Positionality in philosophy

Part of the code of being a proper analytic philosopher is to never argue ad hominem. We teach our students that, while they can attack a philosophical position, they should not attack the person who produced it. It doesn’t matter if the philosopher was mean-spirited or cruel to animals since the arguments they have produced stand alone and must be judged only on the basis of their content and validity. It would be a terrible critique of Hegel’s philosophy, for instance, to say that he always looked grumpy.

Nevertheless, I am starting to wonder whether philosophy is naïve when it adopts this absolute stance. My first degree wasn’t pure philosophy. I took humanities, majoring in history of ideas: a discipline in which we always looked to understand a philosophy in its historical, social and economic context. Analytic philosophy instead attempts to produce a view as if from nowhere. The problem is that every view is a view from somewhere.

An ahistorical, decontextualized approach ignores what social scientists call positionality. We should acknowledge that everyone has a position within the social structures of their world and this position can be reflected in their interests: in what they write about and the attitudes they adopt towards certain matters. Philosophers are not used to declaring any conflicts of interests because, they might believe, they would never be swayed to write anything other than the truth, no matter who pays them to do their work. But I don’t see why philosophers should be better than anyone else at rising above their positionality.

As universities look to decolonize their curricula, good practice would be for us all to acknowledge that our work represents a certain perspective and location within history. Most of the great names of the Western analytic tradition were writing from a position of privilege, often in the service of a patron. We can engage with the ideas of Hobbes’s Leviathan, for instance, but should not be afraid to question why he wrote it, whose interests it was serving, and whether those interests could have taken Hobbes in a certain direction. I’m sure they did. And could it be that Hume’s unpleasant political views also permeated his works of supposed pure philosophy and influenced his conclusions? Again, I think so.

If this is right, then I ought to reflect on my own positionality. From what historical perspective do I write? I probably need more training from a social scientist to do this properly but, as an initial attempt, I’d declare something like the following: I am a white man employed at a university in the global north in the early 21st century. Some of my research has been funded by a research council and some by a charitable trust. I am left-leaning, without physical disabilities and pro-LGBTQIA+ rights. I grew up in an England struggling to cope with the dissolution of its empire.

I have tried listing the features of myself that I think are most significant. They might not be the ones that truly have the biggest influence on my work and someone else is probably best placed to judge that. I can only report my self-perception. But as an exercise in reflection on my own privilege, I think it is worthwhile to produce such a statement.

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