In the first class of your first Philosophy 101 course, you learned where the word comes from: the love of knowledge.
In the second class, you probably heard about Socrates’ famous line: “I know that I know nothing.”
And then, whenever you went to the next philosophy class with some interesting questions, you came out with even more, ever more interesting questions about things you never even suspected existed. There are so many things we don’t know, so many layers to every problem, so much fascinating knowledge to explore! Isn’t philosophy a wonderful adventure?
Humans love a mystery. Unanswered questions are just so exciting! I think this is what draws so many of us to philosophy, at all levels, whether we want to ponder what choices should self-driving cars make in life-and-death situations, are flabbergasted by the paradoxes of time travel, or are deep into deliberating the fine details of what makes a good modal truth maker.
But if you continued attending philosophy classes in any English-speaking institution, you probably found pretty soon that all this excitement about mysteries that got you hooked in the first place has somewhat arbitrary boundaries and is rather rigidly stratified. Not all mysteries are treated with equal enthusiasm. The mysteries about the metaphysics of possible worlds, about the nature of knowledge – super exciting! The puzzles of aesthetic value, of medical ethics – I guess still a bit exciting. The unanswered questions in the politics of race or reproductive justice – well, apparently some people find these exciting, but they are not at your university. And what about the mystery of the personal perception and value of emptiness? Err… what is this, some Asian stuff? Come on, we’re trying to do real philosophy here.
What is this “real” philosophy? Well, nobody will say explicitly, but you’d have to try really hard to not get the hint. Here is just one example I found in a depressingly short five minutes. As you casually read the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on Epistemology, you might not initially notice that every single text cited in it has been written in English. That nearly all authors have very White sounding names. That nearly all texts have been published in a very narrow range of journals edited at Western institutions. You might miss the fact that the sub-field of epistemic injustice so central to feminist and race theory is mentioned exactly once in the whole text, in passing. Meanwhile, the word “feminist” is mentioned exactly twice, both in passing, and the word “race” does not appear at all. You might overlook a conspicuous lack of any mention of anything done outside of the Western Anglophone analytic tradition. But worry not! Feminist, Chinese, Indian and Latin-American epistemologies might be not mentioned here, but they all have their own separate entries! Why, it is only natural it should be that way, after all, they are the other stuff. Not part of the Epistemology. You know, the real Epistemology.
You might not initially notice those things, but once you do, you start seeing them everywhere. Honestly, I won’t bother offering another example – you’ll find one in five minutes, too.
Every class in philosophy is a lesson in questioning everything, in examining problems in minute detail and asking: why? Perhaps it is no wonder that people are asking: why are some mysteries more exciting than others? Why are some traditions more “real” than others? Why do prestigious journals publish on some topics but not others? Why does my department offer five modules on the different aspects of Western Anglophone epistemology, but only one in aesthetics and none on any topics from the Chinese, Indian or Latin-American traditions? Why is my curriculum white?
Philosophers hate arbitrary justifications. If you want to really annoy one, just say you found the final answer to the question, when does a belief counts as knowledge. It’s when at least 91.7% of authority figures agree that it does. You just won’t hear the end of it, and rightly so — that is about the least philosophically satisfying answer you could give. But are there any more satisfying answers to the questions above? There are certainly answers, and they likely have to do with the historical conditions in which the discipline developed, or the current system of financial and prestige incentives present in the institutional and funding structures of universities. But all such answers are painfully arbitrary and should never satisfy anyone.
So, if you ever wonder why is it that today’s philosophy students just won’t stop asking those annoying questions: it’s because they have been trained well.
Another thing you probably learned in one of your first philosophy classes is the difference between moral philosophy and moral psychology. Psychologists are interested in what people think is right and why, or what moral choices people actually make and why. But this all sounds a bit irrelevant to philosophers. We want to know what really is right and why, and what moral choices people ought to make and why. Psychology’s answers are exactly as philosophically unsatisfying as the 91.7% agreement on what counts as knowledge.
A psychologist would have an easy answer to questions such as why many philosophers think that some philosophical mysteries are more exciting than others. It likely has to do with how they themselves were trained, with the power structures in place in their institutions and in the world, with the existing systems of incentives and the behaviour patterns they motivate. But as with moral psychology, this can only explain how exciting people think various philosophical mysteries are. It can tell us nothing about how exciting those philosophical mysteries really are or ought to be.
Philosophy students are trained to excel in questioning arbitrary explanations and ad hoc conclusions, in distinguishing the is from ought, in separating what people think from what really is. Is it any wonder that they find themselves somewhat dissatisfied when they discover that the reason why their curricula look the way they look, and the disciplinary boundaries and prestige tiers fall where they do, is basically: “because 91.7% of authority figures in the past agreed on it”? Personally, I’m proud of them, I think they are applying their skills admirably.
The only thing that should be surprising about all of this, is the fact that it took so long for those questions to come to the fore. There is no great philosophical depth to that question, this one just is about brute historical and psychological facts. If the group of people who constitute a discipline is very homogenous for a very long time, with members coming from very similar cultural backgrounds where the dominant attitudes, prejudices, dispositions, and value systems are very similar – perhaps it’s no great mystery why they agree on a lot of things. Perhaps it is also no great mystery why this agreement should face questions and challenges not long after the discipline has been experiencing an influx of people from more heterogenous backgrounds.
But those questions and challenges are not a problem for philosophy. They are philosophy! There is nothing more philosophical than looking at something everyone agrees on without thinking much about it, and asking: but is it really that way? But should it be? But why? There is nothing more philosophical than wanting to approach a problem from a different perspective, to ask more questions about more topics, to aim to know more. That is, quite literally, “the love of knowledge”.
And while we are back in Ancient Greece, let’s come back to Socrates’ famous line: “I know that I know nothing.” I worry that modern philosophy is in danger of repeating his mistake. Recall that right after uttering this perfect expression of intellectual humility, this beautiful acknowledgement of his own limitations and implied excitement for pursuing knowledge wherever it is, Socrates proceeds to smugly insult his judges, show their inferiority, and is promptly executed for, essentially, being an arrogant prick. I always wondered why this story is not taught as a cautionary tale, a warning to “do as I say, not as I do.”
Western Anglophone philosophy should do what Socrates said, not what he did. It should really embrace a more intellectually humble approach. Maybe we don’t know everything? Maybe the scholarship done in our tradition is no more “real” than the work done elsewhere? Maybe we don’t even know that there is something out there worth knowing? Let’s find out!
This is the same excitement that got us into philosophy in the first place. The vastness of the conceptual space, the feeling that there is so much out there to know that we didn’t even begin to grasp, the sheer variety and depth of all those fantastic issues people continue to grapple with. Why, it’s positively exhilarating!
So, when you think about it, the oft-discussed question, “why should philosophy diversify?”, is rather odd. The real question is: “why wouldn’t philosophy diversify?”
The problem is, there are some strong answers to the question: “why wouldn’t philosophy diversify?,” and they are strong even for those of us who are already convinced that it should. Because it is time-consuming, and I am already overworked. Because it will distract me from doing the things that will actually advance my career. Because I will never get published in high-ranking journals if I do not write in the narrow range of areas they publish in (the “real”, “exciting” areas, of course). Because our department won’t get funding if we employ people who don’t get published in high-ranking journals. Because our grad students won’t get employed if they do not specialise in areas that departments want to employ in.
These are arbitrary, annoying answers that have nothing to do with philosophy. They aren’t good, they aren’t satisfying, and they are not the answers we want. But they are certainly strong, motivating, and effective in preventing positive change. Why, wouldn’t the world be so much better if doing the right thing was also easy!
Well, yes, it would, and I think this is exactly what we should be focusing on doing if we want to bring about change: making it easier to do the right thing. Help the people who want to do the right thing, to actually do it. Acknowledge that doing it can be really hard sometimes, and make it at least a little bit less hard.
Consider for example the frustrating fact that diversifying a module can be incredibly time-consuming. As a lecturer, you might be fully on board with the idea that your syllabus should feature texts written by authors from a range of backgrounds, present diverse perspectives, and represent a wider variety of topics, traditions, and methodologies. You might really care about ensuring that your students, who are a diverse bunch, see people like them represented on the syllabus and do not think that philosophy is mostly a posh white boys’ pastime. You might be frustrated with how stale the module you teach actually is and strongly resolve to improve it for the next year. But then the end of semester comes, the summer conference season begins, teaching is the last thing you want to think about and besides, you should really finish those three half-written papers … before you know it, the new semester is about to begin, and you are at square one. Will you have the time to make good on your strong resolve? You try, but the availability bias makes it harder and more time-consuming to even recall authors from under-represented groups and texts on less often discussed topics. And this is even before you start looking for those texts and reading them to check if they will work well with your content or are the right level of difficulty. How many of those you read will actually turn out appropriate for your teaching and end up on your syllabus? How much time will it now take you to rework your lecture notes to weave them around this new syllabus? When you think about all the effort involved, you can really understand why, despite best intentions, many end up running out of time and falling back on the same old thing they did last year.
The project I have been involved in, the Diversity Reading List (DRL), aims to address this very real obstacle of lack of time. The premise is simple: to make this process simpler and less time-consuming. To make it a little bit easier to do the right thing. The DRL is a database of philosophy texts written by authors from under-represented groups. If you stand before a daunting task of diversifying say, your Epistemology module, all you have to do is open the DRL website, browse or search for Epistemology, and there you will find a list of texts in the area, all written by authors from under-represented groups, often offering more diverse perspectives and coming from a wider range of traditions. The availability bias problem goes away – you’re not spending time recalling names, because you already found them here. But it gets better! Most DRL entries are accompanied by short teaching comments and indicators of difficulty, so you will get an early hint of how useful a given text will be for your class and thus significantly reduce the number of texts you need to review. Whenever possible, the DRL even gives you links to other people’s syllabi where a text is used, so you can see how it fits in their teaching and reduce the time you need to figure it out for yourself.
The DRL aims to make doing the right thing easier by reducing the time constraint obstacle. There are other ways to achieve a similar goal – for example, some departments now offer staff a sabbatical they can use to diversify their teaching. Various other initiatives aim to address the other obstacles: diversity-themed grants give people the financial and career incentives they were lacking, pressuring top journals to accept papers in a wider range of topics gives people motivation to work on a wider range of topics.
But while the momentum is growing, most of the existing diversity-oriented initiatives are still small grassroot projects, done with little or no money by people who have little or no power. We have multiple reading groups, seminar series, small grants, Minorities and Philosophy chapters, online resources, optional courses, and so on, but a fast and effective change in the discipline requires that those in power join us. We need large scale research grants awarded to unorthodox projects, we need general philosophy journals to widen the range of topics they accept papers in, we need departments to hire people working on a wider range of topics and give them time to diversify their teaching.
This powerful support can be slow to materialise, but I think that the existence and popularity of the DRL and other grassroots initiatives shows that the times have changed, and institutional changes have to follow. So far, more than thirty fantastic volunteers and over a hundred engaged contributors offered their time to co-create the DRL. Thousands of equally enthusiastic people work on other projects. We put our time and efforts into diversifying philosophy not because we expect a payoff. We do it, because this is what we think philosophy is and should be about: knowing more things, considering different perspectives, exploring new questions. This is why we were drawn to it in the first place. And even if for some time 91.7% of authority figures of the Western Anglophone tradition agreed that philosophy should be limiting itself to fit into a narrower box, to us today that just seems like such an odd, arbitrary, unphilosophical thing to do.
We have already done an amazing job raising awareness and pointing out how deeply problematic and unnecessary the boundaries and hierarchies of the past are. Today, more people are probably asking “why wouldn’t philosophy diversify?” than “why should it?” But wanting to do it and actually being able to do it are still two different things, and powerful obstacles remain in the way of those with best intentions. Let’s keep chipping away at those obstacles, so we can finally move beyond the arbitrary divisions and focus on philosophy: being excited about all the fascinating knowledge and mysteries, wherever they are.