William R. Jones

Crisis in Philosophy: The Black Presence

Last October, the Board of the American Philosophical Association adopted the following resolution regarding the participation of blacks in philosophy: “The Board of Officers is distressed by the fact that few Blacks choose philosophy as a profession. The Board pledges to cooperate with the Subcommittee on Blacks in its efforts to seek causes and suggest remedies for the current situation.”

Perhaps a few statistics will demonstrate the ominous gravity and desperate urgency of the problem that occasioned this resolution. (1) There are approximately 10,000 members in the APA. To date fewer than 100 black faculty in philosophy—it must be noted that this figure includes not only Afro-Americans but Africans and West Indians as well—have been identified. Although blacks constitute more than 10% of the general population, they comprise less than 1/100 of the personnel in philosophy. Accordingly, to approximate their proportion in the general population black representation in philosophy must be increased ten-fold. (2) To date fewer than 35 blacks with the terminal degree in philosophy have been identified—this figure also includes Africans and West Indians—or about 1 black Ph.D. in philosophy for every million black citizens. (3) The picture is not significantly brighter if we consider the number of black undergraduate majors and graduate students in philosophy. To date fewer than 100 blacks in graduate school have been isolated and only 170 undergraduate majors.

For several years the Subcommittee on Blacks has attempted to unravel the causes for this almost invisible presence of blacks in philosophy and to formulate appropriate remedies. The Subcommittee’s primary concern has been to increase the number of blacks in philosophy and to enlarge their impact on the profession. The purpose of this report is to describe the unimagined depth of the problem, to alert you that no instant solutions are possible—indeed, there is reason to question if any remedy can be found—and to indicate some of the ways that philosophy departments and individual members of the APA can assist the Subcommittee.

II

The obvious problem is to account for the acute shortage of blacks already in the profession and the short-fall of black students in the academic process that produces trained philosophers. In this connection it is helpful to identify two sets of causal factors: white and black. The white side of the coin focuses primarily on the general ethos of American culture and philosophy, as well as the character and practices of the APA and departments of philosophy. Another set of factors involves black cultural values in general and the priorities of black educational institutions in particular.

The cancer of racism that infects American life and history has also etched its mark on the discipline of philosophy. Years of neglect have created disabling conditions that cannot be erased immediately, especially where the will is lukewarm.

It is clear that nothing was done to encourage blacks to enter philosophy. In fact, the Subcommittee was told, more than it wants to recall, that blacks were openly discouraged from entering philosophy. Older black philosophers, those in graduate school in the 40’s, were warned of the difficulty of finding employment; they received significantly smaller fellowship grants, and they were not provided the same placement services afforded their white classmates.

Departmental hiring practices are also obviously implicated. To be frank, it is only with the advent of affirmative action directives that a self-conscious effort has been made to include blacks in the pool of potential faculty. And to be realistic, it is only because of affirmative action directives that this minimal effort has been made. Even here, I must confess, subterfuges and evasions have surfaced that sabotage the Subcommittee’s efforts to attract more blacks to philosophy. Another part of the October resolution took note of this development. “The Board also supports the decision of the Subcommittee not to release the names and figures obtained from its questionnaire until a better response is obtained and until there is some evidence that efforts will be made by all parties to attract more Blacks to philosophy.”

In sum, racism has infected the academic process in philosophy and its residual fallout still haunts us today.

Moreover, the structure of the APA has created special problems. Until very recently the membership of the APA standing committees was lily white, and critical committees still lack a black presence. Accordingly, the governing structures of the APA have been insufficiently pluralistic with the expected consequence: crucial perspectives have not exerted their proper weight and influence in the decision making process.

A warning is in order here. Though the Subcommittee on Blacks was created to ameliorate the under-representation of blacks, the problem that necessitated the Subcommittee’s formation will remain unaddressed if the black presence is quarantined to the Subcommittee and not inserted at every crucial structure of the APA.

The character and complexion of philosophy in America today likewise undermines efforts to increase the entry of blacks into the profession. Philosophy, unfortunately, exhibits the image of a lily white fraternity. Philosophy has not addressed, in a focused way, the issues that blacks find relevant or stimulating. The topics that the special history and existential situation of blacks spawn have only rarely been included in APA division programs. Blacks look in vain for some hint of the importance and significance of their history and perspective in the recipe of Western philosophy. Admission into the philosophical community, especially its inner sanctum, appears to require the adoption of the philosophical orientation controlled by the white majority.

In this connection, I must add, and with emphasis, that blacks do not resonate to the dominant or imperialistic voice of analytic philosophy and its preoccupation with meta-concerns that drown out other approaches and ways of philosophizing. I submit that there are hidden and improperly examined opinions as to what constitutes philosophy which dictate policy for the entire discipline, especially as regards training for the participation and opinions must be exposed and critically examined if the participation and entrance of blacks into the profession is to be substantially increased.

This is not an attempt to write the obituary for analytic philosophy. Rather what is being sought is a more pluralistic approach to the discipline and teaching of philosophy. It is to assert that meta-concerns do not exhaust the enterprise of philosophy or the actual history of Western philosophy itself; matters of ultimate concern are of equal philosophical importance.

III

Let us move next to the black side of the coin of causal factors, and here special attention must be given to the factors that control the status and value of philosophy in black institutions of education. Education in the context of black culture has characteristically endorsed a bread and butter approach. Disciplines, in this context are ranked highest that lead to immediate employment after the completion of the A.B. degree and that channel graduates into the slots generated by the black community or the fringes of white culture that admitted blacks.

This bread and butter approach automatically limits the value and importance of philosophy. Indeed, philosophy, in this context, is not aborted, rather it is never conceived. A career in philosophy commits one to the terminal degree, and here the problem is compounded by different economic factors. On the one hand, the cost of graduate training catapults philosophy beyond the economic resources of most black students. The accelerating cost of graduate training will continue to deter the influx of blacks into philosophy. On the other hand, most students who desire to pursue advanced study are attracted more to disciplines, such as law and medicine, with higher prestige and greater financial reward

Philosophy in black institutions of education has been devalued in other ways as well. Black colleges have characteristically afforded a higher status to religion than to philosophy. Black universities have produced many more theologians and ministers than philosophers. Too often, it appears, philosophy on black campuses is an ugly orphan in a combined department of Religion-philosophy. One is also struck by the fact that the pillars of the philosophy staff are frequently persons trained in religion and theology as well as persons whose major academic subject was not philosophy. (I would argue that these factors largely reflect the response of blacks to the constraining pressures of racism and oppression in their situation.)

With this understanding of the situation, it is not surprising that most black colleges and universities do not have departments of philosophy of sufficient size and depth to accommodate an academic major in philosophy. Accordingly, this vast body of students is effectively barren as a potential pool for black philosophers. Moreover there are no black schools at present which offer a Ph.D. in philosophy. Nor is there a philosophy department where black philosophy is the preeminent concern. A Jewish student interested in Jewish philosophy can study at Brandeis. A Roman Catholic student can enroll in a Notre Dame or a Fordham to examine the tradition of Catholic philosophy. But a black student with a comparable interest has nowhere to turn. Indeed, when one examines the situation dispassionately, one can only wonder why the few blacks in the profession chose philosophy at all.

Nonetheless, it is clear that philosophy must be packaged and marketed as an indispensable ingredient in black education. We need not belabor the point that a second class status for philosophy endangers the entire humanities enterprise on black campuses and that the health of the discipline of philosophy is vital to the cultural well-being of the black community as a whole. Nor can we overlook or ignore the inference that will be drawn from the paucity of blacks in philosophy by those who advance the claim that blacks are inferior in the areas of abstract and conceptual thinking.

Additional factors affect the general health and vitality of philosophy in a black context. (1) It is difficult to isolate a specific black philosophy in the sense that we can identify a black religious tradition. No doubt this helps to account for the accelerated growth of the discipline of black theology, while the parallel development in philosophy has barely surfaced.

(2) Foundations have been more responsive to the needs and concerns of black religion than to black philosophy. Once attention was called to the need for a professionally trained clergy for black churches, the Protestant Fellowship Program was inaugurated specifically for black students. In like manner, once the paucity of black faculty in seminaries and departments of religion was noted, a major foundation attacked the problem with dramatic urgency and charitable concern. The Rockefeller Doctoral Program in Religion is significantly enlarging the number and impact of blacks in religion and theology and thereby nurturing the further development of black theology. To identify the desperate situation of blacks in philosophy, I need only cite the fact that there are no comparable programs for blacks in the philosophical discipline. We can only hope that the needs of blacks in philosophy will evoke a similar response from foundations.

(3) The Society for the Study of Black Religion was created in 1970 “to engage in scholarly research and discussion about the religious experiences of Blacks and to encourage the teaching and discussion of the Black religious experience in the curricula of college or university departments of religion and theological seminaries.” No formal structures of this type are presently available for black philosophers.

(4) The American Association of Theological Seminaries has established a full-time staff position to enlarge the number and influence of blacks in religion and theology. In the philosophical discipline the Subcommittee on Blacks is forced to assume the identical task. As a member of the Subcommittee for two years and its present Chairperson, it is clear that the problem is too enormous to expect that a committee can adequately handle it.

IV

The advent of black feminist and third world perspectives forces us to ask questions about every facet of the philosophical discipline, especially the teaching of philosophy, curricular and departmental orientations, requirements for the profession and graduate study, and yes, what we have come to accept as the “proper” approach to philosophizing. It must be recognized that blacks may arrange the philosophical furniture differently; epistemology need not be the exclusive point of departure for the philosophical enterprise. Blacks may well begin at some other sector of the philosophical circle. I would hope, in this connection that interested philosophers would discuss this hypothesis: Making the epistemological question the point of departure for philosophy reflects a particular socio-economic situation.

The radical reappraisal of the discipline that may attract blacks and other minorities to philosophy has scarcely begun. To expose the problem I need only ask these questions: Has your department sponsored any lectures, colloquia, etc. that relate to the issue of black or feminist philosophies? What would be the response of your department to a black student who submitted a dissertation topic in the area of black philosophy? What resources could your department draw upon to assist her/him?

The structures of the APA are slowly changing to accommodate the emerging ethnic philosophies. The division programs now include a format where the APA committees can sponsor symposia and papers of their choosing.  However, the issues explored here have not yet filtered into the “main program”.

The APA must recognize that the limited number of blacks in philosophy makes it impossible for them to generate the type of pressure that forced a response in other disciplines where the black presence was more pronounced. Unless white philosophers sincerely find the lily white complexion of the profession an abomination and a threat to the philosophical ideals they claim to honor, unless white philosophers help to initiate and support the type of radical reappraisal of the profession that will be called for, philosophy will continue to march under the banner, “FOR WHITE ONLY.”

The Subcommittee is presently contacting foundations to support the following project designed to attract blacks to philosophy and magnify their impact on the profession: (1) establishment of a placement resource service to assist departments in meeting Affirmative Action goals, (2) compilation of an exhaustive roster of black faculty, graduate and undergraduate students in philosophy, (3) a survey of the status of philosophy in black colleges and universities, (4) graduate fellowships for blacks in philosophy along the lines of the Rockefeller Doctoral Fellowship for blacks in religion, (5) a colloquium on the topics: “Towards a Black Philosophy” and “Teaching Philosophy from a Black Perspective,” (6) a curriculum writing conference to formulate basic materials for use in black colleges, and (7) the upgrading and enlargement of philosophy in black schools.

No one who is seriously concerned about the future of philosophy in America and the status of blacks within it can afford to ignore these efforts to increase the number and participation of blacks in the discipline. I would be less than frank if I did not say that the Subcommittee on Blacks is a crucial experiment to decide if a problem of critical importance to blacks can be effectively resolved in the context of an overwhelming white institution. I am personally distressed that there is even the need for a Subcommittee on Blacks; its very existence is a stark testimony to the shameful practices of the philosophical community. I trust that your distress is equally troubling and unsettling and that you will join these efforts to give philosophy a more human face.

William Jones
Yale Divinity School


SOURCE: Jones, William R. “Crisis in Philosophy: The Black Presence,” Radical Philosophers’ Newsjournal, August 13, 1974, pp. 40-45.


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