When Philosophy No Longer Smells of the Earth

By George YancyNovember 26, 2023

When Philosophy No Longer Smells of the Earth
WHEN I DISCOVERED the field of philosophy at roughly the age of 17, I was seduced by its abstraction from—or its abstraction away from, as the late philosopher Charles W. Mills would put it—the world of nonideal theory; of harmful immigration policy; of pain and suffering; of racism, anti-Blackness, sexism, femicide, classism, genocide, oppression, poverty, xenophobia, transphobia, white domination, ableist normativity. I’m sure that this is partly why I fell in love with Plato, especially his theory of Forms, which holds that ordinary physical objects are mere appearances—images, shadows—that don’t provide us with true knowledge but with opinion only. It was the immutability of the Forms that transfixed my attention, not the contingent suffering of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, condemned to death by drinking hemlock for being a gadfly. The implication was that, as a philosopher, I had to transcend the messiness of empirical reality, had to stay focused on and seek out capital-R Reality through conceptual abstraction.

This assumption was indicative of mainstream philosophy as I learned it as an undergraduate philosophy major in the early 1980s. My philosophy professors, for the most part, were mainly engaged in what felt like disembodied abstraction and conceptual minutiae. I recall that there was one philosopher who made it clear to me that he didn’t believe the stuff he taught in philosophy of religion but simply liked to argue. In the classroom, I witnessed what seemed to be a fetishization of argumentation, not to mention philosophical hubris. The objective was to escape, through pure intellection, the cave of ignorance that Plato allegorized as our unfortunate human condition.

So, I was struggling there to see beyond what was before me, trying to extricate myself from what were deemed mere shadows, simulacra. It was only later that I came to realize that practicing philosophy in this vein isn’t about philosophy tout court but rather about a particular understanding of philosophy, a construction that refuses to see the ugly face of human suffering and seems incapable of doing—or unwilling to do—anything to eradicate that suffering. The questions posed, and the answers given, stem from what Mills, in his 1994 essay “Non-Cartesian Sums: Philosophy and the African-American Experience,” calls a “perk of social privilege.”

Critiquing a narrow understanding of theory in her provocative 1984 essay “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” Adrienne Rich writes that “theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to earth over and over. But if it doesn’t smell of the earth, it isn’t good for the earth.” The relevance of Rich’s point regarding how theory can lose the smell of the earth speaks to how philosophical reflection can function as a form of mere spectatorship (theōros), where there is no investment in the world other than to view it at a distance. In this context, I had become a young philosopher who lost his sense of smell, his sense of the mundane, the quotidian muck and mire of human existence. When I was a graduate student at Yale, I met philosopher Cornel West for the first time, not long after he was arrested and jailed for protesting the university’s investment in South Africa’s apartheid regime. His actions spoke to what it means to be true to Socratic parrhesia (courageous speech) and how we mustn’t avoid what he calls the “raw funky stinky stuff of life.”

In this regard, it isn’t lost on me that, at this moment in history, roughly 1,200 Israeli men, women, and children were brutally killed by Hamas on October 7, and that, since that tragic day, over 10,000 Palestinians, including over 4,000 children, have been brutally killed by Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza. That is the stuff that my early introduction to philosophy didn’t prepare me for. There were discussions of death but not of severed body parts, deep lamentation, the unimaginable grieving for brutalized children. When I was an undergraduate, ensconced within the pristine halls where philosophers pontificated about truth, reality, beauty, substance, justice, ethics, the good life, and the meaning of meaning, the whiteness and maleness of philosophy were hypervisible, and the anti-Blackness held by many of the West’s prominent thinkers, including Hume, Kant, and Hegel, was sidestepped or deemed irrelevant. The painful sounds of a George Floyd calling for his mama, the reality that he was knelt on for over nine minutes by the white police officer Derek Chauvin, would not have been discussed with philosophical vigor given the meta-philosophical policing of professional journals, college curricula, and academic colloquia, the places where “real” philosophy takes place.

These days, these trying times, these moments of existential ruin, where we are 90 seconds to midnight, which is the closest we have ever been to global catastrophe, I find myself less and less moved by Auguste Rodin’s bronze sculpture of The Thinker. As a philosopher, I find myself immersed instead in Edvard Munch’s The Scream and, as a Black philosopher, located in the midst of what Christina Sharpe calls the wake, the horrid afterlife of slavery. Despite my bona fides as a professionally trained philosopher, this identity in no way keeps me safe from being racially profiled or prevents me from being shot by a police officer who mistakes my cell phone for a weapon. That prospective horror—and so much more—makes up the funk, the harsh reality, that philosophy must face, must engage with, must not avoid by abstracting from the smell of the earth.

The decision to curate this special series on philosophy’s importance at times like these was partly motivated by my own practice and understanding of the imperative to do philosophy as a mode of public-facing work. I wanted to demonstrate just how important and relevant specific conceptions of philosophy (implicit and explicit), and specific praxes of philosophers, can be in times of deep social, political, and existential trauma. The six philosophers gathered for this series celebrate what philosophy is capable of. Each is invested in philosophical plurality, which doesn’t mean that anything goes or that all views are equally well-thought-out or critically valid. These thinkers have no pretensions of being able to perform what Donna Haraway refers to as “the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere.” Each embodied philosophical voice is deeply situated, invested not in navel-gazing but in bearing witness to other embodied voices that have been marginalized and deemed nugatory.

I have curated this special series because I see philosophy as asking of us nothing less than to face the reality of the world and of who we are with as much honesty as we can manage. It asks us to grieve that world, and to grieve our own mistakes within that world, and yet also to be moved by the love of wisdom and the wisdom of love to transform that world for the better. Asking for modes of change that involve the mutual flourishing of all human beings is, as sad as it may sound, an act of deep risk-taking; it can be dangerous. My public-facing philosophical practice has made me the target of death threats, racist projections, and vicious name-calling. I was even placed on the infamous Professor Watchlist for writing a letter of love to white people. In these times of narrow ideological allegiances and goose-stepping conformity, philosophers who ask “why?” as a challenge to the status quo are asking an unsafe question. And that fact, more than anything else, shows us why we need philosophy in times like these.

In this special series, I am honored to share this space with philosophers who understand, with clarity and urgency, the role that philosophy must play in transforming the world, in helping to push us closer to the not yet—the manifestation of worldwide justice and the recognition of the unquestionable humanity of all peoples. Coming out tomorrow are essays by Jay L. Garfield and Vanessa Wills. Garfield draws from a panoply of philosophical voices and traditions, arguing for cross-cultural and interdisciplinary ways of seeing and doing philosophy. While stressing philosophy’s ability to address pressing questions about climate change and structural racism, capitalism and colonialism, he also argues for the capacity of philosophy to generate beauty in our lives. For her part, Wills engages several issues in what increasingly feels like our inevitable march toward a dying planet: the forcible displacement of human beings, mass imprisonment, book banning, and COVID-19 denialism. Both essays speak to the deep pertinence of philosophy conceived as a forceful intervention in the world, as opposed to an arcane practice performed in the confines of a stove-heated room (à la Descartes).

Next Monday, December 4, essays by Kate Manne and Todd May will be published. And then, on Monday, December 11, two final essays, by Elizabeth Brake and Lori Gallegos, will appear. With clarity of thought and a refusal to think in philosophical lockstep, these six philosophers “talk back” (as bell hooks would say) to the profession of philosophy, to its hermetic proclivities, its pretensions of political neutrality, its silencing of voices that don’t reflect the interests of cishet white men, its refusal to embrace the smell of the earth.


Featured image: Robert Delaunay. Rythme/3., 1938. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Bequest of Judge Julius Isaacs, New York, 1983. tepapa.govt.nz, CC0. Accessed November 3, 2023. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

George Yancy is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University and a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College, one of the college’s highest honors. He is also the University of Pennsylvania’s inaugural fellow in the Provost’s Distinguished Faculty Fellowship Program (2019–20 academic year). Yancy is the author, editor, and co-editor of over 20 books. His latest book is entitled Until Our Lungs Give Out: Conversations on Race, Justice, and the Future (2023). At Academic Influence, he is cited as one of the top 10 influential philosophers in the decade 2010–20, based upon the number of citations and web presence. He has also published over 200 combined scholarly articles, chapters, and interviews that have appeared in professional journals, in books, and at various news sites. He is well known for his influential essays and interviews in the New York Times philosophy column The Stone and at the progressive nonprofit news organization Truthout. He is also series editor of Philosophy of Race at Lexington Books.


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