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Discrimination in philosophy

Deep Pluralism and Intentional Course Design: Diversity From the Ground Up

Shannon Dea
p. 66-82


Diversity is becoming a watchword in philosophy. Increasingly, philosophers are working to diversify their syllabi, their journals, their textbooks, and their conferences. Admirable as this movement is, this approach to diversity can often be rather mechanistic in character – a mere totting-up of the number of women or members of under-represented groups on programmes and in tables of contents. Drawing on my work reconstructing and teaching a very diverse history of philosophy canon, I argue that a student-centred, inquiry-based pedagogy can help both learners and teachers move from mechanistic surface-diversity to a rich, deep pluralism. This deep pluralism can inform and enrich both our pedagogy and our philosophical methodology. My argument has six steps. I Part 1, I explain why diversity and inclusiveness ought to be among our goals as teachers, researchers, and philosophers. In Part 2, I outline some approaches to improving diversity in the discipline. I contrast surface and deep approaches to diversity, and make a case for the latter. In Part 3, I describe what I call intentional course design – pedagogical design that builds diversity in from the ground up. I offer practical examples of intentionally designed courses in Part 4. In Part 5, I discuss individual and institutional limitations to intentional design and deep pedagogy. In Part 6, I conclude by extending the lessons of the foregoing sections to our scholarship and our discipline(s).

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Note dell’autore

I acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional territory of the Attawandaron (Neutral), Anishnaabeg, and Haudenosaunee peoples. The University of Waterloo is situated on the Haldimand Tract, land promised to Six Nations, which includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. My thanks to audiences at the University of Miami, the University of Waikato, and the 2016 meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia, and to anonymous referees for this journal for their helpful suggestions on earlier versions of this article.

Testo integrale


1I here wish to make a case for, and to chart an approach to, deep pluralism in our philosophical pedagogy, in our scholarship, and in our professional practices. Deep pluralism, as I term it, involves three sub-theses:

  1. Pluralism is good.

  2. Deeper is better.

  3. Our teaching and learning must align with our scholarship and professional practices, and vice versa.

  • 2 Griffin 2005.
  • 3 Talisse and Aikin 2005: 104.

2I am not the first scholar to deploy the term «deep pluralism». Theologian and philosopher of religion David Ray Griffin espouses “deep religious pluralism”2. And, in their survey of varieties of pluralism sometimes associated with pragmatism, philosophers Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin use «deep pluralism» by way of contrast with shallow pluralism and modus vivendi pluralism3. I do not intend either of these senses of the term. Rather, by “deep pluralism” I intend pluralism with respect to disciplinary content and methods, that goes deep in the sense of grounding work rather than being added on to work at the end.

3My argument has six steps. In Part 1, I explain why diversity and inclusiveness ought to be among our goals as teachers, researchers, and philosophers. In Part 2, I outline some approaches to improving diversity in the discipline. I contrast surface and deep approaches to diversity, and make a case for the latter. In Part 3, I describe what I call intentional course design – pedagogical design that builds diversity in from the ground up. I offer practical examples of intentionally designed courses in Part 4. In Part 5, I discuss individual and institutional limitations to intentional design and deep pedagogy. In Part 6, I conclude by extending the lessons of the foregoing sections to our scholarship and our discipline(s).

  • 4 Science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

4Some of my conclusions are no doubt transferable to other disciplines. However, it is worth noting that philosophy is in some ways quite distinctive. On the one hand, its low level of female participation is more typical of stem disciplines4 than Arts disciplines. On the other hand, its research and teaching methods tend to bear more resemblance to social science and humanities disciplines than to stem. My concern in the present article is primarily with philosophy, and not with academia simpliciter.

1. Why diversity?

5I began my academic career as a scholar of the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. While Peirce is rarely cited as a source in equity work, his theory of inquiry offers both good reasons to support a more inclusive discipline, and a sensible heuristic for doing so.

6In an 1898 lecture titled “The First Rule of Logic”, Peirce contrasted institutions of teaching and institutions of learning. The former, on his view, seek to transmit unaltered the teachers’ expertize to the students. By contrast, institutions of learning support students (and researchers) as they engage in novel inquiry. Where institutions of teaching are organized around belief systems, institutions of learning are organized around doubts – that is, around challenges to existing beliefs. Unsurprisingly, Peirce prefers learning institutions, but worries that trends in education favour teaching institutions, with a concomitant reduction in the number of learning institutions.

7Having thus demarcated (what we today call) the educational sector, Peirce presents us with the “first rule of reason” of the lecture’s title:

  • 5 Peirce 1998: 2.48, boldface in the original.

Upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry5.

8I propose that historical exclusions within philosophy have blocked and continue to block the way of inquiry and that, in the spirit of Peirce’s injunction, we ought to work to end those exclusions.

9There are, in addition, more direct and more recent reasons than those Peirce provides to support inclusiveness in philosophy. We shall return to Peirce in Part 6, but for now, let us consider two moral reasons and two epistemic ones to work to make our courses, our curricula, our departments and our discipline(s) more inclusive.

1.1 First moral consideration: equality of access to education

  • 6 Among the myriad arguments for this view, see for instance Cooper 1998 and World Bank 2015.
  • 7 Throughout, I capitalize “White” to make explicit that I am referring to a racialization and not to (...)
  • 8 Except theology, which is slightly more male-dominated than philosophy due to the gender-exclusive (...)
  • 9 Hereafter, for brevity, I use “White men” and “White males” to pick out a slightly more complex ide (...)

10The first moral consideration is the claim that all persons ought to have equality of access to education. It is a widely held view that education improves people’s autonomy and well-being, and therefore that every person should have access to high quality education6. In order to put this principle into practice, it is insufficient to legislate equal access. Let me illustrate this with an example. Today, many decades after the desegregation of schools in the US South, many schools remain racially segregated as the downstream consequence of the interactions of racialization with socioeconomic status and physical geography. Put simply, school districts are divided according to geographic areas. Where historic racial injustices have relegated a disproportionate number of people racialized as non-White7 to lower average incomes and hence poorer neighbourhoods, schools remain de facto racially segregated, with attendant correlations between racialization and levels of school funding. Similarly, in philosophy, which has long been dominated to a greater degree than any other humanities discipline8 by “able-bodied” White males, it is insufficient to assert the principle that women, people racialized as non-White, people with non-normative genders, disabled people, and other marginalized groups are welcome in the discipline. When the discipline is already skewed toward normate White men9 by historical exclusions, giving all persons access to high quality philosophical education requires us to change how we conduct ourselves as a discipline. We will consider how to do this in Part 2 and thereafter.

1.2 Second moral consideration: redressing past harms

11I referred just now to historical exclusions from philosophy of non-White male persons. This occurred in both conscious and unconscious ways.

  • 10 It is no surprise that we have access to the thought of Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia via her corre (...)
  • 11 See for instance Park 2013.

12One conscious way in which a range of demographics were left out of the philosophical canon was via their exclusion from the institutions that were often the site of philosophical activity, and from the modes of dissemination that were available to White male philosophers10. Women, people racialized as non-White, and others were also discouraged from philosophical participation by philosophers’ belittling of various groups’ intellectual capacities11. From Aristotle to Augustine, from Spinoza to Schopenhauer, for millennia, canonical philosophers disparaged women’s capacity for reason. A similarly august group of philosophers deprecated the rational capacity of various racialized groups: with Hume, it was “The Negroes”; with Kant and Mill, indigenous Americans; Frege and Heidegger were notoriously antisemitic. Further, the ubiquitous philosophical trope of contrasting rational subjects with “madmen” and “idiots” functioned to exclude intellectually disabled people from engaging in philosophical inquiry.

  • 12 Healy 2015.

13More recently, evidence has emerged that philosophers tend to disproportionately cite publications by men, and that journals disproportionately publish work by men12. It is more difficult to track rates of publication and citation of racialized philosophers because it is not always possible to read an author’s racialization off their name. However, there is good reason to expect that similar trends obtain on this axis. Unlike the exclusion of women, racialized people and other members of marginalized groups from universities and academies, there is no reason to think that the over-publication and over-citation of White male philosophers reflects a conscious exclusion of philosophers from other demographics. As we’ll see in the next section, bias need not be conscious in order to be operative.

14Since women, people racialized as non-white, disabled people, and a range of others have been consciously and unconsciously excluded from philosophical participation, philosophy as a discipline has a duty to redress those past harms by working to make the discipline more just and inclusive.

1.3 First epistemic consideration: unconscious bias

15I indicated in the foregoing section that scholars need not harbour conscious biases against members of under-represented groups in order to engage in judgments and practices that contribute to their further under-representation. In recent years, scholars have paid increased attention to the phenomenon of implicit (or unconscious) bias. A person is implicitly biased if her judgment is affected by biases (typically against members of equity-seeking groups) of which she herself is unaware. Studies have shown that most of us, regardless of our own demographics, harbour implicit biases – often against members of our own group. Most women, for instance, have unconscious biases against women13. See for yourself! You can take the Harvard Implicit Association Test (iat) online to get a sense of your own implicit biases14. What’s crucial to understand about implicit bias is that even well-intentioned people who wish to support equitable institutions and practices are affected by implicit bias.

  • 15 On the demarcation problem in philosophy, see Dotson 2012.

16Philosophers’ unconscious biases about members of under-represented groups can lead to various kinds of injustices and harms: prospective students and job candidates from those groups held to higher standards than White men by admissions and hiring committees; scholarly work by members of these groups judged more harshly than it otherwise would be, sometimes even to the point of being regarded as not really philosophy15; and similar. Following Sandra Harding, I argue that since most of us harbour implicit biases that can affect our judgment and thereby produce effects like the foregoing, objectivity requires us to recalibrate our judgment.

  • 16 Harding 1993: 52.

17Harding is the originator of so-called “strong objectivity” in feminist standpoint theory. She argues that traditional conceptions of objectivity and associated norms in inquiry, are little help in addressing systemic biases. She writes: «Objectivity has not been ‘operationalized’ in such a way that scientific method can detect sexist and androcentric assumptions that are ‘the dominant beliefs of an age’ – that is, that are collectively (versus only individually) held»16. Harding argues that if we wish to correct for such biases, we must do so by taking the methods, values, data and experiences of marginalized groups as the starting-point of inquiry. In this way, she argues, it may be possible to overcome the bias inherent in the dominant approaches in inquiry.

18Following Harding, I argue that within our courses, our curricula, our departments and our discipline, we should correct for the effects of unconscious biases against philosophers from under-represented groups by centering those philosophers in our pedagogy and in our professional practices. To be clear, this doesn’t always mean choosing a woman philosopher or a racialized philosopher over a White male philosopher. In course planning, for instance, I might find myself deliberating between assigning a reading by, say, Peirce and assigning one by Black woman philosopher Anna Julia Cooper. It may well be that the Peirce reading is the right choice for that course or module. However, before I assign Peirce, I ought to recognize that it may be my unconscious biases and not the merits of the works themselves that dispose me to see the Peirce reading as comparatively more appropriate than the Cooper reading. This recognition should force me to get clear on what my goals are for assigning that particular reading. If those goals are met equally well by Peirce and Cooper, then choosing Cooper supports strong objectivity. We’ll look more closely at how to centre inclusiveness in pedagogical design in Parts 3 to 5.

1.4 Second epistemic consideration: stereotype threat

19Take a moment and do a Google image search for “philosopher”. Now try “great philosopher”. The results are striking. Both searches produce a series of images of White males. There is no question that the philosophers Google counts as great are indeed great. However, there is also no question about what demographic of person most people imagine when they picture philosophers.

  • 17 Spencer et al. 1999.

20A second social psychological phenomenon that, like implicit bias, has in recent years attracted considerable scholarly attention is stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the phenomenon in which people’s performance is affected by stereotypes about groups to which they belong. One well-documented example is mathematical performance by girls and women. In a 1999 study, for instance, researchers administered math tests to men and women. The study found that when women were told beforehand that the test tracked gender differences in mathematical ability, they did worse than the men. But when they were told beforehand that the test did not track gender differences, the women did as well as the men17.

  • 18 See Leslie et al. 2015.

21Whether or not stereotype threat is operative in philosophy – and whom it affects in philosophy – is an empirical question. Unlike implicit bias, which is more or less ubiquitous, stereotype threat occurs in particular domains to members of particular groups. Research on stereotype threat in philosophy is nascent and still inconclusive. However, there is good reason to suspect that a discipline like philosophy in which the ideal of the innate genius dominates is likely to be a locus for stereotype threat18.

22Since the picture of the philosopher as a White man with raw intellectual talent seems likely to trigger stereotype threat among people who are neither White men nor members of groups stereotypically associated with innate genius, there is good reason to work to cultivate a range of alternative conceptions of philosophers. Doing away with course and textbook titles that invoke greatness (“Great Works”, “Great Thinkers”, etc.) seems a prudent and achievable contribution to making philosophy more inclusive and hence more diverse. Similarly, constructing courses, curricula, conferences, tables of contents, etc. with philosophers from a range of demographics can help to destabilize stereotypes about who belongs in philosophy and who doesn’t, thereby reducing the risk of triggering stereotype threat among philosophers from under-represented groups.

23In sum then, there are at least two moral reasons and two epistemic ones to work to make philosophy more inclusive and hence more diverse. (1) Everyone, regardless of demographic is entitled to a high quality philosophical education; (2) working to make philosophy more inclusive partially redresses past harms; (3) we should in our pedagogical, scholarly and disciplinary practices seek to counter-balance unconscious biases against philosophers from under-represented groups; and (4) cultivating more diverse representations of philosophers may reduce the likelihood of stereotype threat among non-White male philosophers. In the next part, we will discuss mechanisms for supporting inclusiveness and diversity in philosophy.

2. How diversity?

24In recent years, philosophers committed to improving the climate in philosophy for members of under-represented groups have developed a wide range of initiatives to that end. While much of this work predates Sally Haslanger’s influential 2008 article Changing the ideology and culture of philosophy: Not by reason (alone), that article marked a sea change, and helped to motivate feminist philosophers and their allies to step up these efforts. Since then, we have seen a flurry of equity-supporting activity in the discipline.

25Among initiatives to support inclusiveness in philosophy, some take a surface (or transactional) approach and some take a deep (or transformative) approach. A surface approach is one that seeks to introduce diversity without making substantive changes to the underlying structure of the course, conference, etc. to which the diverse component is being introduced. Surface diversity is often characterized as tokenism. Deep approaches do not merely seek to include one or two philosophers from under-represented groups; rather, they work to render the very structure of the course, conference, etc. more conducive to diversity and inclusiveness.

26Many of us who are working to make philosophy as a discipline more inclusive and diverse start with surface approaches. It is of course very common for junior scholars to begin by adopting the approaches of their own teachers and their senior colleagues. As their careers proceed, some scholars become attuned to the equity issues that I have sketched here and seek in response to change their practices. The most accessible way for a philosopher to begin to do this is to make small changes here and there. Such small changes might include adding a reading or two on feminist epistemology to an introductory course, or working with a professional association to make sure at least one speaker on a panel organized by the association is a member of an under-represented group. While small, surface changes like these are insufficient to correct the long history of exclusion in the discipline, it is often better to promote surface diversity than to promote no diversity at all. Indeed, the conditions under which many philosophers work makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for them to support inclusiveness in the discipline in a deeper way. We will briefly discuss this in Part 5.

27However, for those philosophers whose working conditions make it possible to adopt deeper, more transformative approaches, I think that the discipline’s history of exclusion, and its continued domination by White male philosophers behoove us to do so. Among the various possible starting points for deeper approaches to inclusiveness in the discipline, course design can be a great choice. Philosophy courses are usually more or less self-contained, making them a sensible sandbox for experimentation; many philosophers have considerable freedom to make course design choices; course design innovations can have fairly immediate benefits for students in the courses; and course design innovations are often transferrable to other courses or even scalable to whole curricula. Further, as I will argue in Parts 4 and 6, course design innovations can and should have effects on our scholarship and indeed our discipline as a whole.

3. Intentional course design

28My own work on inclusive course design started with the goal of making my courses more accessible for disabled students. At the time, I was seeking to move beyond my own institution’s Accommodations approach to disability. This path took me to Universal Design for Learning (udl), and then beyond it, to what I now call intentional design. Before we get to intentional design, it would be helpful to consider the three broad pedagogical models that are available for supporting disabled students:

  • No support;

  • Accommodations (sometimes called reasonable adjustment);

  • Universal Design (sometimes called Universal Design for Instruction, Universal Design for Learning, etc.)

29I take it that providing no support for disabled students is both immoral, and is now part of ancient history at the institutions with which most of the readers of this article are affiliated. I will therefore not rehearse here the reasons to reject that approach.

30The Accommodations model is still the most common approach to supporting disabled students. Under this model, disabled students register with their university’s disabled students’ office. That office identifies which special accommodations to existing assessments, learning activities, courses and curricula the student requires in order to compensate for their disability, and makes arrangements with instructors and other academic and support units to ensure that the accommodations are provided. While the Accommodations model is superior to providing disabled students with no supports at all, it is far from ideal. The processes at the heart of the model impose time, energy, financial and other costs on disabled students. They must make appointments with counselors, provide medical documentation (often at their own cost), provide private information about themselves to university staff, etc.

31Just as seriously, though, the Accommodations model, and the underlying normative pedagogy associated with that model, sends a subtle but powerful message about who is welcome, who the course or program is for. To embrace the Accommodations model is to adopt the assumption that the world is divided into “normal” and disabled learners. Under this model, the majority of our learners are “normal” and we design our courses for them. In addition, we provide appropriate accommodations for members of the disabled minority ill-served by the course default. By contrast, the Universal Design model understands learners to vary widely in their embodiment and their experiences, and indeed understands these things to change over time for individual learners.

  • 19 See National Disability Authority for an overview of the core principles of Universal Design.

32Universal Design originated in architecture as an outgrowth of barrier-free design. Universal Design architecture seeks to make spaces accessible and usable by a wide range of users19. Curb cuts – breaks in curbs allowing stepless access to sidewalks at street corners – are often used as examples of Universal Design. A curb cut serves not only disabled people with limited mobility, but also caregivers pushing baby carriages, shoppers or vendors pulling carts, children on bicycles or skateboards, etc.

  • 20 See udi Online Project for a statement of the core principles of Universal Design For Instruction a (...)

33Universal Design for Learning supports the design of learning activities, assessments, courses and curricula that, like the curb cut, provide access for a wide range of learners. Some examples of udl course design choices include making course materials accessible in a range of modalities (print, screen-readable pdf, podcast, etc.); allowing students to choose which modality they wish to use to complete course assessments; providing students with clear grading rubrics with assignments so that the instructor’s expectations are clear to all learners, regardless of their educational or cultural background; and ensuring that scaffolded assignments are designed such that early student stumbles do not rule out success further up the scaffold20. The mechanisms I have just listed are not just good pedagogy for disabled students; they are good pedagogy tout court. In addition to supporting excellent pedagogy, udl reduces the time, energy and financial costs borne by disabled students. Further, udl does not play into the construction of a “normal learner”. Instead, it sends the clear message that learners are welcome regardless of their embodiment, background or experience.

34However, the core conceit of udl – that it is possible to design universally – is surely mistaken. Some learners simply need different supports. People with some visual conditions find black text on white background easier to read; others do better with muted colours. While some neuro-atypical learners may benefit from less social interaction with others and fewer distractions, other learners in the same course may best flourish in busy groups moving quickly between various tasks. No one design, no matter how thoughtful, will serve all of these learners. Further, there is a risk that instructors who have designed their courses (etc.) according the principles of Universal Design may be resistant to requests for accommodations from students who bump up against the hard truth that no design is truly universal.

35For these reasons, I now use the term “intentional design” rather than “Universal Design” to characterize my pedagogy. Within that pedagogy, I seek to provide learners with many “ways in” to the courses I teach, and with a range of options for them to demonstrate the capacities they are developing. However, I work to do so through an ongoing process of reflective equilibrium rather than under the totalizing (and empirically implausible) rubric of universality.

36As a phrase, “intentional design” is redundant. To design is to be intentional. However, too often pedagogues replace the design of courses and course components with cut-and-paste from other scholars and from their own earlier work. To be truly intentional in our design – that is, to actually design – is to design course components, courses, and curricula around the objectives the instructor hopes to achieve rather than around conventions. Intentional design is Why-oriented. It forces the instructor to ask with respect to course components: “Why teach this? And why in this way?” In this sense, it is constitutively purposive and forward-looking. In inviting the instructor continually to reflect on the kind of capacities she wishes to cultivate in her students, on the kind of graduates she envisions for her department, and on the kind of values she wishes her discipline to embody, it is also potentially revolutionary.

4. Pluralistic canons

37While my path to intentional design started with a concern to better support disabled learners, as should be clear, I no longer demarcate between disabled and non-disabled learners (or not, at least, for the purposes of pedagogy). Shifting my focus to support a diverse array of learners, and returning over and over to those intentional design “Why?”- questions has led me, as a natural part of my intentional design work, to make deep changes to the content and methods I teach. In particular, I now start the design of all of my courses with a fundamental goal of teaching a diverse array of philosophers (not just the usual White male canon) and topics (not just substance ontology but also Black Lives Matter). Indeed, I now maintain that if cultivating an inclusive discipline is our goal (and – for the reasons that I laid out in Section 2 – I think it should be one of our goals), we should start the design of our courses with that goal in mind. It is not enough, if we can do better, to tack on “diverse” figures or topics as an afterthought to our course design. We need to start with diversity.

38Let me share with you an example of a course that I designed in this way – a senior seminar on classic pragmatism. In classic pragmatism courses, the philosophers who are usually covered are Peirce, James, Dewey, etc. If any non-White male philosopher is included, it is typically Jane Addams. Determined to teach a more pluralistic canon, I started my new syllabus as follows:

In this seminar, we will survey classic pragmatism, a distinctively American philosophical movement that spanned about 1870 to the 1930s. We will read and discuss representative works by central figures in the movement and by other authors working in a similar idiom in the period.
Our survey will include works by the following figures:
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914)
William James (1842-1910)
Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858-1964)
John Dewey (1859-1952)
Jane Addams (1860-1935)
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933)
Alain Locke (1885-1954)
As we consider these works, we will ask three questions:
1. What is pragmatism? (Put differently: What features mark a thinker as a pragmatist, in the sense we are using here?)
2. What have historically been the grounds for inclusion into (or exclusion from) the canon of classic pragmatism?
3. What, if anything, is distinctively American about classic pragmatism?

39Since, as we discussed earlier, disciplinary and sub-disciplinary demarcation often has the effect (whether intended or not) of excluding members of under-represented groups from canons, I have found that a key step in designing inclusive syllabi is to resist traditional demarcations. In the above description, it is the phrase “other authors working in a similar idiom in the period” that permits the inclusion in the course of a number of women authors and authors racialized as non-White who are not typically included in pragmatism courses.

40Notice too that I do not indicate on the syllabus which of the figures covered in the course are usually considered pragmatists and which aren’t. We covered the figures in chronological order. As we did, we had ongoing, active discussions about how best to characterize pragmatism and whether or not the figure we were looking at that day was a pragmatist. This inquiry-style approach made the students active co-researchers in a kind of history of philosophy fieldwork expedition.

41There are, no doubt, challenges to course redesign that is such a radical departure from the norm. The work can be very time-consuming, especially if one’s own training and early research was (as mine was) on the traditional White male canon. Further, a deep course redesign can entail teaching a course in which one’s own expertize is limited. And, of course, students may get to spend less time on major figures than they would otherwise.

42However, each of these challenges brings with it a corresponding benefit. While it is indeed a great deal of work to teach a new canon, as instructors learn about new-to-them figures in order to teach them, their research domain expands. While teaching in an area in which one has limited expertize takes a bit of a leap of faith, instructor lack of expertize provides incentive for the instructor to support student-centred inquiry, which is in any event often better pedagogy than instructor-centred transmission models. Finally, with respect to coverage of the canon, what students lose in in-depth study of major figures, they gain in historiographical sophistication. I think that students learn more about pragmatism by developing their own characterization of that philosophy through ongoing examination of figures from the period than they do from a professor telling them what pragmatism is. Further, students in the course I have just described develop sophisticated meta-philosophical ideas about canonicity, genealogy, and demarcation – ideas that apply well beyond the history of philosophy.

  • 21 I borrow the useful metaphor of centre and margins from hooks (1984).

43There are similar lessons to be drawn from the intentional design of introduction to philosophy courses when we start with diversity as a core goal. A colleague at another institution recently asked for advice on how to include “diverse figures” in his introduction to philosophy course. The core topics in the course, he said, were Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and rationalism, Locke and empiricism, Berkeley and idealism, Hume’s empiricism, and Kant’s transcendental idealism. By the time an instructor has decided on these topics (they are of course mostly the names of philosophers, not really topics at all) for a course, they have given the game away. The most obvious way to bring women philosophers and philosophers racialized as non-White into a course like this is to draw on more recent scholars who either interpret or apply the historical theories the instructor has built his course around. The resulting syllabus would unintentionally, but very clearly, represent the “great philosophers” as White males, and non-White male philosophers as mere interpreters and appliers of the great philosophers. When we design our courses around the “centre” of the discipline, marginal figures look secondary21, or worse – like tokens. Designing courses in which the only women or racialized authors assigned seem secondary reinforces harmful myths about who belongs in philosophy, and risks triggering stereotype threat among non-White male learners.

44If we wish to cultivate a more inclusive discipline, my view is that we must start our course design “at the margins”. This doesn’t mean dropping all of the important figures and topics that my colleague wished to include in his course. But, imagine if he taught only half of his initial list of topics, and replaced with other half with some of the following topics and associated figures:

  • Personhood (Mary Midgely, Judith Jarvis Thompson)

  • Meta-philosophy (Charles Mills, Kristie Dotson)

  • Race (W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Tina Fernandes Botts)

  • Social ontology (Sally Haslanger, Åsa Andersson, Elizabeth Barnes)

  • Social epistemology (Jane Addams, Miranda Fricker)

45Starting the course design process at the margins in this way would result in an introductory course organized around urgent questions in a range of philosophical subdisciplines: What is philosophy? Who counts as a person and why does it matter? Is race real? How does racism operate? What is it to be gendered? To be racialized? To be disabled? Am I blameworthy for bad judgment if I was denied access to education? The resulting course would both ground students in important historical figures and concepts, and awaken them to the relevance of philosophy to the conduct of our lives today, in a world that is often confusing, unjust, and complex.

5. Your mileage may vary

46Some cars used to bear stickers reading “your mileage may vary” to indicate to drivers that government estimates about fuel efficiency were only estimates. Now is the time for us to affix such a sticker to disciplinary deep pluralism and intentional design. I am able to work on many of the kinds of things I have commended to you in this article because I am a tenured professor with a relatively light teaching load and relatively small classes in a country where university professors are typically provided with quite good compensation and support for their work. Your mileage may vary.

47Here are just some of the obstacles that can make deep pluralism and intentional design difficult, if not impossible:

  • Heavy teaching loads;

  • Large class sizes;

  • Departmental, institutional, or state requirements that limit instructors’ pedagogical freedom;

  • Lack of seniority;

  • Precarity of employment.

48In such a case, smaller changes may be a better choice than big, world-changing ones. Try aiming for greater pluralism by using intentional design on just one unit rather than a whole course. Or, keep the units internally the same but rearrange the order to allow more time and energy for more marginal figures. Many introductory courses start with metaphyics and epistemology before moving on to ethics and politics, in which latter subdisciplines it is often easier to identify authors who are women or racialized as non-White. When we leave those units to the end, they are the ones for which we run out of time. Flip the course and start with those units. You not only allow for a more leisurely coverage of those authors; you also shift the entire tenor of the course, sending the clear message from the start that philosophy is concerned about and matters for the conduct of life.

6. From diversity to pluralism: Scholarship and professional practices

49I began this article by talking about pluralism, but through much of it I have focused on diversity. They are of course closely related terms. We tend though to use “diversity” when we are making a case for the inclusion of under-represented people or figures, and “pluralism” when we are discussing disciplinary methods. The extensions of the two terms are a bit different too. “Diversity” typically implies figures from different identity groups, where “pluralism” often connotes figures from different philosophical schools or movements. All diversity is a kind of pluralism, but not all pluralism is a kind of diversity.

50While this special issue and my own research are more concerned with diversity than pluralism, I started the article and I want now to end it with a discussion of pluralism because I think that a really important downstream benefit of diversifying our courses is that doing so supports a more pluralistic discipline. We spoke early on about Peirce’s injunction not to block the way of inquiry. Like Peirce, I think that we do our best inquiry – our best philosophizing – when we are open to alternative methods, perspectives and hypotheses. That is, we should pursue deep pluralism – pluralism that happens by design rather than being tacked on at the end – not only because there are both moral and epistemic reasons to support diversity, but because keeping the way of inquiry open makes us better philosophers. More than this, keeping the way of inquiry open produces better philosophy. When we build in pluralism from the ground up, we introduce into the philosophical conversation new figures, new issues, new canons, new understandings of our old canons, new methods, and new collaborations.

51So, how do we scale intentional design beyond diverse courses to a pluralistic discipline? We can bring deep pluralism and intentional design to our department meetings and persuade our colleagues to apply those principles to whole curricula rather than just individual courses. We can work with our departments, our journals and our professional associations to ensure that resources are devoted not only to the “centre” but also to the “margins” of the discipline. We can design our seminar series and our conferences with pluralism as a principal consideration rather than an add-on at the end. We can take pedagogy and its effects on the discipline more seriously, rather than treating teaching as though it were not scholarship, as though it were a chore to be avoided.

52In these ways, we make manifest our desire to learn (as Peirce says) – our desire not to be satisfied with what we already think. And in thus removing the obstacles on the path of philosophical inquiry, we ensure that it becomes and remains a path worth taking – for all of us.

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2 Griffin 2005.

3 Talisse and Aikin 2005: 104.

4 Science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

5 Peirce 1998: 2.48, boldface in the original.

6 Among the myriad arguments for this view, see for instance Cooper 1998 and World Bank 2015.

7 Throughout, I capitalize “White” to make explicit that I am referring to a racialization and not to a (skin) colour. People of various skin colours are, in various contexts, racialized as White. Conversely, people with fair skin are, in various contexts, racialized as non-White. Put simply: skin colour does not determine racialization.

8 Except theology, which is slightly more male-dominated than philosophy due to the gender-exclusive character of most seminaries.

9 Hereafter, for brevity, I use “White men” and “White males” to pick out a slightly more complex idea, roughly – non-disabled, cisgender, typically Anglo, White men in the Global North.

10 It is no surprise that we have access to the thought of Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia via her correspondence since letter writing, unlike the publication of monographs, was a medium in principle available to any literate person.

11 See for instance Park 2013.

12 Healy 2015.

13 See Saul 2013 for a helpful summary of implicit bias research and its relevance to philosophy.

14 The iat is available here:

15 On the demarcation problem in philosophy, see Dotson 2012.

16 Harding 1993: 52.

17 Spencer et al. 1999.

18 See Leslie et al. 2015.

19 See National Disability Authority for an overview of the core principles of Universal Design.

20 See udi Online Project for a statement of the core principles of Universal Design For Instruction and some practical examples of how to implement them in teaching and learning.

21 I borrow the useful metaphor of centre and margins from hooks (1984).

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Shannon Dea, «Deep Pluralism and Intentional Course Design: Diversity From the Ground Up»Rivista di estetica, 64 | 2017, 66-82.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Shannon Dea, «Deep Pluralism and Intentional Course Design: Diversity From the Ground Up»Rivista di estetica [Online], 64 | 2017, online dal 01 avril 2017, consultato il 16 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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