Saturday, March 21, 2015

Black being/Being black

If a fundamental question of philosophy is “What is being as being?” then perhaps an equally fundamental question (at least for black people) is “What is being black as being black?”
      From a so-called “black” perspective, to be is to be black. Being is inseparable from being black. Insofar as one sees oneself as black, one cannot see oneself simply as “being” in some way without also “being black.” But to be black is “to be,” as well as “to be black.” Being black may therefore be ontologically as well as existentially investigated. It may be examined purely from the standpoint of being, as well as from the standpoint of a particular way of being.
      The investigation of black being/being black may also be metaphysical or empirical, phenomenological or psychological.
      Black being is a mode of being of black people, but not their only mode of being.
      There may be more than one kind of black being, just as there may be more than one way of being black.
      Black being as manifestation or representation is being black. There may be a plurality of representations, and each may have its own degree of subjective or objective validity, as well as personal or social validity. Some representations may be more valid than others, as determined by their fulfillment of such criteria as truthfulness, consistency, coherence, and intelligibility.
      In the being of black being/being black, there is external appearance as well as internal reality. The external appearance (of skin color and other racially ascribed characteristics) may be separable from the internal reality (the cognitive faculties, moral character traits, and other personality traits that have nothing to do with an individual’s supposed racial identity). On the other hand, the external reality (of being seen by others as black) may become an internal reality (of seeing oneself as black). The internal reality may be not only personal and psychological, but also moral and existential.
      There is no definable essence of black being/being black. Black being/being black is too diverse to be essentialized. There are no essential qualities or criteria that a person must have or fulfill in order to be described as black. Exceptions may be found to any qualities or criteria that might be proposed as essential to the being of black being/being black.
      To be black is to be a human being among other human beings (black, white, brown, and other colors) within a broader society. It is also to share with those human beings a common humanity that transcends all racial and ethnic categories. It is also in some way to share with them a common language, and a common social, cultural, or world history.
       Interestingly, Frantz Fanon (1952) rejects ontology as a means of understanding the being of black people, on the grounds that in a colonial or post-colonial society the being of black people is judged by white society as not a being through self, but a being through others (a being that only comes into play through white society). The being of black people is viewed by white society as a subordinate and dependent kind of being. Fanon explains that in order for black people to understand their social situation, they must have a “third person consciousness” and be able to see themselves as they are seen by white society. A “first-person consciousness” is insufficient. Black people must be able to see themselves in such a way that they are able to overcome their being seen as mere objects or black bodies by a white society that attempts to deprive them of their personhood.1
      What then is the meaning of being black? This is a key philosophical question that may be approached in a variety of ways. One way of approaching it may be to make the following observations:
      Being black means having a social identity determined not only by race or ethnicity, but also by such factors as age, gender, family background, social class background, educational background, employment background, religion, and nationality.
      Being black means feeling a sense of kinship, of common ancestry, and of shared history with other black people.
      Being black means being able to recognize and appreciate the cultural contributions of black people to the modern world.
      Being black means being able to take pride in one's own blackness, and in one's own being black.
      Being black means recognizing the capacity of black people to resist servitude and to triumph over oppression.
      Being black means being told by white people, at some point in one’s life, that one is inferior to them or is less than they are, simply because one is black.
      Being black means being more likely to be viewed by white people as unreliable, untrustworthy, suspect, threatening, violent, or criminal.
      Being black means being more likely to be a victim of discrimination with regard to housing, employment, education, health care, and public accommodations.
      Being black means “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” and “walking while black,” that is to say, being viewed with mistrust and suspicion while performing routine daily activities, and being subjected to racial harassment or intimidation.   
      Being black means being more likely to be unemployed, undereducated, living in poverty, or incarcerated.
      It means being more likely to be denied service by a taxi driver, sales clerk, retail store, restaurant, entertainment venue, public lodging establishment, recreational facility, or financial institution.
      It means being more likely to be a victim of racial slurs or hate speech.
      It means being more likely to be stopped by police for a minor traffic violation.       
      It means being more likely to be suspected of stealing, shoplifting, burglary, assault, or other crimes.
      It means being more likely to be imprisoned and to be sentenced to a longer sentence than a white defendant accused of the same crime.
      It means, in some cases, being denied basic human rights (such as the right to equal protection under the law, the right to protection against discrimination, the right to personal security, and the right to participate in government).                                      
      Steve Biko (1971) explains, “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation—being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.”1 It is thus a matter of self-definition or self-conception. It involves seeing oneself as black. It is a state of mind as much as a social construct or sociocultural phenomenon.
      According to Biko, being black is also a matter of realizing the necessity for struggle against injustice and oppresion. It is a matter of realizing the need for black people to free themselves from the shackles that white racism attempts to place on them.3


1Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks [Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, 1952], translated by Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), pp. 109-115.
2Steve Biko, I Write What I Like: Selected Writings, edited by Aelred Stubbs (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002) p. 48.
3Ibid., p. 49.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Language and Being

There are things that have their being in (or through) language, and that have no other being than their being in (or through) language. There are also things that have a being in language (or a being in a language), leaving open the question of whether they may have a being not in language (or a being not in a language).
      Questions therefore to be considered include: Do all things have their being in language? Does language in and of itself constitute the being of things? Can the being of things always be reduced to being in language? Is being in language the only possible mode of being? Is there a mode of being interior to language, as well as a mode of being exterior to language? Is there a mode of being that transcends language?
      Language may be instrumental to the being of things. Indeed, the meaning of the term “being” may only be definable in terms of, or by means of, language.
      Can it rightly be said that to be is to be in language? If so, then the answer to Hamlet’s question, “to be, or not to be?” may depend on whether language is or is not.
      Language may be a ground of being of things. Some things simply are because they are in language, i.e. because we can think linguistically, write, or speak about them.
      Beings may communicate through many kinds of natural and artificial languages, including word languages, sign languages, sound languages, symbolic languages, and numerical languages.
      To translate something from one language into another may be to transform its being in language.
      Walter Benjamin (1916) says that the linguistic being of things is their being in language, and that language is a medium by which the mental being of things can be communicated. (His definition of language does not explicitly include language as a medium by which the physical or spiritual being of things can be communicated.) He argues that mental being is identical with linguistic being only insofar as it communicates, or is capable of communicating, itself.1 Mental being is linguistic only insofar as it is in language or is capable of linguistically expressing itself.    
      If being is always in language, then our understanding of being may depend on our understanding of language (and its syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, and sociocultural dimensions). Our understanding of being may also depend on our familiarity with, and our knowledge of, the principles of language. Our understanding of things may be our understanding of them in or through language. Indeed, language may be necessary in order for us to think, speak, or communicate about them.
      Martin Heidegger (1927) describes discourse as constitutive of the existence of Dasein (being-there), and as the articulation of the intelligibility of being-in-the–world. He says, “The attuned intelligibility of being-in-the-world is expressed as discourse,” and “The way in which discourse gets expressed is language.”2
      Heidegger also raises the interesting question, “What kind of being does language have if there are “dead” languages?”3
      Is language prior to being or is being prior to language? Is the being of things a condition of the possibility of language, or is the being of language a condition of the possibility of the being of things?
      If language is the being of things, then a philosophy of being may require a philosophy of language.
      To formulate a theory of being may be to formulate a theory of language, and to formulate a theory of language may be to formulate a theory of being.
      If language is the being of things, then the embodiment of language may also be the embodiment of the being of things. If language is grounded in bodily experience, then so may be the being of things.
      If the being of things is always a “being thus” or a "being so" or a "being here" or a "being there" or a “being now” or a “being then," then so may be the being of language.
      Hans-Georg Gadamer (1960) describes language as a medium of hermeneutical experience, and as the medium of our understanding of the world. Everything we experience is conditioned by the linguistic nature of interpretation. Language is therefore a horizon of hermeneutic ontology. The horizons of language are also the horizons of our interpretation of the world. The world has its being for us in language, and language has its being for us in its representation of the world.4
      Jacques Derrida (1974) explains that the play of difference between written being and being written is also the play of difference between absence and presence, insofar as the metaphysics of presence conceptualizes written being as a kind of absence (of the writer for the reader), and being written as a kind of presence. To privilege presence over absence, and thus to ignore their interdependence, may be to try to evade a basic question of philosophy, the question of being (“what is, or is not?”).5


1Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” in Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) p. 63.
2Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 151.
3Ibid., p 155.
4Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), p. 401.
5Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Charkravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), pp. 18-19.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


When we ask such questions as "What is time?" or “What is being?” or “What is the relation between mind and matter?” what kinds of presuppositions are we making?
      Are we already presupposing the answers we hope to provide to such questions? Are we presupposing that there are indeed answers to such questions? Are we presupposing that such questions can be explored metaphysically, analytically, empirically, or scientifically?
      When we ask such questions as “Is lying always wrong?” or "Is there life after death?" or “Is there such a thing as a ‘good war’?” are we presupposing, first of all, that it is indeed possible to ask such questions? That is to say, are we presupposing that such questions make sense or have meaning? Are we presupposing our own ability to articulate and meaningfully investigate such questions? Are we presupposing that such questions have not already been answered?
      When we ask such questions as "What is fairness?" or “What is justice?” or "How can fairness and justice best be achieved in society?" are we also presupposing the existence of counter-questions to such questions? Are we presupposing the existence of counter-answers to whatever answers we might try to provide?
       And when we ask such questions as “What is the relation between language and thought?” or "Is there a language of thought?" or ”Are the limits of language the same as the limits of thought?” what might be our motives for asking such questions? Do we suppose that we may actually be able to answer such questions? Do we actually want answers or are we more concerned with the questioning itself? Are the questions themselves more important to us than being able to find the answers?
     Are we also presupposing that the questions we are asking are the right ones or are better than other questions we might ask?
      When we ask such questions as “Is predestination compatible with free will?” or “Why does God allow evil to exist?” or “Is faith compatible with reason?” are we already presupposing that such questions are relevant to our own situation at this particular time or moment in history? Are we presupposing that such questions have not already been asked by other individuals or have not already been examined by individuals better qualified than ourselves to fully evaluate them?
      And what kinds of presuppositions are we making by describing such questions as "philosophical questions"? What is it precisely that makes such questions "philosophical"? Are we perhaps unfairly presupposing what philosophy is and what kinds of questions it should be concerned with?
      Are we also presupposing that there is someone other than ourselves to whom our questions may be addressed? Are we presupposing that there is someone other than ourselves to whom, or for whom, our questions may have some relevance or meaning? Someone willing to listen to the answers we are trying to provide? Someone who has not already fully explored and investigated the questions we are asking? Someone who may in fact be able to provide her own answers to those questions?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Schelling's On the Unconditional in Human Knowledge

F.W.J. Schelling’s “Of the I as the Principle of Philosophy or On the Unconditional in Human Knowledge” (Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie oder Über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen, 1795) is a philosophical essay that he wrote while he was a 19-year-old student at the Tübinger Stift, a Protestant seminary in the city of Tübingen. Some of the philosophers with whom he is concerned in the essay, as he begins to formulate his own brand of philosophical idealism, include Kant, Spinoza, and the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819).
      Schelling’s basic objection to the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) is that the unconditional in human knowledge can only be found in the absolute I, the identity of the subjective and objective, and not in the subjective or objective I. We cannot therefore properly say, “I think, therefore I am” or “I am, because I think,” as if “I” were a thinking subject and the act of thinking proves that “I am,” or as if “I” were an object that receives its existence from the fact that it is thinking. We can only properly say, “I think, I am,” where “I” is the absolute I, which is the unconditional in human knowledge and the original ground (Urgrund) of all reality.1
      For Schelling, the absolute I is neither a subject conditioned by an object nor an object conditioned by a subject. Furthermore, it is neither an absolute subject nor an absolute object. Indeed, it does not belong to the sphere of subjects or sphere of objects at all.
      The existence of the absolute I cannot be proved objectively, because the absolute I can never become an object. To prove objectively that the absolute I exists would be to demonstrate conditions of its existence; but there are no such conditions.2 Indeed, the absolute I cannot be said to “exist” at all, because existence implies the presence of conditions. The absolute I simply is; its being is absolute and unconditional.3
      Two contrasting positions regarding the content of human knowledge are those of “dogmatism,” which posits a not-I (an objective reality) as antecedent to any I, and “criticism,” which posits an I (a subjective reality) as antecedent to any not-I.5 But neither of these positions leads us to the unconditional, real, and ultimate ground of reality of human knowledge. The chain of knowledge is conditioned throughout by the absolute I.
      While “transcendent realism” is a positing of a not-I (a world of objects) as independent of an I (an empirical subject), “transcendent idealism” denies that the I is an empirical subject and that there is anything empirical about the I at all.
      The absolute I is not a thing-in-itself, because it can never become a thing and can never be made subject to conditions of existence. The thing-in-itself is an absolute not-I posited as antecedent to, or independent of, every I.4
      The essence of the absolute I is freedom, says Schelling, because the absolute I posits itself freely and absolutely. But this freedom is neither subjective nor objective. It is an absolute freedom that is present to the absolute I alone.6


1F.W.J. Schelling, “Of the I as the Principle of Philosophy or On the Unconditional in Human Knowledge,” in The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays (1794-1796), translated by Fritz Marti (Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1980), p. 75
2Ibid., p. 75.
3Ibid., p. 105.
4Ibid., p. 79.
5Ibid., p. 77.
6Ibid., p. 84.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Some Arguments against Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is a cultural attitude or viewpoint that takes a particular ethnic group or culture as the standard or center of reference for evaluating other ethnic groups or cultures. It may have moral, epistemological, aesthetic, social, and political dimensions.
      According to The Random House College Dictionary (2010), ethnocentrism is “the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnic group or culture,” or “a tendency to view alien groups or cultures from the perspective of one’s own.”1
      According to Robert LeVine and Donald Campbell (1972), ethnocentrism may also be described as an “an attitude or outlook in which values derived from one’s own cultural background are applied to other cultural contexts where different values are operative.”2
      One argument that may therefore be made against ethnocentrism is that it may lead to misinterpretation of the beliefs and practices of cultures different from one’s own. If one takes one’s own culture as a standard or center of reference for interpreting the beliefs and practices of other cultures, then one may misinterpret the meaning of the beliefs and practices of those cultures. The habits and practices of other cultures may have a different meaning from the same or similar habits and practices in one’s own culture.
      Another argument that may be made against ethnocentrism is that is it may be based on an attitude of cultural superiority or an attitude that one's own culture is somehow more advanced and civilized than other cultures. It may therefore express disrespect of people who belong to other cultures, and it may deny the importance of cultural pluralism to the development of a democratic and truly pluralistic society.
      Another argument against ethnocentrism is that it may be a rejection of any efforts to promote multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism. Thus, it may become a kind of cultural or linguistic imperialism. It may become an effort to enforce the use of only one language, the language of the dominant ethnic group or culture, in public discourse. It may become an effort to eradicate bilingual or multilingual education. It may become an effort to accord second-class citizenship to those who are not native speakers of the culturally dominant language of a society.
      Another argument against ethnocentrism is that it may be a form of cultural chauvinism (perhaps a zealous and unquestioning advocacy of the virtues of one’s own culture, as well as a denial that one’s own culture has any possible faults or shortcomings), and it may also be a form of cultural exceptionalism (an attitude that one's own culture is morally, aesthetically, or politically exceptional and should therefore be regarded as a moral, aesthetic, or political standard for other cultures).
      Another argument against ethnocentrism is that it may be based on racism. It may express a particular racial or ethnic group’s attitude of superiority in relation to other racial or ethnic groups, and it may lead to a particular group’s efforts to subordinate other racial or ethnic groups it views as inferior.
      Another argument against ethnocentrism is that it may tend to promote right-wing nationalism, militarism, and xenophobia. It may lead to efforts to prevent immigration to a country, and to efforts to expel immigrants and foreigners from a country. It may also, in the most extreme cases, lead to military aggression, ethnic violence, forcible appropriation of land from ethnic groups or indigenous communities, genocide, and ethnic cleansing (by mass murder, deportation, and forcible displacement of local populations).
      LeVine and Campbell (1972) explain that the fixity or fluidity of ethnic boundaries may depend on such factors as the degree to which ethnic communities are culturally similar or dissimilar, the degree to which they are (geographically or socially) proximate to or remote from one another, the degree to which they change or remain the same in their linguistic and cultural characteristics, and the degree to which community members agree or disagree about the assignment of community labels or boundaries.3
      Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartman (2007) also explain that ethnicity and race may overlap, and that these two social categories may share many features in common (such as group identity based on putative common ancestry, on claims of shared history, and on shared symbols of peoplehood).4 Racial groups may be, but are not necessarily, ethnic groups,5 and ethnic groups may sometimes be ascribed the same kinds of characteristics as are ascribed to racial groups.6 Each of the commonly designated racial groups may include multiple ethnicities (for example, white Americans of European descent include British Americans, Irish Americans, German Americans, Italian Americans, Polish Americans, and other ethnic groups). Many individuals also identify themselves as biracial or multiracial or multiethnic.
      Richard Burkey (1978) explains that relations of domination or subordination between racial or ethic groups may be established or maintained by the use of racial or ethnic discrimination, by racist or anti-ethnic ideology, and by inequitable institutional practices. A means of rectifying such relations is the promotion of racial and ethnic group integration, and another means of rectifying such relations is the promotion of social and cultural pluralism.7

1Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, 2010.
2Robert A. LeVine and Donald T. Campbell, Ethnocentrism: Theories of Conflict, Ethnic Attitudes, and Group Behavior (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1972), p. 1.
3Ibid., pp. 81-109.
4Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartman, Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World (Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press, 2007), p. 33.
5Ibid., p. 26.
6Ibid., p. 33
7Richard M. Burkey, Ethnic & Racial Groups: The Dynamics of Dominance (Menlo Park: Cummings Publishing Company, 1978), p. 2.