The Irony of Philosophy Being the Ultimate Dead White Male Discipline

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When I was in college studying philosophy, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how exclusive the discipline was. There was a noticeable lack of women and people of non-European descent. (Today we would add a lack of LGBTQA+ people, but it was the early nineties and that didn’t seem to concern anyone as much as it should have.) They talked about the problem a lot, but, aside for some lip service to Indian philosophy and Confucius, didn’t seem to be doing anything about it. In my late-teens naivety, I thought the problem would fix itself. The world was slowly getting more inclusive. The end of South African Apartheid was current events. A deal between the Israelis and Palestinians seemed inevitable. I’m pretty sure something big had just happened in Berlin. I thought that inclusivity would find its way through all walks of life.

Clearly, I was wrong. Not about the world getting more inclusive. Despite some stumbles, Israel and Palestine are no closer to agreement, that is still happening (We’re nowhere near where we want to be, but 30 years ago, there was virtually no mainstream talk about indigenous people or Trans rights. Now everyone has an opinion about them.) I was wrong about philosophy following along. It is still one of the most exclusive domains. People in philosophy know it, they often refer to the lack of diversity as a crisis. This piece from the American Philosophical Association (APA) gives an idea, only about 30% of philosophers are women. The Society For Under-Represented Groups in Philosophy says it is even worse for racial and ethnic minorities. Liam Kofi Bright (a Leverhulme Prize winner), Carolyn Dicey Jennings, Morgan Thompson, Eric Winsberg, and Eric Schwitzgebel have an upcoming paper about the difficulties facing non-Hispanic black philosophy majors. The APA does have a Committee for Inclusiveness in the Profession, but they haven’t released a report since 2018, and that one wasn’t encouraging. There’s even a hashtag on Twitter to call out manels, which are panels composed entirely of men.

I find it strange that philosophy faces this problem for one simple reason. Philosophy is about as universal as a human activity can be. It’s right up there as a part of life with food, water, and shelter. People like to say things like music are universal, but there are deaf people, and I’ve even known some hearing people who have no feeling for music at all. I can’t even imagine something capable of reason that doesn’t philosophize. Kids are probably doing it before they can communicate, but it is obvious as soon as they start communicating. Everyone, everywhere, from the beginning of humanity has done philosophy.

Some might say that I’m defining philosophy too broadly. I don’t think so (obviously), and here’s why. Everyday people, even those who have never heard the word philosophy, are pondering the same issues (broadly speaking) as professional philosophers. The average person may say it as, “Is this all there is?” while the professional talks about Russell’s paradox and logical possibility. I’m not saying that the level of sophistication is the same. I’m just saying that, at heart, they are the same activity. Whenever someone wonders what the best alternative is, or questions our capabilities, or thinks about the world beyond themselves, that person is philosophizing.

My view leads naturally to the cause of and a possible solution to the problem. Sexism and bigotry have been the biggest barriers, in every field, for ages. And they still exist. I don’t want to minimize that in any way. But, the crux of why philosophy has made so little progress addressing the issue is because of the hyper-professionalization of philosophy that accelerated in the second half of the twentieth century. At the same time the world was opening up, the philosophy profession was building their walls higher and higher. It’s gotten to the point where the only way that philosophers will accept anything as truly philosophical, it has to be said by a professional philosopher, and there is only one career in professional philosophy, the academic. If you’re not a PhD with an affiliation to an academic institution, if you aren’t fluent in symbolic logic, and if you don’t write impenetrable prose full of jargon, you won’t be taken seriously. To put it simply, professional philosophy has taken something that comes naturally to us all and created lots of barriers to entry. Any barrier to entry, in any field, is bigger for those without privilege. Thus, philosophy remains stubbornly white and male.

Mostly anyone who has come this far has probably guessed the solution: relax the professionalization (deprofessionalize?) of philosophy. There are at least two parts to that. The first is to create a space for amateur philosophy. I don’t mean Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance type garbage (It really is garbage. It’s probably the only book I’ve ever read that I would describe as utterly useless.). There’s no reason why amateur cannot be serious and insightful. For example, regardless of what I think about using children to push political agendas, Greta Thunberg and Malala are not professional philosophers, but they are engaging with important philosophical issues. This should be welcomed and encouraged. Toni Morrison and Ava DuVernay are two others who consistently make pretty brilliant philosophical points without being philosophers. It goes beyond that, too, since all of them have platforms. There would be no NBA without amateur basketball leagues (The NCAA doesn’t count. I’m talking about playgrounds and community centers.). We need philosophy clubs accessible to everyone. They could be formal or informal, but that’s how interest is generated.

The second part is to expand the profession. I can’t think of any other discipline that only has one possible career. Sociology has its academic theorists, but it also has social workers and school counselors. Law has its academic theorists, but it also has everything from public defenders to court reporters. Even the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), which are notorious for excluding women, have made progress at least in part by expanding their professions. You can be involved in STEM at colleges and universities or at elementary schools, even preschools. You can work for governments or private enterprise. You can make video games or Mars rovers. STEM is everywhere.

It is rare for philosophy to be acknowledged anywhere outside of the academy. There are some obvious places to start. Lower educational levels is a no-brainer. Most people, if they are exposed to philosophy at all, don’t see it until college. Since we all philosophize anyway, why not teach people how to do it well whether they choose the profession or not? Regulatory spaces, compliance, and law are some other logical places. It’s surprising how little ethics factors into their decisions. I can also see philosophers being used to vet other experts’ reasoning. If a bridge is damaged, imagine three different engineers give three different ways to fix it. Now, they would most likely just go with the cheapest one. Philosophers can help us choose the best one. There are plenty of other areas where philosophers could help.

I know that there are at least a handful of intelligent philosophers out there, so I’m sure someone has talked about this before. I’m not claiming originality. But, professional philosophers aren’t making much headway. Maybe, if some amateurs like me start speaking up, we can help. We’re here and want to contribute if you’ll have us.

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