universal (white) philosophy
May 29, 2015
I’ve been discussing philosophy these past few days on tumblr. One conversation about what counts as philosophy and one post about how white philosophy is considered universal by default. In a very simplistic way, all I’m really communicating is that because white men are the default human, their philosophy is assumed to always be universal and valuable. This is why the question is, “why we can’t just take white philosophers for hypocrites and still value some aspect of their work”, and never actually anyone putting forth any real argument as to what value white men’s philosophy should have for anyone who isn’t a white man.
I pointed out, on Twitter, one of my early experiences in an intro to epistemology class. As an intro class, it was a survey class that had a chapter on the various approaches to epistemology in white philosophy. To save time the professor decided to cut out the section on feminist philosophy and, thus, in one fell swoop ensured that the only ‘philosophy’ we studied was that of white men. Beyond the issue of the fact that white women were segregated into one easily excised chapter, this material was considered an appropriate broad, introduction to epistemology.
And, yeah, so the fact that we can’t even get white women’s contributions to philosophy taught as a regular part of introductions to philosophy, what hope is there for non-white philosophical traditions? None at all. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a single philosophy department in Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe that teaches any tradition of philosophy not centered on white men. You know how I know? I once tried to do phd in Philosophy and the only school that accepted me was a school in Asia (bc my focus was on Chinese Philosophy). In white run schools, I usually had to apply at ‘East Asian Studies’ or ‘Religious Studies’1.
But, as noted in the posts I linked above, I mainly situated my discussion of the limits of white philosophy in ethics. In this post, I actually want to talk about logic, which was my actual specialization. Indeed, I have a compiled book on my writings about how white logic isn’t universal.
Logic is interesting because of the ways that many misconceptions people outside of the specialization have about this branch of philosophy. One of the biggest misconceptions there is some kind of universal logic that can be appealed to. There isn’t. There are many kinds of logics.
However, I know that a lot of people might look at this discussion about white philosophy and think that maybe some value might still be extracted from white philosophy… and one of these areas, for a lot of people is logic. I mean, it is reasonable easy to demonstrate that we maybe we shouldn’t follow the ethics of a slave-master, but a lot less intuitive to claim that John Stuart Mill’s, A System of Logic is just as historically bounded and limited as his Utilitarianism.
(One thing to note is that I am purposely picking on enlightenment thinkers, since their philosophy is generally explicitly (but sometimes implicitly) white supremacist. Their philosophy is the ideology of colonialism and this matters… I generally might be more open to exploring the value of white medieval philosophers or the classical white ones. Basically, what I’m saying is that I can see more value in Aristotle than I do Kant. The historical contexts for how their philosophy matter (indeed, one could say that characterizing Aristotle as a ‘white’ philosopher is anachronistic bc the white race hadn’t been invented yet). With the creation of race as science and organizing socio-political-legal principle, the whiteness of enlightenment philosophers is always relevant. It is with their philosophy that the current white supremacist modern world was built.)
But it’s funny, the universalism of white logic is always already assumed. Even when their own writing makes it clear that it cannot be universal. Look at the title for the first chapter of A System of Logic, “Of The Necessity Of Commencing With An Analysis Of Language”. And so, Mill goes on to analyse language. Of course, he’s English so the language he is analysing is…. English. If Mill can state outright that any project of logic must necessarily begin with analysing language… and that language is English, then clearly this isn’t universal.
And this actually holds true for much of logic. So many logical ideas and philosophical considerations depend on a relationship to natural language. And we know for a fact that words, grammar, and syntax are not universally the same in all natural languages. So if look at a description of Mill’s logic (based on language analysis), we get something like this:
Where the import of a proposition is given by connotation, truth or falsity is determined by denotation. An affirmative proposition is true just in case that the thing or things denoted by the subject term are in the class of things denoted by the predicate term; otherwise it is false. Similarly, a negative proposition is true just in case that no thing denoted by the subject term is a member of the class of things denoted by the predicate term. Things and attributes are always such that any proposition is either true or false and not both. This states the Principles of Non-contradiction and of Excluded Middle. No thing or attribute is such that it can be said to be both wholly itself but also necessarily connected to something other than itself: each thing or attribute is logically and ontologically independent of every other thing or attribute.
So, based on Mill’s analysis of English, he comes to the principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle. These to ‘principles’ are often called ‘laws of logic’.
And so, why can’t we take this part of Mill’s philosophy as valuable beyond his status as white supremacist? Well… if you’re a Black person reading this book how do you feel when you bump into this syllogism?
(tw: antiBlackness. i’m using a screencap here because the text for this is hard to read in html form)
As for example: negroes have never been as civilized as whites sometimes are, therefore it is impossible they should be so.
But objects to this claim as a logical fallacy, not on the grounds that the claim that Black people aren’t as civilized as white is itself false. You can also read a discussion about Mill’s racism here. The discussion is interesting because a lot of people make the claim that while he is racist because of his historical times, he is somewhat less racist because of reasons. All this despite his clear advocating for imperialism and colonialism.
But back to the laws of logic… If their derivation here depends on an analysis of English, in what sense can they be considered universal? Well… despite what a lot of people think, these ‘laws’ aren’t even regularly followed in white logic itself. There are many formal systems of logic (and by ‘formal’ I mean the mathematical ones) that break one of these laws. For these systems, of course, their breaking of a law is usually motivated by some feature in natural language itself.
In any case, if Mill himself can note that an analysis of language is the proper starting place for logic, why is it suddenly controversial to suggest that white logic (as espoused by white men using a specific language) isn’t universal? That logics motivated and created using different natural languages might have different rules and features?
But… at the end of it, these considerations aside, it becomes curious to wonder what value we can take from Mill’s book on logic when he cannot even articulate something like this without expressing anti-Blackness (and white supremacy). Anti-Blackness is so deeply embedded into his worldview that he can’t talk about a branch of philosophy that (at least on its surface) has nothing to do with race (and/or socio-political relationships implied by race) without it creeping in.
Because that’s the thing, after it all, all of this is connected and you cannot abstract – even in their own considerations, the historical, material context in which these philosophies were articulated. If Mills (and others) cannot even talk about logic without embedding an anti-Black and white supremacist worldview in it, I’m not sure why we should try to understand his logic as being distinct from this very same anti-Blackness and white supremacy.