A Note on 'Academic Passing'

Nicolas Malebranche

by Justin E. H. Smith

There has been some interesting discussion at the NewAPPS blog, about the idea of ‘academic passing’, initiated by a thoughtful guest post from Kristie Dotson. It has been unclear to me throughout this discussion, since Dotson’s initial post, whether what is being proposed is an expansion of approaches in philosophy to include sources, from whomsoever they might come, of philosophical insight that are usually not considered legitimate, such as non-Western philosophical traditions and popular and oral traditions (Western or non-Western); or whether, by contrast, what is being proposed is that philosophers ought to be more free to bring their individual background motivations, stemming from their autobiographies and the complex ways in which their identities took shape, to bear in their philosophical work. One thing that is clear is that by implication, if it is the latter aim, it is those philosophers who have backgrounds that are underrepresented in the discipline whose personal narratives are hoped to bring the most benefit.

As I’ve said to one NewAPPS contributor in another venue, I think these two possible proposals must be separated. By background I, for example, appear, like it or not, to be a chip off the old hegemon, and many would suppose that for me to incorporate personal narrative into my philosophical work would just be heaping on more of the same (though here I take it one of the great fruits of disability studies has been to drive home the point that many of us are marginal in ways that may not be evident on first meeting us, or perhaps even after knowing us for quite a while).

But whether or not I am to the manner born, it is a fact about my philosophical temperament and inclinations that I love to seek out unusual, broadly unrecognized, and easily dismissed sources of philosophical insight, including but not limited to poetry, mythology, oral traditions, folk culture, ethnotaxonomy, premodern and non-Western applied sciences, etc. In this respect, I too have found myself struggling to ‘pass’, e.g., when I conceal the fact that it was a book I read about the folk beliefs of a certain New Guinean highland tribe concerning the sociocosmic meaning of various bodily fluids that first got me interested in the metaphysics of generation in 17th-century European philosophy.

I tend to read Descartes, Malebranche, et al., ethnographically. For example, I see their views on the formation of the fetus as heavily inflected by commonplaces of contemporaneous European midwifery, and I see these commonplaces as bearing interesting parallels to folk beliefs around the world. Moreover, this fact is not for me a count against Descartes and Malebranche; it is rather in large part what makes them interesting to me. So my own work on the representatives par excellence of the dead-white-male tradition is not, for me anyway, a reinforcement of this tradition’s hegemonic status, but rather an attempt to place these dead white males in a larger community, indeed the largest community possible: that of human beings who come up with sundry ways of accounting for the nature and origins of humanity and for humanity’s place in nature.

I often suppress these background interests for the sake of what I have long thought of as academic passing (though less often, as my status becomes more secure). For many fellow philosophers, it’s bad enough that I am principally concerned with ideas in history, let alone with ideas about soft and squishy things like the problem of animal generation, and let alone, again, in a way that conceives these ideas as investigable in the same way that we might investigate Papuan folk beliefs about menstrual blood. But now I am told that my academic passing can’t really pass as passing, since my public identity as a white male ensures that my marginal interests can be preserved intact all the way through the tenure process, whereas if my identity were different I would find the systematic exclusion of the questions I value more prohibitive to my continued pursuit of academic philosophy. If this is what is at issue, however, then it seems we aren’t talking about academic passing at all, but simple old-fashioned passing, where it is not beliefs and philosophical inclinations that have to be suppressed, but identities. It is a very serious issue that such suppression occurs, but it is a different issue from the one I at times thought Dotson was discussing.

My philosophical approach does not flow in any easy or obvious way from my background or my identity, but it is not clear to me whether Dotson’s intervention can be read as an incitement to me (for example) to continue to pursue it anyway. In any case I find very worrisome the suggestion that only or primarily those people with (recognized) marks of identity difference should be charged with the task of diversifying and broadening the range of acceptable sources of philosophical insight. But again I think I may still be confused about which of the two points is being put forward, or perhaps this is a confusion that remains for Dotson to work out herself. But either way the two must, I think, remain separate.

Piece originally published at Justin E. H. Smith’s website