Philosophy: Splendidly Polyphonic, Historically Limited, Problematically Magical


In the latest interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?, Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) asks Kwame Anthony Appiah (NYU) how he sees the future of philosophy. Appiah answers:

I’m not much of a prophet and I feel very stuck in the present of the subject, which strikes me as splendidly more polyphonic than it was when I started out.

The interview provides a lot of information about Appiah’s life, from visits from heads of state when he was hospitalized as a child, to his education and work, all the way up through upcoming lectures to be broadcast on the BBC this coming fall.

Along the way he shares his views on certain aspects of the profession, including why philosophy is more white and more male than other disciplines:

 [O]ne reason for the racial disparities is historical: the opportunity to enter the field was only made widely available some forty or fifty years ago, and it was made available as opportunities expanded in many fields that are much more lucrative (though not, I should say, therefore more rewarding). Naturally, reasonably ambitious African-Americans didn’t start out by colonizing philosophy. For the same reason, it’s not a big subject for people who are first generation college goers in their families. I think there are also issues to do with the availability of role models and mentors. And I am persuaded that the way many people think of skill in the subject, as a sort of magical something that one either has or doesn’t have, discourages women more than men. Since this magical picture is just plain wrong, it would be good to discourage it as an untruth.

The whole interview, interesting throughout, is here.

Appiah

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Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

Dear Kwame Anthony Appiah,

I emailed you some months ago after I read one of your entries in the New Yorker; unfortunately, I did not receive a response from you. On that occasion, I wrote to you about your use of ableist language in the New Yorker article. In the email, I explained why the language was objectionable and pointed to the under-representation of both disabled philosophers in the profession and critical work on disability in the discipline, asserting that these factors reflect, contribute to, and reproduce the hostile environment that disabled philosophers confront in philosophy. I recommended several resources on ableist language, ableism, and the situation for disabled philosophers in the profession, including some of my own writing.

It is very disheartening to read numerous instances of ableist language (“daft,” “tone deaf,” “crazy,” etc.) throughout this interview. Some of us are working very hard to get nondisabled philosophers to recognize the pernicious character of ableist language in philosophical discourse and the insidious nature of ableism in philosophy and in society more generally.

You are a very prestigious, powerful, and influential member of the profession. Your remarks have a significant impact on your students, your colleagues, and even members of the general public, some of whom are disabled. I hope that after you read this comment, you will consider how your use of ableist metaphors and ableist language impacts upon these disabled people, upon the present and future of philosophy, and even upon the social position of disabled people more widely.

Sincerely yours,
Shelley Tremain
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the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

Is this a parody of “social justice” discourse gone wild? If so, great job. Report

HFG
HFG
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

She has a point. All in all, Appiah gave a wonderful interview. But it’s also nice to know we can count on Tremain to remind us when our flippant uses of certain words can actually hurt people a great deal. Report

HFG
HFG
5 years ago

I liked this part:

“Cool. How do you see the future of philosophy?

I’m not much of a prophet and I feel very stuck in the present of the subject, which strikes me as splendidly more polyphonic than it was when I started out. I think, for example, that the idea of epistemic injustice wouldn’t have occurred to most of us as a possible topic when I was in graduate school.”Report

not crazy philosopher
not crazy philosopher
5 years ago

Dear Shelley,

As a philosophers who has long suffered from severe mental illness, I have great respect for all the work you do on behalf of disabled philosophers. I am about to express an opinion which I am sure you have heard before. However, I want to express it so others might here this side of things.

I do not agree with you that the use of ‘crazy’ and the like are problematic. As a philosopher with a mental illness many associate with ‘craziness’ it does not bother me at all. Indeed, what rather bothers me is the thought that my mental illness prevents me from dealing with ordinary language. I understand that when most people use that word, they are not referencing mental illness at all. Rather, they are referencing acts or attitudes which the speaker considers ‘unreasonable’. I think we need a word for these types of unreasonable acts and attitudes and ‘crazy’ is just as good as any. I am sure many other philosophers with mental illness feel as I do. And I feel similarly about many other words you consider ‘ableist’.

I hope you will take the time to consider if your advocacy against ableist language is doing more harm than good. I think it does more harm. I think it turns people against you and your cause because it makes them think you are unreasonable. I think that neither you nor your cause are unreasonable but rather noble. Notwithstanding, I cannot get behind your movement against ableist language. Although I am sure you have considered it before, I hope you will consider this point of view once more. And I thank you for the work you do.

Sincerely,

Philosopher with OCD and depression
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a Philososopher with Anxiety
a Philososopher with Anxiety
Reply to  not crazy philosopher
5 years ago

Dear Shelley,

As another philosopher who has also suffered from long term mental illness, I second the remarks of ‘not crazy philosopher.’ I too hope you will consider whether your advocacy against ableist language does more harm than good. I think it is counterproductive, and I for one do not appreciate others deciding what kinds of language negatively impact people like me.

Sincerely,
Philosopher with an anxiety disorderReport

Phil
Phil
Reply to  a Philososopher with Anxiety
5 years ago

As yet another philosopher with mental illness (and who’s tone deaf, and who studies language for a living), I want to register my agreement with Not Crazy Philosopher and Philosopher with an Anxiety Disorder. I think it bears repeating that, though this language (“crazy,” “daft,” “tone deaf”) could qualify as “ableist” in some sense, it is not problematic in any interesting sense, and it does not “hurt people a great deal,” as HFG suggests above. I know that words can hurt. I’ve felt it, when racial epithets are used to disparage my family and myself, for example. But when “tone deaf” is used to describe those who are insensitive to certain subtleties, you know what I feel? Nothing. Sincerely. Nothing. And I’m confident that, outside a sub-sub-community of disability advocates, any actual tone deaf people feel any sense of outrage when the expression is used in that way. And, speaking as a political progressive, I don’t want to live in a world, or occupy a community, where getting people to say “insensitive to such-and-such subtleties” rather than “tone deaf” is considered an accomplishment, or where getting people to say “anonymous review” rather than “blind review” is a “huge victory,” to use the example that Professor Tremain provides below. I know I’m just “piling on” at this point, but I can hardly help it. And I want to be explicit that I respect Professor Tremain, even if I find some of her views to be misguided. Her heart is obviously in the right place.Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Phil
5 years ago

Oops that’s supposed to say “And I doubt that, outside a sub-sub-community of disability advocates, any actual tone deaf people feel any sense of outrage when the expression is used in that way.”Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  not crazy philosopher
5 years ago

Thanks for your kind remarks about my efforts, Not Crazy Philosopher. I haven’t addressed the issue of ableist language adequately on the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog. I should. I will try to post something there on the subject in the near future. Your comment raises a number of issues that I think should be addressed in such a post, including: the relation between language and oppression, language and representation, and the social situatedness of language. I will address these issues in a bona fide post over there, rather than a comment here.

However, I do want to respond to one of your concerns, which also concerns A Philosopher with Anxiety, namely, that my “advocacy against ableist language does more harm than good.”

First, I want to point out that critiques of ableist language have been developed by many scholars in disability studies and cognate fields. In my prospective post at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog, I will provide a list of some resources on ableist language. There is now a growing body of article, videos, and other work on the subject.

I cannot agree with you that the critique of ableist language in philosophy (or even my efforts against ableist language in philosophy) does “more harm than good,” is “counterproductive,” “unreasonable,” and so on. In fact, an inceasing number of feminist philosophers and others have been motivated to change some of their linguistic and discursive .practices because of the critique. Take, for instance, the critique of the term ‘blind review.’ That critique has been quite successful. Already, the Canadian Philosophical Association, the American Philosophical Association, Hypatia, FEAST, SWIP, and a host of other organizations, journals, and societies in philosophy internationally have stopped using that term in their CFPs and other materials and have replaced it with the term ‘anonymous review’ or something like that. That’s a huge victory for those of us working against ableism in philosophy.

In any case, I hope to write a blog post soon about these and other issues with respect to ableist language. Thanks for providing me with the impetus to do so.

In the meantime, if either (or both) of you wish to do an interview with me for the Dialogues on Disability series that I post at our blog, please get in touch with me at [email protected] or [email protected]. I’m now scheduling interviews for the New Year.

Yours ,
Shelley

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HFG
HFG
5 years ago

Okay, so not everyone likes Shelley Tremain’s open letter. Fair enough. There are probably less confrontational/ more productive ways to point out when certain terms are ableist. Fine. Can we move on now?

Did anyone read this interview? If so, did anything about it make you have hope for yourself as a philosopher or philosophy in general?

I have a weird desire to see people get along on philosophy blogs (I know, I know, totally weird* and quite unlikely), and I sort of think these interviews with philosophers might give people perspective on themselves as philosophers, and on philosophy in general…. and that might facilitate solution-oriented conversations about problems in the profession….? Maybe? I dunno.

*Not that weird. I mean, arguably, philosophers aren’t as nice to each other as they could be. And maybe if people were nicer to each other on blogs, that would be reflected IRL………?Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  HFG
5 years ago

People take issue with the content of Prof Tremain’s letter, not just the way in which she presents that content. And aside from the Onion Man’s snarky comment, I’m not sure why you think the discussion of her letter has been less than nice. I mean, just because it’s critical doesn’t mean it’s uncivil.

I read the interview. I like Appiah in general. It’s cool that his fav book is The Remains of the Day, because he’s right that book rewards multiple readings. I think it’s weak that he said “trumpery” is his fav curse word though. Come on, give us a real one!

Nothing about his interview gave me hope for myself as a philosopher….I’m not sure why it would? Maybe because I come from a more-or-less working class background, so pretty much none of his life story resonates with me. Did it give you hope for yourself as a philosopher?

As for problems in the profession, I was sorta annoyed when he said, as one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the country, that we could do better public outreach. He’s certainly helped on that front, but when someone like Neil Degrasse Tyson or Bill Nye openly and ignorantly disparages philosophy, where is Appiah (or Perry or someone else who is prominent in the field and concerned about public outreach)? It seems like it’s always left to some junior faculty prof to write an open letter in response. And while I’m grateful, I’m also aware that few people will read that letter outside the philosophy profession. Appiah, on the other hand, has visibility, credibility, and contacts in enormously popular newspapers and magazines. I think he and others in similar positions should be the very first to rebuke people like Tyson and Nye.Report

HFG
HFG
Reply to  Phil
5 years ago

I didn’t say anything about whether or not the discussion of her letter was nice. I said that I’d prefer to see people get excited about Appiah’s interview than Tremain’s letter. And I’d prefer that because I like cooperating in prisoner’s dilemmas.

But it’s all good.

And yeah, you make an interesting point about Nye and Tyson. What’s their deal anyway? It’s funny though, I recently had a student who became interested in philosophy after Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey made them question their* religious upbringing.

*Singular “they”
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not crazy philosopher
not crazy philosopher
5 years ago

Hello HFG,

What makes you think people are not getting along? It seems to me that getting along in spite of disagreement is, in a sense, even better than getting along with monolithic opinion. For the most part I would put this discussion in the former camp.

Dear Shelley,
Thank you for replying to my worries. And thank you for addressing this on your blog. (I will be sure to look at your post).) I think we will have to ‘agree to disagree’ at this point. But I am glad we can do so civilly.

Many thanks to the other disabled philosophers who have supported my point. I know it is very easy to get snarky on this topic and I have at times been guilty of that myself. But I do encourage others who feel as I do to politely voice their point of view, if not here then at other appropriate times and venues. (as well as those persons who disagree with me, of course!) The best way to represent the needs of disabled philosophers (and all philosophers really) is to not be afraid to speak one’s mind in a respectful manner.

Sorry for taking this thread a little off topic!

-Philosopher with OCD and depressionReport

Instructor Gadget
Instructor Gadget
Reply to  not crazy philosopher
5 years ago

I am a philosopher that suffers from OCD. I agree with not crazy philosopher and the other commenters. I am grateful to Professor Tremain for her valuable interview series. But I disagree with her suggestion that something is wrong with using words like ‘crazy’. And I would regard it not as a victory but a setback if she succeeded in getting people to stop using such words. I would be disappointed if philosophers thought people with mental illness like me were so sensitive and weak that they must tiptoe around us carefully policing their words eliminating from their vocabulary common and inoffensive terms like ‘crazy’. I would find such a state of affairs to be creepy.Report

HFG
HFG
Reply to  not crazy philosopher
5 years ago

No, it’s okay. Cards on the table, many of the advice threads from the last year have been really pessimistic (in spite of their adorable joke-laden tones). I asked Justin to link to What it’s Like more instead. Not sure if he’s taking me up on my suggestion, but I guess I was hoping to see people get some positive life inspiration from them. I’d like to hear about the interesting things philosophers are doing outside the academy too. Report

Depressed Philosopher
Depressed Philosopher
5 years ago

This discussion really means a lot to me. I have long struggled with depression, but I am not at all troubled by people using words like ‘crazy,’ and for the same reasons giving in the comments above, I think that it is a very bad idea to criticize people for using that kind of language. However, the truth is that I have always been too intimidated to say anything like that in public.

Looking through the comments in this anonymous forum, it seems like the majority of philosophers secretly felt exactly the same way I did. I guess the next step is for some of us to muster up the courage to say things like this when the issue comes up in contexts that do not allow for anonymity.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

Here is the link to a post at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog about ableist metaphors in philosophy (as well as about the exclusion of philosophy of disability from The New Times “The Stone” column):

http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2016/01/throwing-stones-at-a-glass-house.htmlReport

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

My apologies, that should be: The New York Times “The Stone” columnReport

not crazy philosopher
not crazy philosopher
4 years ago

Depressed philosopher,

I too, have thought about saying something for a long time but never had. I think one problem is finding a way to express these opinions without disparaging people who do work for those with disability. Advocacy gets one very passionate about causes, and passion can sometimes get people carried away. Since I myself have not taken the time to work so hard as many others, I feel kind of bad criticizing those who do work that hard. Nonetheless, perhaps that makes it even more the job of ‘part timers’ to express their views so that the actual perspective of the majority gets a fair shake.

And I also find it hard to say what I did publicly. But I find this discussion encouraging. I hope that it will give me the courage to speak up in public (and to do so without snark). At least we now have some evidence that there is a respectable size audience that will agree with this side of things.

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HFG
HFG
Reply to  not crazy philosopher
4 years ago

I’d like to see people respect each other more in general. If some people get upset by certain words, then I’d like to know about that to better respect their feelings. If other people get upset that those people are getting upset, then I’d like to know about that too for the same reason. In general, I’d like to see people work together to find common ground because everything is more pleasant for everyone when that happens. I realize I’m saying something trivial, but the differences of degrees in pleasantness I’ve observed from department to department or conference to conference aren’t trivial at all.

So, I’m interested in any suggestions about how to help philosophers work together and find common ground. Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

Dear All,
I posted a response to this thread over at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog. If you feel inclined to respond to my post in some way, I would be grateful if you did so over at our blog, rather than on Daily Nous.

You can find the post here: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2016/08/no-language-is-neutral.htmlReport