Here is a strange but timely article from the New York Times‘s philosophy column, “The Stone.” Laurie Shrage, a professor of philosophy at Florida International University, asks how we should deal with the palpable anti-Semitism of early philosophers. But in the course of her lucubrations, she conflates four distinct questions. Read the piece by clicking on the screenshot:
Here are the four questions conflated in the article which purports to deal with a simple yes or no question: “Should we continue to teach thinkers like Kant, Voltaire, and Hume without mention of the harmful prejudices they helped legitimize?
1.) Do we mention the anti-Semitism of European philosophers as part of their character when we teach their work?
2.) Do we investigate and teach how we think their anti-Semitism permeated their work—if it did?
3.) Do we teach philosophers outside the Western “canon”—people like Maimonides, Philo, or Confucius, rather than adhere to a philosophical “image of the West as racist thinkers have fashioned it?”
And there’s an unspoken question:
4.) Should we marginalize or even not teach the work of Western philosophers who were anti-Semites?
Shrage also spends a bit of time indicting the teaching of philosophy because, in the last hundred years, Jews weren’t hired to teach philosophy because they weren’t really regarded as “Western”. Well, that problem no longer exists, so I’m not sure what this potted history reveals. It certainly sheds no light on the questions above.
My answers are as follows:
1.) We should mention the anti-Semitism of ancient philosophers only insofar as it affected or informed their philosophy. After all, almost everyone in Europe before the 19th century, including (or maybe especially) educated folk, were not only anti-Semitic, but racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. Our change in morality should certainly be studied in history or sociology classes, but something sticks in my craw when people demand that long-dead people who lived in bigoted milieu be constantly indicted for bigotry. I don’t mention Darwin’s own bigotry in my evolution class (he was an abolitionist but also denigrated black people), but I would if I were teaching the parts of his work in which he speculated about racial hierarchies.
2.) As for Kant, Hume, and Voltaire, I’m not sure how much of the philosophy taught as “theirs” is affected by bigotry. That would be up to individual teachers. It’s clear from what Shrage said that these people did publish anti-Semitic stuff, but it’s not clear to me that this is the stuff taught in philosophy classes.
3.) Of course we should teach non-Western philosophers; I’m sure there is a lot of good thought there that deserves airing. Because most academic philosophers are taught the Western canon, and teach it themselves, this may require “non-Western philosophy” courses, but I’m all in favor of that.
As for religious philosophers, I’m a bit more dubious. How much real philosophy is there in religious philosophy, given that lots of it involves assuming gods for which there is no evidence? Do we really want to ask why God would permit the existence of evil if we don’t think there’s a god? This is why, when founding the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson stipulated that it would have no theology department or divinity school.
On the other hand, it may be useful to acquaint people with some of the arguments used by religious philosophers, like the First Cause argument, simply because we live in a religious society and those arguments are not only part of history, but are ongoing now. But if we teach those, and the ancient Greeks, we have to be aware that philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and St. Augustine justified slavery.
4.) No. If we sidelined every academic throughout history who was bigoted, we wouldn’t be teaching anything.
Curiously, Shrage doesn’t “unpack” (to use the argot) these questions, and winds up assuming that their work does reflect their bigotry, with the implicit view that we need to teach that. Here’s her last paragraph, which conflates three questions at once:
With the resurgence of old hatreds in the 21st century, philosophers are challenged to think about the ways we trace the history of our discipline and teach our major figures, and whether our professional habits and pieties have been shaped by religious intolerance and other forms of bigotry. For example, why not emphasize how philosophy emerged from schools of thought around the world? In the fields of history and literature, introductory courses that focus on European studies are being replaced by courses in world history and comparative literature.
There has not been a similar widespread movement to rethink the standard introduction to philosophy in terms of world philosophy. There are philosophers who contend that such projects inappropriately politicize our truth-seeking endeavors, but, as some philosophers of science have shown, objective truth involves the convergence of multiple observations and perspectives. Moreover, the anti-Semitic theories of Hume, Voltaire and Kant show that philosophy has rarely, if ever, been insulated from politics.
But the question is whether the philosophy has been affected by bigotry.
Maybe students would be better served by teaching them philosophy then by minutely scrutinizing every philosopher in history (and artists and writers and scientists) for ideological impurities.