Kristie Dotson’s remarkable post on “academic passing” has not received the scrutiny it deserves. In a follow-up post meant to elicit comments (since Dotson’s own is closed) Helen De Cruz glosses Dotson’s topic as “the professional pressure to pass as mainstream philosophers.” De Cruz writes that “some topics (e.g., metaphysics, epistemology) get more prominence in mainstream, general philosophy journals, conferences etc. than others (e.g., feminism, philosophy of culture).”
A look at Dotson’s other writings, for example “How Is This Paper Philosophy?” (Comparative Philosophy, 2012) will tell you that her brief is not the skew of topics in mainstream philosophy. She is not worried, at least not primarily, about the people who say that X-Phi, or empirical philosophy of mind, is “not really philosophy”. Dotson’s target is, rather, zetetic–i.e., inquiring–philosophy. In some incarnations, this turns into what I have called–intending, I might say, to strike a tone of self-deprecating irony–Philosophy as Extension of Science or PES. It is the kind of philosophy that takes itself to be investigating reality (including the reality of the moral realm) using transparently objective methods. But it embraces a lot more.
I suppose that Dotson takes Lorde to be a departure point on a path away from zetesis. Elaborating on the puzzling polarity just noted, Lorde writes:
I have heard that accusation that I’m contributing to the stereotype, that I’m saying the province of intelligence and rationality belongs to the white male. But if you’re traveling a road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere, the ownership of the road is meaningless. If you have no land out of which the road comes, no place that road goes to, geographically, no goal, then the existence of that road is totally meaningless. Leaving rationality to white men is like leaving him a piece of that road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere.
A “road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere”. OK, the dreaded question looms. Why is it philosophical thus to characterize philosophy? And this question is, of course, addressed to Dotson, not Lorde, for it is Dotson who is drawing the morals. Of course, there is emotion behind this, and the emotion is more than well-justified. But what’s the put-down worth exactly? What does it show? About what? Does it show that there is something wrong with the Cogito? With Descartes?
Dotson’s positive impulse is for philosophy to move away from what she calls a “culture of justification” to a “culture of praxis”. Sadly, she interprets “justification” as conformity to hegemonic norms–it belongs to the white male, Lorde says–not as a ground for rational belief. (Likely she never thinks ‘rational’ without scare quotes.) Praxis, on the other hand, places value in “issues and circumstances pertinent to our living”. I take it this means that we should stop thinking about why there is something rather than nothing, or about the status of the Barcan formula, and give more time to matters concerning our lives. And we should do this without imagining that we will discover anything. Discovery is not what we are after–if there is anything we want to understand it is feeling.
In a strange sort of way, Dotson’s view of the humanities shares something with Margaret Thatcher’s. Thatcher’s culture of praxis would have philosophers contributing to the GDP; Dotson, of course, has other aims. But she too does not believe that what we philosophers do has value independently of LIFE. In the Comparative Philosophy essay, she wants (among other things) to celebrate the diversity of cultures and approaches. She thinks that in some unspecified way, lived experience will help us build this culture of praxis. But she does not say how it will do this. And in the philosophy that I practice saying how is a minimal demand.
Thatcher or the internal black mother? I am comfortable having dinner with at least one of them. But with no disrespect intended: neither is relevant to what I do. At least: not for my living.