Issues in Philosophy MAP: The Power of Just Doing Philosophy

MAP: The Power of Just Doing Philosophy

by Miranda Pilipchuk

 

I started the Villanova chapter of Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) in the Spring term of 2017. Our chapter is just turning a year old, and we are still in the process of figuring out what we would like to accomplish as well as how we can best serve the Villanova community; however, what we have accomplished already has—for me—been a profound experience. This article is a personal reflection on what MAP has meant to me as an individual. It cannot speak to the experiences of the other members of the Villanova MAP chapter, or other members of MAP in general. But I hope it will serve as an indication of the value of MAP, and the need to open up spaces specifically for minorities in philosophy.

From my perspective, the most significant thing the Villanova MAP chapter has accomplished so far has been to create spaces where underrepresented, minority, and nontraditional students of philosophy can just do philosophy. This may sound counterintuitive since, presumably, all students of philosophy already do philosophy. However, my experience as both an undergraduate and graduate student in philosophy has been that minorities in philosophy sometimes have to spend more time proving that they can do philosophy than actually doing philosophy. In my time as a philosopher, there have been two things that have continually stood in the way of me being able to actually do philosophy.

First is the feeling that I need to continually justify my presence in philosophy. This feeling is often referred to as “imposter syndrome. While I know that many of my archetypical graduate colleagues have also experienced some form of imposter syndrome, I also know the increased burden of not just feeling like an imposter, but actually being an imposter. In their recent article The Philosophical Personality,” David Peña-Guzmán and Rebekah Spera note that the archetypal conception of a philosopher is a white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, visibly abled man, whose parents are themselves likely academics. According to Peña-Guzmán and Spera, this archetype directly informs who we consider legitimate philosophers. Individuals who match the archetype are automatically granted more epistemic authority, and thus are automatically taken more seriously as philosophers. Individuals who fail to match the archetype—minority, nontraditional, or underrepresented philosophers—are automatically granted less epistemic authority, and are implicitly taken less seriously as philosophers. Being an imposter in philosophy means constantly struggling against an archetype that has already excluded me from the discipline.

The second thing that tends to stand in the way of my actually doing philosophy are the rigid stereotypes about what counts as “good” philosophy. Both the philosophical cannon and commonly accepted topics of philosophical study tend to centralize the perspectives of archetypical philosophers such that the concerns of white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, visibly abled male philosophers become the standard concerns of philosophy, and all other concerns are dismissed as nonphilosophical. In Black Feminist ThoughtPatricia Hill Collins argues that members of underrepresented groups are expected to produce work that does not challenge the traditional biases and power structures of their academic field.

 When they do so, their work is discredited as not properly academic, and they are discredited as not being proper academics. In order to be taken seriously as philosophers, nontraditional philosophers are expected to theorize from the perspective of the archetypal philosopher. When nontraditional philosophers theorize from their own perspective, they are dismissed as not being philosophical enough. As Kristie Dotson has noted, this demand to do legitimated philosophy creates an environment that is hostile to the work, and even presence, of diverse practitioners of philosophy.

As a nontraditional philosopher who works in nontraditional philosophical areas, I have most definitely experienced rejection, dismissal, and even hostility from philosophers who do not consider me to be a legitimate philosopher or my work to be legitimate philosophy. Other philosophers have very kindly informed me that my work is uninteresting from a philosophical standpoint, that they’re not sure what I do—but they know it’s not philosophy, that I am most certainly not a philosopher, that I should let the real philosophers do the thinking, and that I would be better suited to a softer and less intellectually rigorous discipline.

Taken together, the need to justify my presence in philosophy and my work as philosophical have often functioned as a barrier to actually doing philosophy. Before I can do philosophy, I need to prove to philosophers that implicitly accept the archetypical depiction of what philosophers are are that I can do philosophy. Before I can talk about my work, I have to prove that my work is worth talking about. Justifying my place and my work in a discipline in which I am always already an imposter drains the intellectual, emotional, physical, and temporal resources that I would otherwise apply to studying philosophy. There are days when I spend more time fighting for my presence and my work to be taken seriously than I spend actually doing my work. This is a problem I have never perceived my archetypical graduate colleagues who do archetypical philosophy to face.

Through its brief history at Villanova, the thing that has most impressed me about Villanova MAP is its potential create spaces where no one needs to justify their presence or prove the philosophical merit of their work. This became most obvious to me in the fall of 2017, when Villanova MAP launched its first reading group. The reading group focused on the work of nontraditional philosophers, much of which challenged the implicit biases of the traditional cannon. It was the most successful and productive reading group I’ve ever attended, and at some point I realized that much of this success was because the reading group created a space where the participants could just do philosophy.

The reading group began with the assumption that nontraditional philosophers count as philosophers worthy of study, and that critiquing the cannon is a worthwhile philosophical activity. Over the course of the reading group the participants all agreed that instead of policing the borders of philosophy we would work together on dismantling them. The reading group directly undermined the notion that anyone was required to justify their presence or their work in philosophy. Without the need to first prove ourselves worthy of doing the work, the participants in the reading group could instead focus on just doing the work. We were able to work together to analyze the texts, unpack difficult concepts, think through revelations we had never had before, and talk about the themes and ideas that excited us.

This act of working within an intellectual community is everything I had hoped grad school would be, and it’s what grad school should be for all grad students. I’ve experienced this kind of intellectual community a couple of times since beginning grad school, but it’s always been the exception instead of the rule. I became a philosopher because I wanted the opportunity to think through the things that matter most in a community that would encourage and inspire me to do engaged, thorough, important work. The disciplinary norms of philosophy have gotten in the way of that project. One of the most powerful things about MAP is that it can push back against these disciplinary norms, and help nontraditional philosophers do what they came to philosophy to do.

My greatest moment in that first Villanova MAP reading group came when one of our nontraditional undergraduate participants commented that they always felt like they belonged in the group, and that their thoughts were taken seriously. This is what MAP can do, and why the work it does is so important. It is not just a matter of recruiting nontraditional students; it’s also about creating opportunities for nontraditional students to actually do philosophy, and to know that our work and our voices count too.

I want to close this reflection by explicitly and shamelessly encouraging philosophy departments that have not yet done so to start MAP chapters. MAP alone cannot solve the underrepresentation problems in philosophy, but MAP chapters can—and do—help alleviate some of the additional burdens nontraditional philosophers face. If your department has not yet thought about starting a MAP chapter, now would be a great time to begin that conversation. If your department has thought about starting a MAP chapter but hasn’t yet taken the concrete steps to do so, now would be the perfect time to take those steps. Creating spaces where nontraditional philosophers are treated with the respect and consideration archetypical philosophers are granted by default is one important part of generating meaningful change in philosophy as a discipline. For more information please visit MAP’s website: http://www.mapforthegap.com.

 

Miranda Pilipchuk (she/her/hers) is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at Villanova University, specializing in intersectional feminist theories and critical philosophies of race. She is the founding organizer of Villanova MAP, a PIKSI-Boston teaching fellow, and an appointed member of the inaugural American Philosophical Association Graduate Student Council. Follow Miranda on Twitter @mdpilipchuk.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Well, this is unlikely to help, but it’s what I’ve got so here goes. Four words….

    Forget about other people. With these four words you liberate yourself from all of the above.

    Perhaps it will help to draw a distinction between being an academic and being a philosopher.

    If you want to be an academic then you are going to have to play the game, just as anyone with a job does. You’re going to have to suck up to whoever is in charge, salute their authority, and become a servant of the status quo. You’re going to have to worry about other people. The higher up the ladder you go, the more that will be at stake, thus the more you’ll have to worry.

    Becoming an academic means you can’t be a “real” philosopher. Once your bank account becomes addicted to the steady salary from the university you will become a prisoner of the opinion of your peers and bosses, which means you can’t afford to look ridiculous. Which means you can’t take real risks, and can’t follow your interest and logic where ever it leads. You’ll be constrained to coloring within the lines of the group consensus.

    That’s not what real philosophers do. Real philosophers perform the vital social function of continually exploring and challenging the boundaries of the group consensus, which you should be aware, is a sure fire formula for becoming unpopular. Being a real philosopher is bad for business.

    The people whose opinions and judgements you are worrying about are not real philosophers. They’re academics. They are primarily in the business of accumulating authority.

    Accumulating authority is necessary if you want to be heard, and you want to be paid. It’s an honest living, but it’s not philosophy in the purest sense because those who walk this path are limited to coloring within the lines of the group consensus, which is pretty much the opposite of real philosophy.

    When the old boy’s club tries to tell you you’re not a real philosopher, they know whereof they speak, because they’re already prisoners of the academic totem pole jail that you’re trying to break in to.

    If you decide to become a real philosopher instead, just forget about other people, and pursue your interests with as much enthusiasm as you can find within yourself.

    Salman Rushdie once wisely shared that when he was a young man his primary concern was measuring his writing against that of other writers. But he added, “then I matured, and now I just write what I write.”

  2. Imagine you are in your home office trying to drum up an interesting topic for your next paper, when suddenly you realize your kitchen is on fire. What do you do?

    1) You can write a sophisticated complex paper in largely unintelligible language on the symbolic meaning of fire and compare and contrast how various famous philosophers would have approached the subject etc etc.

    2) Or, you can grab a fire extinguisher while racing to the phone to dial 911.

    The first choice would be philosophy as that term is normally used, but it wouldn’t be an act of reason. The second choice would be reason, but not philosophy.

    This anecdote may seem exaggerated, but in fact it pretty accurately represents the situation that all intelligent thoughtful human beings find themselves in in the modern world. Thousands of nukes can arc over the poles at any moment and in just a few minutes burn to the ground everything humanity has so painstakingly constructed over the last 500 years. The pressure cooker on your kitchen stove is moments away from exploding.

    When highly educated intelligent people respond to this modern reality by dedicating their professional lives to the study of the esoteric theories of long dead famous thinkers, they are doing philosophy as the good old boys club would define that term. Personally they are doing reason, because they are earning a paycheck which can feed their children.

    But intellectually they are lost in the irrational madness of the status quo. And they are not alone. Our entire society shares that experience of madness. As example, there was barely any mention of nukes in the recent Presidential campaign here in America.

    An academic philosopher will ignore the highly dangerous civilization threatening blind madness of the status quo, and focus instead on writing highly sophisticated papers on obscure topics that almost no one is interested in. As evidence, please observe the almost total lack of interest even APA members are showing in their own blog.

    A real philosopher, a person of reason, would perform a vital social function by being a lonesome voice which faces in to the group consensus wind and proclaims that the emperor is wearing no clothes, that what we call “normal” is not sanity, but rather madness.

    A real philosopher, a person of reason, would declare that professional academic philosophy, the good old boy’s club, is not actually pursuing the “love of wisdom” at all but instead doing something else entirely, running a business.

    That’s why white men dominate professional philosophy, they have a natural talent for business. As example, black Americans created almost all the popular music which now dominates the world, but it’s typically white men who made most of the money from that activity.

    Business is not evil. But neither is it philosophy.

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