Today’s New APPS interview is with Tommie Shelby, Professor of Philosophy and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University.
Thanks very much for doing this interview with us today, Tommie. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
I’ve always enjoyed the solitary side of philosophy--the reflection, reading, and writing. It’s fair to say that I live much of my life inside my head, often getting lost in thought when I should really be focusing on my wife, kids, or some practical task. I’d say I find philosophy most painful when I’ve worked long and hard on a problem only to discover that I’ve barely scratched the surface or that my solution won’t work.
How about your collaborations?
And outside the Cambridge scene?
I also have regular philosophical discussions with colleagues at universities across the country (for example, with Derrick Darby, Charles Mills, Linda Alcoff, Howard McGary, and Robert Gooding-Williams), taking advantage of conferences, telephone conversations, and email to continue debates we’ve been having for years.
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
Well, I think about philosophy whenever I can, and I don’t need anything to get me in the mood—though without a couple of shots of espresso in the morning, nothing would get done!
Like so many of us!
But I don’t think you can call the way I write philosophy a “practice.” I don’t really have a lot of discipline or a daily routine. I’m lazy by disposition and easily distracted—and blogs like yours are only making things worse!
Sorry! Though I guess that’s flattering too …
Well, here’s a kind of ideal-type. Once I’ve identified a problem or question I want to work on, my approach is to conjecture a rough solution or answer. I next read a lot and take notes on what I read. I then take notes on my notes and brainstorm on paper, refining my initial thoughts. When my ideas and arguments start to crystallize, I tend to work in intense bursts, stretching out over 3-4 weeks at a time, where almost all my focus is on drafting an essay or chapter, which I then revise over time. Revisions take months and sometimes years. Deadlines are my friends. I work best under time pressure, so knowing that I have a talk coming up or paper due helps to push me along. That sounds more methodical than my actual practice, but it gives you an idea of my general approach to work.
In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life such as cooking, or listening to music, or physical / spiritual exercise – what have you – into your philosophy?
I love film and music, and I sometimes get an idea for a paper while watching a movie or listening to a song.
For instance, my article “Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto” was partly inspired by the Dead Prez rap song “Hell Yeah (Pimp the System).” I follow the advice of Joe Camp, one of my mentors in graduate school at Pitt, who would encourage students to always remain open to ideas from all sources, because you never know what might be relevant to what you’re thinking about or where an important idea will come from. I’ve found that good ideas and interesting connections between them can be found in unlikely places.
How did you come to study philosophy?
My childhood experiences are unlikely precursors to a career in philosophy, but they have certainly influenced the philosophical questions I work on. I’m the oldest of six. I grew up mainly in Jacksonville, Florida, with a three-year period in my teens split between southern California (L.A. and its suburbs) and Las Vegas. I’ve never met my biological father, and my stepfather (who later formally adopted me) abandoned the family when I was thirteen and I haven’t seen him since. So I was largely raised by my working-class mother and grandmother, neither of whom had formal education beyond high school or knew anything about philosophy. In fact, my mother dropped out of school when she became pregnant with me.
What was school like for you?
I was a poor-to-mediocre student until around eleventh grade, even repeating second grade. Though I wouldn’t say I hated school, I didn’t have much interest in it either. I wasn’t putting forth much effort. My mother sometimes expressed disappointment with my grades but didn’t put a lot of pressure on me to perform better. And even if she did, I’m not sure I would have responded.
Where did your energies go then?
As a teenager, I was a typical jock (basketball and track) and only did enough school work to remain eligible to play sports for my school. I got serious about my studies only after coming to grips with the fact that my future would be dismal without a college degree.
What drove home that point to you?
My basketball teammates who were a year ahead of me took two paths after high school. Some, the whites ones, were heading to college. Others, mainly black, were joining the military or working for UPS or some similar outfit. The latter options didn’t appeal to me, so although no one in my family had gone to college, I figured I’d better give it a try.
Where did you go to college?
I tried out for the basketball teams at a few small colleges and junior colleges. The local junior college offered me a scholarship and a spot on its basketball team. But I declined and enrolled at Florida A&M University (FAMU), the only other school that admitted me.
When did you find out about philosophy as a field of study?
Not until college. I started out as a business administration major and my grades were decent. But I quickly realized that, even if I went on to get an MBA and to make a lot of money, I would be bored with a career in business.
What other options appealed to you?
There were other professional tracks available at FAMU—pharmacy, journalism, engineering, architecture, and so on. But I either lacked interest in or didn’t qualify for these majors. So I took the arts and sciences route, taking courses in different fields—sociology, political science, literature, and psychology. I figured my life would turn out okay no matter my major, provided I graduated.
So it was a general orientation to the humanities and social sciences at first rather than a specific focus on philosophy?
Yes. I found philosophy after taking two religion courses. The professors in those courses independently encouraged me to take classes in philosophy, suggesting that I had a philosophical cast of mind and would ultimately be unsatisfied by the study of religion. I took a course in logic and one in political philosophy and was hooked.
Was there a specific course that really made an impression?
The summer after my sophomore year, I took a course on “the big five” of modern political philosophy—Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, and Marx. The course, taught by Alan Mabe at Florida State University, had a huge impact on me. The classic questions about the legitimacy of state power and the fair distribution of resources still drive much of my research. Marx’s ideas in particular fascinated me and I’ve been deeply influenced by his thought, especially his ideas about ideology and exploitation and his general approach to social theory and the study of history.
Did you have a mentor as an undergrad?
David Felder, a philosophy professor, was my mentor and played a key role in my early development. Now retired, he specialized in logic, political theory, and peace studies but, as the only philosophy PhD on the faculty at the time, taught courses in a range of philosophical subjects.
What was it about him that helped you?
He had such tremendous faith in my intellectual ability. He boosted my confidence and encouraged me to consider a career in philosophy, which I chose to pursue around the fall semester of my junior year. I never looked back. Doing philosophy was exciting and deeply gratifying, made all the more appealing by the thought of being paid to do it!
How about graduate school?
I went to graduate school at Pitt and had absolutely terrific teachers there. Tamara Horowitz (who died too young of brain cancer) and Joe Camp were my mentors throughout my graduate career, though neither worked in my primary fields of interest. They taught me a lot about how to approach philosophical problems and how to navigate the profession.
Who else stands out in your mind from Pitt?
At one point, I thought I would write a dissertation in the philosophy of the social sciences (on functional explanation and functionalist theories of social practices), so I took courses in the history and philosophy of science with Wesley Salmon and Fritz Ringer and pursued an MA in cultural anthropology. I learned moral and political philosophy largely from David Gauthier, my thesis advisor, and Michael Thompson, though I also learned a lot from Stephen Engstrom, Jennifer Whiting, John McDowell, and Kurt Baier.
What was your experience in graduate school? Love it, hate it, tolerate it?
A lot of students hate being in graduate school. I can’t relate. My years in graduate school were the happiest in my life up to that point. All I had to do was read, write, and teach philosophy! What could be better? Of course I didn’t have much money, but I was used to that. The academic environment never felt competitive to me—though I suspect others may have experienced it differently. I learned as much from the other graduate students as I did from the faculty. There were always reading and study groups, philosophical discussions over meals and coffee (though I didn’t drink coffee at the time), and, in general, students were very supportive of one another. We even had a regular faculty and student basketball game that included men and women.
Graduate school often provides us with close friendships. Is that your experience?
My closest friend in graduate school and still my dearest friend is Derrick Darby. We were the first two black graduate students in philosophy at Pitt since Laurence Thomas graduated in the mid-70’s. We developed a kinship, both philosophical and personal, while at Pitt. We come from similar backgrounds, share a number of interests, and have faced common challenges in life and in the profession. We had a ball coediting Hip Hop and Philosophy: Rhyme 2 Reason (2005), our only collaborative project.
What was your dissertation topic?
I wrote my dissertation on Marx and meta-ethics. Specifically, I was trying to make sense of and to give a partial defense of Marx’s iconoclastic claim that morality is an ideology. I was trying to write about Marx on morality in the fashion of analytical Marxists like G.A. Cohen. But unlike Cohen, who thought that Marx’s views about morality were confused, I thought there were insights in Marx’s antimoralism and tried to draw them out. I have to admit that it wasn’t a great dissertation, and I now think many of my conclusions were wrong, but I learned some things by researching and writing about the topic. And I continue to incorporate and develop some of Marx’s insights in my current work.
What was your early professional life like?
My first job was at Ohio State University. I think my load was 2-2-1 on the quarter system. I loved teaching there. I had great colleagues, a number of whom became good friends, and I always felt supported. There was a wonderful sense of community, and I got excellent feedback on my early papers from colleagues.
What did you teach at OSU?
I taught courses on political philosophy, philosophy of law, Marx and Marxism, and race. Columbus, though not my ideal city, was perfectly comfortable and relatively inexpensive. It had a decent jazz scene, good restaurants, and theatre. I even got into OSU football and basketball. I didn’t have any plans to leave.
How did you end up at Harvard then?
Well, I saw an ad for a job in Harvard’s Afro-American Studies department (as it was then called), and I knew I had to apply for it. I was moving away from writing about Marxism and starting to write about racial justice and Africana philosophy. At the time, Anthony Appiah and Cornel West were teaching in Afro-American Studies at Harvard, both of whom I had long admired. In fact, I had come to know Anthony when I was an undergraduate, and his work on race and black political thought had deeply influenced my own. So Harvard seemed like the ideal place to be and develop. I gave a job talk and, luckily, I was offered the job.
What were your first publications?
I carved out some parts from my dissertation, reworked them, and turned them into journal articles. The first was “Parasites, Pimps, and Capitalists: A Naturalistic Conception of Exploitation,” and the second was “Ideology, Racism, and Critical Social Theory.” Both were attempts to develop some ideas found in Marx, but neither garnered much interest among philosophers. The high point for analytical Marxism had passed, and I wasn’t contributing to an ongoing debate. Perhaps I got to the discussion too late. Or maybe those pieces just aren’t very good. I’m not sure.
So if those didn’t catch on, is there one work you’d say is your breakout piece?
The first piece of mine that sparked interest and responses was “Foundations of Black Solidarity,” which was published in Ethics in 2002. There had been a philosophical debate, sparked by Appiah, about whether the race idea was intellectually and morally bankrupt or could be shown to be coherent and useful. What was motivating much of that debate, it seemed to me, was not an abstract concern with racial ontology or biological categories, but a worry that if “race” was moribund, then black identity and black solidarity would have no rational foundation. What I tried to show is that black solidarity could be defended without defending the concept of race and without the idea of common black identity. I went on to develop these ideas and arguments in We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Harvard / Belknap, 2005).
How did you come to write that book?
Like a lot of philosophers trained in analytic styles of philosophy, I was more comfortable writing articles than books. And I’m pretty sure that, despite my laziness, I could have published eight or nine articles in good philosophy journals, which would have been enough to earn me tenure in a top research department in philosophy. But my colleagues in African and African American Studies were putting a lot of pressure on me to write a book. In fact, I am certain that I would not have received tenure without a highly regarded book. Not wanting to be fired, I wrote a book! Like I said, I work well under pressure.
It concentrated your mind wonderfully!
I’m so glad I did. I got over my fear of books, and I’m fairly confident that my book has had a greater impact, inside and outside philosophy, than all my articles combined.
Speaking of tenure, let’s consider the institutional and professional side of things. The relation of continental and analytic philosophy has been fraught with tension for many years. How do you negotiate this conflict?
Since I was an undergraduate, I’ve had an interest in nineteenth and twentieth century continental philosophy. Like many undergraduate philosophy majors, I went through my Nietzsche phase, where I read almost everything he wrote, and I developed a longstanding interest in Marx as an undergraduate as well.
There would be a lot fewer philosophers around I think if it weren’t for Nietzsche!
So true. At Pitt, I took or sat in on seminars on Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Habermas. I’ve read a fair bit of Sartre and Althusser and assigned Fanon, Beauvoir, and Foucault in my courses. Though I was trained in and self-identify with the Anglo-American tradition and prefer the idiom and prose style of analytic philosophy, I don’t think of myself as on the analytic side of a conflict with continental traditions. It would be mere prejudice on my part to be dismissive of continental philosophy, since I’m largely ignorant of several major continental figures—for example, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Adorno, and Benjamin.
What do you see as the future of this division?
I expect it to continue. Philosophers can be highly opinionated and often arrogant. As a discipline, we don’t share a common methodology or specific doctrinal commitments. I suspect that many of our deepest disagreements come down to differences in taste and temperament.
I think Nietzsche is going to agree with you on that!
So it doesn’t surprise me that sometimes we don’t just disagree with one another but rather despise the views and approaches of others, heaping scorn on this or that idea, figure or tradition. I confess to being susceptible to this vice as well (though I resist it), but I don’t view the problem as fundamentally between analytic and continental philosophy but rather one that cuts across traditions and subfields. The analytic-continental divide is, I suspect, just an instance of the wider phenomenon.
Yeah, philosophers are rarely accused of being too nice! Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. How would you assess your career and professional experiences so far?
Hey, what can I say? I’ve been very fortunate. I really can’t complain about how my career is going. My professional experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve written about offbeat topics—pimps, black nationalism, hip hop, African American identity, and the ghetto—and yet have been rewarded with tenure at Harvard and offered jobs at other elite institutions. I’m doing the kind of work I most want to do in a resource-rich environment with incredible colleagues, both inside and outside philosophy.
But it can’t have been all positive.
Like many philosophers, I sometimes feel that my contributions aren’t as respected or appreciated as they should be. And black philosophers generally face a steeper hill when it comes to garnering professional esteem, both because of racial bias and because of the areas of study black philosophers often specialize in. Two of the most pernicious stereotypes about blacks is that we are not as intelligent as whites and that we lack the capacity for high intellectual achievement, and I don’t think philosophers are immune to these forms of bias. As fortunate as I’ve been, I have felt the burden of being black in our profession. I also realize that some in the discipline regard the kind of work I do as not “real” or “serious” philosophy. Work on race and Africana philosophy is tolerated and increasingly accommodated though not embraced by the wider profession.
Yeah, sometimes I’d rather a real fight than just being tolerated.
There is, however, a growing group of philosophers, from different racial and ethnic groups, doing important work in these areas, so I feel part of a vibrant community of scholars who, while not exactly in the mainstream, are not ghettoized either.
What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
Speaking of the ghetto, I’m working on a book tentatively titled “Justice and the Dark Ghetto.” I’m attempting to show how systematic reflection on what basic social justice requires can help us to understand better what is so troubling about black urban poverty and its related social ills and to respond to these problems in a morally appropriate way. It’s an interdisciplinary work that engages recent social-scientific studies of race and urban poverty, bringing them into conversation with debates in political philosophy.
Can you give us the names of some of the studies you’re working with? Does Loïc Wacquant figure in there? I’ve got Punishing the Poor on my desk right now.
Yes, I engage with and rely on some of Wacquant’s work, particularly his writings on what he calls the “hyper-ghetto” and the “carceral state.” He’s an exciting and original thinker. But the greatest impact on my thinking has been the work of my colleague William Julius Wilson, particularly his books The Truly Disadvantaged and When Work Disappears. In some ways my project could be described as “Wilson meets Rawls.”
What are your aims with the book?
I’m not trying to explain why ghettos persist but rather to highlight and answer the justice questions that their persistence raises. The book will also develop my views on the political ethics of the oppressed. I’m concerned with how members of oppressed groups should respond to the burdens of injustice they face, and the black ghetto poor are a kind of case study and illustration. And of course the ghetto is an urgent practical matter that I’m personally invested in (having lived in ghettos during my childhood), so I want to do what I can, as a philosopher, to shed light on the problem.
I won’t be alone in looking forward to this important book. Thanks, Tommie, for this peak into your life and work.