Letter to the British Postgraduate Philosophy Association on their recent name change

In May 2022, the British Postgraduate Philosophy Association (BPPA) announced that they were changing their name to the British & Irish Postgraduate Philosophy Association (BIPPA). You can read that announcement here.

Today I sent an email to the BPPA / BIPPA questioning the content of the announcement and the decision to adopt the new name. In the interest of transparency, I am posting that email here, in full.

Note: As the current list of their executive committee is not available on their website, it is not possible to see how, or by whom, this decision was made. The letter is therefore addressed to the committee and/or representatives of the association.

Edit (31/08): The executive committee is listed on the website, though the navigational menu appears to show only previous committees. The current list is here.

To the committee / representatives of the British Postgraduate Philosophy Association / British & Irish Postgraduate Philosophy Association:

A chairde,

My name is R.J. Flynn. I may have met some of you last year when I presented at the BPPA seminar series, but I am not sure, as I can’t find any current list of your members or committee on your website.

I have wanted to write since you announced your name change, to the British and Irish Postgraduate Philosophy Association (BIPPA), earlier this year. The below is a critique of that decision. I don’t intend this as an attack. Your website states that you are “increasingly paying attention to issues of decolonisation”, among other issues. This correspondence is intended to contribute to that process. In the interest of transparency, I will also post this text as a blog post on my website.

In your announcement of the name change, I was astonished by the following: “While support for the postgraduate community in the Republic of Ireland was always constitutive of the mission of the former BPPA, we acknowledge that the history of the association shows how we have not always been active enough in this front.” This raises (at least) two immediate issues.

  1. Why were universities in the Republic of Ireland assumed to be within the remit of a British organisation? Since 1922, universities in Ireland, and postgraduate students at those universities, are not in Britain. As they are in an entirely different country, their assumed inclusion within a British association would be merely bizarre if it were not for the colonial history that permits and perhaps motivates such an assumption. If the assumption was made in complete obliviousness of the colonial history, I encourage you to learn about the violence, human exploitation, material expropriation, systematic political oppression, and cultural erasure on which British colonial rule in Ireland was based, and the position of the British state in relation to both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland since independence. Resources are widely available, though I appreciate that this is not a history that is taught in British schools.
  1. Your announcement suggests that the lack of involvement in the British Postgraduate Philosophy Association by postgraduate students in the Republic of Ireland is the result of the BPPA “not always being active enough in this front”. Perhaps my comments in the previous section will give some additional insight as to why students at Irish universities might not assume or expect (or perhaps wish) to be part of an explicitly British association. Perhaps some postgraduate students at Irish universities will find their assumed inclusion uninteresting, or more bemusing than sinister, but it is hard to imagine that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Irish (or British) history would find the assumption unproblematic. Were many Irish postgraduate students, or postgraduate students at Irish universities, involved in your decision on the name change, or in your earlier assumption that they were part of the BPPA? Had there been great demand from postgraduate philosophy students in Ireland for the BPPA to formally extend it’s remit into another country? Did no one within the BPPA ever question the assumption that Ireland was implicitly, by the association’s own “mission”, considered part of Britain?

I appreciate your stated aim of paying more attention to issues such as decolonisation. Within philosophy, and academia generally, that work cannot happen fast enough. The risk is that it is treated as an empty theoretical buzzword, rather than a present reality for millions of people worldwide, in countries with similar (and differing) experiences of occupation, dehumanization, racialization, starvation, cultural eradication, violence and abuse. Ireland’s post-colonial history has been different (and arguably easier) than many others, because Ireland has historically been predominantly White, Christian, and European. These same features, and our proximity to our former colonial rulers, may partially explain why a British association might think decoloniality does not apply in this context. I assure you that it does. Indeed, if the repetition of such glaring colonial assumptions cannot even be noticed this close to home, one wonders what attitude is being taken toward decolonisation more broadly.

Let me repeat that this email is not intended as an attack on your association. I have written it as a contribution to your stated aims. I have a secure PhD position and a supportive department; as such, this is written in solidarity with postgraduate students in (or from) former colonies who may be more reluctant to express their anger about the perpetuation of colonial attitudes and actions within academia. I am writing because I do not think the assumptions laid out in your announcement should pass unremarked. Nor should your decision to “include” Ireland in the newly renamed BIPPA be confirmed or enacted, unless a significant proportion of postgraduate philosophy students at Irish universities actively requested that inclusion in the first place, and had a direct and decisive role in the process. If this decision was instead made by the BPPA, based on the assumptions outlined above (and in your own announcement), and without the full involvement of postgraduate philosophy students in Ireland, there would seem to be significant questions to answer. If that were the case, you might consider issuing an apology and a retraction of the name change, until such time as postgraduate philosophy students in Ireland independently propose joining the BPPA, and propose their own process and means of doing so.

As neither information on your current committee/board, nor any information about the process involved in making this decision is available online, these suggestions are made in good faith, solely on my own behalf, and without the background information that might make your decision comprehensible. I look forward to your response.

Is mise, le meas,

R.J. Flynn

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