Fermented Ph.D. Dump: Situating Questions and Value Neutral Philosophy


Introduction to the Fermented Ph.D. Dump Posts

I am busy with some intensive research for my Ph.D. I saw a while ago someone who wrote something akin to a thesis or dissertation “dump”. Subsequently, I want to call the following series of posts I will make in the Education community Fermented Ph.D. Dump. What I mean by this in simple terms is to “dump” or unload some of the week’s research I did in a quasi-coherent essay post. The reason is twofold: (i) to help me structure my own mind regarding the week’s research and (ii) to help others that might find my research and condensation of that research valuable. Somehow, I think this will also help me to write my actual Ph.D. because it is a daunting activity. To sit and write the stuff is not the most fun. But alas, we need to do what we need to do. I hope that you might find some value in my post(s) in this series. Without further ado, I will begin the Ph.D. dump with some of the central terms and ideas in my Ph.D.

Introduction: Situating Questions and Value Neutral Philosophy

Everything in life is political. Political in the sense that time (history) and space/place (location) influences everything. For simplicity, one can condense time and space/place to context. Thus, context influences everything, and hence why everything is political. This is a rather bold claim to make. And it is somewhat in contradiction with modern science which declares that we can come close to “objective truth”. The assumption underlying this (scientific) worldview is that there are human-independent things out there that we can study. The assumption underlying the situatedness worldview is that even if there are human-independent things, we as humans cannot ever get rid of our contextual boundedness. Simply put, our context, i.e., place/space and time, will always influence what we do. Claiming to be “objective”, i.e., neutral, is fundamentally impossible. We as humans will always already and necessarily talk from a specific location at a specific time in history.

One of the more known examples of philosophers who write about this is Thomas Nagel, especially in his book The View From Nowhere. Two great conclusions from this book kind of illustrate this point. (i) The view from nowhere, i.e., objectively, i.e., value-neutral, seems to destroy what is unique about the human subjective experience (Nagel, 1986: 214-216, 223). (ii) There are only plural views on life and not a single correct perspective (Nagel, 1986: 26). That is, there is no view that is objective, i.e., from nowhere, but always already and necessarily from somewhere and this necessitates a plurality of views. Objectivity is one amongst many other perspectives and not somehow transcendent above other perspectives.

In this post, I want to introduce two ideas that came about these ideas. Firstly, the idea of value-neutral philosophy. This idea is pervasive throughout the academy but with the recent focus on decolonizing the curriculum the seemingly value-neutrality of philosophy has become problematic to such a point that all of philosophy needs to be brought into light for a check-up. Secondly, the idea of what I call situating questions. I will briefly introduce these two ideas and write a small summary at the end.


Value-neutral Philosophy

Philosophy, as practiced/theorized in the academy, has been tremendously successful to hide the fact that it is situated and historical. That is, it has claimed for many years that it is value-neutral and objective in the sense that it does not take its own situatedness and historicity seriously. Moreover, it actively tries to cover up this fact by claiming to be busy with the “human condition” or “fundamental human problems/questions”. Rarely do you see philosophers question the idea of what this “human” is. More often than not, this subject, i.e., human, is epistemically empty and not all that “human”. Take for example this quote from Grosfugal.

“We are dealing, then, with a philosophy in which the epistemic subject has no sexuality, gender, ethnicity, race, class, spirituality, language, or epistemic location within power relations” (Grosfoguel, 2012:89).

Gaining any useful insight into the “human condition” in which the epistemic subject does not have, for example, race, sexuality, etc., does not really tell us much about what it means to be human. That is, even though we can get answers to fundamental problems, these answers seem rather empty as they will not speak to what makes us human.

The takeaway from this should be, we need to be suspect of any philosophy that tries to cover its own situatedness and historicity. How do interrogate philosophy so that we can try to uncover what tries to remain hidden? I introduce what I call situating questions.


Situating Questions

Philosophy and other fields are obsessed with “what” type questions, such as “What is philosophy?” and “What is the meaning of life?” However, rarely do we ask other questions that are just as important. Todd May, reading Deleuze, states that the academy ignores the “how” question routinely. “How might one live?” is rarely asked and interrogated in the academy (May, 2005:1-2). However, even just asking this one extra question is still lacking the necessary nuance that should be present. That is, the “how” question is not enough to uncover the hidden nature of situatedness and historicity. One should ask what I call situating questions.

In addition to the “how” question and “what” question, we need to ask two other questions: From where? And By and for whom? (These questions are influenced by those asked by Mignolo (2021:xii).) That is, we should ask the question “What is philosophy?” but also “From where is philosophy defined?”, “By and for whom is philosophy defined”? and “How is philosophy defined?”. What these extra situating questions will do is uncover the supposed and assumed value-neutrality of philosophy. Philosophy cannot be objective, as it is always practiced/theorized from somewhere, by and for someone, and at a specific period in time. Any philosophy that neglects to ask these questions becomes suspect, in the sense that it tries to cover up the fact that it is done from somewhere, by and for someone, and at a specific period in time.


The above is a lot of words to say something rather simple. Philosophy that tries to remain value-neutral neglects certain situating questions. Or, by not asking these situating questions, philosophy inadvertently become value-neutral. Value neutrality is dangerous. As is currently the case, and which is problematic, philosophy tries to deal with the “human condition” or “fundamental human questions”, but this conception of “human” lacks most of the human aspects. This is in part due to the fact that philosophy (i.e., philosophers practicing philosophy) tries to hide its situatedness and historicity so that it can speak “universality”, i.e., objectively, i.e., value-neutral. In my next post (or somewhere in the following posts) I will deal in more detail the danger of value-neutral philosophy.

Postscriptum, or This way to madness

Philosophy is a strange thing. Derrida, for example, states that inherent in all philosophy is the metaphilosophical question: “What is philosophy?”. I think he forgot about the other questions I asked here above. Alas, now I have asked them! Madness is trying to change the way things are being done alone. Alas, someone needs to stand up against the status quo. Philosophy itself can lead to this madness.

All of the photographs are my own and the writings are also my own unless indicated otherwise.

I hope that some of this dump made sense and that you might gain something from it and the subsequent posts. Please comment if you have anything to add, question, query, etc., I would love to hear your input. Thank you so much for reading. Until next time, happy studying and stay safe.


Sources, or Further Reading

May, T. 2005. Gilles Deleuze: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mignolo, W.D. 2021. Forward: Exiting from the excesses of western epistemic hegemony, in S.H. Kumalo (ed.). Decolonisation as Democratisation: Global Insights into the South African Experience. Cape Town: HSRC Press. ix-xiii.

Nagel, T. 1986. The view from nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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