The “Core”

A metaphor familiar to ethicists and political philosophers is that of the “expanding circle” of justice. Circles, of course, have a centre. At the centre of the justice circle stands, as a matter of historical fact, that ominous presence: the prosperous, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgendered etc. man (incidentally, I am guilty as charged). The idea behind the metaphor, then, is to suggest that, as a matter of historical description as much as normative prescription, our circle of moral concern must expand beyond this narrow centre. It must expand in concentric bursts to incorporate, piece by piece, outsiders into its periphery: people of colour, women, homosexuals, the disabled, non-human animals, and even (God forbid!) the working class.

Metaphors are just metaphors. But they do (to deploy another metaphor) frame our imaginative conceptions of philosophical problems. So it’s worth pointing out that while the metaphor of the expanding circle might be descriptively accurate, it’s normatively inadequate. This is because circles, even expanding ones, still have centres and peripheries. Even once we’ve included those who were once excluded, we do so only by moving them into the periphery—social Neptunes around a privileged sun. Perhaps this means we should find a better metaphor (the melting pot of justice? The frontier of ethical inclusion? – both seem problematic). Or perhaps we should just acknowledge that the metaphor should only carry our thinking so far, if not abandon it all together.

Philosophy, as a discipline, is also a social institution subject to considerations of justice. As philosophers concerned with justice, it’s incumbent upon us to scrutinize the discipline to find its problems (as well as celebrating its triumphs). And it hardly merits mention that philosophy’s history looks worryingly like the history of western ethical consideration that the expanding circle notion is meant to capture (how could it not?). What attributes were shared by the “philosophical greats”—the kind of philosophers gracing the pages of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy—the Aristotles, Aquinases, Kants, Humes, and Mills? Of course, they were all prosperous, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men. And how much space does Russell devote to what we might call “issues of particular philosophical concern to the underprivileged”? You already know the answer: very little.

Of course, short of building a time-machine, there’s not much we can do about the past. And even then, we’d probably end up inadvertently crowning some über-Hitler while (advertently?) having it off with a grandparent or something. Still, we can ensure that the ways in which we describe the past more accurately reflect the admittedly unfortunate demographics and concerns of its participants. Russell might conceivably have devoted some space to Mary Wollstonecraft and her questions, for instance (she isn’t mentioned).[1] That would have gone some way to mitigating two distinct, but related, problems of representation. The first we might call a demographic problem, i.e. the underrepresentation of underprivileged people. The second we might call an issues problem—namely, the underrepresentation of issues of particular philosophical concern to the underprivileged.

In Russell’s defence, he was writing at a time when philosophy was far less inclusive a discipline than even now, about philosophical periods that were less inclusive still. So his omissions are largely forgivable. But the two representational issues that plagued Russell’s A History are still alive and well today.[2] Besides thinking about the well-documented lack of diversity among its practitioners, I invite readers to look at the assigned authors and topics in philosophy syllabuses available online, for instance. Most, including many of those concerned with sub-disciplines amenable to greater inclusivity (e.g. political philosophy)—suffer a breathtaking lack of diversity. You might even take a look at your own syllabuses. (Incidentally, the forgiveness formula is three Hail Marys and one Our Father for every white male philosopher on your syllabus).

What goes for the syllabus, goes just as well for the anthology. In my experience, anthologies of work in the discipline are certainly more representative than they once were. But most still fall far short from the ideal. The two problems—concerning syllabuses and anthologies—are related, of course. Designing a course takes a considerable amount of time and energy, a problem only compounded by a commitment to making assigned authors and topics more representative. When time is short, relying on anthologies becomes an almost necessary part of the process. And so the demographic failures of the one trickle down into the other. This problem isn’t helped by another useful time-saving practice: relying on the existing syllabuses of others. This gives rise to influential precedents in exclusivity.

My optimistic sense is that a lot of philosophers are beginning to recognize this kind of representational carelessness. The enthusiastic attendance of the Diversity in Philosophy conference held recently at the University of Dayton, Ohio, for instance, is a positive sign. But I also suspect that ameliorating these problems will require us to go beyond changing our syllabuses and anthologies. I believe we need to revise the very terms in which we conceive of our discipline. I’m thinking, in particular, about the (inadvertently) pernicious and widely endorsed notion of “the core”. Cores are to spheres what centres are to circles. Just as with those who don’t reside in the centre, that which isn’t embedded in the core is relegated to the periphery. And just as privileging those residing in the centre alienates those who don’t, so privileging topics at the core denigrates topics that aren’t.

Indeed, the problem of the “core” straddles both problems I’ve been discussing—the “demographic” problem and the “issues” problem. The areas designated as “core” exclude topics of particular philosophical concern to the underprivileged. And therefore unsurprisingly, the demographic of “core” philosophers is even less representative than the rest of the discipline.[3]

Of what does this “core” consist, and why is it “core”? By most lights, it includes metaphysics and epistemology. By many, it also includes the philosophies of mind and of language. The notion is not without justification, provided we equivocate a little. Metaphysics, broadly construed as concerned with what things there are and the relations between them, is to be found in the vast majority of philosophical sub-disciplines. And epistemological issues, again broadly construed, are important in other areas (e.g. moral epistemology, aesthetic epistemology). Indeed, this is inevitable if one thinks of knowledge as the end of philosophy. Similarly, issues concerning, for instance, concepts (language, broad) and subjectivity/objectivity distinctions (mind, broad) are nearly ubiquitous. But one might wonder why these broad construals should licence a privileging of the “core” as narrowly construed. It’s not clear that a semantics of the indefinite article, for instance, or Bayesian updating is any more pertinent, if pertinent at all, to the vast majority of philosophical problems. This isn’t to say that these questions being addressed in the “core”, narrowly construed, aren’t important. It’s merely to say that they don’t seem more important than questions about, say, whether races are real, or why it is we enjoy and seek out unpleasant sensations in works of tragic art. Nor do the “core” subjects have a monopoly on (broad construal) relevance to other areas in philosophy. To give just two examples: feminist philosophers have shown time and again how the political pervades areas of philosophy previously thought to lie beyond practical concerns; aesthetic issues in theory choice crop up all over the shop in the philosophies of science and mathematics.

To the person convinced that there is still an asymmetry here—that the “core” is more important to, say, the philosophy of race than the philosophy of race is to the “core”—what should we say? I think the right move is to concede the point, but only as far as it goes. That is, if we construe metaphysics broadly enough—i.e. in such a way as to virtually guarantee it’s salience to philosophy generally—then, of course, there will be an asymmetry. Moreover, the asymmetry is understandable in this particular example insofar as metaphysics is taxonomically more general than the philosophy of race, which is just one species of political philosophy, social philosophy, and applied ethics, among other areas. But we should be clear: the asymmetry, if there is an asymmetry, is one of salience. Perhaps, for this reason, we might speak of “core” areas as foundational, in something like the way physics is foundational in the natural sciences (foundational in relation to chemistry and biology, that is). Although, even this metaphor carries unwelcome connotations. But, like physics in the sciences, if we concede that something is more foundational, we shouldn’t do this to suggest that it’s more important. When it comes to adjudicating the Philosophical Importance Olympics, a bizarre enterprise, the notion of “the core” is wholly misleading.

As with the expanding circle, then, I suggest we acknowledge the shortcomings of the “core” metaphor. But unlike the notion of the expanding circle, which we can take or leave, I feel we must abandon the notion of “the core”. For, while the circle might privilege a centre at the expense of a periphery, it’s at least inclusive, at least expanding. A core, meanwhile, cannot expand to include everything and remain a core. Philosophy’s “core”, if we sustain it, will remain stubbornly small.


[1]  Russell’s only allusion to what might be called “feminist concerns”, besides two passing mentions of feminist strands in the Bacchic tradition, appears on page 36, where he remarks that “The institution of private property brings with it the subjection of women, and usually the creation of a slave class.”

[2]  This is brought out nicely by a recent PhilPapers survey which you can find here: http://bit.ly/17XAEGi

[3]  While there is little publicly available demographic data to demonstrate this—data presented at the 2013 Diversity in Philosophy conference suggest that “core” areas are underrepresented in the interests of philosophers of colour and women.

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