Diversifying Philosophy

A few years ago my department was shaken by a little revolution: a group of students were protesting that our curriculum was too un-diverse. They were persistent, and connected to similar movements in our university as a whole as well as in other universities, and in the end they claimed a small victory: a new course would be added to the curriculum of the Philosophy Bachelor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, which would give room to more diverse ways to learn about and to practice philosophy.

At the same time their victory could also be seen as a defeat – their idea was, namely, to diversify all courses. To introduce feminist perspectives especially and put more works of female philosophers on the reading lists. That goal now has been left to the informal effects of their efforts. What was gained was this one course. It now carries the responsibility to balance our program by introducing ‘diverse’ philosophy works.

The honor to teach this new course has been bestowed on me, for which I am thankful, as it posed a challenge to me as well. I had to reflect first, when designing the outline in more detail, on the meaning of that expression: a diverse philosophy. What is it? And how can one diversify philosophy? By what means?

In that public debate in our department, early 2016, one of our professors claimed that the specialization he taught, Ethics, already had many female authors on the reading list. That would be no surprise, as indeed, there are many important philosophers active in that field, and among the younger generations (45 down) there are ever more. The professors responsible for the History of Philosophy had a harder time, as they held on to the idea that we should dedicate enough time to the ‘Great Thinkers’, which would leave not so much room for the female species among thinkers.

Not much was said in that meeting about other important aspects (like hiring procedures) in which we needed to ‘diversify’ – as black, muslim, or otherwise non-white persons rarely occupy academic teaching positions in Dutch Philosophy Departments. Things will change rapidly in that respect, however, let me prophecy here – as international hiring procedures will increasingly put candidates in the spotlight that before were never considered.

So how to do it? Diversify? Let’s begin by saying it asks for a mindset that opens up for difference. All kinds of difference. Not just difference of racial group, gender, religion, culture – but differences also in temperament, in personal histories, in ways in which each one of us is vulnerable in some or other aspect of life. Amanda may have a slight hearing problem, Xavier an undiagnosed form of Asperger’s syndrome. Marianne may suffer from intergenerational trauma because her parents were refugees, or victims of the last war. Jim may have a problem to express himself verbally, and Sandra to slow down her pace in group discussions – and both may have issues with sharing their thoughts in seminars. On top of such issues which often are invisible, we have vulnerabilities that are related to class, race and gender. Or to not fitting in heteronormative cultural patterns society lays out for us. Diversifying means being open to all of these things. It means understanding that thinking is something real people with real desires and problems do. Not disembodied geniuses, nor ‘minds’.

Diverse philosophy is – as an effect of the above, also critical. It gets suspicious if philosophy claims to have a ‘bird’s eye view’, sees things from the standpoint of ‘pure reason’ or ‘sub specie aeternitate’. Such claims can indicate the kind of decontextualized, disembodied approach that may stand for some form of supression of difference. This does not mean a philosopher like Kant should get less attention in a diverse program. Of course not, he influenced the modern world in unimaginable ways. He could be read paired with critical readings of his work, such as done by Emmanuel Eze, for instance in his work on a post-racial future for humanity.

My task is not, however, to diversify the entire program, but only to add – as spice to a lavish dish – one course to a curriculum which aims to provide a classical training in philosophy. As an added extra. That is an interesting position. Marginal and central as well – depending on the way one looks at it. I will take up the challenge.

After serious deliberation I decided to design the course as an introduction into different ways in which the traditional canon of ‘great thinkers’ of Euro-American origin can be perceived and read critically. Not adding just ‘diverse’ thinkers, but moreover discovering perspectives that students can try out and see how they work for their own thinking. We will delve into postcolonial, feminist, queer and race-critical perspectives, which unhinge the standard ways in which Philosophy as a discipline has been handed down since the late 18th century.

This reflects how I like to teach philosophy: as a series of ways to stimulate and improve the reflective potential that is already here – in actual students who enter class – with all their different backgrounds, vulnerabilities and talents. My hope is they can learn not only from the materials offered, but also from each other, and from themselves, as they go through the step by step transformations that life asks from us, and that philosophical studies speed up.

Looking forward to the start, and to learn from the process myself. As of next week, September 2nd, 2019.

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