What counts as philosophy? Reflections on academic passing and divergent work

I recently re-read Dotson’s paper “Concrete Flowers” (2011) in preparation for a diversity workshop I’ll be leading next month. In the paper, Dotson offers some commentary on the current state of professional philosophy which is both insightful and incredibly sobering. (If you’re in the field of philosophy and haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.) Her discussion on what she refers to as “academic passing” really spoke to me, and in this blog post I want to use it as a backdrop to reflect on how my view of philosophy has changed over the years.

Dotson defines academic passing as “an academic performance in which scholarly work perceived to have a somewhat threatening ‘academic lineage’ is presented or categorized by others as the kind of work that it is not.” She laments the pressure felt, especially by minorities, to conform their work to fit the mainstream, dominant conceptions of academic philosophy. She says,

The irony is that, despite defining philosophy as an uncompromising, no-holds-barred critique, only some kinds of critical engagement are welcome: those that leave untouched the suppressed question, “But what does count as philosophy?” Paradoxically, leaving that very question suppressed makes it difficult to generate radically new ideas in the field.

My own views on this topic have changed quite radically over the years – so much so that my opinion on it has not yet been settled. It’s a complex, multidimensional issue which I am not sure how to address. In the remainder of this blog post I’d like to lay out how my thoughts on the question What does count as philosophy? have evolved over the years.

The general outsider’s attitude towards philosophy, at least in my circles, is one of apathy or disrespect. Students at my undergrad university believed the major to be easy, unchallenging, and unimportant. Even my parents were disappointed when I announced that I would be pursing philosophy.

So when I switched into the philosophy major as an undergrad I found myself feeling the need to justify the value of what I did: “Philosophy isn’t just ‘thinking about life’ and spiritual spacey bullshit about our place in the universe – it’s full of rigorous, critical thinking! It’s about precision and crafting strong arguments! Philosophy helps develop superior reasoning skills! Our major scores the highest on the LSAT! Blah blah blah!”

And for quite some time (an embarrassingly long amount of time, if I’m being honest), this was the view I held. This was how I differentiated the colloquial understanding of philosophy from academic philosophy. When people asked me what I do, I emphasized these differences. I cited the logical structure that underlined our arguments and the principled way in which we approached questions. I wanted people to understand that I wasn’t getting my degree by just meditating and writing down every #fakedeep thought that came into my head.

But, as Dotson rightfully points out, restricting philosophy to this very narrow, traditional style is harmful. Firstly, I closed myself off to so many worthwhile ideas by refusing to engage with others who used a non-analytic philosophical style or focused on non-traditional questions. Secondly, I was failing to see the hypocrisy in my actions. I was first drawn to philosophy because of its relentless curiosity, but in restricting my work to a very specific style and taking for granted the deeper question of what counts as philosophy, I was failing to embody the very traits I idolized. Most tragically, however, I was excluding those who were not trained in or did not conform to the Western philosophical tradition, actively contributing to the problem of under-representation in my field.

My thoughts on what counts as philosophy have since evolved to become more broad and inclusive, though now I am left with many questions of how to proceed from here. I’ll discuss the (current) most pertinent one.

First, some background info: I’m organizing a workshop with an aim of helping students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds apply to grad school. We especially focused on reaching out to students from universities currently without a philosophy graduate program or undergraduate adviser. Several of our participants met these criteria, and several others came from very small colleges/departments. We asked students to include a writing sample in their application and – unsurprisingly, given our target audience – many were written in styles that would be considered non-traditional for our discipline. Nonetheless, they were very obviously great papers written by capable students.

On one hand, the goal is to give them the best chance of getting into a PhD program. While I don’t know the exact standards admissions boards use to assess writing samples, I’d hazard a guess that basic command of standard philosophical writing is high on the list. Given the goals of the workshop, is it not a responsibility of mine to emphasize this point?

But on the other hand, forcing future PhD students into a predetermined mold leads to precisely the problems I have outlined above. If one of my long term goals is to increase diversity in philosophy, should I not encourage these differences instead of usher them out? The problem is not divergent work. It is our community’s close-mindedness; it is there that we should focus on enacting change.

I’m not sure how to proceed.

2 thoughts on “What counts as philosophy? Reflections on academic passing and divergent work

  1. This!!!! I’m not in the philosophy world academically, but I went to grad school for creative writing, and I’m very familiar with the struggle between creating work that will advance you in your career and creating work that pushes boundaries and is genuine, even if it doesn’t meet academic standards. Please keep posting, I love reading your updates. Sending you warm vibes, I know grad school can be brutal in so many ways.


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