Thursday, July 9, 2015

Tackling the Problem of Diversifying the Discipline of Philosophy

  On May 28-30 this year Hypatia and the American Philosophical Association (APA) Committee on the Status of Woman (CSW) launched their conference on exploring collaborative contestations and diversifying the discipline. One of the primary aims of this conference was to provide a collaborative space for discussion and problem solving. This was especially apparent in the discussions on diversity and inclusiveness for the discipline. It is no secret that among the humanities, the discipline of philosophy is one of the worst offenders when it comes to opening up the discipline to a wide range of perspectives. Several presentations sought to provide either empirical evidence to ground claims of such recognitional injustices or to provide solutions to such injustices. It was in these sessions that I felt my heart sink.
     Why did my heart sink? It was not because of the empirical evidence that supported the fact that there is a myriad of problems regarding the lack of minority representation within the discipline of philosophy. Being a first-generation, Asian, woman philosopher with attention deficit disorder (ADD) who does not specialize in Asian Philosophy, I have experienced this problem of under representation first hand since my undergraduate years. What made my heart sink was the information about how socio-economic factors drive the under representation of minorities within our discipline.
  Given my experiences teaching philosophy—nine years of teaching at community colleges and two years at Clemson University—I can attest to the fact that socio-economic factors limit access to our discipline in two ways: It depicts a potential candidate as “unfit” for pursuing a degree in philosophy and it places those who may be “fit” for such pursuits in conditions that force them to self-select out of the discipline. One presenter at the conference noted that minority undergraduates and graduate students in philosophy are generally first generation academics. As first generation academics they may lack not only the institutional know-how that many academic legacies learned typically at their father’s knee, but they also lack the economic resources to pursue their degree at leisure. Furthermore, minority academics are more likely to have attended non-name brand institutions.
  It ought to be obvious how these factors work to disadvantage minority undergraduates and graduates in further pursuing a career in philosophy. Lacking access to the body of implicit institutional knowledge (including how to properly speak and write), minority interactions are often marked as inappropriate, naïve, lacking common sense, or judged as less collegial among their peers. Lacking adequate financial resources also put minority candidates in circumstances that force them to compete under excessively stressful conditions. Once accepted as a member of the profession these structural disadvantages may be carried over, holding minority philosophers back from thriving in the discipline.
     Furthermore, although many philosophers have explicitly voiced their concerns with diversifying the discipline, the hiring and publishing practices of academic journals and institutions seem to speak otherwise. For example, I learned that most institutions lack some clear criteria for evaluating a tenure candidate’s publication record and that one of the most important factors in the tenure/promotion process is how “collegial” the review committee finds the candidate who is up for review. Given the way in which implicit biases affect our decision-making, one can easily imagine how Janus-faced denials of tenure may be given. Motivated by implicit biases, tenure committee members may cast a candidate’s publication record as inadequate while also making explicitly sincere testimonials about supporting the goal of diversifying the discipline.
     What may not be so obvious is that for many minorities, especially those who may have otherwise thrived within the discipline, the decision to continue to pursue a degree, let alone a career, in philosophy is simply irrational. If a minority candidate has the wherewithal to be a successful philosopher it is likely that such a candidate would be equally successful, if not more so, pursuing interests in an alternative discipline or even outside of academia altogether. Furthermore, it is more rational for a minority candidate to pursue an alternative path given the current trajectory of the job market in philosophy. Not only is it the case that institutions across the discipline are eliminating more secure and more appropriately compensated tenure-track positions for less secure and unjustly compensated adjunct or lecturer positions—mostly due to the encroachment of the corporate model in academia—it is also the case that minorities will have to compete with candidates from more highly ranked institutions, candidates with stronger institutional networks and financial safety nets. The outcome then is that despite our efforts in increasing diversity and inclusiveness, there will be a downward trend in diversity and inclusiveness within our discipline.
  So what are the underlying forces that drive this lack of diversity and inclusiveness? There are three that I can name, but I will only discuss the first two in this article: The lack of funding that philosophy departments are provided by their home institutions, the lack of fair distribution of these resources, and the unique opportunity costs that are associated with being an academic. Efforts to diversify the discipline have focused primarily on addressing problems of fair distribution, but such concerns regarding fair distribution are irrelevant if there is little or no minority population to consider in making such distributions. The main problem then, besides the unique opportunity costs that one must pay in order to gain entrance into the profession of philosophy, is the problem of departmental funding.
  Philosophy as a discipline and across various institutions is loosing the battle for institutional funds, and this is primarily because we are losing a major battle in public relations and marketing. Besides external grants, which are more amenable to research in the sciences, departments  typically receive money from their institutions on the basis of course offerings and undergraduate enrollments. What we need then is to make a claim for institutional funds by increasing overall undergraduate interests in philosophy courses and as philosophy majors. Only after doing so will efforts in diversifying the field by concentrating on fair distribution make any headway. To tackle the problem of diversifying the discipline and to change the face of philosophy to embody a diverse community, the discipline must find a way to reach out and connect with a wide and diverse community of undergraduates along with increasing diversity at the graduate level.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Consciousness: A Poem

Consciousness,
When, where, how does it all begin?

The experience of that deep blue sea
The rich bold taste, slightly acidic, of that morning cup of coffee
The sweetness of your smile as I look upon your face
The swelling of my heart
The bitter tears and joyous laughter

Consciousness,
When, where, how does it all begin?

The thumping of a heartbeat
Thump, thump,
Thump, thump,
Too soon to say, no brain waives yet

The warmth of the amniotic fluid,
The sound of the heart as it reverberates against the uterine wall
Still too soon, no differentiation yet

Consciousness,
When, where, how does it all begin?

The thumping of a heartbeat
A symphony of two
The murmur of a voice
Mother and you

The warm red glow 
Of the light that’s shining through
The soft gentle feel 
Of mother nudging you

Consciousness,
When, where, how does it all begin?

The water breaks
A strenuous ride down the river of life
The first light of a new day
The wailing of lifetime

Consciousness,
Is this when, where, how it all begins?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Eliminable "I"

A Second Betrayal           

Descartes, in his Meditations, famously argued that the proposition “I am, I exist,” must be true whenever he asserted this proposition or was thinking it. Thus knowledge for the new sciences seemed to have been secured at the end of his first mediations. But when we move on to his second meditations, we soon realized that we counted our chickens a bit too soon. For in the second meditations Descartes considers the question of personal identity. Knowing, we often suppose, is a wholly subjective experience. It is I who knows, you who knows, or he, she, or it who knows. Given this, the challenge then is to prove that it is in fact true that when Descartes asserts or thinks the proposition “I am, I exist,” that this proposition is known to Descartes. To do so Descartes must, he seems to suggest, come to an understanding of what he is. One cannot know or even profess to know some proposition if one does not have a proper understanding of the contents of that proposition. And so, in the second meditations, Descartes makes an endeavor to discover who he is. Was he successful? Yes and no.

Descartes seems to successfully defend the claims that he is a mind—a thinking thing—but also that he knows his mind more intimately than any external, material object, including his body. Here then, we have what seems to be Descartes’ fundamental foundation for all his knowledge. This foundation is an immediate, internal acquaintance with his own mind—that he knows himself. This for Descartes is a primitive truth. One may take this as a trivial claim, and so may be more willing than not to acquiesce to this even more basic claim for knowledge. Is it not the case that we, each and everyone of us, who has a mind—a consciousness—knows ourself, our mind, our consciousness more intimately and directly than any other thing in the world? YES!


But, how then was knowledge lost again, for some at least, into the bottomless pit of skepticism—that well of pessimism that may leave even the most self-assured, the most confident, dead in their tracks? One simple question: How do you know? Here then is our second betrayal. Here is where our love of wisdom has again led us astray, down the dangerous path where at the end we lose not only ourselves but our freedom…[To be continued]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Times of Crisis: Philosophy, Science, and the World

Crisis in the World

The ideas of 'punctuated equilibrium' and 'scientific revolution' are not new in the sciences or in the philosophy of science. The notion of punctuated equilibrium was first introduced in 1972 by evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Elderedge. It refers to the evolutionary process in which the biological stability of a species is interrupted by a sudden change in the environment, and speciation rapidly occurs through the mechanisms of natural selection. Punctuated equilibrium is thus a principle that encapsulates a macro process of change from one species to another, and can be understood as demarcating a time of crisis for a particular species or subset of species. 


Crisis in the Sciences

The striking similarity between the notion of punctuated equilibrium and Thomas Kuhn's notion of scientific revolution is a widely recognized fact in the philosophy of science. Kuhn, himself, is noted to have likened the process of scientific specialization to the process of speciationThis isomorphism between the process by which new scientific fields of study, along with their Wittgensteinian forms of life, are carved out, and by which each field's object of study comes to be defined or demarcated should not come as a surprise, especially for those who conceive the aims and pursuits of the sciences from within the overarching paradigm of scientific realism

The isomorphism alone, however, does not speak in favor of the hegemony of scientific realism over competing anti-realist paradigms, such as Bas C. van Fraassen's constructive empiricism. Constructive empiricism is decidedly more tolerant of alternative explanations compared to scientific realism. In rejecting the realist's epistemic aim of objective knowledge, it lends itself to the notions of 'acceptance' and 'adequacy' rather than 'truth' and 'justification.' For scientific realists then, nothing necessarily stands between the scientific inquirer, methods, or aims and the world. For constructive empiricists, however, it is precisely these aspects of scientific inquiry--the inquirer, the methods, and the aims--that stand between them and the world.    


Crisis in Philosophy

At the heart of the debate between scientific realism and constructive empiricism lies an age old philosophical question--Is objective knowledge possible? As Peter Godfrey-Smith observed, scientific realism is more optimistic about the possibility of objective knowledge, whereas constructive empiricism is more pessimistic about such possibilities. Realism is more optimistic about our ability to transcend human subjectivity whereas constructive empiricism is much more pessimistic. Almost every philosopher in the Western tradition is well versed in the history of the debates between optimists and pessimists about objective knowledge. It is an underlying theme that runs throughout the history of philosophy, from Plato to wherever one chooses to draw the line between the past and the present, and it will most likely keep on running. 

One particular episode within the history of analytic philosophy that is relevant to my interests here--the discourse between scientific realism and constructive empiricism--typically begins with the 17th century, French philosopher René Descartes and ends with the 19th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant. This is the story of modern philosophy. It is a story that analytic philosophers learn at their father's knee, so to speak. Bright eyed, and still green eared, our hearts filled with hope as we learned of Descartes's harrowing effort to build a firm foundation for all of human knowledge--"I am, I exist." 

Often confounded with what is referred to as the Cogito--Descartes's conclusion, "I think, therefore I am," which is introduced in his Discourse on Method rather than his Meditations--is the utterance of human existence that Descartes posits as the foundation of human knowledge. The utterance, "I am, I exist," is indeed true for every token utterance of this phrase, and most will argue that only human beings are capable of making such utterances. This, however, is where our story begins rather than ends. To stop here is to give ourselves over to solipsism. Some may be completely at home with the conclusion that only the self-justifying assertion of one's own existence is true, and so constitutes both the alpha and the omega of human knowledge. For most, you, we, they, and granting some poetic license, it are as well. Insofar as truth is a matter of majority assent, then, the truth of the claim "I am, I exist," whenever it is uttered, is insufficient for human knowledge, or so the story goes. 

It is said that "In the beginning was the Word." Perhaps this is so, perhaps not. In any case, when it comes to knowledge, it seems that in the beginning was the Question--How do you, we, they, or it knowHand in hand with the Skeptic came the infinite regress of justification, and both linger to this day. It is here the student of analytic philosophy is first betrayed. All hope for objective knowledge seems lost. The aim is overshadowed by the method. To seek and discover knowledge one must first ask two very important questions, "What do we know?" and "How do we know it?" As soon as these words leave our lips, followed by that oh so shapely figure--the question mark--taunting and teasing us to continue, we are caught. Like Sisyphus and his giant stone, we are condemned; an eternity upon the wheel for all of humankind. 

From the not too distant future enters the grandfather of both scientific realism and constructive empiricism: British Empiricism. With new methods of observation the hope for objective knowledge was rekindled. You see, "I am, I exist" is true whenever it is uttered, and if the testimony of human existence is to be the foundation of human knowledge, then the material from which this foundation is built must be that of human experience. It is experience which gives meaning to the utterance, "I am, I exist," so before we can ask, "Do we know that I am, I exist?" or "How do we know that I am, I exist," we must ask, "What do we mean by 'I'?...[To be continued]...