One of the many blogs that I try to keep up with but will often forget to read is The Stone. One of the Opinionator blogs at the New York Times, The Stone is “a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.” On the off chance that you don’t already know about it, I highly recommend it to readers of this blog; if you like what we do, you’ll probably be interested in what gets posted there.
This morning, a number of Facebook friends of mine, including Annette Gordon Reed and John Protevi, linked to a fascinating interview, published on The Stone, that George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Duquesne University, conducted with Charles Mills, the John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University. The second in a series of interviews with philosophers on the issue of race, Yancy’s interview with Mills deals substantially with the history of political philosophy and raises questions that are of potentially great interest to U.S. intellectual historians.
The interview is both rich and fairly short, so I won’t try summarizing the whole thing. Readers should check it out for themselves. But I did want to quote at length one point Mills makes about political philosophy in general, and Rawlsian liberalism in particular, which I found especially interesting and significant:
You have a historically white discipline — in the United States, about 97 percent white demographically (and it’s worse in Europe), with no or hardly any people of color to raise awkward questions; you have a disciplinary bent towards abstraction, which in conjunction with the unrepresentative demographic base facilitates idealizing abstractions that abstract away from racial and other subordinations (this is Onora O’Neill’s insight from many years ago); you have a Western social justice tradition that for more than 90 percent of its history has excluded the majority of the population from equal consideration (see my former colleague Samuel Fleischacker’s “A Short History of Distributive Justice,” which demonstrates how recent the concept actually is); and of course you have norms of professional socialization that school the aspirant philosopher in what is supposed to be the appropriate way of approaching political philosophy, which over the past 40 years has been overwhelmingly shaped by Rawlsian “ideal theory,” the theory of a perfectly just society.
Rawls himself said in the opening pages of “A Theory of Justice” that we had to start with ideal theory because it was necessary for properly doing the really important thing: non-ideal theory, including the “pressing and urgent matter” of remedying injustice. But what was originally supposed to have been merely a tool has become an end in itself; the presumed antechamber to the real hall of debate is now its main site. Effectively, then, within the geography of the normative, ideal theory functions as a form of white flight. You don’t want to deal with the problems of race and the legacy of white supremacy, so, metaphorically, within the discourse of justice, you retreat from any spaces worryingly close to the inner cities and move instead to the safe and comfortable white spaces, the gated moral communities, of the segregated suburbs, from which they become normatively invisible.
While Rawls’s place in the history of political philosophy has been much written about, we intellectual historians are still in the early days of developing a really rich understanding of the place of Rawls, and formal, liberal political philosophy, in the broader sphere of American thought and culture in the 1970s and beyond. The questions Mills raises point us in an important direction. As he suggests in the quoted passage, the issue is not so much that Rawls himself ignored race as it is the ways in which Rawlsian “ideal theory” has reinforced a kind of blindness about race that, Mills argues, has pervaded mainstream academic political philosophy since World War II.