Policing Philosophy’s Borders No More
1. At a conference several years ago I found myself in an argument with a philosopher who works in an area of philosophy commonly dismissed as not philosophy. We were considering the claim a third party had made that a fourth party’s work was not philosophy. I agreed that the third party’s claims were dubious, “But,” I asked, “Don’t you think we need to make some distinctions between what is or is not philosophy? Otherwise the original and specific contributions of philosophy will be disregarded.”
2. For five years, I lived in the Rio Grande Valley in deep south Texas on the border of Mexico. As one colleague there said of me, I learned what Aristotle could say to the border and what the border could say to Aristotle while I was living there. I was active in the Mexican American Studies program and enjoyed teaching RGV native and UTPA alumna Gloria Anzaldúa in my Introduction to Philosophy courses. While there I wrote a paper on how Anzaldúa’s mestiza could be put to work beyond thinking bridged identity to thinking bridged community to argue that community as such is at the border. In the paper I argued that Anzaldúa’s account of mestiza and intersectionality shows us the sense that all subjectivity is fragmented and intersectional. The concept of mestiza can be put in conversation with contemporary political thinkers such as Badiou and Rancière to further their case that life becomes political in the contest over the border, over who belongs and who does not.
3. Several weeks ago, at SPEP in New Orleans, I attended the Intersectionality roundtable organized by Falguni Sheth on the book Why Race and Gender Still Matter: An Intersectional Approach. A number of presenters described the struggle over making the case that intersectionality is philosophy. Heather Rakes explained that what philosophers think is “real philosophy” is whatever makes philosophers happy. But, she said, we need to consider whose happiness the answer to this question serves. Namita Goswami then argued that we shouldn’t be trying to apply the canon to the issues that intersectionality raises. Rather, philosophically productive work emerges in the efforts to think fractures. Presenters acknowledged the messiness of the situations that intersectionality confronts and argued that this messiness poses challenges to the question of what philosophy is for both continental and analytic philosophers. The panelists considered together how intersectionality required attention to the specifics of a situation in such a way that it could not be determined in advance what the account would be. I sat there and thought, indeed, how could this become a definition for what philosophy ought to be?
4. A number of people have suggested recently that contemporary political life as such has become marked by carceral logic. They maintain that our shared spaces, including the space of philosophy communities, carry with them the logic of incarceration — the world is divided between inmates and guards, those who are inside and needing to be controlled and those who roam freely, and generally by a state of loss of freedom, of movement, of control of life, of power. I found quite convincing the charge by Typhoon at xcphilosophy that decarcerating these spaces involves and requires holding philosophers accountable for their sexual harassment and assault rather than either ignoring it or closing them off from our communities.
In each of these stories, from the desire to maintain that philosophy has something unique to offer, the effort to think the community in life as bordered, the effort to consider subjectivity and philosophy itself as intersectional and beginning with the specifics of real life, and the critique of political life and other institutions as carceral, there is a worthwhile insight that bears consideration. Likewise, each of these stories universalizes specific experience with the danger of suppressing the differences that are not identical to thought.
Historically, philosophy has tried over and over again to maintain that its contribution is the capacity to think the universal, the first principle, the ground. But, like Heather Rakes wondered at the intersectionality panel, we have to think about who is made happy by that account of philosophy. Who is made happy is the person who can see himself in that universal, because well, historically, it was his experience that was conceptualized. Who is made unhappy is the person who cannot, whose experiences are not universalizable precisely because they do not match up with those whose experiences have historically been universalized. Their experiences remain unique, singular. Philosophy has fronted the capacity to universalize in order to foreground certain experiences while leaving others unthought. Then, as a discipline, it calls those unthought experiences unthinkable, singular. This is not just the failure to think the local but to think the disempowered local, the unseen, unseen precisely because it is not already thought through an already canonized concept.
I’m struck by my own propensity to make something worthwhile in philosophy by universalizing or ontologizing–even something like intersectionality whose whole project is to try to think the messiness of the concrete experience and the context in which that experience arises. To ontologize intersectionality and to say of it that it is worthy because it describes subjectivity and political life in general is to argue that philosophy is only that which can speak universally. Thus I can say I too struggle with border life even when I am not at the border because all of political life is border life! Yay me! But it’s a whole lot harder to live border life at the border than to inhabit conceptual border life. And those who live border life benefit from theorizing their particularity more than from hearing everyone else is included in their problems too.
The drive to ontologize requires even the projects of specificity to become applications of a certain account of philosophy in order to be worthy of the name. I think I sat there in that room at SPEP and thought this of intersectionality precisely because it left me out. Instead of allowing that thinking did not have to be all about me, I could make of intersectionality a concept that I could have access to. This logic re-inforces the view that philosophy is what makes its practitioners happy. If I don’t have access to it, I work through it and transform it until it does make me happy, a particular problem when that involves colonizing the thought of those who are trying to win philosophy for themselves. And a problem that raises the question whether philosophy from the excluded singular might exclude those who only see themselves in the universal.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t think about what philosophy is or is not, what it’s specific contributions are — I maintain that the production of concepts and critical theoretical work remains the domain of philosophy. Nor am I saying that we don’t all have something to learn from the border, that intersectionality does not have resonances with contemporary subjectivity, or that we wouldn’t benefit from resisting the carceral logic in daily life. What I am saying is woe to us if we make these claims in order to erase the specificities of lives at the border, of intersectional lives, of imprisoned bodies. Woe to us if we continue to let philosophy be defined by this colonialism of thinking.
I have to admit, I’ve been hearing that we need to change the way we think about philosophy for it to be more inclusive for some time. But all the while, I have still been thinking about philosophy as what is universalizable. I am only just now coming to see that changing the way we think about philosophy in order to make it more inclusive means making those of us who are happy with the way the thinking in philosophy currently operates uncomfortable and not-quite-at-home with philosophy. Until then, the field of philosophy is going to continue to have an ‘inclusivity’ problem.
great reflections – i find the identification of the problem of universalizing or ontologizing – abstracting away from the concerete conditions out of which things like intersectionality or border identities emerge – very helpful. i think about this a lot. but this is helpfully put.
i want to underscore the point at the end about the danger or erasing the specificity of experience or concrete embodiment in that move towards abstraction. otherwise, the experience of philosophy as an experience of not being at home seems to me to be far too easy for philosophers, especially those oriented by heidegger. laying claim to that abstract not-at-homeness does not seem to have done much to combat the carceral logics at work in the practice of philosophy. of course it is an outsider position, the fantasy of the moral authority of the marginal, that makes recourse to being not at home in the world attractive, while covering over the exclusions produced in that very move to abstraction. kirstie dotson’s remarks in the introduction to the special issue of hypatia on thinking the interstitial are helpful here: the practice of epistemic disobedience she describes there is a decolonizing of philosophy that is a matter of survival for some people in it. the question becomes then, to what or to whom is our thinking faithful?
some reflections on that epistemic disobedience here: http://xcphilosophy.org/2014/02/25/philosophical-exceptionalism-and-the-politics-of-respectability-part-iii-epistemic-disobedience/
Thanks, Sina. I think you are absolutely right about the danger of abstracting “not being at home” so that all philosophers can be at home in it and not actually really have to experience not being at home. This difficulty you raise seems precisely to come from wanting an account that can apply in each way to all. The people who don’t realize that their ‘not being at home’ is really just a definitive way of being in continental philosophy are those who it seems need to be made to feel not at home. So to say some people need to be made to not feel at home is also to say that this is not a universal claim — some people cover over their feeling at home by their privileged capacity to dwell in an abstract not feeling at home. When Kristie Dotson talked about philosophy at SPEP 2013 as “fan fiction” and said of McCumber’s story of continental philosophy, I’m just not a fan, it’s not my fiction – that’s not quite how she put it — I think she was performing the truth that what is said to be universal is just serving some people.
I take your question about to what or to whom is our thinking faithful as the question, do we see who our story makes happy? Who is surviving and thriving with this story? I appreciate the post you link to — it’s definitely part of what has motivated my thinking about this further. Thanks.
This was terrific! Thank you for this piece. I’m working on something similar from the perspective of Latin American philosophy. Mexican philosophers like Leopoldo Zea and Enrique Dussel (originally from Argentina) have been arguing that philosophical thought is necessarily connected to circumstance. However, reestablishing this as a focal point would undermine a dominant philosophical discourse that has benefited from downplaying and minimizing marginalized philosophies. This is why some people maintain that Latin American philosophy could only be called Latin American thought, since it hasn’t “proven” itself to yield valuable universalist claims that traditional philosophy has coveted for many years. The truth is that you can find such claims in a variety of marginalized works; in addition, the benefit of such works is how they can arrive (or not arrive, depending on who you read) at universalist claims from circumstance.
Once again, thank you!