How I’ll Do What I Do, Composing, 17/06/2016

So this week ended up being occupied by a controversy instead of the more philosophical stuff that I initially wanted to talk about this week. I wanted to sort through some of my ideas about history, cultural memory, and how we think about ideas. And I still will. But that’ll be largely next week.

Views in parallel, different expressions of the same
Yet there’s a lot about the past couple of posts that I want to discuss. Not so much about the content, as I can’t really add anything to that without getting redundant. But when I look at what I wrote, I see an approach to writing about ideas that animates a lot of my philosophical writing.

Call it parallelism. The term riffs on an idea that Gilles Deleuze developed in his works about Spinoza. In my context, it’s an approach to ideas where all the discussions revolve around a central concept or conclusion – but it’s impossible to explain every aspect and context of that concept in one go. 

Some ideas are too complex, with too many different contexts and manifestations to lay them all out at once without confusing everyone involved. Including yourself. So you have to explore it. Like the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant. 

What people forget about that analogy is that once the blind men know they’re gathered around the same animal, they can use their different explorations of the animal – of the tail, the legs, the trunk, the belly, the back – to build a comprehensive picture together. 

So what was I doing on Wednesday, when I was thinking through Udoka Okafor’s account of her conflicts at McMaster Philosophy? There was one idea that underlay everything I wrote – that high-minded advocacy for justice is undercut by the advocate’s backroom hypocrisy.

That’s the explicitly political, moral, and ethical expression of the concept. You can strive for justice and equality in all the professional aspects of your life, but all that is undercut if you contradict those values in your private life. 

The best example that comes to mind is Thomas Pogge, who I spoke about the other day. The advocate for egalitarianism between wealthy and poor countries of the world, who exploited his position in a wealthy university to sexually exploit young women from poorer regions of the world.

It seemed like kind of a diversion to me at the time. But I tried writing it anyway because diversions can be acceptable in a blog. I’m in a more relaxed mode here.

Why wouldn't a Western university's classes on introduction
to philosophy introduce Confucius as an equal to Plato?
Without the professor doing it being regarded as weird.
But maybe I shouldn’t be. Because what might look like a diversion from a work’s major point is just a quick shift to a different point of view on the same concept. 

The sordid details are about how personal behaviour undercuts the ethical force of your virtuous arguments that you ground in universal goods – justice, peace, equality, fairness. Now think about the details of this same idea – the hypocrisy of the material contradicting the ideal – in the history of ideas itself.

This is the problem of the Western canon in the humanities disciplines. The primary focus of many disciplines sees their own history of ideas as the playing field of true universal concepts. But they’re the ideas of a single civilization, one among several in humanity. 

Making the history of ideas in non-Western civilizations into sub-disciplines (regional studies, race studies, etc) denigrates them as niche traditions, instead of the equals to the philosophies of the West. We speak in the name of universal right and goodness, but we’re really just expressing our sense of superiority.

That’s the real indignation behind calls for diversity in humanities curriculums. And it’s one expression of that fundamental hypocrisy in so much human conduct.

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