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Critical thinking: Who’s up for it?

By Georgette Veerhuis            A month ago on Thursday 21 January 2016 I attended the symposium Diversify Philosophy at the VU. It sounded mysterious. Why does philosophy need to be diversified? It also sounded progressive and modern, and therefore almost incongruent with age-old philosophy. Isn’t philosophy ‘simply’ premised on, and specialised in, critical thinking? Why then should philosophy need to change?

The symposium was organised by two philosophy students, Roos van Unen and Marieke Berkers. They called for a greater emphasis on the representation of women philosophers in their curriculum. They had even drafted a petition for this cause. The symposium was held in a small lecture room on the 14th floor. It was very misty that day which made it seem we were floating in the sky, cut off from the outside world, in our own ivory tower. It was quite disorienting while simultaneously very befitting for my interpretation of the event.

Roos opened the symposium by reading the petition. It seemed a solid story that couldn’t be disputed. I respected her as she stood there in front of her ‘superiors’, taking a firm stance. After she finished reading the petition she officially handed it to the head of the philosophy department. As way of saying ‘thank you’ he stumbled through what seemed a speech made up on the spot. It gave an air of insignificance, as if it wasn’t important enough to prepare for. Was this moment indeed insignificant, as a reflection of what he thought of the petition itself perhaps?

Prof. Wouter Goris kicked off with the first of five mini-lectures. His was about the in-/exclusive power structures that shape the canon of philosophy. He sat down at a table and started to read from a few printed A4s (adding another layer of insignificance). I looked forward to what he was going to tell but I soon found myself drowning in lengthy sentences, jargon and German quotes. Nevertheless, he made a good point: the exclusion of certain positions that are deemed unphilosophical is problematic. Indeed, who determines what belongs to the body of philosophy?

He described two cases wherein such a distinction was made, namely western and non-western philosophy and philosophy and mysticism. The former is now given more attention as we come to ‘reconcile’ with the fact that we owe quite a bit to Arabic philosophy. He called this our forgotten heritage (or rather: downplayed heritage). The latter case is mysticism, a place historically often reserved for women philosophers. Are we coming to the same reconciliation here?

The two male philosophers concluded their presentations as against the petition. They were of the opinion that either no male philosophers could be taken out of the curriculum to create space for female philosophers without damaging the quality of the content (“what story is then told?”), or their attention should rather be focused on the issue of eurocentrism (since already “the battle has partly been won” by the feminist critique). Apparently, mere practicalities and half-won battles are enough to dismiss the issue brought before them.

However, the problem with this particular diversity issue is that when (the contributions of) women philosophers are not deemed important enough to enter the curriculum, the superiority of ‘male knowledge’ is affirmed and reproduced. This is the fundamental issue. Hence, whether ‘in reality’ the contributions are either more or less important is not important. Moreover, those in power to decide on its importance are mainly men.

Ironically, both female philosophers that presented were in favour of the petition. According to dr. Annemie Halsema the contributions of women philosophers were obvious, mainly advocating feminism as “a particular way of doing philosophy, a practice”. Prof. Halleh Ghorashi argued that diversity helps to uncover and deconstruct the taken-for-grantedness of particular points of view. From her perspective, we have to create “a space of commonality”, where difference can be invited and where we can challenge ourselves to develop. “Critical thinkers are those that accept they are complicit”. I would like to add, however, that they must also actively engage with this notion, since they cannot escape it anyway.

Although a lot can and should be argued against my presumptions of what philosophy entails as stated in the introduction, at the same time I know that they don’t come out of nowhere. When deconstructing them, you find that they have been created by the discipline of philosophy itself. Over the centuries philosophy has a way of portraying itself as outside of and above society. This image of elderly, bearded gentlemen thinking highly abstract thoughts – unintelligible for most – is quite robust. Also as a discipline it’s quite unreachable, coming from a tradition generating high status. In short, the philosophy image mediates an exclusivist message: “not for everyone”. However, just as any institution philosophy is embedded in (historical, socio-cultural, political, economic etc.) context. It does not exist outside society, nor is it unchanging and rigid. In that regard, philosophy is fighting its own demons. If it is indeed premised on critical thinking it should acknowledge its own contextual position and presuppositions. In my regard however, this department is still tightly holding on to these demons…

There is, no doubt, a chasm between philosophy as taught at the VU and the demands of its students. The fact that female advocates are addressing this chasm is therefore in a way micro-history in the making. VU-history, if you will. How wonderful would it be if this development would eventually not only be ascribed to this new wave of feminism, but to a general paradigm that acknowledges and actively engages with change? Moreover, if philosophy upholds the image of ‘a high realm of clever men’ it does not only not reflect society; it actually undermines its own authority precisely because it should reflect society. How else could it say something about society? Philosophy needs to diversify.

Georgette Veerhuis is a bachelor student of Cultural Anthropology at the VU.


  1. I would like to suggest a thought experiment to you: replace ‘feminism’ by ‘Stalinism,’ and see whether your thinkpiece couldn’t be mistaken for something straight out of Pravda.

    What is very telling in that regard is the fact that you are delimiting the notion of critical thought in a worryingly self-serving way:

    ‘”Critical thinkers are those that accept they are complicit”. I would like to add, however, that they must also actively engage with this notion, since they cannot escape it anyway.’

    In other words, critical thinkers have to subscribe to a certain notion of how all thought is embedded in power structures — probably a notion that you have already *decided* to endorse, but now *require* others to endorse too. This is not critical thinking what you’re advocating here, it’s dogmatism of the very purest kind.

    It is so depressing to me (PhD holder in math and former philosophy student) that so many bright people are falling into this trap. Consider how our intellectual tradition, despite being rooted in inequality and being tainted by all manner of social injustices, has yielded the very notion of the basic equality of all human beings which movements such as feminism presuppose. Apparently, human reason by itself, unfettered by dogma, has been capable of achieving this.

    In contrast to this, consider the historical fate of all intellectual movements that were grounded in unassailable truths: religions of all kinds, fascism, stalinism, etc. Totalitarian ideologies have always sought to suppress free speech because they feared it. By imposing limits on it, they sought to curb its power. At the root of this is the totalitarian’s distrust of reason: if there is no controlling it, there is no telling what conclusions may come of it. And I’d say that, as a philosopher, it is clear where your preferences should lie in this matter.

    For my part anyway, I’d say that the historical evidence tells us that social justice is much better served by the absence of dogma, than by “new” ways of thinking that’s really just dogmatism in disguise.

  2. PS. I am not saying that all thought isn’t embedded in power structures. What I am saying is, you have to think this through one more step to see how ineffectual this thought is: because what shift in the existing power relations do you seek to effect by uttering this claim? Like Wittgenstein wrote in his diaries: “If you’re on the stage, you’re an actor, whatever the heck you do.”

  3. standplaatswereld standplaatswereld

    Thanks for your critical response. Without wanting to go into too much discussion I think I do need to clarify some points. I’ll be honest: I am no philosopher. The analysis I give of that particular day is from a social science perspective. I don’t take into account the philosophical concept (or method) of critical thinking but the socio-cultural processes surrounding it, and then ‘bend’ the concept to make my point (as in the title).

    From my perspective, philosophers themselves are embedded in context because they are produced by and engage with society. Every form of organisation or institutionalisation that springs forth from them is therefore embedded as well. Even supposedly free thought is contextualised when conveyed, by means of words and interpretation.

    That being said, I’m also influenced by the reason the seminar was organised. There is a very real gender debate going on within philosophy. See for example this article (see link below). It shows the practical side that a department has to deal with as well, and which perhaps the discipline could integrate.

    I don’t think I promote dogmatism. I only wish to make explicit what is implicit, and point to the consequences of any (subconsciously) taken stance. The shift I would like to see is an honest reflection of the philosophy department on its attitude. Historically, society has shaped philosophy and the other way around. In this same way the discipline will change through diversification, and in fact already is changing (the debate and focus on eastern philosophy). I understand that a department needs to uphold certain philosophical principles, but when instead a department is being conservative for the sake of conservatism, it becomes painful to watch.

    By Georgette Veerhuis (co-editor of StandplaatsWereld)

    Link to article:

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