#918: Philosopher Lewis Gordon on Racism, Moral vs Political Responsibility, and Relational Metaphysics

lewis-gordonlewis-gordonI had a conversation with philosopher Lewis Gordon at the American Philosophical Association Eastern Meeting in January 2019 that really stuck with me. He writes about the philosophy of racism, and takes a very holistic and systemic approach in looking at this issue. He says that racism requires people to identify groups of human beings, and then deny their humanity. He says it’s a very rich philosophically topic to unpack how and why this type of oppression happens.

Gordon takes a relational metaphysics approach meaning that he rejects approaches that try to look at things as an “isolated substance that is a reality completely on it’s own outside of relationship to anything else.” This type of relational metaphysics is similar to a process-relational metaphysics of process philosophy that is in stark contrast to the dominant perspective in Western philosophy of substance metaphysics, which tends to views things as “static entities such as substances, objects, states of affairs, or instantaneous stages.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on entry on process philosophy has a succinct summary of substance metaphysics:

Process philosophy opposes ‘substance metaphysics,’ the dominant research paradigm in the history of Western philosophy since Aristotle. Substance metaphysics proceeds from the intuition—first formulated by the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides—that being should be thought of as simple, hence as internally undifferentiated and unchangeable. Substance metaphysicians recast this intuition as the claim that the primary units of reality (called “substances”) must be static—they must be what they are at any instant in time.

Gordon says that basing our understanding of reality on these types of static, fixed entities is a form of “non-relational metaphysics” that he rejects. This type of thinking makes us susceptible to what he calls “epistemic closure,” which is when someone presumes complete knowledge about something from incomplete information. As an example, he says, “That person is black. I have everything I need to know.”

He says that we tend to see humans as some sort of fixed forumla rather than an open category of relationships that’s dynamically evolving and so there’s always more to learn. He says, “The mistake we often make is that we tend to think of humans beings or the worlds we live in as compartments instead of relationships that open up other relationships.” He says that “each relationship creates a reality that work like keys that unlock or disclose different modes of reality.”

This relational approach is a pretty fundamental paradigm shift, but I think it’s a pretty foundational shift in order to look at the full context and history of institutional racism. I found that I really resonated with the process-relational oriented philosophers at the American Philosophical Association because it does try to take a more holistic look at reality in terms of these patterns of relationships.

With all that’s happening in the world right now with the Black Lives Matter protests, then I wanted to dive into this conversation with Gordon as I think he provides a deep context for thinking about this issue in a holistic and relational way.

The impacts of institutional racism run far and deep into the US culture, economy, political systems, and network of institutions.

Gordon makes some differentiations between moral and political responsibility when it comes to racism as he tends to frame it primarily through a political lens. While I appreciate his points, I also think it’s valuable to look at it through both lenses because there is a moral responsibility to listen, learn, and educate ourselves. Bridging the gap between what each of us can do as individuals can do, and what types of institutional changes need to be made on a collective level is one of the biggest open questions right now.

But we can start by listening to the experiences and stories of black Americans. Here’s a sampling of Voices of VR interviews I’ve done that explore issues of race and diversity:


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality