October 29, 2007

The diversity of philosophy

Quoting a quotation of a summary (with quotations) of Anita Allen's keynote address at the recent first meeting of the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers (my source; the punctuational oddities are, I believe, theirs):

“I have not been able to encourage other people like me to go into philosophy because I don’t think it has enough to offer them. The salaries aren’t that great, the prestige isn’t that great, the ability to interact with the world isn’t that great, the career options aren’t that great, the methodologies are narrow. Why would you do that,” she asks, “when you could be in an African American studies department, a law school, a history department, and have so many more people to interact with who are more like you, a place where so many more methods are acceptable, so many more topics are going to be written about? Why would you close yourself off in philosophy?”I feel that philosophy is hoisting itself by its own petard. Its unwillingness to be more inclusive in terms of issues, methods, demographics, means that it’s losing out on a lot of vibrancy, a lot of intellectual power.”Despite delight at the birth of the collegium, the existence finally of a “critical mass” of black female philosophers, she admits “philosophy still feels to me like an isolated profession. I don’t think I would encourage a black woman who has big ideas necessarily to go into philosophy,” Allen says. “Why? What’s the point? Go out and win the Pulitzer Prize! Don’t worry about academic philosophy. On the other hand, I would like to see that world open up to more women and women of color.”

I worry a lot about the lack of diversity in philosophy. (Setting aside for the moment the problems with treating diversity as a mass noun.) As a discipline, we're notorious for being just about the only branch of the humanities that's still as male- and caucasian-dominated as physics and mathematics. That's an ethical problem, and it's also an epistemological problem.

The first thing I want to ask is, How do we create more diversity in the community of philosophers? The obvious but unhelpful answer is, Eliminate or counteract the features of that community that drive off most of the potential philosophers that aren't caucasian men. This leads to the second question, What makes contemporary philosophy so unattractive to people who aren't caucasian men? And this question is ill-posed. Philosophy isn't unattractive in an absolute sense. It's unattractive as a major compared to other majors, as a career compared to other careers, as a discipline compared to other disciplines. The choice to go into philosophy is neither made at any one discrete moment nor made in a vacuum.

So, before answering the second question, we need to identify the comparable disciplines that do not have the problems with diversity that philosophy has. This, I think, is fairly easy: pretty much every other discipline in the humanities. The interdisciplinary disciplines that have formed over the last 35+ years -- African American studies, gender studies, and so on -- are especially important answers here. Someone interested in clinical psychology might take a courses or two in philosophy of mind and early psychology (Freud, James, et al. were still considered philosophers), but she's unlikely to end up a philosopher. Likewise with political science and history. African American studies, gender studies, and similar interdisciplinary disciplines in the humanities, by contrast, draw heavily on the work of a certain kind of philosopher, just as much as they draw on the work of historians, sociologists, political theorists, and so on.

This leads me to my hypothesis. As distinct majors, these interdisciplinary disciplines are drawing potential philosophy students away from philosophy. To expand on Allen's question, Why would you go into philosophy when African American studies is a much more inviting place to do the same sort of thing?

The passage from Allen has given me some things to think about under the aegis of my hypothesis. First, doing philosophy in gender studies (with which I'm more familiar than African American studies) isn't the same thing as doing philosophy in philosophy. The abstract worries over, say, whether compositional nihilism is compatible with ante rem realism about universals (and if so, what sort of ante rem realism) that are the central problems of contemporary Anglophone philosophy are non-starters in gender studies. This is one thing that Allen might mean when she talks about `so many more topics ... be[ing] written about' in other humanities departments. While the methods and techniques can be the same, the topics are very very different.

But this is a gross overgeneralisation. There are ethicists and political philosophers in philosophy departments; not all of us spend all of our time worrying about compositional nihilism. The topics contemporary ethicists and political philosophers consider are much more closely aligned to the topics considered in gender studies. And it's also grossly prejudicial to assume that an undergraduate trying to choose whether to major in philosophy or African American studies wouldn't be interested in worrying about compositional nihilism, as grossly prejudicial as assuming that women decide not to pursue careers in mathematics because set theory is just so boring.

Hence, second, the content and topics of `mainstream', `important' philosophy are not the only reasons why philosopher has a problem with diversity. As much as I'd like an excuse to cast metaphysics out (in the nicest possible way, of course), diversity is not going to be one. So we need to look at other potential causes. We need to look at discrimination, on both a personal and structural level. Third, we can't do this, as philosophers are so often wont to do, from our armchairs. We cannot divine, a priori, the reasons why our discipline is so much less attractive than our sister disciplines in the humanities. We cannot, by pure ratiocination, discover the objectively best way to structure the discipline. We need to be talking to students from underrepresented backgrounds, especially those who consider majoring in philosophy and decide to major in something else -- Why did you decide to major in gender studies/history/African American studies/Swanhili instead of philosophy?

Fourth, this means we need to meet these students. We need to offer classes within philosophy that deliberately align with and support the classes offered under the heading of African American studies, gender studies, and so on. We need Intro to Philosophy classes that aren't just a parade of dead wealthy European men worrying about whether the fact that the stick looks bent but feels straight means I'm being deceived by an evil demon. We need joint minors and, eventually, majors with these interdisciplinary disciplines -- not to mention more traditional disciplines like history, psychology, and political science.

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