[This post is an invited contribution from Professor Kristie Dotson.--ES]
Professional pressures exist for some of us to pass as mainstream philosophers. Academic passing is the performance of legitimating one’s projects as “properly” philosophical by attempting to conceal or neutralize what might be perceived as threatening identities, positions, topics, and/or methodologies (Dotson 2011 [or here]). Some strategies for passing concern taking great care to travel only trails blazed by previous philosophers, showing emphatically that one’s ideas flow from professionally acceptable intellectual traditions, when in reality they are inspired by rather different ones. For example, I know colleagues whose philosophical ideas spring from the writings, histories and social realities of members of their own non-European communities. Yet career maintenance requires them to show these ideas as being the natural outgrowth of some tradition in epistemology or political philosophy or phenomenology, for example, when in fact they are not.
While examples abound the issue I explore concerns a specific question that often prompts academic passing. That question, often asked of a paper written or presented by someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy, is “How is this paper 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. Either way, being asked this question can and often does catalyze academic passing.
Why is it a problematic and, possibly, a bad question?
The question, how is this paper philosophy, can be an example of a complex question fallacy. It often presupposes that all parties to the discussion accept a common answer to some contentious, unstated question. Depending on the intentions of the question asker, it can presuppose either a common answer either to the question ‘‘what is philosophy’’ or to the question “what does philosophy mean to the question asker?” The first assumes an answer to a philosophical question, i.e. what is philosophy; whereas the second presupposes the normative status of one’s own definition of philosophy.
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, how is this paper philosophy, 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. It can also prompt the speaker to academically pass. Someone’s implying that she has made this presumption can prompt the person she is addressing to academically pass. If I am academically passing, I have to know your conception of philosophy as well as my own, which requires me to study as much of your favorite texts and work as my own, just so that when the occasion calls for me to pluck a normative conception of philosophy out of the air, I am prepared to do so. 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 (Dotson 2012). “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. Such ignorance and the questions that follow from it can often induce academic passing in much the same way as the good-faith interpretation of the question. The person who hopes to academically pass needs to be well versed in all conceptions of philosophy in order to “pluck out of the air” which conception best approximates the question-asker’s conception. When the question-asker poses this question with ill will, the stakes are higher. 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.”
The pressure to legitimate oneself, when one’s work does not travel well-trodden pathways in philosophy, can be daunting. Academic passing appears, at times, to be a necessary tool for academic success. Here I offer only one example where one can routinely find academic passing. It is only one such example, however.