How Philosophers See The Arts And The Rest Of The Humanities

I can only speak for myself, but being trained by a philosopher, I often feel I was exposed to an expectation of argumentative rigor that, to be perfectly frank, I can’t say I always find in the field of political theory proper. But this can result in drawbacks. Philosophers sometimes look at the rest of the humanities in the way that social scientists look at social theorists. Philosophers often treat their analytic chops as equivalent to social scientific data processing so sources from literature and music or theater, for example, are seen as too mushy to be useful for moral theorizing, which is another silly and tragic attitude.

That is Christopher Lebron, who this coming fall will be taking up a position as associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? with Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina).

The interview covers Lebron’s life, education, work, and views about things ranging from video games to racism. He received his PhD in political science at MIT under Joshua Cohen; that and his subsequent appointments in political science (at Virginia) and philosophy and African-American studies (at Yale) grant him some perspective on philosophy. For example: “I must say, for all the shit the discipline of Philosophy is given, that field has been very kind to me and my work. Not uniformly, of course, but I have felt welcomed there, in addition to political theory, though not necessarily in political science proper. That discipline still has serious race problems.”

I do get the sense that he’s right that many philosophers, particularly those in the analytic tradition (broadly construed), tend to view the arts and other humanities as “too mushy to be useful”—not just for moral theorizing, but for philosophical work more generally. And I agree that this is a loss. But part of the problem may be a lack of exposure to analytic work that makes use of literature and the arts (as tools of inquiry and sources of insight, not just as subject matter), and to lack of training in how to do this well.

If so, it would be useful to hear about:

  • articles and books in analytic / Anglo-American style philosophy that make substantial and effective use of literature and the arts


  • courses at the graduate level that train philosophy students to make use of literature and the arts.

If you know of examples of either of these, please share them. Thanks.

The whole interview with Professor Lebron is here.

Henri Matisse, “Nasturtiums with the Painting ‘Dance'” (detail)

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