Category Archives: General

Talking About Oppression

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.

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My View

Contemporary philosophy in America is in the midst of a sea change. In simplest terms, it is going from being mainly about a canon of white males to becoming more pluralistic. But this is not a binary issue: traditional or pluralistic. There is much scope for genuine, productive philosophical disagreement on what pluralism can look like, and what form it can take.

To see this, consider the following three questions:

1) Is Pluralism, as opposed to Eurocentrism, correct?

2) Is there merit to Wittgensteinian criticisms of philosophy? (One might ask similarly of Heidegerrian or Pragmatist criticisms, and so on.)

3) Is it possible to do cutting-edge philosophy outside academia?

Each of these questions can be answered yes or no. That means there are eight possible views in conceptual space.

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Philosophy and Capitalism

Normally academics shudder at the thought that academia is getting engulfed in market forces. There are protests of how the dignity and majesty of the intellectual life, and especially of the humanities, are going to be rendered profane if even academia is seen through the lens of capitalism. No, this is not a space about buying and selling; no, here we don’t primarily interact as customers; no, here we interact in terms of our shared humanity which is more fundamental than our relations in the market place!

This is a fascinating response. It depends on a fundamental divide between the academic space and the market space. On this view, ideally before a person enters the market place as an employee or a business owner, or any other capitalist identity, their consciousness needs to be first raised to care about more than just making it in the market. They need to be made into critical thinkers and citizens.

Where can this happen? It can’t be a space which is itself mired in capitalism, for that does not afford the necessary reflective distance from capitalism to gain a humanistic perspective. So it has to be a space set over and above market forces, and this is academia. The medieval colleges were literally set apart from the town. Contemporary colleges no longer are literally set apart that way (though a Cornell or a Williams might feel as if they were), but, the idea goes, they are conceptually set apart nonetheless. They can be in downtown Manhattan or right next to the inner cities of West Philadelphia, but in principle they are not caught up in either the wealth of Manhattan or the poverty of West Philadelphia. They stand apart with a critical gaze on capitalism, and focus instead on cultivating the humanity of the students.

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Immigration and Community

“Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” is a fantastic essay by Wendell Berry (thanks to Cathy Legg for pointing me to it). It was published in 1992, which is amazing because that is only four years after I moved to this country with my family. Meaning: many of the issues I am only now starting to be conscious of, others such as Berry have been addressing since I was a teenager. It is a nice experience, central to feeling part of a community, to know that the problems one identifies with are not unique to oneself or one’s generation. Reading Berry’s essay I felt this very strongly, even though I don’t fully agree with it.

The central insight of Berry’s essay is what I will call the primacy of the community. Berry argues that the public domain in America has become identified with the market forces of capitalism, and this has resulted in a kind of bleaching of substantively shared values from the public domain. He writes:

The indispensible form that can intervene between public and private interests is that of community. The concerns of public and private, republic and citizen, necessary as they are, are not adequate for the shaping of human life. Community alone, as principle and as fact, can raise the standards of local health (ecological, economic, social, and spiritual) without which the other two interests will destroy one another. (Pg. 119)

In the essay Berry uses the examples of sex and freedom to show, very convincingly to my mind, how there are forms of objective values and shared modes of life which are lost when the pubic domain is identified with a view-from-nowhere type of disembodied neutrality.

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The Hard Problem of Public Philosophy

Right now public philosophy in America is a desert. A land barren of rich vegetation and plentiful water. Academic philosophy is like a neighboring land of resources, green and lush – or, at least, that is how it seems to itself. Academic philosophers, like Nussbaum, Singer, Dennett and many others, who engage in public philosophy are like visitors to the desert from that neighboring land, bringing some of the plants from their land in the hopes of creating new pastures in the desert.

When Tania Lombrozo writes, “We need philosophers engaged in public life — and a public wiling to engage them”, she is exhorting more academic philosophers to go into the desert and plant their crops there as well. And she is exhorting the public in the desert to give the new crops a chance to grow.

But there is something Lombrozo and others are over looking when they argue for academic philosophers entering the public arena. They treat it as if the reason most academic philosophers are not doing so is a matter of weakness of the will: either negligence on the academics’ part, or a failure to pay attention on the public’s part. Being a matter of weakness of the will, exhortation or a call to arms is what is seen to move the will in the right direction.

The problem, however, is deeper. A gambler who vows to not gamble any more, but runs to the casino at the next available chance – that is weakness of the will. A mathematician who is not able to solve a difficult problem – that is lack of knowledge, not weakness of the will. The academic philosopher mainly lacks knowledge of what a sustained and helpful engagement with the public can look like. What can sustained public philosophy be? That is a hard problem, which requires, to be sure, a strong will and motivation, but it mainly and firstly requires intellectual imagination and theoretical insight.

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Pluralism and the Mind

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 minda 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.

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The Kipnis Case

I have been suggesting (here and here) that the reason to have non-Western authors in the curriculum is not to satisfy identity politics, but precisely so that non-whites can gain reflective distance from their background. In order to reflect on the assumptions of one’s background, one has to engage with those assumptions. Eurocentrism is thus an obstacle to many non-whites gaining philosophical reflection.

Consider the analogous case of feminism. The reason to have women authors isn’t just so that women are pacified. Given the generally patriarchal structures of society, for many women (perhaps not all) as they come to philosophical self-consciousness, their being women – that they are different in that way from the famous male philosophers – is central to their initial perspective on philosophical questions. This is neither right nor wrong; it is a matter of psychology. The way for someone who is conscious of the male dominated structures to do philosophy would be for her to start by reflecting on the situation of women in philosophy. That is her starting point into philosophy, a starting point which might be very exciting to her as philosophy. As illuminating not only her condition as a woman, but our shared condition as human beings.

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The Wittgensteinian Fallacy

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.

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Being Complicit in Eurocentrism

In the previous post I distinguished standard racism from philosophical racism. Standard racism claims that all people are not equal. Philosophical racism claims that all philosophical traditions are not equal.

There are many ways to be a philosophical racist, depending on the philosophical tradition one claims is the best. And many great philosophers have been philosophical racists. Hegel was a philosophical racist, since he thought that Western philosophy was the epitome of human rationality, and the philosophical traditions of other races were less sophisticated steps towards Western philosophy. Aurobindo was a philosophical racist but in the other direction, since he thought Indian philosophy was the epitome of human excellence, with, as he saw it, rationalist Western philosophy being only a step in the direction of Indian philosophy.

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