A while ago I read Eugene Park’s HuffPo piece and Brian Leiter’s follow-up over at 3 AM asking the question, is philosophy racist, or perhaps more subtly, does it need to include more non-white thinkers in what we teach and research? I have Thoughts with a capital T there, but I’m still struggling to get them into a specific form that’s really worth sharing. (The answer, will most certainly look something like “Yes, but…”, as do most of my thoughts on philosophy. Go not to the Elves, as they say.) But in the mean time, I thought it might be interested to write a bit about a simpler question (which as it turns out isn’t so simple after all): what would it mean to include more voices of color? Is non-white really the standard? And what do we mean by “white,” even?
Let me start off with a few examples from my own focus when I was a grad student, medieval philosophy.
1) Augustine (who’s not really medieval but is usually taught with medieval philosophy – another issue worth talking about some day) was born in Roman northern Africa (specifically in what’s now Algeria) in the 4th Century. His mother was Berber, and I’ve heard alternating accounts that his father was Latin or Phoenician.
Was he “black”? Certainly he was African. (So, for the record were the church fathers Tertullian and Origen.) And if you know anything about race relations in antiquity, you know a few centuries earlier being from North Africa, particularly if you weren’t purely Latin, would put you in a less-cultured (meaning viewed that way by the PTB, not actual fact) ethnic class than if you were from the area that became Italy and Greece. On the other hand, the Roman Empire was waning at this point and the Christian church was probably one of the biggest unifying cultural and intellectual institutions. And Augustine was a bishop. Add to that the fact that whether or not he was actually white, in the paintings we have of him he might as well be Nordic. He’s part of the historical tradition that modern Europeans and European-descended people think of as their narrative.
2) Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, in the twelfth century to a Jewish family. At the time Spain was Muslim, under the Arabic dynasties that became the Ottoman Empire. (Can’t remember if it was actively the Ottoman Empire at that point or not.) In his childhood as a Jew his family were dhimmis which to modern minds suggests second-class status but at the time actually gave his family a legal status and the protection of the law that they lacked otherwise. Then the area was taken over by another group of Muslims and they were forced to convert or emigrate, and they chose to emigrate – to Egypt, which was much more the center of the Arabic/Muslim world than Spain, and at the time that area was much more philosophically and scientifically booming than Europe was, Spain or otherwise. And he was Jewish in any event, and not the stereotypical eastern European/Ashkhenazi Jew. Look at the history of Jewish philosophy a little more closely if you think that would have been an accepted-by-the-mainstream ethnic group to hail from.
So should we paint Maimonides as an ethnically “white” or “majority” philosopher? Um… yeah. He was Jewish, which as I hinted requires a whole lot of conversation to get at what that means throughout history. As this is from the time when Jews were forced to live in ghettos claiming that Jew = Judeo-Christian = majority is a really tough sell. He was an ethnic minority in Spain but a protected and valued one. He seemed to acclimatize to the dominant culture (there’s evidence that his family faked a conversion to Islam before leaving Spain), but he was also one of the leading legal figures of his particular subcommunity in Egypt. And his work on the distinction between philosophy and theology shows clear exposure to the dominant philosophy of his day but that philosophy was itself a majorly underrepresented strain of philosophy’s history, Islamic philosophy.
Good luck with that one.
3) Then there’s Anselm, the philosopher I was researching for my dissertation. Anselm was from a fairly wealthy family, part of the Italian nobility. (Or the nobility of the states that would one day become Italy, but you know what I mean.) As thoroughly European as you’re likely to get by racial lines, and given that the Church was pretty much the dominant intellectual institution, being in what became Italy would pretty well situated him within the intellectual mainstream of his day. The problem was, he wanted to enter the church and his father refused him, and he went a bit wild. Ran away and ended up in Normandy where he finally joined a Benedictine order. In northern France, which was pretty much the outskirts of civilization at the time. His contribution was also a bit of a blip: I’d argue he was a proto-scholastic before Scholasticism was cool. And because of that his contribution was forgotten for several centuries and ended up getting bastardized into a point-by-point logical argument as part of the natural theology project that you can’t speak about God (defined a certain way) without presupposing God’s existence so the statement “God does not exist” is false on its face. And I’d say think of him as a natural theologian is to miss the point entirely.
But getting back to the race issue. The really interesting thing here to me is that Anselm was so clearly European. He was born near the center of European culture of his time and never left Europe, but his philosophy was written in virtual isolation and didn’t really key in with the way European philosophy unrolled – partly because as I said I believe his philosophy was before its time, but also because he ended up living in a part of Europe that was less connected with that cultural center and was concerned with a very small, local community that wouldn’t have been that different if it was a Christian community (or a religious community generally, to a lesser degree) in Asia or Africa or the Americas. I’d say Augustine is a more central part of European philosophy than Anselm is, for all that ethnically Anselm is more clearly European.
So what’s the point in all this? I’m not trying to let philosophy off the hook. I think philosophy does have a race problem (and for that matter a gender problem) though it’s not so much about a lack of non-white/male philosophers as it is ignoring the way people outside the dominant tradition looked at the questions philosophers are considering – and then pretending like they’re giving a (say) universal answer about whether free will is possible, or whether we’re a body or a soul or whatnot, or whether language has any innate meaning, or whatever the question may be.
But if the issue is one of representation, I think we do need to be clear on what it means to be part of a racial minority. Does Augustine count as African? Does Maimonides count as European? And do these terms mean different things depending on when we’re talking about them – is Augustine, of native North African descent in the pre-Islamic era, more akin to what we’d call “sub-Saharan African” than Maimonides was in the Islamic age, for instance?
ETA – I’d originally titled this post “Is Philosophy racist?,” which is misleading as I didn’t even try to answer that question. I think this related question of whether certain philosophers are ethnically “diverse,” and more generally speaking what kinds of philosophers we should be working with more to combat racism in the discipline, is a question related to that basic question. But the subject line was misleading.