reclamation of philosophical spaces
May 5, 2013
For the most part, I usually consider myself a philosopher. Even as I rarely say so aloud, since this field and title are most often the sole domain of cishet white men. My training in school was in philosophy (focus on logic). In many ways, this analytic approach is still very much present in how I approach conceptualizing gender, colonialism, race, and all the other stuff I normally write about.
Taking the wikipedia definition of philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument. In more casual speech, by extension, “philosophy” can refer to “the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group”.
Now, looking over this, especially if you note what is considered a ‘fundamental’ problem: reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language[1. Something could also be said about how white centric these ‘fundamental’ problems are in the first place. And that a tradition of critical thought could be considered un-philosophy if it doesn’t actually handle any of these ‘fundamental’ problems]. Okay. So why is it that only when white men do this is it lifted to the heights of philosophy? While most anyone else who engages these ideas is just… what, blowing hot air?
Of course, the definition goes on “philosophy is distinguished by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument”. Okay. So this might rule out a lot of armchair philosophers. And we can also see that there are many different traditions of critical, systematic approaches to the fundamental problems. Where many of these traditions ‘fail’, as far as white philosophy is concerned, is on the charge of rational argumentation. It isn’t accidental that what is considered ‘rational’ is self-referring to the white man’s philosophy itself[1. Also note: because women are historical, emotional beings, they also can never be philosophers]. This reflexivity automatically precludes pretty much any other critical, systematic approaches to fundamental problems from ever truly being considered philosophy.
This is exactly why, in most white run philosophy departments in europe, canada, and the usa, the only ‘philosophy’ most people will study is that written and articulated by white men. This is why, if you want to study the long tradition of Confucian philosophy, you are better off doing so in a religious studies department (or history, or area studies of some kind). Or you can go to school in an East Asian country, where they’ll teach Confucian thought along side Kant.
And you cannot point to content. Because if St. Anselm can be considered a major philosopher for his argument for god’s existence, but Confucius can’t, even though he explicitly refused to talk about ghosts and spirits. Or, why Nagarjuna is rarely noted in any white-focused philosophy department as one of the most influential thinkers in global history?[2. I literally dare anyone to make the claim that Nagarjuna did not address fundamental problems in a critical, systematic way while using rational arguments]
Why must we study Confucius or Nagarjuna in religious departments while studying St. Augustine in philosophy departments[3. Yes, I realize that people in religious studies departments may also study St. Augustine]?
These attitudes and whatever continue on to today.
Today we have a situation where technology has reached a point that many different kinds of people are able and equipped to disseminate their ideas with a fair amount of ease; thus, dodging the barriers to access that have prevented many of these same people from articulating and sharing their ideas in the past (at least in a large sense, since people can always talk amongst themselves).
More to the point, it doesn’t even take a great deal of imagination or stretching to see how many of these people are addressing the fundamental problems: reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. It also doesn’t take much effort to see how many of these people are addressing these problems in critical and systematic ways. And that they are using rational argumentation when supporting or articulating their views.
And yet… very few of us either claim the title ‘philosopher’ or be considered to be contributing to philosophy, despite our continued efforts to critically, systematically, and rationally examine reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Indeed, many of us are dismissed as simply being ‘social justice warriors’ or ‘internet slackivists’.
Sure, it is obvious that white supremacy must maintain hegemonic control over what is considered ‘philosophy’ or even what is considered a ‘fundamental problem[4. note: I’m not restricting this to men anymore since nowadays, white feminist thought or feminist philosophies have achieved some level of legitimacy in philosphy – definitely not equal, but the recognition is there]. And, of course, what is considered ‘rational’, ‘systematic’, or ‘critical’.
Because, as any blogger or tweeter or tumblr person knows, if you make a habit of critically, systematically, and rationally engaging topics surrounding oppression, you’ll constantly be singled out as making too big of a deal about stuff. Spend your time analyzing how videogames reify certain hierarchies of personhood via the mis/representation of marginalized people? You are a whiner who takes things too seriously. Spend your time critically, systematically, and rationally examining what it means to be a trans feminine person of colour in this world? You are playing identity politics[5. And, of course, beyond all belief ‘identity’ should somehow not be construed as a fundamental problem. or something].
Note what the implications are here: understanding and exploring what freedom means to someone like me is not a fundamental problem, as far as white philosophy and its adherents are concerned[6. And by ‘adherents’ i mean those people who’ve taken one intro class to philosophy or have taken no philosophy but believe in ‘rationality’ as some basic virtue. Those people who, very much believe that any emotional content in your argument voids its rationality.]. It is why, in discussions of free will, you’ll never see Franz Fanon’s theories of decolonization and colonialism.
I only bring this up, because the etymology of ‘philosophy’ is that it means ‘lover of wisdom’. Thus, it would appear that if you love wisdom, you are a philosopher. If you’ve spend any amount of your time dedicated to uncovering, exploring, and articulating truth, then you are a philosopher.
Even more interesting is how the wiki article continues to note that
A “philosopher” was understood as a word which contrasted with “sophist”. Traveling sophists or “wise men” were important in Classical Greece, often earning money as teachers, whereas philosophers are “lovers of wisdom” and were therefore not in it primarily for the money
Interesting, no? That those of us writing primarily in areas where people do not pay to read our writing and we do not get paid to write. That there are a multitude of us simply devoted to spending our time and energy into critically, systematically, and rationally investigating and exploring our fundamental problems (freedom, justice, existence, etc.) who do this free and simply because we love wisdom and truth.
But none of us are philosophers, amirite? We are all just social justice warriors.
So, yeah, I’m totally reclaiming my role/title as philosopher. Because, sure as fuck, no one is paying me anything for the contributions I make to the areas of gender, colonialism, race, etc. I do this not only because I love wisdom, but because I want freedom. And my problems are fundamental.