A collaboration between NSSR and Vanderbilt reflects the evolving field of social philosophy
Within the broader field of philosophy, an increased focus on social thought has led to an upsurge of interest in critical theories of race, gender, and class. In response, a group of faculty and students at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) and Vanderbilt University — including Alice Crary, University Distinguished Professor at NSSR, and Matthew Congdon, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt and NSSR Philosophy PhD 2014 alumnus — have created the Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Social Philosophy, which seeks to recognize “groundbreaking, courageous, critical work” in the field.
The inaugural recipient of the biennial prize is Robert Gooding-Williams, M. Moran West/Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies, Professor of Philosophy and of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University.
Research Matters sat down digitally with Crary, Congdon, and Gooding-Williams to talk about social philosophy and its history at The New School, as well as what this award represents.
Collaborating for Visibility in the Field
Crary and Congdon’s collaboration began when Crary served as Congdon’s PhD advisor in NSSR’s Philosophy department. Crary, who has written extensively on ethics, was a natural fit as a mentor for Congdon, whose research focuses on moral psychology and the intersections of ethics and epistemology.
The two continue to talk often, and in 2019 ran a successful workshop at Vanderbilt on social visibility; topics included the visibility of racism in the United States, the critical significance of art and aesthetic experiences, and the epistemology of ideology critique. They met for coffee the day after the workshop to debrief and both were pleased with how the presentations had gone. That was what led to the idea of further collaboration.
“Partly we were interested in the significance of the fact that, in Anglo-American circles, the idea of social philosophy is a relative newcomer,” says Crary. “We wanted to look afresh at what it means to explore specifically social thought and criticism. What we were doing in pulling together the original workshop was identifying a set of exciting philosophers and political theorists who are working across intellectual traditions not only in theorizing about these things but also in bringing theory to bear on practice.”
They felt momentum growing in the field and wanted to turn their one-time effort into something more sustained. Crary and Congdon developed the Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Social Philosophy and formed a prize committee, which includes Karen Ng, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt and an NSSR Philosophy PhD 2013 alum; Dora Suarez, a current NSSR Philosophy PhD student; Daniel Rodriguez-Navas, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at NSSR; and Eric MacPhail, a current Vanderbilt Philosophy PhD student and an NSSR Philosophy MA 2016 alum.
It makes sense that NSSR is so strongly represented on the committee. The field of social philosophy has strong connections to intellectual traditions represented at The New School since the 1930s, in particular Critical Theory. So while analytic philosophers have increasingly turned to social philosophy in the past 20 years, “these conversations were happening at The New School many decades earlier,” Congdon says. Here, “philosophy is looked at as a distinctively social phenomenon. How inhabiting shared forms of life shapes one’s vision and perception of that world, and shapes what objects are actually in that world. Or how our shared history shapes one’s perception of that world…. That was something that was just in the air at The New School from the beginning; to study just about any philosophical problem was already to want to situate it in a kind of a social context.” Congdon also found the intellectual climate of The New School to include a shared sense of political activism, with students often involved in community organizing and political events on and outside of campus.
Vanderbilt also has a pluralistic Philosophy department, which Crary says is not something to be taken for granted. “Here pluralism means something like — we’re not going to be factional and say the only legitimate kind of philosophy is the kind that’s being practiced in the Anglo-American world, or is in the European philosophical scene, or elsewhere. We both think that this kind of open-mindedness is decisive for philosophizing that is productively engaged with the world and guided by a commitment to social justice. It’s rarer than you would think.”
Changing Who Gets to Be a Philosopher
The first prize recipient, Robert Gooding-Williams, has been instrumental in legitimizing social philosophy.
Challenging the philosophy canon since the 1980s, Gooding-Williams has helped make discussions about race a decisive area for philosophical study — one now recognized by the American Philosophical Association. As a historian of African-American philosophy and a scholar of W.E.B. Dubois, Gooding-Williams has questioned the exclusion of Dubois, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass from consideration as prominent political philosophers.
“My contributions to social philosophy have largely concerned the diagnosis of social problems, specifically racism and white supremacy,” Gooding-Williams says, as well as “the analyses and political-philosophical responses to racism and white supremacy in the history of African American political thought.”
His essay collection, Look, A Negro! Philosophical Essays on Race, Culture and Politics (Routledge, 2005), explores the concept of Black identity, the nature of Black political solidarity, the significance of Afro-centrism for American democracy, and the impact of racial ideology on aesthetic judgment, while In the Shadow of Du Bois (Harvard University Press, 2011) analyzes Afro-Modern political thought in the U.S. In a forthcoming paper, Gooding-Williams builds on other philosophers’ recent efforts to understand racial domination in terms of practices and the concepts that constitute them; an excerpt of that paper revisits the Ferguson Report and how anti-Black concepts influence police practices.
“He is doing great historical work and also telling a story about what good political philosophy is. He leads us to see clearly that the exclusion of Du Bois and others is a function of racism,” Crary says. “His work is incredibly important and powerful.”
Congdon describes the courageousness in Gooding-Williams’ methodology: “His contribution [is] basically creating and legitimizing whole areas of philosophy that had been delegitimized or not recognized as important.”
Crary and Congdon had planned to make an occasion of the first prize, honoring Gooding-Williams as well as organizing a public lecture featuring prominent philosophers and social theorists, and recognizing graduate students with the NSSR-Vanderbilt Graduate Student Prize in Social Philosophy. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they are monitoring the situation and will make a decision about the event in the coming months, making the health and well-being of the event’s participants a top priority. More information, as well as the organizers’ full congratulatory message to Gooding-Williams, can be found on the NSSR website.
Photo Credits: Left: Matthew Congdon and Alice Crary at a philosophy conference in Paris, 2019; Right: Robert Gooding-Williams via American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2018.