Post on Aesthetics for Birds Blog

April 15, 2016

I contributed some thoughts about cultural appropriation to the excellent Aesthetics for Birds blog. To check it out, click here.

Philosophy in an Unjust World

August 27, 2013


“Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern.” – Karl Marx, These über Feuerbach.

A 2009 article in the Miami Herald describes the policy at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp library.[1] The policy is outlined on a slip of paper that was returned to a Pentagon lawyer along with the book he tried to donate to the library—an Arabic translation of Noam Chomsky’s Interventions. The book was refused; the slip of paper offers some explanation why.

The document divides potential Guantanamo literature into two classes: Authorized and Restricted. On the Authorized side, one finds a ragbag of categories: “Poetry”, “Fiction”, “Nature”, “Sports”, “Mathematics”, “Puzzles and Sudoku”, “Chemistry”, “Agriculture”, “Electronics” etc. The categories are rough-and-ready and pitched at differing levels of generality (call me crazy, but I’m willing to forgive the authors for lacking a fully worked out taxonomy of literary types). On the Restricted side, meanwhile, things get a little edgier. One finds categories like “Military Topics”, “Excessive Graphic Violence”, “Racial and Cultural Hate Groups and Ideologies (i.e. Anti-American, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Western)”. In a touch of dark irony, the Restricted list also includes “Travel Offers”. You know… in case the detainees get any ideas.

For me, the most interesting part of the document, however, is a small and unique parenthetical qualification on the Authorized side. Sat awkwardly between Sudoku and Sociology (a wry comment on the state of the discipline, perhaps?) is the entry: “Philosophy (limited)”.

Limited. Why? A little reflection is enough to begin answering this question. Among philosophy’s hallmarks—the normative, the conceptual, the a priori etc.—is the discipline’s skeptical attitude. Philosophy is an art form that questions even the most fundamental assumptions, including some of the deepest commitments, real or alleged, of other disciplines—the existence of numbers, or the prospects of scientific progress, for example. In a similar vein, philosophers also question social practices and institutions such as modern norms of feminine appearance, the distribution of goods in a society, or the circumstances that make war permissible. This kind of thoroughgoing skepticism, I propose, makes the people who run an institution like Guantanamo uncomfortable. The Guantanamos of the world can only survive to the extent that they evade critical eyes. Philosophy—at least, some kinds of philosophy—has the potential to expose injustice and thereby incite the slighted and their supporters to action. Gitmo no likey.

Modern professional philosophers are in many respects perfectly suited to take such action. Philosophers are able to bring an incredible potential for critical thinking to any given problem, coupled with their relative wealth, access to incredible informational resources, and ability, if they’re lucky, to manage much of their own time. It’s for these reasons that I’m often disappointed at how much time philosophers, myself included, spend on mastering sometimes incredibly arcane bodies of knowledge at the exclusion of other more pressing demands. It’s partly for these reasons that I decided to protest the injustice the U.S. government is perpetrating at Guantanamo Bay.

The action—a week-long fast and a few days distributing literature about the state of Guantanamo—is largely symbolic. And I don’t imagine it will achieve much. But I do hope it reaffirms in fellow philosophers, and similarly situated others, to recognize their position as highly-trained critical thinkers in an unforgiving world, and the responsibility that comes with that. Just one day into the strike, I find the response encouraging.

Man I’m hungry.

The “Core”

July 6, 2013

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.

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