October 20, 2014

It's Not Just Implicit Bias

According to a recent study, African-Americans make up less than 1.5% of the people (faculty or graduate students) in U.S. philosophy departments. According to another report, there are only five black philosophers in faculty positions in England.

Why are there so few black academic philosophers?

There are three flat-footed options:

1) Academic philosophers are racist.

2) The ideas in academic philosophy are racist.

3) The structures of academic philosophy are racist.

None of these are quite right. At least in my experience, (1) is not true , not in an explicit, ordinary sense of racism. In fact, many white academic philosophers have enormous white guilt. [Note: this paragraph has been changed in response to helpful comments here and here.]

(2) suggests that academic philosophy is too rational and so is somehow basically white. That reasoning and logic as activities are themselves too white, kind of like ice hockey. Proponents of this view draw broad distinctions between reason and intuition, or the mind and the body, and claim that the intuition or bodyness of blacks (the complex rhythms of jazz, etc.) is disvalued by philosophy. Stated bluntly like this, (2) is absurd. It pegs non-whites into a permanent state of otherness and fails to recognize rationality as a mode of all human beings.

(3) says the problem is institutional, such as the hiring practices or the syllabi, which create a feedback loop. If blacks students don't see or read black philosophers, then they stay away or struggle to stay in academic philosophy. There is something to (3), but as stated it isn't enough. For it leads to the question: if neither philosophers nor the ideas they value are racist, why aren't they able to change the structures? It is funny to treat the structures as an independent force which are much stronger than the good will and ideals of the philosophers themselves. What makes the structures so resistant to change? More needs to be said than that in time, a few generations from now, it will all get resolved.

A sharper version of the original question is: Given that neither philosophers nor philosophy is racist, why are there so few black academic philosophers?

A popular answer, which has become prevalent recently, rests on the idea of implicit bias.

October 17, 2014

Function of the Analytic-Continental Divide

Imagine you are a philosophy professor in Europe in 1920. You have just been through a gut wrenching war. In your livelihood as a professor you emphasize the power of rational discussion, but you have also just witnessed a war which almost obliterated the world. How do you reconcile your job as a philosopher with the horror of the war?

You have three options.
1) You can say that philosophy failed in its task, that reasoning is nothing but a veneer over the underlying irrational impulses of humankind.

2) You can say that the war, for all its horror, was rational and perfectly reasonable, that this is what reason in action looks like.
3) You can say that it is not philosophy in general that failed, but a particular kind of philosophy, the kind which is irresponsible and horrible, and which you will fight to overcome.

October 16, 2014

The illusion of Separation

By The Academic Philosopher’s Vision, I mean the combination of the following three ideas:
1) Separation: Academic philosophy is set apart from the mundane aspects of our society. If you have a 9-6 office job, you just have to go by the norms of society and be a cog in the machine. One of the herd. But by becoming an academic you get to be separate from this. The normal rules don’t apply.
2) Reflection: Separation enables academic philosophers to gain reflective distance from the general impulses in society. Because an ordinary person is just a cog in the machine, she doesn’t have the ability to reflect on the machine as a whole. But the academic philosopher does have such distance, and that enables her to think new thoughts and be creative.
3) Change: By reflecting on society without the normal constraints, the academic philosopher is able to think more clearly than most about the direction of society, and so suggest and lead regarding how society can be improved.
Separation by itself suggests a person might become an academic philosophy just to not be a cog in the machine; and there are academics like that. Separation and reflection together suggest that a person wants to be an academic so that she can think freely for herself or for gaining knowledge and nothing more; and there are academics like that. Separation, reflection and change together suggest that there is a normative and communal dimension to separation and reflection: that they are not just benefits for oneself but lead to benefits for everyone.

But what if there isn’t really much separation at all? What if academic philosophy is itself becoming more and more part of the mainstream of society? Not in the sense that society is becoming more philosophical, but in the sense that academic philosophy is becoming more like any job, just with its special perks and struggles?

October 10, 2014

Spectrum of Public Philosophy

What is it for a philosopher to engage with the public? Here are a spectrum of options.

A. Academic philosopher not addressing the public

1. Scholar. Does her research and teaching, meant for fellow academics and students. Effect on the public is downstream and not immediate. Example: most academics.

B. Academic philosopher addressing the public in a way they can't directly speak back

2. Public professor. In addition to her research and teaching meant academics, writes for and engages with the general public in order to introduce them to what is happening in academic philosophy. Examples: Simon Blackburn, Thomas Nagel, Philosophy TV.

3. Public intellectual. In addition to her research and teaching, writes for the public arguing for particular views. Fosters debate among the public by creating public discussion of the view the public intellectual defends. Examples: Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Anthony Appiah, Dan Dennett.

October 9, 2014

Function of the Gourmet Report

Essay about the relation between the Philosophical Gourmet Report and the job market: here.

The main point of the essay is that while the standard narrative about the PGR is how it helps students get into higher ranked departments, the function of the PGR is to expand the range of departments where the graduate students from the ranked programs can be placed in jobs. PGR is the way that the higher ranked departments unconsciously dealt with the problem of placing their graduate students in a tough job market.

But why then would unranked departments go along with the PGR? For the same reason why many poor people in America buy into the narrative that the rich getting richer helps everyone. If the "lower tiers" look to the "higher tiers" as better versions of themselves, then the former will assume that the interests of the latter are actually their own interests. This is a recipe for institutional stagnation: the forces at the top resist change in the name of quality, and others, in identifying with the forces at the top, embrace such resistance even at their own cost.

October 4, 2014