[Catherine Newmark kindly invited me for a conversation with the radio station Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Here is a link to the audio file and a brief summary in German.* Below you’ll find a rough translation of the summary.]
Diversity in Philosophy: Who is read, who belongs?
How diverse is philosophy? The canon is still dominated by European white men. The establishment is remarkably homogeneous in terms of gender, origin and class. There are solid reasons for this, says philosopher Martin Lenz.
Is the history of philosophy really just a collection of “dead white men”? For some years now, criticism has increasingly been voiced against the canon of texts that are authoritative for seminars, curricula and public debates: The perspective is much too narrow. Female thinkers and people of colour, for example, are not represented enough with their points of view. Non-European perspectives are ignored.
Competition for very few jobs
The diversity of those who do philosophy is not balanced either. In the workplace, it is still predominantly white men, mostly of European descent, who set the tone, is one reproach. Moreover, in the competition for the few positions at universities, it is mostly people with an educated middle-class background who come out on top, while applicants from other social classes are left behind.
The philosopher Martin Lenz, professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has himself had ambivalent experiences with classism in academia. In a short text for the blog “FirstGenPhilosophers – Philosophy in the First Generation” of the Free University of Berlin, he looks back on his educational path: how often he, whose parents did not study, was tempted to hide his origins, he says, he only realised in retrospect.
Reduction of equal opportunities
“When I studied, signs were pointing to permeability (Durchlässigkeit),” says Lenz. In the 1970s and 80s, there were “active attempts to attract people from all backgrounds to the university.” In the meantime, however, this development is being pushed back in the name of “elites”, “excellence” and competition. Today, the standard of “employability” is increasingly being applied internationally, i.e. the demand that studies must optimally prepare students for a specific profession, according to Lenz. The classical educational ideal is thus giving way more and more to a “training ideal”.
As far as the canon of philosophical texts and topics is concerned, Lenz observes that diversity in teaching itself is already quite advanced. For his students in Groningen, it is “now completely natural” to look beyond the horizon of Western philosophy. “They are growing up with the fact that philosophy is a global occurence,” says Lenz.
Too little incentive for discovery
The fact that the inclusion of new voices in the canon is progressing only very slowly, however, also has very practical reasons, Lenz emphasises. For example, established figures of the history of philosophy simply benefit from the fact that their texts are critically edited, translated, annotated and flanked by extensive secondary literature, i.e. they are easily accessible.
In order to edit and publish texts that have received little attention up to now, one needs strong qualifications, experience and a great deal of time. However, this important work is hardly rewarded in academia. No one earns permanent positions or professorships with it. Another factor in the cementing of the canon is the tendency towards conservative appointment procedures at universities.
“We choose our past”
The current debates on diversity at least show that a canon is never set in stone, says Lenz: “Our commemorative culture is not designed to be complete. We don’t try to think of everything, but we try to think of what we take to be important.” And the question of what we consider important is definitely subject to changing insights and interests, so in this sense we “choose our past”.
So if today, for example, we want to remember a thinker like David Hume not only as “a great philosopher”, but strive for a more differentiated view and “just also remember that this is someone who was involved in the slave trade, then that is also a choice of how we want to remember.”
* Here the audio file can be accessed directly: