Posted on May 10, 2017

A Journal Article Provoked a Schism in Philosophy. Now the Rifts Are Deepening.

Lindsay McKenzie, Adam Harris, and Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2017

The associate editors of Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy, apologized on Facebook this week for the publication of “In Defense of Transracialism,” an article by Rebecca Tuvel, that had quickly drawn opprobrium. “Clearly,” they wrote, “the article should not have been published.”

One problem with that statement: Hypatia’s editor now says she disagrees with it.

The essay by Ms. Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College, had incited considerable controversy online. It drew parallels between the experiences of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman and former leader of an NAACP chapter who for years has identified as black, and the celebrity Caitlyn Jenner, who transitioned to being a woman. Critics blasted the article as a product of white and cisgender privilege, said it discounted important scholarly work by transgender and black academics, and accused its author of using harmful language.

Hundreds of scholars signed their names to an open letter calling on the journal to retract the article.

The journal didn’t go that far, but the apology, which came with a pledge to reconsider Hypatia’s review process, still seemed like an extraordinary step. Some academics applauded the swift response to widespread criticism; others criticized the unorthodox action of a journal in condemning its own publication of an article.


Despite the public stance taken by the majority of the journal’s associate editors, Hypatia’s editor, Sally Scholz, stands behind the article’s publication and the integrity of the journal’s review process.

In a statement sent to The Chronicle, Ms. Scholz said she believes it is “utterly inappropriate for editors to repudiate an article they have accepted for publication (barring issues of plagiarism or falsification of data).”


She added that the associate board of editors had “acted independently in drafting and posting their statement” on Facebook.

Miriam Solomon, president of the board of directors of Hypatia Inc. — the nonprofit corporation that oversees the journal and other activities, such as conferences — echoed Ms. Scholz’s disavowal.


How could one publication’s leaders take such different positions? Ms. Solomon said Hypatia has a “complex” editorial structure. In addition to Ms. Scholz and the 10-member associate editorial board, the journal has 12 local editorial advisers and an editorial board of 25 people. The associate editors are “not involved in editorial decisions” but do advise on matters of editorial policy and play a key role in appointing the editor, said Ms. Solomon.


Like Ms. Scholz, Ms. Solomon defended Hypatia’s review processes, which she said are in line with the standards of the American Philosophical Association. Submissions to Hypatia are received by a managing editor, who forwards them to the editor. Once each article has been anonymized, the editor then selects two reviewers to assess it. The final decision to accept, revise and resubmit, or reject a piece lies with the editor. {snip}

Ms. Tuvel declined to comment on her article.

One charge levied against the journal was that Ms. Tuvel’s article might not have been approved if Hypatia had asked a black or transgender scholar to review it. The associate editors’ apology appeared to entertain that view, pledging “to develop additional advisory guidelines to ensure that feminist theorists from groups underrepresented in our profession, including trans people and people of color, are integrated in the various editorial stages.”

Ms. Solomon did not comment on the diversity of Hypatia’s reviewers.


The journal would work with its publisher, John Wiley & Sons, to respond to readers’ concerns, Ms. Solomon said. The publisher declined to comment on the article.

“I imagine that we’ll settle this very collaboratively, but a lot of careers are at stake,” said Ms. Solomon. “I’m very concerned about doing the right thing.”

She said she was concerned not only about the careers of those embroiled in the controversy but also about the reputation of Hypatia, which is widely regarded as the pre-eminent publication in its field. “I’d like to minimize the damage, and I would not like the message to go out there that only certain kinds of feminist work are welcome,” she said.


Although Hypatia has not retracted the article, it issued a small but significant “correction” on Thursday. At Ms. Tuvel’s request, the journal removed a parenthetical reference to Ms. Jenner’s birth name. The “deadnaming” of Ms. Jenner, as the practice of identifying transgender people by their birth names is known, was among the objections raised in the open letter.


Claire M. Colebrook, a professor of English, philosophy, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Pennsylvania State University, said that if she had read the article outside the context of the controversy, she would have thought it was simply “overly abstract.”

Now, though, she agreed with her colleagues’ arguments that the article implied that black philosophers’ work does not matter.

That’s because Ms. Tuvel’s article paid little attention to African-American women philosophers’ work on race, Ms. Colebrook said. During the peer-review process, she argued, Hypatia should have sent Ms. Tuvel’s piece back, asking her to cite more relevant literature. “I’ve published on several topics, and when you write on a white, male philosopher, you’ll get that sent back to you, telling you to cite all the relevant literature,” she said.


At humanities journals, retractions are rare occurrences — and typically only after accusations of plagiarism or abuses or scholarship have been proven true. A retraction in this case could have signaled a serious change in the field and highlighted that black philosophers’ voices do have a place in scholarship, Ms. Colebrook said.

“A retraction would be heavy-duty, but it would be an amazingly revolutionary gesture in philosophy,” Ms. Colebrook said. “Times are different. Things do change. It would be remarkable. It would be unheard of. But maybe that’s OK.”

Tina Fernandes Botts, an assistant professor of philosophy at California State University at Fresno, first read Ms. Tuvel’s paper before the January meeting of the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division, where Ms. Tuvel presented her work.


She said Ms. Tuvel was correct in her assertion that both race and gender are socially constructed but had failed to understand how they are constructed in different ways. Ms. Botts argued, contra Ms. Tuvel, that race is a function of ancestry, while gender is not — which makes gender more of an individual experience. Put plainly, because race is tied to ancestry in the world, a person cannot declare being a black person trapped in a white person’s body, as Rachel Dolezal has described herself. Only someone with black ancestors can count as black.


“Women-of-color philosophers have, for a long time, felt that Hypatia did not take their scholarship seriously,” she said. “And so there’s an ongoing tension between women-of-color philosophers and Hypatia.”


Ms. Botts viewed the decision to issue an apology as a step in the right direction. {snip}

“There is a problem in philosophy more broadly of the delegitimization of scholarship by persons of color and about topics like race and gender.”