Philosophy for Whom? by Isis Davis-Marks

In debate we revere analytic philosophy in a way that we don’t tend to respect other forms of critical thought. In countless rounds I have seen debaters say that “philosophical education precludes the kritik” but there is never a discussion about what it means to be philosophical, or who counts as a philosopher. Initially this seems like a problem unique to debate rounds, but, in actuality, this is something that permeates philosophical education in schools and the discipline at its core.

My first exposure to philosophy was a teacher scribbling the name “Immanuel Kant” on the board in an expo marker. My white and male philosophy teacher went on to explain that Kant was an important critical thinker and a founder of deontological ethics. He said that Kant’s philosophical doctrine was revolutionary and that it advocated for basic human rights such as inviolability and treating people as ends in themselves. In a nutshell, these things wouldn’t seem so bad: it’s most likely good to not stab a person in front of you if you’re annoyed at them for singing Katy Perry a tad bit too loudly. Taken at face value something like deontological ethics would advocate for reducing the marginalization that minorities faced or liberating female bodies. However, the central problem with this view is that it abstracts from the primarily racist and sexist assumptions present in Kant’s writing.

You see, Kant was a man who “advises us to use a split bamboo cane instead of a whip, so that the ‘negro’ will suffer a great deal of pains (because of the ‘negro’s’ thick skin, he would not be racked with sufficient agonies through a whip) but without dying.” He placed themes of white supremacy at the core of his writing by labeling “red”, “yellow” and “negro” races as devoid of true talent, and then further justifies his views by describing the supposed qualities of each race which he uses to set up a racial hierarchy. Normally, merely criticizing an author’s work for the particular views that that author had author would be a mere ad hominem attack, but the problem with saying this in response to a critique of Kantian and enlightenment based philosophy is that these views were fundamental to shaping Kantian conceptions of a practical reasoner. Prior to being such a reasoner you have to have the “right” qualities, which, as usual, means the qualities of a straight cis-gendered affluent white male. With that said, the prevalence of Kantian and neo- Kantian ethical theories in Lincoln Douglas debate raises some serious questions: How can we allow such an ethical theory, that advocates for whipping negroes, to guide our action? How can we say that it is illegitimate for a black debater (or otherwise) to stand up and call people out for substantive reasons why this theory is insufficient to guide action for marginalized bodies? But most of all I want to know the answer to the question:

Why is Immanuel Kant considered a philosopher with a capital P but not Audre Lourde or bell hooks? Is it because the latter two theorists are black women?

I could never wrap my head around the fact that we place so much faith in this white man who very clearly had a need to prop up the hegemonic power structures that existed in his time. I also can never understand how we don’t view the personal as the political in this activity because, at the end of the day, our subconscious and conscious biases influence our actions.

Wake up people.

Saying you don’t see color isn’t going to prevent Michael Brown and Sandra Bland from being killed. Major psychological studies indicate that many people in the United States have unconscious bias against black bodies, and other marginalized groups. Racism isn’t dead. Homophobia isn’t dead when people stigmatize LGBTQ debaters when they decide to cross dress or talk about their identity in round. In debate we like to think of events such as women being harassed at tournaments, or black debaters being ridiculed for talking about race as isolated incidents, but they’re not. These are all functions of the way that the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy functions in the world that we live in today.

We need to break down this idea that philosophy is something that is primarily concerned for the white man. This is a discipline that is 97 percent white, so philosophy, particularly political philosophy, has a tendency to abstract from systems of oppression that have a significant impact on anyone who does not identify with the dominant group. This often leads to philosophers making assumptions about certain bodies and excludes them from even accessing a status of normativity. With that said, it doesn’t make much sense when debaters say that “philosophical education precludes “critical” arguments” because, at times, the fundamental tenets of analytic philosophy are often flawed. When an ethical theory attempts to remove itself from the lived experiences of all bodies, then it becomes impossible for those outside of the dominant group to even attempt to follow said theory. For example, throughout history women have often been labeled as irrational (after all, etymology of “hysterical” means characterized by a uterus and we usually use that word to mean crazy), so it seems strange to talk about concepts such as practical reason without looking at how that affects female bodies. Debaters must interrogate these assumptions when they attempt to justify any philosophical framework.

The problem isn’t even that we talk about Kant; the fundamental problem lies in how people, in the LD community and the philosophical community at large, categorize and talk about normative philosophy. What we call philosophy is reduced to an analytic pissing contest without calling anything that has to do with our identity into question. Anything that doesn’t conform to the analytic cannon is called “critical theory” which is somehow labeled as inferior to analytic philosophy. Sure it may be nice to hide behind a veil, but at the end of the day I can’t hide my blackness when I walk into a classroom and I’m the only black person there. When a white female debater is told that she’s “bitchy” for acting in ways that don’t conform to her gender, she cannot hide her identity. When black females or females who are lone wolves are cut off in women in debate discussions it has a tangible impact. What kinds of real world education are we teaching debaters if the only real world is for the white man? There is merit in work that is not part of the traditional analytic cannon. Pick up some bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Frank Wilderson, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre and tell me it’s not philosophy. All of these people look at social structures and say how we ought to cope with them by giving us guides to action, which at its core, is what philosophy should be.



[1] Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi (Prof. Philosophy DePaul University). Post Colonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader. “The Color of Reason.” Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1997. Print.
Rachlinski, Jeffrey J.; Johnson, Sheri; Wistrich, Andrew J.; and Guthrie, Chris, “Does Unconscious Racial Bias Affect Trial Judges?” (2009). Cornell Law Faculty Publications. Paper 786.
[1] bell hooks, Feminism: A Movement to end Sexist Oppression, p238-
240, hooks, Feminism: A Movement to end Sexist Oppression, p238-
[1] Yancy, George and Charles Mills. Lost In Rawlsland. November 16, 2014. Web. 12 September 2015.

  • J C D

    Some of the people you mention are philosophers, and some aren’t. Among the ones that are philosophers, some are better and some are worse.

    Critical theory isn’t (usually) philosophy because it (usually) tries to claim the privileged position of not having to prove its claims. Rather, the usual user of critical theory merely asserts their ideas as a bursting-of-bonds, bonds which are automatically treated as actually there, assumed to be there, because the theorist feels them to be there.

    Philosophy is about demonstrating the truthfulness of important things, whose importance you can demonstrate.
    Philosophy isn’t about feeling that something matters, except when it’s about demonstrating something related to that.

    Immanuel Kant was, in many areas of his thought a bad philosopher.
    The philosophical response to that is “Okay, let me prove that his racism, sexism (etc.), is wrong.”
    The critical theory response is “That’s a bad thing for him to think, we shouldn’t listen to him.”

    Philosophy is about proof. Critical theory is about accusation. Rarely do those two fields overlap- and they certainly do not do so in this article, nor in this comment. This comment is merely a criticism of the way the original article desires to use the word “philosophy.” If you can’t even use the word “philosophy” in the established way, how are we going to get any actual philosophy done, critical or otherwise?

    • James McElwain

      Anonymous cowards love to talk shit. You realize the foundational authors of “critical theory” include Kant, Hume, Spinoza, Hegel, Heidegger, Satre, and so on and so on–all authors who do “real philosophy.” Just because an author doesn’t fetishize symbolic logic doesn’t mean that they’re not making reasoned claims. Just because an author isn’t expclitily dealing with metaphysics or epistemology doesn’t mean there isn’t a philosophical foundation at the base of their thought.

      It’s fucking hilarious you talk about “feelings” as if they are outside the boundaries of philosophy, when the study of affect is as old as the Greeks. It’s only reactionary Anglo philosophy that has forgotten that things like affect and aesthetics have been foundational parts of philosophy since forever.

  • Tmirz

    I understand what you’re saying, but I disagree that Kant’s personal views on race, non standard sexuality or whatever matters to his philosophy. The entire point of Kant was to generate a source of ethics independent of humans, and even if he didn’t consider “the negro” to be capable of understanding whatever, it doesn’t matter. The whole point of Kant is to say we know things to be true because there are external standards, not because Kant said them. I don’t think anybody in debate things we are permitted in whipping black people or silencing them–and if they did, it sure as hell isn’t because they’re a Kantian.
    Being colorblind is probably bad in a bunch of situations, but I don’t think thats irreconcilable with analytical philosophy. There seems to be a great deal of dogma when it comes to rigidly following ethical rules, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the proper thing to do. Most philosophers don’t even practice their ideas. I think that these critical debaters get caught up in the somewhat reasonable claim that inequality means analytical ethical behavior is counterproductive, and deny that in the abstract or even in some situations that may be the moral thing to do. We can imagine situations in which there is reasonable or sufficient equality and act within said ethical means.
    You say that the tenets of analytical philosophy are flawed, but your points re: women (or oppressed bodies in general) seem to be a problem with the implementation of analytical theories, rather than the actual truth of their acting.
    Also, you say that philosophers are 97% white, but I’m curious as to how you got that,especially given the Asian/Middle Eastern/etc philosophers that exist. But you’re probably right there still is a white skew. That experience may not be rooted in the same identities of some marginalized groups, but that certainly doesn’t make it wrong.
    Also not really relevant, but a lot of what you describe as not analytical philosophy, re: Nietzsche, Sartre, etc. isn’t “critical theory” necessarily or even thought of as lesser, but continental. And if it’s thought of as lesser, it’s probably by analytical subscribers, which, no crap, they’re analytic subscribers.

    • James McElwain

      You know there’s a reason Idealism has been dragged to the shit-heap in the past few centuries. I mean, even Thomas Nagel recognizes this problem when writing a (not critical) book titled “The View from Nowhere,” which seems the perfect phrase to dismiss such ethical reasoning, even if Nagel didn’t mean it as such. There’s plenty of criticism from within the analytic tradition as to this methodology, so I’m pretty sure the author’s criticism of Kant is not an indictment of every single analytical pursuit. Do you think a hardcore materialist would have major disagreement with that author’s criticism of speculative reason?

      Kant is merely a particularly ripe example where a stupid fetish for formalism overrides any concern for the content of an ethical system. I think the authors identification of a philosopher like Jean-Paul Sartre is particularly apt for being the kind of author that would immediately lose you a round in front of many “ethics” loving judges yet probably has a more thorough engagement with Kant than any of the “analytic” texts being taught to students.

      It’s always been hilarious to me that the Anglo philosophy lovers in debate are only willing to engage with the Groundwork and maybe a few pages from the 2nd Critique (maybe because approaching Kant’s thought on metaphysics and aesthetics might might ruin their fantasy that Kant is a philosopher whose only concern is justifying the moral righteousness of handing Anne Frank over to the Gestapo).