The Black Absence in Academic Philosophy

Jason Stanley recently posted the following interesting status message on his Facebook page:

The first sentence of this article is “Nationwide, just over 5 percent of all full-time faculty members at colleges and universities in the United States are black”. If that is so disturbing as to give rise to this headline, what are we to say about the fact that fewer than 125 members of the 11,000+ members of the American Philosophical Association are black. If *just over 5 percent* is disturbing, what about *1 percent*?

I’d call that statistic disturbing several times over. It’s not a new one to me, but its capacity to induce deep discomfort does not go away. There’s no two ways about it: philosophy, as an academic field, does not seem up to the task of accommodating black students or faculty.  A problem as severe as the numbers indicate is not amenable to easy solutions either.

At Brooklyn College, our department has twice played host to black professors–Lewis Gordon and Tunde Bewaji–for visiting positions that lasted for a year. The enrollment of black students in their classes–Philosophy of Culture and African-American Philosophy–was through the roof; we had never seen as many black students register before for a class. This suggests one immediate step: the hiring of black faculty.  (Brooklyn College has failed to hire a black philosopher, so we aren’t doing too well in his regard.)

But black faculty will have first been black students earning Ph.Ds, which brings us to the problem of the lack of black students in philosophy graduate programs. During my graduate school years, I can only remember seeing one black student in the twenty or so graduate level courses I took; he simply disappeared after a while. All the usual suggested solutions still seem worth a shot: aggressive recruitment, careful, close mentoring. I have no idea, honestly, what steps major graduate programs nation-wide are taking in this direction.

Just getting black students into philosophy programs will not help if they find their curricula to not be of interest.  One possible way to get black students interested in philosophical curricula–at the undergraduate level for starters–is to bridge it for them somehow. For instance, Brooklyn College offers a class called ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ which is taught as a Upper-Tier core course. A variant of this could be ‘Philosophical Issues in African-American Literature’; it would serve to introduce black students to epistemic, ethical, metaphysical, and political issues through that canon. (Philosophy departments, of course, would have to get over their uptightness about philosophy only being taught from ‘classical texts.’) Given this introduction they might then be inclined to see what the ‘regular’ or ‘mainstream’ philosophical tradition has to offer them.

Of course, as Stanley noted, philosophy departments also could and should:

 [T]each the extremely rich tradition in African-American Philosophy, especially in Political Philosophy. Start with David Walker‘s *Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World*, go through to Du Bois‘ *The Souls of Black Folks*, and Alain LockeCLR James‘s *The Black Jacobins* is a brilliant way to think about the contradictions of liberalism. There is tons of great political philosophy and aesthetics there. [links added]

These changes to curricula and hiring and retention practices are still just scratches on the surface. What is perhaps needed is a deeper and more fundamental change, a reconceptualization of the nature of philosophical inquiry and practice. For that, Kristie Dotson‘s paper “How is this Paper Philosophy?” (Comparative Philosophy 3:2) makes for very useful reading. I hope to write more on it soon.

The Fallacious Knowing-How, Knowing-That Distinction

Over at the Stone, Jason Stanley offers some thoughtful remarks on the fallacious distinction between the practical and the theoretical, or rather, between practical and theoretical knowledge. Stanley examines the case to be made for the dichotomy between reflection–‘guided by our knowledge of truths about the world’–and action–‘guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions’:

If these are distinct cognitive capacities, then knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact — that is, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge.

Stanley dismisses this distinction by way of considering and rejecting different ways in which a ‘bright line’ could be drawn between practical and theoretical knowledge (for instance ‘talking’) and concludes with:

The plumber’s or electrician’s activities are a manifestation of the same kind of intelligence as the scientist’s or historian’s latest articles — knowledge of truths….The distinction between the practical and the theoretical is used to warehouse society into groups. It alienates and divides. It is fortunate, then, that it is nothing more than a fiction.

I find Stanley’s analysis congenial, though I would collapse the distinction from the other direction. That is, I consider ascriptions of knowledge to be recognitions of practical abilities: to know a ‘truth’ is to bear a particular practical relation to the world, of being capable of interacting with the world in particular ways; of making some kinds of judgments and not others; knowing-that is a species of knowing-how.  To ascribe knowledge is not to recognize a special mental state, distinguished by some peculiar, yet-to-be-specified relationship with a proposition. Knowers are doers first and foremost. To know something is to be either doing or to be capable of doing (like making certain utterances and not others, for instance). A knower is distinguished from a non-knower by his actions, by his placement within a nexus of active relationships.

There are some advantages to thinking of knowledge in these terms. It makes more continuous the relationship between humans, animals, and other entities in the world such as sophisticated machines; animals can ‘know’ too, even if they cannot be understood as knowing propositions. To confine ourselves to propositional accounts of knowledge is to make human knowledge a singularity in the natural world; it means we cannot meaningfully make claims like ‘My cat knows the mouse is behind the door’ (or at least when we do it is by making a distinction between ‘animal’ and ‘reflective’ knowledge); it fails to acknowledge the cat’s particular interactions with its environment. It prompts meaningless questions like  ‘Who does the knowing?’ when it comes to ascribing knowledge to sophisticated systems such as robotic currency traders.

The long, protracted disputes in epistemology bear adequate testimony to the futility of trying to think of knowledge in excessively mentalistic and semantic terms. Thinking of knowledge as a species of interaction, a description of an agent enmeshed in his world and distinguished from others that don’t know what it does by its actions, clears up many of the puzzles created by traditional epistemology. This understanding of knowledge has its own distinguished pedigree in the history of philosophy, of course, most notably in Wittgenstein, Dewey and Nietzsche. Hopefully, I’ll be able to spin those views out a bit more here in future posts.