Wednesday, September 04, 2013

"What's Wrong With Philosophy?"

Well, we're two essays in, and it turns out that the answer is, basically, "men"...

This essay is a particularly weak offering. Alcoff begins by discussing Colin McGinn's apparent attempt to shift the blame for his sexual harassment of a female student onto the student, claiming that she wasn't good enough at the philosophy of language to properly understand his innuendo. Alcoff then writes:
Alas, McGinn’s self-defense echoes a common narrative in the discipline concerning its demographic challenges. As The Times article reports, and the philosophy blogosphere will confirm, the paucity in philosophy of women and people of color is often blamed on us. Some suggest it is philosophy’s “rough and tumble” style of debate that has turned us women and nonwhite males away. Logical implication: we may just not be cut out for such a demanding field.
Well, it's worth noting that the only times I have ever heard this explanation seriously offered by philosophers was when it was offered by feminist philosophers. The explanation might be might even be stupid or sexist. But Alcoff suggests that it's offered by men in order to suggest that women and non-whites aren't up to snuff, rigor-wise. In fact, I've only every heard it offered by feminists who meant to suggest that the field of philosophy was defective on account of being too aggressive...

And that little bit of sophistry tells you much of what you need to know about this essay...

(Incidentally, I used to argue with some feminists of my acquaintance about the claim that philosophy was too combative... I used to be of the if-you-can't-stand-the-heat-get-out-of-the-crucible-of-truth school of thought... Now I firmly believe that they were right and I was wrong. The aggressiveness of philosophical discussion tends to turn it into debate, not inquiry. Egos become involved. People get angry and defensive. It becomes a zero-sum game... None of that is conducive to finding the truth, as Peirce tried to tell us long ago...)

Alcoff also writes:
The issue is not debate, simpliciter, but how it is done. Too many philosophers accept the idea that truth is best achieved by a marketplace of ideas conducted in the fashion of ultimate fighting. But aggressive styles that seek easy victories by harping on arcane counterexamples do not maximize truth. Nor does making use of the social advantages one might have by virtue of one’s gender, ethnicity or seniority. Nor does stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the real world contexts, rife with implicit bias and power distortions, in which even philosophical debates always occur.
As I've indicated, I agree with the first sentence (mixed metaphors notwithstanding...) But arcane examples are often the crucial I'm puzzled about what to do with the next one. The rest of it's an attempt to sneak in a particular (intellectually leftist, extremely contentious) view to the effect that things like race and sex and so forth are always relevant in philosophical discussion... It isn't true...but, perhaps more importantly, if it's going to be included, then it should be asserted and defended, not sneaked in almost in passing...

What's wrong with philosophy? Well, the problems that have been discussed so far in this series might not make my top ten... Though they are still worth discussing, I suppose. I do wish, however, that they'd really be discussed openly, honestly, and thoroughly. What we have, instead, are some programmatic, politically-slanted polemical essays that ignore and presuppose exactly enough to give the impression, basically, that what's wrong with philosophy is men. Pretty weak stuff, really, and an embarrassment to the discipline in more than just the intended way...


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