The Chronicle Review

Why Tuvel’s Article So Troubled Its Critics

May 08, 2017

Chronicle Illustration by Scott Seymour
As one of the many scholars involved in writing the open letter calling on Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy to retract the essay "In Defense of Transracialism," by Rebecca Tuvel, I am compelled to come forward and attempt to reclaim a narrative spinning increasingly out of control.

First, I want to clarify the anonymity of the authorship of the letter. The writing was a collective effort by a dozen or more scholars — the majority faculty members and all of us in philosophy — weighing in on drafts, contributing to and editing sections, requesting additions, and demanding deletions. Many of us became involved at the request of black and/or trans scholars who feel completely demoralized by Tuvel’s article and the failure of peer review that it represents. Speaking for myself, I signed and circulated the letter because I know, firsthand, of the damage this kind of scholarship does to marginalized groups, especially black and trans scholars, in philosophy.

The letter was addressed specifically to Hypatia’s editor and associate editors. All of those involved in the writing of the letter care deeply about the journal, and our effort is itself an expression of our commitment to it. Given our various roles as authors, readers, and longstanding reviewers for the journal, we were alarmed about the failure of the peer-review process that allowed the publication of Tuvel’s article. Some readers have stepped back and come to understand our dismay.

Tuvel received substantive critical feedback at conferences from scholars in critical race theory and trans studies. We do not understand how this failed to shape the review process and can only assume that such scholars were not selected as peer reviewers. We argue, then, that the peer-review process failed, in this instance, in at least two ways. First, it failed a junior scholar, Tuvel, by allowing subpar scholarship to be published in a flagship journal. Second, it failed the field of feminist philosophy as a subdiscipline that continues to struggle to break from the longstanding habits of the broader discipline of philosophy. More specifically, the article’s publication signals an arrogant disregard for the broad, well-established, interdisciplinary scholarly fields of both critical race theory and trans studies. For an article that is explicitly about the concepts of the transracial and transgender, that omission is egregious.

While feminist philosophy should imply a critique of the field of philosophy itself, the open letter to Hypatia wasn’t aimed at the discipline over all. None of us ever expected it to circulate so widely, to garner so many signatures, or to become the object of news stories. Yet, largely due to the fast response by Brian Leiter, the letter and the quickly issued apology by a majority of associate editors of Hypatia quickly became whipping girls, as it were, for the discipline as a whole. This has been, for me, the most astonishing part of the saga. Why would a discipline that has shown a systemic disregard for feminist scholarship suddenly care about this critical dialogue within it?

Since the Tuvel situation has been taken up in more-mainstream news outlets, allow me to offer some recent history and basic demographic data on the discipline of philosophy as context for readers who aren’t familiar with it. In recent years, many legal cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment have been filed against philosophy departments. News media have reported on such cases at prestigious departments like those of Northwestern University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Yale, but the sheer number of cases indicates a systemic climate of sexism in the discipline.

At the same time, philosophy remains one of the most white and male fields of all the humanities and, arguably, of all the arts and sciences. While I have not culled comparative data across disciplines, data from the American Philosophical Association confirms that, in 2016, 75 percent of its members identified as male and 80 percent identified as white. The open letter focuses on the particularly marginalized groups of black and trans scholars in philosophy. As Sally Haslanger recently reminded us in a guest post at the philosophy site Daily Nous: "Data collected in 2013 suggest that of the 13,000 professional philosophers in the country, 55 are black women. Let that sink in. Of the 55, 30 percent were Ph.D. students; 35 percent held tenured positions. I don’t have data on the representation of trans scholars, but I would expect there are even fewer."

Given this history and that data, the lightning-fast vituperative response by scholars who would never consider publishing in Hypatia (and who may not respect feminist philosophy) is suspect, to say the least. We authors of the open letter, and the associate editors of Hypatia, are accused of poor reasoning, poor scholarship, and lack of integrity. In other words, the overwhelmingly sexist, male, and white discipline has, once again, called out the feminists as irrational, hysterical, and immoral. To say that we’re engaging in a "witch hunt" couldn’t be more paradoxical when we, the feminist philosophers, have long been treated like the witches of the discipline. Let’s call this response what it is: the deflection of serious, sustained criticism of philosophy’s normative practices.

I signed the open letter as part of a continuing effort to make feminist philosophy something other than a damaged, dutiful daughter to the deeply troubled discipline of philosophy.
It is those practices that are the central focus of the open letter. The fundamental problem with Tuvel’s article isn’t her ability to construct a rational argument but rather the omission of any sustained engagement with the well-developed, interdisciplinary scholarship on race and gender, particularly by black and trans scholars. Tuvel cites only one peer-reviewed black scholar working on critical race theory (Charles Mills) and does not engage with the scholarship in trans theory in ways that Hypatia’s editorial mission demands. Those glaring omissions reflect the methodological arrogance that continues to haunt feminist philosophy. That and its insularity perpetuate the subdiscipline’s whiteness.

I signed the open letter as part of a continuing effort to make feminist philosophy something other than a damaged, dutiful daughter to the deeply troubled discipline of philosophy. I also signed it as part of continuing efforts to change philosophy’s practices. After all, the methodological insularity evidenced in Tuvel’s article and its publication effectively render ignored and disrespected black, trans, and other minority scholars who work in these fields doubly marginalized. The inequalities perpetuated are both conceptual and practical.

The publication of this article brings all of the systemic problems of philosophy and, more painfully, the subdiscipline of feminist philosophy to a head.
I hope this broader account explains why we chose to call on Hypatia to retract Tuvel’s article. While we understand that this is unusual in the humanities, the publication of this article brings all of the systemic problems of philosophy and, more painfully, the subdiscipline of feminist philosophy to a head. As Claire Colebrook of Pennsylvania State University rightfully suggests, retraction would be "an amazingly revolutionary gesture," but an important and justifiable one. For too many underrepresented scholars — and black and trans scholars are severely underrepresented — philosophy is inhospitable and in many cases uninhabitable. The call for retraction signals this state of emergency.

Finally, as a scholar who stands at the crossroads of philosophy and the interdisciplinary field of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, I am committed to bringing the two fields into closer dialogue. While several critics of the open letter have argued that we ought not bring this kind of self-criticism of the left into the public sphere in these times of intense conservatism, I argue that we must relentlessly interrogate systems of exclusion whenever and however we find them. I have argued extensively in my scholarship that race and racism shape the very fabric of our society in the United States (and, differently modulated, across the globe). While the question of self-critique in conservative times could be cast as a matter of political strategies, I argue that we must practice anti-racist politics in all places and times. That includes the interrogation of well-intentioned, liberal white people, including those who identify as feminist.

Shannon Winnubst is chair of the department of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Ohio State University. She is co-editor of philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism.