What Counts as Philosophy?

Apart from the question of “Who has the rights to the lands of Palestine?” little can be more contentious than the question, “What counts as philosophy?” What are the bounds of this discipline of ours? I like to think that there aren’t any clear and proper boundaries but that there is a roughly common approach (but don’t ask me to define it) and, delightfully, a common canon (at least for what is understood as pre-20th century western philosophy, though lamentably white, male philosophy). Anyone of any persuasion teaching an intro to philosophy class is likely to include some of the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Bentham, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Rousseau, and maybe some selection from Marx, Nietsche, and James. With texts of the twentieth century all bets are off. But what’s one century in a discipline that goes back 25? Given our long history, we’ve had nothing like the canon wars that tore apart English departments in the 1980s. The common canon saves us, but it doesn’t give us a way to define or set bounds to what philosophy is. Philosophy has a way of undermining boundaries, like the boundary between what is properly philosophical and what is not. Just try to set up a fence and see how long it stands.

Even to the extent that we have a common canon, the question of what counts as philosophy is desperately unclear, at least once one strays from a “view-from-nowhere” approach to metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, or any of the many philosophy-of-x arenas. Once the approach becomes more specific and situated, the border wars arise. And the lines are usually drawn between what is hegemonically understood as proper philosophy and what is not. Philosophy that is not in fashion in “the best” schools, not “prestigious,” not hard and clear and rigorous, not properly erected — including today American pragmatism, critical theory, post-Kantian European philosophy, and, oh, certainly feminist philosophy — doesn’t seem to count as philosophy at all, at least by those who are counting and protecting a certain definition of proper philosophy.

Just look (and you’ll have to scroll down and then scan the rigt-hand column) at the specialities of the list of evaluators who were invited to rank graduate programs in philosophy for the 2006 Philosophical Gourmet Report. I am told by a defender of the report that this is a “remarkably diverse” group of good philosophers and so it is truly able to gauge what are, objectively, the outstanding graduate programs in philosophy. Any program that doesn’t end up on the list, I’m told, simply isn’t a good program.

Shocking.

Who defines what counts as good philosophy and hence who counts as the good philosophers? Isn’t this kind of counting tantamount to defining philosophy itself, to saying that M&E (metaphysics and epistemology) counts, but feminist philosophy doesn’t? Or if it’s feminist, it isn’t M&E? Or if it’s concerned with Derrida and not Tarski, or the late Wittgenstein but not the early Wittgenstein, it just ain’t philosophy?

Is that very philosophical?

Slouching Toward Annapolis

This morning, up the road a ways in Annapolis, MD, the Bush administration is hosting belated Mideast Peace Talks between Israel and Palestine. Maybe this is just a last race to save face for the Bush administration after all it has done to create havoc in the Middle East.  But still we all hope for the best.

Two op-eds in this morning’s Washington Post bring home what is at stake and how hard it is going to be—maybe not in the cushy confines of Annapolis but certainly back home in Palestine and Israel.  Richard Cohen describes the impasse between two mothers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, whose two daughters were killed when one of them set off a suicide bomb.

Beyond the Reach of Annapolis

By Richard Cohen

Tuesday, November 27, 2007; Page A17

On March 29, 2002, an 18-year-old woman walked into a Jerusalem supermarket and blew herself up. One of her victims was a woman just a year younger than herself. The two women looked so much alike, Palestinian and Israeli, and their mortal wounds were so similar, that the pathologist had trouble reassembling the two girls. They had so much in common.

So it was perhaps understandable that the mother of Rachel Levy would try to contact the mother of Ayat al-Akhras because they, too, had so much in common. read more


Also on the Post’s op-ed page
, Maher Najjar, the deputy director of Gaza’s water utility, pleads with the west to help persuade the Israeli military to stop its collective punishment of Palestinians by cutting off electricity, fuel, and clean water whenever militants set of a Qassam rocket.  As the Israelis try to punish the Palestinians into policing themselves, the Palestinian reaction, as anyone would suspect, becomes more defiant.

The majority of the 1.5 million men, women and children living in Gaza do not fire Qassam rockets. Most of us want normal lives, starting with the ability to provide for ourselves. We want to live in peace with our neighbors. We hope that Israel will realize, before it is too late, that in Gaza, playing with water is playing with fire.

It’s going to take more than a couple of days eating crab cakes together in Annapolis for Israelis and Palestinians to get through these impasses and begin to forge some kind of peace.  Still, fingers crossed.