The Past, Oppression and Discussing Philosophy/Literature: A Few Thoughts.
You know, when discussing oppression in a historical sense, there has indeed been countless works put forth of the social and cultural variety which can easily prove in many cases - from the perspective of a particular theorem or modern day value - when one or a group or a whole society has been repressed or marginalized. This is something one can easily discover from reading a lot of post-Marxian stuff, really (as after this point, the door has been opened to such discussion).
However, when we start dealing with works of literature and philosophy, too often can history be used to unfairly exculpate any one particular author/philosopher. In such discussion, participants within the discussion all too easily fall into the trap of citing a fairly recent social or cultural theorem, no matter how critical, and being rebuffed by the statement of ‘(S)he was a person of their time’ and for the rebuffing party to expect the discussion to end there. The other party, feeling their argument in itself is being marginalized, begins to further cite either concepts too general or too modern to make real impact.
I think there has to be another way to look at the questions raised here, from another disciplinary view to gain an answer which might bring further clarity. In my case, I’m a historian and use that paradigm here.
For some context, I just sat through such a discussion as described above in a class I’m taking and I was being driven a bit crazy. Why? Well, I believe quite strongly that such a discussion at this point has been brought to a stand-still, unless of course we shift the context in which we are speaking. For, at this point, the discussion has inherently stopped being about the work which we are speaking of in itself, but the relation of that work to the wider context of the period in which it was written. There is no sense to discuss these concepts in a general framework, else they will be summarily dismissed with a general remark in turn.
Rather, the only way forward is to analyze the context of the work. For example: When discussing the role of women in Rousseau’s Emile, it is all too obvious to note it’s gender role structure and quite blatant disregard for the role of women within society. Yet, when one is to note this point, it is very easy to become general about its implications within the period and indeed, be dismissed in turn.
To bolster these general statements, however, why not reach into the very historical context in which the argument has now been placed? Theory and generalizations can only reach so far in proving anything in particular about marginalization historically in relation to the works and meaning of a particular individual. In the case of Rousseau, why not raise Mary Wollstonecraft, who actively decimates the arguments on gender Rousseau puts forward within a period relatively close to his own? Obviously, in many cases one cannot gain such a direct victory wherein one author addresses another - but this could very well aid in an argument, rather than allowing a cycle of generalizations (both about the subject at hand and history) to overtake the actual point of discussion on oppressive language or meaning in a particular work of philosophy or literature.
One must also acknowledge that the historical record itself is DEEPLY affected by marginalization of particular peoples, races, genders, sexualities, abilities, etc, etc… but taking a different, more specialized tact and approach can be useful in overcoming blatant and dismissive generalization. One equally hopes that work on the periods in which major authors or philosophers* have lived within have been explored along the lines of examining marginalization by historians. When this is not so or the record is lacking, obviously so does this strategy… but at least some of the time this will work.
I didn’t really get to articulate this point in the class I was in, being a bit tackled by some on both sides of the debate - as interceding and speaking of a lacking of context can be assumed (if swiftly decided upon) to be taking up an argument against speaking of oppression historically - before I could firmly articulate the point.
Generalization of history and using that to justify the actions and writings of a particular figure DRIVES ME CRAZY but it cannot be combated by further generalizations on theories or mantras on oppression or inequity alone - it’s just a non-starter and allows for the sort of generalization I’ve noted to slip by without a sufficient challenge. Instead, this results in bickering over meaning and semantic, rather than over hard and fast proofs which could firmly change the notion held from ‘Simply a person of their time’ to ‘This person might have had good ideas/works, but also did/believed this’. Only by breaking the back of historical generalization can this be effectively done, in my view.
A Fair Question:Why is it only marginalization and marginalized peoples should have to defend themselves in this way? We never discuss the positive points of a author/philosopher in this way.
Well, I personally agree with the underlying notion here. I personally feel it is of the essence to understand literature and philosophy within the context its written it with as few generalization as possible, but I’m a historian and I pretty much think that about everything. Why does society not do this more often? I can’t really give a satisfactory answer to this, even if I think observing and analyzing things within context and with few generalizations.
Notes: This isn’t to say historians don’t generalize (we do) or say we aren’t falliable to the same mistakes (we are), I just want to suggest another method of inquiry for these situations… because it really gets on my nerves.
*And yes, you can read my comment here as Dead White Men, more or less… even if the same thing could be said of others too… just in a less Eurocentric quantity or context. So yeah, dead white men.