Presidential Address to the APA Eastern, 2012

“Philosophy’s Civil Wars”


Presidential Address, Eastern APA, Atlanta, 2012


We have come together here in Atlanta, one of the most important sites of the U.S. Civil War, on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. This war, and this proclamation, continues to evoke widely divergent affective responses from diverse parts of the U.S. population. I was taught a certain version of the history of this war while attending public schools here in the south after I immigrated to this country from Latin America. In the story I was taught, the villains were General Sherman, General Grant, and later, the carpetbaggers. We were not taught the war as a tragedy of brother against brother; the northerners were not our brothers, they were Yankees. Nor was it taught as a battle whose stakes involved overturning the greatest moral atrocity of the time: the commerce in human flesh.

In truth, the Civil War was an internecine competition in which the rhetoric of neither side was always clear about its true moral and political stakes. In the south, the war was portrayed as being about the protection of a particular form of feudal economy identified as ‘the southern way of life;’ in the north, it was portrayed as being about saving the union. In actuality, many white northerners wanted no part of the fight, whatever its motivation—furious riots broke out in northern cities led by whites who refused to fight for either the union or abolition. Yet, however the protagonists understood the war, it is undeniable that it resulted in an expansion of democracy, of suffrage, and of social inclusion. It was as if they were engaged in a battle the stakes of which could not be articulated by the terms of their own discourse.

Philosophy too has its civil wars, though they are not, in fact, always civil. Our wars are not mainly fought in nationally organized battles, but are mostly local skirmishes prompted by faculty searches or by elections for department chair. Though these skirmishes may be local, they often line up with larger battles in the profession over philosophical traditions. I know the idea of war here may seem too strong a metaphor, but we do talk about battles, won and lost, at faculty meetings, or business meetings, and there is always a senior colleague who claims to know ‘where the bodies are buried.’ And some of us refer to the army of exiles living in the diaspora of English and Religion and Political Science and Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies and German and French and Spanish departments. Here, today, there are some from the diaspora sitting among us, who have come home for a visit.

The point of this address will not be, rest assured, a simple call for laying down arms, for rapprochement, or a wish, as a great American once urged, that we might all just ‘get along.’ Nor do I see myself championing a single side. Rather, I want us to think philosophically about actually existing philosophy, in its real, non-ideal state, and not in its idealized state. What are the true stakes of our current wars? And what are we really fighting over? As any good marriage counselor will tell you, the fight over what kind of car to buy is rarely in actuality a fight over what kind of car to buy.




Today, philosophy in the flesh has its back against the neo-liberal wall by those forces who want to know what value we add to higher education, how a course on Plato will help students get a job, and why we deserve a free pass when cuts are desperately needed. And, in this moment of crisis, our discipline is, as usual, as internally divided and antagonistic as the competing schools of Athens or Al-Andalus. We have our blue states and our red states, or departments, and now we also have our niche media, including websites and blogs, by which we can avoid having to confront the spin, or the arguments, of the other side.

In this context war might usefully be defined as the sort of conflict that continues after communication has ceased, when there is no more dialogue, no more listening, no more attempts to read and responsibly engage the other side’s books or directly address their arguments. War is what happens when philosophical argumentation ceases. This metaphor, then, would not cover the usual debates over Kant’s third critique or identity through time or the nature of mechanical processes, but the discord over what is worth teaching at all.

All disciplines engage in conflict, but the fights among philosophers are interesting if only because we like to believe ours are guided by reason. We pride ourselves on exemplifying a standard of rigor that is obviously lacking when books are dismissed without having been read. There is a contextualism of justificatory standards operating in these dismissals with a definite pattern.


Surely all of us here consider some works of philosophy unworthy of our scarce reading time because they emerge from trends or from writers about whose worth we have made educated guesses. But these educated guesses become less educated as we pass them onto our students, and they pass them onto their students. Hilary Putnam related that when he was a student in the 1950’s one learned how to become an analytical philosopher by learning “what not to like and what not to consider philosophy…”(Quoted in McCumber 2001, 50)

Whole swaths of work have long been classified as sharing the negative attribute of being not-philosophy. In one infamous case some decades back, an accrediting committee made up of philosophers recommended by the APA judged the philosophy department at the New School as so ‘sectarian’ and ‘overspecialized’ that it should be discredited (McCumber 2001, 51-53). This was a department that included Hannah Arendt. It was also one of the few departments, non-coincidentally, in which one could study a wide array of continental philosophers. Such events sparked what became known as the pluralist rebellion in the late 1970s, a movement to insist that sessions at the APA should represent diverse philosophical schools. This effort reportedly began in a meeting in the Manhattan apartment of the late Charles Sherover, a professor of philosophy at Hunter College, where I now happily teach. John McCumber, who was a participant, characterizes the pluralist rebellion as the moment when continental philosophers emerged from the silent shadows and stood up for their right to a place in the profession. Their efforts won real reforms of APA procedures so as to ensure more philosophical pluralism, but as one prominent analytic philosopher reportedly said afterward: “you keep the conventions; we’ll keep the graduate schools.”

The word “pluralism” became tainted in some circles as a result of these battles, with a lasting power that I have recently had occasion to appreciate in my own professional life. Today, the demand for pluralism in philosophy is associated with an attempt to replace philosophical argument with politics, and those who engage in such activity as the pluralist rebellion are often criticized accordingly. Most philosophers like to believe that reason rules our judgments, but one might well wonder whether our flattering self-portrait is a good likeness. Let me approach this by first posing a more specific question: How have philosophers in general preferred to understand our civil wars, if not as a political conflict?

Though today we may be tempted to blame our conflicts on scarce departmental resources, for most of its history philosophy had no resources to fight over. This neither stopped the wars nor the blood flow. Plato charged the Sophists with rhetorical obfuscations whose only aim was the swaying of doxa, not the attainment of truth. The aim of persuasion, he held, requires the use of sophistic methods and contextual sensibilities that can result in the protection of dogma. A similar charge was echoed in Descartes’ oblique critique of the Scholastics, and Hume’s more open fight against the rationalists. To follow schools that exonerate dogmatic thinking is not merely a waste of time, it is a danger to our philosophical standards, even to our philosophical abilities. Thus, like Socrates, we understandably warn our students away.

A more recent, and more accommodationist, view has been that diverse philosophers simply have divergent styles of reasoning, as Ian Hacking might put it. Some of us are science-minded, others of us are more historical in temperament. Some, as Archilochus suggested, are like rambling foxes that know many things, while others of us are like the lowly hedgehog who views the world through a single lens (Berlin 1953). Some are wont to paint with large painterly strokes, while others are content to spend their lives on participles. William James famously divided us into the categories of the Tender-Minded and the Tough-Minded, back in the days when the absence of women removed the need to worry about the gendered associations these terms might invoke. James explained that the antagonism engendered by this division

“has formed in all ages a part of the philosophic atmosphere of the time. …The tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and soft-heads. The tender feel the tough to be unrefined, callous, or brutal. Their mutual reaction is very much like that that takes place when the Bostonian tourists mingle with a population like that of Cripple Creek. Each type believes the other to be inferior to itself…” (James 1987, 491)

Notice here James’ Bourdieurian comparison of philosophical differences with distinctions of class and urban sophistication, suggesting a possible demographic bent to the division.

When one imagines philosophical differences as based in differences of style and temperament, or the arbitrariness of social mores, it is easier to advance the solution of pluralism. As did one of James’ ablest followers, Richard Rorty. In his essay “Philosophy in America Today,” first published in 1979, Rorty described the characteristic epithets philosophers use against competing trends in a way that continues to resonate: he said that while some disparage their opponents for not really doing philosophy at all, others claim that their opponents are merely engaged in ‘logic-chopping.’ Rorty found both sides equally obnoxious and unhelpful and likens their charges to the carping of an earlier era against “Christian apologetics” and “empirical psychology.”

Rorty, of course, also reframed the battle lines in his own way, and argues eloquently for his side. Hans Reichenbach provides his opposition. Reichenbach told the story of the history of western philosophy as a tale of pilgrim’s progress toward the promised land of ‘scientific philosophy’ (Reichenbach 1951). By tendentiously characterizing logical empiricism as the move “from speculation to science,” Reichenbach gave positivism, that most unhistorical-minded of philosophical schools, “an account of its relation to the past.”(Rorty 1982, 211, 220)

For Rorty this is just stuff and nonsense: it is just silly to say that “Plato was an incompetent sophist, or that a hedgehog is an incompetent fox.” (Rorty 1982, 224-225) For Rorty philosophy has neither a shared method nor a bounded subject matter that can serve as the basis of a narrative of progress or comparative critique:

“If a discipline has no well-defined subject matter, and no inter-university paradigms of achievement, then it will have to have stylistic paradigms.… I do not take this to be a denigrating remark…. ‘Philosophy,’ in the narrow and professional sense, is just whatever we philosophy professors do. Having a common style and a niche in the normal table of organization of academic departments, is quite enough to make our discipline as identifiable and respectable as any other.”(Rorty 1982, 220)

Note the probably influence of Quine here, who once referred to what comes under the classification of philosophy as a “verbal grouping” (Quine 1975).

Despite their pedigree, these are not the sort of comments one can take to the Dean when asking for a new line, or use in arguing with a Board of Trustees considering the elimination of a philosophy department. Yet, we might still ask, are they true?

Rorty holds, like James, that our wars are fought more over style than substance, and so it follows, logically, that we should lay down our arms. If we repudiate Reichenbach’s unified narrative, and cease trying to define philosophy, Rorty believes we can join forces to promote a model of ‘liberal learning’ whose only goal is that “students can find practically any book in the library---Gadamer or Kripke, Searle or Derrida---and then find someone to talk with about it.” (Rorty 1982, 225) Absolutism is wrong not just because it breeds intolerance but because it spreads the illusion that we have a substantive subject matter in common, a shared set of common problems. Because we don’t have any such thing, Rorty suggests that our splits are “both permanent and harmless.”(Rorty 1982, 226)

Yet in some cases, philosophers operating with quite divergent ‘stylistic paradigms’ are pursuing quite related projects of inquiry, about, for example, the nature of the self, or moral reasoning, or truth. If style differences keep philosophers working on related projects from considering each other’s arguments, our work is surely harmed. A number of philosophers competent in the difficult skill of bridge work have been making this case for years, such as Joseph Rouse, John McDowell, Stanley Cavell, Lee Braver, John Haugeland; even Rorty himself made contributions in this regard. If we classify our differences as merely stylistic, and render the project of philosophy so open-ended as to defy all description, we are left without a motivation to explore what is growing in the garden on the other side of the fence.

It also strikes me that we do have one rather interesting common problem, or problem in common. The world of philosophy today is, how shall I put it, ‘demographically challenged.’ In the United States, the discipline is less than 25% female (and women comprise less than 17% of full time faculty according to a recent study). African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and U.S. born Latinos are rarities. Our faculties do not come close to mirroring our society or even our college campuses. The numbers over the last two decades suggest further that we are not slowly but surely advancing toward progress, but seem to be stuck in neutral gear.

These demographic challenges, however, do not constitute the sort of problem usually considered to be an appropriate topic for philosophical thought. It is thought to be a problem about us, but not about what we do. And thus we can leave it to the sociologists to explain while we simply endeavor to do the best philosophy we can. Philosophers from many ‘stylistic paradigms’ turn out to share this idea, but it is a view that strikes me as a philosophical problem of the first order because it means that we have preemptively dismissed the possibility that the discipline shares responsibility for its demographic challenges. And this means that we are willfully turning away from self-knowledge. One is reminded here of Nietzsche’s thought that “We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge---and with good reason…”(Nietzsche 2000, 451)

We need to ask, then, before we presume to know, whether there is a link between our demographic challenges and what we do. More specifically, we need to ask whether there is a connection between our demographic homogeneity, and our civil wars.



In the movement to address gender disparities, there has been a recent discussion over whether the low number of women in the profession is related to the treatment of feminist philosophy. This question raises the possibility that our demography is connected to our philosophy.

A new essay by Ann Cudd reminds us of just how recently feminist philosophy was publicly dismissed by the discipline’s leaders (Cudd 2012, 15-16). The host of the 1998 World Congress of Philosophy, John Silber, attacked feminist philosophy in his address to the World Congress as “an assault on reason.” In the same year the influential philosopher Colin McGinn wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that “feminism now has a place in many philosophy departments, for good or ill, but it has not made any impact on the core areas of the subject.” These attitudes should give pause to those who believe that the future of women in philosophy can be delinked from the future of feminist philosophy in the discipline: a profound contempt for feminist philosophy cannot bode well for any woman who works in the discipline, whose philosophical tendencies as well as ways of interacting with colleagues may then be policed for signs of feminist corruption. This is, in fact, precisely the atmosphere of many departments today, in which women are welcome on the unspoken stipulation that they do not do feminist philosophy, that their metaphysical interests concern time rather than gender, that their focus in the philosophy of language will be Gricean implicature without wondering about its applicability to hate speech. It is well known that many of our most prominent feminist philosophers snuck in the gates via dissertations and early publications that steered clear of topics that some view as ‘political’ rather than ‘philosophical.’

Consider, then, not just the numbers but also the kind of philosophy these marginal groups are writing. Interestingly, there is a great deal of work from this sector of our ranks on topics such as marginality, silencing, alienation, the relation of power and language, the downside of forced assimilation, the effects of European colonialism on western philosophy, the complexity of racism, the epistemology of ignorance, the need for reparations, the subtlety of heterosexism, the intellectual content of caring labor, the problem of implicit bias, and the specious assumptions behind norms of able-bodiedness. Some of these research projects have been taken up more widely, but they began in the margins, and many of them remain there. What can this tell us about our discipline?

Interestingly, much of this work has the potential to shed light on philosophy’s demographic challenges, if it were applied to the profession. It could make a real difference, in other words, if it were brought out from the margins. Can its persistent marginalization, then, be only a coincidence?

Most of us, contra Rorty, want to define our discipline as at bottom a form of critical rationality, though I suspect even Rorty would share this Cavellian idea. Cavell has sought to domesticate and harness the transcendent aspirations of traditional skepticism toward the more quotidian purpose of questioning convention and orthodoxy (See e.g. 2005, 12). And Reichenbach defines ‘scientific philosophy’ as an advance in just this regard: by establishing a method of analysis that will put orthodoxies to a rigorous test (Reichenbach 1951). Rorty, in his turn, worries that Reichenbach is merely instituting a new orthodoxy by his mythic opposition between speculation and science. So, I suggest, across our divisions we often share the idea that we are engaged in an effort to gain critical purchase on the conventions and orthodoxies of the everyday. For philosophers as divided as Reichenbach and Rorty, as well as Plato, Descartes, Cavell and even Foucault (a grouping that is itself unorthodox), the aspiration of philosophical thought is an Emersonian escape from “our suffocation by conformity and the accretion of unexamined habit,” or an attempt to make the ordinary a little less so (Cavell 2005, 8). For Cavell, this is the essence of the skeptical thrust.

Despite the attractions of this aspiration, I wonder whether it can instill in those of us who have crossed the many fiery gauntlets necessary to share a profession with such admirable iconoclasts the subsequent conceit that we have transcended conformity, that our work lives---our thought---are not governed by the shibboleths of our time and place but quite apart from them. We might be seduced, in other words, by this flattering thought: if philosophy is the detachment from, or critical engagement with, the ordinary, what does the ordinary have to do with us?

From a perspective truly outside of our typical conventions, the Ghanaian statesman and philosopher Kwame Nkrumah expressed amazement that Western philosophers

“affect an aristocratic professional unconcern over the social realities of the day. Even the ethical philosophers say that it is not their concern to improve themselves or anybody else. …They say that they are not interested in what made a philosopher say the things he says; but only in the reasons which he gives. Philosophy … thus … loses its arresting power.”(Nkrumah 1964, 54, emphasis added)

Nkrumah, who studied philosophy at Lincoln University, University of Pennsylvania, and at the London School of Economics, is certainly right that the causes of what we say are typically seen as the provenance of the sociologists or psychologists, that is, beneath our interest. Philosophers working at the border of the neurosciences are now participating in the debates over the causes of belief, unlike in Nkrumah’s time, but have yet to train this attention on philosophy itself, such as on the widely held belief that our demographics are accidents of history unrelated to the content of what we do. I believe we need to consider what might be contributing philosophical causes and reasons for the prevalence of that belief.

Before addressing that question, consider for a moment some related disciplinary struggles. Every discipline in the United States has faced these demographic issues after all, forced on them by student movements as well as administrators concerned about faculty diversity. Philosophy is notoriously similar to physics and chemistry in our faculties, if you consider the numbers for blacks, Latinos, and southeast Asians in particular. Yet physics and chemistry have made significant strides in owning up to their demographic challenges and facing these like real scientists: with empirical studies, and large grants, and coordinated, nationwide, creative efforts, some of which our own feminist philosophy activists are now replicating. If you want the best scientists, you need to draw from the largest pool.

Some of the disciplines closer to home have actually met more resistance. English departments went through two decades of civil wars over quality versus diversity, i.e. whether it was defensible to consider diversity when one is seeking examples of the greatest literature. No one argued that quality didn’t matter, but many did argue that the judgment of quality is an interpretive affair. Some argued further that it can be legitimate sometimes to study literature for its truth value and inherent interest beyond its formal literary merits. Today English departments are still fighting, but they have expanded their canons and their hermeneutic frames and have reached gender parity.

History had an instructively different set of challenges. The problem historians had in getting their head around the demand for diversity was sources! How could they be expected to develop inclusive histories when there are so few documents, letters, or texts? However, the opponents argued that the field had an unexamined dogmatism about sources: first of all, silences are important and can be interpreted, but there were actually many sources that had been left unattended, from medical records to women’s magazines to court documents, hymnals, and material culture. (Helly 1992; Scott 1999) The ability to interpret these new sources required some theoretical retooling, always a difficult endeavor with tenured faculty, but new historical methodologies opened up important new lines of inquiry, and history departments are today much more diverse; women are about 41% of the faculty. Young women historians and historians of color can chart projects for themselves beyond chronicling the actions of male elites.

So what is it in our discipline that stymies philosophers about demographic diversity? More than our methods, or our canon, I suggest it has to do with our self-understanding.

It is interesting to compare the dream of critical detachment sketched out earlier to its major competing trend. Against the idea of leaving the sphere of unexamined habit behind in our philosophical dust, as it were, there is an energetic tradition that has advocated for quite the reverse, that philosophers should re-acclimate our sensibilities toward our ordinary habits for the truths we are after. Thus Hume thought we could clear away many metaphysical speculations and theological acrobatics by simply attending to what we actually perceive and to how we actually function in the everyday world. And Peirce thought we could clear away many useless research projects in the theory of knowledge by defining both knowing and doubting in reference to real world knowing and doubting. Philosophers, he thought, should stop trying to find proofs against manufactured doubts. Heidegger was rather different from either Hume or Peirce in his ‘stylistic paradigms,’ yet he shared their view that it is our everyday relationship to the world by which we can come up with an analytics of knowing and being that might cure the alienation brought on by Cartesian quests for the objective present-at-hand. And Quine himself suggested that a close look at science would quickly rid us of philosophical dogmas such as analyticity itself.

Wittgenstein, whose iconoclastic style is paradoxically claimed by many schools of philosophy, supplied the most extreme conclusion for this trend of honoring the everyday: philosophy’s ultimate aim, he said, is to leave everything just as it is (Wittgenstein 1958, #124). An unembarrassed response to Nkrumah.

So, if the former Cavellian/Emersonian/Platonic/Cartesian/Foucauldian tendency favored a critical distance on the realm of the ordinary, this Humean/Peircean/Heideggerian/Quinean/Wittgensteinian tendency takes the ordinary to be both source and touchstone for philosophical truth. Note here that neither tendency offers much hope for a philosophical reflexivity strong and rich enough to tackle philosophy’s own contributions to our conformities of habit.

Transcendent models of philosophical thought render the sociological realities about the exclusivity of the profession tangential at best. The thinking here is that it is the unencumbered mind that is doing the philosophical work; encumbrances due to the arbitrary nature of our embodiment and location are irrelevant when philosophical argumentation is working correctly. The work of feminist philosophy is then acceptable only if it remains focused on clearing away these arbitrary biases, though this would reduce its work to rubbish removal, rather than architecture. On the other hand, if the source of truth is in the everyday, and it is not the business of philosophy to change or disrupt it, we are again at a loss as to how to challenge the everyday. Some fear this would put us in the realm of social work, or worse, social engineering. Such efforts may legitimately operate in the peripheries of applied ethics, they think, but should not, as McGinn opined, touch the ‘core areas of philosophy.’

Perhaps there remains utility in these traditions, one or both, toward the question of understanding philosophy’s demographic challenges. I don’t mean to rule either one out, entirely. But the fact that neither tendency has gone where it needs to go in noticing much less analyzing the demographic problem requires some thought.




Our most common understanding of what we are about is truth. Even when we seek the good and the beautiful, we seek to make true claims about the good and the beautiful. Even when we reduce our goal to clarification—such as the clarification of what a scientific theory can actually claim----this reduced goal is governed by the norm of truth. When he rejected the normative role that truth might play, Rorty parted company even from the classical pragmatists, and voluntarily took himself off to an English department, something analogous to Ophelia’s banishment to a nunnery. Philosophers may deflate the meaning of truth, and define it by radically different terms, and yet it remains the single most important philosophical norm by which we understand our discipline. From Plato’s rejection of the Sophists to Reichenbach’s repudiation of speculative metaphysics to Foucault’s claim that we need to explore power if we want to know the truth about truth, truth is the disciplining norm that we willingly embrace. By rejecting that idea, Rorty truly changed language games.

In most formulations, however, the truth norm makes it difficult to understand how quotidian concerns of politics, sociology, or demographics should be our concern. In his 1971 account of the era of student radicalism at Berkeley, John Searle, for instance, offers several explanations for why so many faculty ‘capitulated’ to the demands of activists, but none of his explanations suggest the possibility that radical faculty were concerned that the links between universities and the military industrial complex had dangerously circumscribed the pursuit of knowledge and the debate over ideas. Searle portrays the radicals as concerned only with consequences, or ‘relevance.’ He explains:

“The basic actions of the faculty member [are] to impart the truth or as nearly what is the truth as he can get according to professional standards of evidence and reason…He could regard it correctly as a violation of professional ethics if he made his utterances for the purpose of achieving some practical effects…”(quoted in McCumber 2001, 98-99)

McCumber shows that this division between truth and practical politics is precisely the formulation that was used to police academic work by one of the leading academic McCarthyists, Raymond B. Allen, the president of the University of Washington who strongly supported the effort to clear the universities of radicals. Allen held that:

“For centuries universities have survived in the Western world, not without difficulties and serious attacks from both without and within, primarily because of their impartiality, objectivity and determination to seek truth and not be propagandists in partisan political, economic, and other debates…Clandestine activity…in the Communist Party means that [professors] have forsaken their duty to protect the university’s integrity and to pursue an objective quest of truth in favor of a propagandistic mission.”(Quoted in McCumber 2001, 39)

This is no doubt the same kind of reasoning Silber had in mind when, fifty years later, he characterized feminist philosophy as ‘an assault on reason.’ To some ears, the very term ‘feminist philosophy’ invokes the spectre of Lysenkoism. How else to explain a forthright political modifier tied on to what should be an apolitically neutral inquiry?

Paul Boghossian has recently reformulated Raymond Allen’s charge that the academy is a fight for objectivity against the philistines. In his 2006 book, aggressively titled Fear of Knowledge, Boghossian takes on the constructivism he sees as dominating the academy today, a view that he says renders validity relative to a context that includes the specific identities or social status of knowers. Despite what he takes to be the obvious speciousness of this view, Boghossian explains its influence as follows:

“In the United States, constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from the charge of holding false or unjustified views.” (Boghossian 2006, 130)

This leads in practice, he says, to proponents accepting a double standard: they will

“allow a questionable idea to be criticized if it is held by those in a position of power---Christian creationism, for example---but not if it is held by those whom the powerful oppress---Zuni creationism, for example.” (Boghossian 2006, 130)

Thus, echoing the McCarthyists, Boghossian targets constructivism as motivated by a propagandistic mission.

One upshot of this approach, whether coming from Allen, Searle, or Boghossian, is that a political critique of knowledge will be a non-starter unless it can be framed as a concern that objective standards have been compromised for political reasons. So to get a concern with the demographic challenges of philosophy off the ground, we would have to be able to show that it has made a difference to the truth claims of philosophy. As indeed, numerous philosophers, especially feminists, have been showing for some decades.

In is interesting that Boghossian believes there is only one lone sub-field in the academic humanities and social sciences today in which constructivist and relativist ideas do not hold sway, “in which,” he says, “their hold is actually quite weak, and that is in philosophy…as it is practiced within the mainstream of analytic philosophy departments within the English speaking world.”(Boghossian 2006, 7) This portion of the academy, it turns out, as demographically challenged as it is, is the bulwark of defense against a global irrationalism. He allows that not all of analytic philosophy has held firm in this regard, and that in fact some of the most important analytic philosophers gave succor to the relativists, including Wittgenstein, Carnap, Rorty, Kuhn, Putnam, Goodman, even Kant and Hume. But fortunately, he opines, their anti-objectivist tendencies are not generally accepted.

Now let me try to walk us carefully back from this cliff.

One interesting point is that much of the motivations for constructivism, and even of the epistemic nihilism that sometimes follows in its wake, is a robust concern for truth and the idea that, as Nietzsche suggested, nobody has yet been truthful enough about truth itself. In other words, there is a strong streak of Pyrrhonic style skepticism among those, like Gianni Vattimo, who advocate bidding ‘farewell to truth.’ Vattimo argues in a book with that title that it is only in rejecting the absolutisms of objectivist truth, and becoming more clear-eyed about the limitations of our knowledge, that we can attain a more truthful public sphere (Vattimo 2009). Note the very different direction he takes from Rorty’s epistemic capitulation: Vattimo actually bids ‘farewell’ only to scientism and positivism and calls for Peircean like procedures for adjudicating interpretive frames. His basic argument is that if we recognize that our diverse contexts (our identities, our social status) inform our practical judgments, then we will have a better chance at a critical rationality and a deliberative process guided by real epistemic norms.

Another bogeymen of the trend Boghossian critiques is Michel Foucault, whose work even more than Vattimo’s can be understood in the tradition of skepticism. The historian Paul Veyne recounts a conversation they had in which Foucault said the following: “for Heidegger, the great question was to know, ‘what is the basis for truth?’; for Wittgenstein it was knowing what we are saying when we tell the truth…” but for himself, “the question is, how is it that the truth is so untrue?”(Veyne 2010, 40)

One might think that Foucault was referring here to the way in which some things come to be called truth that are not in actuality true at all. But in fact, much of his work was designed to reveal that there are a wide assortment of claims in our society that have justification, and even truth in the sense of referring to actual entities, yet are not altogether true if we make greater demands on truth than simple reference. Examples would include the claims that sexual personas are best divided up by the object of our desire, or that there exists things such as criminal personalities and races and a norm for psychological development, or that derivatives produce wealth and human labor is a form of capital. These claims refer to real phenomena: they are measurable, specifiable, explanatory, and yield predictions. Yet they have been produced, constructed if you like. Foucault’s question is not, how did we come to believe such falsehoods to be true, but rather, and more interestingly, how did these things come to be true?

Certainly this is a historical question, a question for our betters in the social sciences to unravel. But there are philosophical aspects to this puzzle that have to do with the norms of justification and belief formation and the acceptable ontologies of truth. To truly get at truths that are not altogether true, we need a political and epistemic accounting of the received views about knowledge and reference. There have long been epistemologies capable of dealing with social kinds, what Gaston Bachelard named “abstract-concrete” objects, but what Foucault is after is something more than a characterization of their ontological status: he wants epistemologies reflexive enough to understand how epistemologies themselves play a role in constructing the truth. He said,

“…insofar as what is involved in this analysis of mechanisms of power is the politics of truth, and not sociology, history, or economics, I see its role as that of showing the knowledge effects produced by the struggles, confrontations, and battles that take place within our society, and by the tactics of power that are the elements of this struggle.” (Foucault 2007, 3; emphasis added)

Foucault is drawing our attention here to the real world context in which truth claims can operate as weapons in the midst of battles. Surely this cannot be contested: philosophical arguments, such as Boghossian’s but also such as my own, can have effects on how we presumptively judge the credibility of texts, traditions, interpretive frames, even kinds of speakers. Moreover, measurable truths about “sexual types” or “criminal personalities” have a feedback loop on human experience. Truths have truth-effects.

Now set this idea alongside the recent naturalistic turn toward understanding theory choice in real world scientific debates. These debates reveal the ways in which standards of theory-choice are, inevitably, variably interpreted, weighed and balanced. Sources are subject to debate, the intelligibility of hypotheses can vary with time and place, and all of these variations can be affected by social contexts and political conditions. Helen Longino’s work is exemplary in making sense of these realities within an empiricism that requires candidates for truth to have practical efficacy. Yet Longino has worked effectively to develop an empiricism that disassembles, as she puts it, the very dichotomy between what is rational and what is social that crude objectivists maintain.

“Knowledge as content is the product of the exercise of basic cognitive capacities that conforms to its intended object. …But I argue that these cognitive capacities are, in science, exercised socially, that is interactively. I also argue that ‘conforms’ [the idea that to count as knowledge a claim must conform to its object] encompasses a family of semantic success terms and that such a latitudinarian view is required by the varied character of scientific content.” (Longino 2002, 8)

Longino reinterprets the norm of truth that guides empirical inquiry as effecting a judgment of whether our standards for belief formation enable the members of the community to “pursue their aims successfully” with respect to the objects of their belief. (Longino 2002, 159) This is how the norm actually operates, she argues, in the conduct of science. Once we understand this, we can become latitudinarian about the existing pluralism of methods, assumptions, and values in diverse research projects because we have recourse to a line of critique across these pluralist divergences. In other words, the need to conform to an intended object blocks absolute relativism. But notice that our line of critique against a competing project might well encompass the “intended object” their research is positing and/or targeting. If what they are trying to measure, or explain, or predict---think here of the pursuit of gender differences in the brain or in moral intuitions---exists in a dialectical relationship with their methods, the intended object must be part of what we normatively evaluate. Like Foucault, Longino recognizes the epistemic limits of mere reference. Hence hers is a contextual empiricism.

Joseph Rouse and the late John Haugeland interpret Heidegger’s epistemology and philosophy of science as a contextualist approach as well. For Heidegger the pursuit of knowledge is always embedded within a practical engagement with the world, and that practical engagement belies flatfooted notions of objectivity. Our practical involvements operate “as a constitutive norm for intentional directedness” (Rouse 2013, xvii). Haugeland suggested that we replace the norm of objectivity with ‘beholdenness’ in order to leave behind the detached and distanced conceptualization of knowing in favor of one that more truthfully conveys our investments in what we seek to know. We need accounts of knowledge that will not overlook “our practical involvement with, dependence upon, and accountability to the entities that we encounter” (Rouse 2013, xiv). The quest for self-correcting methods must address our relation, in this sense, to what we seek to know.

Longino’s contextual empiricism is broadly consistent with this idea. The variable ways in which we judge relevance and significance in weighing the adequacy of evidence will be affected not only by our background assumptions but by the project we are engaged with at the moment. Sufficiency, relevance, significance, explanatory adequacy, consistency, all of these are requisite elements of theory choice and all of these take the character of what Hilary Putnam described as judgment calls that operate on a ‘seats of the pants feel.’ This suggests that it is the domain of practical reason, not theoretical reason, that might best envelop the real world of scientific practice. In this vein, Longino insists “on an epistemology for living science, produced by real, empirical subjects. This is an epistemology that accepts that scientific knowledge cannot be fully understood apart from its deployments in particular material, intellectual, and social contexts” (Longino 2002, 9).

To the extent these contexts have political elements, as they necessarily always do, I take Foucault to be charting a way to be reflexive about the political aspects of the contexts in which knowledge develops. It is not simply that epistemic agents have political and non-epistemic motivations and aims, but that our research projects, contextual values, theoretical constructs, and even our ontologies of truth are embedded within, and partly constituted by, our social domains. Given this, we cannot keep epistemology tidily separate from social and political inquiry if we truly want to understand not only truth-effects, but truth itself. (See Tiles 1998, 229)

What does any of this mean for philosophy’s civil wars? It suggests that we should not be overly hasty in characterizing our conflicts as the fight of reason against dogma, or objectivism against irrationalism, or having nothing to do with the political context in which we operate. There are certainly wrong claims, insufficiently argued claims, inadequately justified claims, and willfully negligent formations of belief, but there are also more oblique differences of weights and measurements and interpretations and investments. Such differences may have reasons or causes or both, but they are emblematic of contexts. To cast a research project as ‘political’ rather than ‘philosophical’ is then, in some cases, to misname a contextual difference.


Contextualism provides a way to understand the recalcitrance of philosophy’s demographic challenges. If neither the ideals of critical rationality nor an attending to the everyday nor even our overriding concern with truth necessarily lead us to question our material context, or feel the need for an accounting of how our time and place may figure into our analyses, contextualism should make us aware of, and interested in, the contexts in which we do philosophy. And against Bogossian’s fears, contextualism would not disempower reason’s normative force but expand what it requires.

So how does one do one’s work as a philosopher with a contextual self-understanding?

Consider this passage from Jurgen Habermas’ recent work on human nature. Here he is noting the diminished capacity philosophers have in today’s world to articulate substantive accounts of the good:

“As long as philosophers still had faith that they were able to assure themselves about their ability to discuss the whole of nature and history, they had authority over the supposedly established frameworks into which the human life of individuals and communities had to fit….But with the acceleration of social change, the lifespans of these models of the good life have become increasingly shorter…” (2003, 1-2)

Now of course, many philosophers today continue in their unabashed faith that they can “discuss the whole of nature and history,” or tell the story of the world, as a recent book title puts it, i.e. explain the essence of the human brain and rational capacity, the fundamental nature of linguistic communication, the core of democratic practice. But Habermas is right that the idea that there is a singular and substantive model of the good life has taken a beating. He explains this by the fact that the increasing pace of social change has challenged philosophers’ hubris. As a result, he suggests that (and his own work manifests this) philosophers have tried to retain a semblance of their universal scope by retreating from substance to process. Substantive articulations of the good and full-bodied characterizations of human nature have largely given way to process approaches that can legitimate multiple or successive proposals based on their conditions of articulation, or the manner in which they came about. Our way of thinking about human nature transforms from a set of dispositions and needs that can justify value commitments to a set of loose capacities understood to be flexible, open-ended, and, Habermas warns (along with Daniel Dennett), defeasible as social conditions devolve.

The idea of philosophy expressed here is thus a contextual one. Models of the good life have lifespans because contexts have lifespans. Models of the moral life take on their influence, their resonance, their plausibility, their intelligibility, and thus their justification, from their connection to a very particular, rich and complex set of social conditions. This provides a way to think about a pursuit of philosophy that remains mindful of context.

I would add that it is not only time but space that should challenge philosophers’ hubris about their capacity to assess the whole of nature and history. That is, the fact that we live in a multipolar world within a decentralized series of sites of knowledge is a critically important addendum to Habermas’ account. His own retreat from substance to process in the face of these challenges is, of course, interesting from a therapeutic perspective. It certainly looks to be a strategy of compensation with a little denial thrown in. Habermas can still preside over a process justified by our nature to be applied across history. In this way too, and not insignificantly, the spectres of chaos, relativism, dystopian futures, and permanent revolutions can be avoided.

Contrast Habermas’ retreat to process to a very Hegelian sounding claim by Michael Dummett:

“Ideas, as it is said, are ‘in the air.’…at a certain stage in the history of any subject, ideas become visible, though only to those with keen mental eyesight, that not even those with the sharpest vision could have perceived at an earlier stage. If we are interested in the history of thought rather than of thinkers, it is these developments that will be of concern to us…” (1993, 3)

Such an idea is concordant once again with contextualism. I might disagree with Dummett’s view that only those with ‘keen mental eyesight’ (an odd phrase) have the capacity to discern the ideas of an age, but only if he thinks this category includes primarily philosophers, or other educated elites. I would dispute this. But the principle point of interest here is that Dummett portrays ideas in general—which might be ideas about process as well as ideas about substance---as made available in some sense by historical conditions.

What can it mean to say that ideas become apparent only at a certain time, and that they could not have become apparent at a different time? Dummett’s point is not the banal idea that calculus could not have been invented before algebra, or that a Mars landing was unlikely without a prior moon landing. This would put it in the mundane arena of practical possibility. I suspect the role of historical particularity and social conditions is more significant for Dummett. For one thing he insists in his telling of the history of analytic philosophy on the relevance of geography. He bristles at the conflation of analytic philosophy with Anglo-American philosophy, which he calls a “grave historical distortion,” as if Germany and Austria and eastern Europe in general played no role in its genealogy (1993, 1). This location is not mere happenstance but connected to the way in which philosophical analysis arose as a response to autocratic political conditions, a story that we tend to forget but one that both Frege and the positivists were very forthcoming about. We forget (or were never taught) that Otto Neurath and Hans Hahn viewed empiricism as a critical weapon against fascism and neo-Thomism, just as we forget that Kant had argued for a public conception of reason as a way to defend the French revolutionary demand for free speech in the public domain. Today in the debate over climate change (not its existence but its solution) we find that a bare empiricism is insufficient: the real debate is over how much climate change the poor should be forced to bear. Only a contextual sensibility can help us chart a path through the particular formulation of questions, sources, evidentiary standards, and the ways in which objects of knowledge are fashioned.

Dummett’s view that philosophy has no common methodology or object of study puts him at odds with Reichenbach’s whiggish characterization of philosophy’s history. Analytical philosophy was a game changer in his view, in that it replaced old questions with new ones (1993, 162). There is no slow accretion of truths. Thus, philosophical argumentation itself must be contextualized: its reasoning is self-referential in the sense that it aims to improve on the reasonings given in its proximity.

Does this contextualization of philosophy have a demoralizing effect on its normative force, or a deflationary effect on its applicability? Are contexts bound to separate spheres, unable to dialogue, or judge, across the expanse? And does this provide us with an excuse, in a manner of speaking, to stay in our own gardens?

Surely quite the opposite. We learn philosophy through the use of a canon of texts from far-flung time frames precisely as a way to heighten our own self-awareness about the shibboleths of our current contextual time frame. We also use this canon to seek out previously unconsidered options. And, in relation to the question of normative force, Robert Bernasconi has reminded us that the work of the great European modern philosophers was anything but insular or tentative (See e.g. Bernasconi 2011). Locke, Kant, and Hegel were public intellectuals, serious students of history as well as other disciplines, engaging in wide dialogues, and risking their own judgments about the social challenges of the day. Their public interventions were mostly wrong of course, but they were wrong in interesting ways that continue to enlighten us about our own quite different contexts and in a way that can help us to develop arguments with more normative force than a willful ignorance of our surroundings could muster. Asserting the abstract equality of all engenders only derision from those who know how empty and misleading such pronouncements are. No normative force there.

This is why some of us are interested in the traditions of Latin American philosophy: precisely because of its contextual consciousness. From Símon Bolívar through Jose Martí and José Carlos Mariátegui to Enrique Dussel, among others, we have a 200 year tradition of non-ideal philosophy, considering the questions of goodness, beauty and truth as questions for a very specific amalgam of people in a particular time and place, with a troubled tie to its cultural lineage, both European and indigenous. As the Cuban Martí put it, “When a problem arises in Cojímar, they do not seek its solution in Danzig.”(Martí 2004, 250) His point was not to build walls, but simply to remember where we are. He famously said “Let the world be grafted onto our republics, but the trunk must be our own.”(Martí 2004, 248)

More than fifty years ago the great Mexican philosopher Leopoldo Zea defined the West “as a culture that regards itself as the universal.” (Zea 1992, 75) By this he did not mean that it has the common, myopian tendency to see itself as the center of the world, but, rather, that the West developed an account of world history in which other cultures make an appearance but only to play the role of the particular against the West’s universality. Because our truth is universal rather than contextual, we have little to learn from the science, philosophy or politics of other cultures: our ideas are sufficient, and in fact lead the way for all. Zea drew from Toynbee’s surprisingly harsh analysis that the West’s democratic rhetoric was cashed out in a practical politics that was “tribal and militant.”(Zea 1992, 77) Against this model, non-Western countries have developed an astute awareness of their own positionality as the ‘cosmopolitan proletariat.’ This awareness refused Latin America the luxury of universal aspirations or a belief in its own historical transcendence. Thinkers were forced to address the question of how they, from the periphery, could presume to pose and answer questions of philosophical generality. And most gave answers that resonated with a contextual awareness.

Following Zea, I am suggesting a direct connection between philosophy’s refusal to engage with its demographic challenges and the West’s universalist conceits. The isomorphism of these errors is obvious, to many. Those who think themselves ahead of the historical curve have no need to worry about the limitations of anything as quotidian as gender or ethnicity.

The fact is that, although our best arguments should ideally be compelling to anyone, we are not gods, nor are we writing the story of the world. We are all too human, and our differences can sometimes affect our ideas, concepts, and arguments in ways that even those with the most “keen mental eyesight” can fail to perceive.





Through its civil wars, our discipline has effectively marginalized those sub-fields that challenge its hubris and that explore its contextual parameters. And it continues today to subordinate those philosophical schools that might put its demographic problems on the table for discussion, such as feminist philosophy, continental philosophy, Latin American philosophy, Africana philosophy, even American philosophy and the philosophy of science.

For many years now Nancy Cartwright has been arguing for a deeply local understanding of physics. Like many empirical sciences, physics generates truths via the construction of evidence in laboratories, but the forms that physics laboratories take are almost unique. Unlike biology, geology, linguistics, astronomy, or most other sciences, physics has the ability to drastically limit and control the variables of its experiments, and it can construct highly unnatural conditions in order to isolate isotopes or study pairs of electrons. On the basis of these laboratory experiments physicists construct theories with the greatest hubris of all, about the ‘final particles,’ or the absolute floor of the universe, or the formation of the universe itself. But the truth produced under laboratory conditions, Cartwright argues, cannot be universalized. “Even our best theories,” she says, “are severely limited in their scope: they apply only in situations that resemble their models, and in just the right way, where what constitutes a model is delineated by the theory itself.”(Cartwright 1999, 12) Models, or ontological posits, mediate between theory and the world, and thus a theory’s evidentiary base, though it is not constituted by models, is inseparable from them. A theory’s applicability may well range beyond the lab, she allows, but cannot be assumed as an epistemological implication of the justificatory status achieved under controlled conditions. Cartwright portrays such a view as both realistic and realist. This is not a problem for the doing of physics unless physicists assume a decontextualized or abstracted universality to the confirmed results of laboratory-produced theories, as if there were no need for certeris paribus clauses that condition application. It is the quest for conceptual and metaphysical finality and unity that spawns the dead-end research projects that physicists like Lee Smolin have argued string theory exemplifies (Smolin 2007).

I wonder if we might apply these lessons to philosophy. In philosophy we too construct laboratories of a sort, limiting our variables by excising certain orientations and founding assumptions from the discussion. We also work in something like a laboratory, a humanly orchestrated set of institutions and structures that delimit our interactions and affect our range of ideas and experiences. Within these laboratories specific to our time and place we invent models to help us conceptualize the perceivable world, and we posit theoretical entities such as free will, pedantic literalism, or the present-at-hand to explain what we observe. All of our work is shaped by our institutional and social contexts, but we also have a shaping effect on how our social context is described, explained, rationalized, organized, or challenged. We often work in laboratories not of our own making, elites talking to aspiring elites. We too often act as if this has no effect on what we do.

Clearly, we need to apply our diagnostic impulses to ourselves, to develop a more robust and politically conscious reflexivity sufficient to the task of engaging philosophically with the politics of philosophy. Our civil wars may well continue, but perhaps their moral stakes may become more apparent.






*I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the following colleagues for their comments on this address: Robert Bernasconi, Paul Taylor, Frank Kirkland, John McCumber, and Bill Wilkerson. Jamie Lindsay, Nanette Funk, Virginia Held, Carol Gould, and other participants in the CUNY Graduate Center Social and Political Philosophy Workshop also gave me quite helpful feedback.





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