On Not Seeing in Philosophy

by Bart Schultz

The brilliant young African American political philosopher Danielle Allen founded the University of Chicago Civic Knowledge Project (CKP) in 2003 in an attempt to improve the educational richness and diversity of the University of Chicago.  As she explained in a brief account of her reasons for founding the CKP:

A healthy university cultivates the capacities of its students and faculty members to acquire and process information. The relevant capacities include not only the ability to read books and conduct experiments, but also to absorb and process sense data from the physical world or one’s immediate environment. Every feature of life at a university should enhance, not reduce, its residents’ capacities for information assimilation, including their ability to process sense data.

For the last five decades, the University of Chicago has simultaneously supported its affiliates’ development of some of their capacities for knowing the world while also allowing others to atrophy. Specifically, the University has not encouraged affiliates to take in information from their immediate environments and to connect that information to knowledge acquired through academic research. Traditionally, students and faculty at the University of Chicago have been encouraged to read exciting books and to have stimulating conversations, but often also to “not see” the community immediately around them.

Allen was of course referring to the many ways in which University of Chicago students were subtly or not so subtly socialized into avoiding serious interaction with the predominantly African American communities on Chicago’s mid-South Side, even the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, which at one time rivalled Harlem as the African American cultural capital of the U.S.

Thus, the CKP was designed to use “the humanities to develop and strengthen the University of Chicago’s community connections, helping to foster civic friendship and overcome the social, economic, and racial divisions among the various knowledge communities on the South Side of Chicago”.  Working in close collaboration with many community partners and such organizations as the Illinois Humanities Council, the CKP has worked to support genuinely reciprocal educational activities engaging the University of Chicago community with mid-South Side neighborhoods on a basis of civic friendship and “seeing,” rather than “not seeing.”  And thus, the CKP has supported, for example, the Odyssey Project/Clemente Course in the Humanities at South Side locations, affording adults below 150% of the Federal Poverty Level the opportunity to take a yearlong course in the humanities taught by university faculty members and graduate students.

As the Executive Director of the CKP for the last decade, I have been impressed time and again with the importance of elite colleges and universities taking great care to avoid the insidious training in “not seeing” against which Allen warned.  However, as a Senior Lecturer in the University’s Philosophy Department, I have come to see how such insidious socializing happens even in more conventional educational activities in the classroom.  This is not merely a matter of a general wariness in academic philosophy when it comes to experiential and service learning opportunities, though as a discipline philosophy is remarkably behind the times on those issues and of course on matters of diversity and inclusion.   It is rather the remarkable inertia and narrowness of the ways in which the canonical history of philosophy is constructed and taught.  That is, while it is obviously vitally important to develop more diverse and inclusive curricula, bringing in neglected philosophers and philosophical traditions, it is just as important to develop widely accepted pedagogical practices for confronting and addressing the racism and sexism of such canonical figures as Aristotle, Locke, Kant, Rousseau, Hume, Schopenhauer, and so many others.  Although academic philosophers may at some level recognize the importance of the readings of the tradition advanced by, say, the contributors to Julie K. Ward and Tommy L. Lott’s Philosophers on Race, actually calling serious attention to, rather than gracefully dodging, the problems of racism and sexism when teaching the history of philosophy remains, for many, a very great challenge.  Suave evasion, with a perfunctory gesture to “the times,” and an easy obsession with de-contextualized “arguments” can serve to mask issues of vital importance, and in effect teach students to “not see” the more problematic sides of the great philosophers, the forms of exclusion they practiced, and the realities of the excluded.  Indeed, teach students not to look for them, just as the UChicago students were so often taught not to look into the troubling history of the University and race relations, because the invisibility of the neighboring communities also rendered invisible the unjust treatment they had so often received (e.g., UChicago supported the racist restrictive covenants that blocked integration in Chicago for the first half of the 20th century).  And in philosophy, one need only consider John Rawls’s published and influential (even legendary) lectures on the history of moral philosophy and political philosophy to see the paradigm in action—hundreds and hundreds of pages of often acute historical philosophical reconstruction, but with questions of racism and sexism almost entirely erased.  How disturbing that odd incidental personal facts about the philosophers might be introduced in a conventional, preliminary way, but not these more troubling facts, even though they are surely more important than, say, Kant’s compulsive daily routines and are often indicative of deep philosophical issues (such as the real meaning of Kant’s cosmopolitan history).

Alas, the same holds of philosophy instruction at all levels.  One need only look at the lesson plans set out by the Philosophy Foundation or other organizations devoted to precollege philosophy to see how little material there is to help instructors honestly acknowledge such historical truths in standard teaching formats.  Indeed, the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization will be devoting its next major conference to the theme of “Social Justice and PreCollege Philosophy: Where Do We Go From Here?”, in what appears to be an effort to address such concerns and others related to diversity and inclusiveness in philosophy.  But it seems that whichever way precollege philosophy goes to improve matters, the road will be long.  Teachers of precollege philosophy need to weigh in on this matter now more than ever.

Bart Schultz is Executive Director of the Civic Knowledge Project and Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.  He has published widely in philosophy, and his books include Henry Sidgwick, Eye of the Universe (Cambridge, 2004) and The Happiness Philosophers: Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians (Princeton, 2017).  He is on the board of the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and runs the Winning Words Precollege Philosophy Program.


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