Why Be Concerned With Intellectual Diversity in Philosophy?

Much of the focus in the recent debate surrounding Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden’s New York Times piece on the lack of intellectual diversity in philosophy departments has surrounded the question of whether Non-Western philosophies are “important” or “sufficiently philosophical.” It seems to me that what is raised by these questions, and the answer to the question of whether Non-Western philosophy or intellectual diversity is necessary at all in philosophy departments, turns on our conception of what philosophy is. I suspect there is a disconnect between parties to the debate concerning the nature of philosophy. In this post I want to make my own position clear, as well as suggest (though not robustly argue) that this position is one we ought to adopt.

The answer to the question of whether intellectual diversity in philosophy is important depends on what we take ourselves to be doing when we are doing philosophy. If doing philosophy as akin to building a car or an airplane, in which we have a clear outcome and the task is to properly achieve this outcome, then intellectual diversity really has no place.  You don’t want a number of diverse ways of building brought to bear on building a 747.  You want the proper way followed. But is this what we’re doing in philosophy? As any student in an introductory philosophy class finds out within the first week, there are no decided and firm products of philosophical inquiry that can unproblematically be seen as “what we are trying to produce.” Philosophy is more like research and design—it is creative, and tries new things in order to create new responses to perennial problems of human existence. If this is what we aim to do in philosophy, then intellectual diversity is crucial, and the kind of “quality control” approach that we sometimes find advocated in the field, and which works very well for practical engineering and applied sciences, is veritable kryptonite to the philosophical project (apologies for the comic book reference-I’ve been taking my kids to see a lot of these films recently🙂 ).

This is why I’m far more concerned about diversity, experimentation, and innovation than I am about “quality control.” To have a concern with quality control assumes that you already know exactly what you’re trying to make—you have a blueprint, and you want to ensure that things are made as specified. This works fine and should be encouraged in certain areas—if you are making tools, in engineering, perhaps in experimental science, etc. But we do not discover through quality control. In R&D, “quality control” is death. When we are on a path of discovery, it is far more important to explore, allow for diverse methods, approaches, and styles. We can only find what we do not already know when we allow ourselves to wander off the range.

Yes, when we do this, we allow in things that would not meet quality standards in other areas, and we do run the risk of countenancing sheer nonsense. But we need this, because we do not yet know the difference between nonsense and the truth, between what works and what does not, until we try it. This is why I say in my article in the recent APA newsletter that gatekeeping rarely leads to innovation and discovery. It cannot! When you know exactly what you want to make, you may make excellent copies of that, but you certainly will not learn new ways of making things. When our goal is to build quality 747s, we should put most of our effort into quality control. We know exactly what we want to build, and thus our energy goes into following the proper steps and cultivating the right abilities. But what do we do when we want to discover new possible ways of flying? When we’re in R&D? That’s when we throw caution to the wind, try out everything we can think of, and see what works. Of course we would never let any passengers sit in anything we devise in R&D, but the very purpose of this is different! It is to discover new things that we may one day use to create new machines for flying, that engineers can then construct from blueprints, with quality control as a guide.

We ought to realize that in philosophy we are much closer to R&D than we are to manufacturing. We are closer to theoretical physics than practical. In theoretical physics, speculation, imagination, and consideration of strange and new possibilities is a must. Such could never be allowed in more practical and applied physics, of course. But what is discovered through theoretical physics can eventually be used in this applied way.

If we aim to develop in philosophy, we should be far more concerned about the possibility of disallowing diversity and experimentation than we are with the possibility of allowing low quality work. The occasional low quality work is the price we pay for the intellectual diversity that alone allows us to grow. J.S. Mill understood this, when he discussed liberty. We allow for self-harm and experiments in living that lead to disaster in order that we don’t accidentally squash the experiments in living that we think might lead to disaster, but turn out to help us discover new and better ways to live. We allow for liberty in part because of our ignorance concerning the best ways to live. We need experiments in living to help us discover better ways. And if the work of philosophy has any parallels, it is much closer to the art of living than it is to engineering or practical/applied physics. In the same way, in our criminal legal system (ideally), the standards for prosecution are high, because we accept the possible exoneration of the guilty as a price worthy of paying in order to avoid the punishment of the innocent. Our commitment to protecting the innocent is supposed to be greater than our commitment to punishing the guilty.

Likewise, in order for philosophy to be truly vital, our commitment to exploration and innovation must be greater than our commitment to “quality control”, or we will end up making excellent copies, but we will never truly grow.

6 responses to “Why Be Concerned With Intellectual Diversity in Philosophy?

  1. This is a hugely important topic, and I appreciate your added voice in this discussion. I completely sympathize regarding the “wandering” approach to knowledge. Discovery is not a linear process, and attempts to streamline intellectual exploration simply collapse into intellectual mechanization. Wandering requires openness and exploration, and often produces the most creative responses to a situation; wandering requires constantly integrating different perspectives to navigate complex circumstances. Wandering requires kindness towards imperfection due to the realization that all things are imperfect and cannot hope to resolve every problem. Understanding wandering is essential for life because life is always changing. We cannot cling to one fixed perspective (especially perspectives that simply reproduce themselves) and hope to survive.

    • Thanks Carl! I think this is one of the reasons I’ve always sympathized with the Zhuangzi. And even moreso with the integration of the Zhuangist points into the overall unified vision of the intellectual (and political) project of the Huainanzi.

  2. Christiaan Mitchell

    This is not terribly apropos of you underlying point, but the legal metaphor you use might even reach further than you think (and *might* have some application here?).

    Not only do we insist (usually) that prosecutors clear a high hurdle of certainty, we also provide active supports for defendants. If a defendant tells his attorney that he’s guilty, the attorney is guilty of the highest level of professional misconduct if she divulges that. Whereas if a prosecutor discovers evidence that might exonerate the defendant, she is under an affirmative obligation to violate her client’s (the state) interest in the suit and divulge that evidence.

    This works this way because, so the theory goes, the state has no interest in convicting the guilty, and every interest in exonerating the innocent.

    In a similar vein, a defendant who cannot afford legal representation is provided with an attorney at the expense of the state. We do this because a robust and effective defense is the central pillar propping up the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. This why, the clear failures of the criminal justice system are a much bigger problem than the lives that it ruins…it erodes the legitimacy of government.

    All of this relates back to you fundamental point that what’s really going on here is that folks are disagreeing about the real purpose/goal of philosophy. If the goal is to locate fundamental truths and that set of fundamental truths is something like a finite set of statements or principles, then there’s no sense in entertaining other lines of pursuit. However, if the goal of philosophy is to fashion a better human existence, then the wholesale rejection of challenges to our established norms is…criminal?😀 And the net result is the same: the legitimacy of philosophy as a pursuit worth the investment of personal time and public resources is called into question.

  3. I would like to point out that mainstream philosophy in the U.S disregards diversity even of western traditions: it’s even more monolithic than you note. Also, it frequently borrows or reinvents concept from other traditions, and then denies the validity of the original tradition, or significance of parallels.

  4. Hi,
    As someone interested in Chines philosophy, you may be interested in reading a recent online discussion that may impact sinology. Please read the discussion right to the end.



    W. K. Choy

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