How is this Paper Philosophy?

Dotson’s is very much concerned with a practical problem—the way a constrictive idea of what counts as philosophy affects philosophy as a profession.  She sees professional philosophy as dominated by a culture of justification, in which people must always be ready to present their “philosophical papers.”  This demand for justification falls disproportionately on anyone outside the mainstream.  As an alternative, she suggestions a culture of praxis in which the primary form of legitimation is contribution to a live problem.

Why Does Only a Certain Kind of Person Thrive in Philosophy?

Dotson begins by recounting a conversation her sister had with a guidance counselor at a historically black college; the counselor advised the sister to avoid professional philosophy because it is a white man’s game.  As of 2009, there were only 30 black women with PhDs in philosophy working in North American philosophy departments.  If you minus out those with a research focus on black feminism, the number drops to 8.  Why does only a certain kind of person thrive in professional philosophy?  Dotson wants a discussion of prevailing definitions of philosophy, which may suppress “diverse perspectives”.

Dotson uses the phrase “diverse practitioner of philosophy” to mean all those typically underrepresented in professional philosophy. Her concerns about the environment of professional philosophy and “constrictive definitions of philosophy” come out by analyzing the question “How is this paper philosophy?”  She isn’t concerned with appropriate answers to the question, but the sort of environment that makes that question paramount.

Specifically, it is a “culture of justification.”  By this, she means there is “[A] presumption of a commonly held, univocally relevant, historical precedents that one could and should use to evaluate answers to the question.” (3)  I will use the term norms to refer to these assumptions as a group.  The reliance on these norms indicates a value placed on performances or narratives of legitimation. Narratives of legitimation “refers to practices and processes aimed at judging whether some belief, practice, and/or process conforms to accepted standards and patterns, i.e. justifying norms.” (3) A culture of justification which relies upon these norms makes it difficult for diverse practitioners to work in professional philosophy.

A Culture of Justification

Gayle Salamon, who left philosophy for English, says justification is “making congruent” one’s position with acceptable norms.  One’s ideas, projects, and pedagogical choices have to align with a traditional concept of philosophical engagement.  For Salamon, that is difficult since queer method is supposed to be opposed to fitting acceptable norms for the sake of fitting acceptable norms; divergence is a source of creativity.

Dotson argues there are three symptoms of a culture of justification.  First, there is a manifest value placed on legitimation narratives.  Second, justifying norms are taken to be commonly held, and third, these norms are taken to be univocally relevant (i.e. relevant to everyone and all projects).  It is basically about asking for one’s philosophical “passport”.  The question “how is this paper philosophy” is a slight, whether the speaker means it or not.  it is both a charge and a challenge.   Dotson emphasizes that this is a legitimate challenge; she just wants the conditions under which the challenge is made to change.

There are two legitimation narratives.  The first is that one can be asked to justify the “adequacy and significance” of a given philosophical orientation, or one can be asked to justify an orientation’s “right to exist as an appropriate philosophical position.”  Diverse practitioners are often asked to answer both questions, and this contributes to philosophy being a shitty job for anyone whose work puts them outside those norms.

Diverse Practitioners and the Environment of Professional Philosophy

In a culture of justification, historical, unwarranted exclusions actually inform the norms of legitimation.  The norms, when informed by the exclusions, “creates means of validation incapable of tracking those exclusions.  In fact, those exclusions can easily become seen as ‘reasonable’ via disciplinary practice itself.” (9) There are two kinds of exclusions: exceptionalism and a sense of incongruence. Sandra Harding writes, 

Exceptionalism assumes that the West alone is capable of accurate understandings of the regularities of nature and social relations and their underlying causal tendencies. There is one world, and it has a single internal order. One and only one science is capable of understanding that order. And one and only one society is capable of producing that science: our Western society! (9-10)

She is talking specifically about science, but it still works here.  Exceptionalism is the unfounded exclusion of large bodies of research based on the privileging of one group’s research over another’s.  Excluded groups might meet some of the norms, but they are excluded for historical reasons.  For example, the exclusion of non-western philosophy.

Non-western philosophy can be legitimated according to prevailing norms for philosophy.  Joseph Prabhu argues that non-western philosophy cannot be excluded on philosophical grounds; if philosophy is the attempt to “address fundamental questions about the nature of reality, the nature of methods of knowledge, the basis of moral aesthetic values and judgments, the self, and the meaning and goal of religion, then there is abundant philosophy in Indian, Chinese, and Islamic thought.” (10)

Donna-Dale Marcano offers another example; says that when a black woman philosopher takes as her point of departure the lives and experiences of black women, it is seen as “doing work so particular ‘that philosophy resists its presence.’” (12)  Philosophers like Marcano cannot accept the demand for disembodied, ahistorical philosophy, hence their work is incongruent with justificatory norms.

The presence of exceptionalism and incongruence points to the difficulty of keeping diverse practitioners around.  Some might say this picture is too grim;  Andrea Nye’s article “It’s Not Philosophy” argues that even when history is set aside, or when science is privilegded as the only source of knowledge, philosophy’s parameters are unstable.  The argument over what is “only” poetry or sociology is always a new possibility for philosophy.

The hope is that even in a culture of justification, these norms are constantly being destabilized and revised by the very demand for justification.  Norms obviously do change over time; it might even be that this is what philosophy is all about, challenging norms.  But: who has the burden of destabilizing these norms?  Is it a worthy use of the time of the targeted populations?  Gayle Salamon did not want to deal with it, so she went to English.

A Proposal: Towards a Culture of Praxis

No individual can control exceptionalism or incongruence; this is not about making philosophy more inclusive.  We need a disciplinary culture that lessons the effect of exceptionalism, and where incongruence can be used creatively. We need a shift from a culture of justification to a culture of praxis.  A culture of praxis would have two components: (1) Value placed on seeking issues and circumstances pertinent to our living, where one maintains a healthy appreciation for the differing issues that will emerge as pertinent among different populations and (2) Recognition and encouragement of multiple canons and multiple ways of understanding disciplinary validation.

The idea that philosophy should be an inquiry into our historical time is not new.  Philip Kitcher says that “philosophical problems emerge from situations in which people—many people, not just an elite class—find themselves.” A culture of praxis would value research that contributes to old, new, or emerging problems.  It would stop being about answering to a set of justifying norms, but about pointing to a specific point of contribution within contemporary philosophy, or outside it, in our surrounding worlds. This obviously looks like just another method of justification, but Dotson insists on a distinction between legitimation and validation.  Legitimation requires a set of justifying norms that are commonly held and univocally relevant.  Validation is an evaluation of soundness.  It would be difficult and unwise to eliminate all forms of validation, but legitimation is only one form of validation.  Rather, we can rely on a standard of contribution: “Wherever one turns their energies, one must contribute. In a culture of praxis, justifying norms that aim to shape topics and or character of all philosophical investigation no longer operate to delimit how one contributes.” (15-16)  This alone can make philosophy as a profession more livable.

Valuing contribution does not get us entirely away from a culture of justification.  It is very likely that there will be a  proliferation of “canonical works and criteria that will be used as justifying norms.” (16)  But this norms will not be generalizable in the way current norms are.  The norms will help judge whether or not something is good or bad philosophy, not whether or not it is philosophy at all.

The valuing of “live” issues and contribution ensures “is an encouragement of multiple philosophical canons and a fragmentation of justifying norms”. (16)  The philosophical work produced will not always be capable of consolidation “due to the divergent inquiries and experiences that inform them.  It would make us see the fragmentary nature of philosophy, and how some norms are more relevant in some contexts than others.  Working with smaller canons would less the need to claim an overarching set of texts in order to lay claim to philosophical respectability.

A culture of praxis would lessen the effects of exceptionalism, but it might not eliminate it; it would just give a space free from its demands. Energy would not have to be spent convincing those who will never be convinced that their project has worth; rather, the energy could be spent making contributions within one’s community.  This already happens, but it is part of the periphery of philosophy.

There are two possible objections.  First, we might not be able to preserve the idea that philosophical has its own distinct disciplinary specialization.  If the justifying norms governing what philosophy is drop away, then anything that makes philosophy distinctive also drops away.  The objection seems to arise from the idea that philosophizing is not a widespread human activity, that there is something special about philosophy that belongs to professional philosophy alone.  This is a kind of exceptionalism because it privileges the output of one population over another.  Dotson illustrates this with the analogy of creative writing.  Most writers cannot sustain themselves on their writing, but they do it anyways.  Some of the factors that thwart their ability to live on their writing include social, political, and geographic factors, as well as differences in talent and critical trends–but they still exist.

The second argument is that a shift to a culture of praxis is too extreme.  If the problem is a poor application of justifying norms, why not have a better application and better norms?  But Dotson isn’t trying to get rid of norms; she wants them to be applied more evenly and to have diverse practitioners shoulder less of the burden of changing them.

A Comparative Exercise: Testing the Two Components in a Culture of Praxis

Dotson contrasts two understandings of philosophy: Graham Priest’s definition of philosophy as critique and Audre Lorde’s ideas about the limits of theorizing.  Priest defines philosophy as a mix of criticism and construction.  He says, “Learning philosophy is not simply learning a bunch of facts; it is learning how critically to evaluate people’s ideas.”  Critics appear in any field, but they especially flourish in philosophy—there is nothing which cannot be challenged, because philosophical criticism is unbridled.

This gives philosophy three features.  It is unsettling, subversive, and of universal import.  It is easy to see why being critical is unsettling and subversive.  It is universal, he says, because one can ask philosophical questions of any field of inquiry. Dotson says this implies that asking questions is synonymous with making challenges.  It is making challenges that gives philosophy universal import, since everything can be challenged.

On the positive side, philosophers are responsible for creating new ideas, new systems, new pictures of the world and its features.  He thinks it is the harder and more difficult side of philosophy. But, even the constructive side is done in the name of criticism.  It is easy to be a “knocker”, but more difficult to offer criticism that is supported with a rival theory.  The universal import comes from finding problems and then proposing solutions.  It’s a common idea of philosophy, and it is one that black feminists find less than fruitful.

An alternative is Audre Lorde’s position. It juxtaposes poetry, which is driven by experience and feelings, with conceptual theory.  She thinks “one of the values of poetry is the ability to render merely theoretical observations relevant to actual living.” (19)  It is not Lorde’s defence of the necessity of poetry in her work that is interesting, but the limitations of philosophical theorizing that she sees, that makes it a “handmaiden” to poetry: “[T]he limitations of philosophical theorizing concern a commitment to the rationality-from-nowhere ideal and a commitment to the view that the meaning of living is solving problems.” (20)

Lorde says “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free”. We could ask her if she is just restating the old stereotype of the rational white male and the emotional dark female.  She doesn’t quite defend herself against the charge; instead, she dissolves it:

I have heard that accusation, that I’m contributing to the stereotype, that I’m saying the province of intelligence and rationality belongs to the white male. But if you’re traveling a road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere, the ownership of the road is meaningless. If you have no land out of which the road comes, no place that road goes to, geographically, no goal, then the existence of that road is totally meaningless. Leaving rationality to white men is like leaving him a piece of that road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere.

Lorde thinks there is something meaningless about Capital-R Rationality.  The idea of human practice held by Rationality “has no origin, no destination, and no goal.” (20)  So is rationality in general meaningless?  No; rather, rationality serves feeling.  It gets us from place to place, but poetry is what allows us to “honor those places”.  Lorde’s criticism is that the concept of Rationality isn’t useful because it is a concept of human practice, not the practice of being rational or exercising human reason.  The actual practice of reason always has a location; “There is a where-from and a where- to for every attempt to be rational. Honoring the place and space of given instances of reason is what affords rationality meaning.” (20)  By addressing problems in the world, philosophy can guide human behaviour.  But this idea depends on a particular approach to the world and living; it thinks living is a set of problems to be solved.  Lorde thinks this is limiting.  She writes:

When we view our living in the european mode, only as problems to be solved, we rely solely upon our ideas to make us free, for these were what the white fathers told us were precious. But as we come more into touch with our own ancient and original non-european view of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learned more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden and deep sources of our power from whence true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes.

She sees a connection between a particular worldview and the reliance upon ideas.  Taking life as a problem to be solved leads one to rely on and believe in ideas in a certain way.  This leads to three commitments. First, it leads to valuing the activity of discovering problems.  The second places a value on analyzing these problems in order to find solutions.  Third, articulating the solutions.  It is not clear where, according to this approach, one needs to act upon the solution.  “Uncovering ideas alone is presumed to have revolutionary force.” (21)  All we need to do to change the world is to think of a solution.  Lorde doesn’t think this framework can ever actually place demands on our actions by itself.

More precisely—because conceptual thinking can and does make errors, the process of finding problems and solutions is infinitely regressive.  In Priest’s terms, there can be an infinite regress of criticism and final theories without ever acting on a particular idea.  Concepts can’t make demands on our actions by themselves; they have to be combined with another form of human activity, i.e. poetry, which translates theory into action.  So she isn’t outright rejecting philosophy, but pointing at its limitations.

Neither Priest nor Lorde is particularly easy to fit into a culture of praxis.  The first component of praxis, the identification of live concerns, and the second component which recognizes the proliferation of canons and norms, seem to make Lorde non-philosophical.  And Priest just looks like a relic of the culture of justification.  But they do have several features which allow them to exemplify how a culture of contribution might work.

The first component of a culture of praxis is about seeking issues and circumstances relevant to our lives.  Lorde rejects the idea that living is a set of problems to be solved.  So philosophy as a list of problems isn’t something Lorde would like, but it isn’t clear that her desire to move away from a problem/solution worldview makes current issues irrelevant.  Instead, she says that both theory and something like poetry are necessary for survival.  But emphasizing theory makes action futile.   What she is suggesting is a an alternative method for pursuing applicable insights; it would be about contributing to “live” problems, allowing for literature, poetry, and autobiography to count as viable sources for philosophy.

Philosophy looks like two very different things to Lorde and Priest.  What counts as a contribution would look very different depending on which position one takes.  From Priest’s position, Lorde’s approach would lack positive philosophical status, but this assessment is irrelevant.  The point is showing how a culture of praxis can aid in proliferating the kinds of methods and texts one relies upon.  Lorde’s conception can increase the number of livable options for professional philosophies.

Priest’s account is easier to reconcile with the value of seeking “live” questions.  Priest never identifies a single body of relevant questions; the idea of creating a particular body of questions and texts seems to be antithetical to his goal.

The second aspect of a culture of praxis is a proliferation of canons and methods of validation.  Here, Priest’s definition of philosophy as criticism does not require a single set of canonical writings.  A multitude of questions will produce a multitude of canons.  But he appears to be incompatible with praxis in one way: he insists on a single method of disciplinary validation, discernible critique.  Answers to the question “what is philosophy” imply a limitation on disciplinary engagement, which could be constrictive.

In a culture of praxis, Priest’s definition would not be universalizable—it would be useful for some projects but not for others.  The second component of praxis is not a feature of theories themselves, unlike the first component.  It is relevant to professional environments.  Priest’s understanding might be irrelevant to a project following Lorde’s ideas.  But this is not a disaster for Priest’s ideas; it just shows an example of a project for which Priest’s definition would not apply.   Valuing multiple forms of disciplinary validation acts like a check against the universalizability of definitions of philosophy and their justifying norms, which too often result in constrictive or ethnocentric definitions of philosophy along with the norms that are falsely taken to be universal and univocally relevant.  Instead, there would be a proliferation of disciplinary validations that map onto possible contribution. It would be a “culture of praxis, with its value on contribution, multiple canons, and multiple forms of disciplinary validation, would be flexible enough to identify philosophical engagement according to a range of factors. As a result, a culture of praxis within professional philosophy would present a great deal more livable options than it does currently.” (24)


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