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Philosophy is dead white – and dead wrong

Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman on the subject’s colour line

Miles Cole illustration (20 March 2014)

Source: Miles Cole

Literature and politics have treated persons racialised-as-black as artists and campaigners. Yet, philosophers have not tended to treat such persons as philosophers

1841 For Solomon Northup, it marked the beginning of “12 Years a Slave”, but for Frederick Douglass, it marked the beginning of 50 years a public speaker. Reflecting on that beginning, Douglass tells us – in the second of his three autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) – that “[d]uring the first three or four months, my speeches were almost exclusively made up of narrations of my own personal experience as a slave. ‘Let us have the facts,’ said the people. So also said Friend George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narrative. ‘Give us the facts,’ said [John A.] Collins [of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society], ‘we will take care of the philosophy’.”

Let’s reflect critically on this notion of “taking care of the philosophy”, by considering, on the one hand, who gets to do philosophy and, on the other, what gets done in philosophy.

On the one hand, Douglass doesn’t get to do philosophy.

Interestingly, just as, in the US, we remember Northup’s narrative more readily than Douglass’ philosophy, here in the UK, we remember The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) more readily than Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787). The Sons of Africa, as Equiano, Cugoano and the dozens of other Afro-British men collectively campaigning in central London in the late 18th century were known, had an explanation for our selective memory. In 1789, in London’s Diary, the Sons of Africa wrote that “the nation at large is awakened to a sense of our sufferings, except the Oran Otang philosophers”. Without doubt, this reference was to philosophers who had bought into the theory of Edward Long, according to whom “the oran-outang and some races of black men are very nearly allied”. Indeed, “[t]hey are, say the most credible writers, a people certainly very stupid and very brutal”.

Fifty years later, even the abolitionist William Wilberforce still described Long as “a writer of the highest authority on all West India subjects” and referred to Long’s “celebrated history of Jamaica”. More recently, Phillip Atiba Goff, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has found “evidence of a bidirectional association between Blacks and apes that can operate beneath conscious awareness yet significantly influence perception and judgments”. Thus, that unspoken and unspeakable suspicion, that sits on the tip of your tongue, and that might mean I don’t become a professor of philosophy, is the question: “Is Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman an oran-utang?” The threat of this stereotype, Claude Steele, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, tells us, causes stress to those, who, like me, spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources, to ensure that no one has any reason to think we are acting according to type. Yet, when we do dodge the threat of the oran-utang, our academic achievements are frustratingly attributed to luck, to fluke, to outside help. “How long shall they kill our prophets?”, Bob Marley once asked. Stereotype threat and attribution bias are killing our prophets.

Thus, it is no wonder that I am one of only five philosophers racialised-as-black employed by a British university – only two of whom (the two men) are employed by a department of philosophy, namely James Wilson and I, at University College London. By contrast, the other three philosophers (three women) are employed by other departments: namely Patrice Haynes, in the department of theology, philosophy and religious studies, at Liverpool Hope University; Katherine Harloe, in the department of Classics, at the University of Reading; and Mahlet Getachew Zimeta, in the department of humanities, at the University of Roehampton. We are less than 1 per cent of all employed philosophers. None of us is, yet, a professor.

On the other hand, Douglass doesn’t “get done” in philosophy.

Literature, history and politics have treated Douglass, and other persons enslaved-as-negro, and, more generally, other persons racialised-as-black, as artists, biographers and campaigners. Yet, philosophers have not tended to treat such persons as philosophers.

Reflecting on such neglect, Anita LaFrance Allen-Castellitto, professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that “[i]f people of color are to ‘do’ philosophy, philosophers must be willing to ‘do’ people of color. When we give minorities’ issues their due we dignify them as moral agents with morally and intellectually significant lives”. Yet, as Albert Atkin (a senior lecturer in philosophy, who had to leave Britain for Macquarie University in Australia before he could write and publish his monograph on The Philosophy of Race (2012)) puts it, “mainstream philosophy has managed to make itself something of a notable exception in contributing to debates on race”.

Mainstream philosophy has managed to do this by considering itself to be regally above researching blackness. If, in the 19th century, Gauss dubbed mathematics “the Queen of the Sciences”, in the 13th century, for Aquinas, other sciences were already the handmaids of theology, and, in the 6th century, Boethius had already patriarchally personified Philosophy as a toweringly tall woman, with books in her right hand and, in her left hand, a sceptre. Philosophy needs to get off its high horse. For such queenly – or, rather, queeny – academic arrogance has, at least, two consequences: inside the academy, philosophy sits in a silo, and outside the academy, it never dares to venture.

In a 2012 blog posting titled “What could leave philosophy?”, Brian Weatherson, professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, argues that “[f]or a few areas [of philosophy], it is easy to imagine them being in other departments, because they already overlap so substantially with work done in other departments”. Thus, instead of seeing overlap as an opportunity to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries, Weatherson sees overlap as an opportunity to police, enforce and constrict the boundary around philosophy. This narrow-mindedness is an example of what Kristie Dotson, assistant professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, has called philosophy’s “culture of justification” – not the legitimate demand that one justify the conclusion of one’s arguments, no, but the illegitimate demand that one justify that what one is doing counts as “philosophy”.

Such derailing demands mean that philosophy misses out on such groundbreaking cross-disciplinary work as that of, for instance, Nicholas Kwesi Tsri and Gabriella Beckles-Raymond, both of whom will speak at Critical Philosophy of Race: Here and Now in London’s Senate House on 5 and 6 June. This conference will be a milestone in British philosophy, when anglophone “analytic” philosophers, who tend to think that philosophy can be done from the armchair, unsullied by any engagement with the public, begin to do philosophy with the armchair at arm’s length, rolling up their sleeves, getting their hands dirty and grappling philosophically with the peculiarities of racial injustice in Britain.

I conclude with a reply to Collins:

Dear dead white man, we thank you for your kind offer to take care of the philosophy on our behalf, but, with all due respect, you are not equipped to take care of the philosophy on your own.

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Readers' comments (19)

  • I'm certain that boundary policing goes on in philosophy (as I suspect it does in other disciplines). However, I'm also fairly certain that this isn't what Brian Weatherson is doing in the mentioned blog post. As Weatherson says, "I’m not imagining, let alone advocating, philosophy chop off these fields any time soon."

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  • D Dvroffschtz

    ... I don't see for what this article attempts to argue nor do I see its significance. Perhaps this is due solely to my own incapability, but for one thing, I don't see why single out philosophy in regard to 'colour line' - are not other disciplines in a similar standing? (Besides, I doubt that the historical problem of 'racial prejudice in the academia' is still current. Namely, that judgements of the academics' intellectual capacities are influenced by their ethnicity. Least likely of all in philosophy!) On another matter, I'm sure 'philosophy of race' not only existed but was an active field long before one has it a label - are not racial studies, cultural studies, history, political studies etc. and the like all form part of what we might call 'philosophy of race'? It seems to me, rather than 'pulling philosophy off its high horse', the author is bringing philosophy to the heavenly thrones by trying to force this label as if it's a distinct new field...
    Overall, the article seems to be indeed 'more facts (or history if you like) than philosophy' and may I add - more rhetoric than content (or argument if you like)...
    Regarding the comment on 'analytic philosophy' - I'm speechless... I would appreciate if someone may make sense and substance out of this article...

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  • I concur with the comment above. This essay does not appear to have any thesis. It consists of a long whine about the lack of women and people of color in Philosophy, as a preface to the concluding racist insult in italics, "Dear dead white man…"

    A well-known female Professor of Mathematics once replied, when asked why, in her opinion, there are so few female mathematicians: "In general, most women are far too intelligent to waste their lives on something as silly as Mathematics." Ditto for Philosophy.

    And, by the way, what pray tell is "Philosophy of Race?" Will someone, anyone, please reassure me that we will be spared the invention of Philosophy of Women. Good grief.

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  • It is regretful that neither of the previous commenters were able to discover the "thesis statement". To me and others Prof Dabrinksi it is quite clear: http://jdrabinski.com/?p=302#comment-76. Perhaps it might be the actual education system which privileges certain 'rational' argumentation and Enlightened thought and mental tropes such as "thesis statements". It is not your typical piece of writing and so this may confuse some. But in the second paragraph there my be a clue there.

    He speaks of exclusionary strategies employed by philosophers and individuals to suggest that intelligence levels only afford certain rights to some people to engage in the practice of Philosophy. It is an enduring practice. The significance also relates to the fact that all subject areas have a philosophical foundation and were even derived from the traditions of Philosophy. Hence the highest academic qualification one can attain is a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D).

    And for the second commenter there is a Philosophy of Women: it is called Feminism. It's been around for a fee decades. It might be useful to look into it.

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  • That should read *perceived levels of intelligence as we all know it is not always apparent.

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  • D Dvroffschtz

    Keston, your comment that 'there is a Philosophy of Women' is exactly my, and I suppose, Deborah's point - there is already such a field, no need to brand another name onto it and pretend it needs to begin, as is the case in this article on 'philosophy of race'.

    I do not see the significance of your first paragraph, can you elaborate? Also, we do not appreciate 'clues' in philosophy, or in any argumentative writing for that matter. The whole of academia has evolved in this respect so that we don't have to suspend ourselves forever over the interpretation of some obscure piece, and rather, make some clear contributions. What do you mean by 'actual education system which privileges certain 'rational' argumentation and Enlightened thought and mental tropes such as "thesis statements". '? I feel that you're missing the point here, by making a rather bold assumption about education and thinking - I'm sure most people who can think can pick out, at least, what is rational and what is not - e.g. claiming p and not p is not rational, claiming that if p and p then q, then q is rational etc. to give some trivial examples. Please do not tell me that 'education systems feeds the very notion of 'rationality' into people' - no, and the burden of proof is on those who claim this.

    'He speaks of exclusionary strategies employed by philosophers and individuals to suggest that intelligence levels only afford certain rights to some people to engage in the practice of Philosophy.' - This is most likely to be plain false in today's philosophical communities - at least the top ones, so I disagree that it's an enduring practice, it's most likely just history. If you can provide some evidence for such practice, I'd be interested. While racial (and other) discrimination is still a persisting issue in many places of the world, least of all places is the modern philosophical community. Even if so, I believe some types of discrimination is in fact appropriate - such as those who have no desire to do philosophy shall be excluded, and that's, I think, perfectly reasonable, do you agree not?

    'The significance...' No that's not what he meant - he meant exclusively philosophy as in the discipline philosophy, far from the sense of 'philosophy' in the sense of a Ph.D. Do not equivocate, they're very different. (And even the article by Dabrinksi you have quoted, rightly, take Coleman to be talking about the discipline philosophy, not the broad 'world' sense of philosophy - they are not the same thing!) Why? Because if he meant what you wanted to force upon him, then he could have been much more clearer and to the point by using the phrase 'academia' instead of 'philosophy'. He is referring to philosophy and exclusively to philosophy, not to any other areas, as is evident via his comment regarding philosophy's relation with the sciences. He even exclusively referred to analytic philosophy, and is plain wrong about it due to his failure to appreciate the nature of many issues at hand in contemporary analytic philosophy.

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  • What a great article, and judging from the comments in reaction to it, a brave, important and sorely needed one for philosophy in the UK (but also other disciplines). The responses call to mind Patricia Williams’ comments on the discourse of colour-blindness. “The liberal ideal of a ‘colour-blind’ society as a response to the problem of racism boils down to ‘the ‘I think therefore it is’ school of idealism. ‘I don’t think about color, therefore your problems don’t exist’”. Although they are so loaded with hostility (it’s racist to say “Dear dead white man”???) that they seem to go beyond merely being power-averse. Nirmal Puwar’s (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place speaks both to the problem you so eloquently describe and the reactions to it.

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  • natcphd

    http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/events/2014/03/21/whyisntmyprofessorblack/

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  • natcphd

    www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/letters/racial-exclusions/2012251.article

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  • natcphd

    http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/philosophy-and-race-in-the-thes/

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