A Look at the Philosophy Behind the Hypatia Affair

When Daily Nous first broke the Hypatia story from last month with this post, it sparked a flurry of reactions from across the discipline of philosophy. Many far-left feminists objected to the article, claiming that its publication was irresponsible and harmful to both the transgender community and the black community. In this post, I’m going to examine the public Facebook reaction of professor Lisa Guenther at Vanderbilt University, who works in phenomenology, feminism, and mass incarceration, which apparently is a sub-discipline of philosophy. Guenther has some interesting things to say, but ultimately these things strike me as deeply problematic.

First, Guenther highlights an interesting problem for philosophy with the comment about “ideal theory”. My understanding of an “ideal theory” is that it abstracts away from the details and particulars of lived life, leaving generalized principles. This is something that philosophy does a lot, and whether Guenther meant to, her comment gets at a limitation of this practice—abstraction ultimately leads to meaningless.

Is all abstraction bad, then? No. For if it was, it would render huge swaths our our sentences meaningless. Science would not be able to state laws of nature, or talk about similarity between phenomenon, as these involve generalization and abstraction. So, abstraction, in and of itself, cannot be bad.

This leads me to the discussion of a second interesting point that Guenther makes. She indicates that the problem with Tuvel’s argument is that it “toys around” with “…arguments that deeply and viscerally affect the lives of people whose social location is radically different from her own, with no evidence in the article of an awareness of the context, power dynamics, or stakes of these issues for trans people and people of color.”  Again, I think Guenther has an interesting point—people cannot really deeply understand situations that are “radically different from their own”, and so anything they say about such situations will be inherently flawed. My suspicion is that Guenther thinks that discussing situations that are radically different from one’s own without the necessary understanding of the context—the “power dynamics” and the “stakes”—perpetuates harm by acting as though (perhaps through ignorance) these important aspects don’t exist.

I think she has a real point. If your background and experiences are radically different from mine, and I have no understanding of these things, then how can I reason about them in any way that isn’t stunted? I do not think we can. The real question, I think, is ‘Are the contexts of “trans people” and “people of color” (I don’t like this PC language) radically different from those of “non-trans people” and white people?’ Suppose it is. Then how did Lisa Guenther, herself a white, non-trans person (I assume her gender and race with great fear and trepidation!), come to the place where she understands the power dynamics and stakes for the transgendered and people of color?  Note, she can’t think that the contexts of the transgendered and people of color are so radically different as to be unrelatable for white people. If she thought this, she would completely undermine her own ability to speak to the issue. Furthermore, we might wonder if such a view entailed wide ranging skepticism—how could any of us relate to anyone else? On the other hand, if the contexts of the transgendered and people of color are not radically different, then people like Tuvel, or more radically, white men like me, can reason about these things without having to bend over backwards to show we appreciate the relevant contexts.

This is smoke in mirrors. Those who wanted the retraction of Tuvel’s article, such as Guenther, use the appeal to radically different perspectives to dismiss conclusions they don’t like and hoist themselves as keepers of special knowledge on which we must all defer to them. The assumption that they’ll almost never state openly is ‘we white feminists understand these radically different contexts, and anyone else who understood them would arrive at the same conclusion as us’, so if you arrive at a different conclusion, that is sufficient grounds for concluding that you haven’t understood how these arguments “deeply and viscerally affect” people. They try to stack the deck by leaving no room for people to understand the contexts and deeply disagree.

Guenther goes further with a second post:

Ah yes, she does not mean “feminism that happens to be practiced by white people” (because that would undermine her own position), she means feminism that disagrees with her. This statement implies that Tuvel’s work is feminism that is actually allied with the “cis hetero anti-black patriarchy”—this, despite her pains to express that she is an ally to all the groups of which progressives are supposedly allies. Tuvel didn’t arrive at the right conclusions, and didn’t signal her virtue significantly enough by showing her awareness of the contexts, power dynamics, and stakes. This is absurd, and uncharitable. What’s worse, it comes from someone who was on Tuvel’s dissertation committee! A word of advice to prospective students out there. Stay the heck away from Lisa Guenther. Being a progressive isn’t enough to keep her from throwing students under the bus and boosting her own position at your expense.

Walter Montgomery

Walter is a philosophy graduate student in New Hampshire. He sometimes wishes he was a lawyer, and other times wishes he was a basketball coach. Some of his favorite childhood memories involve traveling with his immediate family, grandparents, and cousins’ family in big gas-guzzling vans towing campers. He sees philosophy as a tool for getting at Truth, and thinks too many contemporary philosophers see it as a tool for advancing their ideological preferences.

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  1. Who cares if anyone “toys around” with issues deeply affecting black and trans people? And who cares if she’s not aware of the stakes involved for them? Her premises are true, or false, whether she is aware of such things or not. Likewise, whether she’s acquainted with the latest she-male or kill-whitey scholarship is irrelevant to me unless it falsifies or undermines a premise of her argument.

  2. To sum it all up: it’s all a struggle for power, reason be damned — science and reason are simply tools for the White male patriarchy.

  3. I’ve reached a point now with this new progressive offshoot of PoMo ‘theory’ (really, just theory as blowing smoke out of one’s you know what) where I just don’t even argue about whether what they are saying is true or not. What’s remarkable is the number of people (sometimes even true believers) who you can get to agree – in-person and especially when many other people are present – that “yeah, it’s probably a bit inane.” And you do this by just repeatedly telling them “Come on, do you really think there is any sense to be made from this? What could this stuff even possibly mean?” It’s almost the new flat earth theory, as it is nearly beyond meriting any sort of mocking.

    Read Lisa Guenther’s FB comment again. The starting point for any person trying to defend this stuff is that they first have to prove it isn’t complete horse s***. The problem with that, is that once you let on (correctly, like any normal functioning adult person in society who has never been confronted with this stuff before) that that is the starting point, then you’ve pretty much already admitted what it is.

    They’ve created their own self-masturbatory moral and religious language which allows them to purportedly express points that can’t be expressed in normal, clear, sensical language. The reality, of course, is that there are no new/novel points to be expressed, and this new religious language accomplishes two things that speaking clearly in workaday language could never accomplish:

    (1) Anyone who argues against you in that language must already agree with 95% of your worldview (at least as it relates to problems in socieity) or they aren’t properly understanding the meanings of terms.

    (2) Galactic levels of self-righteous masturbatory activity.

    Finally, I had friends in school who would make fun of philosophy by constructing an absurd caricature of what it was and then performing that caricature. Someone once made everyone laugh by saying, “The knowledge from ocean depths, rolls ceaselessly towards the shore of one’s conscious thoughts… [hand gesture for smoking weed]… as the star of endless illumination bursts forth” and then going on ad nauseam. This is where we are at with stuff like Lisa Guenther’s remark.

  4. Is there anyone who can describe what “cis hetero anti-black patriarchy” even means? Moreover, once they show that it isn’t entirely devoid of substantive meaning (just stringing together words that have meaning does not create meaningful phrases), can they show that it has actual argumentative import and is not merely moral screeching?

    For these sorts of cases, and many others, I’ve yet to find anyone who can do both.

    • Jordan, this line of questioning oppressive. You are clearly trying to force your cis hetero anti-blackness on us all!

  5. Walter, the expression is “smoke and mirrors.” Conjunction, not preposition.

    Consider pursuing your dream job as a basketball coach.

    • Oof. Good catch. I’m sure you never make such mistakes. I just might go coach basketball yet. One can make a positive impact on kids lives doing that. It’s certainly more useful than posting unsubstantial comments about expressions.

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