Featured Philosopher: Meena Krishnamurthy


Meena Krishnamurthy, the editor of Philosopher, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Michigan. She works in political philosophy on a variety of issues. The underlying theme that runs through her work is a concern with equality (political, economic, and social). She is currently writing a series of related papers on the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Mainstreaming Indian Political Philosophy

Meena Krishnamurthy 

A version of this post was originally presented at the Pacific APA, April 15, 2017 as part of the APA Committee Session: The Current State of Asian and Asian American Philosophers. Thanks to Jon Tsou for organizing the panel and to Michelle Pham for thoughtful comments. 

In an earlier post, I argued that analytic political philosophy should be more inclusive of (among other things) Indian political philosophy. I argued, in particular, that analytic political philosophers had ignored Indian political philosophy and that there were many reasons for why we should be worried about this exclusion. I offer a quick summary of these reasons before exploring some of the further questions that are raised by this argument.

Why should we mainstream Indian political philosophy? 

The first reason is epistemological. Exclusion of this work from political philosophy is problematic because it means that political philosophy has not benefitted from the unique and distinct political insights of Indian thinkers on the nature of liberty and equality, among other things.

The second reason is social. On many people’s views, philosophy is in a state of crisis. Academics and public intellectuals outside of professional analytic political philosophy believe that it has become irrelevant to today’s most important moral and political struggles and, in turn, that it is disconnected from the concerns of today’s people. People are left wondering what the purpose of political philosophy is if it cannot be used to challenge today’s structures of inequality and injustice. Relatedly, it has been widely noted that philosophy also lacks diversity among its student body. In part, this may be because of philosophy’s lack of connection to real and lived social injustices. At least some (certainly not all) people of color, who are concerned with contemporary racism, for example, leave philosophy and turn to other disciplines to understand and address issues of racial injustice. Similar things can be said of those who are interested in colonialism and empire. One reason for including a broader range of thinkers is that we might be able to increase the number of racial minorities enrolled in philosophy courses and programs.

The third reason is methodological. Analytic philosophy at its core is the method of critical reflection, the giving of reasons in favour of one’s conclusions, and the consideration of potential objections to the reasons that one gives, and the development of responses to these objections. Thinkers from the Indian tradition of political philosophy often engaged in this method. For example, following a tradition that can be traced to classical Hindu texts such as the Upanishads, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj is written as a dialogue. In it, he outlines his arguments in support of Indian home rule and he responds to concerns that are raised by an imagined interlocutor. In doing so, he not only criticizes Western conceptions of civilization – responding to the views of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and Jean Jacques Rousseau – but also gives us a positive vision of true civilization and the appropriate means of attaining it. This dialogue is an obvious example of analytic philosophy. There are many others in Indian political thought.

If these arguments are correct, then they suggest that analytic political philosophy should be more inclusive of Indian philosophy. Indian political philosophy should be mainstreamed, so to speak.

“Who” should do the work of mainstreaming Indian political philosophy?

One question that arises is, should this work of bringing Indian philosophy to the mainstream fall to anyone or should it fall primarily to those who are or see themselves as being Indian?

On some views only those who are or who consider themselves to be Indian should engage in this work. The claim is, since they have grown up immersed in Indian philosophy, culture, and identity, Indians are likely in the best position to make this sort of progress in philosophy. This claim might perhaps stem from a version of standpoint epistemology. It might also stem from the thought that extended practice – over the course of one’s life – leads to expertise.*

As a practice, requiring Indians to do the work of Indianizing political philosophy may place a further burden on those who are already burdened. As immigrants and/or people of color, Indians likely already face an uphill battle in philosophy. Since manyt Indians in the profession don’t already work in Indian philosophy, asking them to Indianize political philosophy may add the extra task of taking up a new specialty. For example, while I had preexisting knowledge of Indian Political Philosophy, I didn’t think I knew enough to write or teach about it. Wanting to immerse myself in the project of Indianizing political philosophy has meant that I have had to take up a new specialty. This has taken a number of years (and countless hours and sleepless nights!) to even to begin to do. As Olufemi O. Taiwo, a graduate student at UCLA, stated on Facebook, asking those who are already marginalized “to pick up a whole other specialty seems like it is asking a lot.” Furthermore, and more pragmatically, even if we thought that Indians should do this work, there are very few Indians in philosophy, generally. It simply isn’t feasible right now.

For pragmatic reasons alone, we may need to allow that non-Indians will have to do at least some of the work of Indianizing political philosophy. As a matter of fairness, it might also be good and appropriate for the burden to fall on both Indians and non-Indians. Moreover, there may be epistemic benefits that follow from non-Indians doing this work. As “outsiders,” they may have a unique perspective to offer on Indian political philosophy; they may also benefit in their own thinking and work in other areas from engagement with this body of work.

There is the worry that lacking in previous exposure to and knowledge of Indian philosophy may sometimes lead outsiders toward a tendency to appropriate rather than genuinely engage with Indian philosophy. Because of this lack of exposure, outsiders may be more likely than insiders to engage in caricatures or to perpetuate stereotypes of Indian philosophy, for example. This is an important worry. I myself have already seen examples of outsiders engaging in what might be called “appropriation” of Indian philosophy rather than deep engagement with it. I think this problem can be avoided, however, through a deep commitment to good scholarship and depth of understanding. A sense of humility and openness to taking the critical views of insiders seriously may also work as an important corrective.

In contrast, insiders may have a greater tendency toward genuine engagement with Indian philosophy and may be in a better position to engage deeply with Indian philosophy. As insiders, they are more likely to have spent their lives thinking through and discussing Indian philosophy (especially because Indian philosophy is an integral part of Indian culture). If so, as insiders, they will bring this history and the sense of respect it tends to gives rise to to their work. This may constitute an additional reason for thinking that the work of Indianizing political philosophy should be done by Indians.

Furthermore, if outsiders do the work of Indianizing political philosophy, there is always the worry that this will only work to marginalize the work being done by Indians themselves – some have recently called this “the gentrification of philosophy.” Because of implicit bias, white voices are most likely to be considered authoritative and central to the field. This is true even if the work is on marginalization itself, as much of the work on caste and colonialism in Indian political philosophy is. If this worry is real and genuine, then perhaps we have a further reason for focusing on insiders: it could prevent the gentrification of Indian political philosophy.

Ultimately, if we wish to bring Indian political philosophy to mainstream political philosophy, I think that we not only need more people to work on Indian political philosophy but we also need to diversify those who are doing philosophy. To Indianize philosophy, we need more Indian faculty members. I think this point generalizes to Asian philosophy more generally. We need more Asian and Asian-American philosophers to do the work of diversifying philosophy. And, we need to reward them for the hard and often uncompensated work that they do.


*See the comment below for a slight expansion of this thought.

Featured Philosopher: Adam Hosein


Adam Hosein is an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado.  He works mainly in moral, political, and legal philosophy, with a special interest in areas of international concern and issues relating to gender or race.  He has held fellowships and visiting positions at Chicago Law, Harvard University, the University of Toronto, and the Université catholique de Louvain. He holds a BA in philosophy, politics, and economics from Merton College, Oxford and a PhD from MIT.

Taking Public Philosophy Seriously

Adam Hosein

First, let me say a huge thanks to Prof. Krishnamurthy for inviting me. I’ve learned about all kinds of important work from this blog and really value its contribution to the profession, so it’s an honor to be here.

I thought I would say a few words about public philosophy: a brief overview of my own work in this area, and some questions I’ve had about the place of public philosophy within the discipline.

My own public facing pieces have mostly discussed the rights of AMEMSA (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian) people. So I’ve written about prosecution for torture committed as part of the ‘War on Terror’, how politicians in the U.S. and Europe should discuss Daesh and its relation to Islam, the morality of Hamas’ activities in Gaza, and the (in)justice of Trump’s revised travel ban. This work has grown in part out of my own direct experiences of racial profiling, fears of surveillance, and so on in the post-9/11 world. And it also came about because I was following various political debates and wanted to involve myself more in them.

I’ve also been inspired to write these essays by the significant amount of (it seems to me) high-quality public philosophy produced by many different people in recent years, combined with the greater visibility and support for that work: the creation of the APA Prize Public Philosophy Op-Ed Prize, for instance. I think these are really important developments, for many reasons. There are some more ‘pragmatic’ benefits: in a world where the humanities are frequently under attack and where student enrollment is crucial, it’s surely important for our field to be better understood and valued by the public. And philosophy, at its best, can make crucial contributions to the world outside of academia: raising the quality of political discussion, revealing the insights of various historical thinkers, helping members of the public to reflect on questions that have always troubled them, and so on.

While recognizing these great developments in public philosophy, I want to raise some questions here about the remaining barriers to spending time writing it, especially for more junior scholars. The main problem is this. Even if we as a field claim to value public philosophy, we often discount it in our most consequential evaluations of scholars: when they apply for jobs, come up for tenure, and so on. At most, work in public philosophy tends to count towards someone’s ‘service’ record, which in turn get the least weight in hiring, promotion, etc..

I think certain kinds of service should probably be given more weight. Why shouldn’t we value very highly what someone contributes to the community or does to improve the climate in their department or field? What I’m going to raise here, though, is the suggestion that public philosophy should—in some cases, at least—be relevant to someone’s ‘research’ record. Public philosophy is, after all, philosophy: writing (or speaking or whatever) on (at least partially) philosophical issues using philosophical tools. So why doesn’t it count in the same way as journal articles and so on?

One reason for discounting public philosophy is its (typically) short length. The assumption is that a short piece cannot be really getting deep into the issues.   And, of course, sometimes a short piece will be superficial. But we, as a field, have already squarely rejected view that short pieces cannot make major contributions: just look at the respect given to papers published in Analysis.

A second possibility—and I think this gets more to the heart of why people are skeptical about counting public works towards a tenure case or whatever—is that people have a particular model of public philosophy in mind. According to this model, public philosophy essentially involves taking one’s research and finding a way to popularize it so that non-philosophers can understand it. There is skill involved, but only the skill of translation, and not those of, say, critical reflection and creativity, which were engaged only in the initial phase of doing the research itself.

One response to this line of thought is to point out that ‘mere translation’ is often very difficult and involves a distinctively philosophical exercise: we teach our students all the time that taking abstract ideas and technical terms we find in various texts and finding a way to express them in simple, ordinary language is itself a crucial philosophical task.

But more fundamentally, I think the assumed popularizing model of public philosophy is out of date and doesn’t fit a lot of what is currently being produced. I value, for instance, the work philosophers have done responding to apparent tensions between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights, and the role of anger in dealing with oppression (to take just a couple of examples from a long list of work I really admire).[1] These authors haven’t mainly been engaged in just making grand theories more accessible: they have been using philosophical tools to directly address problems that arise out of current social conditions and debates. And clearly doing this kind of work engages the full range of philosophical skills, including creative, sensitive and rigorous thinking.

I’ve aspired to do work within the second model: to take some issues that came up in my personal or political life and wouldn’t let me go, and then try to use philosophical tools to address them. I don’t think of this as descending from the tower to share my results, but just trying to make interventions in ongoing public debates. (Debates that I don’t think any philosopher, or philosophers, can resolve alone, but that I hope we have something to contribute to.)

Often I’ve been very grateful for the existence of public venues not just for opportunity to reach a broader audience, but also for the chance to do some philosophy that was really important to me but quite possibly couldn’t have been published anywhere else. I had the strong view and (I thought) original argument for prosecuting those responsible for torture, for instance, but without the Boston Review I don’t know what I would’ve done with it. To that extent, then, creating barriers to doing public philosophy can block a vital outlet for our philosophical and political energies.

[1] I should say that while I’ve focused on social and political philosophy here, because it’s my area, I also think there’s terrific public philosophy being done on issues in epistemology, medieval philosophy, and so on.

Featured Philosopher: Şerife Tekin


Şerife Tekin is an assistant professor of philosophy at Daemen College in Buffalo, NY. She is also an Associate Fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. She completed her PhD at York University in Canada, and held postdoctoral fellowships at Dalhousie University and the University of Pittsburgh. Her work is at the cusp of feminist approaches to philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and medical ethics. Her co-edited book, Extraordinary Science and Psychiatry: Responding to the Current Crisis in Mental Health Research, has recently been published by MIT University Press. Her work has appeared in journals such as Synthese; Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology; Public Affairs Quarterly; Journal of Medical Ethics; Philosophical Psychology; The American Journal of Bioethics, and in books such as Classifying Psychopathology: Mental Kinds and Natural Kinds (MIT Press); The Psychiatric Babel: Assessing the DSM-5 (Springer’s Press); Philosophical Issues in Pharmaceutics (Springer’s Press). She is the Executive Coordinator of the Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry. A native of Denizli, Turkey, she spent her childhood and adolescence on the Aegean coast, wandering around the ruins of Ancient Greek civilization, contemplating the meaning of life. The Olympic torch she has been carrying around since her early childhood days have helped her happily make home in North America.

The Missing Self in Scientific Psychiatry

Şerife Tekin

Thank you, Meena, for giving me the opportunity to say a few things about my research. Before I do, let me say how much I enjoy your blog – it has been a joy getting acquainted with the work of philosophers working in such a wide range of areas. I am honored to be included in such an impressive group. I am taking this opportunity to talk about the main arguments in my article “The Missing Self in Scientific Psychiatry,” which is recently published in Syhthese: An International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science. 

Most mental disorders are expressed as anomalies in such self-related capacities and attitudes as self-control, self-conceptualization, self-respect, and self-esteem, and, as such, they cause an individual’s relationship with herself and others to deteriorate. In this regard, most mental disorders directly affect the self – the dynamic, complex, relational, multi-aspectual, and multitudinous configuration of capacities, processes, states, and traits that support agency (Tekin 2017b, 2014b; Bechtel 2008; Jopling 2000; Neisser 1988).

Starting with Socrates’ admonition to know oneself and his claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, the self has occupied a central place in philosophical and scientific inquiry. Debates about the self include metaphysical questions on the nature and reality of selfhood, empirical questions about the developmental and historical trajectory of the human selves, and ethical questions about agency, responsibility, and autonomy. The answers to these metaphysical, empirical, and ethical questions are intertwined, as the nature of selfhood both constrains and enables the range of moral and political actions of an individual in a social world.

In psychiatry, the concept of the self has a complex history. While it was a popular clinical and scientific notion in the early days of psychoanalytic approaches to mental disorders, starting in the 1980s, scientific psychiatry began to sidestep the concept, even though it remains central to clinical contexts (for further discussion see Tekin 2015, 2014a; Tekin and Mosko 2015). In fact, as I argue in the article, there is a misalignment between the scientific research and clinical work on mental disorders with respect to the concept of the self.

Various traditions in mental health care, such as humanistic, psychoanalytic, phenomenological, existential and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, implicitly or explicitly acknowledge that a disruption of the self, or the person, or the agent (often using these three concepts synonymously) is a common denominator of different mental disorders. They emphasize the importance of understanding patients as reasons-responsive, in their full mental health relevant complexity, if their mental disorder is to be treated successfully. Self-related phenomena, such as personal identity (e.g., age, gender, race, socio-economic status, employment status, interpersonal relationships) and self-regarding attitudes and capacities, such as self-conceptualization, self-esteem, self-respect and self-control, are important constituents of mental health. In these clinical traditions, the concept of self is used to do the explanatory work of mental disorders, e.g., when the clinician explains the condition to the patient and the family members, and it reappears in subsequently prescribed therapies. For instance, the betterment of the self, e.g., increasing self-esteem, improving self-concepts, enriching self-control capacities, and enhancing self-respect, is set as the goal of the therapeutic encounter and achieved by engaging with various properties of the self, such as reason-responsiveness, self-interpretation and self-assessment.

The centrality of the concept of the self is not mirrored in the mainstream scientific approaches in psychiatry, however. In fact, the self has rarely been the object of scientific research, the empirical investigation of which might yield successful explanations of and interventions in mental disorders. Thus, even though self-related phenomena are clinically relevant insofar as they give important information about a mental disorder to the clinician and help the development of effective interventions, they are not considered among the scientifically relevant properties of mental disorders.

To cite only one example, the tradition of psychiatric research driven by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a classification manual of mental disorders created by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to guide research, clinical, and policy related inquiries, does not take the concept of the self as an explicit object of scientific inquiry (APA 1994, 2013). Instead, it opts for a mental disorder construct, e.g., major depression, individuated through observable behaviors such as signs and symptoms, not the plethora of self-related phenomena that are compromised in the presence of a mental disorder.

In other words, the properties of mental disorders targeted by clinicians and those targeted by researchers are misaligned. Among the former group, self-related phenomena are considered relevant properties of mental disorders, while among the latter, they are neglected.

The fact that self-related phenomena are missing from scientific research on mental disorders can arguably be attributed to the presupposition that the self is not empirically tractable and its use will hinder psychiatry’s goal to be scientific. Researchers might want to exclude the self from scientific psychiatry because, as a folk concept, it does not sit well with the kind of concepts studied in sciences with the promise of unpacking the etiology of mental disorders, such as neuroscience or genetics. In the near future, the concept of the self might be fractured into different components, some related to memory (auto-biographical memory), others to high-level action control, and so on.

In the paper, I take issue with these connected challenges. I argue the self is empirically tractable, and its use as a target of research will not hinder psychiatry’s scientific commitments. The concept of the self offers rich scientific resources to investigate and intervene in mental disorders; available resources include not only neuroscientific and genetic research but also those areas of study considering the role of interpersonal relationships, environment, culture and epidemiological factors in the development of illness. Though I do not focus on the topic in the paper, the concept of the self can be a rich resource for contemplating the nature of agency, free will, and responsibility, especially in the context of mental illness, thus explicitly connecting psychiatry to other fields in the humanities such as anthropology, law, and politics – if we are to fathom the complexity of mental disorders in the lives of individuals, communities, and the cultures, we must use the resources offered in these fields of study.

In the paper, I raise and respond to two challenges inherent in the presupposition that the self is not empirically tractable and its use will hinder psychiatry’s goal to be scientific.

The first is the question of how psychiatry can meet its aspirations to be a scientific discipline. I respond by proposing that psychiatry, very much like other special sciences, such as economics or biology, should be considered a model-building science. Different objects of inquiry, including the self, the mental disorder construct, or the brain, can be represented and studied using scientific models, thus making complex real-world phenomena empirically tractable. These models can be used to accomplish scientific goals, such as explanations of and interventions in mental disorders.

The second challenge is whether the self is fit for empirical investigation. In response, I offer an empirically tractable model of the self, i.e., the multitudinous self, and explain how it can provide insight into and contribute to our understanding of mental disorders. While a fractured engagement with different parts of the self, e.g., auto-biographical memory, is fruitful, there is virtue in researching the self as a whole, because what happens in one component affects another component – and the entire self-system. In other words, an integrated understanding of the different parts of the self is necessary to fathom the complexity of mental disorders. To illustrate this, I focus on addiction (for a detailed account of my approach to addiction see Tekin 2017a; Tekin, Flanagan, Graham 2017).

The overall goal of my research is to illustrate that we cannot theorize psychopathology by sidestepping the self that is the subject of mental disorders, and a philosophical account of the self is incomplete without including psychopathology. I call for methodological alterations in psychiatric research on and treatment of mental disorders; there is much to be learned from the multidisciplinary sciences of the mind, feminist philosophy, and the memoirs of psychopathology. My hope is that my research program will influence philosophers, bioethicists, psychiatrists, psychologists and neuroscientists, facilitating the development of valuable inquiry into mental disorders.

Works cited:

Bechtel, W. 2008. Mental mechanisms: Philosophical perspectives on cognitive neuroscience. London: Routledge.

Jopling, D. 2000. Self-knowledge and the self. New York: Routledge University Press.

Neisser, U. 1988. Five kinds of self-knowledge. Philosophical Psychology, 1, 35–59.

Tekin, Ş. 2017a (In press). Brain Mechanisms and the Disease Model of Addiction: Is it Really the Whole Story of the Addicted Self? A philosophical-skeptical perspective. In The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy and Science of Addiction, Pickard, H. and Ahmed, S. eds. Routledge University Press.

Tekin, Ş. 2017b. The Missing Self in Scientific Psychiatry. Synthese. DOI.10.1007/s11229-017- 1324-0.

Tekin, Ş., and Mosko, M. 2015. Hyponarrativity and Context-Specific Limitations of the DSM-5. Public Affairs Quarterly, Volume 29, No: 1, 111-136.

Tekin, Ş. 2015. Against Hyponarrating Grief: Incompatible Research and Treatment Interests in the DSM-5. The DSM-5 in Perspective: Philosophical Reflections on the Psychiatric Babel, P. Singy and S. Demazeux, eds., History, Philosophy and the Theory of the Life Sciences Series, Volume 10, Springer Press, 179-197.

Tekin, Ş. 2014b. The Missing Self in Hacking’s Looping Effects. Classifying Psychopathology: Mental Kinds and Natural Kinds, H. Kincaid and J. A. Sullivan, eds., MIT Press, 227–256.

Tekin, Ş. 2014a. Self-insight in the Time of Mood Disorders: After the Diagnosis, Beyond the Treatment. Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology, 21 (2), 139-155.

Tekin, Ş., Flanagan, O.J., Graham, G. 2017. Against the Drug Cure Model: Addiction, Identity, Pharmaceuticals. In Anthology on Pharmaceuticals, Ho, D., ed., Springer Press.






Featured Philosopher: Meena Krishnamurthy


Meena Krishnamurthy, the editor of Philosopher, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Michigan. She works in political philosophy on a variety of issues. The underlying theme that runs through her work is a concern with equality (political, economic, and social). She is currently writing a series of related papers on the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Race Talk, Justice, and Self-Respect: A Brief Analysis of Rachel Dolezal

Meena Krishnamurthy

Rachel Dolezal was president of her local NAACP and chair of a municipal police oversight commission. She went to Howard University, a historically black University, and was given a scholarship to do an MFA in fine arts based on her portraits of African Americans. She is also married to an African-American man and has an African-American son. She has adopted “black” cultural practices such as wearing her hair in box braids. As a college instructor, she also educated people about African-American history and contemporary political matters. Dolezal has long referred to herself as “black”. However, according to her family, she should be referred to as “white”. Dolezal’s parents told local media outlets that their daughter’s ancestry was, largely, Czech, Swedish, and German. Their revelation came soon after Dolezal reported a racially motivated hate crime.

Dolezal’s case is philosophically fascinating. It raises questions about the racial terms that we should use to talk about Dolezal; in particular, should we refer to her as “black”? As the current popular discussion of her case and philosophical discussions of race illustrate, ordinary language makes use of a variety of concepts of race. Some are based on objective (mind-independent) facts and others are based on subjective (mind-dependent) facts.

One objective concept of race that is implicitly appealed to in many of the current discussions is ancestral. To be black Dolezal must have (recent) sub-Saharan African ancestry. On this view, Dolezal ought not be referred to as “black” because her recent ancestors are not from sub-Saharan Africa.[1]

Another objective concept of race is behavioural. On this view, an individual’s race depends on whether she engages in certain behavior, behavior that is typically associated with a specific ancestry. Some, including Dolezal herself, have suggested that Dolezal is “black” because she engages in “black” behavior. For example, she wears certain hairstyles and clothing, behaviour that is typically associated with people who have sub-Saharan African ancestry. She is also an instructor of African American studies and has shown a deep commitment to promoting “black” causes through her teaching and participation in the NAACP. On this view, Dolezal ought to be referred to as “black”.

On a first-person subjective concept of race, race depends on first-person mind dependent facts. This concept depends on facts about an individual’s feelings and views about her own race. On this view, self-identification is what matters. Dolezal states explicitly that she perceives herself as being “black” (largely because of the cultural practices that she engages in) so she ought to be referred to as “black”.

There is also the third-person subjective concept of race. On this concept, an individuals’ race depends on facts about whether other individuals perceive or identify her as being of a particular race. We can refer to Dolezal as “black” so long as she is “perceived” by others as having sub-Saharan African ancestry, “perceived” as having the visible features of black individuals, and/or as engaging in the relevant behaviour. What matters most is the perceptions of “insiders”, that is, the perceptions of those who are already perceived as being members of the “black” community. Initially, many people in the black community – including members of the NAACP – perceived Dolezal as being black. This changed, however, after her parents’ revelation. She is no longer perceived as being black by many members of the black community, including members of the NAACP. She ought not be referred to as “black”, on this view.

As this brief overview demonstrates, there are many concepts of race that are available to us and that have been appealed to in current discussions of Dolezal. This raises the question, which, if any, of these concepts of race should we use or appeal to when we refer to Dolezal? I will argue that, in contexts where such considerations are relevant, such as the public sphere, political considerations of justice ought to be given priority. They trump, so to speak, when it comes to concept selection in the public realm. Dolezal, as the president of her local NAACP, chairwoman of a municipal police oversight committee, and now celebrity of the moment, is a public figure and political factors are of central importance. So, in asking whether we ought to refer to Dolezal as “black”, we have to ask ourselves, would doing so be consistent with and express a commitment to justice in the United States?

As John Rawls argues, a just society is one that ensures that each individual, black or white, can participate in that society while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect, that is, a secure sense of her equal worth. Referring to Dolezal as “black” is not consistent with the demands of self-respect or a just society.

If society broadly accepts the practice of referring to Dolezal as “black,” this would work to socially erase or make invisible the racial privilege that Dolezal experiences as someone who does not suffer from the downstream and long lasting effects of slavery. It would express the shared public sentiment that the national political history of racial oppression and the resulting differences in power can simply be cast away whenever a person of racial privilege desires to do so, for personal benefit or otherwise. Referring to Dolezal as “black”, would fail to publicly express respect for properly “black” people by failing to express an equal valuing and acknowledgment of the lived experiences and realities that properly “black” people experience. It would suggest that they and their experiences do not matter. Because of this, it is difficult for other properly “black” individuals to participate in a society that refers to Dolezal as “black” while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect. In short, referring to Dolezal as “black” is inconsistent with political values of self-respect and, in turn, is inconsistent with the demands of justice. We ought not refer to Professor Dolezal as “black”.

On what basis should we refer to people as “black”? When political considerations of self-respect and justice are taken into consideration, the ancestral concept of race ought to take linguistic priority in the public sphere. People who have sub-Saharan African ancestry are properly referred to as “black”. Ancestry is the appropriate basis for referring to people as “black” because it tracks politically relevant considerations such as oppression and slavery (historical political injustices), which are considerations that ought to be given weight to and taken into consideration when interacting with others in the public sphere. This is what self-respect and a just society require.

However, a just society requires that we respect not only black people, but white people too. If Dolezal self-identifies as “black” isn’t that at least some reason to refer to her as “black”? Wouldn’t not referring her to as “black” suggest that her own views and feelings about herself are unimportant, that they lack value? Wouldn’t it suggest that her own views about her history and participation in black culture and social movements, over the last ten years, are insignificant? Wouldn’t it, in turn, be difficult for Dolezal to participate in a society that refers to her as “white” while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect? The potentially surprising answer is that yes, it would be difficult for Dolezal and those like her to participate in such a society.

This suggests that, for reasons of justice, we may need to accommodate, in ordinary language, concepts of race that place emphasis on self-identification. For reasons of self-respect, the term “black” ought to be reserved for those who have sub-Saharan African ancestry. However, a new or different set of terms could be used to refer to those who merely self-identify as black. For example, some of have suggested the use of the term “trans-black.” Indeed, Dolezal herself uses this term to describe herself. Use of these types of terms would express that even those, who lack the relevant ancestry, but still self-identify as “black” are “black” in some sense. This would allow people such as Dolezal to participate in society while also maintaining a sense of self-respect.

There is some precedent for the use of these types of terms in regards to race. In India, the term “anglo-Indian” was historically used to refer to people who were not ancestrally Indian. They were typically of British ancestry, but were born in India, lived in and worked in India for many years (during the time of the British Raj), and often engaged in Indian cultural practices, such as language, dress, and food habits, among other things. We could similarly use a new and different set of terms to describe those who are not ancestrally black but self-identify as black. [2]

However, in order for “black” individuals to maintain a secure sense of self-respect, it must also be the case that similar terms exist for “black” individuals who self-identify as “white.” Historical precedence does exist. Consider the terms “oreo” and “coconut.” It is important to note that these are pejorative terms. They are insults that are used to refer to people who are, respectively, perceived as being black or brown in appearance and as having the relevant ancestral heritage but as acting in ways that are typically attributed to white people. The fact that there are terms to describe black and brown people who are identified as “white” or who self-identify as “white” but are used as insults is telling. It suggests that, even if black and brown people (in the ancestral sense) are identified – by themselves or others – as “white”, it is not considered morally acceptable to be identified in such a way.

In short, if white people like Dolezal are the only ones who can have access to morally neutral terms (or morally estimable terms) to talk about their chosen racial identity, then justice would not be served. The practice would be undermining of the self-respect of those who are excluded, namely, of black and brown individuals. Ultimately, as the episode “B.A.N.” from the FX show Atlanta highlights (see below), racial equity on this matter is simply not possible now and may never be. And, until it is possible, the Rachel Dolezals of the world may be stuck with the term “white” to talk about them themselves.


[1] Note that one this view race is also a third-person subjective concept. The fact that certain phenomena (physical, biological, and geographical) are conceived of as being of significance is a matter of social practice – it is a social fact – which, in turn, depends on the collective mental states or intentions of those who participate in the practice.

[2] In a similar, vein, Nell Irvin Painter has recently suggested that we need new terms for white allies, that is, ancestrally white people who wish to abolish white privilege. He suggested that we use the term “abolitionists” for such individuals, referencing “black” and “white” individuals “who joined together as ‘abolitionists’ to bring down American slavery in the 19th century.” See Nell Irwin Painter, “What is Whitness?”, New York Times, June 21, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/opinion/sunday/what-is-whiteness.html?_r=0

Featured Philosopher: Elizabeth Scarbrough


Elizabeth Scarbrough is a lecturer at Florida International University. She received her BA from Oberlin College, MA from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and PhD from the University of Washington (2015). Her research interests revolve around the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Applied Philosophy (“Visiting the Ruins of Detroit: Exploitation or Cultural Tourism”) and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism ( “Unimagined Beauty”). More information about her can be found at elizabethscarbrough.com.

War and Ruins

Elizabeth Scarbrough

I would like to first thank Meena for curating this blog and for inviting me to share some of my work. I hope to provide a few informal reflections about the importance of architectural ruins. I welcome all comments and thoughts.


As a kid, I was an unabashed American tourist. I remember climbing the largest pyramid of Chichen Itza when I was 12 years’ old (called “El Castillo” by the Spanish, and “the Pyramid of Kukulcan” by the Mayans), admiring the view at the top and wondering what it must have been like to see a similar view a thousand years before. Thus began my fascination with ruins. I visited Chichen Itza before it became a UNESCO World Heritage site, and well before it was roped off to climbers. The effect of roughly a million tourists per year climbing the structure eventually took its toll, and the decision to close the pyramid to climbing was made both to preserve the structure and to protect visitors from (sometimes fatal) accidents.

Ruins, like Chichen Itza, are popular tourist sites for numerous reasons. Ruins are evocative structures, and we value them in different ways for the various things they mean to us. Ruins can be aesthetically appreciated, but they are also valued for their historical importance, what they symbolize to different cultures and communities, and as lucrative objects, i.e., for tourism.

My research has focused on how we aesthetically engage with ruins and how this aesthetic engagement might buttress ethical arguments for historic preservation. I’ve also written on how ruin tourism (especially photographic tours of ‘ruin porn’) can exploit local populations. I believe that ruins are important objects of aesthetic appreciation due in part to the variety of modes of appreciation one might employ in engaging with them: one might use them as props to help imagine long-ago people, as beautiful architectural marvels, as parts of a picturesque landscape, or as potent elicitors of the sublime and memento mori. We best appreciate ruins when we address a ruin’s tripartite nature—i.e., ruins are windows into the past, they display unplanned beauty in the present, and they help us imagine the future. Ruins simultaneously help us think about our human ancestors, our current experience, and what will be. In my view, the tripartite nature of ruins should inform how we appreciate and conserve ruins. I argue for a pluralist model for the aesthetic appreciation of ruins, one that respects multiple narratives. All of these ways of engaging with ruins (e.g., imaginative reconstruction, as elicitors of the sublime, and as memento mori) can be ampliative, though they might be incompatible in a particular moment.

Tourists marvel at structures like Chichen Itza in part because they stand the test of time, outlasting the rise and fall of civilizations. However, today an increasing number of ancient ruins have been damaged or completely destroyed by acts of war. In 2001 the Taliban struck a major blow to cultural heritage by blasting the Bamiyan Buddhas out of existence. These gigantic likenesses of the Buddha had been carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of Afghanistan in the 4th and 5th century. They were not easy to destroy (as evidenced by video evidence of the destruction). This direct targeting of cultural property might change our attitudes toward conservation practices. Francesco Bandarin, the UNESCO assistant director-general for culture, states, “Deliberate destruction has created a new context. At the time, Bamiyan was an exceptional case.”[1] Unfortunately, since then, ISIL has continued the Taliban’s destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Particularly heart wrenching were images showing the destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra on August 30th, 2015. The Syrian Army recently retook the area on March 2, 2017, and hope remains for a 2016 plan to resurrect the Temple of Bel.

Bandarin’s comments notwithstanding, the destruction of cultural property in times of war is not new. For example, the Mỹ Sơn Archaeological Sanctuary, in the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam was irreparably damaged by the American War in the 1960s. Mỹ Sơn is the foremost Champa archaeological site, and the largest archaeological site in Việt Nam. At the time of its ‘rediscovery’ in 1898, the site had 71 relics comprising 14 architectural grouping built successively from the late fourth/fifth centuries until the thirteenth/fourteenth centuries. Unlike similar temple structures in Indochina (such as Angkor Wat), Mỹ Sơn’s iconography remained distinctly Hindu. The Champa ruins at Mỹ Sơn primarily consist of brick temple towers called kalans; a kalan is a corbel structure composed of bricks that are stacked in a slightly offset manner.

In August of 1969, a bomb dropped by an American B52 bomber struck Mỹ Sơn, reducing its largest kalan (A1) to heaps of unrecognizable rubble. In 1970, under intense international pressure, President Nixon agreed to spare Mỹ Sơn from further attacks. After the war, the Vietnamese government de-mined Mỹ Sơn so that restoration work could commence. This effort took the lives of nine workers and inflicted serious injury on eleven others. In 1999 UNESCO deemed Mỹ Sơn a World Heritage Site.[2] Ultimately, while other temples at Mỹ Sơn were reconstructed, A1 was left alone. What remains of the A1 kalan is part of an altar and the bomb crater. A1 thus serves as a powerful reminder of the destructiveness of modern war.

The conservation of ruins requires tough decisions. Even with those ruins that have not been touched by war (such as Chichen Itza) conservationists have to balance competing interests of access and preservation. The balance is even more difficult to strike for ruins whose architectural integrity has been altered by war. When ancient ruins are reduced to rubble, either as collateral damage (e.g., the A1 temple at Mỹ Sơn) or as direct targets of warfare (e.g., the Temple of Bel in Palmyra and the Bamiyan Buddhas), local communities have to decide whether or not to reconstruct the ruin, and how to frame the destruction.

Ruins are objects in flux – they are objects in the process of decay and as such, their aesthetic foci can be moving targets. Their changing characters (and characteristics) can lead to shifting valuation practices. The conservation community decided not to reconstruct the A1 kalan at Mỹ Sơn, and I believe this was the right decision. What remains is the bomb crater – a ghost of a ruin.[3] An important question conservationist ought to ask themselves is what story does this site tell? Ruins are valued in part because they evoke the importance of age-value, the endurance of human effort through time. This is no longer true for A1, which stood inviolate for a thousand years only to be inexorably changed in a matter of seconds. The crater at A1 speaks to the wanton destruction of historic sites like these to make some political point. This is just one story A1 tells, but it is an important one in my view.

Many ruins have a mournful quality and A1 is no exception. We might mourn the loss of the complete architectural structure, we might grieve and wax nostalgic for the loss of a culture (i.e., the Champa culture), or we might lament the loss of time. Confronted by the majesty and tragedy of A1, we mourn the myriad costs of war. I believe this narrative must be preserved and should be foregrounded.[4] Figuring out what narratives to tell and which ones should be foregrounded is difficult work that must include input from disparate stakeholders.

We bring our knowledge to bear on our aesthetic experiences. Ruins have a life span. The A1 kalan became a ruin, not because of damage caused naturally by the passage of time, erosion, or overgrowth of plants and trees, but rather because of damage caused by my nation’s government in an arguably unjust act of war. If A1 looked perceptually identical, yet had decayed due to “natural” forces, such as time and water damage, our aesthetic engagement with the kalan could be altered. The fact that it was destroyed by war is relevant to our aesthetic interpretation and appraisal. Allowing it to remain unreconstructed speaks to this mournful quality and foregrounds a narrative about war and destruction of cultural property. If there were no other kalans like A1, perhaps we would have good reasons to reconstruct it. The fact that is one kalan among many in the archaeological sanctuary gives us permission to allow it to ruinate and enjoy the aesthetic qualities ruination brings.

Unlike A1, there are no duplicate/similar Bamiyan Buddhas or Temple of Bel. Those losses are thus arguably far more tragic.

While there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for conservation of ruins impacted by war, I believe there are good aesthetic and political reasons to allow such sites to remain in their post-bombed state. The empty niches where the Bamiyan Buddhas once stood are aesthetically powerful. As columnist Roger Cohen wrote, “Absence speaks, shames, reminds.”[5] The bombed A1 also speaks, shames, and reminds, and unfortunately so, too, will the Temple of Bel. While acts of war might have turned these ruins (and their tripartite aesthetic foci) into memorials, and thereby change how we engage with them, we should not abandon war-torn ruins as a complete loss.

[1] Luke, Ben. “Ruin or Rebuild? Conserving Heritage in An Age of Terrorism.” The Art Newspaper (January 2017: Accessed January 28, 2017: http://theartnewspaper.com/features/ruin-or-rebuild-conserving-heritage-in-an-age-of-terrorism/

[2] UNESCO determined that the Mỹ Sơn temple complex satisfies two criteria for world heritage status (out of ten), specifically criterion two and criterion three: 

Criterion (ii): The Mỹ Sơn Sanctuary is an exceptional example of cultural interchange, with an indigenous society adapting to external cultural influences, notably the Hindu art and architecture of the Indian sub-continent.

Criterion (iii): The Champa Kingdom was an important phenomenon in the political and cultural history of South – East Asia, vividly illustrated by the ruins of Mỹ Sơn.

[3] ‘Architectural Ghost” is a term coined by Jeanette Bicknell. See: Bicknell, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 72 (4): 435-441 (2014).

[4] For recent work on the narrative element of cultural heritage, see Mattes, Erich Hatala, “The Ethics of Historic Preservation,” Philosophy Compass, 11 (12): 786-794 (December 2016).

[5] Cohen, Roger. “Bamiyan’s Buddhas revisited,” New York Times, October 28, 2007.

Featured Philosopher: Shen-yi Liao


Shen-yi Liao is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. He was a Marie Curie Fellow at University of Leeds, an Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technological University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, a PhD student at University of Michigan, and a BA student at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He is Taiwanese. He has published on the cognitive science of imagination, experimental methods in philosophy, and relationships between morality and aesthetics. His other research and teaching interests include philosophy of race and classical Chinese philosophy. His website is liao.shen-yi.org.

Oppressive Statues

Shen-yi Liao


In this picture, a Chiang Kai-shek statue is dressed up as Jason Voorhees, the serial killer from Friday the 13th movies: like Jason, it is wearing a mask and wielding a (handmade) machete. Just in case you missed the reference, the installation artists have helpfully hung a big sign over the statue that said “serial killer Chiang Jason”.

Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) was a murderous dictator. He ordered the February 28 Massacre, in which 10000-50000 Taiwanese people were killed by the colonial Republic of China forces. In the White Terror period that followed, from 1949 to 1987, many more Taiwanese people were imprisoned, executed, or disappeared. Yet today, statues of Chiang Kai-shek remain pervasive in Taiwan. You can find them in parks, in schools, and in major tourist sites like the memorial hall that bears his name.

In recent years, there is a nascent movement to turn Chiang Kai-shek statues into installation artworks around February 28th. (The photo above, and many others, can be found at this Facebook group.) Some installations are serious, and others are whimsical. Some involve splashes of paint, some involves papers of victims’ names, and others involve even more elaborate props. By some measures, the movement is successful. Some municipalities have chosen to remove Chiang Kai-shek statues. And there is now increased police protection of prominent statues around historically significant dates.

There continues to be controversy about what should be done with Chiang Kai-shek statues in Taiwan. In this respect, they are not unique. Similar controversies remain regarding the John C. Calhoun monument in Charleston and Cecil Rhodes statues in South Africa and Oxford. In each case, the controversy has centered on the question of whether the statues should be removed or preserved. In Taiwan, the removalists argue that the statues must go because they are symbols of authoritarianism and the preservationists argue that the statues must stay because they are markers of history. Analogous arguments have been made with the other statues too.

I think the wrong question is being asked. The options of removal or preservation are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. To really understand what we might do with these statues, we need to ask more fundamental questions about what they are and what they do. My answer, to preview, is that these statues are oppressive things that structure our thoughts and behaviors, and in doing so, they set forth norms about which responses to the statues are permissible and which responses are not.

* * *

To think about what oppressive things are, we need to take a small detour. Around this time last year, I traveled to Miami to give a talk and stayed at a little bungalow that I rented via Airbnb. After a long flight, I wanted to take a warm shower before exploring the town for the evening. So I turned the shower on, but it was cold. I turned the left-hand knob all the way up and the right-hand knob all the way down, but it was still cold. I never got my warm shower that evening. The next day, only by accident did I figure out why: against the norm, whoever built this little bungalow had connected the hot water to the right-hand knob and the cold water to the left-hand knob.

This is a mundane example, but it also illustrates the ways in which material things in our lived environments can structure our patterns of thoughts and behaviors. In this case, the shower knobs structured my thoughts and behaviors in (at least) three ways. First, it served as a prompt for associative thinking. Unconsciously and automatically, I associated the left-hand knob with hot water and the right-hand knob with cold water. Second, it served as a guide for elaborative and imaginative thinking. When the shower came out cold, I thought to change that by turning the left-hand knob up even more. In fact, I did not even imagine the possibility that the left-hand knob could be connected to cold water. Third, it served as a motivator for behavior. I took the actions that naturally followed my automatic and deliberate thoughts.

There is an especially interesting class of material things that structure our patterns of thoughts and behaviors in congruence with systems of oppression. Call them oppressive things. Chiang Kai-shek statues are good examples.

Signs of their oppressive nature can be found in the guidelines for their construction. Like other such statues, they are not intended to be neutral historical representations of a person. Instead, as the guideline states, they are sculpted to show Chiang Kai-shek’s “spirit of compassion, wisdom, courage, determination, and optimism”. They are also more than statues of a person. Given the social and historical context in which the “mainland Chinese” (waishengren) exerted violent domination over the “Taiwanese” (benshengren), these statues also function as physical anchors of that oppression.

These oppressive things demand people in their presence to associate Chiang Kai-shek and his oppression with compassion and courage. In turn, the statues also function as guides for mandated re-imaginings of Chiang Kai-shek and of Taiwanese history. And, of course, these ways of thinking are intended to encourage behaviors of honor and respect. The official authorization of these statues’ physical presence adds another dimension to their impact: they do not merely structure particular patterns of thoughts and behaviors, they are meant to normalize them.

* * *

We can also think about what oppressive things do by exploring an analogy between language and art. A central insight of speech act theory is that words do not merely represent, they also do things. As mentioned, oppressive things such as Chiang Kai-shek statues also do more than just represent. In particular, qua public statues, they not only encourage some behaviors like honor and respect, they also prohibit other behaviors.

In a series of papers, Mary Kate McGowan has honed in on a kind of speech act called the exercitive, which enacts permissibility facts. Consider one of her examples. A restaurant owner in the segregated South puts up a sign in his restaurant that says “Whites Only”. In doing so, he does not merely represent the racial composition of his clientele, he also makes it the case that non-whites are not permitted to enter his restaurant. In this example, the sign has this force partly because the permissibility facts it enacts are in congruence with racial oppression in the US.

Oppressive things also enact permissibility facts. Even if you do not judge Chiang Kai-shek to be worthy of honor and respect, in the statues’ presence you must behave as if you do. You are not permitted to act disrespectfully toward the statue. For example, you cannot place a mask over its face, put a machete in its hand, and label it “serial killer Chiang Jason”. Indeed, as mentioned, Chiang Kai-shek statues demand so much honor and respect that police protections are necessary to preempt such behaviors.

People do things with words, even if the words are not their own. By letting the “Whites Only” sign stand, the patrons of the racist restaurant are consenting to, and perhaps socially sanctioning, the permissibility facts that the “Whites Only” sign enacts. Similarly, by letting oppressive things stand, we also seem to be consenting to, and perhaps socially sanctioning, the permissibility facts that they enact.

* * *

Despite some differences, there are obvious similarities between the oppressive statues and institutions named after dead racists. In writing about the latter, Regina Rini has argued that to answer the question of should we rename institutions that honor dead racists, we need not ask for comprehensive judgments of the dead racists’ moral character; rather, we need to only ask ourselves whether the continuing uses of the dead racists’ names reflect our values.

I think Rini’s insight applies to oppressive things too. We need not be asked to make comprehensive judgments about the moral characters of the people represented. Instead, we need to only ask ourselves whether we want to continue to encourage particular patterns of thoughts and behaviors, and to continue to enact particular permissibility facts.

Suppose we decide that we do not, removal is not the only option. There are other ways of changing the thoughts and behaviors that Chiang Kai-shek statues encourage and the permissibility facts that they enact. For example, we as a democracy might open them up as materials for installation artworks that critically examine Chiang Kai-shek or his oppression. In doing so, the statues can remain markers of history—not only of the past, but also of our present.

Featured Philosopher: Jason D’Cruz

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Jason D’Cruz is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University at Albany, State University of New York. During Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 he is a visiting scholar (chercheur invité) at the Centre de recherche en éthique (CRE) at Université de Montréal, where he is writing a book on trust and distrust. He is giving a colloquium paper entitled “The Moral Stakes of Distrust” at the upcoming APA Pacific Meeting in Seattle on April 14.

His work in ethics and moral psychology focuses on the topics of trust, promising, rationalization, and self-deception. His recent work appears in EthicsPhilosophical PsychologyRatio, the Journal of the American Philosophical Association, the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, and The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

You can find links to his work at his website.

Reasons to Renounce Distrust

Jason D’Cruz

What are good epistemic reasons to distrust a person? How do these reasons square with moral reasons to give someone the benefit of the doubt? When do we have moral reason to renounce distrust, and what does renouncing distrust amount to if feelings of distrust are not under a person’s control? These are the issues that guide my present research and that keep me up at night. Rather than attempt to canvass answers in this blog post, my aim is to convince you of the moral urgency and of the philosophical interest of the questions.

Here’s a real-life case that has stuck with me.

When Dr. Cross boarded Delta flight 945 from Detroit to Minneapolis last October, she confronted a situation where her skills as a physician would be of vital use, but where her offer of assistance would be declined. A Washington Post story on the incident describes the circumstance with economy: “Unconscious man on plane. Wife screaming. Doctor is two rows away. What happens next? Emergency care is delayed because flight attendant doesn’t believe black woman is a doctor. True story.” In a Facebook post that subsequently went viral, Cross relates how her offer of help was met with the patronizing response, ‘Oh no, sweetie put ur hand down; we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel. We don’t have time to talk to you.”

Cross’s story is an object lesson in the power of distrust to insult. Several features of the story explain the fittingness of Cross’s feelings of insult: the condescending tone of the flight attendant (“sweetie”); the assumption that Cross couldn’t be a “real” doctor; the further the presumption that either Cross was not speaking honestly when she described her credentials, or else, perhaps worse, that she was not competent to discern her own status as a physician.

I propose that this kind of interaction, and many others like it, are of normative consequence that is presently under-appreciated by moral philosophers. Unwarranted distrust that is predicated on prejudice is pervasive phenomenon whose moral complexity theorists have yet to reckon fully with. If we reflect as deeply as we should, cases like this call on us to consider the high moral stakes of distrust, and in particular, to pay attention to the consequence of typically non-deliberative and spontaneous behavior that is expressive of attitudes and emotions constitutive of fearful distrust.

Here’s another case that has stuck with me. In a 1990 NYTimes op-ed, later re-written for Ebony, the philosopher Laurence Thomas relates with bitter irony that, “At times, I have looked over my shoulder expecting to see the danger to which a White was reacting, only to have it dawn on me that I was the menace.” Thomas argues that black men rarely enjoy the “public trust […] no matter how much their deportment or attire conform to the traditional standards of well-off White males.” To enjoy the public trust means “to have strangers regard one as a morally decent person in a variety of contexts.” Distrust of black men is rooted in a fear that “goes well beyond the pale of rationality” and eats away at a person’s capacity for trustworthiness:

Thus the sear of distrust festers and becomes the fountainhead of low self- esteem and self-hate. Indeed, to paraphrase the venerable Apostle Paul, those who would do right find that they cannot. This should come as no surprise, however. For it is rare for anyone to live morally without the right sort of moral and social affirmation. And to ask this of Blacks is to ask what is very nearly psychologically impossible.

Thomas picks out a feature of unjust distrust that is particularly troubling: distrust, irrational or not, has a tendency to be self-confirming. Much recent empirically-informed work in virtue ethics has come around to Thomas’s view that in order for virtue to take root and thrive, it must find social support. (Ryan Preston-Roedder’s “Faith in Humanity” (2013) give a good overview). Maria Merritt (2009) points out that even Aristotle himself thought that virtuous character needs support from social relationships. Virtues such as justice, liberality, magnificence, pride, due ambition, friendliness, and good temper all require for their practice “a social world inhabited by a community of peers.” (32) Aristotle’s own conception of virtue is highly sensitive to concerns of honor. As Thomas shows, acts that signal distrust can be deeply dishonoring. My view is that we sometimes have reason to abjure distrust because we have reason to mitigate the risk of dishonoring a person unjustly.

Contemporary philosophers working on trust have focused their attention on hazards of mislaid trust, which they rightly point out can be confidence shaking, demeaning, and even humiliating. To be let down in one’s expectations is bad enough. To be made a fool of adds insult to injury, and can damage a person’s ability to trust in the future. Trust without due caution is reckless. On the other hand, distrust without warrant (distrust that fails to target incompetence or ill will or dishonesty) is liable to insult, demean, and disempower, planting the seeds of alienation expressed in behavior that does warrant distrust. As a result, distrusting others exposes us to a kind of moral risk.

To arrive at an understanding of what it might mean to disavow distrust I draw attention in my work to distrust’s practical aspect. In my view, distrust is essentially a protective stance that responds to the perceived threat of another person’s ill will, lack of integrity, or incompetence. I think it’s useful to model distrust as having a structure that is isomorphic to that of entrusting rather than to that of trust.

Entrusting is a three-place relation: X entrusts g to Y, where g is some good. Entrusting does not involve the expectation of any particular action on the part of Y. Rather, X puts some cared-for object in Y’s hands, on the assumption that Y will not do it harm. Distrust is best understood as a refusal to entrust or a withdrawal from reliance. My working model is that distrust is an affectively-loaded withdrawal from or wished-for withdrawal from exposure to the vulnerability of reliance, on the basis of a belief or construal of the distrusted party as malevolent and/or as incompetent and/or as lacking integrity.

One upshot of thinking about distrust in this way is that distrusting a person does not require the expectation that they will act in a particular way or fail at a particular task. Rather, it consists in the refusal to expose oneself to the hazard of reliance. The refusal to entrust need not be grounded in any confident belief; mere skepticism or suspicion is sufficient.

Attention to the practical aspect of distrust helps to uncover what it might mean to renounce trust, and how it might be possible to renounce distrust while still withholding trust. My proposal is that, when we have moral reason to renounce distrust, such renunciation takes the form of entrusting others with things that are valuable to us. To be sure, when we entrust in this way we may continue to feel fear and to continue to harbor suspicion. And, needless to say, risk is unavoidable when we entrust in the face of incomplete information. But by entrusting we give others the opportunity to respond in ways that show trustworthiness. And it is the experience of this response that enables those who renounce distrust also to overcome it.



Featured Philosopher: Alexus McLeod

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Alexus McLeod is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Asian/Asian-American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He works in Comparative Philosophy broadly, with specific interests in the Chinese, Indian, and Mesoamerican philosophical traditions. Recent publications include Philosophy of the Ancient Maya: Lords of Time (Lexington), Theories of Truth in Chinese Philosophy: A Comparative Approach (Rowman and Littlefield International), Astronomy in the Ancient World (Springer) and Understanding Asian Philosophy (Bloomsbury). He is also editor of the Critical Inquries in Comparative Philosophy book series (Rowman and Littlefield International). He is currently working on a book on madness and self-cultivation in early China, and a project on truth in Indian Philosophy. He considers himself a philosophical explorer, in the spirit of his favorite fictional explorer (pictured on the tie in this photo).

Comparative Philosophy in an Age of Cultural Chauvinism (or “The Art of Traveling Without Traveling”)

Alexus McLeod

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

-Mark Twain, from The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress

My philosophical work is, to put it mildly, all over the map. I work on numerous different philosophical traditions (most recently the Chinese, Mesoamerican, Greek, and Indian traditions), and on numerous different philosophical issues within those traditions. I don’t think any of my books has covered philosophical terrain anywhere close to that of any of the others, and I don’t anticipate this changing anytime soon. In a field like our own that rewards (relatively) narrow specialization, it has been difficult to make my way like this, but somehow I have. I keep writing this stuff and people keep publishing it, and by the grace of God, I have a job as well. What I’ve never offered in any of my work yet, however, is an explanation of why I insist on working this way, hopping over so many area and disciplinary boundaries. There is purpose behind my philosophical wandering. I’d like to explain at least a little of this here, and why I think the field needs at least a few of us doing this kind of thing.

I am a huge fan of travel shows. I love watching others travel between continents, seeing historic sites, meeting people, and learning about different cultures across the globe. Indeed, I discovered the first part of the Mark Twain quote that opens this post though my favorite travel show, Joseph Rosendo’s Travelscope, which closes each episode with the quote. It is a powerful statement of the importance of travel. Though Mark Twain was talking specifically about the kind of physical travel that requires long journeys over many miles, travel can happen in a variety of ways. It does not need to be the kind of physical “get up and go” trekking that requires enough free time and either a job that provides it or a large enough bank account. Anyone can travel. The key is that it involves leaving one’s “little corner,” as Mark Twain called it, and wandering into unfamiliar places. In fact, even though I personally tend to physically travel very little these days (at least in comparison to most philosophers I know), in part because I loathe transit, I engage in different kind of travel, from the armchair. Call it the art of traveling without traveling (I have a soft spot for Daoist descriptions).

Much about my own background makes this kind of travel natural for me. Even though I grew up within a pretty small range, I had the good fortune of growing up in one of the most international and cosmopolitan cities in the world, Washington, DC. One could walk a mile in any direction and find people who spoke many different languages, from all over the world. You didn’t have to globetrot to see the world, because everyone was already there. My own background is relatively diverse—I am the son of a mainly Irish-American woman from the Northeast and an African-American man from the Deep South. I married the daughter of a diplomat from India, who has herself lived in various places around the globe. It was in fact she who first got me interested in Chinese, as she’d lived in Beijing for some time and convinced me to take a course in Mandarin with her when we were undergrads. Cultural diversity has always been a central part of my own life, even though, like Socrates, I tend to stick close to home.

Travel, to me, happens through exploring different places, whether those are the physical surroundings of a different nation on a different continent, or the intellectual heritage of a culture—its language, literature, and history. I studied a number of languages and cultures as an undergraduate, all without stepping foot in the lands of their origin. I studied Mandarin Chinese and then Classical Chinese long before I ever visited China, diving into the classic philosophical, religious, and historical texts. I did the same thing with a number of other languages and cultures. This study opened my eyes to all kinds of ways of thinking about the world that differed from those I knew. Some of them I found implausible, but the longer I have reflected on these texts and traditions, the more plausible I have come to find them. And not only that, I’ve found that they have shaped the ways I think and act. My “travel” through the world’s traditions has not only enriched my life as a whole, but has made me a better philosopher than I would have been without it.

The multiculturalism I discuss (if you want to call it that) was for me never associated with elitism or any other class consideration. I was never part of the “jet set.” I come from about as typical a “middle class” an American family as one can imagine, and most of the people I knew from around the world were not much different in terms of economic class. This is part of why it pains me today to hear the enemies of multiculturalism today proclaim that it is an ideology of a so-called “Davos class”, as if the rich and powerful are trying to force cultural diversity on the unwilling masses. This was never my experience. And part of what I aim to do with my work is create the conditions in philosophy for others to travel, to have the same kind of experiences I had growing up living in the midst of diversity, and then intellectually traveling.

The kind of intellectual travel I engaged in is easier today than it has ever been. One of the unique advantages we have today is the sheer wealth of information we have at our fingertips, and all around us. The world is more interconnected today than it has ever been. It is far easier to travel intellectually, in the sense of immersion in the cultural products of a distant people, than it was when I was starting out (and it was easy then!). Travel has never been easier, even for the physical travel-averse homebody like me. There are of course deep advantages of living in a cosmopolitan city like DC or NYC, but such travel is available to people living in less diverse areas as well.

Nonetheless, in recent years visceral and even violent reaction against the kind of multiculturalism I prize has arisen at home in my country and around the world. The reasons for this are complex, having partly to do with the association in the minds of some of cultural diversity with a certain rapacious economic ideology. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the kind of rhetoric that props up such reaction against multiculturalism can only be effective in the absence of widespread travel—whether physical or intellectual travel. Echoes of this broader cultural resistance to diversity can be found even in our own discipline of philosophy. Thus, when we ask why the world is sinking into the mire of nationalism, xenophobia, and bigotry, we should also look to ourselves. Haven’t we understood Non-Western thought as an “optional other” through the years? And even now, don’t we still tend to consider the philosophical value of these traditions in terms of what they can do to advance the projects we are already engaged in?

I think the questions of whether a historical thinker or text from a Non-Western tradition is “interesting” or “important” or can “help us solve problems” are the wrong questions to be asking. What, after all, determines whether a philosopher is interesting? Part of the problem is that when we are provincial, our provinciality does not limit itself to the content we choose to engage with, but seeps into the very ways that we reason, and shapes our conceptions of what we find valuable. Are Mengzi, Dharmakirti, and Nezahualcoyotl important because they deal with problems we’re already inclined to think are important? This strikes me as similar to a person who says that he’s only going to go try the Salvadorean food cart if they have good food. It will be completely unsurprising when the insular non-Salvadorean concludes that it’s not good food because it doesn’t taste right, because they don’t have pizza and hamburgers and fries. One’s view of what counts as good food will be shaped by the communities one moves in, by what one is exposed to. Likewise, what one understands as a good argument, an apt intuition, or an important point, has much (but not everything of course) to do with what one is exposed to, with where one stands. We are deluding ourselves if we think there is some kind of universal and culturally transcendent standard for what is “important”, or even of proper reasoning. This is not to say that we should accept a radical postmodernist stance toward reasoning itself, but reasoning itself is always half-formed. There are no arguments without assumptions, intuitions, implicit valuations—including shared assumptions about just what constitutes good argument. One of the things I have been most struck by in my years of studying various philosophical traditions is just how different assumptions can be concerning all of the aspects of philosophical reasoning mentioned above. Even if we are right that there is One True Method (although, like Zhuangzi, I think we should run for the hills when anyone starts pontificating about the One True Anything), we cannot simply assume that we have it, when there are so many other alternatives out there.

Ultimately, my hope is that through intellectual travel we will form new ways of living, thinking, and speaking. My own aim is to contribute to the development of global philosophy, which is part of a larger project we might call “globalization”. Not the kind of globalization that looks to impose a single cultural standard on everyone, but the kind of globalization that involves mutual exchange and true fusion. True fusion does not involve the “land grab” of using parts of some traditions to achieve the purposes of another, rather it involves the transformation of multiple traditions into a new tradition that shares features of each. True fusion is not philosophical appropriation. Rather, it involves being open to the transformation of oneself in light of a mutual exchange. When a true fusion happens, there can no longer be an “us” and “them”, because “they” become “us”.

So when I’m asked (as I occasionally am), “is this all just about inclusion? Is it diversity just for the sake of diversity?” I answer emphatically—“yes!” Inclusion is critical. What we include as part of ourselves shapes how we view and reason about the world and our lives. It is no accident that those whose communities are most restrictive also have the most insular and impoverished worldviews. It is simply impossible to spend much time with others without being influenced by the ways they think and act, and without developing more expansive (and ultimately more adequate) worldviews. If we aim to understand universal concepts like truth, being, morality, and others, we can’t sit still in our “little corner of the earth.” We have to travel. We have to explore. Sic itur ad astra!

Featured Philosopher: Meena Dhanda

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Dr. Meena Dhanda is a Reader in Philosophy and Cultural Politics at the University of Wolverhampton. She migrated from the Indian Punjab to the U.K. as a Commonwealth Scholar at Oxford University in 1987. She has published two books: a monograph, The Negotiation of Personal Identity (Saarbrüken: VDM Verlag, 2008) and Reservations for Women (ed.) (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2008). From 2007, Meena has engaged in transdisciplinary studies connected with caste/race, publishing several papers including: ‘Punjabi Dalit Youth: Social Dynamics of Transitions in Identity’, (Contemporary South Asia, 2009); ‘Runaway Marriages: A Silent Revolution?’, (Economic and Political Weekly, 2012); ‘Certain Allegiances, Uncertain Identities: The Fraught Struggles of Dalits in Britain’ (Tracing the New Indian Diaspora, 2014); ‘Do only South Asians reclaim honour’? (‘Honour’ and Women’s Rights, 2014); ‘Anti-Castism and Misplaced Nativism’ (Radical Philosophy, 2015). She has been an active member of the Society for Women in Philosophy UK for more than 25 years.

Doing Socially Engaged Philosophy

Meena Dhanda

[The following is a revised extract from two Keynotes presented at the Women and Minorities in Philosophy conference, University of Edinburgh, 21st April 2016 and the annual Ratio and 7th Experimental Philosophy as Applied Philosophy international conference, University of Reading, 24th April 2016. Many thanks to the organisers for the occasions to voice my views then, and now to Meena Krishnamurthy, for inviting me to publish on her blog.]

When I arrived from India in the U.K., I had assumed that caste was not likely to be an issue in the U.K. I was wrong. My awareness came from chance conversations with students. I also realised that there was little empirical work on caste in the U.K. I was intrigued that, despite the possibility of erasing caste identity and living as ‘equals’ in the U.K., South Asians seemed to maintain their caste enclaves. As a philosopher, it was a big step for me to find out through primary research what kind of caste awareness existed in the U.K. In 2007-8, a research award gave me the opportunity to work on a comparative pilot project interviewing young people in Wolverhampton as well as the Indian Punjab about caste-identity. From 2010-2012, the award of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship gave me further opportunity to engage with the South Asian Dalit communities in Wolverhampton and elsewhere. My initial interest in Untouchability (Dhanda 1993), caste-identity, inter-caste relations and caste-based prejudice, extended to understanding caste discrimination too.

The stories about caste prejudice I heard shocked me. Young Dalits told me that when friends discovered their caste, their behaviour towards them radically changed. They said that as professionals they would prefer to move away from residential areas of high South Asian concentration, because they did not want to face questions about their caste, questions that would inevitably be raised if they stayed within South Asian communities. All this was terribly disturbing. I learnt, that often young people experience caste labelling without having any framework within which to locate this denigration. They may get called a name, be insulted, or joked about, but they don’t understand: why? They may begin from a vague sense that there are divisions between South Asian groups, but sooner or later, especially by the time they are of marriageable age, a full-blown, birth-ascribed, caste-identity catches up. Even those who do not identify with their caste, ‘high’ or ‘low’ (and there are many such people) they too end up being identified by community members as belonging to a caste grouping. There are several caste-based organisations, U.K. charities, which have the purpose of protecting the social and cultural interests of certain caste groups. So, if someone says caste is dying in the U.K. we need to ask them when will this come to pass? Caste is not about to be to eliminated in the U.K. any time soon.

What is the link between the practice of caste, and the existence of caste discrimination? What must a responsible philosopher do about caste discrimination? Can some kinds of caste discrimination be lawful? If caste discrimination is to be eliminated, must we use the law, or address public opinion alone? Are these pragmatic considerations or are there matters of principle at stake here? These are questions that political philosophy ought to consider. There are real people, victims of caste discrimination, demanding that the law should be used to protect them. The law makers are dillydallying, under pressure from powerful lobbies resisting change.

In his Introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics, Hugh Lafollette (2003) notes that to say anything informative, we must make the effort to acquaint ourselves with the facts of the matter. ‘If we do not understand the way people act and the way our world works, we will lack a plausible standpoint from which rationally to evaluate current practices’ (2003:7) and the danger of ill-informed theorising is that the status quo will remain unchallenged. If we want to use ethical theorising to check biases, prejudices, and selfishness, then we must learn to understand how these biases work in the ‘real’ world of people.

If philosophy is taken as the activity of clarification, elaboration or invention of concepts, this activity takes place in the context of problem solving. We start from a given articulation of the problem, say for example, trenchant difference of opinion about the value of a practice (e.g. caste-based endogamy). To make a defensible judgment about the value of that practice, we will need first to understand what the practice means to respective practitioners. We will, therefore, need to gather ‘information’ about the variety of actual positions. For those who want its continuation, the practice may be expressed as definitive of a people’s identity, or seen as necessary to maintain continuity with tradition. It may also be defended as simply a matter of individual choice. For those who oppose that practice, it is equally necessary to their oppositional identity to expunge the practice from their lives. On endogamy, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar wrote that caste causes a ‘division of labourers’ ‘graded one above the other’ (Ambedkar 1936/2002: 263); ‘[a] caste is an enclosed class’ and ‘endogamy is the only characteristic of caste’ (Ambedkar 1916). The defenders of endogamy differ with Ambedkar’s analysis of caste.

I took on a mediating role when setting up a face to face organised deliberation on the value and limits of legal measures against caste discrimination in Britain, specifically on the inclusion of ‘caste’ in the U.K. Equality Act 2010. For this task, I was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing together the fullest range of stakeholder organisations by the U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as a part of the project Caste in Britain that I led from Sept 2013 – January 2014, concluding in two published reports (Dhanda et al 2014a and Dhanda et al 2014b). From the start of this project till today, it has been a challenge to maintain the role of a mediator. I have been accused of ‘colonial consciousness’, a charge to which I responded in ‘Anti-Castism and Misplaced Nativism: Mapping caste an aspect of race’ (Dhanda 2015). The U.K. based Alliance of Hindu Organisations (AHO) had conceded in a press release after participating in our EHRC Stakeholders’ workshop that ‘[w]e accept that there is evidence of geographical pockets of discrimination’ (dated 13 November 2013). Nonetheless, after the publication of our EHRC reports, AHO wrote in a letter to the Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on British Hindus: ‘The word Caste must not remain in Legislation, its continued use is an act of anti Hindu racial and religious violence and prejudice of the highest order’ (dated 20 March 2014).

To untangle the thinking behind such responses to the inclusion of caste in the Equality Act 2010, is a not an easy matter. From regurgitating conceptual muddles, to made-up histories of ideas, to veiled threats of withdrawing political support from their respective mouthpieces in the Houses of Parliament, to personalised attacks on academics arguing for legislation, the opposition to legislation on caste discrimination in the U.K. demonstrates various ploys of power used to subvert orderly discussion. Can a philosopher stand up to such an onslaught? Are professional philosophers equipped to participate in bare knuckle fights? George Yancy’s remark: ‘Only now have I really begun to recognize how discourse designed to hurt can actually leave its mark’ sounds a warning.

‘We desperately need a transformation in philosophy’ as Naomi Scheman said in her dialogue with Kristie Dotson, offering a convincing diagnosis of the straight-jacketing of philosophical practice. Post-second world war professionalization of the subject of philosophy happened alongside a de-politicisation, curtailing engagement with the world beyond the text, and valorising the text as the narrowly defined object of study. This, she argues, in the context of North America was partly a defensive response to McCarthyism and partly an attraction of scienticism. I agree with her Wittgensteinian and socialist bent of mind attuned to looking at the bigger picture, one where: ‘we live in a world of irreducibly divergent perspectives … enmeshed with power and privilege and vulnerability’ (14 April 2016).

Reflection on ‘real’ world problems can generate surprising conceptual connections. I have begun to make one between racism and casteism. I also want to recall a historical connection. The racial division and segregation of the American South was in the 1930s described in terms of two ‘castes’ — ranked, endogamous, ascriptive racial groups— before the language of ethnicity and race itself overtook this (Fuller 2011). For India, there are studies of the racialization of caste both in colonial times and in contemporary attitudes towards Dalits; and the language of racism (or ‘hidden apartheid’) has been promoted by Dalits mobilising to bring international attention to caste discrimination through United Nations forums (initially at the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance at Durban in 2001).

The opposition to the U.K. caste legislation objects to the comparison between racism and casteism. But there is a historical connection between racial purity and caste purity rigorously argued by Dorothy Figueira (2002). Racism in Europe, took its vicious form of Aryan supremacy, through the imperialist foraging of ancient Indian texts. There are echoes of the racial script of Aryan supremacist thinking within Indian nationalists too: Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) worried that caste Hindus mixing with non-castes, leads to Aryan degradation (Figueira 2002: 137). The idea of racial purity is historically tied to the idea of caste purity – to promotion of ‘breeding’ and to a fear of miscegenation. In the U.K., Casteism is experienced most intimately in the personal domain, but it spills over into the public domain of education, work and services, covered by the Equality Act 2010.

Relying on the comparative analysis of race and caste made by the anthropologist Gerald Berreman I support the advantages of juxtaposing the structural oppressions of racism and casteism, albeit, by spelling out as fully as possible their respective manifestations in the lives of the oppressed. Berreman (1968) warns, that ‘Our silence…. leaves to politicians and journalists, to entrepreneurs, scoundrels….but especially to the powerful – the interpretation and manipulation of matters about which they frequently know little…’ and ‘to shrink from value, from passion, or commitment, is as inappropriate as to shrink from reason…we must seek to apply our knowledge and skills to real problems, defined by us…’.

For me, the real problem is making sense of contested practices of caste. Are caste differentiations and divisions about inequality or are they fundamentally about domination? We cannot hope for a consensus on our understanding of caste discrimination and convincingly establish the point of using the law in protecting victims of caste discrimination, without filling out the ‘bigger picture’. This, for me, is doing socially engaged philosophy.


Ambedkar, Bhimrao R. (1916) ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’. In Valerian Rodigrues (Ed) (2002) The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ambedkar, Bhimrao R. (1936) ‘The Annihilation of Caste’ in Rodigrues (2002).

Berreman, Gerald (1968) ‘Is Anthropology Alive? Social Responsibility in Social Anthropology’ Current Anthropology. Vol 9: 5; 391-396.

Dhanda, Meena (1993) ‘L’éveil des intouchables en Inde’ (translated by Isabelle di Natale) in Catherine Audard (ed) Le Respect : De l’estime à la déférence: une question de limite. Paris: les Éditions Autrement – Série Morales Nº 10 – Février 1993 – 120 F. Pp. 130-145. ISSN: 1154-5763.

Dhanda, Meena (2008) The Negotiation of Personal Identity. Saarbrüken: Verlag Dr. Muller. Pages 231. ISBN: 978-3-639-02931-4.

Dhanda, Meena (2015) ‘Anti-Castism and Misplaced Nativism: Mapping caste as an aspect of race’. Radical Philosophy, 192, July-Aug, 33-43, ISSN: 0300-211X

Figueira, Dorothy M. (2002) Aryans, Jews, and Brahmans: Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Fuller, Chris J. (2011) ‘Caste, race, and hierarchy in the American South’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 17, 604-621.

Lafollette, Hugh (2003) The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics. Oxford: OUP.

Featured Philosopher: Marcia Baron

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Marcia Baron is the James H. Rudy Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University. She also recently was Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, and many moons ago taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Publications include Kantian Ethics Almost without Apology (Cornell, 1995), Three Methods of Ethics: A Debate, co-authored with Philip Pettit and Michael Slote (Blackwell, 1997), “Manipulativeness” (2003), “Gender Issues in the Criminal Law” (2011), “Self-Defense: The Imminence Requirement” (2011), “The Standard of the Reasonable Person in the Criminal Law” (2012), “The Ticking Bomb Hypothetical” (2013), “Rape, Seduction, Shame, and Culpability in Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (2013), “The Mens Rea and Moral Status of Manipulation” (2014), “A Kantian Take on the Supererogatory” (2016), and “Justification, Excuse, and the Exculpatory Power of Ignorance” (2016). 

Is More Better? Another Take on Citation Practices

Marcia Baron

I want to express my gratitude to Meena for creating and running this site, and for inviting me to contribute to it. Although the suggestion was to write about my research, another option was to offer a comment on the profession, and I’ve decided to go with the latter. The former is more fun, but there is an issue that’s been on my mind, particularly as a concern regarding younger scholars, and this seems the right place to address it (apart from the slight awkwardness that I am using Meena’s site to take issue with a proposal she put forward).

Recently I refereed a paper for a journal that sends each referee not only the verdict but also the other referee’s report. The paper received a revise-and-resubmit, which was fine with me; but I was concerned about the requests for revision from the other referee. I wanted this point clarified, that section expanded, wanted the author to either remove one section or make clearer how it fit into the overall paper. The other referee wanted more work on the topic cited and addressed. My reaction was “That’s one kind of paper, but not the only kind!” It was a really interesting piece, deep, complex, an engaging read, and I couldn’t see any way the author could comply with the referee’s request without lowering the quality of the paper.

Around the same time a friend drew my attention to a piece by Meena Krishnamurthy and Jessica Wilson proposing that “large numbers of individuals commit, in their capacity as journal or other referees, to rejecting for publication papers or other submissions that fail to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand, on grounds of failing to meet basic standards of scholarship” or at least commit to not accepting any such articles (the idea, I take it, being that the author would be asked to revise and resubmit). It should be “generally considered a necessary condition on a submission’s getting a full review that the author engages in basic scholarly due diligence.” Although this is far less burdensome than a proposal to require not merely citing but engaging with all clearly relevant work, I am not in favor of it.

I don’t want to claim that there is nothing amiss in current citation practices. Routinely citing only articles in the most highly-regarded journals, or only the articles one thinks referees and journal editors are most likely to expect one to cite, or only the work of one’s friends, or the “in-group,” or the most famous people who have written on the topic, is clearly pernicious. Moreover, anyone who claims that approach A has been neglected in recent decades had better do her homework to be sure that is the case and should certainly cite any exceptions; ditto for anyone who claims her approach is novel.

But what if the author does not claim her approach is novel, or that approach A has been neglected? Is it critical that she do a thorough search to figure out who else has put forward a view similar to hers and then take care to cite all such work? I don’t think so. To be sure, a paper that betrays ignorance of relevant alternatives, i.e. that assumes that the only options are A and B when C should also be acknowledged, is ipso facto flawed and referees or editors should note the failing and ask that the paper be revised accordingly. Presumably editors and referees already are doing that. I take it that what is proposed here is something more than that, involving a more robust notion of ‘scholarly due diligence.’

The paper that cites extensively, noting various other approaches and arguing against them, or when in partial agreement, mentioning them in a footnote and explaining where one agrees and where one disagrees, is one kind of paper; I’m glad such papers exist (at least when they are done well, without misrepresenting others’ views; see below). But most of the papers I am inspired by, return to, assign in advanced courses–papers by Susan Wolf or Barbara Herman, for example–do not cite extensively. It never occurs to me to wonder whether the author adequately researched the possibility that someone else had already made a similar point.

Nonetheless, there is a problem–the work of some philosophers is unjustly ignored–and the question remains of how best to address it.

(1) I agree that we as authors should pay attention to whom we cite, and revise accordingly: are we citing mainly just those who are well known? (Or mainly just men? Or just our friends?)

(2) In refereeing, we should recommend that an author take into account the work of S (but I mean to contrast that with simply requiring much more extensive citing).

(3) In editing a book or guest editing an issue of a journal, we should make a point of inviting not only well-established authors but also junior scholars.

(4) Invitations to present papers to one’s department or at a conference should be issued with these concerns in mind. The APA has been doing this for quite some time; in my experience, often we consider an author-meets-critic session or an invited speaker but decide that although excellent and sure to draw a good crowd, his work is showcased often enough as is, and we should instead invite some people whose work, though also quite good, receives less attention, including especially people from marginalized groups.

(5) In refereeing proposals for anthologies and (especially!) textbooks, we should be bold about objecting if there is inadequate representation of women authors and non-white authors, and also encourage the editor to invite some less established authors to contribute.

(6) Although we need to assign the work of various famous philosophers in our courses, we should include as well work by the less famous. (I am assuming that we already all agree that we should not assign only the work of men.)

(7) Last but not least, and important for all of the above, we should read widely.

But why not also go with Wilson and Krishnamurthy’s proposal? I’ve already hinted at one reason: there is more than one way to write a good philosophy paper. Many very good papers do not cite all or most of the relevant philosophical literature and are by no means the worse for it. Relatedly, the requirement proposed would absorb a great deal of one’s time and attention, and (as I often see in papers I referee or in drafts that early career philosophers send me) too little attention is then paid to getting really clear on what one’s position is and defending it well. Now, if all that is called for is listing a large number of people who have written on roughly that topic, that is not very demanding (though there is a question of how valuable it is to do so). But this brings me to a further reason why I oppose the proposal, and indeed the most serious “citation failures” that I frequently encounter: misrepresentation of others’ views.

To be sure, the proposal doesn’t say ‘Don’t worry about whether you are accurately representing others views’! But the problem is that compliance with it either takes a great deal of time, or it works the way a number of recent papers read: one follows a practice, common in other fields, of listing after a sentence a long list of author-date citations. E.g., “The view has faced numerous challenges [several papers cited in author-date fashion].” But is it really that view that each of those authors has challenged? And: did they all actually challenge it, or did some at one point in their papers discuss a challenge to it and then endorse the view? Mistakes about such things are more likely if there is pressure to increase the number of papers we cite. My impression is that these mistakes are more common now, and specifically in papers with large numbers of citations. It might be a coincidence, but I doubt it.

Of particular concern is that if the proposal were adopted, the burden would fall disproportionately on philosophers whose careers are not well established, in particular on graduate students and untenured faculty members.[1] They are under considerable pressure to publish but unlike those of us who are doing most of the refereeing and editing, they rarely receive invitations to contribute to a volume and thus have no choice but to go through the refereeing process. I would rather not see a further burden imposed on them. One might reply that it is not imposed only on them; the proposal is to impose it on oneself, not only on those whose papers one referees. But even assuming conscientious adherence to the same citation requirements that one is imposing on others, there is still the fact that for those with well-established careers the burden is self-imposed and (probably) escapable and for others it is not.

A further problem is that the proposal, if accepted, would have the unintended effect of discouraging engagement with work outside of philosophy, a point that emerges thanks to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò. The proposal in no way suggests that engagement with such work would be frowned upon; but given time and space constraints, those needing to publish their work in peer-reviewed journals would be unlikely to be able to do this as well as strive to cite all the relevant work in philosophy. This would be a significant cost to the profession (and not only because it would be demoralizing for the author who is trying something a little different). A lot of very interesting work in philosophy draws from a wide array of sources, not only that of professional philosophers (and, for that matter, not only that of academics); such work reduces insularity and contributes to diversity in philosophy in more ways than I have the space to list here.

Taken together, these considerations constitute very good reasons for resisting the proposal.

But isn’t frequent citation of one’s papers of great importance to one’s career? I doubt it. Attention to one’s work that involves serious engagement, assigning it in courses, recommending it to colleagues, reprinting it in an anthology—that makes a difference. So do invitations to present papers or to contribute to a prominent anthology or guest-edited issue. Simply having one’s work cited seems very unlikely to do so, particularly if it is merely cited (without even a gloss such as ‘For an intriguing alternative, see…’), one among a large number of articles. Thankfully, in our field we do not rely at all on citation counts. (I fervently hope that does not change.) In the dozens of tenure and promotion cases for which I’ve been a reviewer, the matter has never come up, nor has it come up in tenure committee meetings I’ve been part of. It would be bizarre to think that in our field frequent citation of an article is a sign that the work is held in high regard; it could be cited frequently as a glaring example of an egregious error or a common confusion. So here is something else we senior scholars should do: make sure that tenure committees and deans do not get the idea that the frequency with which a particular article (or a scholar) is cited is an even slightly useful measure of the quality of the person’s work. And everyone: please do not provide a citation count on your CV or website.

Neglecting the work of those not in the “in group” is serious. But we don’t need to address it by citing much more than we now do; we need instead to work to correct tendencies to cite and engage with only the famous, and in particular need to modify our practices in choosing whom to invite to speak in colloquia and conferences and in selecting work to assign in our classes.[2]

[1] In her reply to Táíwò (see below), Krishnamurthy acknowledges the challenges for junior philosophers and says that “what matters most is that we make a good faith attempt to cite what is objectively relevant to the topic at hand,” but doesn’t indicate whether she still endorses the proposal she and Wilson put forward concerning referees and editors.

[2] Thanks to Nathaniel Baron-Schmitt, Meena Krishnamurthy, Adam Leite, Frederick Schmitt, Sandra Shapshay, and Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò for helpful comments.