Posted by: captainfalcon | October 8, 2010

Rhetorical Overreach

[Updated: Below the fold.]

Leiter reports that the president of Howard University is considering cutting the philosophy department. Hopefully someone can think of a better reason to preserve it than this one:

Dr. Sidney Ribeau, president of Howard University, is recommending that Howard University’s Philosophy Department be eliminated.  Would you be kind enough to help support those of us who see this as a strategic mistake in the struggle for Black equality. In showing support would you write a letter to Dr. Ribeau giving your opinions on the historic centrality of the Philosophy Department at Howard University and the reasons why you believe it should be continued.

I’ve whined before – in a similar context – about the academician’s impulse to let his rhetoric get the best of him. This is an even more egregious example than last time. Leiter tweaks his usual line to fit the circumstances: “That what is arguably still the nation’s premier historically Black university would contemplate eliminating the core discipline that is the hallmark of any serious research university qualifies as nothing less than appalling.”

I suppose the suggestion is that Howard’s eliminating philosophy is bad for the cause of Black equality because it will mean that the nation’s premier historically Black university will no longer be a serious research university. But is having a philosophy department really the sine qua non of being a serious university? I would have thought a university’s seriousness emerges from its having a critical mass of good, serious departments, not any one of which is necessary.

The only other ways I can see Howard’s philosophy program meaningfully furthering the cause of Black equality are (1) by producing inspirational manifestos or (2) by churning out students who either are effective agents of the broader cause, or go on to become philosophers themselves. As to (1), I just can’t see an essay in The Pragmatism of Alain Locke, or “The Very Idea of an Afro-Caribbean Philosophy,” stirring a critical mass from their dogmatic slumbers (no matter how compelling they are). And, given that the highest degree Howard offers is a terminal masters (which the Philosophical Gourmet does not recommend), the department does not seem poised to redress the racial imbalance among the philosophical professoriat.

Perhaps it graduates activists in troves. Or perhaps Professor Jones’s invocation of the rhetoric of struggle and civil rights is a transparent attempt to disguise his personal and professional interests as something about which everyone has great reason to care.

Update: It occurs to me that one could try to make sense of my beef with Jones by applying the instrumentalist/intrinsicist distinction I earlier detailed. One might say that my complaint that Jones (willfully) misunderstands the nature of the struggle for Black inequality is intrincisist, whereas Jones is actually just invoking the rhetoric of struggle and civil rights instrumentally in order to achieve his aims. This misunderstands the instrumentalist/intrinsicist distinction (which is semantic and not teleological). The problem is that Jones’s invocation has intrincisist implications. It implies that the contemplated departmental cut does, indeed, have some bearing on the struggle for Black equality and thereby implies something about the nature of that struggle. (On the other hand, if Jones simply said that the cuts were outrageous, and I were to object that the administration is no doubt trying to proceed fairly and in good faith, then I would be inappropriately replying to an instrumentalist critique from an intrinsicist point of view.)

That exegesis is free of charge.



  1. Those who see cutting the department as a “strategic mistake in the struggle for Black equality” need all the help and support they can get.

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