Whose Justice?

Source: umich.edu

Socrates famously found himself most comfortable in the marketplace, dialectically engaging his fellow citizens in discussions on the weightier matters of life. Despite the occasional op-ed, contemporary philosophers have largely moved the discussion indoors. They now bounce ideas back and forth primarily in academic journals and monographs read by few outside of the discipline.

Philosophical ideas rarely escape academic discourse and enter the public imagination anymore. The content of philosophy now slumbers peacefully in academic libraries across the country. However, the discipline of philosophy is a different story; it still has a way of making its presence known. But while the ancients gained notoriety for puzzling us with mysteries of the tertium quid, our contemporaries are a little more fond of the quid pro quo.

Philosophy has again found its way into the headlines. The philosophy journal Hypatia released an article written by a junior professor on the topic of Rachel Dolezal and trans identity. A group of professors took offense at the journal article and drafted a petition to have it retracted. Over 250 academics signed their names to the petition letter. Almost immediately, Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors issued an apology for publishing the article. While a majority of the Board deeply regretted publishing the piece, it is unclear whether they intend to remove it from publication.

The stakes of a retraction are high. An academic journal typically retracts an article only if it is found to rely on spurious or falsified research. For a junior professor, a journal article published in a high profile publication like Hypatia suffices for about 1/3rd of a tenure portfolio. Losing a high profile publication could mean failing tenure review. If you fail tenure review, you get no consolation prize; instead, you pack your bags and leave the institution.

Philosophers have dug in on both sides, some in defense of the junior professor’s right to free inquiry and others in defense of the signatories to the petition. I do not feel qualified to weigh in on whether the journal article amounts to free speech, hate speech or what have you. I would rather say a few words on what this incident reveals about the state of academic philosophy as we find it.

The discipline of philosophy appears to be suffering from a methodological and axiological anarchy. In earlier times, if you were an analytic philosopher, you wrote in a specific style, utilized a set method and appealed to a shared collection of bourgeois, Western, liberal intuitions. Whether you were a liberal democrat or libertarian, you were probably a liberal. If you were a continental philosopher, you did work on historical figures in phenomenology and existentialism, you used a specific academic vocabulary and you probably tended towards Marxism. These norms were maintained and reproduced through positive and negative reinforcement by a collection of influential gatekeepers.

Those gatekeepers are mostly retiring or retired. Some left voluntarily; others retired because of scandals. With the loss of the old gatekeepers, the norms of professional philosophy are no longer so clear. Consider that Tuvel’s article was peer reviewed by two anonymous readers working in her field. It was accepted for publication by Hypatia, considered by many to be the leading English language journal of feminist philosophy. A significant portion of scholars felt the article was so bad and offensive that it ought to be retracted. Mind you, these scholars are not outsiders to philosophy; many work in the philosophy of race and gender. One of the petition signatories even served on Tuvel’s dissertation committee! Here we have philosophers who work in the same field and who share similar left-wing moral and political commitments and yet cannot agree on what even the basic norms of responsible scholarship look like.

The outrage over Tuvel’s article did not create this anarchy so much as throw it into relief. There is presently in the academy a significant amount of disagreement on the proper method for philosophy, but also its proper aims. Some think philosophy must rigidly follow the natural sciences. Others think philosophy ought to give a subjective account of phenomenological experience. Still others think philosophy should be essentially an empirical psychology of theoretical intuitions. Some claim philosophy is all about revealing hidden power structures and empowering the marginalized. Others favor thought experiments from the armchair. Still others see philosophy as a form of religious apologetics.

Diversity of thought is by and large a good thing. Philosophy is at its best when its practitioners have the freedom to investigate the topics that interest them in the method they find most compelling. But to have a unified discipline, it is also necessary that those who practice philosophy agree upon some norms and values, however thin that agreement may be. These values could be the search for truth, the ideal of rational dialogue or some other guiding principle. Absent these norms, there will be only anarchy.

The inevitable result of methodological and axiological anarchy is that philosophers will increasingly turn to extra-philosophical avenues to negotiate their differences, whether this means lawsuits, political organizing, social media campaigns or something worse. We already see some evidence that this is becoming the case. Let us hope that it does not get any worse.