I’ve been thinking, more or less loosely, about various issues to do with the appropriate ways to engage with, or treat, past philosophers. Some of these issues concern the ways in which the work of particular philosophers is highlighted as of especial importance and—what I think is a more or less independent issue—the ways in which the work of other philosophers is largely ignored. (I think that the issues are more or less independent since I think that it’s consistent to think that someone has done especially brilliant work without holding that other work is of lesser, or no, importance.) Connectedly, and of wider significance, are more systematic biases in our patterns of engagement with the past: a general failure to engage with the work of people who are not white, or male, or European. These are all things that I need to think more about, and read more about.
One more specific issue in this broad area, and the topic of this post, concerns how to deal with the fact that many past philosophers gave expression to views that are morally repugnant—for example, views that are racist or sexist. I think it pretty clear that one important part of dealing with that fact is to acknowledge it, and to recognize—and moreover to emphasize—that such views are morally repugnant. But questions remain about how to deal with the work of people who hold such views, especially given that engaging with someone’s work is, in part, a way of engaging with that person. Should one view their work as a whole as tainted? Does it depend upon the extent to which their work is in fact infected by their racism or sexism? Should one perhaps disengage, in the way that one might, in some circumstances, feel the need to disengage from a contemporary who gave expression to such views? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I don’t even have firm views about them. However, I wanted to post one such view, with which I have some sympathy. The following passage, by Allen Wood—a white, male philosopher—concerns Kant, who at least sometimes expressed views that are racist:
“It is a sometimes uncomfortable fact that the philosophers of the past whose thoughts we study with most profit were not especially fine human beings. The only way to deal with this fact is to face up squarely to the cognitive dissonance it occasions and then to resolve to set it aside as irrelevant to anything that could be of legitimate interest in deciding which philosophers to study. It displays a deplorable misunderstanding of what philosophy is – and what may be gained by studying it – to treat past philosophers as gurus at whose feet we are to sit in order to absorb their wisdom, or alternatively, to find in their unattractive personal traits and characteristics an excuse for not studying them at all. If a past philosopher, Kant for instance, was an admirable person, that still gives us no reason to study his philosophical thoughts if they were unoriginal or mediocre and do not repay our careful investigation and critical reflection. If the philosopher was a thoroughly unattractive character, or even if some of his opinions on morality or politics offend enlightened people today, it may still be true that his contributions to philosophy are indispensable to our understanding of philosophical problems and of the history of people’s reflections on them. If we study the writings of the admirable philosopher in order to honor his virtuous character, then we are merely wasting time and effort that could have been better employed. By the same token, if we refuse to study the writings of the personally repulsive philosopher either because we think our neglect justly punishes him for his misdeeds or his evil opinions, or because we want to avoid being influenced by such a pernicious character, then all we accomplish by this foolish exercise in self-righteousness and closedmindedness is to deprive ourselves of what we might have learned both from attaining to his insights and from exposing his errors. It is always sad to see philosophy students, and sometimes even professional philosophers, missing out on many things they might have learned on account of their moral or political approval or disapproval of the personality or opinions of some long-dead philosopher, who is far beyond their poor power to reward or punish. The only people we punish in this way are ourselves, and also those around us, or in the future, whom we might have influenced for the better if we had educated ourselves more wisely.” (Wood 2006: 20)
As I said, I have a certain amount of sympathy with this line about the very specific question: should one engage with philosophers some of whose views are morally repugnant? However, before attaining any sort of settled opinion, I’d need to read, and engage with, a far wider range of discussions, on a far wider range of issues in this area, including especially work by the marginalized targets of such views.
Allen Wood (2006) “Kant’s Life and Works.” In Graham Bird ed. A Companion to Kant.