Rebecca Tuval and Philosophy's Existential Crisis

Oliver Traldi, a writer with an MA in philosophy, wrote about the Rebecca Tuval brouhaha in his article A Line in the Sand for Academic Philosophy. If you are interested, I thought the whole article was worthwhile.

He summarized the Tuvel affair thus:

Rebecca Tuvel is an assistant professor at Rhodes College ... Her essay “In Defense of Transracialism” (Hypatia 32.2 [Spring 2017], pp. 263-78) is, to be fair, not consistently scintillating, creative, or convincing. However, few philosophy papers have any of those qualities, and almost none have all three. What the paper does do is lay out relatively clearly the motivation for a fairly intuitive argument. I’ll give my version of it here:
  1. We have compelling reasons to accept the identity claims of transgender individuals.
  2. Transracial identification is relevantly similar or analogous to transgender identification.
  3. The reasons commonly given for not accepting transracial identification are either not compelling or not relevant.
  4. From 1, 2, and 3, the balance of reasons compels us to accept the identity claims of transracial individuals.
  5. If the balance of reasons compels us to accept something, we should accept it.
  6. From 4 and 5, we should accept the identity claims of transracial individuals.

Other philosophers wrote and signed an open letter calling for the paper’s retraction. ...

The letter’s most important point is hidden in the first complaint: that Tuvel “uses vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields.” In the Daily Nous comments, academics in these subfields struggled to identify precisely which arguments Tuvel failed to cite or address, or where her thinking might have gone wrong on a more than superficial level. Indeed, many philosophers of both gender and race have come out against retraction. But “the relevant subfields” are not really the academic studies of gender and race. They are the political interests and values associated with a certain conception of those topics. The real complaint is that anyone who publishes in a journal like Hypatia, itself a blatantly activist organ, ought to share those politics. In turn, the necessary politics are built in to the “vocabulary and frameworks” used by the academics. This is ideological alignment dressed up as intellectual expertise.

This is fairly well-known background for those who have been paying attention to this. What interests me more is his assessment of how the field of philosophy got to this point. He makes several points, but one of them is:

Another concerns the methodology of philosophical ethics. Much of ethics is quasi-scientific: it involves investigating our intuitions about particular cases and generalizing them into a broadly explanatory theory. However, different people have different intuitions. Norms about the nature of intuitive reasoning (e.g. “reflective equilibrium”) and about how much weight philosophers should give to other people’s intuitions have never quite taken hold, except in the “experimental philosophy” movement. In the modern academy, with its myriad specializations, it is easy to put together a “relevant subfield” of philosophical ethics not by linking together a set of situations, puzzles, or theories but by finding a group of people who share the same intuitions about cases. The actual difficult work of ethics is completely removed, because people with deep disagreements can, if they wish, simply read different journals, go to different conferences, and so on. I will leave a comparison to the state of American politics as an exercise for the reader.
That's exactly what I think has happened throughout the humanities, although it is not universal yet. It might provide us with part of an answer as well. Non-Progressive academics shouldn't just sequester themselves in little intellectual ghettos, but citation is life: making sure to include non-Progressive voices in the conversation could help. (If an academic publishes and no one cites the work, was the work really published?) Similarly, an academic community could form that replaces a certain subfield. At this point, I feel like that is actually a necessity. Race, ethnicity, and gender are far too important to leave to the loonies.

Traldi ends with a call to save the field from mob justice, from which I got the title for this post. I think the humanities are worth saving, but I'm not quite sure how it works out yet.


Grim said...

"Tuvel was criticized for not citing enough black or transgender scholars. Such a complaint could be leveled at virtually any philosophy paper."

Indeed, I suspect that most working philosophers would be hard pressed to name a transgender philosopher -- outside of the specialized field under consideration, of course. The bulk of Anglo-American philosophy is analytical, and analytical philosophy -- like math or symbolic logic -- is shockingly non-diverse. Or so I'm told.

Grim said...

The problem with ethics is that it has lost its metaphysical grounding. This is usually referred to as the teleology debate. You're free to say, "I believe in a human telos, and it X," where X is usually 'reason.' But the arguments fielded for thousands of years in favor of that position have been rejected.

So what's left? I think you can still make some transcendent arguments: courage is a virtue regardless of what else you believe, because whatever you believe in, courage will help you attain it and courage's opposite will not.

But that still leaves a lot to 'community standards.'

jaed said...

I think of it a little differently. The SJW ethos and way of behaving is so clearly unjust and, at times, insane that I cannot see how anyone with a reasonable grounding in reality could allow it into their thinking, unless they were subject to fatal confusion about such matters as the distinction between openness to minority voices and grinding down non-ideologues, or between sexism and recognition of differences between men and women, or indeed between openness to a heterodox idea on the one hand and embracing that idea on the other.

So my question would be how it came about that so many scholars went insane—or to look at it differently, how it came about that so many scholars find themselves cowed, unable to resist, unable even to respond with argument, in the face of malignant insanity.

Or maybe there are two distinct problems: that so much is now left to "community standards", a la Grim, and that the "community standards" respected in academia are the standards of a bunch of crazy people.