that exists in a particular cultural and historical context. It is universal in its aspirations but not universal in the sense of including, representing, and considering every human approach to grappling with philosophical concerns.

And that seems, in principle, okay. That particular tradition has produced a lot that is valuable and worth both study and participation. But I don't think we can just assume that every worthwhile approach to philosophical concerns can be productively included in or engaged with by that tradition. I think we have to recognize that many people who are interested in philosophical concerns don't find that tradition useful or relevant, and that Philosophy as a discipline has not made a widely-compelling case for it's universal relevance (even among Philosophers trained in that tradition) in the sense that, say, Chemistry has.
posted by straight at 11:39 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


I will point out in response that in order to say this you've got to make a claim to higher universality, and making such a claim is difficult;

Are you saying that the experience and beliefs of dead white men is what's truly universal?

Honestly, it's up to you to explain how the thoughts and writings of a group of limited ethnicity and a single gender is truly universal.
posted by happyroach at 12:22 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Doing comparative philosophy well can be very difficult because of the vast range of texts and their intellectual and historical contexts it requires its practioners to cover. Oversimplifications, excessively stark contrasts, and illicit assimilations count as the most frequent sins. One benefit of comparative philosophy lies in the way that it forces reflection on the most deeply entrenched and otherwise unquestioned agendas and assumptions of one's own tradition. Another benefit at which its practioners often aim is that the traditions actually interact and enrich one another. Demands for rigor and depth of scholarship obviously rank as some of the most important standards applying to philosophy inquiry. The task of meeting these standards becomes more manageable as the field of inquiry narrows. Such a result can be legitimate but sometimes myopic and impoverishing."
Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and Western

Totally agree with each sentence of this paragraph.
posted by polymodus at 1:30 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


You know, there are a fair number of scholars in religious studies who don't think it's possible to generalize the term "religion" beyond the Western tradition within which it arose. I wonder if the same could be said for philosophy? Is it useful to try to derive something called "philosophy" as a universal project across all these different cultures? Or is that always going to be distorting?
posted by AdamCSnider at 2:47 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


MIght as well pitch out math too: that's also mostly from dead white men
posted by thelonius at 3:34 AM on March 27, 2015


thelonius: MIght as well pitch out math too: that's also mostly from dead white men

Are you some kind of purist who refuses to use numerals or the concept of zero? Mathematics' long history passes through pretty much every civilization on the planet and the discipline is indelibly marked by countless mathematicians who were neither white nor male.
posted by Kattullus at 4:05 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


OK, we can keep zero.
posted by thelonius at 5:07 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Not everything dead white guys did is worthless, and not everything dead white guys did is important. Not everything dead white guys made is corrupted by the taint of their maleness and whiteness. Yes, some things dead white guys made are tainted by those individuals' desire to assert dominance and control over the world. But to simplify things down to the point where there's a tacit assumption that anything white guys ever touched or conceived carries some fundamental flaw rooted in white maleness is just as ugly and misguided as any other form of essentialism. Yes, patriarchy is a real thing; no it's not an inevitable expression of essential "maleness" or "whiteness."

But yes, academic philosophy (IMO) seems to be too dominated by European philosophy, and in general, has just become too stilted and narrow in its focus to matter much to anyone outside of academia. It seems to be less about "love of wisdom" and more about building clever arguments around very minor points.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:15 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


To be fair, the article (for any other faults) isn't arguing that philosophy done by white men is inherently bad, but rather that the current scope of philosophy courses is limited to a single dominant and non-representative perspective.
posted by codacorolla at 7:33 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Why do university Philosophy departments rarely produce any philosophers?

This seems nonsensical are there any significant philosophers today that did not study within the university system? Or is your point that say the École Normale Supérieure, which has been the key training ground for pretty much all significant french philosophy of the last 100+ years is technically not part of the "university system"

Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger all learnt philsoophy within the university system and taught in universities for periods of time. Sartre is one of the few 20th C philosophers that didn't teach (because he made good money as a novelist as well).



To be fair, the article (for any other faults) isn't arguing that philosophy done by white men is inherently bad, but rather that the current scope of philosophy courses is limited to a single dominant and non-representative perspective.

I don't hear people talking about how Physics or Chemistry are dominated by white european notions of physics and chemistry. Or even Mathematics is pretty much exclusively White male Europeans. except for that Indian Number theorist, K. G. Ramanathan.
posted by mary8nne at 7:42 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


happyroach: “Are you saying that the experience and beliefs of dead white men is what's truly universal?”

Nope. It's difficult for me to understand how you read my comment that way. None of the people I listed were "white," and many of the people I was talking about weren't men; and I made no claims on my own behalf for anybody's universality.

codacorolla: “To be fair, the article (for any other faults) isn't arguing that philosophy done by white men is inherently bad, but rather that the current scope of philosophy courses is limited to a single dominant and non-representative perspective.”

It's hard to see the difference. "It's not inherently bad, it just lacks perspective" is a fair criticism of a novel or a work of art, but it makes very little sense as a criticism of philosophy, because if philosophy lacks perspective, then it is inherently bad.
posted by koeselitz at 8:14 AM on March 27, 2015


I guess not coming from philosophy makes that distinction seem absurd for something that's situated in culture and time, but I also recognize that my understanding of the field is limited.
posted by codacorolla at 8:34 AM on March 27, 2015


To be fair, the article (for any other faults) isn't arguing that philosophy done by white men is inherently bad, but rather that the current scope of philosophy courses is limited to a single dominant and non-representative perspective.

Oh definitely, and I think I sort of agree, which is what I was trying to address in the latter part of the comment. The first part was more a sort of general response to some previous comments.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:35 AM on March 27, 2015


You know, there are a fair number of scholars in religious studies who don't think it's possible to generalize the term "religion" beyond the Western tradition within which it arose.

Projecting is unfortunately common, but I think things like the Dharmic traditions fit comfortably enough in a concept of "religion," as long as you have a fair grasp on history and thought in Western/Abrahamic traditions. The relative flourishing of mysticism in Dharmic religions versus the suppression of same in much of Abrahamic religions' histories is something that forces us to widen our conception of "religion" somewhat, but I think that's a good thing. Things like folk religion and popular mythology kind of force us to accept that there are different kinds of "religions," but again I don't see that as a bad thing at all. No actual thing is ever going to fit into an ideal category perfectly.

Philosophy is pretty similar here. There are certain definitions of "philosophy" that better describe the Western tradition, but even then you have a lot of weird gaps in the narrative where, say, Islamic philosophy--which directly follows in the Western tradition by preserving it, commenting on it and expanding it--gets totally glossed over or handwaved away. But you also have plenty of people--Shankara, Laozi, Sun Tzu, and many less well known examples--who fit pretty snugly in the basic definition of "philosophy" without having to stretch it at all, but philosophy courses treat these as esoteric, flaky sources that belong in a "New Age," quasi-spiritual bin if they're acknowledged at all.

Academically, I guess, religious studies tend to be a little more flexible--there are arguments to be made for not everything we call a "religion" necessarily fitting appropriately within that category, but a lot of the stumbling blocks are that people ascribe too-specific qualities to "religion" (like monotheism; plenty of religions fall outside of that, and in the Dharmic traditions it gets really complicated). An over-emphasis on analytic thought and retelling a particular narrative about the history of Western philosophy that's not even entirely true results in philosophy getting stuck on the same block of thinkers and traditions; even leaving aside the cultural myopia, it's a recipe for staleness and probably one of the big reasons most students/people consider philosophy worthless now. The article isn't a great call to arms for that kind of diversification, but it's very much needed and building more engaging (and accurate!) 101+ curricula are a good place to start.

Anyway, this thread has been fun to read; I'm surprised it took off the way it did!
posted by byanyothername at 9:45 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's worth noting to that the particular range of conversation involved in "philosophy" at a modern Western university is incredibly narrow by comparison to what Islamic, medieval Christian, or Confucian/Daoist philosophers in other times and cultures would have referred to as philosophy. I'm not just talking about the way the physical sciences have been split off - a lot of what the latter were discussing would be more likely to be classified under political science, ethics, psychology, sociology, law or theology than philosophy (analytical or continental) which tend to have very specific interests.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:36 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


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