The Failing American University

Of Philandering Philosophers and Sexual Misconduct

I look upon some of the recent scandals in American academic philosophy programs with great intrigue (I used to study philosophy at the graduate level) because these scandals provide case studies of what ails that discipline in particular, and what makes the humanities disciplines in general a laughingstock to the public and those concerned about the role the university should have in society.

Recently, a prominent philosopher at the University of Miami resigned over allegations that he sent sexually suggestive emails to a female graduate student; another prominent philosopher recently resigned his tenured position decrying the sexism his wife was exposed to in her tenure process; finally, for the whopper, the University of Colorado recently dismissed its chair over allegations that he presided over a department awash in sexual harassment and misconduct among its male faculty.  Somehow with these cases, there is a call for greater female faculty among the faculty ranks, a call for including feminism within the academic canon as a legitimate theoretical framework for academic research, and a call for the marginalization of objectivist or realist approaches to analysis that promote logical, abstract thinking at the expense of belittling or berating gender or race conscious analysis.

The great folly in all of this is that while these demands and claims about the discipline might be laudable, they nonetheless expose an epistemic and ontological binarism which plagues the humanities disciplines which seek to dispose of them. This binarism holds that 1) there are only two forms of analysis, one that is logical, abstract, degendered, empty of racial or cultural content; the other, less abstract, gender and race conscious; and 2) either one approach to scholarship is false and the other is true (we could substitute “authentic”, “legitimate”, or “valid” for “true” and “inauthentic”, “illegitimate”, or “invalid” for “false”). That we must determine the one to be true and the other to be false is in itself an empty choice, because such a determination supposes that there is no middle ground, and subsequently forces us to choose between absolute incommensurable sides which themselves might have underlying assumptions that are dubious.

But other types of binaristic substitutions are possible and, in fact, actual. Analysis identified as logical and abstract often fall under the category of “conservative”: not only academically conservative or parochial but culturally conservative. It should therefore shock no one that philosophers like Descartes or Bertrand Russell thought of logic or mathematics as irreducible languages that transcended all cultures and that the rules of those languages were sacrosanct. Gendered thought (emotion, intuition) do not conform to the transcendental absolutist logics of the Western tradition (neither do logics that are race conscious or conscious of culture) and therefore can be dismissed as not essential for the study of knowledge and reality. The story goes that this epistemological and ontological conservatism is monistic and traditional in rejecting feminism (and in rejecting the assumption that knowledge categories are gendered or constructions of gender, race, and other social categories) and endorses a political conservatism hostile to cultural and gender diversity or diversity of sexual orientation and race.

As far as the defenders of the logical abstract method are concerned, they sometimes charge their critics as being motivated by a liberal political agenda, one that ascribes victimhood to women and minorities, one that seeks reparations or “loot” for these victims (more courses on feminism, race, and queer culture/theory as well as entire departments dedicated to these subjects, more acceptance of feminism, gender, queer, and race studies as legitimate approaches to and subjects of knowledge). Usually, proponents of the logical abstract who take this position will ridicule their opponents as the guardians of “political correctness”: perhaps a term so overused these days that it could refer to the linguistic exclusiveness and tyranny of any political agenda.

I find it somewhat amusing that these opposing schools of thought continue to duke it out in a debate that goes back at least forty years or more. When I was an undergraduate in the late 80s and early 90s, these debates raged and seemingly the result was that they carried on until today without any hope of resolution. Unfortunately, as a battle of will against will and deeply held political belief against deeply held political belief, this conflict has solved nothing, and is only a microcosm which reflects the national political divides (i.e., blue state versus red state) which continue to block meaningful social reform.

The charges of sexism and sexual harassment in philosophy departments are serious and not to be dismissed as only isolated incidents but I do not see them as cases of a monistic theoretical or logical abstract approach against a pluralist, feminist, theoretical or multicultural academic approach. Whether monism or pluralism is true is a question without answer because it begs the question as to why we ought to assign each opposing school binaristic truth values. This leads down a dark road in which no side offers any convincing argument for its position without recourse to a binaristic position: they are ultimately circular because they assume an epistemological dialectic that they can’t prove: namely, that given two opposing theses, one either must be true and the other false. But I think the problems in philosophy are social problems, rather than epistemologically dialectical problems which are tied to the materialistic nature of the university: an institution that has abandoned its pursuit of knowledge and virtue to its unyielding pursuit of money. Sexism and sexual harassment signify material problems: male professors viewing women as objects and universities continuing to permit such behavior as long as they do not affect the bottom line in terms of law suits and declining applications.

As we are learning with these recent sexism and sexual harassment incidents, the utter ethically bankrupt nature of American philosophy departments is perhaps the symptom of a university system that is willing to sacrifice its academic mission for the almighty dollar. The universities that backed philosophers with tenured salaries excused their ill behavior because those professors brought money into those universities through the graduate applications and eventual graduate students who wanted to soak up their “wisdom” as well as get superstar recommendations when they went out on the job market for philosophy faculty positions. Obviously, obtaining those faculty positions would then enable those former graduate students to give back to their alma maters in the form of alumni donations.

When charges of sexism and sexual harassment emerged among male philosophy faculty members, the charges threatened to cut off the money flow (e.g., fewer applicants and therefore a drying pool of application fees, fewer graduates, fewer alumni donations, and a negative reputation for the university) so it was expedient for the universities in question to shake some of these professors out of the university or encourage them to resign. This recent situation of sexism and sexual harassment in American philosophy departments owes its existence to the university’s materialistic nature: philosophical monism or exclusivism and philosophical pluralism or inclusivism really don’t have any measurable relation as to why these incidents occurred. But it is sad to see a discipline which I once dedicated myself to become an utter embarrassment. The dusty, stale debates that the discipline still unsuccessfully promotes as vital and useful cannot be good for the discipline, but neither can incidents of sexism and sexual misconduct do anything to advance the discipline’s or university’s goals.

• For a clear chart of where these two sides stand in their various manifestations, I refer the reader to the following link

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is working on his dissertation in history at Florida State University. He has taught US history, Western Civilizations, and Modern Global history at Tallahassee Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Howard Community College, the history of western science at Florida State University, symbolic logic at Ohio University, and digital multimedia and graphic design at Sanford Brown College in Boston, MA. Read other articles by Harvey.