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New student group embraces diverse philosophies

  • Founding philosophy
    Founding philosophy  Four of the founding Diversity in Philosophy Discussion Group members, Ellen Yates '17, Leonor Aidos '17, Allison Heisel '16 and Yukuan Hao '19.  Photo by Cortney Langley
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William & Mary students have organized a new discussion group devoted to diversity after noting the lack of women, minorities and non-Western thought in the philosophical canon.

The Diversity in Philosophy Discussion Group was started in September by philosophy major Allison Heisel ’16, who herself had been navigating what it means to be a woman in the male-dominated field. The traditional philosophy canon is composed almost exclusively of white, Western men, from Aristotle to Wittgenstein, Heisel said.

“I started to feel like there’s this implicit value judgment being placed on the kinds of thought that were worth including in discussions about very fundamentally human things, like truth and reason, or what it means to be rational,” she said. “I was interested in opening up a space to talk about those sorts of dynamics.”

After speaking with Philosophy Department Chair Elizabeth Radcliffe, Heisel launched an information session to begin organizing the group. Ultimately, she and four other students settled on meeting every other Tuesday night, with facilitators putting out suggested readings beforehand and launching discussion during the meetings.

So far, the group has hosted sessions on feminist bioethics, Marxism, Chinese philosophy and black feminist thought. And from the original five interested students, the group has ballooned into close to two dozen people. Either Radcliffe or Assistant Philosophy Professor Aaron Griffith attend each session to provide faculty support.

“The students are phenomenal, and I’ve learned so much from the discussions,” Radcliffe said. “As a department, we are always looking to incorporate a wide range of viewpoints in our classroom discussions, but this group allows students to reflect directly on issues like what counts as philosophy and why certain areas of philosophy are counted as ‘core’ and others as ‘fringe.’ After 30 years in my profession, I do understand the concerns that led Allison to launch this group. But I also want to add that the discipline of philosophy is changing, with increasing focus on broadening its scope and on diversifying the standard curriculum.”

She said that philosophy at W&M is changing, too. For instance, Griffith will next year offer a course in Feminist Metaphysics, which deals with the nature of social structures.

In the discussion group, one of the most popular sessions so far was devoted to Chinese philosophy, which veered into talk about who is empowered to “do philosophy,” and who is not, Heisel said.

Because Chinese philosophers’ writing style is so metaphorical, it’s often labeled as literature. So students interested in Chinese philosophy end up in religion or literature classes, while those interested in feminist theory enroll in gender, sexuality and women’s studies courses and others find critical race theory in Africana studies.

“So we talked about what counts as legitimate philosophy, who is involved in those discussions and what it means when you have to go outside philosophy to study more non-canonical philosophical topics,” Heisel said.

Yukuan Hao ’19, a religious studies and sociology major, facilitated the Chinese philosophy discussion. A native of China, Hao too had noted the lack of diversity in philosophy before Radcliffe pointed him to the new group.

“I think philosophy should not be limited to Western tradition, but there is also the paradox that the notion of philosophy itself is a Western idea,” he said. “In Chinese, there was no word that corresponded to ‘philosophy’ until the mid-19th century, when Western philosophers were introduced.

“Chinese philosophers also study ethics and the theory of knowledge, but through a really different methodology, and they have significantly different premises and conclusions. It’s worth discussing whether we should expand the definition of philosophy or limit it to a Western approach. A cross-cultural dialogue would be really interesting and helpful.”

To ensure that the group itself is diversifying, facilitators reach out to different departments whose students might be interested in the session topic and invite their interpretations and input.

“I love philosophy; I think philosophy is great. But it’s been exciting to see so many different kinds of people from such different backgrounds saying, ‘This is what I want to do between 5 and 6 on my Tuesday evening,’” Heisel said. “One of the bigger goals I had going into this was to use the discussion group as a space for capacity building. There are a lot of people, because philosophy has this image of being very esoteric, very elitist, they just don’t feel comfortable participating.

“One of the most exciting things for me was when after the feminist bioethics discussion, several women came up to me and said that it was the first time they felt comfortable participating in a philosophical environment. While on one hand that says something about the discipline writ large, it was also deeply meaningful.”

Leonor Aidos ’17, an international relations and economics major and exchange student, said she was attracted to the group because she was interested in exploring how various social theories intersected with different disciplines. She said in Europe there is a much greater emphasis on theory – whether post-structuralist, Marxist, feminist, etc. – than in the United States.

“I was interested in exploring feminism in contexts outside of international relations and seeing how it played out in other contexts,” she said. “[Philosophy students] ask questions I wouldn’t think about. They asked about agency within Marxism and how that works, and I thought it was interesting. I definitely feel like the people who come to any discussion are varied. There will be men and women, Westerners and non-Westerners. I think there is quite a bit of diversity.”

Ellen Yates ’17, a neuroscience major, has found that participating in the discussion group has broadened how she engages in philosophy courses.

“This discussion group has allowed me to have the confidence to bring this kind of thought process into my philosophy class,” she said. “I’m much more comfortable saying in class, ‘Hey, I think these first-order ethical theories should be criticized, not because they’re explicitly sexist, but because they’re almost exclusively used to support sexism …’ If it’s being used to perpetuate sexism, racism or cultural intolerance, that’s worthy of criticism. That’s not something I would have brought up before.”