In a 1979 interview with Adrienne Rich, Rich questions Lorde about a set of positions she puts forth in her 1977 article, “Poetry is not a Luxury”. Lorde’s position reads, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free” (Lorde 1984, 38). Rich asks Lorde to respond to the criticism that she is, here, simply restating an old set of stereotypes of “the rational white male and the emotional dark female” (Lorde 1984, 100). Lorde’s response is fascinating. One would expect her to defend herself against the charge that she is espousing the belief that only white males are properly rational and only “dark females” are properly emotional. Instead she responds by dissolving the critique:
I have heard that accusation, that I’m contributing to the stereotype, that I’m saying the province of intelligence and rationality belongs to the white male. But if you’re traveling a road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere, the ownership of the road is meaningless. If you have no land out of which the road comes, no place that road goes to, geographically, no goal, then the existence of that road is totally meaningless. Leaving rationality to white men is like leaving him a piece of that road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere. (1984, 100)
According to Lorde, there is something meaningless about the concept of Rationality. The understanding of the human practice of exercising reason held in Rationality, for Lorde, has no origin, no destination, and no goal. It does not have a specifiable locale and as such it has no use. Now, is she saying that all rationality is meaningless, in general? No, because Lorde will go onto explain:
Rationality is not unnecessary…it serves feeling. It serves to get from this place to that place. But if you don’t honor those places, then the road is meaningless. Too often, that’s what happens with the worship of rationality and that circular, academic, analytic thinking. (1984, 100)
Lorde appears to challenge whether the concept of Rationality is useful given that it is a concept of a human practice, not the practice of being rational or exercising reason. The practice of rationality always has a location. There is a where-from and a where-to for every attempt to be rational. Honoring the place and space of given instances of reason is what affords rationality meaning. Hence, attempts to render reason abstract, without appeal to space and place are, on Lorde’s account, meaningless. So an assumption of ownership over such a concept amounts to an inconsequential claim.
A way to defend the value of concepts of human practice, like Rationality, could follow from understanding conceptual thinking as a way to address contemporary problems. By addressing problems in the world, philosophy can help to guide human behavior. For Lorde, this response is contingent on a certain approach to the world and living. It conceives of living as if it presented itself as a set of problems to be solved. Lorde, on my reading, observes limitations to this particular worldview. She writes:
When we view our living in the european mode, only as problems to be solved, we rely solely upon our ideas to make us free, for these were what the white fathers told us were precious. But as we come more into touch with our own ancient and original non-european view of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learned more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden and deep sources of our power from whence true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes. (Lorde 1984, 37)
Lorde, here, sees a clear connection between a particular worldview and the reliance upon ideas. Regardless of whether her designation of “european” and “non-european” is correct, taking living “as a problem to be solved” leads one to both believe in and rely upon ideas in a certain way. It would behoove us to try to articulate what a problem/solution conception of living might entail. There are at least three commitments. The first would concern valuing the activity of discovering problems. The second would concern placing a value on analyzing these problems in order to determine possible solutions. And the third commitment would concern articulating solutions to the problems. It is not clear where, according to a problem/solution approach to living and its three commitments, one need ever act upon a solution. Uncovering ideas alone is presumed to have revolutionary force. All that is needed to change the world is to think of a solution. It is not clear, for Lorde, how this orientation for living, the creation of ideas in the form of problems and/or solutions, can ever make demands upon our actions by itself. The question here is the following: how precisely will discovering, determining, and articulating problems and/or solutions make demands upon our actions?
Lorde, here, seems to be suspicious of how ideas and conceptual thinking can make demands on our actions. More precisely, because conceptual thinking can and does make errors, the process of finding problems and solutions is infinitely regressive. For example, the above question of ‘How will discovering, determining, and articulating problems/solutions make demands on our actions,’ if taken as a problem that needs to be solved, will produce answers which themselves are problems to be solved. One can lose herself/himself in the process of finding problems and offering solutions….In fact, the problem/solution model, or the criticism/rival theory model, by itself, may be a means of suspending action indefinitely. As a result, Lorde demonstrates that relying solely on ideas and concepts does not make demands on our actions, but rather must be combined with some other form of human activity, i.e. poetry, that translates theory into action (Lorde 1984, Lorde 2009). As a result, she is not outright rejecting philosophical thinking, as she understands it, but rather observing its limitations.—Kristie Dotson “(2012) “How is This Paper Philosophy? (21-23).
I have already noted that Amia Srinivasan [(recall) on anger in politics], and, in her famous (2012) paper, Kristie Dotson draw on Audre Lorde. In my earlier post I focused on Lorde's political economy. Today, I follow in Dotson's footsteps and begin to sketch the outlines that I discern in Lorde's contribution to a philosophy worth having. Before I get to that I first retrace some of Dotson's steps, all the while allowing that the very exercise I engage in also runs the risk of domesticating Lorde's (and Dotson's) ideas into an academic, analytic non-thought.*
Inspired by Lorde, Dotson treats the puzzle-solving approach of professional philosophy (and a certain kind of academic thought more generally) as a species of intellectual escapism: there is no intrinsic pull from solved puzzle to world-changing-activity. As we all know, the solved puzzle leads to the successor puzzle (or a re-conceptualization of the original puzzle). But otherwise, on this image philosophy is inert and leaves everything alone. Few conceptions of philosophy fully embrace this consequence, because (recall) as Graham Priest expertly shows in his criticism of Wittgenstein’s (quietist) meta-philosophy, it would entail rejecting as 'philosophy' both the many decision points in ordinary life where we are called on to engage in philosophical reasoning as well the occasions where science and philosophy seem to (ahh) shade into each other. So, while one can recognize the permanent temptation of philosophy-as-inert-escapism, it cannot survive scrutiny. Notice that this is so even if one embraces the status quo.
But despite the widespread rejection of philosophy as inert, and widespread lip-service to the relevance of philosophical theorizing to a whole range of epistemic and normative applications, few philosophical programs really internalize what it would take to conceive of philosophy not on the model of a nighttime astronomer calculating the retrograde motions of distant planets. That is to say, there is, as Dotson implies, a kind of bad faith in embracing the puzzle solving model and simultaneously insisting on the social relevance of one’s philosophy. Often such a stance presupposes a kind of magical though that within the intellectual division of labor, there are other intellectuals and institutions that know (by way of mysterious action at a mental/social distance) what to do with the solutions gifted by the ‘core’ philosophers/theorists and to do so in a responsible and life-affirming way.
Now, in the passages that Dotson quotes, we can find an alternative vision. For in it, feeling grounds the possibility of freedom ("I feel, therefore I can be free.” ) Before I suggest something about the nature of this freedom, it’s important to be clear on two modes of life Lorde rejects here in our gendered material hierarchy: (i) the life of pure thought exemplified by stunted men who become robot-like masters, who (ii) use subordinated females as sites of displaced (pure) feeling ("men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling"). Neither (i-ii) are free. So, Lorde is not saying that to feel is to be free. For acting, say, from fear is itself not sufficient to be free (even if one appears to be the boss in various ways). So, here Lorde suggests that high status and control does not equate freedom.
In addition, Lorde associates the philosophical thought that is produced by our gendered status quo with false knowledge. (I am treating Lorde as a philosophical prophet, who re-animates a known distinction between true and false knowledge. If one's training makes one stumbles over ‘false knowledge,” (how could knowledge be false?) one can use ‘inauthentic knowledge.’) Now Dotson emphasizes, correctly, that false knowledge is inert. We may say it, requires the engineer to be animated.**
So, true knowledge is subservient to our feelings. It would be tempting her to jump to the finish line and assert that true knowledge just means to be guided into action (with to use Dotson’s phrase, ‘applicable insights’) in order to change the world for the better in such a way such that our feelings can be at home in them; philosophy then becomes the embrace of ‘the livable future’ (without, as Dotson emphasizes, tying this to a single method and canon).
But it’s notable that Lorde claims that true knowledge produces 'lasting actions.' Again, it’s important to recognize that what’s being rejected here is not just inert philosophy (= no action) and, as Dotson emphasizes, philosophy from the vantage point of eternity (that is temporally and spatially un-situated), but also rejects an image of philosophy Lorde associates with limited (short) action; this kind of theorizing (which results in short action) Lorde understands in terms of a kind of instrumental rationality which changes the world without being grounded in a conception of freedom worth having.+ For, Lorde seems to conceive instrumental rationality, mere want satisfaction, as always draining, a running down of resources. A system in which instrumental rationality is hypostasized feeds on a diet of novelty which covers, as it were, the way we are all being dis-empowered.
That is to say, we can understand Lorde as claiming that false knowledge, the one that is consequent of (inert) puzzle solving, which understands itself and presents itself as operating on the plane of eternity – ‘a road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere’ (and hence offers no action) -- but that actually mimics the puzzle solving approach of instrumental rationality, which merely expends and run-downs resources as being incapable of being self-sustaining. It seems, then, that true freedom for Lorde is to be engaged in a self-sustaining activity with recall) others that shapes the world in ways that provides livable spaces not by effacing the past – Lorde thinks historical memory is central to any life worth having --, but by creating a (for lack of a better word) palimpsest in which the past remains ever-present.
To be an activity that is self-sustaining (i.e., one that instantiates long action) requires, according to Lorde, to be grounded in empowering feelings and in activities that through interactions with differentiated and possibly disagreeing others (recall) generate joy all the while being engaged in the kind of activity that challenges the status quo. It's an open question if such a joyful philosophy should migrate out of the university, but that's for another occasion. Here I mark that while it's possible that such shared joy is not sufficient for creating lasting action, it seems to be necessary.
*I avoid here some tricky questions about the status of a blog in the credit economy of the academy.
+Sometimes Lorde talks of this system in terms of a hunger for profit.
**Some other time I revisit how we should understand conceptual engineering promoted by, say, Carnap or Rawls.