In this post brought to my attention by our commenter DMF in light of our race episode, Kristie Dotson of Michigan State University attacks the question that one might ask when reading DuBois, for instance: Is this really philosophy?
The question, how is this paper philosophy, is a poorly formulated question. At best, when asked in good faith, the question could in fact be one of several questions. At worst, when asked with ill will, the question indicates pernicious ignorance in the asker. Either it is a well-intentioned, problematic question or a poorly intended, bad question…
…When asked in good faith, the question, how is this paper philosophy, presupposes a common answer to the question “what does philosophy mean to the question asker?” On this interpretation, one can translate the question… to mean the following: “I don’t understand how this is philosophy. Can you enlighten me either how this is philosophy as I already conceive it or help me broaden my understanding of what philosophy can be?” Even in this, admittedly, generous interpretation of the question, there is an assumption that the speaker can pluck out of the air what philosophy means to the question-asker. Too often, even when asked in good faith, there remains a presumption that one’s own understanding of philosophy has a normative status that allows it to serve as a transparent meeting ground. This presumption of the transparency of one’s own conception of philosophy is often false… To my mind, without some attempt to be transparent about one’s own assumptions concerning the nature of philosophy, the question, how is this paper philosophy, is a problematic question.
When asked in bad faith, however, the question “how is this paper philosophy,” presumes that the underlying question, what is philosophy, is easily answerable according to commonly held, univocally relevant justifying norms… “Properly” philosophical projects, to this group of question askers, are either prima facie philosophical, or they are not philosophy at all. For bad faith question askers, the question, what is philosophy, is not really a question at all. They take it to be already decided. This, dare I say, is stupid. Philosophy and philosophical engagement is constantly changing and admits of extraordinary diversity, failing to realize this demonstrates a kind of ignorance in the question asker… If the speaker fails to approximate the correct conception, at best, her work can be deemed unphilosophical and, at worst, she is deemed a charlatan or not worthy of the title “professional philosopher.”
Without being familiar with Dotson’s work, and so the exact nature of the defensiveness that this post undoubtedly represents, I like the gutsy character of her attack. Yes, philosophy is ever-evolving, and since her context is that this question is “often asked of a paper written or presented by someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy,” then it makes sense that the definition of philosophy should be “whatever it is that philosophers do,” and really, then, the only argument should be over whether Ph.D.’s get to be the only ones who decide this, or just anyone who claims the title of “philosopher.”
Still, it’s ridiculous to think that really anything can be legitimately called philosophy, and my Personal Philosophies are in part about mocking the abuse of that word. While for most purposes, there’s no need to condemn or deny it to someone (it’s just a word, after all), we have to, for instance, decide what to talk about on the podcast, and likewise academic departments of philosophy have to decide what to publish or fund, and really, you as an individual who evidently likes philosophy has to decide whether any given topic is worth your time to read about, though of course this isn’t exactly the same question as whether it’s technically “philosophy.” Maybe it isn’t, but it’s enjoyable and illuminating anyway, so who cares?
We’ve generally taken the approach that if a lot of people are claiming some gigantic area is philosophical, maybe it’s worth our time to look into, and on our list are a number of topics that have already been claimed by specific sciences or are more obviously literary than philosophical, etc. Still, I think the question itself is kind of interesting, though maybe it should be more “how is this philosophy?” than “is this philosophy?”
I think Dotson here implies that this common conception that the questioner assumes is something more mysterious than it is. As we’ll see in our upcoming Wittgenstein episode, most concepts are a matter of family resemblance with some paradigm cases. Descartes and Plato, in the West, are paradigm examples of philosophy, and that’s about all that the person questioned needs to understand in order to explain why this is philosophy or argue why the thing she’s putting forward should be included in the category despite its apparent dissimilarity to Descartes and Plato (after all, mathematical logic or analytic semantics doesn’t look a lot like either of those guys either, and they got in OK).
So rather than be all pissy about the rude question, take it on: it’s not a difficult fight to win, if you can show that your thesis is somehow important and not obviously captured by the areas already claimed by studies (e.g. history or science) that no longer claim to be philosophy. Or, like Foucault or Cornel West, you can just say that you don’t care if your material is considered philosophy or not and the philosophy establishment that’s concerned about this can go stuff it.