Magazines and Philosophy Books

Imagine a society is culturally diverse – has people from all over the world – and yet the magazines show only white people as the paragons of beauty. The magazine racks in the stores are filled only with pictures of whites in different poses of beauty and glamour: at home, at work, at the beach, at the movies, and so on. Would this be wrong? If so, why?

Think of a little brown boy in that society looking at these pictures everywhere he goes. What would be the psychological effect on him? Obviously, it would be to create a perpetual sense of not being good enough, of feeling that full beauty is forever out of his grasp because of the color of his skin, the shape of his nose, the texture of his hair. Unless he sees people standing up and saying that the magazines don’t depict a universal ideal, he will assume, trusting society instinctively as a child would, that the magazines are capturing the ideal of beauty, and that yet he is different. Without a sense for how different can be equally good, he is bound to interpret different as less good. But less good why? What did he do wrong? How can he make up the difference to achieve the ideal himself? Unsure of why he isn’t able to fully make up the difference, a cycle of self-blame and guilt begins. A torrent of doubts grip him: Maybe I am not trying hard enough; maybe there is something broken in me; maybe I am defective.

Putting a person in a cage thwarts the natural growth of the person. In the beauty case, the magazines function as a cage: an invisible, psychological cage, but a cage nonetheless. Just as the physical cage thwarts a person’s physical development, the social cage of the white-washed magazines thwarts his personal development.

What about a white philosophy curriculum? Is that wrong like the white magazines case?

Immediately an obvious difference presents itself. In the beauty case, what is depicted as the ideal is the body: the white body as more dignified, lush, angelic or glamorous than a brown body. Here the skin color is essential to the ideal. But in the case of the philosophy curriculum, what is depicted as the ideal is not the body, but ideas. In fact, ideas of Plato, Descartes and Kant which argue that the body is not essential to a human being; that a human, irrespective of the shape and color of his body, is a creature of ideas.

In the philosophy case the very ideal being depicted seems to free a person from the kind of cage the magazines create. After all, great philosophers can be, by magazine standards, not good-lookingSocrates’s nose, Kierkegaard’s back, Hume’s weight. It is the philosopher’s ideas that really matter. So the whiteness of the curriculum can seem irrelevant, besides the point, trivial. To focus on the whiteness of a philosopher’s skin seems like a category mistake: as if the thinker’s ideas are being reduced to the standards of the magazines in the grocery store check out line.

In response to calls for making the curriculum more diverse, some people say it, but many seem to think it without ever saying it: “Grow up, race agitators! Look beyond the body. Look to the beauty of the ideas, which are meant to free us precisely from concerns of the color of bodies.”

The problem with this idea is straight-forward: by claiming that structures of philosophy are already beyond the magazine ideals, it unwittingly, but nonetheless powerfully, reinforces the magazine ideals.

Imagine the brown boy becomes a young man, and confronts in college the white philosophy curriculum. What might that be like for him? Of course, there is no one way for all brown men: people differ in all sorts of ways, including how they respond to situations. But imagine the young man we are thinking of feels sheepish about his brown body. He is self-conscious about it; he is self-critical of any perceived accent, or whether he is too skinny, or too colored. This is because he is, to some extent, in the grips of the magazine ideals. He has not yet freed himself from the ideals of physical beauty in the society. He is not really conscious of the grip the magazine ideals have on him. He experiences it as just a general sense of not-being-good-enough, as if the self-respect and relaxation of feeling good about his body is always just out of reach.

Self-conscious as he is about his body, one of the first things that jumps out to him about the great philosophers he reads is that they all have that magical something which seems forever out of reach for him – that in pictures he sees of the philosophers, in biographies or back covers of books, they seem to to inhibit their bodies with a kind of ease which is beyond his grasp. That Russell or Dewey, unlike him, could show up in a 1940s Hollywood movie without causing a stir in the movie; the kind of stir that would be caused if a brown person casually walked up next to Katherine Hepburn in A Philadelphia Story.

The young brown man feels there is a striking similarity between the white people on the magazine covers and the white people he is studying: in both cases, the people seem to have an ease concerning their skin color which he doesn’t have.

The young brown man is thus unable to tell that there might be a difference in kind between the white movie stars and the white famous philosophers. That while the movie stars are at ease because their beauty matches the magazine ideals, the famous philosophers are at ease because they have moved beyond skin color and the magazine ideals. All the young brown man sees is that both the white movie stars and the white philosophers seem content with their bodies in a way that he feels unable to.

What is the best way to get the young brown man to see this difference? Given that due to the influence of the magazine ideals on him, he finds himself focusing on the whiteness of the famous philosophers’ bodies, what is the way to help him move beyond the color of bodies and into the realm of ideas?

Simply asserting the difference – saying it with emphasis or with the special intonation with which philosophers make a distinction or looking up at the heavens while making the point – is of no use. The young man might be theoretically aware of the distinction. It is that practically, in the context of the classroom or when reading a philosophy text, he is unable to hold on to the distinction. While reading Kant he can get a sense of the grandeur of an idea; but conditioned as his mind is to associate grandeur with whiteness, even unbeknownest to himself he finds himself assuming the grandeur of Kant’s ideas is inseparable from Kant’s skin color, just as the beauty of Marlon Brando’s smile is inseparable from his skin color.

In fact, to just assert the difference and expect the young brown man to practically see the difference is to set him up for failure. For when he sees the teachers’ disappointment in his ability to consistently grasp the difference, given his predilection to assuming that his potential for failure is tied up with his body, he is bound to see the teachers’ affirmation of his failure as itself rooted in the difference in the skin color of the teachers and himself. Simply asserting the difference thus leads to a downward spiral, where the student blames himself for his inability to grasp a supposedly simple distinction, which once again makes it that much harder for him to see the difference, and so it goes on.

In order for the young brown man to practically grasp the difference between the magazine ideal and the philosophy ideal, a basic question has to be answered: How do white philosophers themselves know that they have moved beyond the magazine ideals? For example, when Davidson read Kant, how might Davidson have known that Kant’s skin color was altogether irrelevant in how he engaged with Kant’s philosophy?

Wittgenstein argued that in order to apply a rule there must be a way to tell the difference between a correct application of the rule from an incorrect application of the rule. In that spirit, what is the way to tell that the claim “For Davidson Kant’s skin color was philosophically irrelevant” is true or false?

Could it be because of something internal to Davidson’s inner mental states or his actions: say, because he never explicitly thought about Kant’s skin color, or because he never had such an intention, or because he actively affirmed that Kant’s skin color is philosophically irrelevant? No. Because the most any of that shows is how Davidson felt or thought about the matter. What it doesn’t show is whether Davidson got it right about himself. We are still left with the question: How can Davidson know whether what he thought about himself was right?

It’s possible that Davidson got it wrong about himself, because it is possible that the young brown man got it wrong about himself. The young brown man might also claim that for him Kant’s skin color is philosophically irrelevant. And yet, if we look not just at how the young brown man engages with philosophy books, but also how he engages with the magazines, and we find that there are systematic connections between his engagement with the magazines and patterns of lack of self-confidence and feeling not handsome enough and so on, then we can tell that the young brown man’s orientation to, and his sense of himself in, the society is affected significantly by the magazines. And if there is no structures in the philosophy classrooms which actively aim to counter-balance the cultural effect of the magazines, then it is natural that he would engage with the philosophy books with the same general orientation as he would with any other cultural objects in that society.

In order to determine whether for the young brown man, or for Davidson, Kant’s skin color is philosophically irrelevant, what one needs to first look at is whether the philosophy classrooms have any structures which are meant to counter-act the influence of the magazines in the cultureIf there are no such structures in the philosophy classroom, the most we can find out from a person’s intentions or actions in the classroom is how they consciously hope the classroom would be, but not whether the classroom is actually that way. And not even whether the person himself is able to overcome the general structural influences in the classroom.

What kind of structural features in the classroom can work to counteract the affects of the magazines in the society? Simply saying the magazines are silly, or racist will not do it. For the effect of the magazines on the young brown man is much deeper than what the young brown man consciously believes. The effect of the magazines is to create a hierarchy of beauty in which whites are at the very top, and non-whites are at various levels below the top. To counteract this hierarchy of physical beauty, it is necessary to have structures of equality which are independent of skin color. And since the philosophy classroom concerns ideas, there would have to be structures affirming the equality of philosophical ideas among people of different skin colors. This is philosophical pluralism.

Simply asserting that Kant’s skin color is philosophically irrelevant does nothing much to counter-balance the pervasive influence of the magazines on the students in the classrooms. What can cut against the psychological influence of the magazines are structures in the classroom which show that grandeur and human excellence can be associated with brown or black skin. Having philosophy books in the classroom by authors who are not white can make a much bigger difference to counter-acting the effect of the magazines than just affirming a million times with passion that skin color is philosophically irrelevant.

One might ask: “But if what is causing the psychological damage to the young brown man are the white ideals of beauty in the magazines, why not just change what is depicted in the magazines? Isn’t that the root of the problem? Why does the philosophy classroom have to be changed?”

It’s because the physical ideals of beauty publicly depicted in a society are based on that society’s ultimate depiction of human flourishing. Suppose a society values soccer as the highest form of human excellence, such that the best soccer players in the society are treated as the paragons of general human excellence. And suppose all the best soccer players come from a plurality of cultural and racial backgrounds. In such a society, the magazines would not show only the white soccer players as the exemplars of physical beauty.

If academic philosophers think that philosophers should be seen as the highest form of human excellence in the society (not necessarily the sole form of excellence), and if they are committed to racial plurality and equality in the society, it is a practical contradiction to nonetheless have only white philosophers as examples of such excellence in the classroom. Such Eurocentrism in the classroom does not merely concern the realm of ideas; they structurally underpin the white ideals of beauty in the society. Eurocentrism in the classroom is the intellectual and cultural foundation of Eurocentrism in the magazines and in the broader society more generally.

An academic philosopher who bemoans the depiction of minorities in the broader culture but who nonetheless is content with Eurocentrism in the classroom is like a driver who insists on keeping his foot on the gas pedal but bemoans that the car isn’t slowing down.

6 thoughts on “Magazines and Philosophy Books

  1. Gautam

    > structures in the classroom which show that grandeur and human excellence can be associated with brown or black skin.

    The above point about philosophical plurality is compelling in the abstract. How would it translate to a specific scenario? Say I am the teacher in a seminar-style philosophy class, and one of the students is a woman who’s parents (and ancestors) are from Papua New Guinea, and her family has recently emigrated to the United States. What kind of structures can I provide? Including books by non-Western-European authors (e.g., from India, China, Africa) may be necessary but not sufficient.

    Side note: I wonder if would be compelling to introduce philosophers who were ostracized in their own time (Spinoza, Nietzsche) — the feeling of alienation is something that may be universal, and in a way, helpful in providing a fresh perspective.

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  2. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Great question. This is one of the the central questions regarding pluralism. If the world consisted of just three or four groups, where each group had a clear identity (say, “Indian”, assuming that is well defined), then what pluralism looks like is clear: teach texts from each group. There will still be issues of how those texts will be integrated and what in fact count as the right kind of “texts”, but there is a preliminary grip on the situation.

    However, the world doesn’t consist of just three or four groups. It consists of hundreds and thousands of groups, defined in all sorts of cross cutting ways. So what happens for every “X-American”, where X can be any part of the world? If we say, “well Papua New Guinea is near Asia, so general Indian or Chinese texts are enough for that person”, then it looks like we are doing some version of Asianism, analogous to Eurocentrism.

    I think the solution has to involve a fundamental shift in how we think of the classroom. In the past a classroom functioned on the assumption that the teachers and the students are for the most part of the same culture. Since that is no longer true, there are four options for how to proceed:

    1) Treat it as if there is still a basic culture which is the foundation of the classroom, and people not of that culture just have to fit in (Eurocentrism as cultural is a version of this);

    2) Create a universal culture, a kind of “uber-culture”, so that the uber-culture, rather than particular cultures, is what grounds the commonality between teachers and students (Eurocentrism as universal is a version of this);

    3) Capture every culture in the classroom, and so in effect try to replicate mini-versions of the older model (this is the general Humanities model of the last forty years); or

    4) Give up the old assumption that the structures in the class are already set by the teachers and the students are merely inculcated through those structures. Make the classroom fundamentally self-conscious of the pluralism issue, and so create ways for students to bring what they identify with into the classroom, and the teachers then engage with the students to think critically about that.

    This blog is an attempt to flesh out (4) and make it more concrete. Suppose the Papua New Guinea student is happy to learn European philosophy in a given class, then he will just pick those set of texts. Suppose he thinks Chinese philosophy texts come close to his culture because they are Asian, so he can pick those. Suppose he wants to engage and better understand texts which are related specifically to what underlie the culture of his family, and what he grew up with, then it would be part of the structure of the class that he brings those texts to the class, and he could use the class to engage with them.

    This proposal will seem like gibberish if a class structure and syllabus is something that a teacher already decides on two months before the class even begins, and before the teacher even knows who the students are. I think that model can only work if there is a guarantee that the teachers and students share their home culture, or if it is ok to impose one culture on the students. But if we give up those assumptions, then there is much more flexibility in how to think of the classroom, and what the possibilities are for a pluralistic education.

    In the terms I use in the above post, the idea that students would be co-creating some of the class is an example of the kind of structure which can counter-act the general influence of the broader society, and so give the students a chance to reflect on that society rather than just unwittingly bringing those societal influences into the classroom.

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  3. Gautam

    But in the model you propose, what enables discussions between the students, since a discussion presupposes shared referents? Say student #1 picks a book on Chinese philosophy, and student #2 picks English philosophy — what would the class discussion look like?

    Maybe another way of asking this question: what is the role of the teacher in this classroom? I think you are suggesting that we move away from the approach where the teacher gets to lecture and implicitly impose a cultural perspective. What’s the alternative? What will grading look like? What does the new approach (“students co-creating …”) look like in a society where a college education is seen as a credential for a job rather than a classical liberal arts goal of “expand one’s horizons”?

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  4. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Let me start with what I am not saying. I am not saying professors don’t lecture anymore. Nor that a classroom is just a group space for individual tutorials, where each student is choosing their own texts and learning of their own.

    Here is what I imagine. A philosophy class is fundamentally based on debate: what are the reasons for this view, as opposed to that view, and so on. In order for this to happen, a framework has to be in place for who are representatives of each view; say, Hume for empiricism and Spinoza for rationalism. Now, in order for the disagreement between the representative authors to get traction, they have to share some assumptions and background: Hume and Spinoza were both European, both engaged with making sense of the new sciences of the time, etc. Normally, what a professor does is make explicit for the students this shared background, so that the disagreement can jump out as significant and pertinent. And then, given that shared background, the professor guides the discussion so that it is staying within the parameters of what Hume and Spinoza had in common (otherwise, the disagreement will start to unravel).

    If a classroom is Eurocentric, what happens is that the relevant background is limited to that of the European authors. So suppose Asian and African authors are added to the mix. The big worry then is: what do the European, Asian and African authors have in common such that we can get enough traction in order to have shared disagreements?

    The difficulty here is that the shared background has to be something not as abstract as simply being human, but also not so particular as to be culture-specific. What is this middle ground?

    I think one task of philosophy is to create that middle ground; that is, to create new categories such that they can be used to create new cultural forms, which can incorporate older and more particular cultures. This is the professor’s research. Then the teaching is introducing the students to that research. So what the professors would be good at is being able to take different philosophical traditions and knowing how to put them in conversation with each other such that some shared background of the different traditions comes out, and so possible disagreements to be explored come to light. In the class a student, say the student from Papua New Guinea, can bring a text of her own background to the class as a way to try out the method of integration which the professor is skilled at, and which is being taught in the class.

    The professor provides the form of the discussion, along with some content based on different philosophical traditions. And the student can add some more content, and use that to test whether the form of the class can handle it. If the class as structured by the professor can’t handle it, then that is data for the professor to use in his research, and so try to come up with a better form. And grading will be based on how well the student is able to learn given the contours of the class.

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  5. Gautam

    > the professors would be good at is being able to take different philosophical traditions and knowing how to put them in conversation with each other such that some shared background of the different traditions comes out

    This approach hinges on the assumption that a shared background can be identified among different traditions, but often the very notion of what is shared is a source of contention. Furthermore, it is not clear that academic philosophers are any better at being able to “step out of their cultural skins” than non-philosophers — after all, people get into philosophy to scratch particular itches, but those itches are themselves deeply culturally-rooted (e.g., “problem of evil”, free will, problem of other minds). For example, a person committed to a rational structure of morality would find Taoism incomprehensible, in the same way that someone committed to cognitivism would find direct realism incomprehensible.

    In short, this approach seems to require a superhuman level of objectivity on part of the professor.

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  6. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    The approach doesn’t require “a superhuman level of objectivity on part of the professor.” What it does require is that the professor is interested in engaging the different sides of her own background. So if the professor has a background in, say, America, Africa and Asia (where background either means biological, familial, cultural, general interests, etc.), that then she is open and actively exploring what it would be integrate the philosophies of these different areas as a way to unify and put in dialogue her own interests. This doesn’t mean there is “the unity” to be achieved. It just means there is more unity and dialogue to foster, without any assumptions of what the end looks like.

    I don’t think someone committed to the rational structure of morality would find Taoism incomprehensible. This raises the preliminary question of whether Taoism is arational. I don’t think it is. Many of the dichotomies we take for granted (reason vs the Way) themselves presuppose cultural divisions that pluralism is committed to overcoming. The situation is more like the cognitivism-direct realism issue: there can be, and is, a debate there, not incommensurable world views.

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