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Deviation as Method

Deviation as a survival method answers Ella Baker’s call to “[face] a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devis[e] means by which you change that system.” “Lend itself’ is a particularly useful phrase, inviting us to ask how a system can organize itself to be of use to the needs of those on the margins of philosophy, academia, and social structures. The structuring norms that constitute the discipline of professional philosophy—including methodologies, intellectual legacies, research content, social practices, and social demographics —create institutional currents that usually do not lend the production of philosophical thought to the needs of those that fall out of the norm, including those who have non-normative bodies and social identities, non-normative social backgrounds, and non-normative approaches to philosophy. Deviating from these currents—or pushing in a different direction by challenging or refusing these norms—can be exhausting and professionally hazardous, but can also provoke better conditions for thinking more creatively about the direction of philosophy (Dotson 2012; Berruz 2014; James 2014).

As an example of a structuring norm within academic philosophy, let us consider the norm of whiteness. The Eurocentrism and white supremacy embedded in the development of dominant forms of Western philosophy has been well documented and analyzed (Mills 1997; Babbitt and Campbell 1999; Wynter 2003). Whiteness structures the institution of philosophy in multiple ways, including through the demographics of students and faculty, the erasure of nonwhite histories of philosophy, and imagined philosophical publics. Echoing Cheryl Harris’s framework in her landmark work, “Whiteness as Property,” whiteness also operates as a credentializing property within philosophy (Harris 1993). Imagining whiteness not just as a socially constructed racial identity, but as a valuable asset, helps provide a framework for understanding whiteness in philosophy as not just a characteristic of the vast majority of U.S. professional philosophers, but as an academic credential that bestows a presumption of legitimacy upon white philosophers and their work.

Whiteness as an unspoken credential in philosophy, a professional property, is relevant to the politics of pursuing innovative forms of philosophy in academia that transgress or challenge other structuring norms within the profession, including field philosophy. If whiteness works as a structuring norm that accredits white philosophers with a critical presumption of legitimacy, and if, as Kristie Dotson (2012, 5) argues, “legitimation [is] the penultimate vetting process,” then we must consider how that dynamic shapes the stakes of engaging in field philosophy. That is, how does the credential of whiteness afford credibility' to white philosophers who are taking creative risks in professional philosophy? Philosophers without the whiteness credit (particularly women of color) have provided vivid testimony, reflecting on prudently' managing a pre-existing professional racial/gender debt by' avoiding the transgression of dominant norms in methodology' or subject matter (Alcoff 2012; Berruz 2014; James 2014). But if philosophers are credentialed with whiteness (among other identity-based credentials), they' potentially have more flexibility' to transgress prevailing norms in methodology' and subject matter (such as engaging in projects like field philosophy' or radical philosophy') without weakening their status as “legitimate” philosophers doing “legitimate” philosophy. In this way, field philosophy' and other innovating philosophies within academia are structurally situated to “go with the flow” of whiteness as a credentializing property.

In an exploration of institutional practices, Sara Ahmed (2015) reflects,

Maybe an institution is like an old garment: if it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it, then it becomes easier to wear if you have that shape. The ease of movement, the lack of a stress might describe not only the habits of a body' that has incorporated things, but also how an institution takes shape around a body.... Once a certain body' is assumed, then a body that fulfills this assumption can more easily take up a space even if the space is imagined as open to anybody.

Ahmed’s description resonates with the character of academic philosophy, an institution which also takes shape around a body—both an assumed body that is racialized as white which creates norms about who a philosopher is and, relatedly, a body' of assumptions that creates norms for how philosophy ought to be done. A deviation from methodological norms within academic philosophy can structurally' reinforce whiteness as credit, as institutions will seek to compensate for the destabilization of one norm by seeking the ease and comfort of familiarity with another. If white philosophers challenge how philosophy is done, the challenge to methodology may be met with skepticism from the professional field, yet the implicit and unacknowledged structuring norm of whiteness can also afford them the benefit of the doubt. Thus, white philosophers are provided with more institutional ease to deviate from academic philosophy’s methodological structuring norms—such as methodological norms that must be abandoned or transformed to enable field philosophy. Therefore, though field philosophy is occupied with deviations from methodological norms that are oriented outward into “the field,” ethically, it must simultaneously advocate for deviations from various harmful norms (such as whiteness as a structuring norm) that are oriented inward toward departments, campuses, and professional institutions.

As an example of opportunities created by deviations, consider the recent data finding that majors in what are considered the “four big humanities disciplines”—philosophy, history, languages, and English—have experienced a startling drop of nearly 50 percent since 2008 (Schmidt 2018). Researcher Benjamin Schmidt argues that the drop is likely due to students’ pessimism about perceived, rather than actual, job prospects for humanities majors, which underscores the ideological power of neoliberalism. However, Schmidt (2018) notes a significant exception to this trend, writing,

While history, English, and the rest have faded, only one set of humanities fields without a foot in the sciences has clearly held its own: the much newer (and smaller) disciplines the statistical agency joins together as ethnic, gender, and cultural studies.... Relatedly, I’ve only found one large class of schools where humanities enrollments have held steady: historically black colleges and universities [HBCUs], [These] are also the only institutional class where a majority of students say they’re dedicated to crafting a philosophy of life.

It appears that the humanities fields that are weathering an era of divestment, at least in terms of holding firm their rate of undergraduate majors, are interdisciplinary fields that intentionally focus on the lives and intellectual legacies of those communities that are most marginalized by academic philosophy, flagging an important area for academic philosophy to grow. The fact that predominantly Black student populations attending HBCUs remain consistently engaged in the humanities—both as majors in fields of study and as an approach to living one’s life—also marks an important opportunity for academic philosophy, which continues to have a considerably low percentage of Black students (American Academy of Arts & Sciences 2016). Furthermore, intellectual engagement and collaboration with communities outside of academia is a central founding principle for Ethnic Studies (Delgado 2016), which suggests possible generative common ground between Ethnic Studies scholars and field/grassroots philosophers.

Because academic philosophy continues to be one of the least diverse humanities fields with regard to race and gender, I propose that philosophy departments, practitioners, and advocates establish practices that go against the grain of exclusionary structuring norms to become more actively and explicitly invested in racial and gender justice within and outside of philosophy. Institutional efforts to affirm racial and gender justice—via both institutional practices and curricular content’—may help to increase the relevance of academic philosophy for those on its margins or not on its radar at all. I am not merely referring to the acknowledged view that the discipline must increase its demographic diversity. Philosophers must courageously contend with the exclusionary infrastructure of the disciplinary field itself to radically expand what is possible in academic philosophy and allow it to earn the diversity it needs.

Structuring norms constitute and produce academic philosophy, defining the boundaries of its purpose, providing ease when one goes with the flow of those norms, and complication, alienation, and doubt when one deviates. As Ahmed (2018) succinctly notes, “Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.” Therefore, for philosophy to have a robust future, it will require that philosophers—inside and outside academia—actively cultivate conditions that make deviations from structuring norms within philosophy less hard. For academic philosophers, examples of “first step” recommendations could include the following:

  • • welcome non-academic philosophical practitioners to participate in academic philosophy events and advocate for changes needed to make it more accessible and relevant to more kinds of philosophers;
  • • create institutional opportunities for students and faculty to discuss their non-academic philosophical work with the departmental and campus community, especially if they lack the accreditation of whiteness;
  • • seek interdisciplinary partnerships with faculty and students of color in other departments committed to community-engaged scholarship, and challenge hesitations to do so based on the worry that other departments have “different standards”;
  • • contest the notion that the stakes of “free speech” are equal for everyone, and actively support the speech of colleagues and others inside and outside academia who are targeted by systems of oppression;
  • • critically evaluate the race and gender politics of who is valued as “philosophers” in departments and associations, including demographics of faculty and students, curricular priorities, and visual representations of who are taken to be “typical” philosophers;
  • • prioritize hiring faculty and admitting students from groups marginalized within academic philosophy, including those not doing “traditional” philosophy;
  • • consistently support living wages and fair labor practices on campus and beyond.

Are these recommendations radical? They’re not radical in Baker’s sense of getting at the root causes. However, initial steps can begin orienting academic philosophy toward becoming a system that, to echo Baker, lends itself to the needs of philosophers who may be invisible to, or marginal in, the professional field, but who may also have a particular investment in the humanities. Though these recommendations are relatively modest, they may nevertheless make some in academic philosophy feel uncomfortable. It is this discomfort of deviation that I am recommending academic philosophers embrace. Small deviations toward more inclusion can enrich the practice of philosophy; more importantly, strategic deviations can create conditions for philosophy to not merely allow a limited number of different kinds of philosophers and philosophical projects into academic philosophy, but to let those people and projects transform academic philosophy to make it more open, collaborative, relevant, and generative. Committing to initial practices with the courage to let those practices make room for bigger deviations can enable more people to radically re-imagine the utility of philosophy and develop foundational challenges to systems destructive to many things, including the humanities. Through practice, theory.

As a nonprofit, CARA did not survive—in part because the organization could no longer contort itself to fall in line with the demands of neoliberalism. However, as a philosophical project, CARA carries on as a decentralized set of learnings that have a persistent influence in ways that I, at least, could not anticipate. Philosophy’s future will turn on its ability to deviate inside and outside academia, to adapt its form to fit many more kinds of practices and people who have profound stakes in the survival of philosophy and, relatedly, the survival of their communities. Ultimately, I think that philosophers will need to disaggregate the project of “saving philosophy” from “saving the university,” giving us the space we need to map a future for philosophy that is more plural, transformative, and free.

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