What we can learn about Philosophy’s diversity problems by comparing ourselves to Music Theory

There are few things philosophers like to do more than police the boundaries of the discipline by debating what counts as “real” philosophy. As Kristie Dotson has argued, the first question any philosophical question or argument has to answer is “how is this philosophy?”

In the last few weeks, the stakes of this debate have intensified. One of the most common devices used to measure and assess philosophical merit, and, indeed, philosophicalness itself–the Philosophical Gourmet Report or PGR–has basically fallen out of fashion among the crowd that used to be its main audience. (For a comprehensive account of this, please see Leigh Johnson’s “Leitergate” bibliography.) Without the PGR, how do we define what (good) philosophy is? How do we do so in a way that is inclusive of diverse practitioners? Should we also define philosophy in a way that is inclusive of diverse philosophical practices?

Especially among those who once bought into the definition of philosophy promulgated by the PGR, there is a sense that philosophy is somehow different than the rest of the humanities–a more scientific field, a field that avoided the theory/canon/diversity wars of the 90s and that is, for this reason, superior to the other humanities. (Alex Rosenberg’s recent 3AM essay is a prime example of this view.)

I want to suggest that this view of philosophy as different and exceptional is not just wrong, it’s harmful.

If philosophy is different than most of the other humanities, it has nothing at all to do with the necessary and sufficient features of “philosophy”. Or, what makes (mainstream) philosophy different from the rest of the humanities is not something distinctively philosophical.


How can this be? Well, it seems pretty clear to me that what’s “different” about philosophy wrt the rest of the humanities is something it shares with (mainstream, American) music theory.


First: philosophy’s severe overrepresentation of whites and men is not absolutely unique to philosophy. According to this study, music theory is the only humanities discipline with fewer female PhDs than philosophy, and as this blog post shows many humanities disciplines, including music theory, are just about as overrepresentatively white and underrepreseentatively black as philosophy. Similarly, this Society for Music Theory CSW report on gender ratios in the field’s top journals should remind philosophers of our own dismal gender representation in top journals.


Second: in addition to these quantative comparisons of philosophy’s demographic probelm to music theory’s demographic problem, qualitative accounts of diversity in music theory resonate quite strongly with qualitative accounts of diversity in philosophy. For example, large sections of Sumanth Gopinath’s paper on “Diversity, Music Theory, and the Neoliberal Academy” could be read as accurate descriptions of philosophy. His claim that “Western music remains at the intellectual and especially pedagogical core of American music theory” and subsequent question “What would be the most practical way of imagining a globalized curriculum?” echo recent conversations in the philosophy blogosphere about diversifying the curriculum. (John Drabinski has incisively remarked that in mainstream American philosophy, even non-English language European philosophy is too exotic for the canon; this may point to a significant difference between philosophy and music theory–philosophy still holds on to a late 19th/early 20th century notion of whiteness, one that privileges Anglo-Saxon whiteness as as purely white.) Also, the SMT CSW plans on building a blog they say is inspired by and modeled on beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com. So, apparently the need for “What’s It Like To Be A Woman In ____” is also felt in music theory.


Third: Music Theory and Ethno/Musicology separate out analysis (the purview of “theory”) from history and ethnography. That’s more or less parallel to mainstream philosophy’s separation of analysis (mainstream analytic philosophy) from history and ethnography and practical philosophy. I suspect that this structural and intellectual separation of analysis from everything else is an important factor in both fields’ demographic problem. This separation allows analysis to be something of an epistemology of ignorance, a theoretical practice that naturalizes the commonsense intuitions of the most privileged members of society as “objective” knowledge.


Fourth: Mainstream analytic philosophy and music theory/composition share a route out of McCarthyism and through the postwar academic industrial complex. Both fields presented themselves as specialist practices modeled on the sciences. These specialist practices had nothing to say to or about politics or public affairs. Just read Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?” with McCumber’s “Time In The Ditch”–you can’t miss the similarities. (Even Babbitt’s discussion of the “efficiency” of post-tonal musical languages echoes analytics’ obsession with so-called “clarity.” And, if you look at the bottom of page 3 of “Who Cares,” you’ll see Babbitt dig at “nonanalytic” philosophers and implicitly identify himself with midcentury analytic philosophy.)

The point of all these comparisons is to show that whatever is causing philosophy’s intersecting problems with diverse practices and diverse practitioners is not unique to or definitive of philosophy as such, but something more or less shared by music theory. Our shared problems are likely the result of similar historical, sociological, and structural features: similar approaches to the postwar academic industrial complex, similar disciplinary separations of analysis from history and ethnography, etc. So, when we talk about implementing changes in our discipline to rectify/ameliorate our diversity problems, we should not be worried that we’re losing something necessarily “philosophical” in the process. Whatever is causing these diversity problems is not distinctively philosophical. Maybe it would help if we also talked with music theorists, since they seem to be facing many similar issues.