Diversity and “the” Philosophical Tradition


Dan Hicks


December 7, 2013

A typical problem for introductory philosophy courses is that the list of readings is dominated by privileged authors — white men, members or adjuncts of the ruling classes of their respective societies, many of them able-bodied, often lifelong bachelors who have almost no experience interacting with children or the infirm, and so on. A typical proposed response — which fields like Literature adopted around 30 years ago — is to make the list of authors more diverse. But sometimes philosophers are hesitant to make this move:

Said colleague teaches her introductory ethics course using the historical approach … [B]ut on the historical approach, you are going to teach the historical figures: probably a couple [readings — I assume, DH] out of Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx and Rawls and definitely all of Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Mill. No women. You can force women in – both times I taught it that way I used Mary Wollstonecraft, and my colleague ended her course with Philippa Foot. But neither of these figures has the stature of any of the men I’ve mentioned, and my guess is that the students can pretty much see through the token gesture (and if you teach it chronologically, the women come along pretty late anyway).

That’s a very dense response, and I could probably pull out three or four different arguments. I’m going to focus on this one here:

  1. The philosophical tradition is dominated by privileged authors.
  2. The reading list for intro philosophy courses should reflect the philosophical tradition.
  3. Hence, the reading list for intro philosophy courses should be dominated by privileged authors.

Premise 2 is too strong — there are lots of ways to introduce students to philosophy, and following the tradition is only one way. But capturing that would make premise 2 much more complicated. And anyway I’m really interested in premise 1 here.

Premise 1 seems to rely on a certain way of thinking about traditions. On this way of thinking, traditions are strictly accruing. New things are added to the tradition — Rawls’ Theory of Justice was added just a few decades ago — but only rarely — a few additions per century. Once added, nothing is removed. In this sense, the tradition is fixed. Furthermore, additions aren’t intentional — nothing is added because someone set out to add them — and things can only be added for a limited period of time — we can’t go back and add something that was written centuries ago. Because of all this, traditions are inherently conservative.

This way of thinking about traditions is reflected in the remarks above that, if women are included in the reading list, it’s by “force” and as “token gestures.” Alasdair MacIntyre often attributes this view of traditions to Edmund Burke, and it was also held by the radical Enlightenment anti-traditionalists who were Burke’s main opponents. The difference was just that Burke thought that traditions were good and ought to be respected, while the Enlightenment figures thought traditions were oppressive and ought to be destroyed. (Ironically, nearly all of the authors listed in the quotation were anti-traditionalists in exactly this way.)

MacIntyre thinks that Burke was wrong about traditions — disastrously wrong, tragically wrong — and several of his books involve reworking the idea of a tradition. Roughly speaking, on MacIntyre’s view traditions are ways of interpreting the life of our community over time — where we came from, where we are now, and where we’re headed. Since they’re interpretations, traditions are actively — even intentionally — made, maintained, and remade. They’re not a pile of accreted history, pressing down on us with the weight of centuries, but instead the way in which we understand the activities of our forerunners (including who counts as our forerunners) and how they relate to our activities and the activities of those who will come after us. Not only does this understanding change over time, but when things are going well it improves over time.

Consider again the canonical authors in the quotation. We don’t read them uncritically, and indeed today we recognize the privileged perspective of these authors, and the way in which their privilege distorted their philosophy. We also recognize the ways in which structural oppression — of women, of persons of color and non-Europeans, of working-class persons, of persons with physical and mental impairments — ensured that only privileged perspectives were allowed to contribute to the tradition; all other perspectives were excluded, one way or another.

In short, we now recognize that our tradition wasn’t created by the accretion of great works of philosophy, but instead that what counted as great works was partly constituted by structures of privilege and oppression. Our tradition was made, and so we may be able to re-make it. Specifically, insofar as the philosophical tradition continues to be dominated by privileged authors, it’s because we allow it to continue in this way. Indeed, we’ve already started to re-make our interpretation of our history, by recognizing the way it’s been shaped by structural oppression and privilege. We just need to translate this process into our syllabi.

I can see at least three means for doing this. First, we can recover the work of oppressed thinkers who were excluded from the tradition in the past. Kristin Waters’s anthology Women and Men Political Theorists (Blackwell 2000, ISBN 978-0631209805) and Karen Warren’s An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy (Rowman and Littlefield 2009, ISBN 978-0742559240) both juxtapose readings by men and women, and there are numerous anthologies for intro to philosophy courses that include the perspectives of oppressed persons in substantial ways. (If you think that it’s hard to find good readings for introductory courses by women and persons of color, at best it’s because you’re lazy.)

Second, we can incorporate ideological critiques of the tradition into our course content. I’m doing this in my intro to ethics course next term: after reading about utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, we’ll read a feminist critique of ethical theory and theorizing by Hilde Lindemann, then take a look at care ethics. The last time I taught intro to philosophy, Rawls and Nozick were followed by ideological critiques from Susan Okin, Anita Silvers, G.A. Cohen, and Charles Mills.

Third, and even if without doing the first two, we can incorporate contemporary readings into our presentation of privileged authors. Penn State’s Re-Reading the Canon series, edited by Nancy Tuana, is an excellent resource here. In general, the aim of these volumes is to sort through the work of “great philosophers” from a broadly feminist perspective, asking what’s still valuable in this work, what is objectionable or must be discarded, and how these two sets are related. Many of the contributions will be too demanding for introductory students, but they can certainly inform our lectures in class.