Posted on March 7, 2016

Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite

Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel, Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2016

Academic philosophy in the United States has a diversity problem.

No other discipline of comparable size in the humanities is as gender-skewed as philosophy. Women still receive only about 28% of philosophy PhDs in the United States, and are still only about 20% of full professors of philosophy–numbers that have hardly budged since the 1990s. And among U.S. citizens and permanent residents receiving philosophy PhDs in this country, 86% are non-Hispanic white. The only comparably-sized disciplines that are more white are the ones that explicitly focus on the European tradition, such as English literature.

Black people are especially difficult to find in academic philosophy. Black people or African Americans constitute 13% of the U.S. population, 7% of PhD recipients across all fields, 2% of PhD recipients in philosophy, and less than 0.5% of authors in the most prominent philosophy journals.

One of the main causes of homogeneity in philosophy, we believe, is subjectivity and bias in the evaluation of philosophical quality.

What makes some works of philosophy good and others meh? It’s not straightforward. In biology, you synthesize the protein or you don’t. In math, you prove the long-standing conjecture. It’s not always entirely clear in these fields what separates the good from the meh, but there are substantial external standards and constraints. Philosophy, in contrast, is partly about challenging existing standards. We admire philosophers whose central arguments are nearly impossible to understand, or who speak in paradoxes, who accept seemingly bizarre views, or who display dazzling skill with formal logical structures of no practical significance. Kant and Hegel are better loved than understood.

It’s almost aesthetic, the assessment of philosophical quality. And like aesthetic judgments, it’s shaped by a huge range of factors–how well the view fits with your hopes and preconceptions, whether it’s argued with confidence and flair, how clever or wise the author seems, how much other people admire the author.


To a substantial extent, what we assess is whether the person who is expressing the ideas in question sounds smart. If you’re going to convince someone to take your perplexing, paradoxical ideas seriously, or if you’re going to convince them that your impenetrable prose is worth the struggle, you had better first convince them that you’re wicked smart. Being good at seeming smart is perhaps the central disciplinary skill for philosophers.


Unfortunately, seeming smart is not a level playing field. In our culture, white men, especially white men from privileged backgrounds, have a large advantage in displaying the superficial features that attract high expectations.

Social psychologists have demonstrated that identical resumes are rated more highly when the applicant is white or male than when the applicant is black or female. Emails from prospective graduate students are more likely to receive a reply if sent by someone with a stereotypically white male name than if sent by a woman or ethnic minority. Interviewers tend to credit black and dark-skinned Latino subjects with less intelligence, even when the interview answers are the same. {snip}

It’s not that white men are innately better philosophers than women and people of color. It’s that white men have better command of the cultural apparatus of seeming smart. As undergraduates, they enter the classroom with more self-confidence. They see faces like their own in front of the classroom and hear voices like their own coming from professors’ mouths. In the philosophy classroom, they see almost exclusively white men as examples of great philosophers. They think “that’s me” and they step into it. Those around them, their professors and fellow students, see them and think that person sounds smart–and these students are then further encouraged.