Demographic Diversity is Good for Philosophy


In light of some recent discussions here and elsewhere about demographic diversity in philosophy, I thought it might be helpful to set out one argument in favor of it that I haven’t seen made explicit.

What follows is a brief presentation of just one of many arguments that could be made in support of demographic diversity. I offer it because it’s intended to be convincing to those in the philosophical community who aren’t moved by moral or political concerns to care much about such diversity, or those who think that caring about philosophy—either its development as a form of inquiry or as a professional academic discipline—means being less interested in such diversity.

(I don’t think the argument is particularly novel. It has been suggested by some of the comments of others, is in a way similar to some classic defenses, and I would bet has been made in writing by someone else somewhere—let me know if you know where).

1. The Argument

The first premise of the argument is

Growth: It is good for philosophy if new subjects are added to the set of subjects about which good philosophy is being done.

The second is

Constituency: An increase in demographic diversity is likely to provide the critical masses of philosophers needed for the emergence of good philosophy on new subjects.

We can conclude from Growth and Constituency that an increase in demographic diversity is likely to be good for philosophy.

I call this, boringly, the Growth Constituency Argument for greater diversity in philosophy. It holds that demographic diversity provides new constituencies that foster the growth of philosophy.

Before I discuss the specific premises let me make two general comments.

First, please note that the conclusion of this argument is not that an increase in philosophy’s demographic diversity is likely to be all things considered good for philosophy. I happen to think it is, but to come to that conclusion would require assessing whether, and if so, how, demographic diversity is bad for philosophy, which I do not do here in any detail.

Second, the argument is intended to apply to academic philosophy today, not to philosophy in any possible point in time or in any other possible set of circumstances. It may be that Growth and Constituency would be false were our circumstances different. But because of the intended scope of the argument, that they might be false under different circumstances is not relevant. What matters is whether they’re true or false here and now.

So are they true?

2. Growth

Let’s first look at Growth, which states “It is good for philosophy if there is good philosophy about more and more subjects.”

By “good for philosophy” I mean to be referring to two things: philosophy as a form of inquiry, and philosophy as the people and institutions that make up the academic discipline that goes by the name “philosophy”. (I think that more subjects being philosophized about well is good for both, but it being good for just one is sufficient for the premise to be true.)

The idea of something being good for a form of inquiry may sound odd, but it is a fairly normal way of talking. For example, we say that the discovery of subatomic particles was good for physics, or that the incorporation of findings from psychology into economics, which led to the development of behavioral economics, was good for economics, or that the increased recognition of the role of microbiota in human health has been good for biology and medicine.

In these examples, having new things to which to apply the methods of a field, as well as being able to make use of new things in order to develop new insights or methods, or revise earlier ideas, are understood to be good for that field. This seems as true of philosophy as it is of other disciplines.

The connection between an increase in what’s studied by philosophy and the flourishing of the people and institutions of the discipline of philosophy is perhaps easier to see: it could mean that more of those already involved in philosophy find topics they’re interested in pursuing, or that more people are hired, or more students find something in philosophy that really grabs them, or that an enhanced recognition of philosophy’s relevance strengthens the position of philosophy departments at their universities, or helps them counter threats to their survival, and so on.

3. Constituency

Now let’s turn to Constituency, which states that “an increase in demographic diversity is likely to provide the critical masses of philosophers needed for the emergence of good philosophy on new subjects.”

Constituency is one way to acknowledge that philosophy is social enterprise conducted by limited and imperfect human beings. Ideas do not magically receive attention in proportion to their merit. Rather, the distribution of attention is filtered through the operation of multiple and overlapping institutions maintained and run by other philosophers, and how much attention one’s ideas are getting depends in part on one’s successful navigation of those institutions. Philosophers are people, too, and so decisions regarding access to and use of these institutions, and assessment of the ideas circulating in them, will be influenced by all sorts of factors, not merely philosophical ones (however you conceive of “merely philosophical”).

For example, for philosophers to navigate philosophy’s institutions well, for their ideas to get attention, there have to be enough other philosophers who find what they’re saying interesting. Otherwise, their talks won’t get accepted for conferences, or if accepted, the sessions will be poorly attended; the journal editors will desk reject their articles, or be unable to find referees for them, or the referees will write reports that show they don’t really get it; search committees will take a pass; and so on. There is nothing necessarily nefarious about this. Different people find different things interesting.

Why might some philosophers, the “Incumbents,” fail to find the philosophical work of some other philosophers, the “Challengers”, interesting, and so fail to recognize that some work by the Challengers is good (however you understand that) and worthy of attention? There are so many plausible answers to that question, but let me just mention two possible reasons that I think are sometimes in play: the philosophical work of the Challengers is different from the kind of philosophical work the Incumbents do or the kind of philosophical work with which the Incumbents are familiar; and the philosophical work of the Challengers does not appear to be about anything having to do with the Incumbents.

There may have to be enough people open to doing, or familiar with, the kind of work the Challengers are doing, or enough people who recognize that the Challengers’ work has something to do with them, for it to get any professional uptake. Prior to the emergence of that constituency, professional pressures may lead most of the Challengers to be rather philosophically conservative and produce work that’s like the Incumbents, or that clearly is about something having to do with the typical Incumbent.

I’m not going to go into any detail about it here, but I think the history of women in analytic philosophy matches up with this. History is messy, and of course there will be exceptions, but generally, earlier work by women in analytic philosophy, when there were very few of them, matched up in important ways with what was mainstream at the time. And as more women came into philosophy, philosophy became more open to different kinds of philosophy (a variety of feminist approaches to philosophical topics, for example), and more open to certain new subjects as legitimate topics of philosophical inquiry (sexual consent, pregnancy, the significance of gender in scientific studies, for example).

The same is likely true of other forms of demographic diversification in philosophy. As more and more people with different experiences and perceptions of the world become philosophers, philosophy becomes a more fertile place for the development of new questions, research programs, and methods.

4. An Objection and a Reply

I suspect that some of those in my target audience may be thinking that the kind of growth I’ve been discussing is not good for philosophy, because, they think, the kinds of philosophy such growth produces are low quality. Suppose that these people have gone through the kind of basic epistemic checklist we’d expect from those holding this opinion (e.g., “yes, I know thousands of smart and informed people think these areas of philosophical inquiry are worthwhile” “yes, I am aware that my thinking may be influenced by status quo bias, familiarity bias, self-serving bias, and other cognitive biases,” “yes, I understand I may, like most people, have some racist or sexist attitudes,” “yes, I’ve considered that I have not undergone some of the experiences that are the subject of this kind of philosophy, while the authors have,” etc.) and still hold it. Suppose someone thinks, for example, that feminist philosophy isn’t any good. What to say to them?

What could “feminist philosophy isn’t any good” mean? Not “no work of feminist philosophy is good”—I don’t want to strawman the opposition here. It more likely would mean something like “feminist philosophy, on average, isn’t good.” Leave aside how one might determine that; let’s just suppose it is true. Even if it is true, though, it doesn’t seem like a problem for my argument. Philosophy in general, on average, is probably not good. The question, rather, is “Is there good feminist philosophy?” The answer to that is: of course.

If we are interested in more good philosophy we have to take certain steps to allow for or encourage its development. Such steps might result in an increase in the production of philosophy that isn’t particularly good. But we get the good stuff, too. And that’s good.

Comments welcome.

Julie Mehretu, “A Universal History of Everything and Nothing”

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