The Self-Murder Of Academic Philosophy
Can somebody please tell me why anybody would choose to go into academic philosophy? You’ll recall the shameful episode last year at which the distinguished Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne was denounced at a Christian philosophers’ conference for stating in passing his belief in what the Bible says about homosexuality. History’s greatest monster, that Swinburne!
Now, the social justice Jacobins are eating their own. Sit down and read this recap on the philosophy blog Daily Nous. It has to do with a feminist philosophy journal causing a collective seizure in the profession by publishing a paper contending that “transracialism” — that people should be allowed to change their race, à la Rachel Dolezal — ought to be accepted for the same reason that transgenderism should be. Rebecca Tuvel, the scholar in question, unequivocally supports transgender rights, by the way.
But that is not enough. These madwomen are eviscerating Tuvel over the question of how many transgendered anti-misogynists can dance on the severed head of Princess de Lamballe. The Daily Nous reports:
Nonetheless, in one popular public Facebook post, Nora Berenstain, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, says the essay contains “discursive transmisogynistic violence.” She elaborates:
Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay. She deadnames a trans woman. She uses the term “transgenderism.” She talks about “biological sex” and uses phrases like “male genitalia.” She focuses enormously on surgery, which promotes the objectification of trans bodies. She refers to “a male-to- female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege,” promoting the harmful transmisogynistic ideology that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege. In her discussion of “transracialism,” Tuvel doesn’t cite a single woman of color philosopher, nor does she substantively engage with any work by Black women, nor does she cite or engage with the work of any Black trans women who have written on this topic.
An open letter to Hypatia complaining about the article is now being circulated and currently has over 130 signatures. It states that the article “falls short of scholarly standards” and requests the article be retracted. Among the reasons cited are the following:
1. It uses vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields; for example, the author uses the language of “transgenderism” and engages in deadnaming a trans woman;
2. It mischaracterizes various theories and practices relating to religious identity and conversion; for example, the author gives an off-hand example about conversion to Judaism;
3. It misrepresents leading accounts of belonging to a racial group; for example, the author incorrectly cites Charles Mills as a defender of voluntary racial identification;
4. It fails to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color) in its discussion of “transracialism”. We endorse Hypatia’s stated commitment to “actively reflect and engage the diversity within feminism, the diverse experiences and situations of women, and the diverse forms that gender takes around the globe,” and we find that this submission was published without being held to that commitment.
Discursive transmisogynistic violence. Oh my. Well, just like that, the editorial board of the journal collapsed like a bunch of screaming meemies:
We, the members of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors, extend our profound apology to our friends and colleagues in feminist philosophy, especially transfeminists, queer feminists, and feminists of color, for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused. The sources of those harms are multiple, and include: descriptions of trans lives that perpetuate harmful assumptions and (not coincidentally) ignore important scholarship by trans philosophers; the practice of deadnaming, in which a trans person’s name is accompanied by a reference to the name they were assigned at birth; the use of methodologies which take up important social and political phenomena in dehistoricized and decontextualized ways, thus neglecting to address and take seriously the ways in which those phenomena marginalize and commit acts of violence upon actual persons; and an insufficient engagement with the field of critical race theory.
You might expect such gutlessness on the philosophy faculty of Moscow State University under Stalin. So what is the excuse of the Hypatia jellyfish?
To this anathema, Prof. Tuvel replied, in part:
So little of what has been said, however, is based upon people actually reading what I wrote.
Oh, sister, I know the feeling.
Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they “dignify” the article. If this is considered beyond the pale as a response to a controversial piece of writing, then critical thought is in danger. I have never been under the illusion that this article is immune from critique. But the last place one expects to find such calls for censorship rather than discussion is amongst philosophers.
I’ve gotta say: really, Rebecca Tuvel? By this late date, you think that the “last place” one expects to see censorship is among philosophers?! Humanities faculties are the first place you’d expect this garbage.
Prof. Tuvel’s tribe is cannibalizing its own. One imagines that she thought she was immune to this kind of thing, given the statement on her faculty page at Rhodes College:
My research lies at the intersection of critical race, feminist and animal ethics. Throughout my research, I have considered several ways in which animals, women and racially subordinated groups are oppressed, how this oppression often overlaps and how it serves to maintain erroneous and harmful conceptions of humanity. Uniting these lines of research is an underlying concern to theorize justice for oppressed groups.
And now, the mob has turned on her as an oppressor.
It will be a great day when this particular venomous snake finally devours its tail, and it becomes safe for people who actually care about philosophy as the search for truth to come out and do their vital work. In the meantime, why not form alternative institutions where people who want to do true scholarship and teaching can enter a classroom with colleagues and students who want the same thing, as opposed to joining the impotent clerisy of ideological crackpots who have nothing better to do deploy weaponized jargon against each other.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
I think you’re overstating the problem a bit. I thought very seriously about going into academic philosophy (I graduated from a top philosophy grad program in June 2016), and my reasons for leaving academia had nothing to do with the politics of philosophy departments (and I’m certainly no leftist).
While such incidents are disturbing, I never found any such political discussions to dominate the mainstream in philosophy departments. This is mainly because mainstream analytic philosophy doesn’t touch such topics. The vast majority of professional philosophers are still doing great research and teaching in the classic areas of philosophy: metaphysics, ethics, phil of mind, phil of language, logic, political philosophy etc.
It’s also worth noting that many professional philosophers are themselves disturbed by the “Hypatia incident”. In my experience, philosophy departments really are the last place you’d expect to find censorship — mainstream academic philosophers really do take pride in argumentative engagement.
Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I don’t see the need for “alternative institutions” (not yet anyway).
UPDATE.2: Reader Seraphim writes:
I write as a professor of philosophy who has been active in the field for more than four decades; as the author or editor of four books, with three more under contract; as someone who is widely known and well-respected in the field; but who is also a very traditional Orthodox Christian.
These people are not representative, and the real zealots are very small in number, but they exist and are (unfortunately) tolerated. Happily, they tend to form nasty little cabals where they rage at their enemies and/or one another in marginal satellite groups to which no one else pays much attention. In a sense, they are self-quarantined.
They are also, like all ideologues, quite stupid, being blinded by arrogance and hatred and usually being not that talented to begin with, so it is not hard to speak to them if need be. All it takes is avoiding throwing down certain “red flags” to keep them from attacking, i.e. practicing the kind of subtlety and ability to redefine a problem at which a good philosopher should be adept anyway.
It is not quite right to say that normal philosophers are afraid of them. It is more like dealing with someone obviously crazy whom one encounters riding on a lonely subway car. You avoid making eye contact, and if need be make a temporary stop at the next exit. But you go about your business without giving the inconvenience too much thought. Philosophers know from the patron Socrates that freedom of thought and expression is not absolute and that often indirect communication is required to avoid either hemlock or exile.
But admittedly, if you nevertheless want to be plain-spoken and outspoken in advocating traditional Christian views, they will come after you and only a few philosophers (Robert George comes to mind) have the prestige and the skills (of intellect and of character) to take them on successfully.
Uncomfortable, but not as intolerable as it might sound.