How a spat over PC culture in philosophy betrayed philosophy itself
2017/01/13 Leave a comment
Good and thoughtful commentary by Adrian Lee over the controversy University of London Student Union’s demand that the School of Oriental and African Studies remove philosophers like Plato, Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant “because they are white” in a mandate that sought to “decolonize” SOAS:
The whole thing is a missed opportunity: A missed opportunity for academics to give the story little credence and prove that philosophy was above the fray of the overly personal bickering that has infected the political climate. A missed opportunity from reporters to find out from the angriest of these academics why they think that teaching more diverse voices means teaching Western European voices less. (In fact, that’s the kind of defensive mentality—that addition must mean subtraction—that’s awful familiar from the most blinkered responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, or to any urge for equality that touches a frayed nerve.) Hell, it was even an opportunity to simply acknowledge that philosophers owe a lot to non-white thinkers. It would be hard, for instance, to imagine a legacy for Aristotle without the efforts of the Islamic scholar Averroes, whose work then inspired Thomas Aquinas. Plato’s legacy was continued and refined by Plotinus, who was born in Egypt. St. Augustine, best known for his Confessions, was an Algerian; Voltaire’s political writings were influenced by what he saw on visits to China.
And even if we were to take the story on its face value—that indeed, philosophy students from the University of London, rather than a specialized school like SOAS, wanted to learn more about philosophers outside of the Western canon and sought a critical take on hoary canonical icons. How is that so wrong? How could students taking an active and expansive interest in what they’re being taught scare teachers, when sparking thoughtful considerations like that is the very goal of education? Wanting to learn more about historical contexts and seeking to think critically and contextually about what they’re studying aren’t signs of a dismissible “snowflake” student. It’s actually the sign of a good one.
But mostly, the whole philosophy fracas is a depressing vision. How sad that academics—the high-minded thinkers who think they have themselves escaped the cave—thought defending philosophy meant parroting easy outrage and succumbing to overly simplistic falsehoods. How tragic that teachers appeared to so quickly abandon their students for the most bargain-bin of straw men. And that may be the saddest thing of all: if falsehoods and polarized politics and manufactured outrage and the leaping to simple fallacies can infect philosophy’s lofty rafters, then what hope do the rest of us have?
After all, if those philosophers had indeed re-read Plato, they would have known better. The characters in the imagined conversations in The Republic are more than mere fools built up to be knocked down. They challenge Socrates’ proofs, urge him on, and make them better. They wield ideas, not personal attacks. They are rhetorical dance partners, not useful idiots. Socrates, the book’s Platonic mouthpiece, even acknowledges that he is willing to be convinced otherwise on various points. Philosophy of the sort in The Republic is, in short, not a project of balkanization, where ideas are heroic or villainous. It’s a dialogue, the kind we need more of, from all of us—but especiallyour philosophers.