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2/5/2015

Philosophy's Lost Body and Soul - NYTimes.com

THESTONE

PhilosophysLostBodyandSoul
ByGEORGEYANCYandLINDAMARTNALCOFF

FEBRUARY4,20153:30AM

111Comments

Thisisthesixthinaseriesofinterviewswithphilosophersonrace
thatIamconductingforTheStone.Thisweeksconversationis
withLindaMartnAlcoff,aprofessorofphilosophyatHunter
CollegeandtheCUNYGraduateCenter.Shewasthepresidentof
theAmericanPhilosophicalAssociation,EasternDivision,for
201213.SheistheauthorofVisibleIdentities:Race,Gender,and
theSelf.GeorgeYancy
GeorgeYancy:What is the relationship between your identity as
a Latina philosopher and the philosophical interrogation of race in
your work?
LindaMartnAlcoff:Every single person has a racial identity, at
least in Western societies, and so one might imagine that the topic
of race is of universal interest. Yet for those of us who are not white
or less fully white, shall I say the reality of race is shoved in our
faces in particularly unsettling ways, often from an early age. This
can spark reflection as well as nascent social critique.
The relationship between my identity
and my philosophical interest in race is
simply a continuation through the
tools of philosophy the pursuit that I
began as a kid, growing up in Florida
in the 1960s, watching the civil rights
movement as it was portrayed in the
media and perceived by the various
parts of my family, white and
nonwhite. I experienced school
desegregation, the end of Jim Crow,
Linda Martin Alcoff
and the war in Indochina, a war that
also made apparent the racial
categories used to differentiate peoples, at enormous cost. It was

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clear to me from a young age that we were the ones with no value
for life, at least the life of those who were not white.
My sister and I came to the southern United States from Panama as
young children, and had to negotiate our complex identities (mixedrace Latina and white) within a social world where racial borders
were being challenged and renegotiated and, as a result, ceaselessly
patrolled and violently defended.
G.Y.:So, given these early
experiences, were you drawn to
philosophical questions of racial
identity?

To imagine all of our


wild diversity in
embodiment to be
irrelevant required a
bad faith that can be
seen throughout the
canon: racist asides and
ridiculous theories
about women alongside
generic
pronouncements about
justice and beauty and
the route to truth.

In philosophy I was drawn to topics of


knowledge (epistemology) and
metaphysics, never ethics, which may
seem odd given this background. But
the issue of metaphysics raised
questions about how we name what is,
and the issue of epistemology raised
questions about how we know what we
think we know. Hence, these sub-fields opened the way for me to
consider the contestations over reality as well as over authority. Of
course, the received canon in philosophy was both useful and
infuriatingly silent on the topics I was most interested in: bodies
showed up little, and difference was routinely set aside, and yet the
debates overmereological essentialismand other concepts
illustrated the possibility of multiple right answers and of a social
and practical context silently guiding the debate. Quine was in
vogue and his ideas about contingent rather than necessary ways to
name what is was a short step from the political analysis of
dominant ways of naming that I was interested in.
For many years my personal and my philosophical life were lived as
parallel tracks with little overt interaction. I went to
demonstrations, and then came home to finish my Heidegger

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homework. I glanced across the fence now and then, but did not
attempt serious philosophical engagement with race until I had
published enough that had nothing to do with race or gender or
Latin American philosophy to establish a foothold in the profession.
Tenure set me free, and I immediately began a project on the
metaphysics of mixed-race identities.
G.Y.:You mentioned how questions of embodiment were not
treated in any substantive way in your early philosophical training.
Why is it that the profession of philosophy, generally speaking, is
still resistant to questions of embodiment and by extension
questions of race?
L.M.A.:In my view this is primarily a methodological problem.
Philosophers of nearly all persuasions analytic, continental,
pragmatist aim for general and generalizable theories that can
explain human experience of all sorts. And the ultimate aim, of
course, is not description but prescription: how can we come to
understand ourselves better, to know better, to understand our
world better, and to treat each other better? Worthy goals, but they
are usually pursued with a decontextualized approach, as if the best
answers would work for everyone. To get at that meta-level of
generality, some aspects of ones context need to be set aside,
lopped off, cut out of the picture, and this has traditionally meant
the concrete materiality of human existence as we actually
experience it in embodied human form.
This is just a way of saying that the bodyhadto be ignored except in
so far as we could imagine our bodies to be essentially the same.
And to achieve that trick of imagination to imagine all of our wild
diversity in embodiment to be irrelevant required a bad faith that
can be seen throughout the canon: racist asides and ridiculous
theories about women alongside generic pronouncements about
justice and beauty and the route to truth.
I call it bad faith because, on the one hand, nearly all the great
philosophers divided human beings into moral and intellectual

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hierarchies even while, on the other hand, they presumed, from


their consciously particularist space, to speak for all. Hence,
methodologically, the problem for philosophy is how to speakforall
when one does not, in fact, speaktoall. And the solution is to enact
a doublespeak in which one justifies not speaking to the mass of
humanity at the same time that one imagines oneself to be speaking
for the human core which exists in all of us. The body, and
difference, is simultaneously acknowledged and disavowed.
This is why philosophers such as Bartolom de Las Casas in the
16thcentury and W.E.B. DuBois from even his early writings in the
19thcentury are such powerful figures: They each explore their own
specificity and its impact on how they view the world and others,
even to how they formulate moral questions. They model a
discourse that can become part of a general dialogue in which
others can have a voice as well.
G.Y.:Yes. I understand your point about methodology and bad
faith. Speak to how this presumption to speak for others, to place
under erasure our diversity of embodiment, is something that is
linked specifically to whiteness, especially within the context of our
field, which continues to be dominated by white males.
L.M.A.:Entitlement is a core feature of white subjectivity, as
numerous works by sociologists such as Joe Feagin document.
There is a sense of entitlement to rights and resources, comfort and
attention, access to space and to deference, or being granted
presumptive credibility until proven otherwise. Entitlement is
always complicated and modified by class, gender, religion and
sexuality; poor whites, for example, learn early on to defer to
others. But white people as a whole, or as an imagined grouping,
are the presumed paradigms of rights-bearing American citizens.
And this seeps into ones consciousness.
It is inevitable that these social
realities will find some manifestation
in white-majority (or even exclusively

Latin American
philosophers have had
to justify their

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prerogative, and their


white) philosophy classrooms. This is
ability, to contribute to
especially so given the fact that
normative debates over
philosophy curricular requirements
the good, the right and
almost never include course topics
the true.
that might enhance students
knowledge or capacity to reflect about
these realities. So it should be no surprise that the work (teaching
and scholarship) produced by a white-majority philosophy
profession manifests, in general, an assumed entitlement to rights
and resources, comfort and attention, access to space, and
deference. They assume the ability to access all knowledge, and
resent (and resist) theories that might restrict that access, on the
grounds, for example, that ones identity and experience play a
formative role in what one can understand on some matters. They
assume the right to dominate the space literal and figurative of
philosophical thought and discussion. They assume the right to
have attention and they assume this is nonreciprocal: others should
be reading their work even while they neglect to read the work of
nonwhites. I am speaking in gross generalities that will be unfair to
numerous individuals, but the patterns I am describing are, I
suggest, familiar to marginalized philosophers.
G.Y.:In what way has Latin American philosophy challenged such
bad faith and the proclivity to be so methodologically narrow?
L.M.A.:The philosophies developed in the colonized world during
the emergence of European modernity have not had the luxury of
such universalist pretensions or obliviousness. Philosophy in Latin
America is very diverse, but one can discern a running thread of
decolonial self-consciousness and aspiration. Thinkers from Europe
and the United States persist even today in dismissing Latin
American philosophy, and as a result, Latin American philosophers
have had to justify their prerogative, and their ability, to contribute
to normative debates over the good, the right and the true. But this
has had the beneficial result of making visible the context in which
philosophy occurs, and of disabling the usual pretensions of making
transcendent abstractions removed from all concrete realities.

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All of the great thinkers, from Simn Bolvar to Jos Mart, Jos
Carlos Maritegui, Jos Vasconcelos, Leopoldo Zea, Che Guevara,
and Enrique Dussel, have had to develop philosophical arguments
within a contextual consciousness ever mindful of colonialisms
effects in the realm of thought. Since the social identities racial
and ethnic of their contexts were made grounds for dismissing
claims to self-determination or original thought, each of these
thinkers engaged with the question of Latin American cultural,
racial and ethnic identities and histories. Its a rich tradition.
Knowledge requires self-knowledge. Philosophys lack of diversity
in North America has compromised its capacities for both selfknowledge and knowledge.
G.Y.:Your very last point raises issues
Sonia Sotomayors
of standpoint epistemology the idea
claims about the link
that ones social identity is sometimes
between identity and
relevant to what one notices and how
judgment brought
vitriol, but her view is a
one makes judgments. Im thinking
common-sense one
here in terms of Supreme Court
most everyone accepts.
Justice Sonia Sotomayors comment
that her experience being a wise Latina
woman would help her to reach better legal conclusions than a
white male. My sense is that there still exists within America the
assumption (inside and outside the academy) that Latino/a voices
and black voices are biased/inferior voices. Yet, both within and
outside of the academy, it seems that there is a positive relationship
between racialized identities and the production of knowledge. I
think that this question also speaks to the reality of race as lived.
What is your view on this?
L.M.A.:One can make an analogy between how Latin American
thinkers have had to theoretically reflect about the intellectual and
political effects of their geographical location and ethno-racial
identities, and the way everyone who is not white in North America
has had to engage similar questions just as a necessity of survival in
a white supremacist society. So as a result, outside of whitedominant spaces, the set of debates and discussions about such

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topics is much richer, older and more developed, especially in the


African-American philosophical tradition, than anywhere else.
Knowledge is not an automatic product of the experiences
engendered by different identities, I would suggest. But there is
more motivation to pursue certain kinds of knowledge, and one
often has willing and able interlocutors in ones immediate home
and community environments who are comfortable with such
topics and have reflected on and debated them. And it is also true
that simply the experience of being nonwhite provides a kind of raw
data for analysis.
Sotomayor received so much vitriol for her claims about the link
between identity and judgment that she was forced to renege on
them in order to be appointed to the Supreme Court. But the view
she expressed is quite a common-sense view most everyone actually
accepts. Of course it is the case that our differences of background
and experience can affect what we are likely to know already
without having to do a Google search, and these differences also
influence what we may be motivated to find out. There is a wealth of
empirical work on jury selection that bears this out, and the
members of Congress and lawyers grilling Sotomayor knew this
literature. But there is a taboo on speaking about the epistemic
salience of identity in our public domains of discourse, although it
is a taboo that primarily plays out only for nonwhites, women, and
other groups generally considered lower on our unspoken epistemic
hierarchies.
During the Sotomayor kerfuffle, Jon
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their veteran status in their political
campaigns, and even Supreme Court
nominees who talked about their own modest class backgrounds as
relevant to their appointment to the court. It is only accepted for
whites, and white men in particular, to use their particularity to
augment their epistemic authority in this way, to generate a
heightened trust in their judgment, almost never for others to do

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the same.
This is itself an interesting issue to explore. Why can the
mainstream media acknowledge the positive epistemic
contributions of white particularities but no others? I believe the
answer is that it would simply be too dangerous to the social status
quo. Admitting the relevance of diversity to knowledge would
require too much social change at every level and in nearly every
social institution.
Some believe that capitalism will solve this problem with its natural
tendency to maximize profit over all other considerations, such that
if racism and sexism thwart product development, capital will
promote inclusion. I am skeptical of this. For one thing, capitalism
profits too much from racism and sexism to let go. And secondly,
the need of corporations to diversify their management pool has
more to do with the need to manage effectively a diversity of lowpaid workers than anything else. And if racism and sexism help
maintain the disempowered and underpaid conditions of those
workers, capitalism wins both ways.
If we were to acknowledge the relevance of identity to knowledge,
the solution would not be simplistic diversity quotas, but a real
engagement with the question of how our unspoken epistemic
hierarchies have distorted our educational institutions, research
projects, academic and scientific fields of inquiry and general public
discourse across all of our diverse forms of media. And then we
could pursue a thorough attempt at solutions. Philosophers working
in many domains concerning epistemology, the social ontology of
identity, moral psychology, the philosophy of science and others
could contribute to these efforts, but philosophy must first direct
such efforts internally.
G.Y.:Lastly, what do you say to those philosophers of color who
might feel the pain of rejection, especially because, for them, their
racialized identities are so important to their philosophical
practice/projects? And, more generally, what advice do you have for

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our profession in terms of challenging those unspoken epistemic


hierarchies.
L.M.A.:Our profession continues to be an inhospitable climate for
philosophers of color working on race, so the first thing to do is to
acknowledge this. Some significant progress has been made, it is
true, and there are a few high profile individuals, but one can no
more imagine that these individual successes show that the climate
is now open and fair than we can imagine that Oprahs and
Beyoncs successes prove that all is fine for black working women.
Too many philosophers still operate with depoliticized notions of
real philosophy and consider both feminist and critical race work
suspect because they are politically motivated rather than
concerned only with truth. The result is a lot of micro-aggressions,
as well as general neglect of the emerging scholarship.
I am not optimistic about convincing the mainstream. I dont
believe that if we just do serious and good philosophical work that
its merit will shine through. To believe that, one would have to
believe that philosophy is a true intellectual meritocracy, that
philosophers are immune from racism and sexism and implicit bias,
and that longstanding framing assumptions about the depolitical
nature of philosophy will not skew judgment.
A better solution lies in working multiple strategies: 1) carving out,
and regularly nurturing, those spaces journals, professional
societies, conferences in which all who are interested in the subfield of critical race philosophy can develop our work within a
constructively critical community; 2) developing our understanding
of the sociology of the profession, in other words, the extent, causes
and effects of its demographic challenges and hostile climate. We
need to develop this understanding in a philosophical way, that
might include, for example, new and more realistic norms of
epistemic justification and argumentation that can provide some
redress for our non-ideal context of work; 3) doing as much as we
can to widen and strengthen the stream of young people of color
who make a choice, an informed choice, hopefully, to try their hand

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at philosophy. The burden is on the marginalized and our allies to


do this work. What else is new?
But what I would also say to young philosophers is that this is
actually a great time to join the discipline. We have the beginnings
of a critical mass, a beachhead, with multiple conferences now each
year, several organizations such as the Society for the Study of
Africana Philosophy, the Caribbean Philosophical Association and
the California Roundtable on Race. There is a new journal, Critical
Philosophy of Race, as well as some receptivity in existing journals.
And there is a growing community of frankly rather brilliant people
busily working to advance our collective understanding of race,
racism and colonialism. Also, there are many students in
undergraduate classrooms receptive to these questions. The
margins are flourishing and growing. In this sense, it is a positive
moment.
Thisinterviewwasconductedbyemailandedited.Previous
interviewsinthisseriescanbefoundhere.
GeorgeYancyisaprofessorofphilosophyat
DuquesneUniversity.Hehaswritten,editedandco
editednumerousbooks,includingBlackBodies,
WhiteGazes,Look,aWhite!andPursuingTrayvon
Martin,coeditedwithJanineJones.

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