Is there any purpose to be served by assembling a list of black philosophers? The assembling of such a list may indeed be useful, because there are, and historically have been, more black philosophers than is (or has been) generally known and appreciated. However, the assembling of such a list is also problematic in a number of ways.
One of the principal advantages of assembling, even in a preliminary fashion, a list of black philosophers is that it may help to promote greater recognition of the fact that there are currently many black writers and scholars who are engaged in the practice of philosophy. There may, in fact, be many more black philosophers than we might at first suppose, and the names of those individuals may be easier for us to recall if we have some sort of readily available list. At present, most people would probably find it difficult to name, on the spur of the moment, more than one or two black philosophers. Most people would probably also find it difficult to describe any particular intellectual traditions or philosophical movements that have been established or contributed to by black philosophers. Name-recognition of a number of the less well-known black writers and scholars who have made important contributions to philosophy may be facilitated if we assemble, at least in a preliminary fashion, a list of individuals who may be described as “black philosophers.”
Another advantage of assembling such a list is that it may help us to answer the question, “Who (or what) is a black philosopher?” It may help us to broaden the definition of the term “black philosopher,” particularly when we realize that black thinkers, writers, and scholars in a variety of disciplines, such as philosophy, cultural studies, gender studies, political science, and sociology have engaged in and made important contributions to the practice of philosophy, and thus may be described as philosophers.
An additional advantage of putting together a list of black philosophers is that it may help to promote recognition of the fact that there is an intellectual community of black thinkers and writers who are engaged in, and dedicated to, the practice of philosophy, and who have interests, concerns, and commitments (philosophical, ethical, theoretical, practical, and sociocultural) to share with each other and with the rest of the black community, as well as with society as a whole.
The attempt to formulate, in a preliminary fashion, a list of black philosophers may enable us to rethink the notion of what it means to be a black philosopher. It may also enable us to reevaluate our assumptions about what it means to be a philosopher and what it means to engage in philosophy. Some of our unquestioned assumptions may not always promote the development of philosophy as a socially relevant and inclusive enterprise, an enterprise that will promote greater understanding of the conditions for, and the means to attain, social justice and human well-being.
However, a number of arguments against, or objections to, the formulation of a list of black philosophers may also be made. One such argument is that the assembling of a list of black philosophers may marginalize a particular group of philosophers (those who are included in the list), because they are described as “black philosophers” rather than simply as “philosophers.” This argument, however, may assume that the philosophy practiced by “black philosophers” will be seen as inherently marginal compared to the philosophy practiced by other philosophers. It may also assume that the philosophy engaged in by “black philosophers” will not be seen as mainstream or conventional philosophy (a perception that may, to some extent, have good or bad effects for those who are described as “black philosophers”).
The argument may also be made that the assembling of a list of black philosophers may marginalize those black philosophers who are not included in the list, by failing to recognize their contributions to philosophy. A counter-argument, however, is that no list of black philosophers can ever be considered to be finished or complete, and that there can be no conclusively authoritative and final list of “black philosophers,” just as there can be no conclusively authoritative and final canon of philosophy. Any list of black philosophers must be considered to be preliminary and subject to further revision. The formulation of such a list should always be done in a manner that is as thoughtful, respectful, and inclusive as possible.
Another argument to be made against the assembling of a list of black philosophers is that the color of a person’s skin may have nothing to do with the way in which that person does philosophy. To describe a person as a black philosopher may be to make a “category-mistake” by conflating two separate and unrelated social categories.
Similarly, the argument may be made that discourse about “black philosophy” may be as misguided as discourse about “black physics” or “black mathematics.” On the other hand, the counter-argument may be made that philosophy has always been practiced within the context of particular historical situations, and that philosophers have always been influenced by the prevailing social assumptions of the particular times in which they have lived. The ways in which white philosophers in the past viewed society were very much influenced by their assumptions regarding the proper allocation (or lack of allocation) of full citizenship to various members of society, and thus their skin color had a lot to do with the way in which they practiced philosophy.
Philosophy may be an art as well as a science (or perhaps it is neither an art nor a science), and it may therefore be informed by a “black aesthetic” as well as by other kinds of aesthetics; in this sense, it may perhaps be worthwhile to reflect on what might constitute “black philosophy.”
Another argument to be made against assembling a list of black philosophers is represented by the following question: “What is the point of assembling a list of black philosophers, when there are also many white philosophers who have made significant contributions to Africana philosophy?” However, a counter-argument may be made that to recognize the work of black philosophers in various fields of study is not to depreciate or disregard the work of white philosophers in those same fields of study.
Another possible argument to be made against assembling a preliminary list of black philosophers is that some philosophers who are included in the list may be biracial or multiracial and therefore may not identify themselves simply as black. Some philosophers may, for other reasons, desire not to be included in the list. To the extent that a particular philosopher has expressed his/her preferences regarding being included or not included in a list of black philosophers, those preferences should indeed be respected.
Another possible argument to be made against assembling a list of black philosophers is that the compiling of such list might facilitate the targeting of philosophers on the list by bigoted individuals who might desire to subject them to racial hostility or discrimination. This is a very serious concern, but it must be weighed against the need for members of all minority groups to be able to fully participate in society, openly and without fear of intimidation.
Another possible argument to be made against assembling a list of black philosophers is that if the concept of race is merely a social construct or convenient fiction that has outlived its usefulness, then to categorize people on the basis of their skin color may be futile and meaningless. A counter-argument may be made, however, that the concept of race continues to be a significant sociocultural reality whose meaning is deeply rooted in human history.
A concise answer to the question of why it might be useful to assemble a list of black philosophers may therefore be that such a project may enable us to become better acquainted with their work and with their contributions to philosophy.