Author Information: Adam Riggio, New Democratic Party of Canada, firstname.lastname@example.org
Riggio, Adam. “Beyond Socrates: The Philosopher as Creative Craftsperson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 13-21.
The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Iq
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Image credit: Diogo Duarte, via flickr
This essay is a response to Robert Frodeman’s insightful “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise,” published 22 May on this site. I hope he, the rest of the SERRC community, and our readers will forgive the lateness of my reply.
Frodeman’s essay continues his challenge to the orthodoxy of academic institutions whose detailed manifesto was Socrates Tenured. He calls us to remember the rebellious character of philosophical thought. Philosophy today is a discipline institutionalized in the university system. It is a science requiring several years of training in its techniques of research and analysis. When I say science in this context, I mean it in the sense of a disciplinary (and disciplined) field of knowledge whose producers require expertise if they’re going to build high-quality product. Think of the old-fashioned German term Wissenschaft and you will have an effective image.
At the heart of Frodeman’s argument is the image of Socrates—the persecuted activist who was executed for obnoxiously challenging the moral and political orthodoxies of his society. His recent work explores the tensions and paradoxes between free thinkers and subject matter experts. The most important question in “Socratics and Anti-Socratics” is what kind of expertise marks the philosopher in the academy, and what kind of expertise marks the philosopher as the free thinker.
Frodeman’s answer—with which I agree—is that there appear to be two kinds of expert in the discipline of philosophy. There is the sub-disciplinary subject matter expert who offers a complex body of content to be mastered. This is his Anti-Socratic category. Then there is the free thinker who acts as a gadfly in her community, the expert in destabilizing popular certainties and common sense, who offers training in the deft use of techniques to do so.
The disciplinary thinker systematizes and delivers received wisdom using institutionally sanctioned techniques. The critical free thinker asks incisive questions that identify the material shortcomings and paradoxes of received wisdom when it’s put into practice. The two constitute a single movement in thinking among a community. A disciplinary approach to understanding the world becomes mainstream and institutionalized, and critics show how those mainstream ideas have become inadequate to the world in which they practice. Yet for all its questions, Socratic philosophy leaves the most important inquiry hanging: Now what?
Frodeman’s duality of an opposition between Anti-Socratic institutional experts and Socratic critical experts is fundamentally unfinished. His picture results in a tension and a conflict that appears insoluble. We must show how criticism is institutionalized to become a new mainstream better suited to the current era. An act of innovation in thought must complete this movement, and prepare for it to repeat as the new model of knowledge ossifies and faces its critics in the future.
Who Are a Socrates and a Protagoras Today?
But such innovation is no systematic synthesis out of the SparkNotes version of Hegel. That would be too simple. For instance, there need not be any content of the original calcified disciplinary framework that survives its creative assault—progress may include sweeping away the old way of doing things entirely.
Take the following analogy as an illustration: picture an artistic scene and society that has been entirely corrupted through a gentrifying city, and the collapse of any financial investment except for a few big-name producers. Rhetorically speaking, who in their right mind would ask Damien Hirst what is new, hip, boundary-breaking, and exciting in installation art in 2017?
Same thing for an academic discipline—major players who are at the end of long careers and have built significant institutional support are rarely connected to fresh younger scholars pursuing previously-neglected new directions. For the sake of this argument, lay aside—but please never ignore—the more vile and corrupt forms of decadence into which an institutionally-established academic all too often falls upon their old age.
Frodeman began his short essay with an example of a contemporary debate among the disciplinary community of academic university philosophy and the different lay experts of activist communities. This was Rebecca Tuvel’s essay in Hypatia on the possibility of transracial identity. The reception of “In Defence of Transracialism,” to put it mildly, inspired some controversy. The immediate, most hostile, response was that Tuvel’s article had done a kind of violence to transgender people. The intense criticism was called a “witch hunt” in New York Magazine. In response, some members of Hypatia’s editorial staff issued an apology for having published Tuvel’s article in the first place. Higher-ranking editorial and board staff of Hypatia then denounced the apology, and some editors have resigned from their positions.
Perhaps the most straightforward lesson we can learn from Tuvel’s transracialism controversy is that academic research journals should simplify their editorial structures and have policies that clearly define the boundaries of responsibility and power for each staff member. Frodeman sees a more profound lesson, where this transracialism controversy is an illuminating example of different visions of expertise. Tuvel’s supporters take the stance, generally described, that her qualifications as a researcher specializing in feminist philosophy and the study of race and gender legitimate her right to articulate and defend her stand in the public sphere. Tuvel’s critics, generally speaking, hold that her legitimacy to speak on transgender issues should be rooted in material experiences of transgender life.
How would this fit into the binary Frodeman develops of Socratic and Anti-Socratic thought? Anti-Socratic thinking grounds the legitimacy of expertise in disciplinary knowledge of the academy. Socratic thinking focusses on challenging that disciplinary legitimacy, on grounds that the subject matter expert misses important aspects of reality thanks to its concentration on a limited number of ways of knowing. The expert speaks with self-assured certainty, while the gadfly challenges the expert by identifying important aspects of life that the expert’s disciplinary lens misses. So Tuvel would be an expert, that expertise allowing her article to walk us through a variety of different ways to understand what a genuine transracial identity could be. Her critics would be the gadflies, interrogating the limits of Tuvel’s expertise, showing how her disciplinary approach misses aspects of transgender people’s lived reality that are critical to understanding the material possibilities of trans existence.
Limits of Institutional and Critical Knowledge
I want to spend some more time analyzing the Tuvel controversy and some related issues, because I think this case reveals kinds of expertise that can supplement Frodeman’s vision. First, the institutionally-sanctioned expert describes some investigation into a real phenomenon using her disciplinary tools. So what tools did institutionally-sanctioned expert Rebecca Tuvel use to explore the possibility conditions of transracial identity?
If you read “In Defence of Transracialism,” you will find that Tuvel has masterfully used philosophical methods of conceptual analysis. Her essay fits seamlessly into the tradition of moral, ethical, and political philosophy established with G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica. She examines a number of different ways in which we can conceive of the personal and physical transformations of gender and race, most of which other philosophers in the field of feminist and gender studies have developed or analyzed.
Tuvel’s overall argument in the essay starts with the presumption that transgender identities are legitimate, then runs through several different ways we can understand the ‘trans’ of the transgender such that transracial identity could be legitimate. She concludes, from her analysis, that while several conceptions of transgender’s ‘trans’ cannot apply successfully to transracial’s ‘trans,’ there is at least one that can. Therefore, Tuvel concludes, it is possible to develop your own transracial identity, although the circumstances in which such an identity would be legitimate are much more narrow than those for transgender identity.
That’s all fine in its own context. At the same time, “In Defence of Transracialism” is clear evidence that the tradition and methods of philosophy which Principia Ethica began is out of steam and out of step. These methods cannot offer the insights that moral debates of our era require. There are several reasons why they fall short. One is a matter of audience. The essays published in journals like Hypatia are intended only for other disciplinary experts who have been sanctioned as such by the discipline’s institutions. They have been hired or are on the job market for positions in university humanities departments. The disciplinary community was not where the intense critique of Tuvel came from: it was the community of intersectional political activists. They had very different priorities in political thought and engagement from institutionalized academics, which made them an inappropriate audience for Tuvel’s explicitly conceptual essay.
An important aspect of this audience mismatch comes from a more fundamental way in which the academic mainstream style of moral and political thinking through conceptual analysis falls short of what our times call such thinking to achieve. Frodeman understands the controversy over Tuvel’s article as a matter of different standards of expertise competing over which will provide the popular ground rules for investigations of various possible trans identities. That was an important part of the controversy, but I think the idea which sparked the most fiery debate was over the real-life issue that brought the notion of transracial identity to public consciousness in the first place: the human train wreck named Rachel Dolezal.
When You Are Caught Unexpectedly in Reality
The debate over Tuvel’s essay unfolded as a matter of competing standards of expertise, what gives someone the legitimacy to speak on trans issues in public venues. However, in the eyes of her most strident critics, Tuvel’s primary offence had nothing to do with that, but that she introduced her inquiry as a comparison of actual transgender people with Dolezal. It suggested that Dolezal’s demented idea of transracial identity was of the same type as transgender people’s painful and risky innovations in the material possibilities of human identity. Tuvel’s argument unfolded at a highly abstract level of purely conceptual analysis about the possibility conditions for a transracial identity that considered no real people. She discussed only the ontological and ethical possibility conditions of a legitimate transracial identity.
The problem was that her introduction mentioned Dolezal as having brought the idea of transracial identity so forcefully to public consciousness. In those few first paragraphs, Tuvel used a casual, non-technical vocabulary. Any institution-bound academic humanities researcher would interpret such vocabulary as signalling the cursory scene setting of an introductory paragraph. University academics are encased so thoroughly in a professional world and discourse of experts that they know such words are inconsequential. It is common sense that the vague words of the introduction were precisely introductory, and that the words which really mattered would follow.
Outside the discourse of the university world, where political arguments are literally and frequently matters of real people’s lives and deaths, it is common sense that the most important words of a politically relevant essay are its links to material reality. They are the words that explain why what follows matters to all our lives. In Tuvel’s essay, the only words that linked her analysis to the lives of real people was her brief comment about Rachel Dolezal’s media circus. So the common sense of a political activist would take Tuvel’s essay as an explicit, if dry, comparison of transgender people to Dolezal herself. The institutional knowledge of Anti-Socratics had failed so epically in practical matters.
A Socratic Voice in the Marketplace of Content
It is clear from the most insightful and accurate examinations of Dolezal’s priorities and personality that her own transracial identity possesses nothing of what Tuvel herself could most charitably grant even an inkling of legitimacy. I want to focus on the only piece of philosophical writing I could find that cut through the idiotic ejaculation of witless soundbites that made up the enraging, sorry media spectacle of Dolezal. When I call this essay philosophical, I use the term in a very Socratic sense. Ijeoma Oluo isn’t a university professor. She is a Seattle-based journalist. But her interview with Rachel Dolezal has a Socratic spirit: a determined, intelligent interrogation of a mystifying world, aiming to understand what order there might be to its politics and morality.
I do not want to walk through Oluo’s entire article. You should read it yourself, because even after I discuss its most salient points for my own discussion, her interview itself is rich with ideas. It could be the seed of a novel with the psychological depth of Alice Munro, whose protagonist is as vile and magnetic as the greasiest creations of Mordecai Richler. The advantage (or horror) of the story is that its protagonist is a real person. Tuvel’s entirely abstract approach remains blind to what Oluo’s Socratic interrogation of the real woman Dolezal discovered: the practical impossibility of genuine transracial existence.
Oluo’s interview with Dolezal reveals the latter’s attitude and approach to her transracial life. Dolezal herself has not adopted a transracial identity for anything like the reasons transgender people pursue their identity. A transgender person faces incredible danger because of their identity.
Transgender people are frequent targets of violent hate crime, including murder. They often experience discrimination, both from fellow citizens and from aggressively transphobic elected politicians. Such hateful atmospheres of daily massive and minor persecutions cause terrifying mental health problems. Suicide rates of transgender people are horrifyingly high.
Rachel Dolezal has experienced none of this suffering in her attempt to live as a black woman. Oluo’s interview reveals that she believes herself to have suffered at a similar intensity, that she takes herself to be a victim of persecution. Oluo’s interview with Dolezal is a philosophical conversation about the nature and purpose of the latter’s own transracial identity. Its nature is in a decision that Dolezal made, based on her shoddy understanding of what social construction means. Dolezal understands race to be socially constructed, but she believes that the socially constructed is entirely unreal, a matter of simple human decisions about what to believe in.
Revealing Our Inadequacies
As any professional practitioner of the humanities knows, socially constructed systems of knowledge are as durable and resistant to change as a society itself. Anyone who has read any accessible, affordable, straightforward book about social theory knows that. Rachel Dolezal chose to become black to demonstrate, through her own example, the unreality of race. Oluo’s interview revealed Dolezal’s self-image as a messianic martyr ushering a post-race society into existence. She sees herself as a one-woman harbinger of a utopian humanity. The ego, self-importance, and ignorance on display is dazzling.
Even Tuvel gives a very glib account of social construction in “In Defence of Transracialism,” describing the practical possibility of genuine racial change like so: “Although race change is theoretically possible, whether it is practically possible will depend on a society’s willingness to adjust its rules for racial categorization to better accommodate individual self-identification.” As a scholar of inter-disciplinary feminist traditions, she should know better.
But the rarefied abstraction of her style prevents her from engaging with the physical difficulties of changing socially constructed institutions and cultural mores. Tuvel’s only engagement with the problems social construction’s inertia causes for a transracial identity is when she leans on Sally Haslanger’s conception of race. Haslanger’s notion that race is a matter of how others see you is interesting, but its conception of identity sticks to a community’s interpellation—a technical elaboration on the basic notion that race is a matter of how others see you.
These ideas are simply not adequate to the psychological and ethical complexity of Dolezal’s actual derangement. The thinking of this real woman, not an abstract consideration of the possibility conditions of transracial identity, has driven this political discourse about what the boundaries of racial and ethnic identity can be.
What Would a Creative Philosophical Discourse Look Like?
Oluo’s interview was never written with an eye on the controversy over Tuvel’s article or her arguments. Nonetheless, comparing how both writers approach the issue of transraciality illustrates the ossifying tendency of institutionalized disciplinary thinking and the fire in the belly of a Socratic interrogator. Tuvel’s approach to analyzing the possibility conditions of transracial existence was so tone-deaf because she was concerned only with a technical academic debate in the language of a narrow humanities discipline.
Hers was an argument entirely for the world of scholarship, and Tuvel’s expertise was entirely within that narrow disciplinary scope. She might privately maintain the political relevance of the issues she discussed, but how she discussed them utterly sidestepped the issues’ political relevance. Oluo is an improvement, her work being rooted in the critical interrogation of a real person’s actual values. Her thinking and writing shows the acuity of a philosophically sharp mind employing complex concepts of race, ethnicity, and social construction to the values of a real person, and that person’s attempt to impose her values on a hostile world.
The establishment voice has spoken and been shouted down. The gadfly has revealed the sad truth and could only walk away, exasperated. The camel and the lion have had their say. Can anything be built from this?
The most important groundwork of building a creative philosophical discourse is to admit the inadequacy of all the concepts you know best. The politics of race and nation throughout North America, Europe, southern Asia, and Africa today calls for publicly engaged philosophers and other humanities researchers and writers to engage and develop new ideas to battle racism and violence.
Rachel Dolezal’s twisted reasoning is an unfortunate blend of philosophical incompetence and delusions of grandeur. Ijeoma Oluo is uniquely perceptive in having understood this, and having been able to identify through the shrieking buzz of Dolezal’s extended media circus the precise ways in which her reasoning fails. Rebecca Tuvel fares far better than Dolezal herself, but still relies on the bloodless detachment of scholarly debate to engage with issues of many people’s real lives and deaths. Both Socratic interrogative criticism and Anti-Socratic disciplinary expertise have proven inadequate to the task.
The approach to racial politics that missed the mark most wildly was Dolezal’s own, for two reasons. She failed to understand the material power of socially constructed norms and institutions, and she was motivated by an egotistical desire to make herself a messiah for the revolution of a raceless world. Tuvel at least understood enough about the humanities’ scholarly debates on the nature of race to say something coherent. But her scholarly approach failed to comprehend the real urgency of race politics for our current moment. Worse, she did not even understand how her work would be received outside the scholarly community.
Both her article itself, as well as the reactions of Hypatia’s editors, supplies further evidence that disciplinary academic training does not prepare one for effective activism.
Tuvel’s failure was clearly empirical. She did not understand what is at stake for real people in questions of transgender and transracial identities, or at least wrote as if those stakes did not matter for her question. Oluo’s greatest success in her interview with Dolezal about transracial identity was her application of an incisive philosophical mind to an empirical case, understanding the ideological and political priorities of a real person.
A New Empiricism: Material Thinking
So whatever philosophical approach to political thinking succeeds will be essentially empirical, a unity of conceptual rigour and meticulous, systematic observation. Philosophers must understand human actions with the same analytic attention to detail as they have understood concepts and ideas for the last century. Such analysis must understand human action at the individual level of single people’s decisions and beliefs in their daily lives. But it must also understand the systematic dimensions of action, the complex web of relationships in which human activity is interlinked across the globe.
Techniques for achieving this analysis of action can, at least most obviously for now, be found in the discipline of ethnography. This includes rich skills of observation, understanding how reasons, ideology, and relationships throughout and across social networks, impact the development of personalities and self-conceptions. Philosophical reflection should no longer begin only with concepts, but with the personalities that put concepts into practical action through their individual and community’s ideologies and moralities.
Begin from understanding human thought in the real world of practice, where people are making a living and building their lives. Probe people’s political beliefs, moral ideals, relationships with their communities, countries, and the rest of the world, as well as how a person actually understands who and what she is. Analyze those concepts systematically. That means understanding how those concepts shape a person’s thinking and life priorities, as well as their internal coherence, paradoxes, and contradictions. Analyze how those concepts fit together into a broader philosophy or ideology, their coherence, paradoxes, and contradictions in co-existence as they build a single world-view. Understand what kind of world and personality those concepts will build in a person or community that lives according to their implications.
Begin with the world, work in thought, and let thought guide you to a better understanding of the world. Then communicate with the people whose ideologies, ideas, and philosophies you are analyzing. One of the central reasons for the enraged reaction to Tuvel’s essay was that she wrote it in a format appropriate only for journals of the professional academic humanities.
Even subtle differences in writing style helped doom her popular reception. She wrote her introduction as an unimportant prologue, where many in the popular audience read her introduction as a substantive hook. Adapting philosophical writing style to a popular intellectual audience with composition techniques from popular current affairs and journalism genres can be an aid to clarity and true practical impact. I am, of course, not talking about some institutional impact factor rating, but the real impact that philosophy can have: simultaneously interpreting the world and changing it.
Creative developments in philosophy come in many forms. They are all responses to changes in a society where typical ways of thinking and talking about ideas were shown to be inadequate. Different circumstances brought this inadequacy about each time philosophical creativity became required. We need to acknowledge when the old ways of doing things will not work as they did before, and see what has changed in the world to make our old ways ineffective. We must understand the causes of our own obsolescence, and upgrade our practice and skill-set to keep up with the demands of a world that will not bow to whatever is convenient for our established approaches to knowledge.
“Editors Quit at Feminist Journal that Compared Transgenders to Rachel Dolezal.” The College Fix (2017): https://www.thecollegefix.com/post/34874/
Flaherty, Colleen. “(Another) Shake-up At Hypatia.” Inside Higher Education (2017): https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/07/24/divisions-within-hypatias-editorial-board-lead-resignations-top-editors
Frodeman, Robert. “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 42-44.
Jeffries, Stuart. “German Philosophy Has Finally Gone Viral. Will That Be Its Undoing?” Foreign Policy Magazine (2017): http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/07/24/german-philosophy-has-finally-gone-viral-will-that-be-its-undoing-precht-habermas/
Oluo, Ijeoma. “The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black.” The Stranger (2017): http://www.thestranger.com/features/2017/04/19/25082450/the-heart-of-whiteness-ijeoma-oluo-interviews-rachel-dolezal-the-white-woman-who-identifies-as-black
Singal, Jesse. “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.” New York Magazine (2017): http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/05/transracialism-article-controversy.html
Tuvel, Rebecca. “In Defence of Transracialism.” Hypatia 32, no. 2 (2017): 263-278.
Zamudio-Suaréz, Fernanda. “Months After ‘Transracialism’ Flap, Controversy Still Rages at Feminist Philosophy Journal” Chronicle of Higher Education (2017): http://www.chronicle.com/article/Months-After/240722
 The use of the term “witch hunt” can easily be interpreted as a politically-charged denunciation of Tuvel critics with the same terms of abuse that progressive activists receive from Trumpist and alt-right conservatives. Voices in the academic community who are generally conservative about the institution have been unsparing in denouncing Tuvel’s critics. Although they may have overreacted, the editors who issued the apology in the light of controversy no more deserve aggression and pile-ons than Tuvel herself. Brian Leiter, a reliable weathervane of belligerent conservatism in the academic humanities, has been especially vile to former Hypatia editor Cressida Hayes, describing her as hypocritical, unprofessional, and appalling.