by Bharath Vallabha
Since I was a philosophy undergrad 25 years ago, I wanted academic philosophy to be more diverse. Back then, at least in the departments I was in, most philosophy professors and students were white males, and the curriculum was almost entirely European. What most bugged me was this was so taken for granted that there was an implication that anyone who was getting “bogged down” in issues of inclusion was revealing their philosophical mediocrity. The feeling was those who can do the hard work of philosophy focus on debating the ideas of Quine and Fodor, and those who can’t complain about diversity.
Though I was woke in the sense that I couldn’t forget about diversity issues, in two ways I was very much not woke.
First, my favorite philosophers were mostly white men. In grad school, I spent most of my time thinking about Wittgenstein, whom I found so compelling that I wrote my first dissertation prospectus in the form of the Philosophical Investigations (no, it wasn’t accepted, and yes, rightly so). I also loved Ryle and Austin and those who kept up that tradition of skepticism about traditional philosophy, such as Richard Rorty, Stanley Cavell, the later Putnam and John McDowell. None of these thinkers, other than Rorty sometimes, talked much about diversity issues. But in a way I couldn’t pin down then, I felt these philosophers who were rethinking the nature of philosophy were speaking deeply to my concerns of diversity without ever using words like ‘race’, ‘gender’, or ‘Eurocentrism’.
Second, when I was in grad school at Harvard in the 2,000’s, I started to hear some of the diversity stuff. The younger faculty were bringing the new professionalism to Emerson Hall. At nearby MIT, Sally Haslanger was merging metaphysics and feminism in a way that seemed fresh and exciting to many folks. I identified with Haslanger’s passion for changing the profession, but I found her philosophical project itself uncompelling. Even now when I read her, or others such as Charles Mills or Jason Stanley or Kate Manne, though I admire them as philosophers, I find myself shaking my head and resisting the way they address diversity.
Why is this? How can it be that though Wittgenstein and Austin didn’t talk about diversity issues, I find their philosophical outlooks more insightful in thinking about diversity than I do the works of Haslanger and Mills? I can explain through a brief history of analytic philosophy as I see it.
Analytic philosophy can be divided broadly into four eras. The first, beginning era of Frege, Russell and Moore, at the turn of the 20th century, was a revolt against the psychologism of the then-dominant forms of Idealism. The idea was that a focus on clear thinking, the analysis of language and an understanding of new developments in science would curtail the excesses of Hegelian metaphysics.
In the second era, centered on the early and late Wittgenstein and his influence on logical positivists and ordinary language philosophy respectively. The criticism of Hegelian metaphysics was expanded into a criticism of metaphysics and of philosophy more generally. From the 1920’s to the 1960’s, analytic philosophy was revolutionary in the way the current woke generation aims to be revolutionary: a radical rethinking of the nature and possibilities of philosophy. Wittgenstein was at the center of this revolution. Though as a person he was domineering and often abusive, the crux of his latter thinking was an incredible openness to the varieties of philosophical thinking. He gave up the idea that philosophy was determined by immutable, universal questions (“How is the mind related to the body?” “Is there free will?” and so on), and instead argued that philosophy was about an individual’s search for conceptual peace. Philosophy was a form of therapy aimed at individual transformation, not a set of abstract ideas that can be established for all thinkers.
Wittgenstein’s therapeutic vision of philosophy appealed to my concern with diversity. The uncomfortable fact, which gets lost when diversity is identified with only certain topics like race and gender, is that diversity is a Pandora’s box. When it’s opened, we cannot control what diversity itself means. People are not diverse in only three or four or ten dimensions, but in hundreds of them, well beyond anything that any one person or group can hope to regulate. Sure, maybe I want philosophy to be more focused on Indian philosophy or on spirituality, but there are millions of people who want to focus on other things. What then holds all of it together as philosophy if people’s philosophical interests are so diverse? The Wittgensteinian answer is radical and simple: nothing holds philosophy together. For Wittgenstein, philosophy is not defined by a set of questions or answers or canons or methods (the extent to which his remarks that in philosophy we bring words back to their everyday use constitute a method has been a live question among Wittgensteinians). For him the idea that philosophy has an essence is itself an illusion, a form of generalizing that leads us into conceptual confusions. The way out of the confusions is to appreciate the diversity of ways — and the family resemblances among them — in which we ask questions, seek answers, hope to change things or keep things the same. There is no Philosophy, nor even Philosophers. No pantheon, no canon, no there “heart” of philosophy. There is only each person trying to think about life and understand the world and form communities with other people to whom they feel drawn.
This vision of philosophy poses an obvious problem for academic philosophy. If there is no essence to philosophy that distinguishes it from physics and art and history and math — and even worse, if it is highly particular to each individual’s search for conceptual peace — then where does it fit in a modern university? Kant and Hegel institutionalized academic philosophy in the modern university at the turn of the 19th century, and this led to a division between system-building academic philosophers (Kant, Hegel, British idealists) and non-academic existential philosophers (Kiekegaard, Schopenhaur, Nietzsche). Russell and Moore wanted to drive out of power their Idealist teachers, but still retain institutionally the basic form of academic philosophy derived from Kant and Hegel. As Janik and Toulmin note in Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Wittgenstein brought the cultural philosophies from his childhood Vienna to the Cambridge seminars of Russell and Moore. Wittgenstein’s basic disagreement with Russell can be put this way, though Wittgenstein himself didn’t put it like this: one can’t give up Hegelian metaphysics and still retain the model of the academic philosopher inherited from Hegel. For Wittgenstein, giving up metaphysics meant making philosophy profoundly existential, and that means being radically open to the diversity of ways in which each person seeks his way out of his philosophical questions.
It can be surprising that a philosophy so questioning of its own academic status could thrive in Cambridge and Oxford. But it makes sense if seen in the context of the times. The 1920’s through the 1950’s were a deeply existential period for Europe. How this played out in philosophy is brought out in recent books like Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians and Sigmund’s Exact Thinking in Demented Times. In the aftermath of WWI and then the tumult of WWII, questions of science, politics, philosophy, European identity and the possibilities of academic philosophy were all intertwined. Wittgenstein’s philosophy and personality exemplified this tumultuousness and its inner tensions.
The third era of analytic philosophy saw the reemergence of traditional philosophy starting with Quine in the 1950s, and followed by Rawls, Kripke, Lewis and others. In a flash, Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language Philosophy started to lose ground and seemed too despairing. A new optimism about philosophy and its place in the university emerged. Not surprisingly, this had its roots in America and its ascendency after WWII. The optimism in philosophy had in the first instance to do with the availability of philosophy jobs. The beginning of mass education in America meant new universities were being founded with new philosophy departments to be filled.
Wittgenstein’s philosophy is highly meta-philosophical and presupposes knowledge of the philosophical tradition it seeks to demolish. This is a non-starter for new philosophy departments which needed to teach the basics of philosophy to thousands of first generation college students who might never have heard of Plato or Descartes. Inevitably, this led to a new professionalization of philosophy, with increasing specialization and focus on sub-disciplines like philosophy of mind, language, ethics, and so on. Professionalization also meant a new focus on respecting boundaries with one’s colleagues. One couldn’t say anymore, as Austin does of Ayer in Sense and Sensibilia or as Ryle does of Descartes in The Concept of Mind, that the philosophies one is criticizing are deeply confused. Others might be right or wrong, justified or unjustified, but conceptual confusion suggested a kind of unprofessional attack of a fellow academic, that too one with their own area of specialization which one could not trespass on.
Rorty saw the writing on the wall in 1979, when he published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. The book was Rorty’s attempt to hold on to the existential philosophy of Wittgenstein from the second era of analytic philosophy during the rise of professionalism in the third era. Idiosyncratically, Rorty tried to make this move by arguing that the analytic heroes of the third era — Quine, Davidison, Sellars. etc. — actually were saying the same thing as Wittgenstein (and as Heidegger and Dewey to boot). This reading of Quine and Davidson seemed far-fetched, for even if their ideas were similar to Wittgenstein’s in some ways, their form of life as academic philosophers was not remotely the same. At the center of Wittgenstein’s philosophy was a deep ambivalence of whether it could be academic. In comparison, Quine and Davidson exemplified the new optimism that philosophy could be one more professional discipline among others in academia. In fact, by the late 1970’s philosophy was becoming even more professionalized as the job market was instituted, with job interviews at the APA meant to counteract the old boys club practices of distributing jobs.
Of course, Rorty was no straightforward Wittgensteinian. He was interested in connecting philosophy with democracy in ways Wittgenstein wasn’t. Like Cavell, who saw in Wittgenstein’s existential focus on the individual an Emersonian vision of democratic thinking, Rorty saw in Wittgenstein’s therapeutic philosophy a link to Deweyean pragmatism. The crucial idea is that democracy means dealing with the Pandora’s box of diversity. In a democracy, any disagreement is yet another form of diversity, and so fostering democracy means thinking together without imposing constraints on how concepts ought to be used. Rorty turned Wittgenstein’s therapy into pragmatism: instead of a way to convert others to a single truth, philosophy is a way of fostering new communal possibilities. Rorty saw in the rising professionalization an obstacle to this pragmatic vision, with the reification of concepts in the form of specialization and expertise making it harder for people to think together simply as people.
In what I think of as the current fourth era of analytic philosophy, starting about twenty years ago, what Rorty was worried about is exactly what happened. Whereas Rorty wanted to avoid professionalization as a way to foster diversity, for philosophers like Haslanger and Mills, fostering diversity has become yet another within professional philosophy. Discussions of race, gender, colonialism and fascism have entered analytic philosophy classrooms, but they have done so in a hyper-fragmented context, where these concepts are seen to be the special province of the experts in those subfields. Woke philosophers stated aim to transform academic philosophy belies the deeper way in which they accept the status quo of professionalization which began in the third era.
The tension here is clear in the idea of “institutional capture.” According to this idea, academic philosophy will change when the new socially-minded philosophies are accepted in the profession and its proponents rise to positions of power. This assumes that if one is not able to effect change as one wants, it must be because of entrenched racism and sexism, which are seen as undermining one’s capacity to attain sufficient power to create more changes. But in a professionalized context, rising in the discipline implies localization of influence. Charles Mills brought together colonialism with standard political philosophical discussions of the social contract, and so brought philosophical discussions of colonialism into an analytic bastion like CUNY. This is a tremendous achievement, intellectually and institutionally. But, as Rorty came to believe as a Princeton professor, rising to the top of professional philosophy comes at a cost: the very concepts one is supposed to be an expert in are transformed — via the very process of expertise — from how they are used in non-professional contexts. The euphoria of advancement merges with the alienation of disciplinary limits. What among the results of Mills’ work can be used by non-academics in the broader society? This is a fraught question when the concepts of race and colonialism are absorbed into the vortex of journal articles, conferences and tenure reviews.
Some critics of thinkers like Haslanger and Mills suggest that the new woke philosophers are substituting power for reason. This is unfair if it means that somehow woke philosophers in particular are doing this, as if non-woke philosophers like Quine didn’t care about institutional power. But in another sense, the criticism has a point. When race, gender and fascism become the domain of experts in those concepts, that is different from when expertise of mind, meaning and ethics became specialized in the third era. The concepts of mind and meaning are central to our lives, but not to our everyday self-identities. It’s easier to think that some people over there, in a building on a campus, spend their time analyzing the meaning of beliefs and intentions. But the very social power and resonance of concepts like race and gender mean that granting some people special, deeper knowledge of them can be disconcerting. If I found out that some people specialize in the concept of “Bharath Vallabha” and have conferences about it, I wouldn’t be able to, nor should I have to, defer to their expertise of who I am. Concepts of race and gender are so deeply tied up with our very names and self-images that even though they are general concepts, they are also intensely personal. This doesn’t make such concepts equally clear to all. Mills knows much more about the concept of race than I do, just as Haslanger is an expert in feminism and I am not. But then again, my therapist might know more about some aspects of me than I do, but that doesn’t mean I can simply defer to her expertise in what I should think.
As academic philosophers engage more with questions of race and gender, identity and democracy, it will bring into sharper focus the complicated relation between academic philosophy and the broader society. Professionalization means the analysis of these concepts gets tied up with the concerns of academics such as job distributions and professional advancement, and it’s an open question whether that illuminates or distorts the concepts at issue. Philosophers who assume greater academic power will enable greater social change actually exhibit a naïve hopefulness about professionalized philosophy. Reflecting more on the meta-philosophical questions from earlier eras of analytic philosophy can suggest alternate ways forward.
Bharath Vallabha was born in India and moved to New York when he was eleven. He has a BA in philosophy from Cornell, a PhD from Harvard and taught at Bryn Mawr for a few years before leaving academia. He blogs at https://bvphilosophy.wordpress.com/