THE BLOG
06/06/2016 04:45 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2017

Philosophy and its Problem of Diversity: Through the Eyes of a Graduate Student

When I began university at sixteen years old, I was very young and naive. I practically grew up in a very abusive catholic boarding school in Nigeria, as I was sent there at the age of nine and didn't leave until I was fifteen. The one year of highschool that I did in Canada was also severely distressing. Needless to say, up until the time I got into university, my only instinct had been to survive life, never to fully live it, experience it, and indulge in its many diversions. But, when I got into McMaster University, the world felt more open than ever before. I left the sciences behind and I fell in love with philosophy, and ultimately ended up doing my undergraduate degree in "Justice, Political Philosophy, and Law", which I enjoyed thoroughly; so much so that I decided to put off plans for going to law school in order to do my Masters in Philosophy.

I immediately took to philosophy because I had always been naturally inquisitive and naturally questioning, and here, all of a sudden, was a way to systematize my natural inquisitiveness and approach it in a methodological way, to focus my thoughts, the questions that arose from them, and the answers that they bred. I learnt about "great" philosophers and the "great" civilizations that inspired their thoughts. I had become so imbued in the system of thought that I was exposed to that I never questioned that all the philosophers that I had learnt about, that had been valorized, were all white men. This fact does not, in anyway, take away from their grand intellect and great philosophical legacy. But, it is strange, isn't it, that these were, more or less, the only philosophers that I learnt about. I say this, not as a way to call out my school individually, but to call out academic philosophy in general.

When I got into my Masters program, I was elated. Finally, I could do whatever I wanted, study whatever I wanted, do my research on anything I wanted. I scoff at myself in retrospect for being so naive. I had always felt a huge hole in my education as a result of the philosophers that I was exposed to. So, that summer, I decided to start educating myself in African Philosophy, from ancient African philosophers such as Imhotep, Ptahhotep, Hypatia (she is technically a Greek philosopher), and Amenhotep, to the early modern philosophers such as Zera Yacob, to philosophers of the oral tradition and extending to the vast array of contemporary African and Africana philosophy that exists. I naturally took to African philosophy and it began to fill in a lot of the gaps that existed in my philosophical education. I finally decided that I was going to take my love of legal philosophy and African philosophy, and combine it into a thesis project. Young, stupid, naive, idealistic, me.

For my Masters program, I had to take six philosophy courses, but this time the courses just felt tiring. It felt as though we were recycling the same philosophers and the same canons of knowledge. I learnt about Hume, Kant, Aristotle, and it all felt so exhausting; not just for me, but for some of my friends in the program as well. We had to sit through these classes where we were told that of course these philosophers were racist and sexist, of course Aristotle believed in natural slaves, but none of that was to be taken as salient when interpreting their works. I took a Social and Political Philosophy class on our duties to the poor were we talked in great lengths about Thomas Pogge, and not once did we talk about his sexual harassment scandals, because it wasn't deemed salient to his philosophy. That is how we protect these "great" philosophers, we separate their personal life and actions from their philosophical legacy. We excuse too much, and we concede too much.

I thought to myself, none of it mattered because finally I was going to do what I wanted for my thesis project and no one could stop me. But, the more I went to classes and conferences, the more that I realized that it wasn't simply that philosophy ignored non-western, non-masculine canons of knowledge, but that it was actively resistant to it. All of a sudden I started to question myself and my research. By just choosing to do my thesis on African philosophy, I felt as though I was challenging the whole canon and history of philosophy to a kind of twisted gladiator match to the death, and we all know how that would turn out.

When I finally finished my course work, I had my committee meeting where we were supposed to talk about my thesis project. I told my committee members about my thesis project, which was going to try and bridge the world of African legal philosophy and Western legal philosophy. My committee told me that the thesis project was too much to do in one year; of course it was too much when no one bothers to do it. I wanted to fight harder for the project but I just gave up. I have decided to do my thesis project on something else but I did not inform them as to the real reason for my switch. I know what you are thinking, go up against the system, but I still need to produce a defensible project and I am not the one who sets the terms of what is and isn't defensible, the canon does, my committee does. Perhaps I should go up against the system, but I don't know that that is my sole duty.

Philosophy helped me at a time in my life when I needed the help the most. But, I have lost faith in its ability to answer the questions that are most pressing to me, I have lost faith in its ability to help me understand the world. Philosophy has successfully alienated me from the academic discipline. I hear people who study philosophy raging about how the whole world thinks philosophy is rightly losing its significance. I think that this is the case, but not for the reasons that everyone says it is, which is that it is not a useful job training tool. I think that it is rightly losing its significance because it is unable to, and even actively resists absorbing other canons of knowledge, other diverse understandings of the world. If it is to remain relevant, it must reform itself as an institution and a discipline.

I have decided to do my thesis on something else, and after this, I will happily hang up my academic philosophical hat. I would always do philosophy, but I have just realized I don't need to be in the academic discipline to do it. I can no longer defend a discipline that makes me question myself and my ability to think and answer questions with the canon that I so choose. Perhaps one day philosophy, both its canon and its faculty, would become more diverse and receptive, but let us just say that l am not holding my breath. This is a problem that exists in other academic disciplines as well, not just philosophy, but it always seems as though philosophy is more resistant and less amenable.

I will keep doing African philosophy and I would keep trying to understand the world the best way I know how. I will no longer grovel at the feet of academic philosophy and beg for acceptance into its discipline and into its canon. If philosophy would not be receptive to us, then there is no reason to be receptive to it. If you want to take up the fight, then please by all means go ahead and know that you have an ally in me. But, that is not my job, and it most certainly isn't my duty.

So, come next September (2017), I am hopefully going to make my way to law school. Perhaps, I will decide to do a PHD sometime in the future, but it most certainly won't be in philosophy. I have been told by a lot of people that as someone who has studied philosophy, I would feel brain dead and brain drained in law school. I simply reply by saying, "perhaps, but not as brain dead and as brain drained as I currently feel in philosophy".