Of White Papers and Jumping the Shark

by Daniel A. Kaufman


When one hears the expression “white paper,” one thinks of a document of great historic significance, typically issued by a government.  Winston Churchill’s famous 1922 white paper clarifying the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which set in motion a series of events that changed the face of the Middle East, immediately comes to mind.

What one doesn’t think of is an entirely inconsequential, self-serving piece of propaganda, designed to further entrench the ideology of a trendy in-clique, who already enjoy wildly oversized influence within a profession.  One especially doesn’t think of a document, the purpose of which is to address a “problem” that is almost entirely the product of the malfeasance of a number of said document’s authors and advisory board members.  And yet, to my amazement, a group of philosophers has managed to create something that fits both of these descriptions.  Only a few months after chronicling what struck me  at the time as peak lack of self-awareness on the part of my profession – the sublime, self-congratulatory antics of Justin Weinberg, on the occasion of the Daily Nous’s anniversary – I now find myself confronted with what has to be the pinnacle of philosophical cluelessness, ideological capture, self-importance, self-delusion, and sheer nerve all wrapped up into one precious package:  Just Ideas? The Status and Future of Publication Ethics in Philosophy: A White Paper.

If you liked the Thieves’ Guild’s guide to the ethics of personal property, and if you found yourself moved by the Arsonist’s Society’s guide to the ethics of firefighting, you will love the Put-the-Shiv-in-Rebecca-Tuvel Gang’s guide to publishing ethics. Yes, three out of five of the authors of the “white paper” on publishing ethics were signatories to the now-infamous “open letter” calling on the feminist journal, Hypatia, to recall Rebecca Tuvel’s paper on transgenderism/transracialism, after it had been published. [1]  A fourth serves on its advisory board, the whole of which reads like a who’s-who of the woker-than-woke-crowd who have been doing their busy best to turn our once-distinguished, highly respected discipline into an intellectually lightweight, identity-obsessed laughing-stock; the delight of YouTube trolls and right wing political commentators everywhere and fodder for every miserable conservative state-legislator looking for a reason to slash humanities and liberal arts budgets in “red” states and counties across the country.

So shameless is this particular klatch of woke philosophers that in their document (I can’t keep calling it a “white paper” without feeling the urge to shove my head through the drywall in my office) they admit that the inspiration for developing ethical publishing guidelines for philosophy arose from “a wide range of ethical issues pertaining to publishing in humanities (including the question of how to address them)” that “came to the fore in 2017 when three publication controversies made headlines.”  They even cite the Tuvel-affair as one of the three, but never identify themselves as among the principle miscreants. Could they have possibly thought that no one would notice or find out?  Are they so convinced of their own virtue and importance within the profession that they don’t think it matters?  Where they emboldened by the idea that their shills in the philosophy blogosphere would run interference, as the indomitable Weinberg valiantly tried to do in the discussion following the Daily Nous post on the subject?  The mind reels.

The bland recommendations offered to journal editors and editorial boards at the end of the document – Be transparent in communicating your values! Collaborate with others! – all articulated within an insincere, noncommittal frame – “we do not advocate any specific policies or procedures” – barely conceal the document’s real message, aptly summarized by John Bogart, in a comment over at the Daily Nous:

The Paper gives the impression that the project is really about institutionalizing the view that demographic diversity in authors should be a primary concern of journals, that philosophical work touching on (it is hard to discern exactly what the standard is) matters of concern to marginalized or vulnerable groups should be vetted by members of such groups, and that there should be a post-publication process of discipline or sanctions. [2]

To deliver this subtext, the authors insured that those they interviewed for the purpose of drawing up the guidelines would convey it for them, relieving them of the burden of saying it themselves and thereby lending their ideologically-motivated paper a false air of objectivity and neutrality.  Rather than survey the thousands of professional philosophers across the country – or world – which is relatively easy to do in the internet-age, but the results of which would be unpredictable, they limited their investigations to those whom they knew were likely to share their view of the profession, namely its gatekeepers and those of other branches of the humanities. [3]

The result is an entirely predictable litany of identity-soaked keywords, catchphrases, imperatives and concerns.  We should worry about the extent to which “systemic bias — by authors, reviewers, editors, and the discipline as a whole — compound difficulties in preventing, identifying, and correcting unethical and unreliable scholarship.” We must ensure that “journal leadership include[s] more varied backgrounds, experiences, scholarly traditions,” because “accomplishing diversity of authorship would flow more easily from that.”  We should concern ourselves with how to determine the “difference between responsible engagement and exploitative appropriation of ideas, histories, and experiences” and lament the rarity of “guidelines on diversity (for instance, anything approximating the principle ‘Nothing about us, without us’ for policies and research on vulnerable populations…)”

At one point, the document refers positively to the juvenile “Bechdel test” for philosophy, according to which a paper passes the test just in case it (a) cites two women, with (b) at least one not being cited because she discusses a man. (Apparently unaware of the irony, the author credits David Chalmers for (b).) [4] At another point, as if their disgraceful conduct with regard to Rebecca Tuvel wasn’t already enough, the authors add insult to injury by giving the impression that she actually deserved the treatment she had received. After all, anyone who has read the Open Letter to Hypatia and followed the subsequent controversy will immediately recognize the following “logic” from the present document:

there was quickly general agreement that there can be other forms of misconduct than plagiarism, especially in relation to scholarship related to marginalized groups and citation practices. For example, an editor suggested that “under-informed papers” — along the lines of “if the famous people in my head have not talked about this idea, then no one’s talked about it” — may constitute a form of misconduct.

Of course, the fixation on diversity is itself disingenuous; a mask for the woke-klatch’s apparently insatiable desire for ideological conformity within the discipline.  For unless the authors of the guidelines are of the view that the members of “marginalized communities” and “vulnerable populations” are ideologically uniform, the constant invocation of them clearly is intended only to indicate those members of the relevant communities who agree with the authors and not to black, Hispanic, trans people, or women generally.  After all, there are any number of trans people who vehemently disagree with contemporary gender-identity activism and would wholeheartedly support the analysis Tuvel gives in her paper.  Are we supposed to believe that these are the members of the relevant “vulnerable population” whom the guidelines’ authors suggest journals should consult in a vetting capacity, with regard to submissions on the topic of gender identity?  Scholars like Glenn Loury and John McWhorter have been sharply critical of affirmative action, reparations, and progressive racial politics more generally.  Are they the sorts of “people of color” of whom the guidelines’ authors think journal editorial boards and submitting-authors should be more heavily comprised? If you think so – maybe because of the hand-waving towards “diversity of styles, approaches, and topics” that is sprinkled throughout the document – I have a few bridges on the East River to sell you.

That one of the authors of this ridiculous document is the Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association is a depressing reminder of the extent to which our nominal governing body has been captured by this identity-obsessed ideology, which by now has long since jumped the shark.  Philosophy departments across the country are in a struggle for their very existence, as the higher-education bubble pops and humanities and liberal arts programs are the first to get the knife in what looks to be the new, brutal reality of university spending priorities in the 21st century.  My poor Program Director just had to summarily fire two of our full-time instructors on orders from the Dean, leaving then financially screwed and stranded and just five of us remaining to teach the entire departmental course load.  The merciless march from diminished staff to diminished enrollments to elimination of the major and beyond seems likely to follow.  In an earlier essay, I described the preoccupations of our leadership as giving the impression of “fiddling while Rome burns,” and this “white paper” does just that, but in spades. The irony is that for all their virtuous hand-wringing about privilege and all their exquisite labors to produce guidelines for rooting out its myriad and allegedly devastating effects, theirs are the sorts of fixations that only the privileged can afford to have.  Everyone else is wondering whether they are going to wind up with a 200+ student-per-semester workload or lose their major or whether they even will have a job at all next week.  Beyond the sheer hypocrisy of the document, then; beyond the mendacity of a good number of its authors and advisory board; beyond its repellent virtue-signaling; even beyond its efforts to effect ideological conformity within what is supposed to be the quintessentially critical discipline; it is this, the sheer irrelevance of it all, in light of philosophy’s rapidly diminishing fortunes and the terrible price that will be paid by those who teach it that rankles the most.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypatia_transracialism_controversy




[2]  http://dailynous.com/2019/05/06/white-paper-publication-ethics-philosophy/#comment-286764

[3] The sole exception to this being a vague reference to “conversations with the broader community,” mentioned in (4):

Our research approach to this project was multifaceted, and consisted of the following: (1) a survey of existing publicly available policies and statements on publication ethics of 265 journals in philosophy, (2) a set of in-person and virtual focus groups with journal editors and members of APA leadership committees, (3) a set of focus groups with representatives from publishers of philosophy journals and representatives from COPE, (4) conversations with the broader community via in-person meetings and the project website, (5) an extensive review of the literature on publication ethics (especially in philosophy and the humanities), and (6) a discussion with leaders from other scholarly societies in the humanities and humanistic social sciences to understand how our findings compare to the ongoing conversations in the humanities more broadly and to discuss next steps.

[4] https://www.newappsblog.com/2014/04/a-bechdel-test-for-philosophy-papers.html






81 responses to “Of White Papers and Jumping the Shark”

  1. Steven Hales

    Thanks for writing this, which is depressingly right on the money.

  2. s. wallerstein

    If you don’t want to call it the “white paper”, perhaps you could call it the “yellow paper”, as in “yellow journalism”.

  3. J. Bogart

    I think I qualify as a vulnerable population — non-academic philosophy. It is unethical of you not give me credit for authoring the comment you quoted. The White Paper says so.
    I propose as a remedy you must teach one of my articles in one of your classes next semester.

  4. I will remedy this immediately!

  5. Due attribution has now been given!

  6. For much of my life, I have been noticing craziness on the left. But for a period, perhaps the last 30 years, the craziness on the left was greatly diminished — and perhaps the left as a whole was diminished. What we are now seeing, and what you are describing, is a resurgence of craziness from the left. Perhaps it is a reaction to how extreme the craziness of the right has become.

    It would be nice if things would settle down to a more reasonable balance. But perhaps technology, the Internet and all that have shifted the balance to favor the crazies of both extremes.

  7. Bunsen Burner

    I did laugh in places. I’m not that familiar with all the events, but your spin on things is hilarious.

  8. s. wallerstein

    The problem isn’t craziness on the left. There are plenty of serious philosophers who are far-left, Brian Leiter, Robert Paul Wolff, Nancy Fraser and there are many in the past, Marcuse, Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Foucault, etc.

    The problem is that it’s a mob with all the unpleasant and stupid characteristics of a mob.

    I listened to the dialogue between Dan K. and Crispen Sartwell in Sophia TV last night. I didn’t understand everything, but what was clear is that both are autonomous thinkers, with their own thought-out points of view. Neither is a member of any mob or tribe. On the other hand, neither is a crank: it’s not a dialogue between a 9-11 conspiracy theorist and a flat-earther. The same is true of all the far-left philosophers mentioned above: none is a member of any tribe, all are autonomous thinkers and none are cranks.

    Philosophy begins with Socrates, the autonomous thinker being condemned to death by the unthinking Athenian mob and at least to me, a non-philosopher, one of the principle characteristics of philosophy has always been that it is the work of autonomous thinkers, people who think for themselves (but are not cranks).

    How ironic and sad is it then that an unthinking tribal mob has taken over much of academic philosophy!!

  9. This is exactly right. The problem here is not of the left/right variety.

  10. I mostly agree with that.

    When I mentioned “craziness on the left”, I was not suggesting “craziness of the left”. And I agree that there is some mob-like tribalistic behavior in some parts of the left.

    In the past, we have seen similar tribalistic behavior from fringe groups. Yes, it is troubling that it showing up among university faculty.

  11. s. wallerstein

    I took the idea from Wittgenstein:

    “The philosopher is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him a philosopher”.

  12. Max

    I fear that you are on the losing side. As long as the really influential people, the people with named Oxford chairs, the people at Princeton, NYU and Rutgers do not openly react against this but rather tolerate or facilitate the wokification of philosophy, the noisy minority will be killing philosophy and departments such as yours. In fact, I am no longer sure that these people are in the minority.

  13. I fear that you are on the losing side. As long as the really influential people, the people with named Oxford chairs, the people at Princeton, NYU and Rutgers do not openly react against this but rather tolerate or facilitate the wokification of philosophy, the noisy minority will be killing philosophy and departments such as yours. In fact, I am no longer sure that these people are in the minority.

  14. I disagree. The fact that this phenomenon is centred around minorities and their perceived disadvantages and that its practitioners have earned the moniker “social justice warriors” is a strong hint that leftist political leanings have something to do with it. You might question the left-wing credentials of these people and the coherence of their thought but denying that left-wing ideology is not at the core of the problem seems disingenuous. And calling them “neoliberals” does also nothing but obfuscate. Of course, identity politics is as much a left-wing thing as it is a right-wing thing, but the people you refer to all identify as left-leaning and, more importantly, they ground their identity politics in a concern for the oppressed. I always thought that the concern for the oppressed and disadvantaged is the core of leftist politics.

  15. s. wallerstein

    The people in question are on the left, but the problem does not stem from their leftism or even their far-leftism, but from their tribalism and mob-behavior.

  16. Julia Pagels

    It seems to me that the point of this is to codify the lines of attack on Rebecca Tuvel as “professional ethics”, so that in the future when someone publishes something the White Paper People don’t like, it can be stamped with the label “ethical violation” and the journal will be forced to retract it.

    Philosphical disagreement is turned into ideological disagreement and then into an ethics violation.

    And no young pre-tenure philosopher can risk having all her papers retracted for “failure to comply with the profession’s ethical standards”.

  17. It has been a slow decline and the tendencies described here (groupthink, ideological bullying, etc.) are the culmination of a decades-long process.

    What makes the situation hopeless (as I see it) is that most intelligent people not already associated with philosophy and related disciplines will make the perfectly rational decision to stay away. Why would an intelligent and reasonable person freely choose to become mixed up in any way with this sort of infantile nonsense? It’s a vicious circle.

  18. You are absolutely right. I am not hopeful at all on this front.

  19. Bharath Vallabha

    I am conflicted about this post. I agree with much said here: the bullying under the name of diversity, fiddling while rome burns, using buzz words like “publication ethics” to make it seem like one is speaking with institutional voice, etc.

    But much the same can be said for those in power (at Harvard, Princeton, NYU, CUNY, etc.) 30 years ago and earlier. Back then the bullying went by the name not of “publication ethics” but “professional standards”. All sorts of ideas and thoughts were marginalized not honestly, but exactly this fashion of using the “we of the professional community” defined narrowly to determine what counts as good topics, traditions, professional culture (excusing all sorts of crappy behavior), etc.

    I don’t like what-about-ism. Not trying to do that here. But saying that to see the problem with the current way the “institutional take over” is happening, one has to see it in a broader context. The elite departments have always used their eliteness to speak with a universal voice, squashing many voices in the process and seeing that as justified by the “standards” the elite see themselves as upholding. So now that a new generation or a new group has come into power, they see doing that as part of what they earned in being at the elite departments.

    Of course many intelligent people will stay away from professional phil now. Just as many intelligent people stayed away due to the old boys club atmosphere 30 years ago. The current people are using the mode of the older generations; to break free of the current mode, have to be critical of what they have in common with the past.

  20. This just seems an exceedingly generic point that doesn’t really have much to do with my essay, which is very specific.

  21. Bharath Vallabha

    You are making a specific point about this “white paper”. But you are also making a very general point about the direction of the profession, of which this is an instance. Your worry about how this group is self-righteous and self-involved seems also self-righteous, since basically you seem upset that you are losing to them. And there is no sign how you and others like you will win back the profession.

    I agree with you about this particular instance and also the problem with the current status quo. But do I think the profession is better in the hands of you, Letier, et al? I don’t think so. Not unless you also start to talk about the problems the profession had 30-40 years ago, and how to address them. This post seems to me mainly venting, which can be cathartic and helpful for others who feel similarly. But I wouldn’t say it is fostering rational discourse. It is contributing to the toxic energy.

  22. I am not upset about losing to them. I am upset about losing the profession. And that’s what they are going to effect with this nonsense. The death of philosophy.

    As for your question, the answer is “Yes, of course, obviously.” Of course the discipline was better, stronger, and more respected, when its stars were Rawls and Davidson and Foot, rather than Stanley, Kukla, and McKinnon.

  23. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Of course any professional discipline is going to have certain principles of exclusion and dogmas at any given time, but the sense of a moral crusade that characterises the current ones makes the discipline more hostile to free thought than it used to be and immunises it against challenges to the status quo in a way that less moralistic ‘standards’ do not.
    Of course a lot of the bad behaviour we see coming from social justice academics has its parallels in older generations of academics. But the ideological zeal makes it uniquely frightening as a threat to our academic institutions’ integrity.

  24. Bharath Vallabha

    There is no death of philosophy. Maybe the death of academic philosophy at most. Philosophy is going to just fine – in fact, it is going to thrive. It just might not happen in classrooms.

    Even re death of academic phil, it is way off to put it all on the shoulders of Stanley, Kukla, et al. The problem of academic philosophy’s disconnect from society goes much further back – and that disconnect is what is coming back to bite it now. The deep problem is that academic phil in America doesn’t speak to many on the right (for whom it is too secular) and to many on the left (for whom it is too white). That’s a losing proposition. And who enabled this situation? Rawls and Davidson. And Quine and Kripke. Rorty at least was beating the drums saying, “Something is way off!” But most top people didn’t listen to him and were too busy fighting continental thinkers instead of worrying about whether academic phil was too insular from the public.

    Also, the discipline was better respected by whom? Certainly not by many women or African Americans.I know, I am starting to talk about race, gender – and that’s a big no,no! 🙂 But there is no way to avoid it. But we don’t even need to go there; even many white conservatives didn’t respect it. Did Fodor or Sydney Shoemaker or David Lewis care about any of this or address it? They seemed content to have their debates with each other, and treat it like that is the heart of philosophy – as if the next generations of academic philosophers can be just like them. It led to a lot of great philosophy, I admit. But at the cost of the future of the discipline.

  25. Philippa Foot was a woman. She was one of the three I listed.

    I’m afraid i dont agree with most of what you write here, but i don’t see a point in arguing about it.

  26. Bharath Vallabha

    I agree with most of this. That the ideological zeal now is different from the kind of principles of exclusion there was 30 years ago. And in some ways it is worse now. But in some ways it was much worse back then. For example, if you ask Haslanger or Manne, “Would you rather be a professor now or 30 years ago?”, of course they will say, “Now!”. Because they know the pain what it was like back then. My point is: criticizing them now is stronger if their pain is acknowledged.

    There are no general truths of when the profession was better. There are just people back then and people now, with hope and pains. We need to talk about the hopes and pains, rather than broad categories of when it was better.

  27. Philippa Foot
    Elizabeth Anscombe
    Iris Murdoch
    Cora Diamond
    Judith Jarvis Thomson
    Mary Warnock
    Mary Midgley
    Susanne Langer

    … I could go on much longer.

  28. s. wallerstein

    Kant didn’t write for the man or the woman on the street at Konigsberg either. Philosophy has always been elitist. Is that necessarily bad?

  29. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    I guess the point is that while academics will do all sorts of petty shit to hold back people whose work they don’t like for any number of reasons, they will go a lot further in destroying people publicly if they see their work as enabling oppression or sustaining privilege, or something similarly morally charged. So I think that while your habit of trying to hold everyone accountable to the same standard in a non partisan way is very healthy and admirable, in this case the claim of similarity obscures a key difference.

  30. Bharath Vallabha

    There is no guarantee that Foot would agree with you over with Manne. Even if she does, that doesn’t mean a lot of women weren’t pushed aside by then. For all I know (which I don’t), Korsgaard might agree more with you than with Haslanger. But not sure what that has to do with anything. There are a bunch of people who are upset with how things used to be. I think they are right to be upset. So if you want to show a better way, would love to know how you would address those issues they are upset about.

    The profession I think needs leaders like that: who acknowledge the pain people might have felt about 30 years ago, but also not take the path of this kind of white paper. You can be a such a leader. I highly doubt Leiter can be. I think you can help save the profession in a way Leiter can’t.

  31. I don’t want to be any kind of leader.

  32. My reason for listing them is because they are all major figures in the history of our discipline and rightly so. They have had a tremendous influence on my own work.

  33. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Brarath, you’re right that a general claim about when the field was better is difficult to make unqualifiedly. However, the new ethical norms that are coming in and their methods of enforcement are more threatening to the future of the discipline, and more of an explicit assault on its basic purpose than the sort of dynamics that invariably arise when a discipline isn’t demographically representative. This isn’t to say that these dynamics are not serious problems, of course they are. But as serious as they are they have not destroyed the discipline despite having always been present to various degree, whereas an atmosphere where your peers feel not only entitled but obliged to destroy you for ‘unethical’ work is uniquely destructive of all that is good in academic life.

  34. Bharath Vallabha

    “I don’t want to be any kind of leader.”

    That’s your prerogative. But it speaks to the broader issue of why academic phil is in the situation it is. The current “mob” as you say does have leaders. People who are speaking up to articulate their ideas. Who is on the opposing side is showing an alternate path forward, as opposed to just saying how much better it was before? I don’t see any one. Someone or some people more likely will have to take that on. And those people will have to go beyond Davidson and Foot and Anscombe, at least re how to be academic philosophers in a society very society from their time.

    If we are going to blame people, I put Leiter’s name at the top of that list. Leiter and Haslanger are two sides of the same coin.

  35. Bharath Vallabha

    Of course, it isn’t bad. So then what is bad about the elites now deciding what should be the norms re publication? The reality is in the profession phil world, stanley and haslanger are more elite than Dan and even Leiter. So why isn’t that enough to show that Stanley and Haslanger are right?

  36. Academic phi is in the situation it is in overwhelmingly for the same reasons that all the rest of the humanities are in trouble. 21st century university funding priorities. Hence my point in the last part of the essay.

  37. They can be the elites in a dead profession. Kings and queens of nothing.

  38. Bharath Vallabha

    As opposed to what: what are you offering as an alternative? Davidson and Lewis and Foot are all literally dead. And if you are right, their legacy will die if someone doesn’t carry their torch now. Stanley claims to be carrying their torch; he hasn’t forsaken them and he thinks he is connecting that analytic phil to continental phil and to global phil and to society. I don’t agree with how he does it always, but that is an attempt there being done. What is the alternative attempt? Davidson and Lewis and Foot didn’t attempt that. So Stanley is at least attempting something as an extension of that. So is Haslanger. If you are right, they are getting that extension wrong. Fine. The only way to make the point is to show an alternative extension. Just those names of the past greats isn’t going to magically lead the way.

  39. Bunsen Burner

    This is classic entryism. They are secure inn their takeover of the APA that they can now start using it to determine what is and what is not acceptable research. The next stage is consolidation as they strengthen their position and bring allies in for support. I’m sorry guys, but you’ve lost. If your university gives money to the APA, try and make it stop. Starve it of funds and hope it dies. There is no hope of taking it back. They are organised, you are not. They will crush you. You will have to nuke it from orbit, there is no other way.

  40. I am only chronicling. I am not fighting. If that is the philosophy profession they want, they can have it. It won’t matter much, anyway, as the forces driving philosophy out of the university are largely economic and will bulldoze over whomever is “in power.”

  41. Bharath Vallabha

    Right. So the main issue isn’t “Who should be in power in academic phil?”. It is: what does a philosophical society look like and how can we best foster that? The white paper group is getting wrong the levers of influence: they think they need to first gain control of academic phil, and then use that to influence society. Dan is completely right I think that by the time they gain control, they will have no influence, not even the kind Rawls and Habermas had.

  42. In my own case, at this point, my only real interest is in being an independent scholar and public intellectual. I am largely done with the profession as an active participant.

  43. s. wallerstein

    Maybe the struggle isn’t really about influence in society as a whole, but about who gets the jobs. If they take over the APA, they’ll be in a better position to get academic jobs for their pals. That’s what much of politics is about, controlling an organization so that you and your pals get the jobs and the grants, etc.

  44. Bharath Vallabha

    I agree with your last sentence. But I also feel the way to stop this new force is to address head on their main motivating energy, which is righting the institutional wrongs. Without a discussion of those wrongs, just saying this new mode is wrong and oppressive will not be effective. It’s like saying Trump supporters are crazy without even trying to speak to the concerns they have.

  45. Bharath Vallabha

    Agree. But again, as far as the distribution of jobs goes, how is it different from how Ryle and Quine, et al did it? It was even more explicitly about who you know and getting your pals the jobs and the grants.

  46. Bharath Vallabha

    I am not defending the white paper. Rather am saying: the deepest problem with the white paper is it is not addressing the deeper questions of diversity, since it is itself limiting diversity. So if you don’t know their proposal, it’s not enough to say “they got it wrong”. Even less is it helpful to say, “it was better 40 years ago.” Not because that is false, but because the standard of evaluation hasn’t been given. If you are a minority who left academic phil 40 years ago because your professors claimed only Europeans were philosophical, is that more or less morally wrong than holding people back now based on whether they are “ethical enough”? There is no way to answer that question. All that can be said is I think: both are horrible, and we should avoid both.

  47. s. wallerstein

    One difference is that as far a I know, most people who got PhD back then got academic jobs, while now there are more PhD’s than jobs for them.

    However, you are surely right that back then the academic elites rewarded their pals with the best jobs. Maybe it’s simply “us” versus “them”, and somehow or another, I ended up in this “us”, not that “us”.

  48. Bharath Vallabha

    Yes, I think so. There was a very strong “us” vs “them” 40 years ago. A lot of people and their concerns got put under “them” and written off as not being philosophy or good philosophy. Now some of those people who would have counted as “them” are reversing the polarity, and confusing that with justice. Classic french revolution style.

    The big problem with the white paper is it leaves diversity completely undefined. Meaning it gets to be filled in how the authors think of it, and others are supposed to match that. But to my mind the gigantic question facing academic phil in Western countries is: how to understand diversity which acknowledges that Western phil has been mainly white – not as a matter of injustice, but just the way in which Indian philosophy has been historically not white, etc. Any real attempt at diversity has to try to bridge the gap between us and them, and to create a sense of we are all in this together, and not simply flip the sides from the past. This broader, more inclusive sense of diversity is not firstly a political act, but a philosophical, intellectual act. I for one don’t know what it looks like. And I don’t know anyone who does. So not knowing that, it is hard to know how the institutions should be changed. We can follow our impulses in a case by case way, but when big grand gestures are made as in the white letter, a lack of clarity about the destination is a big problem.

  49. But to my mind the gigantic question facing academic phil in Western countries is: how to understand diversity which acknowledges that Western phil has been mainly white – not as a matter of injustice, but just the way in which Indian philosophy has been historically not white, etc.

    = = =

    Wow, we just have entirely different views of what philosophy is — or more, generally, ideas are — and thus, what problems it might have.

    The indeterminacy of translation is not “white.” The problem of induction is not “white.” The question of the moral significance of outcomes versus motives is not “white.”

    So, I categorically reject your “gigantic question.”

  50. Bharath Vallabha

    I didn’t say they were. I meant the gigantic question facing academic philosophy qua institution. You want to blame others for the breakdown of academic phil. But might want to think about how the phil problems you focus on in your list here are not connecting to the big questions of identity that are affecting our society. Of course, induction and translation etc are great, important questions. But they are not questions that tax payers right now care about. And they can’t tell the difference between those question and the questions of identity they care about. So if academic phil continues with just more Austin and Quine, that is also a sure fire way for it to disappear.

  51. the big questions of identity that are affecting our society

    = = =

    As with philosophy, I do not think these are the “big questions” facing us. That people think they are is part of the problem. The trouble is it takes a certain historical perspective to understand this. There is a reason why this is primarily an obsession of the young.

  52. And I will say it one more time, I am simply chronicling the end of something, not trying to change it. People should get what they want, and if they want to immerse themselves in shallow crap, they should do so. One of the good things about not being tied to an institution is that I can continue having interesting conversations with those who are interested in interesting things. The rest can do what they like.

  53. Bharath Vallabha

    Last I checked, neither Trump nor Clinton are young, nor are many of their supporters. You don’t need to care about the philosophical dimensions of the social identity issues that are central to our time. It’s your choice. My sense is a lot of people, inside and outside academia, are different from you in this regard – and different from Quine and Ryle, and even Anscombe. For many people they experience phil not primarily in abstract terms of induction, etc., but in terms of their identity and social struggles.

  54. Your first statement doesn’t mean much and certainly is not any sort of reply to the remarks I’ve made, which I stand by. The identity obsessions people have today make very little sense given even a relatively superficial understanding of the history of the last hundred years. But as I said, people should get what they want. I will continue to do the things *I* am interested in and those who find them compelling will join in. The rest can do what they like. But I will continue to call things as I see them. Another benefit of having an independent platform.

  55. Bharath Vallabha

    There is (1) chronicling the end of something; (2) there is explaining why it is ending; and (3) there is attempting to change things. You seem to be at least doing (2) in addition to (1), and we disagree re (2). It’s ironic, but I might have more hope for the future of academic phil than you do.

    Also, there is a fourth thing one might be doing, which is (4) giving voice to the sadness for an institution you loved ending in the form you loved it. You seem to be doing (4), which I can respect.

  56. You definitely have more hope for it than I do. I have little to none.

    And I don’t think things can be changed. Not now. That’s why I think the chronicling is important. At some point down the road, when people come back to their senses and want to get serious about scholarship again, chronicles like these will be useful.

  57. Bharath Vallabha

    It was a way of saying the identity issues are not just an issue of the young. In any case, clearly our sense for the layout of issues and what society needs are quite different.

  58. They are primarily an issue of the young. Polling data shows that. My daughter’s generation is much more obsessed with their identities than my parents’ generation. Interesting considering in how much greater jeopardy my parents’ generation’s identities were than those of today’s young. And that is true across the board. Hence the point re: knowing history and having reasonable concerns, given the point in history in which one lives.

  59. Bharath Vallabha

    I think it’s great that today’s young are concerned about their identities. They should be. Because the meaning of many of our social identities are in flux, and many older people are care about that. The issue is not one of jeopardy. My grandparents were in India during independence movement and WWII, etc. They went through much more in that dimension than I did. But their identities were more stable in some ways than mine. It is not an issue of physical danger, but of existential confusion. The two are not comparable. They are different.

  60. I disagree entirely. It would be preposterous for me to be more concerned about anti-Semitism than my parents were. And the point is generalizable.

  61. Bharath Vallabha

    I don’t see why. Even if assuming anti-semitism is much less now (which I think it is, given the magnitude of what your parents’ generation faced), the ability to talk about it and understand it in public dialogue can be much more now (which it is). So talking openly about it and how to do that can be something a young person can now struggle with in ways that people didn’t struggle with 70 years ago.

    Again, of course people who went through Nazi Germany experienced and lived through anti-semitism much more. But perhaps the way they chose to talk about it back then was determined by the social forces which it made it harder. Now that those social forces are less, the current generation faces issues which your parents’ generation didn’t.

  62. That you don’t see why is indicative of why we don’t agree on very much.

  63. s. wallerstein

    Even though anti-Semitism is not as strong as it was for your parents’ generation nor is anti-black racism nor is sexism nor is homophobia, identity is more in question because society has become much more complex, with many more variables, with many more possible identities, with many more subcultures luring the consumer or the citizen, with a global dimension that did not exist when I was growing up.

    We’ve gone from a society where identity was given to one at birth, where one inherited one’s parents’ identity (that was more or less the society my grandparents, born at the end of the 19th century, faced) to one where with one click one is offered hundreds or thousands of possible identities. I believe that Facebook (I don’t have Facebook myself) offers one a choice of score of gender identities.

    I don’t see why philosophy can’t address that problem of identity seriously, with all its contemporary complexity. However, it needs to address the issue rationally and calmly, without hysterical, self-righteousness. The problem we’re facing is not that philosophers are concerned about identity, but rather that some have formed an unthinking mob, ruled by groupthink and holy-than-thou fanaticism.

    I believe that someone like you, Dan, has a role to play there, as do you, Bharath.

  64. Paul Taborsky

    “How to understand diversity which acknowledges that Western phil has been mainly white.”

    I think this is an absurd statement – Descartes was French Catholic, Spinoza was (up until he was excommunicated) Jewish, Arnauld a quasi-Protestant Jansenist; Aristotle was Greek, but a foreigner in Athens who was not allowed to purchase property, Clitomachus (‘Hasdrubal’) a Hellenized Phoenician, Apuleius and Augustine, North African Berbers (‘Arabs’!), and so on. To miss all of this, to designate them all as ‘white’, which is really a designation reflective of contemporary US civil rights discourse and means those who are neither Black, Asian, Hispanic, nor Indigenous, *might* make sense if all of the above were contemporary Americans, brought up with and facing contemporary (North) American social problems, but they are not.

    The (largely European) past of Western philosophy, in terms of its poltical and social concerns, does not match that of today, and so is already a foreign nation to us – to look to it to solve contemporary concerns about ethnic identity, as though it were part of our present, makes no sense, and is indeed part of the short-sightedness of the current generation, as has been pointed out.

  65. Thank you. “White” has rather jumped the shark as well. It should be retired.

  66. David Bzdak

    The work that Peter Adamson is doing with his History of Philosophy podcast (and its offshoots) seems like one productive direction for the discipline. He masterfully introduces his audience to an amazing array of philosophers and thinkers. And he does so because they’re thinkers who deserve to be taken seriously rather than because he’s trying to check boxes. It’s a great way to introduce those educated in the western tradition to what else is out there.

  67. The work that Peter Adamson is doing with his History of Philosophy podcast (and its offshoots) seems like one productive direction for the discipline. He masterfully introduces his audience to an amazing array of philosophers and thinkers. And he does so because they’re thinkers who deserve to be taken seriously rather than because he’s trying to check boxes. It’s a great way to introduce those educated in the western tradition to what else is out there.

  68. Bharath Vallabha

    I agree with a lot of this. This kind of careful thinking is needed much more. I was a bit sloppy in how I used “white”. But what word would be good in “…which acknowledges that western phil has been mainly _____”? I could have said “European”, but one can mention Augustine, or Dewey, or David Armstrong, etc. “Christian”? Doesn’t seem like that works. What picks out Socrates, Descartes, Spinoza and Nietzsche and leaves out Avicenna, Nagarjuna, and Mencius? What captures that? Or is it an illusion that there is any such unifying thing?

    I have a lot of difficulty in know how to talk about these issues; what even the right concepts to use are. I don’t like the way white nationalists use the term, nor do I like how social justice warriors use it. I would love people who think clearly – as you do in your comment – help clarify how we can talk about these concepts. If I look to Quine or Ryle or even Foot or Anscombe, I don’t see anything that helps re this.

    Hence I made the point earlier about Dan leading. And Paul, I don’t know you, but I will make the same point re you. If you have a clearer sense for the complexity of these concepts and how we can use them now without falling into the kind of confusions which my light use of “white” showed, I certainly hope you will help spread that knowledge. We as a society need it desperately. And I certainly hope academic philosophers will help create and spread that knowledge.

    What I resist is Dan acting as if all this identity stuff is obvious, or should be, and it is only the social justice warriors and the youth who are making it unnecessarily complicated and creating chaos.

  69. What I resist is Dan acting as if all this identity stuff is obvious, or should be, and it is only the social justice warriors and the youth who are making it unnecessarily complicated and creating chaos.

    = = =

    I’ve done nothing of the sort.

  70. Bharath Vallabha

    We can add this to the list of things we disagree about.

  71. We can disagree about many things. But one thing *you* cannot do is tell *me* what *I* have meant or done. (Or anyone else for that matter.)

  72. Zac

    I dunno if I’d characterize Adamson as someone unconcerned with checking boxes. If he’s not concerned with deciding which boxes to check, it’s because he’s decided to check every box. Hence “without any gaps”. He’s very much of the hyper-ecumenical mold, and very much in sympathy with Bharath’s concern to shed light on ignored thinkers from ignored parts of the world. I think concerns over diversity are deep in his blood. He’s Gary Oldman at the end of The Professional. He wants EVERYONE.

  73. Bharath Vallabha

    To quote you: “I have done nothing of the sort”. I didn’t say what you meant or what you did. I said you “acting as if”. I think from your post and some of your comments, one can make a case for interpreting you that way. But I will retract my statement, because I don’t see any point in debating this.

  74. alandtapper1950

    Hi Bharath

    You ask: “What picks out Socrates, Descartes, Spinoza and Nietzsche and leaves out Avicenna, Nagarjuna, and Mencius? What captures that? Or is it an illusion that there is any such unifying thing?”

    One answer is language. The Romans read (and studied with) the Greeks. The medieval Latins read the Greeks and the Romans. Descartes and Spinoza were Latin as well as modern Western language users. Nietzsche and a thousand other “Western” philosophers could read Greek and Roman authors in the original or in good translations into their first language. There was linguistic as well as cultural continuity.

    Avicenna wrote in Arabic, Nagarjuna in Sanskrit and Mencius in Chinese. Almost no “Western” philosophers could read any of these languages, and it would have been very difficult for them to acquire them. They could read translations, but how far would that have taken them? When you know that Nagarjuna’s main work was called Madhyamakasastrastuti you naturally hesitate to speak as if you know his real thought.

    Scholarly study of these non-Western philosophers is important and Western universities have a long and honourable tradition of this kind, in many languages. But that is tangential to the issue you are raising.


  75. The comments have drifted pretty far off from the essay. If there aren’t any more on-topic comments tomorrow, I will close them.

  76. Bunsen Burner

    The only reason the young are obsessed about identity is because this has been forced on them by an academia. Its a frivolous fetish. The idea that you can decompose personhood into a set of identities like some sort of psychological Fourier series is absurd. Yes, at a very crude and coarse-grained level you can talk about the experiences of certain demographics such as a poor urban black, but it becomes meaningless when used in the essentialist fine grained way of modern Identity Politics. Furthermore I would argue that rather than helping young people and giving them some insight into their lives, this nonsense plays are large part in their current crisis of anxiety and depression.

  77. Bunsen Burner

    The idea that European philosophy should not privilege European thinkers strikes me a singularly peculiar perspective. Why do you think its important for European traditions to become less parochial and more encompassing? Can you give me an example of other cultures that have done this? What about a clear and concrete list of issues that you think the European tradition cannot solve, but other traditions can?

  78. Bharath Vallabha

    I think European philosophy should privilege European thinkers.

    The hard question I think is: how do we balance that kind of correct privileging with the fact that European countries (or America) are also diverse in having many people without European cultural backgrounds? That is, given that the identity of Europe is changing and has changed, how do we reflect that while recognizing the obvious truth of its older European past? I see the white paper as addressing this kind of question, and its confused because the difficulty of this question is intellectual, not a matter of ethical norms we should adopt.

    Note the reason European tradition should do this isn’t because other traditions are better at something than Europe. It’s because the identity is changing, and there is a need to make sense of that. Also, not at all claiming this is unique to Europe. I think Asia, Latin America, etc. are struggling with the same issues, and rightly so.

  79. Bharath Vallabha

    I won’t speak for others. I struggled with these issues of identity since I was 15, trying to make sense of the race issues in America, and also how I fit into it. If academia means college, it had nothing to do with how I got interested in the issues. In fact, I found college professors mostly had unhelpful responses. So I agree college professors are making the youth’s anxieties worse (this white paper being an example). But I wouldn’t say they are the main cause of the anxieties. I think it is more like what s. wallerstein said, identity now is much more self-constructed than it used to be (doesn’t mean we can self-construct re every identity).

  80. Given that there doesn’t seem to be an inclination to further discuss the essay itself or the “white paper,” I am closing comments.

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