Another Colorado Student Speaks Out


Sofia Huerter, an MA student at the University of Colorado, has written a response to the recent critique of her department’s proposed climate policies by CU PhD student Spencer Case that appeared in the National Review. Meanwhile, Case has published a reply to some criticisms of his article, once again at the National Review.

guest
14 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dhananjay Jagannathan
Dhananjay Jagannathan
6 years ago

Spencer Case concludes his reply to critics of his July 5 National Review Online piece by asking for forgiveness for sins of omission. Some of these sins have been nicely corrected by Sofia Huerter in the piece linked above, particularly in her clear and direct explanation of implicit bias and stereotype threat, since these notions form part of the background for the APA Site Visit Committee’s Best Practices recommendations to the department which are the object of Case’s critique. I suggest anyone reading this first read Huerter’s reply.

Let me say also that I most likely do not concur with everything in the Best Practices document, and that I am not in a position to judge whether the APA Site Visit to Colorado went well because I like most people do not have all the relevant information. (I am very happy, however, that such a program exists, since it is plain to me as it is not to Case that philosophy has serious problems with equitable treatment of women and minority groups.) Rather, my concern here is to respond to some of Case’s arguments, since they strike me as unsound on philosophical grounds that he and I and others should be able to agree on. In particular, I wish to respond to his contention that designating feminist philosophy or philosophy of race as a genuine sub-discipline, when they in fact are not genuine sub-disciplines, wrongly insulates them from criticism and that for that reason we should reject the Best Practices recommendation on this topic.

Here is the core of Case’s revised or clarified position:
“I am critical of giving feminism and race the extra attention and insulation from criticism that comes from designating these topics as “entire sub-disciplines of philosophy.” Given that it’s considered impolitic to criticize “entire sub-disciplines of philosophy,” we should vigorously debate what deserves to be considered as such. Knowledge, ethics, and being-qua-being deserve that distinction. It’s not obvious that feminism and race do.”

First, let us note that the Best Practices document recommends that we not denigrate feminist philosophy or non-feminist philosophy. Case throughout his original piece and his reply to his critics substitutes ‘criticize’ for ‘denigrate’, and focuses only on criticism of feminist philosophy and philosophy of race. There are two problems here.

The first problem is that Case assumes that these areas are being singled out for special treatment by the Best Practices document. They are not. Though the document mentions feminist philosophy as a salient topic, its point is that we should not be in the business of denigrating any sub-fields of philosophy, whether we have gained expertise in them or not. Why should this be? That is the second problem with Case’s understanding of the recommendation. To criticize is not the same as to denigrate. To criticize what someone is doing is to direct their attention to a problem or difficulty. This introduces two further relevant features. One, the problem or difficulty may have something to do with the agent or it may not. To borrow Chomsky’s distinction, it may be a competence error or a performance error. Two, in either case, the orientation of the critic and the recipient of the criticism is nevertheless at least potentially collaborative, since their attention can be jointly directed to a problem. By contrast, to denigrate what someone is doing is to direct others’ attention, negatively, to that person. It is tantamount to denigrating them, and in fact we more commonly speak of denigrating people than of actions. Saying that what someone is doing is worthless strongly suggests (though, I admit, the presupposition may be ‘cancelled’ by making it explicit that one is not saying this) that they lack worth themselves.

From these considerations, it is clear to me that denigration is not appropriate within an academic community, let alone of an entire area of work. That is why the Best Practices document proscribes it. On the other hand, criticism, even very direct criticism, seems to fall well within the bounds of academic practice. In fact, criticism is a large part of what we do as philosophers – with our students, our colleagues, and the tradition we have inherited – though there are also many other forms of philosophical engagement. Saying “feminist philosophy is bunk” to a colleague over a beer may or may not count as denigration. I’m not sure. If it carries the presupposition that those who do it are not worth being part of one’s community, then it may. I agree that its being impolite or impolitic is not sufficient to rule it out. Moreover, I am sure that I have said similar things about other areas of philosophy for which I have little respect. The virtue of the Best Practices recommendation is that it makes us reflect on the ways in which we likely all fail to make philosophy a hospitable environment to others, regardless of our own status in the profession. Contra Case, it need not be an airtight set of rules to be useful guidance. This should be a point familiar to him from debates in the theory of practical reasoning.

My second line of response concerns Case’s claims about the nature of sub-disciplines in philosophy. First, there is something of a straw man lurking in Case’s worry that feminist philosophy and philosophy of race do not deserve to be on a par with ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. It is well-acknowledged in the discipline that there are areas of philosophy that a department must cover, at the very least in its undergraduate course offerings, and somewhat less agreement though still substantial agreement at the level of specialists to staff graduate programs. Not every recognized specialism falls into these categories, yet they count nevertheless as specialisms. For instance, very few departments have a specialist in philosophy of mathematics or in classical Indian philosophy, but these are uncontroversially considered subfields. Perhaps their status outside ‘core’ areas like ethics and epistemology is in fact a judgment of value. I think for the most part it is a reasonable reflection of differences in people’s interests in certain objects of study and the fact that not everyone is prepared to learn a good deal of mathematics or Sanskrit alongside studying philosophy more broadly. At any rate, feminist philosophy and philosophy of race need not be, by any descriptive or normative measure, as central as ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics to count as a sub-discipline. On the descriptive level, there are scarcely any philosophers who specialize in these areas in what are thought of by most people as the top philosophy departments in the English-speaking world. The bogeyman of a liberal invasion, perhaps appealing to NRO readers, is hardly borne out by the facts on the ground.

Second, Case thinks it is obvious that ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics belong to philosophy while feminist philosophy and philosophy of race are at the most debatable inclusions. Try telling that to Kant, the great enemy of metaphysics (or at least metaphysics understood as the study of ‘being-qua-being’)! My point is that these are philosophical questions, to be pursued through argument. Case seems to agree with me: he thinks vigorous debate is needed in the case of at least some sub-fields. I think trying to understand what philosophy is is a worthwhile and indeed fascinating philosophical endeavor. I do not think coming to a particular conclusion on this topic, feeling very certain about it, and trying to exclude those who have not come to that conclusion from the discipline is in keeping with that endeavor. (I admit this is a substantive philosophical commitment, but I hope it is more widely shared than any particular conception of what philosophy is – I am relying here on the agreement of my interlocutors rather than a point of first philosophy.)

In his original piece, Case put feminist philosophy and philosophy of race on the side of politics rather than philosophy. I would say the table is turned on precisely this point. It is Case’s exclusionary impulse that is a political act, arising from his detection of liberal politics in these areas and his evident disdain for such politics. More generally, it is not clear to me that philosophical views with implications for politics or even those advocating certain positions are to be excluded from philosophy. I am told that one can read Rawls’ Theory of Justice as an apologia for Western liberal democracy, for instance, and it is hard to think of a recent text with more philosophical standing.

Finally, and most speculatively since I reiterate that I am not well-versed in these topics, I think Case might be surprised, if he educated himself, on the variety of political views contained in the work he dismisses. In fact, critiques of Rawls by feminists like Susan Moller Okin and philosophers of race like Charles Mills reveal that mainstream liberalism is hardly popular. Indeed, there are anarchist and libertarian feminist theorists, too. Is it just the lack of conservatives in these fields that Case is protesting? As Case himself points out, pointing to Thomas Sowell, the conservative impulse would be to avoid investigating gender and race and accept traditional understandings instead. This is an aspect of conservatism, I confess, that I find simply not in keeping with the Socratic style of philosophy, where everything is open to question.Report

Dhananjay Jagannathan
Dhananjay Jagannathan
6 years ago

A correction to my earlier comment:

Having re-read the Best Practices document, I note that it uses the word ‘disparage’ and not ‘denigrate’. I think I picked up the latter word from another source describing the document and got them confused. I think my point stands, especially since the Best Practices document notes the importance and value of criticism – of arguments and theories – in philosophy. I hope I managed above to live up to this standard of professionalism in responding to Case.Report

Dhananjay
Dhananjay
6 years ago

Correction to my correction: ‘disparage’ is used by the Best Practices document, ‘denigrate’ by the Site Visit Report.Report

Nameless Please
Nameless Please
6 years ago

It is telling that, of all the kinds of concerns one could raise about which philosophical questions and topics are worth pursuing, and what kinds of problems there are with the discipline and the academy, someone would bother to focus his critical attention on the attempts to make things better for a historically discriminated against and historically disadvantaged population in the profession.

I think there are some men in the profession who blame women, the rising interest in philosophical feminism, and the efforts to correct bias, for their current or predicted lack of success in the profession. Even if these things have an effect on the career prospects of some men, on average it is, I would bet, negligible compared to factors like the instrumentalization of education, the adjunctification of the academy, the discounting of the liberal arts, the macroeconomic situation, broader attitudes in philosophy towards other disciplines, and a general lack of understanding by the public of the value of philosophical study.

Using the platform of a national publication to complain about a department’s attempts to make itself a welcoming and productive environment for all of its members is like grabbing the fire chief’s megaphone to complain about a splinter in the middle of a raging forest fire. You are focused on the wrong problems.Report

Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

Again, I find it hard to take Case’s claims here seriously. To be clear, this is certainly not because he is a conservative. It’s because his case is weak and tellingly one-sided.

Case is against the following as a best practice: “We should attempt to gender balance class discussions.” Why? Here his response seems to be threefold: (1) there’s no need, really; (2) it spreads “favoritism”; (3) it’s just too hard to implement.

(1) The evidence that there is a need for gender balance in philosophy discussions (in the classroom, in conference spaces, and elsewhere) is empirical and overwhelming. And the problem extends far outside the tiny world of philosophy. To tell professional philosophers to be more “civil” to everyone will do nothing to fix this, because it doesn’t diagnose the actual problem, let alone present a credible solution to it. Most people, as the author admits, are blind to their biases against women and minorities. When a professor ignores a women or allows others to interrupt her, the problem isn’t that he/she is being uncivil, the problem is bias. This is not hard.

(2) The idea that trying to correct a wrong to a historically and presently disadvantaged group is showing “favoritism” is confused. One might as well say that making buildings wheelchair accessible is “favoriting” the disabled. Trying to level the playing the field for women by attempting to correct biases and practices that exclude them is not to favor women over men, anymore than taking down the stairs in favor of a ramp is favoriting the disabled. You can imagine Case saying, “do I want to exclude the disabled? Of course not. But don’t ask me to favorite them by building all these expensive ramps.”

(3) The “it’s just too hard” move is obviously desperate. First, is it really that hard for intelligent folks to imagine how one might monitor gender balance in class discussion? If it is, please email me and I’ll give you some basic pointers. And putting it forward as a vagueness problem (how many minutes is too much or too little) shows a lack of teaching acumen and imagination that’s a little shocking. Bottom line: at best, this is an argument that more explicit guidelines are necessary, not an argument for *doing nothing*, which seems to be the author’s favored course. Again, it’s as if, in response to global warming, we said, “this is too hard to fix” as an excuse to sit idly by and watch the world burn. Oh, wait….Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I conjecture that if Case knew anything substantial about feminist philosophy, he’d have his answer to this question.

Well, I don’t know if I know anything substantial about feminist philosophy, but I don’t think I know of any good answer to Case’s question. What justifies the existence of a sub-discipline that is not just about a certain topic but also requires a certain position to be taken? We don’t think that conservative or libertarian philosophy, for instance, are distinctive sub-disciplines, so why should feminism be any different?Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

Anon, Feminist Philosophy is not a sub-discipline that requires a certain position to be taken. “Feminist” in this context describes an aspect of the methodology (i.e., philosophy done with the nature, context, or consequences of gender in mind) not the conclusion.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Exactly: it’s a rough collection of shared methodologies and projects, but not shared positions or conclusions. There’s *tonnes* of vigorous disagreement within every feminist debate.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

I mean, nearly every epistemologist agrees that knowledge is factive: does being an epistemologist ” require[] a certain position to be taken?” Come on. Of course not. Feminist philosophy is just as much a sub-discipline as epistemology. Interestingly, though, feminist epistemology is itself a sub-sub-discipline. Moreover, those who are feminists may engage in projects outside of feminist philosophy (I am just such a person). The vast majority of my work is outside of feminist philosophy, but I’m still a feminist, a feminist philosopher, and I also sometimes do feminist philosophy.Report

Colin
Colin
6 years ago

It may be worth pointing out that the idea that sub-disciplines other than philosophy of race and feminist philosophy don’t require taking a philosophical stand is pretty obviously false. Most people who do philosophy of mind seem to agree that there is something called the mind and that it is worth studying; most people who do epistemology (as mentioned above) agree that there is something important about knowledge and that it should be studied. In phil mind, someone might argue for the reduction of mind; in epistemology someone might argue that we can’t ever gain knowledge. Either way, there is a commitment that the debate has important consequences. One way to see that these are genuine commitments is to notice that you will see very few Wittgensteinians or phenomenologists in either field because they don’t share commitments to either minds or truth. They (tend to) think that the debates should be surpassed or dissolved. Consequently, the claim that feminist philosophers and philosophers of race have shared commitments is neither particularly unusual nor particularly interesting.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

A few responses:

(1) ““Feminist” in this context describes an aspect of the methodology (i.e., philosophy done with the nature, context, or consequences of gender in mind) not the conclusion.”

As a sociological question about what is categorized as feminist philosophy and who is identified as a feminist philosopher (and what other question could it be?), I think that claim is simply false. Imagine a book about gender based disadvantage, discrimination, affirmative action, and sex differences. It looks as though your criterion would clearly count a book like this as feminist philosophy. However, David Benatar’s “The Second Sexism”, in which it is argued that men are the victims of sexism, is precisely such a book! I don’t know anyone who would call it a work of feminist philosophy, or describe Benatar as someone who works in feminist philosophy. Examples multiply; in short, someone who writes on philosophy of sex and gender and who takes a non- or anti-feminist position in their work simply doesn’t count, by the standards of classification currently employed, as doing feminist philosophy.

(2) “There’s *tonnes* of vigorous disagreement within every feminist debate.”

Fair enough; perhaps it was too strong to say that a particular position must be taken in order from work to count as feminist philosophy; the true claims in the vicinity are that (i) work must have a feminist perspective in order to count as feminist philosophy, and (ii) although having a feminist perspective may not mandate one having any particular view, it certainly does place substantive conditions upon the content of the views one can have. In that sense, feminist philosophy has ideological commitments built in.

(3) “It may be worth pointing out that the idea that sub-disciplines other than philosophy of race and feminist philosophy don’t require taking a philosophical stand is pretty obviously false”

There’s a fairly obvious distinction between fields in which there is (merely) large-scale convergence on certain positions on certain issues, and fields which constitutively require certain views (or perspectives) to be adopted. To respond to your particular examples: although it would be motivationally odd for someone who thinks that the mind is non-existent or uninteresting to do philosophy of mind, it’s perfectly possible for such a person to exist; there’s nothing conceptually incoherent in the thought. Similarly for epistemology. As for the factivity of knowledge: sure, most people accept it. But suppose someone were to deny it; they’d clearly still be doing epistemology (maybe bad epistemology, but still epistemology). In contrast, someone who writes on the philosophy of sex and gender and who denies that, for instance, women are discriminated against simply isn’t doing feminist philosophy.Report

Julia
Julia
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

Since people seem to get hung up on the term ‘feminist,’ maybe it would be more fruitful to think of Philosophy of Gender as a subfield of philosophy, and Feminist Philosophy as a subfield of philosophy of gender. Philosophy of gender is the philosophical study of gender and does not presuppose any particular philosophical stand, except perhaps for the stand that gender is worthy of philosophical study (which is the same for, e.g., philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, etc.). A book such as “The Second Sexism” (if it is philosophical, that is–I have not read it) would then clearly fall under “philosophy of gender,” as would feminist works, works about homosexuality, etc.Report

Colin
Colin
6 years ago

It seems to me that the analogous claim regarding “The Second Sexism” could not be made about the philosophy of race. Certainly in teaching a philosophy of race course, one would most likely cover philosophers with a wide range of views, including those that claim that “race” has no extension. The SEP entry has a very long discussion on precisely this point. This leads me to be even more suspicious about Case’s claims.Report