Deeper Diversity and the Game of Professional Philosophy

Deeper Diversity and the Game of Professional Philosophy

[What follows are some quick, schematized, and not particularly novel thoughts inspired by some recent experiences and conversations. Others have thought about these issues much more than I have, so please forgive any naïveté on display or important omissions.]

On one understanding of diversity—perhaps an understanding that was once the dominant one—making professional philosophy more diverse means making it the case that it is not exclusively the province of just a few kinds of people (with “kind” understood in terms of sex, race, culture, ethnicity, class, sexuality, physical ability, education, experiences). The idea is that all sorts of people should have a robust opportunity to do philosophy, and by “philosophy” it was meant the kind of activity that philosophy professors at Western universities in the 20th Century characteristically engaged in. Efforts to achieve this kind of diversity are like saying, “Come play our game.”

Yet, as philosophy slowly, modestly, diversifies in various ways, our understanding of “diversity” deepens. Providing opportunity for “others” to do what “we” do is still part of it (how gracious of us, right?). But that is not all there is, for there’s the very reasonable question of why the standards for what counts as philosophy are what they are. We invited people to play our game, and eventually some of them asked, “Why is the game set up this way?” Some said, “We need to change the rules.”

Some people object to this questioning of the rules: “If we change the rules, we’re no longer playing philosophy.”
This seems false as an understanding of games or practices, which are capable of drastic change over time. Also, it seems to, strangely and arbitrarily, elevate the practices of philosophy during one historical period (of about a century) in a limited geographic area—not coincidentally the time and place in which most of us and our teachers and our teachers’ teachers were trained—into definitive standards. (Relatedly, see the writings of Justin E.H. Smith, referenced here and here; also this piece by Karsten Struhl.)

“Wait, we invited them to play our game, and now they want to change the rules? Why should they get to do that?”
But why not? We’ll need more than “I was here first!”

Perhaps there are other people who say, “Yes, let’s change the rules—in fact, let’s get rid of the idea of the rules, since there are different sets of rules, and each way to play is no better than any other.” Yet this seems unsatisfactory, too. For one thing it’s not obviously true that each way to play is no better than any other. For another, there is something to be said for there being some shared understanding of what we’re doing when we’re doing philosophy. It helps us figure out whether we’re doing well or poorly, whether we are improving, or making progress. It needn’t be objectionable “boundary policing” to seek to understand and identify the kind of inquiry one’s engaged in, and it can be necessary for making qualitative assessments and various practical and professional decisions. Yes, standards for what counts as philosophy can be used in problematically exclusive ways (see Kristie Dotson’s paper here), but they needn’t, and they do have some practical value.

Another way to put it, perhaps: some of the resistance to standards by which to identify philosophy comes from the impression that to have standards is to be objectionably exclusive. Some of the resistance to deeper inclusiveness in philosophy comes from the impression that it would require us to abandon standards. Both views seem mistaken to me.

So what’s left is some intermediate position, and it’s hard to figure out what it should be. It’s hard epistemically, it’s hard politically, and—let’s be honest—it can be hard emotionally. People are invested in the rules as they are—they’re good at playing their game, and it’s what they like to do. And people are invested in changing the rules, too—like anyone, they want to play a game on their own terms and have it still be possible for them to win. After having been thoughtlessly or even maliciously excluded, they want their work to count as the love of wisdom, too.

At root the problem is philosophical: how do we, in a non-question-begging and useful way, set even rough standards for what counts as philosophy? I don’t know how to answer that question. Perhaps others do.

(image: “Firewall” by Odili Donald Odita)
Odita - Firewall

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