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800px-nok_sculpture_louvre_70-1998-11-1There is a new article on Aeon by Peter Levine, an associate dean at the Jonathan M Tisch College of Civic Life and a research professor at the department of philosophy at Tufts University, in which he laments the lack of diversity in philosophy departments. Here are the stark stats he presents:

Philosophers in the United States typically choose a much higher percentage of their sources (often, 100 per cent) from Europe and countries settled by Europeans. Philosophy teachers, too, look homogeneous: 86 per cent of new PhD researchers in philosophy are white, and 72 per cent are male. In the whole country, only about 30 African-American women work as philosophy professors.

Now, having taken my share of philosophy courses in college (Yale), I can honestly say that I did not see, as it were, so much as a single African-American ass among the occupied (and all-too-many empty) seats, so unless things have changed radically since I graduated in 1997, this seems to me to be a matter of (lack of) interest in philosophy, first and foremost. The focus of African-American pop culture on “keepin’ it real” certainly doesn’t help muster up interest in a discipline where the student encounters idealism, phenomenology and abstraction in spades. I would also advance the supposition that the cultures of people who are disproportionately poor are going to be (wisely) oriented toward using a college education in pursuit of practical goals, such as the attainment of status or pecuniary remuneration. Philosophy in America brings neither. Philosophy is, sad to say, a luxury. With that in mind, I’d suspect we’ll be seeing more African-Americans interested in philosophy when one of two things happens: (1) more African-Americans have the luxury of spending their time on something so thoroughly useless; or (2) philosophy becomes a gateway to status and wealth in this country. I’d speculate — going out on a limb here — that option 2 is just a little bit unlikely, so we’ll have to wait for option 1. We can always force the issue — going out of our way to appoint African-American professors to give students’ role models (but where are we going to find a sufficient number of qualified African-American philosophy professors in the first place?) or engaging in various kinds of minority student outreach efforts (always of limited usefulness) — but the larger question is whether force-feeding minorities into the philosophy pipeline is a good idea in the first place.

Why does philosophy need to be racially diverse? Prof. Levine’s response to this is that “philosophy must become more diverse in order to make progress on its fundamental questions…. We broaden our store of such ideas by looking into the past and out to other parts of the world, and also by engaging people who haven’t had a voice in professional philosophy.” This is dubious at best. Philosophy has made extraordinary progress over the ages despite being largely confined (with some notable exceptions) to a few nations — Ancient Greece and, in the modern era, Germany, France and England. But perhaps Prof. Levine will want to say that this is Western philosophy, which ignores other philosophical traditions, such as Eastern philosophy, including Buddhist philosophy, and Classical Arabic philosophy. I am all for broadening the philosophical canon to include any argument that is interesting and adds to our consideration of subjects that are worth considering within the domain of philosophy, but, again, what does this have to do with racial diversity? Experts on non-Western philosophy can come in all shapes, sizes and skin pigments (but, for better or for worse, African-Americans are not commonly represented among such experts), and why should we care whether an expert in Classical Arabic philosophy is personally of Arabic origin?

The only response I can find in Prof. Levine’s article is his presupposition that “ideas about values are embedded in everyday life and informed by people’s local experiences. That means that in order to assess the truth of an idea, one must often understand its context…. [W]e cannot understand someone else’s philosophical argument without understanding its local climate, and our own arguments are narrow and naive unless we understand other people’s arguments.” If the truth or understanding of an idea is only available to us by understanding its local context, the argument might go, those raised in a particular culture and “embedded” in its “everyday life” and “local experiences” will be best positioned to understand, appreciate and evaluate philosophical ideas emanating from that culture. This view, viz., that ideas are embedded within a particular place and time and can only be assessed through an understanding of that place and time — which position Prof. Levine (who should know better and likely does know better) presents as though it were a transcendental truth — is, ironically, itself a historically time-bound and contestable philosophical position. It is a statement of what has often been referred to as “historicism,” a species of presently voguish Western philosophical relativism that sees historical context as largely determinative of both the content and truth value of ideas that emanate from any particular place and time. This is not the place and time to present arguments against this view — though there are many — but suffice it to say that this view, with which most philosophers throughout the ages would have disagreed, is something that needs to be argued for rather than flatly stated in the manner in which Prof. Levine has done. Even if we accepted that it has some truth to it, however, why should we make the further leap of believing that someone who comes from a particular racial or ethnic background is going to be better at understanding a particular philosophical view that emanates from their culture than someone who is a scholar of that culture, speaks the relevant language fluently and is otherwise deeply immersed in the relevant philosophical tradition? Does one have to be French to get Descartes or Greek to get Plato? Might not studying the relevant history and the relevant history of ideas be sufficient? And, for that matter, does a Caucasian born and raised in India bring anything less to the enterprise of studying Indian philosophy than someone who looks a bit more the part (i.e., an “actual” Indian), or, a fortiori, than an Indian born and raised in America? Is this really about race at all?

Broadening the point, I would like to see an iota of actual evidence that the kind of superficial diversity this article (and so many others) are talking about has actually helped the humanities, as opposed to made them contentious in a silly and superficial way, detracted from their credibility and caché among the general public, created an environment within which repressive groupthink flourishes and silences real, i.e., intellectual, diversity, and dumbed down curricula to substitute second- and third-rate texts and authors for great texts and authors because the latter didn’t check the right demographic boxes. Multiple perspectives are great, but if you want multiple perspectives, there’s no substitute for actually hiring people who have multiple perspectives, regardless of what they look like or where they come from. If someone brings a truly interesting philosophical worldview, who cares what race they belong to? I have not the slightest doubt that when we look back upon this period of history from the vantage point of a more enlightened future, we’re going to see our current obsession with judging people based on our assessment of how much melanin they have in their skin as akin to the way we now view the discredited science of craniology. That knowledge, however, doesn’t make it much easier to watch the endless spectacle of seemingly intelligent people such as Prof. Levine helping drag us down into these murky waters.

 

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