Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

Center, Periphery, Philosophy

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The recently created online Directory of Philosophers from Underrepresented Groups in Philosophy (UPDir) is supposed, according to its promoters, “to provide an easy-to-use resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the work of philosophers who belong to underrepresented groups within the discipline.”

Though I fit one of the categories, I have not registered myself, and do not intend to. I might offer my reasons in some future post, but for now I want to focus on something else, namely, the epistemic neo-colonialist thinking, or rather mental reflex, that underlies some assumptions behind this project and behind some other phenomena in our field.

centerperiphery

My problem is with the way the category “Philosophy”, or “the discipline”, is explicitly understood if we are to take it for granted the some groups are “traditionally underrepresented” within it.

The authors of the directory put forward the following conjunction of (i) belonging to traditionally underrepresented groups in philosophy, (ii) the condition of writing philosophy in English and (iii) a disjunction of a series of other conditions, as a criterion of individuals’ eligibility for figuring on the list:

“The directory includes information about philosophers who belong to traditionally underrepresented groups in philosophy and who (1) write philosophy in English and (2) have a position researching or teaching philosophy, or (3) have previously held a position in philosophy and are still active in philosophy, or (4) have published an article in a philosophy journal or a book on a philosophy list, or (5) either hold or are working towards a PhD. or M.A. in philosophy and conduct research in philosophy.”

As it is immediately apparent, this specification of conditions does not constitute a criterion for someone qualifying as member of a traditionally underrepresented group in the discipline, for the simple reason that “belonging to traditionally underrepresented groups in philosophy” is one of the conditions in the above quote, which makes the alleged criterion circular. So, strictly speaking, “the discipline”, and hence what groups count as “underrepresented”, never gets specified.

However, my guess is that their condition “(1) write philosophy in English“ is what they have in mind when trying to circumscribe “the discipline”. Here, in effect, “the discipline” is roughly assumed to be synonymous with “English-language philosophy”. More precisely, I agree that the directory’s “Not a citizen of an Anglophone country” category is indeed underrepresented in “the discipline”, and that is not nice, but that is only because “the discipline” here is understood so as to exclude philosophy done in non-Anglophone countries (departments, individuals, professional bodies), which to my mind is a lot less nice.

This is not a new phenomenon, and I only use the UPDir as a symptomatic example because it is hot off the press. The phenomenon is one of Center-Periphery type of thinking that is going on in the group of self-perpetuating “elite” in philosophy whose members reside in the Western World (the large majority in the USA and in the UK).

There is typically a Center (USA, UK, Australia, Canada) and a Periphery (the rest of the World). The Center’s concern regarding the lack of diversity and representation in “the discipline” is underlain by a complete obliviousness to the fact that “the discipline” extends well beyond The Center. The big news: there is, e.g., philosophy written, taught, and read in Germany and France!

Some philosophers who come from the Periphery but work in the Center are aware that there is valuable philosophical work done in the Periphery, in various languages of the Periphery, and for that reason they encourage these authors of the Periphery to write exclusively in English. Thus Argentine Oxford philosopher Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra recommends all good, original analytic philosophers to publish their work exclusively in English:

“(…) original work of research in analytic philosophy broadly conceived should nowadays be published exclusively in English. Publishing such work in English is very valuable, but publishing it in languages other than English is of little or no value”

Rodriguez-Pereyra’s advice is perfectly rational: if you want to have a minimal chance to count in “the discipline”, publish you work in English. I do not disagree with his advice –in fact, I write philosophy exclusively in English– but it is a good example of how the Center-Periphery structure determines the best strategies one, as an academic, should pursue: minimally, try to speak the language of the Center.

The Center-Periphery mentality does not rigidly and exclusively pick out the issue of language or the West/Rest geography. Sometimes it makes its appearance in other dimensions, such as alleged “cutting-edge” research in philosophy versus “lagging behind”, as in this remark by otherwise social justice warrior extraordinaire, blogger Erich Schliesser:

“Formal approaches, philosophy of science, and decision theory are (thus) just about the only areas where European (analytic) philosophers are not at a five to ten year disadvantage relative to cutting edge Anglophone work.”

Here it is the US as Centre and Continental Europe as Periphery that underlies the blogger’s nonsensical and anti-philosophical division into “cutting-edge” and “non-cutting-edge” philosophy.

Finally, as admittedly more anecdotal than hard data suggests, there is also a Center-Periphery mentality about where one ends up having a job in philosophy, even if that job is in an English-speaking program. Your chances of becoming one of the visible figures in some subdivision of “the discipline”, if you end up working in the Periphery, in some “exotic” places such as, say, Hong Kong, Turkey, Singapore, Egypt, Hungary, or South Africa, are pretty dim. Yet, “big shots” (another anti-philosophical nonsense) do not mind at all being invited to give talks in these Peripheries, and, in the extreme, even allowing their freshly graduated students to take up jobs in such “epistemic slums”, given the harsh conditions on the philosophy job market nowadays.

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Written by István Aranyosi

December 22, 2014 at 2:42 pm

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