Featured Philosopher: Vanessa Wills


Vanessa Wills is a political philosopher, ethicist, educator, and activist in Washington, DC.

She is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The George Washington University. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. Dr. Wills received her Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Princeton University in 2002.

Her areas of specialization are moral, social, and political philosophy, nineteenth century German philosophy, and the philosophy of race. Her research is importantly informed by her study of Karl Marx’s work, and focuses on the ways in which economic and social arrangements can inhibit or promote the realization of values such as freedom, equality, and human development. Her current major project is a monograph on Marx’s ethical thought.

Philosophy as a Virtuous Irritation:

Can There Be Ruthless Criticism in Safe Spaces?

Vanessa Wills

“Now philosophy has become worldly, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

—Karl Marx, 1843 letter to Karl Ruge[i]

“I was attached to this city by the god […] as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. […] I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.”

–Socrates, as recorded in Plato’s Apology[ii]

That there exists a millennia-old model of the philosopher as social irritant will surprise perhaps no one who has spent very much time around us. Philosophy, the love of knowing, could as easily be described as a love of poking and prodding, a special delight in overturning even or especially the most dearly-held beliefs. This annoys people.

Of late, there has been much talk about, and pushback against, the call for “safe spaces” on university campuses. Such spaces, whether physical, virtual, or even metaphorical, are meant to provide respite from the aggression that students, particularly those who are already marginalized and oppressed, experience in the world at large or in the university environment in particular. Students agitating for safe spaces have been called “silly” by no less notable a figure than Salman Rushdie[iii]. The Atlantic has devoted significant virtual ink to warnings against the supposedly deleteriously “coddling” effect of such practices[iv]. Most recently, a University of Chicago dean issued a charming welcome letter to Class of 2020 students, informing them that their new school would not “condone the creation of intellectual ’safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own”[v].

If no belief is safe from the philosopher, and if causing intellectual unease and irritation is itself a core task of philosophy, then it might seem to follow that philosophers should lead the way in opposing any modulation of potentially irritating speech or behavior and, therefore, in opposing the creation of “safe spaces.” But that is too quick. After all, students’ demands for safe spaces are, themselves, “irritating.”

It is in large part because these demands irritate—specifically, because they challenge, question, and undermine assumptions about the norms of discourse—that they have received such stern rebuke from so many corners. Yet by and large, the disdainful responses to student demands for safe spaces overlook one very important fact: that in an important sense, safe spaces already exist. Historically, the university, and for that matter, the newsroom, the printing house, the television studio, and the town square have long been perfectly “safe spaces” for certain people, practices, and ideas, but not for others.

When, for example, students dress up as racist caricatures and then are defended by their authority figures, they are being provided with a space that is safe for their racism and disrespectful disregard (a point Brittney Cooper has made in the pages of Salon[vi]). When a perpetrator of sexual assault is given only three months in jail for brutally raping a woman on the campus of his elite university, the legal system is acting in such a way as to help make the college campus a safe space for rapists to attack women. When states pass laws criminalizing gun bans on campuses, they institutionalize campuses as safe spaces for the constant implicit threat of violence, and as ever more unsafe spaces for those who are the likely targets of violence.

What is at stake now is not really whether there will be safe spaces on university campuses, because of course there will be. The question is whether there will be a just renegotiation of what and whom is made safe there. Philosopher Kate Manne wrote of trigger warnings that they can be implemented for the purpose of “enabling everyone’s rational engagement”[vii]. Something similar can be said of the call for “safe spaces”; it is an attempt to allow more members of the academic community to participate in shaping the norms and boundaries of a discourse that grows broader and richer for this expanded involvement.

Given the irritating nature of the philosophical enterprise, it is not too surprising that there are numerous cases of philosophers—particularly philosophers of color—who have found themselves at the center of battles over which people and what ideas will enjoy the safety of the university. Famously, this was the experience of Angela Davis when the University of California’s Board of Regents removed her from her UCLA philosophy post in 1970 because of her membership in the Communist Party and her criticism of the violent police response to campus protestors[viii]. That she went on to have an illustrious career elsewhere in the same UC system was in part the result of years of agitation and social change that occurred on- and off-campus.

More recently, philosopher George Yancy experienced massive racist blowback against an open letter he’d penned in the New York Times, urging white Americans to “listen with love” to the voices of Black people. Yancy reports, “immediately after the publication of ‘Dear White America,’ I began to receive vile and vitriolic white racist comments sent to my university email address, and verbal messages sent to my answering machine. I even received snail mail that was filled with hatred”[ix].

The aim of these harassers was to destroy any felt safety Yancy might have had in expressing his ideas and indeed in simply existing as a Black academic philosopher, whether in the virtual spaces of his newspaper column and his professional e-mail and voicemail accounts, or in the physical space of his mailbox, or in his own body, which was subjected to violent threat.

To irritate—to poke, to prod, to question, to overturn—is one of the most important tasks of philosophy. At a time when people of color in particular are routinely treated to lurid reminders of their vulnerability, social disposability, and lack of protection, it is a mistake to regard students’ demand for safe spaces as anything other than a virtuous irritation of the status quo. It is not a “retreat” from controversy or a demand to be “coddled.” It is an attempt at direct confrontation with those conditions that produce the unsafety of marginalized and oppressed populations.

This is not by itself to say that pressing the “safe spaces” demand is the absolutely correct tactic for campus social justice movements, or that trigger warnings are best pedagogical practice. But philosophy as social gadfly has a special duty to contribute productively to that discussion. It must not hide behind its idealized practice of ruthless criticism as a way of contributing to the silencing of marginalized voices that protest their social vulnerability. In doing so, it abdicates its essentially radical and irritating task.

[i] Marx, Karl. “1843 Letter to Ruge” Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher < https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm >

[ii] Cooper, John M., and D. S. Hutchinson. “Plato: complete works.” (1997), p.28.

[iii] Page, Clarence. “Salman Rushdie has a problem with ‘safe spaces’ sheltered from Donald Trump,” Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2016 < http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/page/ct-trump-emory-salman-rushdie-political-correctness-page-perspec-0406-jm-20160405-story.html >

[iv] Haidt, Jonathan and Greg Lukianoff. “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2015. < http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/ >

[v] Rhodes, Dawn and Leonor Vivanco. “U. of C. tells incoming freshmen it does not support ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces’” Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2016 < http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-university-of-chicago-safe-spaces-letter-met-20160825-story.html >

[vi] Cooper, Brittney. “Stop mocking ‘safe spaces’: What the Mizzou & Yale backlash is really about,” Salon.com, November 18, 2015 < http://www.salon.com/2015/11/18/what_the_mizzou_yale_backlash_is_really_about_the_right_of_white_people_to_engage_in_racial_recklessness/ >

[vii] Manne, Kate. “Why I Use Trigger Warnings,” The New York Times, September 19, 2015 < http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/why-i-use-trigger-warnings.html>

[viii] Slutsky, Beth. Gendering Radicalism: Women and Communism in Twentieth-Century California. University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

[ix] Evans, Brad and George Yancy. “The Perils of Being a Black Philosopher,” The New York Times, April 18, 2016 < http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/04/18/the-perils-of-being-a-black-philosopher/ >


Featured Philosopher: Saba Fatima


Saba Fatima is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She has mostly published on issues of social and political significance to Muslims. Her research interests include non-ideal theory; social and political issues within prescriptive Islam; Muslim/Muslim-American issues within a framework of feminist & race theory, virtue ethics, and more recently, medical ethics.

On Being Muslim and American

Saba Fatima,

“the actions of those folks [American soldiers] in Iraq do not represent the values of the United States of America. . . . courage, love of freedom, compassion, and decency.”

–President Bush 2004, right after Abu Ghraib prison torture became public.

“This is a time for reflection, not retribution. …. at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence.”

– President Obama 2009, on the United States’ use of torture, emphasis mine.

“Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!”

– First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2016 DNC, in response to Trump’s call to ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan

I have always been interested in identities and how they connect with socio-historical frameworks. I have thought a lot about my own identity and about the sorts of spaces and social contexts that mold both the content and the tone of my voice.

One of sort of space that often shapes my behavior and speech (both in good & not-so-good ways) is within the religious realm. I recently wrote about how diminished religious spaces for women impact the perception of women’s religious standing, not only in the eyes of the others, but also our perception about our moral self as well. When women’s public space to worship is confined, our collective worship becomes not-so-visible to the community at large and the worship itself cannot be fully experienced by individual women (‘Striving for God’s Attention: Gendered Spaces and Piety,’ 2016). However, change can be very hard to bring about. One reason has to do with politics of gatekeeping. In order to have legitimacy within religious circles, others must give some degree of acknowledgement about the goodness of your character. But what may qualify as ‘goodness’ is often at odds with the sort of person needed to challenge the social norms that apply to women (even when those social norms are in contradiction with basic precepts of theology). It is a tricky terrain to retain your conception of faith, navigate the hegemonic conceptions, all the while keeping in mind the wisdom gleaned from the social & historical collective to arrive at a better-informed version of theology. If your conception of faith is so far out from the mainstream, do you even belong to the faith? (I’d answer yes, for various theological reasons).

I have also wondered about political belonging. Recently, after returning from a visit to Pakistan, my 6 year old son inquired as to why we were standing in a different line than some others at the airport immigration. I told him that this line was for the citizens of the United States. He then says, ‘Can I get a Pakistani passport?’ ‘Why,’ I asked, to which he replied in a matter-of-fact fashion, ‘so if Donald Trump kicks me out, I’ll have somewhere to go.’

I wanted to tell him that he can’t be told to go ‘where he belongs,’ because he belongs here. Moreover, I wanted to tell him that Pakistan isn’t his country, not because it’s not good enough for him, rather, quite the contrary. He had a false sense of entitlement to assume automatic citizenship of a country that he had just visited for the first time. I did ask him to consider, ‘Why do you think the Pakistanis would grant you a passport?’ Despite his assumptions, he (or I) cannot speak for Pakistanis, let alone feel entitled to citizenship.

One would think though (OK, I think that) he can speak as an American within the American political context. But what sort of political voice does someone like my son – someone visibly Muslim – have here? In one of my papers, I look at the Muslim-American political disenfranchisement within the current framework of terrorism and heightened security. I argued that how we are often perceived and our awareness of that perception, interplays in a detrimental way with liberalism’s demand for public reason, essentially sustaining the Muslim-American exclusion from the political realm (Liberalism and the Muslim-American Predicament,2014).

The only way we (Muslim-Americans) are sometimes heard is if we conform to the patriotic-American narrative, the sort where we continually perform a script about our undying and undivided loyalty to the United States. Any affective response in politics that does not follow such a script (such as our anger at seeing tortured Muslim bodies at prison sites), is then viewed as disloyal, rather than as something positive that better informs our political process (Muslim-American Scripts, 2013).

I do believe that Muslim-Americans need to be more politically active, but in ways that take our competing values and our existing reality into account. While in some ways, our struggle in this country, mirrors that of other minorities (political exclusion), in other ways, our lived reality is also both structurally and economically different. Muslim American political posture must not only take power structures and one’s social location into consideration, but also the sorts of relationships within civil society that we exist in. Perhaps our political posture needs to shift from what is sometimes traditionally encouraged in liberatory movements – that of urgency – and adapt to become more reflective to best serve our sense of integrity. We must claim our place as Americans on our own terms (‘Presence of Mind,’ 2012).

I do wonder though what it means to be American. This is the current project that I’ve been working on for some time.

I have been told by some that I should be grateful to be in this country (I’m an immigrant, if that’s not clear by now). I think embedded within that sentiment is the idea that I should be grateful to them. ‘They’ (in their imagined sense of community, that can perhaps be best summed up to an outsider as … White?!) have pride in American values and way of life. ‘They’ have an inexpressible knowledge of what this country stands for, and this knowledge gives them the feeling of socio-political situatedness. In their social imagination of what it means to be an American, they belong, I don’t.

But when people have expressed such patriotic pride, it has always made me feel uneasy. From the times of the ‘Manifest Destiny,’ when apparently God Themselves had decreed the American people with special virtues, to today’s belief in American exceptionalism (Hillary Clinton just gave a whole speech on it), being American to a few is heavily tinged in a sense of superiority. For others, there is a disconnect between a conception of self as American and any sense of relationality with the other. While their sense of self as American is not one based in superiority or arrogance, there is a void of any understanding of the harmful power dynamics between us as Americans, and others. .

I recently showed parts of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States that covered the war in Iraq (chapter 10) for my political Islam class. Many of my students were indignant at this ‘biased’ depiction of the history of the United States, and there were a series of student responses that listed out the multiple times that the United States has ‘championed’ the cause of democracy in the Middle East. I have encountered such reaction countless times before, and took their resistance to epistemic friction in stride. They, like many educated Americans, have a certain perception of their identity as Americans, and any news development that challenges that perception is either seen as an aberration, not truly embodying the values that Americans stand for (along the lines of a ‘few rogue agents’ defense used in the Abu Ghuraib prison case), or worse, is seen as justified action in the face of evil (the sorts of explanations used after the 2014 US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report came out on the torture conducted by the CIA over the course of a decade). It is epistemically unimaginable to equate aspects of oneself with evil behavior, and much easier to remain epistemically arrogant.

If we just look at the ‘war on terror,’ that alone should cause some sort of shift in the righteous indignation that Americans conduct themselves with. The United States reduced a country’s infrastructure to rubble and killed over 100,000 people, a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with an attack that had killed 3000 Americans. While we got rid of a terrible dictator (who we had previously supported even when we knew of his tortuous ways), we created a power vacuum, built detention centers for ‘insurgents’ with little oversight, we conducted torture of our enemies at Guantanamo Bay for over a decade, we rendition ‘enemy combatants’ to torture sites without due process, and even after our President made a promise to not torture, we simply outsourced it to other countries (Human Rights Watch 2011).

There was negligible attention paid to the discrepancy between who we see ourselves to be (for e.g. a law abiding & democratic people) and what we do (e.g. torture).

Perhaps a nationalistic amnesia is an inevitable production of being part of a functional nation-state. The installation of ignorance is not one that takes place overnight, but is a social imagination of citizenship that is embedded deeply in our sense of self as Americans. And once the myth of America’s greatness as the world’s advocate of democracy and of individual rights and as a giver of international aid and champion of freedom, is established, it needs very little maintenance and justification in the face of counter narrative.

I use the word ‘ignorance’ here in the same sense as Charles Mills defines it: ‘to cover both false belief and the absence of true belief’ (2007, 16). I define American ignorance as the active production of false knowledge about what, if anything, it means to be an American, obscuring certain relationalities with others while producing/sustaining another narrative . American ignorance encompasses, among other things, a sense of superiority of American societal values, its ‘benevolent’ role in the precipitation of democracy amongst ‘backward’ peoples, and often an unshaking belief in the fundamental ‘otherness’ of certain cultures and peoples.

A more pernicious manifestation of American ignorance, than one based in superiority, is when Americans cannot wrap their head around how their privilege is a direct function of their country’s imperialistic relationship with the global south, and that it is precisely the lack of understanding of their identity in such a manner that sustains that oppressive hierarchy. And incomplete/ false ‘knowledge’ about the other is a function of, and particular to, the American hegemonic world order.

I argue for, what I term as, epistemic reconciliation with the past, where the dominant reconcile with heterogeneous narratives of the past, as held by the marginalized, the other. In order for that to happen, especially in the cases of grave harm by a collective such as torture, epistemic reconciliation with the past must necessarily entail the notion of responsibility as liability. That is to say, in order for us to process the ugly (and painful) parts of our collective history, there has to be some enforced form of accountability – such as international criminal prosecution or reparations to victims of torture.

America can indeed ‘right its course.’ But this is not possible until there is imposed culpability, or such that liminal bodies can hold up mirrors to our collective face (and make us look). Only then can we have any possibility of shifting our perception of ourselves. Until then, we keep ‘righting’ some wrong in very targeted and specific ways; but make no dent whatsoever to our social imagination of our citizenship. We continue to conduct ourselves with arrogance and impunity when it comes to liminal bodies within our own borders and in the global south, because we are, after all, the United States of America.


Mills, Charles. 2007. ‘White Ignorance.’ In Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan & Nancy Tuana. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 11-38


Featured Philosopher: Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa


Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. Most of his work to date has focused on epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind. He received his PhD from Rutgers University in 2008.

Photographs and Objective Appearances

Jonathan Ichikawa

Thanks, Meena, for this platform. I’m trying to execute a post-tenure research pivot into some new areas; this is my first attempt to write down an idea I’ve been mulling over a couple years. It’s about one of my larger hobbies: photography.

Like memory, drawings, and prose descriptions written in notebooks, photography is a method to capture a record of how things look. Among such methods, photography is a bit unusual in enjoying a perception of objectivity. One can write down falsehoods in one’s notebook, or draw something incorrectly, but a photograph, by its nature, seems to record how things really are.

There’s something right about this, but I think it’s easy to exaggerate the degree to which photographs are neutral receptors of appearances. Photographers have a lot more control over how their photographs look than people generally realize. Consumers of photographs may give too much unreflective trust to photographs as records of appearances; and many photographers themselves are unaware of their roles in shaping appearances. Since photographers’ experiences are as ideologically-informed as anybody else’s, unreflective photographers risk making photos that are vehicles for bias.

I think a photographer’s capacity to influence appearances runs very deep. By the end of this blog post, I’ll be arguing that philosophers have a lot of control over how subjects are racially categorized. But, by way of warming up, let’s start with some more familiar examples.

Photographs of people represent how those people look. But they do so by measuring the light people reflect during a very short period of time. (Depending on the lighting conditions and other factors, my photographs of people usually come from shutter openings between 1/1000th and 1/30th of a second.) In the colloquial sense, people’s appearances do not dramatically change thousands of times per minute. Depending on exactly when a photograph is taken, one may end up with a dramatically different representation of how someone looks.

Here is a photograph of my dog Mezzo. It’s a fun photo, but a poor guide to how she looks. (It’d be a terrible choice for a ‘lost dog’ flyer.)

2.jpgA thousandth of a second of Mezzo

When I photograph philosophers at workshops, I take lots of shots, knowing that many will capture odd or unattractive moments. I use my knowledge of how people behave to predict the likeliest moments for good shots. Afterward, I use my best discretion to select the best photos, deleting the others. (When in doubt, I ask the subjects for their opinions.)

The phenomenon of selecting flattering photos will be familiar to most readers. We all do it, relatively consciously. Only slightly less deliberate is the use of framing and cropping in setting up the shot. A photographer has tremendous flexibility in representing how a scene looks, by including or excluding various elements, or emphasizing certain parts of the scene.

In 2003, western media coverage of the toppling of the Baghdad statue of Saddam Hussain described a large crowd of enthusiastic Iraqis. Photos like these corroborated that description.


Photo by Alexandra Boulat


Photo by Robert Nickelsberg

But the media and the US military later came under criticism for giving a skewed perspective on this event. Wider-angled photographs made the crowd appear smaller than the tighter shots suggested.


Photo credit unknown. Widely attributed to Reuters

I agree with the critics this far: the published photographs were designed and selected to emphasize the size of the crowd. Had the photographers’ agenda been to trivialize the crowd, they would have designed different photos. But the published photos aren’t fraudulent in the sense that they represent things as different than they were. They’re not false, the way they would be if someone photoshopped in a picture of Zapp Brannigan. They do reflect an ideology and an agenda; but in this respect, they are similar to all deliberately chosen representations.

(This is not to say it can’t be actively dishonest to shoot from a particular perspective. Just as one can be actively and culpably dishonest by being misleading without actually telling a lie, so too might one be actively and culpably dishonest by shooting from a specially tailored perspective, without actually forging a photograph. Just ask this real estate company.)

Let’s move on to less obvious ways a photographer’s decisions will affect how things look. Some have to do with adjustments our eyes and minds tend to make, without our noticing. For example, humans are good at seeing things in a wide variety of lighting conditions. There can easily be hundreds of times as much light outside as there is indoors. Here are two photos of a bear dressed as David Hume.


I think they’re each reasonably well exposed. The first was taken outside in the sun, with a shutter speed of 1/8000 of a second; the other was taken minutes later in my comfortably lit living room, with a shutter speed of 1/6 of a second. All other exposure settings were equal. Similar exposure required over a thousand times as much light sensitivity indoors.

Our eyes adjust, and we can see just as well in either place. Cameras adjust, too. In the fully or partially automatic modes most of us use most of the time, cameras quietly take their best guesses of how well lit you want the scene to appear. But if you shift a DSLR into fully manual mode, you’re forced to think through decisions usually made under the hood. How much should I expose the shot? How bright do I want the scene to appear? This isn’t straightforwardly a question about what the scene looks like. It is an artistic decision about how one wishes to make the scene appear. (It was much darker inside than outside, but my photos don’t represent that fact. Is this an inaccuracy?)

Here are two photographs I took this morning, seconds apart, in identical lighting conditions. I gave one more exposure, resulting in a brighter overall photo. Neither is more accurate; one chooses between them on aesthetic grounds. There’s just no fact of the matter about whether the scene really appeared lighter or darker.


But this means, once again, that a photographer has considerable influence over how someone appears, even setting aside all the decisions about framing, timing, and shot selection. Some of this power is wielded on the computer after the camera has been put away. (Equivalently, some of it used to happen in the darkroom.) A naïve view would have it that any such ‘digital manipulation’ constitutes a deviation from the objective visual truth the camera recorded. There is a way the image appears when I plug the SD card into the computer, before I start post-processing work. But that’s just my software’s best guess as to how I’d want the photo to look. Different algorithms will produce different guesses. The work I do on the computer typically improves on the guesses, making the photos look more like one might think they should. (My camera almost never makes a good guess with white balance indoors, for example.)

To manipulate appearances, then, is part of what it is to be a photographer. Photography is a kind of objectification of a subjective experience. Setting aside fraud, one’s photographic decisions aren’t a matter of getting things accurately or inaccurately.

This isn’t to say one’s decisions in this realm are beyond normative appraisal. Far from it—the way someone looks in a photograph can have a dramatic impact on how they are perceived. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of lightness and darkness, which is coded perceptually very closely to race.

In 2008, Barack Obama was running to be the first black President of the United States. Some of the attack ads he faced, both from primary opponent Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee John McCain, were accused of presenting him with a darkened skin tone. A 2015 Stanford study confirmed that negative McCain ads, especially ones connecting Obama to crime, consistently portrayed Obama’s skin as darker. (It also confirmed that darker appearances can have dramatic psychological effects on voters without their realizing it.)

A still image from a McCain attack ad, showing Obama’s skin as rather dark.


Visually emphasizing the darkness of your black opponent’s skin to make him less popular is a deplorable and disgusting display of racism. But the problem, I think, is one of emphasis, not of accuracy. (Imagine counterfactually that whenever he spoke of Obama, the GOP nominee had described him as “my black opponent”. Super racist, and super gross, but not inaccurate.) The problem with these images isn’t that Obama is shown as darker than he really appears; it’s that they’re designed to exploit tacit racism to cast Obama in a negative light.

Darker exposure in general is one way to make someone’s skin look darker. But when (as in this case) one is dealing with monochrome photos, there are more options. Black and white photographs depict colors as shades of grey. They use a color mix to convert colors to degrees of lightness or darkness. Are you going to make blue tones particularly dark, or particularly light? What about red? There’s no one best way to do this, which is why black and white conversion, too, is an art.

Here is a photo of a sunflower, along with two black and white versions.


Neither version here is more or less accurate. They differ in emphasis—for example, in whether the difference between the gold and red is highlighted—and in mood.

In Adobe Lightroom, the program in which I do most of my photo editing, black and white color mixes are managed via eight simple sliders, corresponding to how darkly to translate each color. Again, there’s no one best way to do this; it all depends on the particular photo and what you want it to look like. Here are the slider settings for the two sunflower conversions above:


When making a black and white photograph, one can decide how dark to make selective elements in the photograph. The appearance of the outer petals of the flower, for instance, is largely a matter of the yellow slider.

When converting from color to a black and white photograph of a person, a photographer has a slider that controls how dark the subject’s skin appears. Human skin is almost always in the orange tones. So it’s only a slight oversimplification to call the orange slider a racial slider. Especially if one is a bit tan, or, like me, a bit racially ambiguous-looking, a photographer controls how white one looks.

Here are two different black and white self-portraits. These began as the same color photograph. There’s no difference in the lighting or framing, or the treatment of highlights or shadows. The only difference is in how dark orange becomes.


I do not think either of these images is more accurate than the other. One may be more similar to some people’s impressions of me, while the other may seem more accurate to others. (You might be more inclined to see me as lighter if you tend to agree with my political views.)

I was a bit flabbergasted the first time I realized I could change someone’s racial appearance with a Lightroom slider. The thing it really pressed upon me was the realization of the degree to which photography carries a serious moral responsibility. In photographing people and sharing their pictures, I am converting my own subjective experience—colored by God knows what—into an artifact that will shape others’ experiences of them. Taking a photo is a lot more like drawing a portrait or writing a description than we sometimes think. Accordingly, it should be treated carefully and responsibly.

Featured Philosopher: Ken Taylor


Ken Taylor is the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Stanford, where he also directs the Symbolic Systems Program. He is cohost and co-creator, with John Perry, of the Nationally syndicated public radio program Philosophy Talk. He is currently the President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association. He is the author of many articles and a number of books. His latest is Meaning Diminished: Toward Metaphysically Modest Semantics, which is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Why Philosophy?

Ken Taylor

Philosophy is in quite a state. The public at large has little appreciation for what it is or why it matters. Undergraduates mostly shun it — at least when choosing their majors.   Philosophy graduate students, who spend years sailing into the prevailing winds, too often run aground in the brutal waters of a hyper-competitive job market. Physicists like Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson dismiss it as yesterday’s news, a dead discipline that has long outlived its usefulness. Our fellow humanists often look askance at much that we do and find few philosophers worth reading. Many philosophers themselves have come to have their doubts. It’s no secret that the philosophy professoriate is significantly less diverse than many other humanistic fields of inquiry. And that, we are sometimes told, is because philosophy is peculiarly resistant to the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. Philosophy, we are told, is a discipline full of sexism, misogyny, racism and ableism. Whatever one thinks about this catalog of presumed ills, one could not be blamed for despairing over the future of what may be the oldest academic profession.

Such despair is misplaced. Philosophy remains a vibrant and vital discipline. It is very much worth pursuing. I say this not because I derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from doing philosophy — which I do – but because I fervently believe that our collective lives together would be significantly enhanced in many different ways if philosophy were to play a much larger role in not just in our colleges and universities, but also in both primary and secondary education and even in public discourse more broadly. And in the remainder of this entry, I want to say why I think this.

First, I need to say what I take philosophy to be. I am a nominalist of sorts about philosophy. Philosophy is simply what people who call themselves philosophers do. And philosophers do all manner of things. Philosophy now is, has always been, and probably will always be a highly fragmented discipline. Some of what philosophers do is very much continuous with the sciences. Despite the protestations of Hawking and deGrasse Tyson, there are philosophers of physics whose philosophical work requires them to grapple with with issues at the frontiers of contemporary physics and cosmology. Other philosophers do things that don’t intersect with the sciences very much at all.  There are philosophers who are deeply and properly concerned with the history of philosophy and there are those who see the history of philosophy as of little relevance to their ongoing philosophical projects. Some philosophers take themselves to be addressing largely a priori matters that can be decisively settled from the armchair. Other philosophers want to take philosophy out of the armchair and into the lab. Some are content to analyze and tidy up ordinary concepts at margins. Others seek to stress ordinary concepts to their breaking points.  Some philosophers want to reconnect philosophy with broader humanistic inquiry; others recoil from the broader humanities. Some see philosophy as exhortation. Others see it as explanation.

There may be some deep unity beneath this vast surface diversity. But after all these years, I myself still can’t quite say what that unity comes to. Indeed, I tend to believe that the cordoning off of the peculiar bits of the total intellectual landscape that are currently collected under the rubric of ‘philosophy’ is mostly an accident of academic and cultural history. A hundred years or so ago, you would have found much of what now goes by the name of philosophy and what now goes by the name of psychology housed in the same department of the university. Long before that, people would have looked at you in puzzlement had you tried to draw a hard and fast distinction between science and philosophy.

My nominalism about philosophy leads me to endorse a pretty catholic vision of philosophy. I celebrate and applaud the attempts of a thousand philosophical flowers to bloom. But I am not enough of a Pollyanna to deny that at various stages in the history of philosophy, this or that mode of philosophy has enjoyed a certain hegemonic dominance. This seems to happen whenever the purveyors of this or that form of philosophy manage to seize the commanding heights from which such things as tenure, degrees, and academic prestige are dispensed. Occupying the commanding heights makes it much easier to reproduce yourself into subsequent generations. But I hope am not being naïve when I say that we ought not to overestimate the power of hegemons to reproduce themselves via brute institutional force alone. Over the long sweep of history, philosophers have executed many paradigm shifts and have declared the death of philosophy as practiced by their forebears. Though philosophy is no doubt the oldest academic profession, my colleague John Perry has rightly claimed that it has died a thousand deaths, only to rise, Phoenix like, to live again, in ever new configurations.

If you insist on asking after the true nature and essence of philosophy, it cannot be gleaned from a narrow focus on the present moment, and the local maximum in configuration space that we currently occupy. To see philosophy whole, in its real essence, it takes a longer view. One has to survey the entire dynamic landscape through which philosophy has walked over historical time and cultural space. That landscape has many branching paths, many peaks and valleys. Only the total landscape as a whole, constitutes philosophy as such. So only by limning all possible configurations of that landscape will you even begin to understand what philosophy essentially is.  And once you do take this long view, you will, I predict, be thrown right back into some version of my catholic nominalism. If one could catch a glimpse of the whole, from a perspective outside of this ever unfolding landscape, if you could regard with a certain detached equanimity, it would, I suspect, be a marvelous thing to behold.

Suppose that I am right about the nature of philosophy. Suppose that it has no fixed atemporal essence. Suppose that its true nature is revealed only in unfolding of vast dynamic landscape that spreads out over time and cultural space. Suppose that local configurations in this ever unfolding dynamic landscape exhibit no deep unity and enjoy only local stability. Then why should philosophy deserve, as I think it does, a significantly larger place in the total educational, cultural, and intellectual landscape than it currently occupies?

I answer that it is precisely the fragmented character of philosophy that makes it so deserving. Because of its many sources and diverse ambitions, philosophy is a massive and sprawling enterprise. It is fragmented and disunified precisely because it is deeply engaged with almost the entirety of the remaining elements of the total intellectual landscape. It is perhaps the most interdisciplinary of at least the humanities and probably the most interdisciplinary of all the fields of intellectual inquiry. The range of issues that philosophy has historically sought and still currently seeks to illuminate and the sources on which it draws in its attempt to achieve that illumination is breathtaking. It is philosophy that has struggled hardest and most persistently to spell out the rational foundations of the coercive powers of the state, the duties of human to human, the limits of the scientific method. Philosophy has tried to adjudicate the long struggle between science and religion, to integrate the daunting results of the natural, biological, and cognitive sciences into an uplifting or at least not debilitating picture of the place of humanity, and our deepest aspirations, into the order of things. Philosophy seeks to understand how consciousness and rationality manage to have their places in what looks to be a merely material universe. It seeks to understand what human beings can hope to know and by what methods of inquiry we can hope to know it. It seeks to understand the nature of art, the nature of beauty, the nature of truth, of language, of action, of causation. In its attempts to understand these things, it draws insight from every possible source – from the deliverances and practices of the biological and physical sciences, from the humanities and social science, from a prior philosophical reflection on language and meaning, from the phenomenology of lived experience. Nor does the philosopher seek to merely interpret, explain, or narrate the world. It is a powerful instrument for cultural criticism, one that is willing to subject even the most entrenched and comforting bits of received wisdom to the harsh light of critical self-reflection. Though Philosophy does not always generate the news, it often delivers the news. “Given what we know from this or that source,” the news-delivering philosopher will say, “you cannot have your cherished notions of autonomy or morality or god or … whatever.” But at its best, philosophy does not stop there. When the news is hard to swallow, when it threatens to debilitate us and undermine our projects, the philosopher invites us to begin anew, asking “What, then, can we have? And what can be made of what we have?”

How could such a discipline possibly be dispensed with? How could it possibly be a thing of the past?  It is always and already relevant to everything that the human mind can conceive, know, imagine, or wish for.

Too often, when outsiders look at the work of professional academic philosophy, as practiced in our time, they see very little of this. That is, in part, our own fault. We often do philosophy in very daunting keys. We have become virtuosos at manipulating technical machinery and abstruse concepts and ideas. Of course, these are valuable tools and valuable skills. They enable us to break down large problems into smaller more manageable sub-problems. They enable us to approach old problems with new rigor and clarity. The hegemonic institutional structures referred to earlier dole great rewards for those who wield such tools with aplomb.

But of course this makes it vary hard for those not already adept to find a way in. And those same institutional structures do very little to reward popularizers or explainers who might open up the riches of philosophy to wider audiences.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to decry current institutional arrangements, at least not entirely. The maturation of philosophy into a quasi-technical field is, in my view, a good thing. But there are no unmixed blessings. That which enhances the depth of philosophy, may obscure its wide-ranging relevance to human life. In a more morally perfect world, we could have it both ways. We could find a way of rewarding both the technical and conceptual virtuosity that philosophy now requires and the capacity to popularize and explain it to the non-virtuoso and we could do so without, as it were, ghettoizing the explainers.

I have long been convinced that there is a considerable unmet demand — both within the academy and outside of the academy – for what philosophy alone can deliver. We professional academic philosophers have for too long been unresponsive to that unmet demand. Here I am think of the relations between philosophy and many other fields of the humanities and social sciences. For a good while now, our fellow humanists have been feverishly rethinking many of their fundamental categories and concepts, with an eye toward more deeply interrogating and confronting urgent issues related to race, gender, identity, and culture. For better or for worse, analytic philosophers were for a long time mere bystanders on that front. Our main professional pre-occupations lay elsewhere, with matters we took to be more universal and more fundamental. I won’t say more about why.   There is admittedly a complicated historical narrative that could be told about all this, but I won’t try to construct such a narrative here.

Of course, though the demand for a set of philosophical tools for thinking more fruitfully about race, gender, identity and culture was there and unmet by philosophers, it didn’t go entirely unaddressed. It was just addressed by others. That was bound to happen, no doubt, since the intellectual landscape abhors vacuums. I will not say the others who step in in philosophy’s stead, did so altogether badly, but I do not think it was an entirely good development. The worst part of it was that certain, shall we say, “fallen away” members of the high church of philosophy, did have a bit to say. But whatever their intentions, what they accomplished was to increase the alienation between philosophers and other humanists. Indeed, they helped to confirm some of the worst prejudices of many of our fellow humanists about what we philosophers were collectively good for. “Not, much,” was the widely repeated verdict on our discipline. I don’t want to open old wounds, except to say that I regard those as the bad old days between philosophers and humanists — bad for everybody. But one of the things that bodes well for the future of philosophy, is that certain of the “substitutes” for philosophy — as responsive as they were to a genuinely unmet demand — have lost much of their initial luster. And philosophers of the highest caliber have turned their attention to vital questions that we all were once content to ignore.

I wish I could say that the same is true of the unmet demands for philosophy in the public sphere. Part of the problem is that hardly anybody is self-consciously aware that the widely experienced hunger for something more is really a hunger that philosophy is uniquely suited to satisfy. Still, I am not without hope. What we collectively need to do is simply to claim ownership of a certain niche in the cultural landscape as our own. Nobody is stopping us. Nobody is rushing to do it in our stead. So let’s just do it. In fact, it has already begun to happen. That’s what John Perry and I have been trying to do with Philosophy Talk all these years. And there are lots of others making various attempts as well. What there isn’t is lots of institutional support for such efforts.

I’ve gone on too long. I’m going to stop by admitting that I have no idea what the future holds for philosophy. But I predict that, if we don’t destroy the planet, this will be an exciting century for us – despite the many ills from which our discipline is thought by many to suffer. If all goes well, it will be a century in which the full breadth and depth of philosophy is given play both within and outside of the academy. If that happens, the intellectual and cultural landscape will be much enriched.  As Nietzsche might say, “Embark Philosophers!”

Featured Philosopher: Javier Hidalgo


Javier S. Hidalgo specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics. He is an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. He earned his PhD at Princeton University in 2011.

The Individual Ethics of Immigration

Javier S. Hidalgo

I want to first thank Meena for her generous invitation to contribute to this blog! The following discussion draws on a forthcoming paper of mine, which you can find here.

Most states heavily restrict immigration. They erect walls topped with barbed wire, detain migrants at borders, and routinely deport unauthorized migrants and failed asylum-seekers. These policies stop millions of people from immigrating.

Many people think that immigration restrictions are permissible. I disagree. Like Joseph Carens and other authors, I think that immigration restrictions infringe on valuable freedoms, such as freedom of association and occupational choice, and are objectionable for this reason. Immigration restrictions coercively trap millions of people in conditions of poverty and oppression.

I’m not an absolutist. I can grant that immigration restrictions may sometimes be justified, although I’m very skeptical that actual immigration restrictions are permissible. But I don’t want to make the case for open borders here.[i] Instead, I want to focus on what follows if justice requires broadly open borders.

It is easy to feel despair if you favor free immigration. Almost everyone rejects open borders. You only need to observe the rise of nativist movements in Europe and the United States to see that free immigration is a political non-starter. Even advocates of open borders concede that this policy is utopian.

Let’s assume then that (a) justice requires open borders and (b) open borders are politically infeasible. If (a) and (b) are true, then arguing for open borders appears to be an exercise in moralistic futility. Why bother defending open immigration if it’s never going to happen?

But lately I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the ideal of open borders could matter for individual conduct, even if free immigration is infeasible. I now want to discuss one way in which this ideal could inform individual ethics.

When states restrict immigration, they do more than authorize state employees to stop people at the border and deport migrants. States enforce immigration laws by imposing legal obligations on private citizens. Here are some examples:

  1. Governments forbid employers from hiring unauthorized migrants.
  2. In certain jurisdictions, landlords are obligated to refuse to rent to unauthorized migrants and evict them if they discover their immigration status.
  3. Transportation companies must sometimes screen their passengers and decline to transport unauthorized migrants, even within the borders of a state.
  4. In the United Kingdom, banks are required to check the immigration status of their customers and decline to open bank accounts for unauthorized migrants.
  5. States also more often compel government employees to monitor immigrants and report them to immigration agencies. For instance, police officers and civil servants may be required to check the immigration status of people that they interact with and report them if they are unauthorized migrants.

In these ways, states conscript ordinary citizens to assist in abridging the rights of unauthorized migrants, and in deterring unauthorized immigration.

If justice requires open borders, then these laws are clearly unjust. But notice that these laws make citizens complicit in violating the rights of migrants. After all, if citizens refused to obey these laws, then they would be entirely ineffective. And, in fact, some citizens do disobey these laws and thereby render them less effective than they would otherwise be.

My claim is that we are morally required to disobey laws like (1-5). Why? It is pro tanto wrong to contribute to violating the rights of others, and these laws compel us to help violate the rights of unauthorized migrants. Consider an example. Imagine that the owner of a restaurant discovers that some of her employees are unauthorized migrants. Depending on the jurisdiction, the law may require this employer to fire these workers. Compliance with this law would in effect erode migrants’ rights to freedom of occupational choice. So, if the owner of the restaurant complies with this law, she would contribute to violating the rights of these migrants. At first glance, the owner has moral reasons to refrain from facilitating rights-violations. If these reasons defeat countervailing considerations, then she is morally required to disobey the law.

Many citizens are more-or-less in the position of the restaurant owner in this example. They often interact with unauthorized migrants and they face a choice: should they be complicit in violating the rights of unauthorized migrants?

You might say: disobeying the law is too risky. States punish people who break the law and we aren’t required to bear these risks. Two quick responses to this concern. First, it is not always very risky to disobey the law. For example, employers in the United States (notoriously) face little risk of punishment for hiring unauthorized migrants. Most get away with it.

Second, sometimes morality requires us to perform risky or costly actions. Suppose the government conscripted you to fight in an unjust war and, if you obey, there is a significant risk that you will end up killing a morally innocent person. My view is that you are obligated to sit in a jail cell (or emigrate) rather than comply, despite the fact that defiance may be costly.[ii] While the stakes are obviously lower when it comes to compliance with laws like (1-5), it remains the case that citizens can be obligated to refrain from contributing to injustice even though this has significant costs for them.

You might object: we have duties to obey the law. I’m a philosophical anarchist and, so, this concern has little weight for me. But, even if we do have duties to obey the law, almost everyone agrees that these duties can be overridden. It is plausible that, if the law requires you to violate the basic rights of other people, then the reasons to avoid violating rights can outweigh the reasons to obey the law. Advocates of open borders say that immigration laws violate basic rights. If that’s correct, then we lack duties to obey these laws.

In other areas of practical ethics, philosophers focus on individual action. For example, philosophers debate whether it is wrong for individuals to purchase animal products or contribute to climate change. In contrast, philosophers who write about immigration focus almost entirely on public policy. But a similar individualist project is possible in the ethics of immigration. The injustice of immigration restrictions could matter for individual conduct. Even if open borders are infeasible, the ideal of open borders could help guide how we live our lives.

[i] For some excellent defenses of open borders, see: Michael Huemer, ‘Is There a Right to Immigrate?’, Social Theory and Practice, 36.3 (2010), 429–61; Joseph Carens, The Ethics of Immigration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Bryan Caplan and Vipul Naik, ‘A Radical Case for Open Borders’, in The Economics of Immigration, ed. by Benjamin Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 180–209; Kieran Oberman, ‘Immigration as a Human Right’, in Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership, ed. by Sarah Fine and Lea Ypi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 32–56.

[ii] My views on these matters have been heavily influenced by Jeff McMahan’s arguments in Killing in War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).


Featured Philosopher: Brandon Hogan


Brandon Hogan (J.D. Harvard Law School, Ph.D. University of Pittsburgh) is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Howard University. His areas of research include the philosophy of law, meta-ethics, Hegel’s political philosophy, and the later Wittgenstein.

My work is unified by my interest in thinking about the scope and aims of criminal law. Particularly, I’m interested in thinking about the point of state-sponsored punishment. Given that the United States imprisons more persons than any other nation and that black Americans are incarcerated at shockingly higher rates than white Americans,[1] the topic of punishment takes on a unique importance for me as a black philosopher.

I believe that we can use Hegelian resources to develop a compelling argument for a restorative conception of criminal justice. What follows is a brief outline of that argument.

A Hegelian Argument for Restorative Criminal Justice

Brandon Hogan

Naturally, we can’t start to think clearly about the point of punishment until we answer some more basic philosophical questions. Perhaps less naturally, I believe that a discussion of punishment must begin with a discussion about the nature of personhood and freedom.

A punishment regime should exist to preserve person’s personhood and freedom. Following G.W.F. Hegel, I take it that personhood and freedom must be understood relationally and recognitively. Hegel believes that free persons are only free to the extent that they are so recognized by other free persons. Freedom, on this view, is relational. Persons are only persons, and only free, in relation to others.[2]

(I ask my students whether “black lives matter” is a factual or aspirational claim. That is, I ask if black lives actually matter or whether we simply want them to matter. My view is that the claim (or, hashtag, really) is incomplete. Mattering, like being a person, or being free, isn’t a natural property. I believe that we only matter to others, that we are only persons to others. And, sadly, far too many Americans believe that black lives don’t matter.)

What does it mean for one person to recognize another? I contend that recognition is a form of treatment. To recognize another is, in part, to treat that other as possessing certain rights and as obligated to act (or refrain from acting) in certain ways. Children aren’t fully recognized because they aren’t treated as having the same rights as adults. In the same way, those deemed legally insane aren’t fully recognized because they aren’t held responsible for their ostensible violations of the criminal law. The recognized person, then, is the subject of both rights and responsibilities.

I understand the connection between recognition, personhood, and freedom in the following way. To be treated as having both rights and responsibilities is to be treated as a (full) person. I think most of us can agree on that. My more controversial claim is that this treatment is constitutive of personhood. I draw no distinction between being a person and being so treated. (Of course, a lot must be said about the forms of treatment—or mistreatment— that would completely undermine an individual’s status as a person. Obviously a single rights violation would not render a person a non-person).

The connection between recognition and freedom is less straightforward. Following Kant and Hegel, I understand freedom as a type of autonomy. The free, autonomous person governs her actions by rules that she has chosen for herself. Following Korsgaard, we can call this set of rules a “practical identity.”[3] Further, the set of rules that constitute one’s practical identity (or, in most cases, practical identities) can be understood in terms of rights and responsibilities.

For example, consider an expansive practical identity— that of a U.S. citizen. The rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens are spelled out in various legal documents, the most foundational of which being the U.S. Constitution. Citizens are afforded a certain amount of bodily autonomy and are permitted to own and exchange property. Additionally, citizens are obligated to act in accord with the criminal law.

It’s relatively easy to see the connection between the recognition of rights and freedom. Persons cannot act as citizens (or as tennis players, parents, or students) if their efforts to do so are hampered by others—that is, if their rights are not respected.

I contend further that if we are to be free, others must hold us responsible for acting or failing to act in accord with our practical identities. This claim appears counterintuitive because we tend to think that the truly free person does not have to answer to anyone except herself. However, as Hegel points out, an individual cannot unilaterally determine whether she is acting in accord with some practical identity. If that were the case, there would be no distinction between her acting correctly in light of that identity and her merely thinking that she is acting correctly. And, in that case, there would be no identity to speak of. Practical identities must be administered by others.

To use a concreate example, one’s identity as a citizen is partially constituted by one’s compliance with the criminal law. It makes little sense to believe that any individual can unilaterally determine whether he or she is complying with the law. Whether an individual has complied with the law is determined by a complex network state actors.

Of course, one can always renounce one practical identity in favor of another. I can choose to renounce my American citizenship and move to Ghana. But my understanding of myself as an American or Ghanaian citizen turns on my recognizing others as capable of recognizing my rights and as having the authority to hold me responsible for violating the rights of others. In short, acting in accord with a practical identity—and thus being free—requires that one recognize the capacities and the authority of others. I can’t be free in relation to a community of parrots because I don’t recognize parrots as capable of either respecting my rights or as having the authority to hold me responsible. Freedom, I contend, requires a community of persons that recognize one another as capable and authoritative. Hegel’s title for a community structured by relations of reciprocal recognition is Sittlichkeit, or “ethical life.”

I’m intrigued by the concepts of reciprocal recognition and ethical life because I believe they can be used to help us develop better theories of criminalization and punishment. (Indeed, I think that understanding reciprocal recognition is the key to understanding every type of normativity. But I clearly won’t be able to follow up on that claim here.)

What types of actions should be criminalized? I claim that crime should be understood as a failure of recognition. To be clear, not all failures of recognition should be considered criminal, but all crimes should constitute failures of recognition. The criminal, on this view, is one who fails to recognize another as the subject of rights and responsibilities. Or, in other words, the criminal fails to recognize a person as a person. Assault, murder, and robbery are clearly crimes on this view. Prostitution and the sale and use of drugs, on the other hand, should not be criminalized because they do not undermine the personhood of others. (To be sure, nothing I’ve said entails that the state is not permitted to regulate victimless, yet socially undesirable activities without employing the criminal justice system.)

This recognitive theory of criminalization is attractive because it allows us to explain why we care about crime and treat criminal acts as in need of special attention. Criminal acts, as I understand them, undermine the freedom of all. In addition to suffering bodily harm or the loss of property, the victims of crime lose a sense of safety and security. The perpetrators of crime are harmed as well because they attack the community that is necessary for their own freedom. In undermining ethical life through the promotion of criminal activity, the criminal threatens her own freedom.

Finally, I turn to the issue of punishment. If crime damages ethical life, punishment should seek to repair that damage. While retributivists see punishment as a means to give criminals what they deserve, and deterrence theorists punish in order to deter would-be criminals, only restorative justice takes community repair to be the primary aim of a criminal justice system. Restorative justice programs seek to bring victims and perpetrators of crime together to discuss the meaning of the crime in question, offer and accept apologies, and to think through fair penalties. Penalties can range from community service to prison time. These penalties are unified by the aim of restoration.

Clearly, designing a system of restorative justice suitable for the United States will be a difficult task, one that necessarily involves a wide variety of thinkers and policy makers. I take it that my role as a philosopher is to provide the arguments necessary to motivate a shift in our thinking about crime and punishment. In considering system design, we should start by looking to Norway’s prison system (reported here and here) as an example of a punishment regime that embodies Hegel’s conception of Sittlichkeit. 

[1] See “Shadow Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System.” The Sentencing Project, http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/shadow-report-to-the-united-nations-human-rights-committee-regarding-racial-disparities-in-the-united-states-criminal-justice-system/. Accessed 7 August 2016.

[2] Derrick Darby argues for a similar view in Rights, Race, and Recognition (Cambridge, 2009).

[3] Christine Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (Oxford, 2009).


Featured Philosopher: Alex King


Alex King is an Assistant Professor at SUNY Buffalo. She works on ‘ought implies can’ and related issues in metaethics, aesthetics, and metanormativity. She also runs the Aesthetics for Birds blog.

Toward a More Respectful Discourse

Alex King

I am very grateful to Meena for inviting me to contribute to this series. When I received the invitation, I realized I wanted to take the opportunity to express some thoughts about being a person of color – in particular, what my perspective on the issue is as a multiracial person. What came out is a response to much of the race-related awkwardness I’ve experienced in professional philosophy and interactions with people more generally.

Over the course of my life, I have repeatedly discovered that people play a sort of guessing game behind my back about what my ethnic background is. (I am in many contexts white-passing, likely in part owing to my surname, but in others not.) Sometimes I find it funny, other times I am annoyed.

Why do people do it? I think it’s mostly curiosity, but sometimes it’s practicality. Ethnicity has become increasingly relevant because of efforts to increase diversity. Conference lineups, special volumes, and hiring committees often seek diversity. And most people who play this guessing game don’t mean to be cruel, hurtful, or malicious. In fact, I know that many people who have done this would feel horrible if they thought I were hurt by it.

But I don’t think these guessing games are the best approach. In this post, I’ll explain what’s so frustrating about this situation, and then suggest a concrete alternative.

Two initial caveats: These reflections come from my experience as someone of mixed race in the United States. I can only really speak for myself, but I hope it will be illuminating for others. Part of what I aim to explain as frustrating is the idea that people of color all think the same things and want to be treated the same way. So while I will offer some general information and advice, I cannot and will not presume to be offering The Right Way to interact with people of color. Second, I am not a philosopher of race and I haven’t come close to addressing everything I would want. So, I’m sure there are distinctions and relevant points that I’m overlooking.

I. Understanding

Respectfully interacting with people of color involves at least two things. It requires some degree of understanding, and it requires respectful behavior.

There are two central things to understand.

First, not all people of color are the same. Our experiences vary in incredible ways. Our own families and cultures have different histories, have come to the US in different ways, have experienced different sorts of oppression, and have assimilated into white American culture differently. This varies not only across cultures and families, but across individuals. Thus, to think that there is one solution to racism or one all-purpose, best way to treat people of color is to make a foundational mistake.

Second is one very common and uniting experience. This is one (and maybe the) central source of discomfort faced by ethnic minorities, and in a notable form for mixed race people.

This frustration arises from being approached as a curiosity. In a predominantly white society, people of color are experienced as a curiosity, and as a result experience themselves as a curiosity, too. It is difficult to just be; one is constantly subjecting oneself to third-personal examination. For example, one experiences oneself as a black/Asian/etc. that likes certain things rather than simply as liking certain things. This is a subtle but crucial distinction.

Sartre said it, and others have said it too: when you notice that people treat you as an Other, you can’t help but also experience yourself that way. I find parts of Franz Fanon especially poignant on this score. He writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics” (112). He later adds, “And so it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there” (134).

So one is forced to make choices in this third-personal way: given that I am an X, how will I behave? One questions oneself and one’s motivations: “Why do I really listen to this music/eat this food/want to take this trip? Is it just because I want to be more/less authentic?”

As multiracial, and thus not immediately identifiable as one or another race, I have experienced a particular flavor of frustration with this in two ways. First, it’s not clear which category I belong to. Given that I am a … wait, what exactly am I? What does it even mean to be culturally authentic, when you’re multiracial?

Second are the guessing games I mentioned above. The feeling of being a curiosity is all the more palpable when I find out about such a game. It is a conversation in which I, the person under discussion (the object of discussion), am prevented from participating and so, in an important sense, really objectified.

II. Respectful Behavior

Let me underscore here that I only speak for myself, but I would much rather someone simply ask me than speculate with others. In general, I don’t hold any ill-will toward people who ask. For me, it approximates the way that it’s interesting to know what people think your age is: it can be depressing, surprising, or just awkward. I have never found an actual guess offensive or hurtful.

Some people prefer not to be asked, preferring to address it themselves if and when they choose to. This is obviously thorny territory if you don’t already know the person’s preferences. But in my case, this results in guessing games because people simply won’t stop thinking or wondering about it, even if they’re too nervous to ask. And in cases where it is practically important, e.g., for diversity measures, avoiding asking may not be a good solution. Incidentally, this is why databases like the UP Directory can be incredibly useful.

And there are better and worse ways of asking. Some approaches feel objectifying, and others just feel like the person, in completely good faith, wants to know about me and my experiences, background, and life. Unfortunately, there aren’t exact rules because every person and situation is different, but here are some pointers:

Don’t let it be the first (or even second) question out of your mouth when you meet someone. Better to get to know the person a little bit first. Don’t say things like, “So are you Indian or what?” or “You look so exotic/interesting.” These are definitely bad. Better option: “Hey, you don’t have to tell me, but I was wondering, what’s your ethnic background?” Err toward restraint, and try to read the individual’s personality.

I have a second suggestion as well: ask open-ended rather than closed-ended questions. Some people are comfortable saying simply, e.g., “I’m Asian.” Others are more comfortable saying, “I’m Chinese,” or, “I’m Han.” Some people will say, “I’m half Indian,” with the tacit understanding that the other half is white; or “I am half-black, half-Mexican.” (Incidentally: I am half Han Chinese and half white Western European.)

These are all fine answers to open-ended questions like “What is your ethnic background?” But these are not always acceptable answers to closed-ended questions, which are often the questions people face.

What to do when one must tick a box on a form or answer a question like, “Are you a person of color?” Notice that the space of answers is constrained. What if my box isn’t there? Is there an “Other” or “Multiracial” option? Does my ethnicity count as non-white? (Hispanic, e.g., officially counts as white in the US.) Can I tick more than one box? Maybe I have to choose an allegiance, whether to be white or Asian today.

The question whether someone is a person of color (or, in Canada, a “visible minority”) is more difficult and conceptually loaded than it appears. It clearly isn’t about actual skin tone, but about race. But that doesn’t resolve the question.

It forces me to wonder what someone wants in asking such a question. Are they really asking what race I am? (Which races count?) Are they asking whether I’ve faced a certain set of disadvantages? (Which set counts?) Are they asking about pure percentages: how white or non-white I am? (Which percentages count?) Are they asking to trick me into saying yes when they think I should say no, or vice versa? Are they asking to figure out what I take it to be, to be a person of color? (This CollegeHumor short captures the experience pretty well.)

Furthermore, it’s often taken that person of color and white are contradictories. But I am a person of color as well as white. What I am not, is only white.

Asking these form-like, closed-ended questions set the terms of discourse. But thankfully, you are a person, not a form, and so you can ask questions that let the person you’re talking to set those terms in whatever way is most comfortable or appropriate to their situation. This is to treat someone with the respect and sensitivity that any fellow human being deserves.

So, am I a person of color? I tend to say yes, in part because I want to demonstrate that there are many ways to be a person of color, with mine just one among them. And I am very grateful for this invitation and series, especially as an opportunity for us to set the terms of this discussion for ourselves.

Featured Philosopher: Luvell Anderson

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Professor Anderson (PhD, Rutgers University) is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis. Before coming to Memphis, he was Alain Locke Postdoctoral Fellow at Pennsylvania State University. His research lies principally in Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Race, and Aesthetics. He has published articles on the semantics of racial slurs and on racist humor.

Hermeneutical Impasses

Luvell Anderson

(Author’s note: What follows is a brief sketch of something I’m working out in longer form. Thanks to Meena for the invitation to contribute to this wonderful blog.)

We all have moments in which we encounter something or someone we have trouble understanding. We might interact with someone who speaks a different language from us. We may encounter a non-native speaker with a “heavy accent” that makes it difficult to decipher their meaning. Engagements with unfamiliar cultural expressions or allusions also cause breakdowns in communication and understanding.

Lauren Ahearn reminds us “language is not a neutral medium for communication but rather a set of socially embedded practices.”[1] As such, it is not difficult to envision the emergence of interpretive tools that develop in smaller groups of language users, ones such groups develop to cater to their particular needs. Differences in sounds, expressive elements, and syntactic constructions emerge among these various groups.

I think we can begin to see that along with these kinds of divergences in language development we also get breaks in understanding between different linguistic groups. I will refer to these types of breaks as hermeneutical impasses. More specifically, by ‘hermeneutical impasse’ I mean to pick out instances in which agents engaged in a communicative exchange are unable to communicate effectively because of a gap in shared hermeneutical resources.

I envision at least four types of hermeneutical impasses:

  1. Speakers of different languages, X and Y, who do not know the other’s language; e.g. a French speaker and a Korean speaker.
  2. Speakers who speak the same language X, but misunderstand each other do to ‘national’ differences (e.g. American vs. British vs. Australian/Kiwi English).
  3. Speakers who both speak different dialects of a language X and share a national identity, where misunderstandings arise due to unfamiliarity with elements of the other’s dialect. E.g. misunderstandings that arise due to ignorance of specific cultural references (‘on fleek,’ ‘lit,’ Desiigner’s “Panda”?), inflectional differences, phonemic differences, etc.
  4. Misunderstandings that arise due to differences in perceptual experiences (ways of perceiving social reality) and presumed knowledge base; e.g. ‘All lives matter’ in response to ‘Black lives matter.’

I should note that even though I focus on language and discursive practices here, I believe a discussion of hermeneutical impasses goes beyond language, touching all of our expressive practices. Also, the four types are rough sketches and could stand sharper definition. I leave that for the longer version.

For some of these impasses, they seem to be resolvable with linguistic remedies. For instance, informing an American English speaker that the word for ‘elevator’ in British English is ‘lift’ suffices to clear up any misunderstanding. Yet for others, it seems linguistic remedies are insufficient. Impasses of type (4) appear to be such instances. Consider the ‘all lives matter’ response to ‘Black lives matter.’ There have been countless explanations of the phrase’s significance, carefully explaining that it expresses a plea for the respecting of Black lives as equally valuable to those of others. Regardless of those explanations, the response remains just as vehement and tone deaf as it’s always been.

This particular example might illustrate two subspecies of a hermeneutical impasse: (a) willful impasses, and (b) unwillful impasses. The two subspecies might correspond with two explanations of ‘all lives matter’ responders continued failures of understanding. The first explanation views the responders as genuinely confused. For whatever reason, their default interpretation is an exclusive reading. If the response to correction is one of deference, then we likely have an unwillful impasse on our hands. Another explanation describes responders not as genuinely confused, but as willfully obstinate. On this account, the ALM responder denies a claim they take to be behind the slogan. Jason Stanley, for instance, claims (during a public lecture) that when ALM responders give their retort what they are actually doing is denying the presupposition that Black lives have mattered less in America. This denial results in their refusal to accept the inclusive, ‘Black lives matter, too’ reading. What we end up with is a willful impasse supported by the ALM responder’s obstinacy.

Obviously, if the hermeneutical impasse is a willful one, then linguistic strategies will be unhelpful for bridging it. Willful hermeneutical impasses could appear in any of the four types I’ve sketched above. But what I want to claim is that they are more pernicious when they occur in types (3) and (4). This is because impasses of these types are often hidden behind presumed innocent judgments of grammaticality.

I will attempt to flesh out this idea by presenting a broad sketch of two American English varieties, Black English and Standard American English. James Baldwin, in an op-ed piece entitled “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” writes that different languages (presumably, varieties) develop to articulate or control different realities. Baldwin goes on to highlight one difference in realities articulated between Black English and Standard American English:

There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself, and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long.[2]

This quote encapsulates a hermeneutic tension that exists and has been cultivated between these two linguistic varieties. Suggested in Baldwin’s words is the idea that the language of the whites developed in a fashion that systematically misinterprets certain aspects of reality. (We find a similar sentiment, for instance, in Charles Mills’ work on white ignorance[3]). There are protective mechanisms in place that allow subscribers of this particular linguistic framework to speak in a fashion that allows them to (1) evade assent to explicitly racist statements, and (2) deny complicity with any involvement in racism.

The process of standardization of language allows for the vilification and dismissal of people based simply on the way they speak. Recall the way Rachel Jeantel was dismissed, not only as a reliable testifier in the George Zimmerman trial, but as a human being worthy of respect. Numerous tweets described her as stupid, grotesque, unintelligent, and the like.[4] Jeantel’s “deviant” way of speaking signaled distance from the “ideal” mode of speech, i.e. Standard American English. Such distancing is important since the notion has wrapped up in it differential power relations, processes of legitimization, and marginalization. This is how we get the inferences from her inability or unwillingness to reproduce the standard speech patterns to her presumed stupidity, for example. Baldwin points out that language is “a political instrument, means, and proof of power.”[5] Ultimately, the standard variety is a tool in the service of the state. This point is also highlighted in a passage from the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu:

The official language is bound up with the state, both in its genesis and in its social uses. It is in the process of state formation that the conditions are created for the constitution of a unified linguistic market, dominated by the official language. Obligatory on official occasions and in official places (schools, public administrations, political institutions, etc.), this state language becomes the theoretical norm against which all linguistic practices are objectively measured. Ignorance is no excuse; this linguistic law has its body of jurists—the grammarians—and its agents of regulation and imposition—the teachers—who are empowered universally to subject the linguistic performance of speaking subjects to examination and to the legal sanction of academic qualification.

Both Baldwin and Bourdieu make manifest what many do not realize, namely, that judgments of grammaticality or criticisms of speech against the backdrop of a perceived standard are not innocent and value-neutral, but value judgments in service of a particular power structure.

Presumably, the standard variety has associated with it a certain state-sanctioned (or maybe a range) identity. This is the identity that emerges from its being taught and policed by educators, and its place of prominence in official settings. Being dubbed “the standard” already confers a kind of super-legitimacy on this particular language variety, and by extension, its associated identity. This seems to follow from its role as the standard by which purported grammaticality is judged. Being in such a position disincentivizes its adherents from exhibiting the sort of humility necessary to learn from and possibly embrace alternative values.

Baldwin intimates that Standard American English encodes obscuring mechanisms that distort reality. In the same breath he intimates similar mechanisms are also encoded in Black English. Notice, the need of his parents and siblings to warn him of danger from the white man “in a language [he] could not possibly understand.” Black English speakers need a language that hides its true message from threatening entities. In contrast to Standard American English, the obscuring mechanisms in Black English do not work to obscure reality for its speakers. Rather, they operate to mask reality from those who are perceived as a threat to the speaker’s (and intended audience’s) well-being. Taken together, the obscuring mechanisms in both language varieties (dialects?) create a pernicious hermeneutical impasse. It is pernicious because coming to an agreement on the correct interpretation of some event or utterance requires coming to an agreement on the values that undergird one’s language. But as we’ve seen, those who buy into a particular identity associated with the standard variety have little incentive to yield.

Thus, what we end up with is the cultivation and preservation of a hermeneutical impasse between Black English speakers and Standard American English speakers. Can this impasse be bridged? And if so, what would it take to bridge it? It seems clear that the impasse is bridgeable, but what it would take to bridge it transcends linguistic remedies. This is because the investment in maintaining the impasse hinges on the protection of certain interests. In the case of Standard English the interests are tied to the preservation of an advantaged identity. In the case of Black English, the interests have to do with self-preservation in the face of a hostile environment where revealing reality has historically brought dire consequences upon Black and Brown bodies. Ultimately, what I aim to show in the longer version of this is how certain hermeneutical impasses are really distracting devices for more complex social and political impasses. I want to explore the linguistic mechanisms that function to divert our attention from these more complex impasses.

[1] Laura M. Ahearn, Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, 1 edition (Chichester, West Sussex, UK ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

[2] James Baldwin, James Baldwin : Collected Essays : Notes of a Native Son / Nobody Knows My Name / The Fire Next Time / No Name in the Street / The Devil Finds Work / Other Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), 782.

[3] Charles Mills, “White Ignorance,” in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, ed. Shannon Sullivan Nancy Tuana (State Univ of New York Pr, 2007), 11–38.

[4] “Good, Bad and Ugly Tweets about Rachel Jeantel (with Images) · SherriWrites,” Storify, accessed July 27, 2016, http://storify.com/SherriWrites/good-bad-and-ugly-tweets-about-rachel-jeantel.

[5] Baldwin, James Baldwin, 781.

Featured Philosopher: Paul C. Taylor


Paul C. Taylor teaches philosophy and African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University, where he also serves as the associate dean of undergraduate studies. His books include Race: A Philosophical Introduction and Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, and he was one of the founding editors of the journal Critical Philosophy of Race.

Because Who Needs Another Tarzan Movie:

Guilty Pleasures in the Black Lives Matter Moment

Paul C. Taylor 

(Author’s note: This piece grows out of ideas that I develop in a few places, including in my recent book on Black aesthetics. It answers to an aspiration that has increasingly come to shape my work: to write in ways, and in venues, that connect with people outside the academy. So it might grow up to be an op-ed or a personal essay.)

We all have guilty pleasures, especially when it comes to entertainment and culture. I like Tom Cruise movies, to a degree that my friends rarely understand. But the movies are mostly harmless, and my friends have embarrassments of their own, and life gives us plenty of other things to worry about. So we agree to live and let live, and leave each other to the occasional cultivation of mindless, unworthy enjoyments.

Societies have guilty pleasures too. Think of the fondness that Scandinavians have for fermented fish. Or of the weakness that whoever likes Justin Bieber has for Justin Bieber.

Few of these pleasures involve actual guilt. I don’t feel remorseful for having watched Cruise’s “Jack Reacher” eight times. And I am probably not culpable for anything, save for distorting Netflix’s calculations about the relative popularity of its offerings.

Similarly, the Norwegians I know reasonably well, all two of them, are not remotely ashamed of lutefisk. They agree that it is revolting, and they rarely eat it. But they think of it the way one thinks of family quirks. There are some real characters in this family, we think, as we continue wrapping the holiday presents.

Tom Cruise films and lutefisk may not be truly guilty pleasures, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Some amusements ought to shame us and leave us contrite. Especially when they reflect the tastes of an entire society.

For example: Films that celebrate misogyny and sexual violence. The violent, brain-pulverizing spectacle that we call “American football.” Or narrative relics from our racist past.

Like the new Tarzan movie.

“The Legend of Tarzan” is a Hollywood film that either has opened recently or will open soon. I don’t know which because I have tried very hard not to pay attention to it. To be honest, there have been other things to pay attention to here in the US, like more black people dying tragically in dubious (at best) encounters with police officers, and police officers dying tragically in vengeance-driven assassinations by ex-military black gunmen.

But paying attention to these real-world tragedies turns me back to the fiction worlds of film. Certain of our films embody and express a widespread ambivalence about the value of black life. And in doing so, they further alienate black people from the society that we nevertheless, many of us, still try to think of as our own. There is no excuse, of course, for assassinating public servants in cold blood, any more than there is for shooting a cooperating driver at a traffic stop. But there should also be no excuse for tolerating, for promoting, the conditions that make these inexcusable actions more likely rather than less.

To see what “The Legend of Tarzan” has to do with all this, let’s consider how the Warner Brothers website describes the film:

“It has been years since the man once known as Tarzan left the jungles of Africa behind for a gentrified life as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, with his beloved wife, Jane at his side. Now, he has been invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, unaware that he is a pawn in a deadly convergence of greed and revenge, masterminded by the Belgian, Leon Rom. But those behind the murderous plot have no idea what they are about to unleash.”

I am guessing that what the Belgians are going to unleash is Tarzan, which will serve them right for visiting death and destruction on the Congo. But a shorter description would nearly have sufficed:

A white male hero will do heroic things against a backdrop of suffering dark people.

That description doesn’t really distinguish Lord Greystoke’s saga from “The Last King of Scotland,” “Mississippi Burning,” or “Training Day.” Or, for that matter, from “Gone With the Wind” and its literary forebears. Or, if we change “suffering dark people” to “dangerous dark people,” from “Zulu” or “Colors.”

But why should we distinguish these films from each other? They all tell the same story, at least for anyone who thinks non-white people should at least on occasion be more than props in other people’s dramas.

The stories are not identical, to be sure. Tarzan’s Congo is not the US south of “Mississippi Burning.” And the artistry of Denzel Washington goes a long way toward redeeming “Training Day,” which at least knows it’s trading in racist tropes. (What else can it mean when Denzel shouts “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me”?) But what difference does it make whether we’re in the Mississippi Delta or the Congo, if what we find there are white heroes and black accessories? If we can erase the heroism of everyday black people in segregated Mississippi in order to make the FBI of COINTELPRO (and much else) into a saintly force for good, why not strand a British white kid in an invention called “The Jungle” (plucked from the same imaginative shelf as “The Orient” and much else) and have him somehow become a superhero?

This determination to subordinate black agency to white heroism leads in film to narratives of moral gentrification. These are stories in which white people become the main protagonists in ethically and racially fraught narrative settings – the Congo under Belgian rule, Mississippi under Jim Crow, Uganda under Amin – while the sensible expectation that people of color will exercise some agency in these settings goes unmet. Black people aren’t the only ones rendered invisible in tales like these. Consider, for example, “The Impossible,” a film that explores the 2004 tsunami in south and Southeast Asia by surrounding Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts with “kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything.” But the black version of this phenomenon is of particular interest to me in the age of Black Lives Matter.

In addition to being an exercise in moral gentrification, the new Tarzan movie appears also to be an instance of whitely antiracism. This is what happens when a narrative decenters black agency in the ways we’ve seen, and insists on white heroism, but does all this while also explicitly endorsing anti-racist ideas.

Our new version of the “Lord of the Jungle” apparently fights against colonialism, sort of, and, I’m told, allies himself with an actual black associate. (Where by “associate” I mean “sidekick.” Keep gettin’ dem checks, Sam Jackson).

The problem is that even here, while we’re openly rejecting anti-black racism, we still can’t imagine black heroism.

It should be easy to imagine an adventure story about fighting evil in the Belgian Congo, or in the segregated US south of “Mississippi Burning,” that has black heroes. It would be easy, in fact, in a world untainted by what Eddie Glaude calls “the value gap,” which assigns white people more value than everyone else. But here, in our actual world, what’s easy is imagining black people as window dressing, or, at best, as sidekicks. This is why Quentin Tarentino’s Django isn’t even the star of his own movie, and why Will Smith turned down the role (keep gettin’ dem checks, Jamie Foxx). This is why Danny Glover’s Haitian Revolution movie got scuttled by potential producers continually asking where the white heroes were. And it’s why all the serious heroes in Marvel Studio’s “Ant-Man” are white and Anglo, while the black, brown, and Eastern European characters (the last of which is, in an age of cinematic fascination with Russian gangsters, not white enough) are helpful clowns.

Thinking of film industry imperatives here is supposed to make us feel better about all this. We’re supposed to think of the fact, if it is a fact, that films that don’t feature white people will not fare as well at the box office. Or that the people who finance films genuinely worry about this threat to the box office take, and govern themselves accordingly. But this fear seems to be misplaced if it is entirely about return on investment. Which makes one think its persistence and influence must be about something else. Like an abiding inability to imagine non-white heroism.

This brings me, finally, to what these films say about our orientation to the Black Lives Matter moment. If our films celebrate and reinforce the idea that black lives are less interesting than white lives, is it any wonder that only 40% of whites support the Black Lives Matter movement (compared to 65% of blacks)? If our films routinely erase black agency, if they can’t help but see blacks not as persons but as a monolithic mass, is it any wonder that we can’t distinguish peaceful protesters from ex-military assassins? After all, the mass either quivers in fear or pain (“Mississippi Burning”) or rises up to threaten civilization (“Colors,” “Zulu”). There is no room to establish a middle ground or to make distinctions – between, say, those who engage in creative non-violence while others buckle under the traumas of PTSD and the corruptions of bitterness.

The people behind this Tarzan film are surely talented, and are almost certainly not racists. (Though one could be forgiven for wondering about Craig Brewer, director of “Hustle and Flow” and “Black Snake Moan,” and one of the screenwriters behind “The Legend of Tarzan.”) But they have used their talents to affirm that some human lives are best thought of as props in other people’s stories, and that freestanding black heroism is, strictly speaking, impossible. They, and we, ought to feel guilty about amusements like this.



Featured Philosopher: Robert Gooding-Williams


Robert Gooding-Williams is the M. Moran Weston/Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies and Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. His areas of research and teaching interest include Social and Political Philosophy, the History of African-American Political Thought, 19th Century European Philosophy, Existentialism, and Aesthetics. He is the author of several books, including the award winning In the Shadow of Du Bois (Harvard UP, 2009).

Notes on Du Bois’s Notion of a Science of Human Action:

W.E.B. Du Bois, Max Weber, Moral Judgment and Literary Form

Robert Gooding-Williams

  1. My remarks will be relatively brief. Their aim is to shed some light on an idea that is evident in, and critical to the argument of, the last chapter of BR [Black Reconstruction in America], entitled “The Propaganda of Human History.” In particular, I want to sketch an account of Du Bois’s concept of a science of human action, note the affinities between Du Bois’s and Max Weber’s understanding of such a science, and say something, finally, about Du Bois’s understanding of historiography as a philosophical and prophetic art, the proper execution of which, I think he believes, depends on a proper understanding of the historical science of human action.
  1. Let me begin, then, with a few passages from “The Propaganda of History” that illuminate Du Bois’s thinking as a philosopher of the social sciences:

a) After criticizing histories that discuss slavery with moral “impartially,” depicting America as helpless and the south as blameless, while explaining the difference in development, North and South, as “a sort of working out of cosmic social and economic law,” Du Bois writes:

“One reads for instance, Charles and Mary Beard’s ‘Rise of American Civilization,’ with a comfortable feeling that nothing right or wrong is involved. Manufacturing and industry develop in the North; agrarian feudalism develops in the South. They clash as winds and waters strive, and the stronger forces develop the tremendous industrial machine that governs us so magnificently and selfishly today.

Yet in this sweeping mechanistic interpretation, there is no room for the real plot of the story, for the clear mistake and guilt of rebuilding a new slavery of the working class in the midst of a fateful experiment in democracy; for the triumph of sheer moral courage and sacrifice in the abolition crusade; and for the hurt and struggle of degraded black millions in their fight for freedom and their attempt to enter democracy. Can all this be omitted and half suppressed in a treatise that calls itself scientific?”

Or to come to the center and climax of this fascinating history: What was slavery in the United States? Just what did it mean to the owner and the owned?”[1] (pp. 714-715)

b) “What we have got to know, so far as possible, are the things that actually happened in the world. Then with that much clear and open to every reader, the philosopher and the prophet has a chance to interpret these facts; but the historian has no right, posing as a scientist, to conceal or distort facts; and until we distinguish between these two functions of the chronicler of human action, we are going to render it easy for a muddled world out of sheer ignorance to make the same mistake ten times over.” (p.722)

c) And, finally, in answer to his own question as to why the history of African Americans is made a mockery of and spit upon, Du Bois answers “Because in a day when the human mind aspired to a science of human action, a history and psychology of the mightiest effort of the mightiest century, we fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.” (p.727)

  1. With an eye to these remarks, as well as to what Du Bois writes elsewhere in the conclusion to BR, let me sketch five theses regarding Du Bois’s understanding of history as a science of human action.
  1. Thesis 1: For Du Bois, history, so far as it is a science of human action, cannot model itself on the natural sciences. At issue here, of course, is something like the older, nineteenth century distinction between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften, which, I argue elsewhere, already informs Du Bois’s thinking, possibly due to Dilthey’s influence, in the important, early essay of 1897, “The Conservation of Races.” Now for the Du Bois of BR, historians who model their inquiry on the natural sciences (historians like the Beards) seek to identify the causal uniformities, or “cosmic” laws, governing human events, which events they conceptualize by analogy to the behavior of the winds, waters and other forces of nature. The problem here, Du Bois suggests, is not with the effort to identify the causal uniformities governing human events per se. Rather it is with the tendency in that effort to neglect the human meaning of human events, which is tantamount to treating specifically human events as inhuman, natural forces that lend themselves to a purely “mechanistic” explanation—by which I take Du Bois precisely to mean explanation in terms that make no reference to the meanings that the human beings who participate in those events attach to them.
  1. Thesis 2: For Du Bois, history, if it is to be a science of human action, and not pretend to be a science of nature, must take account of the subjective meanings of actions and events. That, I conjecture, is why Du Bois implies that the historian, as a scientist of human action, cannot truly tell the story of “the mightiest effort of the mightiest century” without taking into account the psychology of the agents whose individual actions sustained that effort—for to take psychology into account, Du Bois thinks, is to take subjective meaning into account. And that, I conjecture, is also why he asks: What did slavery mean to the owner and the owned? Du Bois insists that, to understand slavery, taking into account what it meant to the owned is no less important than taking into account what it meant to the owners. But as a philosopher of the social sciences, he also wants us to see that, in demanding that the historian of slavery attend to the slaves’ stories about slavery, he presupposes the fundamental, methodological tenet that the historian’s task is what Max Weber called Verstehen, or “interpretive understanding,” not mechanical explanation. According to Weber, the sciences of human action, including history and sociology, “speak of ‘action’ insofar as the acting individual attaches subjective meaning to his behavior—be it overt or covert.” And a central task of those sciences, Weber argues, is to place human actions “in a more intelligible and inclusive context of meaning”—as, for example, when we interpret a woodchopper’s chopping of wood as an act undertaken to secure a wage; or, alternatively, to provide a supply of firewood for the woodchopper’s use.
  1. Thesis 3: Du Bois stresses what I take to be his Weberian understanding of the science of human action, in part because he is committed to the view that moral judgment is a critical component of historiography. Du Bois, I take it, is a moral realist (Weber, of course, rejects moral realism) who believes 1) that there exist moral facts and 2) that moral judgments truly or falsely report those facts. In addition, he believes that historians should issue moral judgments—that, unlike the Beards and any number of other historians of American slavery, they should attribute moral responsibility and pronounce judgments of moral right and wrong. But historians cannot attribute moral responsibility and pronounce judgments of right and wrong unless they understand human action in terms of subjective meanings. For they require some such understanding of human action to render intelligible their application of the vocabulary of moral judgment— a vocabulary that, for Du Bois, includes talk of “guilt,” of “moral courage and sacrifice,” and of “the degraded black millions.”  In Du Bois’s view, I am suggesting, a necessary condition of the possibility of the sort of moral judgment that we should expect the historian’s practice of the science of human action to include is a more or less Weberian, Verstehen-centered approach to that practice—or, more exactly, that the historian explain human actions in terms of subjective meanings.
  1. Thesis 4: The distinction that Du Bois draws between 1) the function of the historian, inasmuch as he or she poses as a scientist of human action, and 2) the function of the philosopher or prophet who interprets the facts that the historian has chronicled (including facts of subjective meaning and moral facts) points to what I conjecture is Du Bois’s view that the task of philosophical and/or prophetic interpretation is to grasp the meaning, writ large, of the story the historian tells. I am suggesting, in other words, that Du Bois thinks of the prophet and the philosopher—here, really, the philosopher of history—as asking and answering the question: what can we take to be the significance of the story that the historian, the scientist of human action, has chronicled, if we consider that story as a whole? If this suggestion is correct, then we need also to ask: when Du Bois, the philosopher/prophet, considers the story that Du Bois, the scientist of human action, chronicles in BR, what does the former take to be the significance of the latter’s story, taken as a whole? And the answer to this question, I think, is “tragedy.” For I want to suggest that when Du Bois thinks about the meaning of the story he has told, writ large, he asks himself: what literary form, or, perhaps, what literary genre, describes the character of the story I have told? In the closing chapter of BR, Du Bois, I believe, considers two options: tragedy and romance. The plot of the “magnificent drama” he has recounted is, Du Bois, tells us, the plot of a tragedy, not that of a “flowery romance,” or a “fairy tale of beautiful Southern slave civilization.”
  1. Thesis 5, my final thesis: That just as Du Bois argues that a Verstehen-centered approach to the science of human action is essential to the historian’s fulfillment of his or her vocation as moral judge, so too he seems to suggest that such an approach is essential to the philosopher/prophet’s fulfillment of his or her task of grasping the story that the historian has told as a meaningful whole. For whether identified as tragedy, romance, or as an instance of some other genre, genre identification will depend on the ascription of subjective meanings to human actions and events. In the case of BR, the identification of the story of Reconstruction as a tragedy depends not only on the ascription of subjective meanings, but, in addition, on an interpretation of those meanings in moral terms that resonate with a certain way of conceptualizing tragedy. For when Du Bois writes of the “real plot of the story,” of a “clear mistake and guilt,” and of a “fateful” experiment in democracy, it is difficult for me not to sense in his choice of words, not only the legacy of Greek tragedy per se, to which he alludes, but, perhaps, and more specifically, the legacy of Aristotle’s interpretation of Greek tragedy.

[1] In The Rise of American Civilization (1927), Charles and Mary Beard reprised the explanation of historical events in economic terms that Charles Beard had already advanced earlier in his scholarly career, most influentially in his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). For useful treatments of both books and of Beard’s methodological commitment to the moral neutrality of historical inquiry—a commitment with which Du Bois takes issue in “The Propaganda of Human History”—see Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968).