Pluralism and Diversity as Intrinsic Philosophical Concerns

Jul 12th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Articles, Pluralism

Why would anyone think that the world’s philosophy might be adequately developed and exhaustively thought through by one small subset of one small grouping of people located in one relatively small section of the globe? This is an interesting question for social psychology, but it also is an interesting question for philosophers, because the answer has to do with questions of meta-philosophy.

When philosophers make claims about the intrinsic nature of the good, the necessary features of epistemic justification, or the unifying qualities of the beautiful, they generally imagine themselves to be making such claims for all people, for all time. In other words, the range or scope of the claims is thought to be universal. Aristotle did not restrict his claims about the nature of the good to the Greeks, nor did Locke specify that he was only exploring English understanding. Their aim was human experience, human understanding, and the human condition.

Such an approach is not unique to the old-fashioned. Universal claims are not unique to modern philosophers, ancient philosophers, or analytic philosophers. Derrida believed binaries to be hierarchical, James took beliefs to have sensible affects, and Heidegger thought he could enumerate the conditions of mortal experience in list form. There are other issues about which philosophers believe one’s time and place does make a difference, such as self-government, but many of the most important claims that philosophers of all sorts make are couched in terms of a universal reach.

On what basis can a specific individual with limited experience develop philosophical claims with such an impossibly grandiose reach? On the basis of philosophical argument. But what is the relationship between philosophical argumentation and empirical engagements which might test the claims philosophers make against a broad array of diverse human experiences, and might in that way mandate a larger inclusion of interlocutors? Many philosophers, old and new, have believed such empirical engagements are necessary, as Anthony Appiah outlines in his recent book, Experiments in Ethics. Hume and Hegel both thought philosophy needed to engage with history, Descartes looked to physiology, and many today believe we must look to the neurosciences to confirm our theories about the nature of rationality, the mind, and consciousness.

Yet despite the fact that numerous philosophers believe that philosophy needs to know something about actual persons and how they operate in order to make universal claims, they still tend not to believe that the relevant empirical facts will, in most cases, manifest diversity across diverse groups of people. There are certainly differences in the ‘prior probabilities’ different groups assume, or in the types of cognitive bias or implicit associations a group may manifest. But at a sufficiently abstracted, ‘meta’ level, the mind is the mind, and it is this level that most philosophers are most interested in.

At this level of abstraction, then, the empirical turn in philosophy (which, as Appiah shows, is not actually new) does not provide any grounds for thinking that the diversity of the human condition will make its way onto the mainstream philosophical menu. The members of that small subset of that small geographically aligned grouping can still in good conscience do their business without branching out, no matter how empirically inclined they are. They can continue in this way, that is, as long as they ignore one basic point.

The one universal idea that is shared among western philosophers and in fact all who understand their vocation in relationship to Socrates, is that philosophical advance occurs through philosophical argumentation. In other words, through arguing with each other. Whether we do this in the agora, the salon, the classroom, or the blogosphere, we joust with and question each other, raise objections, consider implications, and, in short, debate. This is not an empty exercise, or a mere opportunity for display and aggression. We all know that our debates can often fall into such useless and even venal exhibitions. But we believe nonetheless that an open process of argumentative exchange is vital for reaching philosophical truth, however diversely we define the latter.

When open debates are summarily closed by entirely arbitrary social facts – facts about who can afford to be involved, or who has the civil liberty to be present, or who has the basic wherewithal to speak up – then the exchange of reasons can no longer be counted on to establish the truth and advance the cause of inquiry.

Anyone who seriously believes that social inclusion makes no difference to the content of philosophical argumentation should peruse the titles of journal articles through the 20th century. Only in the second half, only, that is, after the debate rooms had had their doors cracked open by a few inches, does one begin to see a serious debate over abortion, and racism, and the concept of the just unilateral intervention. New voices brought new questions, new objections, new theories.

What this should prove to us is that whether one is an experimental philosopher, or a continental philosopher, or a philosopher of mathematics, there is the possibility that an arbitrarily closed community of discussants will inhibit the range of ideas on the table. This should be of philosophical concern.

Philosophy is, without a doubt, in a process of transition. Perhaps it always has been; perhaps that is its intrinsic nature. But our tendency to rest contentedly on the abstract openness of the philosophical domain of inquiry should not keep us from being concerned about the actual material constraints that operate adversely on the inclusiveness of our conversations, or about the conservatism endemic to any institution, or about the conformism that a tight job market breeds.

The testament to the current transitional moment is the birth of new sub-fields of inquiry, including feminist philosophy, critical philosophy of race, and LGBTQ philosophy. Communities have developed around these concerns precisely because they have experienced an uncertain fit in the usual areas, e.g. metaphysics, ethics, history of philosophy, etc. Although much of LGBTQ philosophy is linked to metaphysics, for example, it is rarely on the agenda of the key metaphysics conferences. As the profession as a whole works to readjust to new methodological debates, and new agendas of discussion, it is important that these new sub-fields survive and flourish. Philosophers of all stripes should welcome them and support them, if only for the sake of the joy to be had when our most cherished assumptions get a kick in the pants. This is why we signed up to the discipline.

The domains we generally name as “American philosophy” and “continental philosophy,” as problematic as these domain names are, have also continued to operate with an uncertain relationship to the centrally recognized sub-fields of the Analytic mainstream. Though much larger and older than the newer sub-fields listed above, these areas continue to face some obstacles to inclusion of their own, both internally and externally. It is an interesting question, about which much has been written, as to whether philosophy as a whole hangs together into one unified project of inquiry, or whether some of the internal divisions are drastic enough that they constitute incommensurable forms of life, so to speak. If justification ends at a form of life, as Wittgenstein proposed, this may help explain why philosophers sometimes seem to be talking past each other rather than talking with each other, and why our best arguments are sometimes unintelligible to other philosophers as arguments. At the same time, the appeal of this well-known Wittgensteinian idea spans these divisions. Perhaps this is reason to think that our intra-disciplinary boundaries mark different takes on a shared enterprise – methodological distinctions rather than irreconcilable differences.

So our discussion, and debate, and jousting, goes on. But let us remember that motivation of wonder that brought us all to this heterodox conversation in the first place, and let us not give assistance to the border patrol.

Linda Martín Alcoff
City University of New York

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