There was an interesting debate a few months back between Joseph Heath and Audrey Yap about what Health called “Me studies”. The issue: what is the best way to study mechanisms of oppression?
Heath cautions against the idea that the oppressed are best suited to study it. Because the oppressed are too close to the thing being studied, and so it clouds their judgment and perception. A consequence is that the oppressed, in the name of enabling the oppressed to speak up, draw boundaries of who can participate in the debate, or what participation is supposed to look like. Heath’s point: these boundaries are inimical to rational debate and critical thinking because it creates the sense that disagreeing with the oppressed person’s philosophical thesis is to support oppression. He says, “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met, who specialize in some form or another of ‘critical studies,’ who are among the worst critical thinkers I’ve met.”
Yap responded by suggesting that we “treat issues of oppression the way we treat many other cases of specialized knowledge in philosophy, like philosophy of science or mathematics.” On this view, there should be boundaries of who can participate and how just as there are in any sub-field of philosophy. A non-oppressed person can’t just chime in on a debate about oppression just as someone who doesn’t know logic can’t chime in on a talk on Godel. The oppressed person, just in virtue of being oppressed, has knowledge that the non-oppressed person doesn’t. So when a non-oppressed person presumes to chime in without due deference, that is a form of reenforcing oppression. Especially because it is the oppressing mechanisms which give the non-oppressed person the leverage to speak up even when the topic is out of their depth.
Both Heath and Yap engage with the issue in a thoughtful way. Still, I think both are missing something significant: namely, the distinction between the oppressed and the non-oppressed no longer makes any sense. To put the point in a pragmatist way: it is a distinction without a practical difference.
If there was a magic wand such that with it we could get everything we wanted from philosophy, what would we ask for? There would probably be innumerable things, but near the top of the list would be having a conceptual framework which can enable:
1) Integrating older philosophical frameworks: a way to make sense of the different philosophical traditions from around the world, and see their similarities and differences;
2) Understanding the mind: a way to conceptualize the mechanisms underlying human cognition such that we can see how our present mental states resulted through cultural evolution since the dawn of human beings;
3) Addressing changing times: a way to make sense of and deal with new circumstances and situations, such as global warming, new technologies, scientific progress, globalization, changing identities and so on;
4) Creating dialogue: a way for people across diverse cultures and backgrounds to productively and peacefully talk to each other; and
5) Living meaningfully: a way for each each individual to flourish and grow, and have a lived experience of a synergy between oneself, others and the world.
(1)-(5) are inter-connected in interesting ways. For instance, there can’t be (2) without (1), since our older philosophical frameworks from around the world are part of our cultural history going back thousands of years. This shows the limits of a science of the mind purely based on understanding the brain. That would be like saying we can fully understand the human body without tracing the history of how it physically evolved through millions of years. Similarly, we can’t fully understand our modes of cognition now without tracing our cognitive history.
Wittgenstein argued that traditional philosophy questions are incoherent and a kind of nonsense. For example, Descartes asks in The First Meditation if the world he is experiencing is an illusion. How does he know he is not dreaming or that an evil demon isn’t deceiving him?
To this Wittgenstein responds: “What nonsense! There is no such thing as experiencing the whole world as an illusion. There are particular illusions: experiencing an oasis in the desert, seeing the stick as bent in the water, etc. But in these cases we can recognize the illusion because overall we know we are experiencing the world. To show someone the bent stick is illusion, you take the stick out of the water. The doubt Descartes considers has no such grounding, and so is ill conceived: it has the outward form of a legitimate doubt, but that itself is an illusion. The doubt is only a confusion. The job of philosophy is to uncover this confusion, and free us from it.”
To see the flaw in this response, let’s distinguish between, what I will call, a status-quo context and a transformative context. A status-quo context is one in which a person feels at home in the prevailing social structures. A transformative context is one in which a person dislodges from prevailing social structures and feels that significantly new structures are needed.
One reason the pluralism issue can seem intractable is because there are so many dimensions to the problem, which are all different and yet inter-connected in many subtle, and not so subtle, ways.
The issue can seem strait-forward when it is thought of as “minorities not being oppressed”. But the surface coherence of this idea covers over what makes the problem so complex.
Think of a contemporary college philosophy department in America. The students in the department come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds from around the world. The students also have a wide variety of identities, including those of gender, race, economic background, sexual orientation, disability and many others. Given this plurality of student backgrounds and identities, what should the philosophy curriculum of the department look like?
Consider the dimension of culture and race. The curriculum right now at most departments in America, and especially at the elite (that is, the most financially well off) departments, is almost entirely based on Western, European-based philosophy. In most departments the focus in history of philosophy is ancient Greek and Roman philosophy from about 600BC to 400AD, modern European philosophy from 1600 to 1900, and European and American philosophy from the 20th Century. In some places the Medieval period between 400 and 1600AD is taught as well. I will call this general focus on Europe in the curriculum Eurocentrism.