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09/03/2014 11:07 am ET | Updated Nov 03, 2014

Why I Left Academia: Philosophy's Homogeneity Needs Rethinking

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By Eugene Park, Hippo Reads contributor

Philosophy is predominantly white and predominantly male. This homogeneity exists in almost all aspects and at all levels of the discipline. The philosophical canon, especially in so-called "analytic" departments, consists almost exclusively of dead, white men. The majority of living philosophers -- i.e., professors, graduate students, and undergraduate majors -- are also white men. And the topics deemed important by the discipline almost always ignore race, ethnicity, and gender. Philosophy, it is often claimed, deals with universal truths and timeless questions. It follows, allegedly, that these matters by their very nature do not include the unique and idiosyncratic perspectives of women, minorities, or "people of culture."

Astoundingly, many professional philosophers are perplexed as to why there aren't more women and minorities in philosophy. While there may be no single reason why philosophy is so lacking in diversity, the fact that it is lacking is blatantly clear when we compare philosophy to other humanistic disciplines (and even to many STEM fields). One important step towards solving philosophy's diversity problem is to figure out why so few women and minorities stick with philosophy for the long haul. My own experiences as a graduate student, while not necessarily representative, may shed some light on the matter. (Further discussion on this topic by professional philosophers can be found here and here.)

I used to be a philosophy PhD student at a well-respected department in the Midwest. After six and a half years of graduate study, I withdrew from my program and left academia altogether. Why? The dismal academic job market certainly had something to do with my decision. But, more importantly, as a person of color, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable in my department and within the discipline at large. Granted, a PhD program in any discipline will involve a certain amount of indoctrination, but the particular demands of philosophy were, in my view, beyond unreasonable.

As I discovered over the course of my graduate career, in order to be taken seriously in the discipline, and to have any hope of landing a tenure-track job, one must write a dissertation in one of the "core areas" of philosophy. What are these core areas? Philosophers quibble about how exactly to slice up the philosophical pie, but generally the divisions look something like this:

  • Metaphysics & Epistemology
  • Logic & Philosophy of Language
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Value Theory
  • History

Such is the menu of choices available to the philosopher-in-training today. (See, for example, the PhD requirements at these prominent philosophy departments: Penn, Berkeley, and Duke.) On the surface, this might look like a wide range of options. But appearances are deceiving. For instance, the subfield of philosophy of mind does not typically engage at all with Indian, East Asian, African, or Native American ideas about the nature of mind. It's as if non-Western thinkers had nothing to say about the matter. Similarly, those who work in the history of philosophy work almost exclusively on the history of Western philosophy -- e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.

So why don't Anglo-American philosophers engage with non-Western philosophical traditions? In my experience, professional philosophers today often perceive non-Western thinkers as inferior. Of course, few would say this explicitly. Rather, philosophers often point to non-Western philosophy's unusual and unfamiliar methodology as the primary reason for the disconnect. Or, as a prominent member of my department once explained to me, philosophers literally can't understand non-Western philosophy because they can't read it: "Philosophers trained in English-speaking countries can't read ancient Chinese or Hindi or some obscure African language, and given the existing demands on our time, it's unreasonable for us to have to learn those languages." (Somehow, though, it is perfectly reasonable for philosophers to spend years studying ancient Greek, or German, or French.)

The excuses for excluding non-Western thinkers from the philosophical canon are sometimes more obviously derogatory. For instance, philosophers often claim that non-Western thought lacks "rigor" and "precision," essential characteristics of serious philosophy. As a result, many philosophers simply dismiss non-Western intellectual culture as (mere) religion, speculative thought, or literature.

As an Asian American, and as someone who grew up under the partial influence of Buddhist and Confucian culture/thought, I find this dismissive attitude towards "the East" to be personally and deeply offensive. At best, Anglo-American philosophers seem to regard most non-Western philosophy as a cute side hobby, but certainly not something deserving of serious attention. As one of my dissertation advisors told me, "Asian philosophy can be one of your several Areas of Competence (AOC), but not your Area of Specialization (AOS)." To be fair, this advice was given in response to the existing realities of the discipline and the prospects for an academic job. Considered in that light, this was not bad advice, but is problematic nonetheless because it simply accepts and even perpetuates the status quo. And what is the status quo? A quick glance at the course offerings of any top philosophy department (examples here, here, and here) reveals unambiguously where their priorities lie -- most departments provide nothing by way of non-Western philosophy, and the ones that do will usually offer one or two introductory classes taught by visiting lecturers or affiliated faculty in other departments. The record of recent tenure-track hires by philosophy departments also confirms this overwhelming bias towards philosophers who specialize in the "core areas" of the Western philosophical tradition.

So, fairly early in my career as a PhD student I learned that certain ways of doing philosophy are acceptable, while others are not. Likewise, certain topics count as legitimate philosophy, and others do not. These disciplinary boundaries, by and large, are not up for debate. Any graduate student who ignores these basic facts about the discipline runs the risk of professional ostracism and, ultimately, failure. (Kristie Dotson's paper on philosophy's "culture of justification," published in Comparative Philosophy, provides an excellent analysis of how the profession privileges certain approaches to philosophy over others. A similar analysis is offered by Yoko Arisaka, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco, who writes about the lack of Asians and Asian women in academic philosophy.)

The current state of affairs in academic philosophy is, from an historical perspective, extremely curious. Most humanistic disciplines have gone through (a sometimes painful) process of self-evaluation and reconstruction. History and literature departments, for instance, were once primarily focused on the work, thought, and writings of white, Western European men. But throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, women, minorities, and other traditionally marginalized people have been increasingly incorporated into these fields, both as subjects and as practitioners, as explored in David Hollinger's book The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II.

Somehow philosophy got left behind. Walk around most philosophy departments today, and you'll likely see just a sprinkling of women and minorities, with the vast majority of students and faculty being white men. This imbalance is also painfully evident in philosophical publications, citations, and overall disciplinary influence. Among the 266 most cited contemporary philosophers in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 10% are women and 3% are minorities. In order for things to change, philosophers need to see that there is a need for change. I worry that this is not happening.

In my own department, I tried to stimulate discussion about what could be done to increase diversity. The faculty and my fellow graduate students were, to their credit, perfectly happy to have more women and minorities in the department. In fact, many spoke openly about their desire to see a more diverse department. This desire, however, seemed to be a desire mostly for a cosmetic change in the look of the department. When it came to making changes that might bring about a much deeper sense of diversity -- i.e., changes in the culture and intellectual environment -- there was less accommodation. In attempts to open up a discussion about diversity, I found myself repeatedly confounded by ignorance and, at times, thinly veiled racism. To various faculty, I suggested the possibility of hiring someone who, say, specializes in Chinese philosophy or feminist philosophy or the philosophy of race. I complained about the Eurocentric nature of undergraduate and graduate curricula. Without exception, my comments and suggestions were met with the same rationalizations for why philosophy is the way it is and why it should remain that way. To paraphrase one member of my department, "This is the intellectual tradition we work in. Take it or leave it."

The pressure to accept and conform to a narrow conception of philosophy was pervasive. When I tried to introduce non-Western and other non-canonical philosophy into my dissertation, a professor in my department suggested that I transfer to the Religious Studies Department or some other department where "ethnic studies" would be more welcome. When I considered exploring issues of race in my dissertation, my advisor remarked that she had always thought of Asian Americans as "basically white," so she was genuinely surprised that I would have any desire to pursue such topics.

Underlying these remarks are highly problematic assumptions about who "we" are and what historical figures and texts comprise "our" intellectual heritage. This is certainly a complicated and contested set of issues. For the purposes of this discussion, I've vastly oversimplified matters with my naïve talk of West vs. East, and my use of broad categories like Asian philosophy and analytic philosophy. But at least one thing is absolutely clear and indisputable: "We" are no longer mostly white men of European descent. (In fact, it's doubtful "we" were ever this.) At colleges and universities across the country, women and minorities are now frequently in the majority. While much of the rest of the academy has evolved to reflect these demographic changes, philosophy remains mired in a narrow conception of the discipline that threatens to marginalize philosophy even further.

So why did I choose to leave philosophy, instead of staying and advocating for change from within? It was certainly not an easy decision, but, by the end, my departure felt like an inevitability. I loved studying philosophy, and truly have no regrets about devoting nearly a decade of my life to it. But I also grew tired and frustrated with the profession's unwillingness to interrogate itself. Eventually, I gave up hope that the discipline would ever change, or that it would change substantially within a timeframe that was useful to me professionally and personally. (Since I left graduate school, at least two philosophy departments -- Rutgers and Georgia State -- have implemented policies to improve the academic climate for women and minorities. Whether these policies will be effective, and whether similar policies will be adopted more broadly, remains to be seen.)

The lack of women and minorities in philosophy may be an anomaly in the academy, especially among the humanities, but it is not an accident. Philosophers have made, and continue to make, decisions that impact the demographics of the discipline. Until they acknowledge their own complicity in the problem, philosophers will continue to scratch their heads about the lack of diversity in their field. It's not that women and minorities are (inexplicably) less interested in the "problems of philosophy" -- it's that women and minorities have not had their fair say in defining what the problems of philosophy are, or what counts as philosophy in the first place.

Further Reading:
"How is This Paper Philosophy?" in Comparative Philosophy by Kristie Dotson
● David Hollinger's The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II
"What Could Leave Philosophy?" in Thoughts Arguments and Rants
"Different Voices or Perfect Storm: Why Are There So Few Women in Philosophy?" by Louise Antony in the Journal of Social Philosophy
"Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)" by Sally Haslanger in Hypatia (Spring 2008)
"Asian Women: Invisibility, Locations, and Claims to Philosophy," in Women of Color in Philosophy, by Yoko Arisaka
"Quantifying the Gender Gap: An Empirical Study of the Underrepresentation of Women in Philosophy," by Molly Paxton, Carrie Figdor, and Valerie Tiberius (as part of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology's Diversity initiatives)
Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy
● Eric Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside, "Citation of Women and Ethnic Minorities in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy," in his blog, The Splintered Mind.
"Missing Men: Addressing the College Gender Gap" in HigherEd Live
"California Latinos Surpass Whites in Freshman UC Admission Offers," in the Los Angeles Times