Why We Need Diversity in Philosophy — For the Sake of Philosophy
I have just completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy at UC Berkeley (hence my sparing posting on this blog — though I promise now we’re back to once a week!). I wrote a 45-page honors thesis on abortion morality, read hundreds of pages of papers and texts, wrote hundreds of pages of papers and texts, sat in lectures delivered by the best of the best, and discussed contentious issues with the brightest students. But of course, like the true philosopher I hope that I am, I noticed other things outside of the books my head was buried in.
Let’s read that sentence again: of course, like the true philosopher I hope that I am, I noticed other things outside of the books my head was buried in.
Do real philosophers notice things outside of the books their heads are buried in? In theory, they absolutely should! Philosophy is the study of the human experience. And that can’t just be found in a book written by probably a dead white man who was lucky enough to be born into a class that allowed him to be educated by other wealthy white men who wrote their own books that all represent their own very unique perspective on what the human experience is.
But for the past four years, when I entered Moses Hall (Berkeley’s Philosophy department building), the vast majority of perspectives I encountered were those found in books written by dead white men. All my major requirements, such as courses in Ethics, Epistemology, History, and Philosophy of Language, exclusively covered the Western tradition. I had to take a minimum of two classes on major philosophical figures, and all of the courses I had to choose from were dead white men (I ultimately chose Nietzsche and Leibniz). I never had a woman professor in my entire four years of Philosophy classes — out of twenty-four faculty members, six were women, though we have just hired a seventh.
I was fortunate this past semester to take a seminar on Feminist Philosophy, in which we read only women philosophers except for John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. There is one Chinese Philosophy course offered by Confucian scholar Kwong-Loi Shun. Our department chair is a woman, Professor Hannah Ginsborg, whom I respect greatly. We have an equity advisor, Professor Shamik Dasgupta. We have a thriving chapter of Minorities and Philosophy, a transfer-heavy undergraduate student body, and a relatively diverse graduate student body.
But that’s really it. That’s all I can say about diversity in our department.
Philosophy remains one of the least diverse fields in academia. While the field has seen a number of women even in ancient times, the vast majority are white. I should be able to name more black women in philosophy than bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Anita Allen. I can’t. And Asian women philosophers? Hispanic, men or women? I can’t name any.
In 2019, diversity remains a top social issue. And while diversity is inherently a good and useful thing, it is necessary for good Philosophy. We cannot just continue to read books written by dead white men, discuss them amongst our white male peers, advised by white male faculty. For how can this lead to a true understanding of the human experience? The very practice of philosophy requires disagreement, even sparring. And where best can this come from than a diverse group of thinkers with different experiences, intuitions, and cultural upbringings? Philosophy has been an echo chamber of sorts for millennia. For the sake of philosophy, it is time to diversify. Does this mean throw out the canon? Absolutely not. But it does mean to expand it. And the canon would greatly benefit.