Philosophy has always been a powerful social institution, even before the Athenian “Golden Age” and its professionalization over the last few centuries. Still, many give a deflationary account of its cultural importance today and view it as a peripheral enterprise at best. Somehow we need to articulate polycentric approaches to philosophical questions and issues.

Philosophy is about asking questions, for me, and I do not envision a world in which the desire to ask questions will be exhausted— even today you can get answers instantaneously with the new “Bible” of Google or whatever site you prefer without much effort, but I experience the urge to ask questions as more dire under such convenient conditions. That is why StackExchange is so great, but I am not shocked by how little feminism, Native American thought, or Critical Race Theory are brought up for discussion. We have to seriously consider the privilege and isolation associated with philosophical pursuits. The dominant interests of Western philosophy have been shaped by the limited perspectives and depluralized views of White men; the inclusiveness of women and other minorities in philosophy is a pressing concern! Too often philosophy becomes a display of testosterone gymnastics that undermines “outside” perspectives.

It is good that philosophers want to be in dialogue with science, religion, and other cultural interests, but what can philosophers do to critically challenge the Eurocentric metanarratives which are continuing to stunt rather than spark its growth? Could it be there are many things within this cherished tradition that damaged philosophy—I am thinking of the notorious anti-Semitic hate in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks just published as a basic example—representing a “logics of domination” more than attempts at honest self-persuasion? If philosophy seeks self-examination in a repeatable process of self-surpassing, self-negation, and self-reconstitution then how might race and gender be deconstructed in light of a world in which others call on the philosophers to practice uncanny hospitality?

A good, recent article on the situation: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/philosophy-is-deadwhite-and-dead-wrong/2012122.article

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    This sounds a bit like a rallying cry for (continuing) affirmative action in philosophy departments: as such, it perhaps belongs more into politics than philosophy.
    – Drux
    Mar 12, 2014 at 8:09
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    +1, and I think we should be cautious about being quick to dismiss this as a sociological problem.
    – Paul Ross
    Mar 12, 2014 at 10:05
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    @MyronMosesJackson I did not mean to suggest there was anything wrong with your concern, just that it (perhaps) belongs into the realm of politics. BTW, a lot of this occurs in music too. So does the concern that Bach, Chopin, etc. all were white and male belong to music or to history?
    – Drux
    Mar 13, 2014 at 12:33
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    What's wrong with it, MyronMosesJackson, is that the scope of this question and answer site is "This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum." Believe me, I'm personally interested in the demographics of the Philosophy profession. But I follow @Drux in wondering whether you genuinely have a question you are seeking an answer to. Mar 13, 2014 at 22:24
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    Of course, "Western" refers to people whom we would generally call "white" and historically women have not been involved in many disciplines until relatively recent history, so all that makes sense. Black people (myself one of them) were introduced into much of what we would call "the Western world" only in recent history (compared to the total history of philosophy) and in a manner which was not exactly conducive to engendering the growth of great philosophers. I don't see any philosophical problems with this; discussion is better fit for chat.
    – stoicfury
    Mar 24, 2014 at 17:08

6 Answers 6


Forgive the wall of text, but Prof. Jackson rightly calls our attention to some big issues that can't be given glib, short answers.

Here's my two cents worth.

First, we must distinguish the questions of philosophy from a tradition of particular answers to them. I think the questions of philosophy are at least at some foundational level universal, because they arise from shared human experiences. Humans are social animals, so there will be questions about the nature and purposes of the rules which make life in community possible. Hence there will always be questions of ethics and political philosophy. Humans, apparently universally, accord important social privileges to some epistemic states, we rank "knowledge" better than "opinion" and want to get more of the former. Hence, questions about the nature and purpose of knowledge will always arise. The western tradition in philosophy comprises a series of different ways in which these foundational questions have been raised, discussed, debated and addressed. It is a particular tradition, with roots in one particular time and place (Greece of the 6th and 7th centuries BC--although there are influences from other cultures). We can speak in just the same way of Indian philosophy, Chinese Philosophy and so on. None of these traditions is absolutely self-contained. But we can see some interesting parallels. There are importantly similar interests in the theory of correct argumentation in Indian and Chinese thought, just as there is in Greek thought. There are interesting ethical parallels between the kind of virtue ethical theory Aristotle propounded and Confucianism. These aren't surprising--as I say, the questions are universal, so it isn't surprising we would find similar kinds of answers to those questions in different traditions.

Second, we must recognize how philosophy within the western tradition has been used as a tool for the theoretical justification of oppression against vulnerable populations. (Whether, or how different philosophical ideas have been used for oppression in other cultures or places I do not have the expertise to say.) However, it is not possible to address this point simply by tacking on a couple of token thinkers from other traditions to the traditional undergraduate syllabus. This is a very controversial point, so let me make quite plain what I mean.

It isn't possible to just throw Confucius into an ethics syllabus as an "alternative" kind of virtue ethics. This is for two reasons--first, although I am no specialist on Confucius, I am almost certain that the description wouldn't be completely correct, and therefore it would fail to respect Confucius on his own terms. It's one thing to note a similarity between Aristotle's ethics and Confucius's. It's another entirely to think that "ethics" is this a static, timeless domain of clearly understandable questions to which Confucius and Aristotle are both offering the same answer. That's too simplistic. At some basic level philosophical questions are universal, yes. But as people in one particular tradition take those questions up, they transform them by giving them answers, by weaving them into systematic theories about the world, and by developing social institutions whose existence presupposes a particular way of thinking about those questions. The social world of China in Confucius's time is importantly different than the social world of the Aristotle's Greece.

Further, it is not clear to me what a student with only a marginal grasp of Aristotle stands to benefit from reading Confucius. A proper recognition of the intriguing similarities and dissimilarities between these two thinkers presuppose deep knowledge of both, not little smorgasbord sized bites of each. I think a detailed knowledge of the western canon is required for a western philosopher to appreciate Confucius. Just as I would expect a detailed knowledge of the Chinese philosophical tradition would be required for a Chinese philosopher to appreciate Aristotle.

There is a third question Prof. Jackson seems to want us to think about as well. This isn't an abstract discussion about the "Western tradition" so much as it is a practical question about the shape of the profession of philosophy as an academic discipline today. Are philosophers today racist? Is there good work they are ignoring because the standards and shape of the academic discipline of philosophy are subtly biased against it in ways that reflect racial, gender, sexual, or other kinds of biases? I think that's an important question. The answer is: almost certainly. There is a growing literature on this subject. For instance, the number of articles by women published in top, peer-reviewed journals in philosophy is disproportionately low.

There are at least two possible explanations for these kind of lingering problems in the profession. I'll identify these problems, then suggest some steps that young scholars can take to try to mitigate the negative influence of these factors on their careers.

One problem is that editors of journals or referees might be biased against contributions because of a failure of blind review. That is, they might see that a the author of the paper is female, or has a "black" name and automatically, subtly discount the paper on that basis. This is the easier problem to fix. Here I suggest that authors always check the editorial policy of the journal they want to submit to and only send their papers to journals that practice triple-blind submission. For instance, Mind is triple blind reviewed. That isn't always possible, and even journals that claim to be triple-blind might not always follow through. But I think it's a best practice.

Another problem might be that editors or referees might be biased against contributions from women or minorities on the basis of content. A violation of this type would occur when a very good paper about W. E. B. DuBois gets rejected just because of its subject matter. This is actually more complicated than a simple case of "the journal is racist because it won't consider papers on DuBois." Journals are founded with specific audiences and specific areas and topics in mind. So make sure that you aren't submitting stuff to an inappropriate journal. But of course there are generalist journals that say they publish anything, and it might be the case that some of these journals are top journals and they are consistently kicking very good material back because referees are just inherently suspicious of some of the people who who up in the footnotes. This is harder to fix. Maybe the best strategy for young scholars here is simply to remove all reference in your work to other thinkers. Let's say you have this great idea about how racial biases have infected philosophy of biology. Just write your idea up and defend it as your own. My sense is that if you are able to clearly articulate your problem, and defend a cogent, rigorous solution to it your work has a pretty good shot at being taken seriously in the profession precisely because people are unlikely to have heard it before. Once you've got tenure, you tell everybody how you got all your great ideas from this theorist they've been discounting. And then you've got a real bully pulpit. If you can publish your ideas in good places, people will take you seriously. If they take you seriously and you show how your ideas that got published these good places are all influenced by this important figure nobody's reading--well, that's just how you get the philosophical community broadly to start taking your figure seriously.

Two last thoughts about how race and gender can hurt you in the profession that I don't know how to mitigate. First, young philosophers need mentors. You need somebody to teach you how to write for publication at big journals. You've got to know what the profession is talking about how to cast your ideas so that they are responsive to these broader professional currents. Such mentors are hard to find. If there are only 2 people at your graduate program who actually have the kind of publication/professional chops to be able to mentor you on how to do that, then you face a non-trivial chance that neither of them is going to be willing to mentor you in that way because of your gender or race or sexual orientation or religious preferences. If that's your situation, you can't really change it except by changing programs, I think. It's unfair, unjust and awful. But I don't see what else a powerless graduate student could do about it.

Another way you might be handicapped by race or gender is economic. It takes time and money to have the leisure required to hone and polish one's work to the level that is required to publish in impressive venues in philosophy. If you aren't lucky enough to be sitting on a trust fund that can bankroll many, many years of graduate education, there's a good chance you're not going to have time to publish and to the kind of work I was just talking about two paragraphs up. And of course, many women and minorities are disadvantaged in just that way. This isn't unique to women and minorities, but it is an issue of special concern to them as well.

I would be very interested in hearing what people think about the feasibility of my suggestions here. Thanks to Prof. Jackson for an important question and to everyone who actually reads this huge post.

  • You raise many pressing concerns, Shane. These are great examples and illustrate the kind of problems I have been thinking about for years. I think you have to deal with everyone individually and I like how you stress this continually. I think you offer students sound advice that can do a lot of good. +1, very helpful and thorough response! Mar 14, 2014 at 4:07
  • Good, shane. I agree with a number of these suggestions (and have made some offline efforts to further some of them). One place I disagree with is the economics of PhD programs in Philosophy—many PhD programs are set up to fund students at a level such that they don't require funds from elsewhere. But more generally: doesn't this serves as an answer to a question other than the inherent properties of the profession? Mar 14, 2014 at 14:49
  • @ChristopherE, My experience is that programs vary quite widely in the amount of funding they are able to offer. Some are quite generous. Others aren't. I don't know any reliable empirical data about this, however.
    – user5172
    Mar 14, 2014 at 19:47
  • Right, exactly — my thought is that unlike some other concerns you raise, this is a problem with particular departments/institutions rather than with/for the profession. Mar 14, 2014 at 20:05
  • Sure. I'm happy to admit that. I'd guess that it's a problem for more depts than not, but that's a guess. My own institution has made important strides in this regard. Ten years ago, our grad students lived in section 8 and needed food stamps to survive living in a major metro area.
    – user5172
    Mar 14, 2014 at 23:32

No, a great many of the philosophical arguments and topics published in journals have literally nothing to do with race or gender — either of the author or in terms of the content. The questions and topics can therefore be neither inherently patriarchal nor inherently mono-racial.

Adding, after several down-votes: I didn't read the question as being explicitly about the profession of philosophy, as the questioner, Myron Moses Jackson, subsequently specified in comments that it was. If the question is about the profession, then indeed it may deserve a different answer, perhaps one of those given.

However, I would note that if the profession of philosophy is inherently (as opposed to contingently, or presently) patriarchal and mono-racial, then it follows that there is nothing we can do about that. You can't change something's inherent properties. If the profession of philosophy is not like that, then there's nothing we should do specifically about that.

If the questioner were to have asked what we should (and can) do about making the profession less male and white, I would have quite a lot to say about that. It's something I have worked on. But that is not what he/she asked.

  • I'm talking about us--the people behind the topics and arguments. How realistic do you think it is that philosophers can isolate themselves from such pressing matters? I respect if you don't want to address it, but to deny its even on the radar is pretty startling. Such a quick dismissal verifies the need for further inquiry, don't you think? Mar 12, 2014 at 3:22
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    I didn't dismiss your question or deny anything is “on the radar”; I answered it! Your question appears in the headline. I took it to be about Philosophy rather than the profession of Philosophy. Are you asking whether the profession inherently has those characteristics? Mar 12, 2014 at 3:38
  • Yes, sir! I go to a lot of philosophical events and conferences. It is predominantly white and male today and in the tradition. Philosophy is the least diversified field in the academy and I applaud efforts by departments encouraging broader representation. In such a globalized context philosophy needs to expand or perish. This lack of diversity is problematic both internally and socially. Philosophy is not irrelevant but narrow circumspection will continue to cripple its relevance. The high Alpine air philosophy breathes is in need of a culture shock. Mar 12, 2014 at 3:48
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    @Rodrigo, So if some engineers try to solve a problem while ignoring Aztec or Spartan engineering they're merely “engineers”? Hmmm. Mar 21, 2014 at 19:23
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    @Rodrigo, No, I have never heard or read a philosopher saying that philosophy should be the sum of all knowledge. Mar 24, 2014 at 13:50

The wording of the question assumes that philosophy is a social institution. It is more usually understood to be a field of intellectual inquiry. While the ethnic origins and social roles of the practitioners may have an influence on the questions they ask and the topics they address, the logic of the assertion that that the practice of philosophy is inherently Patriarchal and monoracial works better as an argument that no one should study it than it does as incentive to include subjects of interest to women or minorities.

  • Quite the opposite. All philosophy presupposes the social, even arm-chair thinking. I'm engaged in a rehabilitation of thinking philosophy in a conflict-ridden, pluralistic world. This isn't suppose to some theory for escapism. I'm a philosopher, but as a minority we are underrepresented especially historically. The canon only represents the voices/perspectives of European males. My question aims to confront these challenges, not ignore them. Philosophy is about the human condition but select groups cannot speak for all and this is too often the case. Not arguments it's about peoples. Mar 12, 2014 at 4:59
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    The logic of a positive answer to your question is that if philosophy is inherently patriarchal and monoracial, and you are a philosopher, then you are inherently practicing racism and sexism.
    – Confutus
    Mar 12, 2014 at 5:14
  • It's a serious question not meant to put people on the defensive! Consider how small of a world we philosophers often engage? Paul Ross is correct and I never said "racism" or "sexism" Confutus, you did. Mar 12, 2014 at 14:26
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    Inherent usually implies inseparably and essentially, not merely possessing certain properties as a kind of legacy. If a philospher is capable of acting and thinking in a non-racist, non-sexist manner, then partriarchy and mono-racialism are not inherent to philosophy.
    – Confutus
    Mar 12, 2014 at 16:51
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    Philosophy is a field of intellectual inquiry, it is also a social institution. One supposes that one requires the other. Mar 12, 2014 at 19:11

I'm going to do the typical Analytical thing and say that yes of course Western Philosophy is "Inherently" Patriarchal and Mono-racial, given its history, and I think given the massive slew recently of sexual harassment cases involving philosophy professors that this is substantially still the case today. But does that mean the same thing as the claim that Western Philosophy is "Essentially" or "Necessarily" Patriarchal and Mono-racial? (suspending for the moment metaphysical worries about essences or possibilities)

I think that we can still accommodate change in this without writing off the whole project as doomed to be the exercise of power by hegemonic authority. One example at least of signs of a sea change is in the role of feminism in challenging typical foundational assumptions in the epistemology of science (SEP article on the topic). In classical scientific epistemology we have often taken the abstract Scientist to be in a position of being able to make value-independent judgements of what is perceived to be "the evidence". But of course this abstraction depends quite a lot on certain presumptions of what it means to include and exclude as value-dependent judgement, and given the typical demography of science in the classical world and the clear need to remove our ideal scientist from being a generalization just over white upper class straight men and their values, there is a definite project in mining out our modelling assumptions to work out whether these still stand outwith the privileged perspective of the old guard.

I also definitely think there is room in other areas of philosophy for challenging along the same lines. Because yes, philosophical debate can be confrontational in a way that is often weighted towards those who've been in comfortable seats of authority, but this also means that at least some poor philosophy is being covered up with bluster and entitlement. And the results of the revelation here can be really exciting to watch - check out this awesome review by Kerry McKenzie of Colin McGinn's work in Metaphysics.

  • +1, great response and consideration of the issues. This is certainly a problem in the legacy of philosophy and I'm glad you made that distinction. Mar 12, 2014 at 15:47
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    Why is this 'typically' analytical? Mar 12, 2014 at 18:01
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    @PaulRoss - The SEP article to my eye can be summarized thusly: "your ideal is X, but in practice people end up biased and do Y, also. Therefore, we reject that X is the ideal and say: we should adopt a biased approach we like more, Z!" This is not a sound argument, nor is it sensible epistemology. (It might be reasonable social policy.) The scientific method will keep functioning regardless of whether philosophers speak wisely of it or not, but if this is what replaces exercise of power by hegemonic authority we are even more doomed than before. Have you no links to anything wiser?
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 12, 2014 at 23:17
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    @PaulRoss - In the SEP article at least, the stress is entirely on Z not Y instead of Hey, Y?! It's supposed to be X, remember?. That is, replacing one set of dubious practices with another. You will get different types of errors in science this way, perhaps, but it still won't work. Thus my charge that it's bad epistemology (or maybe that it's not even epistemology of science; it's the social philosophy of the enactment of the scientific method, which really has little to do with epistemology itself).
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 13, 2014 at 0:54
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    @PaulRoss - In part this is a more general issue I have with philosophy being too enamored of the idea that value-laden interpretations are unavoidable. If you believe that, then it is entirely reasonable to say: well, why those values instead of mine? But we must account for the success of science, where progress is most rapid in exactly those areas where interpretation is least swayed by value. For instance, almost every suggestion in section 7 is a really bad idea for reasons I would explain if this were a debate forum. As it is, I guess I understand the state of affairs adequately.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 13, 2014 at 2:35


Some branches of philosophy aren't inherently patriarchal or mono-racial, yet are key aspects of Western Philosophy. These include logic, philosophy of science, epistemology, much of ethics (including both consequentialist and non-consequentialist systems), and so on. Indeed, the whole point of much of this endeavor is to be as objective as possible, to depend as little as possible on gender or race or individual identity or anything aside from the bare commonality of being humans or a generalization thereof (conscious being).

Thus, that all philosophy is inherently patriarchal or mono-racial would only mean that women or non-Caucasian races couldn't think straight. Logic is logic, no matter the number of X chromosomes per cell or the amount of skin melanin in the one who engages in it.

On the other hand, social philosophy and all things relativistic (particularly common though not exclusive to continental philosophy) is very much a product of its culture. It is hard, for instance, to get very far through anything written by Nietzsche without thinking, "Hm, I don't think a Rwandan woman or a (hypothetical) seelie faerie or Lt. Commander Data would agree."

So perhaps we could say: where the Western matters to the Philosophy as anything beyond a description of the historical source of the endeavor, then yes, philosophy is in many ways guilty as charged. However, very much of it is only Western in the incidental historical sense.

(And, to "historical" I should add, "and in the makeup of the senior faculty of university departments".)


I wonder how much of western philosophy is linked to western religion (i.e. judeo-christian monotheism). That was one of the main criticisms proposed by Nietzsche, that's why he attacked so many philosophers, and that's why many people today consider him to be relativistic/crazy/outdated/etc. And western religion IS "Inherently Patriarchal and Mono-racial". No need to explain the "Patriarchal". The "Mono-racial" goes in many ways: africans seen as a "cursed tribe", amerindian culture almost destroyed (and still being destroyed), eastern thought ignored even by lots of western "philosophers", Jesus represented as a tall, white, blonde, blue-eyed man, not to mention the way jews mix race and religion, accusing of "racism" anyone who attacks their elitist mythology.

EDIT: The Platonic idealism is so deeply intertwined with the western thinking and monotheistic religion that perhaps it is by itself a good definition of "western".

  • Nice response, Rodrigo! I think you are on to some things that need to be considered. It is difficult to tell why it was voted down, but their is a broad range of opinions converging on the site; I would not be willing to bet your competence in philosophy on these votes...LOL. Mar 26, 2014 at 21:23
  • Thank you, Myron. How do I chat with you?
    – Rodrigo
    Mar 27, 2014 at 1:29
  • Hey, Rodrigo!! Happy New Year! Sorry about the delay but just seen your response. Please hit me up at my email address listed or on Facebook. I would like to chat some more if you get a chance and are up for it. Jan 6, 2015 at 1:05

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