White Male Homogeneity, Teaching, and the Profession

Eugene Sun Park comments on the internal make-up of philosophy departments here. Yes, everything he says is largely true, and notice he is generalizing more about Anglophone Analytic departments. Still, he is inclusive of the possibility of many different departments. Let’s revisit some of the accurate things Sun Park claims. Here’s a hammer of a beginning.

The philosophical canon, especially in so-called “analytic” departments, consists almost exclusively of dead, white men. The majority of living philosophers—i.e., professors, graduate students, and undergraduate majors—are also white men. And the topics deemed important by the discipline almost always ignore race, ethnicity, and gender.

This quote speaks for itself. I happen to be one of those white males, but I also think experience is a central issue. All philosophy should speak to the concrete experience of life. However, this metaphilosophical commitment falls out of both Continental and pragmatic concerns, and what’s implicit in the above quote is a gleaned insight Sun Park almost had. The very metaphilosophical assumptions we make about the possibility of philosophy directly impact philosophy’s ability to concern itself with other viewpoints and teach them effectively. To combat these tendenices, let me tell you how I have been trying to change up my teaching.

Last year, I took it upon myself to internalize a very decent norm of Georgetown. Georgetown stated that all of its syllabi will now have 25% women authors. Much of this is motivated to make philosophy more friendly to women and to also attract them to the major because of the very homogeneity Sun Park comments about in the above passage. We need to do more. The first is to open up our traditional teaching and canonical offerings in the classroom. In my ethics class, besides focusing on various ethical theories in our anthology, we spent several weeks learning how to read and interpret a text critcally. We read de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity for several weeks. This year, I am throwing in more attention to critical reading strategies of challenging texts: Nietzsche, De Beauvoir, Butler, and King. 

There are many excuses as to why such authors do not make it. Sun Park is pretty thorough on this point.

(1) Academic job market incentivizes pre-existing biases against non-Western philosophy. Doctoral candidates are advised to contribute to core areas of Western philosophy in logic, epistemology, value theory, metaphysics (philosophy of mind), and the history of philosophy.

(2) In departments that do not study non-Western languages there is no access to the historical reality of non-Western texts.

(3) Most poignantly, my favorite and best put into his words:

The excuses for excluding non-Western thinkers from the philosophical canon are sometimes more obviously derogatory. For instance, philosophers often claim that non-Western thought lacks “rigor” and “precision,” essential characteristics of serious philosophy. As a result, many philosophers simply dismiss non-Western intellectual culture as (mere) religion, speculative thought, or literature.

I have heard (3) most of my life about Continental philosophy from many people, and so I sympathize. However, Asian specialists in philosophy often have it harder. Many philosophy graduate students wanting to specialize in Asian  philosophy leave and attend religious studies or East Asian studies departments. They fall into the very judgment of said philosophers, and anecdotally my experience confirms what Sun Park is claiming here.

The outside of philosophy can often yield tremendous results, or at the very least, I think they can. Right now, I am sifting through some of the online sources of Martin Luther King, Jr. I admit that the Personalist Seminar I attended on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer has affected me greatly. This week I found in King the same thoughts I have had about society, and I am going to teach a central text of his in ethics. The very fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a trained philosopher turned theologian, and despite his personal vices, his moral status as a reformer is bolstered by beautiful prose, theology, and philosophical reflection. However, I think there’s another important reason to teach Martin Luther King in my ethics classes.

Race is here to stay for some time, no matter our desire to live in an enlightened post-racial society. I have been hearing on the internet and in the media that we live in a post-racial society, as if race is gone. Such thinking is difficult for me to swallow, but also could rear its head in philosophy departments that never want to think difference (for now I will leave it ambiguous as to what “thinking difference” truly means). Outside academic halls, the shooting of Michael Brown, the race riots, and the militarization of local police in St. Louis is an ugly situation already. More than likely, the situation will get uglier before it gets better, yet I am obstinately optimistic. Philosophy can be one small way to make it better. There’s still a reason why so many minorities go to philosophy, and it’s the same reason I love philosophy! For all of us, there is no discipline more freer. While other disciplines of knowledge all carry with them their presuppositions, philosophy is free to adopt whatever presuppositions it wants insofar as it is honest to itself. This intellectual freedom could be better enacted by opening up the possibility for philosophy to be more like art than science.

Notice where Sun Park gravitated towards once he left philosophy. He went to art. If philosophy were to emulate art more openly than it claims to do, then the optimistic freedom I find in philosophy’s freedom could emulate the infinite indeterminacy of art. Art objects resist thematization. Any time a philosopher attempts to define the field of art, artists resist ontological conceptualization. Art can seek in creativity anything it desires. Like philosophy, art can be good or bad, but unless it is given the freedom to explore and trudge around the trenches we will never know what is good or bad. We first have to be willing to endure the pluralism and difference of thinking, and this means embracing the interdisciplinary methods of our forefathers. That might mean hiring a critical race theorist, an expert on Confucian ethics, or a specialist in Africana philosophy just as much as going to literature, cultural studies as much as neuroscience.

Thanks for listening to my random thoughts. If you have suggestions for teaching King, then I’m open to them. I want to teach something a little better than Letters from the Birmingham Jail. It’s not that I mind it. That work is highly anthologized in many philosophy texts. I just think I could do more than going to the usual anthologized material. Maybe something on economic justice from his later period? If you have a favorite work on race beyond King, and you think it is suitable for first-year freshman at a public university, let me know in the comments below.


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