Cathedral Round-Up #26: Philosophy

In sob stories about just how hard it is to be one of the most privileged people in the world, 21 Harvard and Oxford Students Share Their Experiences of Racism They Face Everyday [sic]:

I, Too, Am Harvard is a powerful photo campaign highlighting the faces and voices of black students at Harvard College. Fed up with the institutional racism they face everyday [sic], the students are speaking speaking out against it by sharing their heartfelt stories in a series of portraits.

“Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned,” they say. “This project is our way of speaking back,of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: we are here.”

The students from Oxford University have also begun a similar campaign.

Examples of nefarious racism keeping down Harvard and Oxford students include people asking if they’re listening to rap music on their headphones and jokes abut Somali pirates. Several complaints also center on the fact that whites believe that blacks and Hispanics get an admissions boost due to Affirmative Action, which Blacks find terribly offensive. (Of course, as the NY Times notes, Harvard has been acting affirmatively since 1971:

The university has a long and pioneering history of support for affirmative action, going back at least to when Derek Bok, appointed president of Harvard in 1971, embraced policies that became a national model.

The university has extended that ethos to many low-income students, allowing them to attend free. Harvard has argued in a Supreme Court brief that while it sets no quotas for “blacks, or of musicians, football players, physicists or Californians,” if it wants to achieve true diversity, it must pay some attention to the numbers. The university has also said that abandoning race-conscious admissions would diminish the “excellence” of a Harvard education.

This is why Harvard is now getting sued by Asians, whose excellent SAT scores result in a significant admissions discrimination at top schools.)

Why do students at such elite schools indulge in such petulant whining? For that matter, why do these schools allow inanities like students yelling at faculty members about Halloween costumes (Yale, I’m looking at you)?

They say the Devil’s best trick was convincing people he doesn’t exist; perhaps the Cathedral’s best trick is convincing people that it’s oppressed. If Cathedralites are oppressed, then you can’t complain that they’re oppressing you.

Or perhaps people who get into top schools develop some form of survivor’s remorse? How do you reconcile a belief that “elitism” is bad, that intelligence isn’t genetic, that no one is “inherently” better than anyone else nor deserves to be “privileged” with the reality that you have been hand-selected to be part of a privileged, intellectual elite that enjoys opportunities we commoners can only dream of? Perhaps much of what passes for liberal signaling in college is just overcompensation for the privileges they have but can’t explicitly claim to deserve.

Over at Yale, the Philosophy Department is very concerned that too many white males are signing up for their courses:

But not all departments draw evenly across Yale’s many communities — some will be more demographically homogeneous than others, such as Yale’s Philosophy Department, which has historically been majority white and male.

Philosophy has struggled as a discipline to attract students from diverse backgrounds, and faculty and students within Yale’s Philosophy Department told the News that while the department is not as diverse as it could be in terms of racial and gender makeup or curricular offerings, ongoing efforts to remedy the problem are a cause for optimism.

Yalies seem lacking in basic numeracy: if some departments–say the African American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies–attract disproportionately high numbers of blacks and women, then there won’t be enough blacks and women left over to spread out to all of the other departments to get racial parity everywhere. Some departments, by default, will have to have more whites and men.

“[Lack of diversity] has inspired a lot of soul-searching in the discipline in recent years,” said Joanna Demaree-Cotton GRD ’21, co-coordinator of Yale’s chapter of Minorities and Philosophy which works to combat issues faced by minorities in academia. “Lots of departments, including ours at Yale, have started asking tough questions about the cause of this drop-off in the representation of women and racial minorities, and how we might go about ameliorating the problem.”

In case you’re wondering, Demaree-Cotton is a white lady. When the push comes to get some professors to give up their spots in favor of women-of-color philosophers, will Demaree-Cotton get pushed out for being white, or will she be saved because she’s female?

Unfortunately for Yale, they recently lost their only black philosophy professor, Chris Lebron, author of The Making of Black Lives Matter: The History of an Idea and The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time, to Johns Hopkins U.

Yale has a second problem: very few people major in philosophy, period. For example, in 2016, only 20 undergrads received degrees in philosophy or philosophy of mathematics (data is not broken down for each department.) Of these, 13 were men and 7 were female. These are the kind of numbers that let you write hand-wringing articles about how “philosophy is only 35% female!” when we are actually talking about a 6-person gap. The recent “drop-off” in women and racial minorities, therefore, is likely just random chance.

“For example, although over the last four years women have represented less than 25 percent of applicants to our Ph.D. program, they represent about 40 percent of students currently in our program,” Darwall said.

Sounds like Yale is actually giving women preferential treatment, just not enough preferential treatment to make up for the lack of female applicants.

Deputy Dean for Diversity and Faculty Development Kathryn Lofton said that Yale is working hard to “rethink diversity” across the University…

Each academic department and program, not just philosophy, must engage with this topic, Lofton added.

“The protests in the fall of 2015 showed that our students believe we have work yet to do to achieve this ambition,” she said. “The University has responded to their call with a strong strategic vision. But this work takes time to accomplish.”

Kathryn Lofton is also a white woman. Besides lecturing people about the importance of Halloween Costume protests, she is also a professor of Religious Studies, American Studies, History and Divinity and chair of the Religious Studies department. Her faculty page describes her work:

Kathryn Lofton is a is a historian of religion who has written extensively about capitalism, celebrity, sexuality, and the concept of the secular. … Her first book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) used the example of Oprah Winfrey’s multimedia productions to evaluate the material strategies of contemporary spirituality. Her forthcoming book, Consuming Religion offers a profile of religion and its relationship to consumption and includes analysis of many subjects, including office cubicles, binge viewing, the family Kardashian, and the Goldman Sachs Group. Her next book-length study will consider the religions of American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.

Apparently writing about Oprah and the Kardashians now qualifies you to be a Yale professor.

Back to the Philosophy Department:

For instance, [Jocelyn] Wang said that many undergraduate introductory philosophy classes are history-based and focused on “dead white men,” which is not necessarily as accessible to students from varied backgrounds.

“I think the way that the undergraduate philosophy curriculum is structured contributes partially to the demographic composition of the major,” Wang said.

In other words, Miss Wang thinks that Yale’s black and Hispanic students are too dumb to read Socrates and Kant.

This is really a bullshit argument, if you will pardon my language. Any student who has been accepted to Yale is smart (and well-educated) enough to “access” Socrates. These are Yalies, not bright but underprivileged kids from the ‘hood. If language is an issue for Yale’s foreign exchange students, all of the philosophy texts can be found in translation (in fact, most of them weren’t written in English to start with.) But if you struggle with English, you might not want to attend a university where English is the primary language to start with.

However, if we interpret “accessible” in Miss Wang’s statement as a euphemism for “interesting,” we may have a reasonable claim: perhaps interest in historical figures really is tribal, with whites more interested in white philosophers and blacks more interested in black philosophers. Your average “Philosophy 101” course is likely to cover the most important philosophers in the Western Tradition, because these courses were originally designed and written by Westerners who wanted to discuss their own philosophical tradition. Now in order to attract non-Westerners, they are being told they need to discard the discussion of their own philosophical tradition in favor of other philosophical traditions.

Now, I don’t see anything wrong with incorporating non-western philosophies if they have something interesting to say. My own Philosophy 101 course covered (IIRC) Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, John Rawls, the Bhagavad Gita, Taoism, and Confucianism. I enjoyed this course, and never found myself thinking, “Gee, I just can’t access this Confucius. This course would be a lot more accessible without all of the brown guys in it.”

Look, some people like talking about what a “chair” is and what “is” is, and some people like talking about police brutality against black bodies, and if one group of people wants to get together in the Philosophy department and talk about chairs and the other group wants to go to the African American Studies department, that’s fine. We don’t all have to hang out in the same place and talk about the same stuff. Sometimes, you just need to sit down and acknowledge that the thing you’re interested in isn’t 100% interesting to everyone else on the planet. Some subjects are more interesting to women, some are more interesting to men. Some are more interesting to whites or blacks or Asians, married or single people, young or old, city or country dwellers, etc. We are allowed to be different. If different people have different interests, then the only way to get people with different interests into the philosophy department is by changing the department itself to cater to those different interests–interests that are already being better served by a different department. If you turn Philosophy into Gender + Race Studies, then you’ve just excluded all of the people who were attracted to it in the first place because they wanted to study philosophy.

Speaking of which:

[Wang] added that in her experience, students can create a “culture of intimidation” by making references to philosophers without explaining them, thus setting up a barrier for people who are not familiar with that background.

I know some people can be cliquish, reveling in overly-obtuse language that they use to make themselves sound smart and to exclude others from their exclusive intellectual club. Academic publications are FILLED with such writing, and it’s awful.

But Miss Wang is criticizing what amount to private conversations between other students for being insufficiently transparent to outsiders, which rubs me the wrong way. Every field has some amount of specialized knowledge and vocabulary that experienced members will know better than newcomers. Two bikers talking about their motorcycles wouldn’t make much sense to me. Two engineers talking about an engineering project also wouldn’t make much sense to me. And I had to look up a lot of Jewish vocabulary words like “Gemara” before I could write that post on the Talmud. Balancing between the amount of information someone who is well-versed in a field needs vs the amount a newcomer needs, without actually knowing how much knowledge that newcomer already has nor whether you are coming across as condescending, simplistic, or “mansplaining,” can be very tricky.

This is something I worry about in real life when talking to people I don’t know very well, so I’m sensitive about it.

Still, [Rita Wang–a different student with the same last name] noted several classes that delved into questions of race and gender, such as a class on American philosophy that included the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and another course on G.W.F. Hegel that discussed his interpretation of the Haitian Revolution.

I was curious about Hegel’s interpretation of the Haitian revolution. A quick search of “Hegel Haiti” brings me to Susan Buck-Morss‘s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. According to The Marx & Philosophy Review of Books:

The premise of Susan Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History is the arresting claim that Hegel’s renowned ‘master-slave dialectic’ was directly inspired by the contemporaneous Haitian Revolution. Commencing with a slave uprising on the French colony of Saint Domingue in 1791, the victorious former slaves declared Haiti’s independence from Napoleon’s France in 1804, three years before Hegel published his Phenomenology of Spirit, which contained the earliest published (and still the best known) rendition of the master-slave dialectic. …

However, if Buck-Morss is right to claim that Hegel was alluding to the Haitian Revolution when writing his master-slave dialectic, then Hegel’s seemingly callow optimism was not mere fancy but drew directly on lived historical experience: the achievement of Haitian slaves not only in overthrowing a savage and comprehensive tyranny but also in establishing their own modern state. Buck-Morss only hints at this possibility, however. Her aim, she says, is different: she wants to ensure that the great German philosopher is forever linked to the greatest of Caribbean revolutions (16)….

Bridge made of trash, Haiti

Ah, yes, Haiti, such a great revolution! And such a great country! Say, how have things been in Haiti since the revolution?

Dessalines was proclaimed “Emperor for Life” by his troops.[63] …Once in power, he ordered the massacre of most whites. … In the continuing competition for power, he was assassinated by rivals on 17 October 1806.[66]

The revolution led to a wave of emigration.[70] In 1809, nearly 10,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue settled en masse in New Orleans.[71] They doubled the city’s population. …

Haitian politics have been contentious: since independence, Haiti has suffered 32 coups.[134]

Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince, one of the biggest slums in the Northern Hemisphere, has been called “the most dangerous place on Earth” by the United Nations.[138]

Haiti has consistently ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world on the Corruption Perceptions Index.[159] It is estimated that President “Baby Doc” Duvalier, his wife Michelle, and their agents stole US $504 million from the country’s treasury between 1971 and 1986.[160]

Haiti’s purchasing power parity GDP fell 8% in 2010 (from US$12.15 billion to US$11.18 billion) and the GDP per capita remained unchanged at PPP US$1,200.[2] … Haiti is one of the world’s poorest countries and the poorest in the Americas region, with poverty, corruption, poor infrastructure, lack of health care and lack of education cited as the main sources. …

Haiti’s population (1961–2003) from 4 to 10 million

Meanwhile, Haiti’s population has steadily increased from 4 million (in 1961) to 10 million (in 2003).

Sounds great. Who wouldn’t embrace a revolution that brought such peace, prosperity, and well-being to its people?

Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that Susan Buck-Morss is a member of the Frankfurt School. Wikipedia also notes that the idea that the Frankfurt School is a bunch of Marxists–or “Cultural Marxists” is just a “conspiracy theory.” Clearly there is nothing Marxist about the Frankfurt School.

But back to Yale:

This year, new faculty members who have joined the department will teach courses that diversify the curriculum, Gendler said. Philosophy professor Robin Dembroff, who is genderqueer, is teaching a social ontology course next semester that focuses on questions surrounding social construction and the nature of social categories.

Here’s an excerpt from Dembroff’s PhD dissertation summary (Princeton):

Many important social debates concern who should count as belonging to various social categories. Who should count as black? …as a woman? …as married? …it is widely assumed that these questions turn on metaphysical analyses of what makes someone black, a woman, and so on. That is, it is assumed that we should count someone as (e.g.) a woman just in case they satisfy sufficient conditions for having the property `woman’. My dissertation argues that this assumption is wrong: whether someone should count as a woman turns not on whether they satisfy the correct metaphysical analysis of what it is to be a woman, but on ethical considerations about how we ought to treat each other. …

While researching this post, I also came across what I think is Dembroff’s old Myspace account. While looking back at our teenage selves can be ridiculous and often embarassing, the teenage Dembroff seemed a much realer, more relateable human than the current one who is trying so hard to look Yale. Perhaps it isn’t the same Dembroff, of course. But we were all teenagers, once, trying to find our place in this world. I think I would have liked teenage Dembroff.

Dembroff’s dissertation, boiled down to its point, is that all of these debates over things like “trans identity” don’t really matter because we ought to just try to be kind to each other. While I think statements like, “What matters for determining ethical gender ascriptions are normative questions about how we ought to perceive and treat others, and not facts about who is a man or a woman. This claim has an important implication: It may be unethical to make true gender ascriptions, and ethical to make false ascriptions,” are quite wrong, because reality is an important thing and basing an ethics around lying has all sorts of bad implications, I find this at least a more honest and straightforward idea than all of the “gender is a social construct” nonsense.

Still, I question the wisdom of having someone who thinks that social ontology, social construction, and the nature of social categories don’t really matter teach a course on the subject. But maybe Dembroff brings a refreshing new perspective to the subject. Who knows.

Let’s finish our article:

“One thing that I have found really encouraging at Yale is that I have been made to feel as if the graduate student community as a whole — including white men — truly cares about working together to create positive change,” Demaree-Cotton said. “This really makes a big difference. The importance of all students and faculty — not just minorities — taking an active interest in these issues should not be underestimated.”

So much social signaling. So much trying to impress the legions of other privileged, to scrabble to the top, to hang on to some piece of the pie while deflecting blame onto someone else.

I wish people could leave all of this signaling behind.


5 thoughts on “Cathedral Round-Up #26: Philosophy

  1. Dembroff,” …it is widely assumed that these questions turn on metaphysical analyses of what makes someone black, a woman, and so on. That is, it is assumed that we should count someone as (e.g.) a woman just in case they satisfy sufficient conditions for having the property `woman’…”

    As I sit here I swell with rage. I wave my antennas about and clack my claws in furious abandon as I am a Lobster and his species arguments will not do. This species argument is not us. Who says we have to be just a Man or a Women?


  2. The worst thing about modern academia is not the virtue signalling, it’s how inept it is. Listen to ‘Deep State Radio’ sometime, and you’ll see how bad it is. Truly high-status people know that signalling too hard is a desperate move, but modern academics are too insecure to avoid that trap. Academics can even address the alt-right conception of it, and even that is not enough to keep them from knocking each other down at the slightest provocation in the middle of their conversation about how signalling keeps them from doing their jobs.

    The fact that we are ruled by people who can’t set aside their reputations to get real work done, and worse, who acknowledge that their system can’t provide answers and thus don’t even try, is the sign that our academic culture has degenerated utterly.


    • It’s not called the “circular firing squad” for nothing.
      It’s quite sad when you think about all of the potential and energy that are being wasted on pointless social signalling. Most of these are smart people. They could do something worthwhile with their time.


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