The more philosophers I have come to know, the more I realize how deeply personal philosophy is. Philosophical positions often emerge from personal experience and character – even the seemingly most technical, detached, and abstract ones. As Iris Murdoch wrote: “To do philosophy is to explore one’s own temperament, and yet at the same time to attempt to discover the truth.” Philosophy is an expression of how one sees the world, a clarification, development, and defense of “an outlook that defines who someone is” to add the words of Kieran Setiya.
Written by Muriel Leuenberger
The relational turn that can be observed in the philosophy of identity can be seen as a recent addition to this list. Relational identity is the idea that who you are is not just defined by your own properties and characteristics but also by how others define you. Others define us through concepts and norms we acquire in a social context that shape how we see ourselves and the world, they define us through our relations with them as friends, siblings, or members of an ethnic group or a book club, and they have the power to constrain our scope of action or provide opportunities. The latter can be a particularly incisive way of being defined by others. For example, by banning women in Afghanistan from universities the Taliban is defining who they can be. They can no longer become a doctor who dedicates their life to and finds meaning in caring for their patients. Insofar as we are defined by our actions, we can be defined by others who exercise control over what we can do in our lives.
This personal dimension of philosophy becomes evident in the new philosophical positions and topics that emerge when people with different personal experiences and points of view start to do philosophy. The most prominent example is how women in philosophy, particularly in the last 50 years, have contributed new perspectives – a brush of fresh air in old, stuffy rooms. Philosophy’s allegedly objective view from nowhere was rather the view from a particularly male perspective. Care ethics, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of pregnancy are just some areas where the inclusion of women in philosophy with their own outlook and priorities has advanced the discipline.[i]
Philosophy has typically been pursued by people whose life was in some sense open to them. They had a range of opportunities – doing philosophy was one of them – and did not face strongly limiting constraints and expectations, as in the example of an Afghan woman today. Academia and with it philosophy have become more accessible in many parts of the world. This means that more people are doing philosophy who either experienced more limiting constraints posed by others or who are aware that only very recent changes or the fact that they are born in a certain country spared them from a life of far-reaching constraints. People who have experienced or can readily empathize with how others can define one’s identity have entered the debate on identity. This development makes the emergence and rising popularity of relational identity views comprehensible.
[i] Vintiadis, Elly (2021, August). The view from her. Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/is-there-something-special-about-the-way-women-do-philosophy
Philosophy clearly profits from taking other perspectives into account. We can get a richer picture of reality, a broader understanding of the moral landscape, raise interesting metaphysical questions, and new philosophical positions can come into sight that challenge established old doctrines. The deeply personal character of philosophy makes the inclusion of and attention to different voices all the more pressing.
I want to highlight a further, related reason for how the personal dimension of philosophy creates new trends besides the commonly mentioned shift in who is doing philosophy. The growing literature on philosophy concerned with topics and positions relevant to and based on the experience of a more diverse range of people can also be traced back to a diversification in whose testimony is being heard and taken seriously. As Miranda Fricker argued, marginalized groups are often faced with testimonial injustice – their testimonies are considered less credible due to prejudices related to their identity. For most of the history of philosophy, testimonies of experiences and viewpoints of women, non-western, non-binary, and non-white people were not heard, not taken as seriously or relevant, and not readily accessible. Globalization, digitalization, and a cultural shift towards more openness and equality are gradually changing this (although we still have a long way to go). The increased accessibility and ascribed credibility of testimonies of diverse experiences can inspire new topics and positions in philosophers who do not share those experiences but have come to learn about and empathize with them.