Extended abstract for ‘The State of Philosophy’ conference on April 3rd 2022

On Sunday April 3rd, I’ll be speaking as part of a ‘Challenging Philosophies’ panel at this online conference (click through to the excellent conference website):

The State of Philosophy
15th Annual Duquesne Graduate Students in Philosophy Conference
8th Annual Duquesne Women in Philosophy Conference
Co-Organized by Minorities and Philosophy at Duquesne University

Dates: 2 & 3 April 2022
Keynote Speaker: Dr. Talia Mae Bettcher

The paper I’ll be presenting is titled Digging Outside the Field: Animalization and Animality, Within and Beyond Academic Philosophy. I’ll be advocating for the inclusion within academic philosophy of texts, voices and materials from outside the field. I’ll illustrate the benefits of this inclusion through a discussion of Sunaura Taylor’s Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation (2017), and Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man (2020). Finally, I’ll consider the risks, using Emmalon Davis’ account of epistemic appropriation.

The extended abstract (roughly 1000 words) is below.

You can follow these links to register for the conference, see the schedule, and read the shorter abstracts for the Challenging Philosophies panel (which will be on Sunday April 3rd at 4.30pm GMT / 5.30pm CET / 12.30 EDT).

Thanks to Lillianne John and all the conference organisers at GSIP, D.WiP and MAP Duquesne.

Digging Outside the Field: Animalization & Animality, Within & Beyond Academic Philosophy

Extended Abstract
Author: R.J. Flynn

This paper advocates for the consideration and inclusion within academic philosophy of texts, voices, and materials from outside the discipline, and a recognition of their philosophical relevance. The proposed benefit is twofold: first, this openness brings a diversity of voices and perspectives into a discipline chronically lacking in diversity. And second, philosophical insights from outside academic philosophy can radically reimagine long-standing conceptual issues within the field. To illustrate, I discuss how the work of Sunaura Taylor (2017), and Joshua Bennett (2020), can richly contribute to philosophical discourse on both animality and animalization, and disturb the common tension between these two areas. Finally, I consider the risks of (mis)using conceptual resources from outside philosophy, using Emmalon Davis’ framing of epistemic appropriation.

The paper proceeds in three sections.

In Section One, I introduce and discuss the two proposed benefits outlined above. I then briefly consider a comparison, between a) using conceptual resources from outside philosophy, and b) using empirical or scientific resources from outside philosophy. I suggest that, as with empirical or scientific resources, epistemic standards apply: philosophers should endeavor to properly understand the context and background to the works they use, give clear credit to the authors or creators on these works, and ensure they have a reasonable level of expertise in interpreting the material. I return to these issues in Section Three, when discussing the risks of epistemic appropriation (Davis 2018).

In Section Two, I focus on the profound contribution to (and reimagining of) discourse around animality, animalization, and the human-animal distinction, seen in recent work by authors including Aph and Syl Ko, Joshua Bennett, Sunaura Taylor, and Bénédicte Boisseron. Specifically, I focus on “Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation” (2017) by Sunaura Taylor (an artist, activist, and multi-disciplinary scholar), and “Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man” (2020) by Joshua Bennett (a poet, artist, and literary scholar). Through these texts, we can read a new story of the human-animal distinction – one which recognizes, historicizes, and fully grapples with the animalization of certain marked groups of humans, and which simultaneously breaks fresh ground for theorizing animality without reinscribing that animalization.

In their respective texts, these artist-author-scholars disrupt two strands in philosophical thinking on the human-animal divide. Firstly, they demonstrate that the human and the animal have never been in binary distinction – not an entirely controversial claim, but one given new force and vibrancy through the perspectives of animalized humans. Secondly, and more radically, they bring forward a conceptualization of that distinction which differs markedly from the dominant model: rather than conceptualizing the species boundary as a dividing line (albeit, as is generally accepted within philosophy, a dividing line which is socially and historically contingent), their texts posit a wide, complex, continuous space between and outside those distinctions. This space, between and outside the morally relevant categories of human and animal, is inhabited to different degrees and in complex ways by those deemed insufficiently human; those portrayed as, seen as, thought of, treated like, and/or equated with animals. Animalized humans are pushed into a zone where moral norms have limited weight. It is both the function and result of dehumanization that the dehumanized are removed from spheres of moral concern, rendering their abuse or extermination permissible. Taylor and Bennett not only provide perspective and critique on this animalization, they also each perform a very similar and powerful move: in addition to recognizing the threat of animalization, they identify this between- or outside-space as one of enormous liberatory and creative potential. Underneath and alongside the pain and harm, they reveal a fertile site of privileged authority in theorizing not only animalization, but animality and human-animal relations.

Having illustrated the value, potential, and relevance of works from outside academic philosophy in reconsidering long-standing conceptual issues within the field, in Section Three I consider a significant risk: epistemic appropriation (Davis 2018). On Emmalon Davis’ account, epistemic appropriation is an “unjust epistemic practice” which “harms marginalized knowers through the course of conceptual dissemination and intercommunal uptake” (Davis 2018; my emphasis). Epistemic appropriation is thus a live issue for anyone employing or disseminating conceptual resources from just the kind of texts this paper has drawn upon. Epistemic appropriation occurs when 1) “epistemic resources developed within the margins gain intercommunal uptake [but] those resources are overtly detached from the marginalized knowers responsible for their production”, and 2) “when epistemic resources developed within, but detached from, the margins are utilized in dominant discourses in ways that disproportionately benefit the powerful” (Davis 2018; my emphasis throughout).

To ameliorate this risk, I suggest a development of the epistemic standards commonly applied in philosophy when drawing on empirical or scientific resources. As outlined in Section One, these include; endeavoring to properly understand the context and background to the material drawn upon, giving clear credit to the authors or creators on these works, and demonstrating a reasonable level of expertise in interpreting the material. However, in drawing on conceptual resources, these standards should perhaps be more thoroughly emphasized. A philosopher drawing on empirical research from, for example, Gerontology, cannot easily (intentionally or unintentionally) pass that source material off as their own. When drawing on concepts and ideas, however, philosophers might easily (intentionally or unintentionally) appropriate those ideas and absorb the credit for their development. Philosophers should therefore be explicit in crediting their sources, diligent in properly understanding the context and background to the work, and clear on where their interpretation aligns with or deviates from the intentions of the source material’s author or creator. This should avoid at least the first of Davis’ stages of epistemic appropriation (that of epistemic detachment); I acknowledge that it may be less successful in countering the second; that of utilizing resources from the margins to disproportionally benefit the powerful.

A solid awareness of the risks of epistemic appropriation, and a conscious effort to avoid that practice, seem crucial if philosophers are to responsibly employ concepts and epistemic resources from marginalized knowers outside the discipline. But by adhering to a high epistemic standard when employing those resources, we may collectively benefit from the generative and re-imaginative potential of texts, voices, and materials from outside the field.

Works Cited

Bennett, J., 2020. Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man. Cambridge, USA; London, UK: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Davis, E., 2018. On Epistemic Appropriation. Ethics, Volume 128, p. 702–727.

Taylor, S., 2017. Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. New York: The New Press.

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