- Professor of philosophy at Temple University
- Defines his role as professor as a "marriage of inquiry and politics"
- Structured Temple's philosophy department around "genuinely radical" thinking
Lewis R. Gordon is a professor of philosophy at Temple University in Philadelphia. According to a faculty biography, his work concentrates on “Africana thought and the study of race and racism,” and particularly such sub-specialties as “postcolonial thought, theories of race and racism, philosophies of liberation, philosophy in film and literature, philosophy of education.” With respect to each of these subjects, and the teaching profession more broadly, Gordon’s views are distinctly radical, something any review of his 1998 essay, “African-American Philosophy: Theory, Politics, and Pedagogy,” bears out. In that essay, a synthesis of Gordon’s 1995 book, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, Gordon argued for an “African-American philosophy,” a field of inquiry altogether different from “the traditional motivations of Western philosophy.” What made this separate philosophical field necessary, according to Gordon, were the “humanistic anxieties” stemming from “modern slavery and racism,” which in Gordon’s view were “historically specific” to black Americans. Nor had these injustices been exorcised from modern American society, Gordon maintained. Especially outrageous to the professor was the unwillingness of Americans to regard African Americans in racial terms, by reducing them to their “blackness”:
"The problem is that without their blackness, they would disappear; without addressing their blackness, the ethical question of how black people should be treated - as all people should be treated, with respect, with dignity - would be evaded."
Worse, in Gordon’s judgment, modern white America did not see blacks as individuals, but as a threatening “exponential reality” waiting to overtake the country. The only proof Gordon could muster for this wildly inflammatory charge was his unsubstantiated claim that students at Purdue University, where he had previously taught, viewed him with suspicion as the harbinger of the school’s expanding “black faculty.” That the student newspaper ran editorials critical of affirmative action policies, Gordon explained, was further proof of the engrained racism of the campus. “African philosophy” was Gordon’s answer. It would counter the alleged hostility to blacks in American public life, Gordon argued, because it would be “premised on identity and liberation.” Toward this end, practitioners of African philosophy had to do more than teach; they also had to “encourage the spirit of possibility” among their students, and to “develop a sober conception of ‘utopia.’” Politics was to play an important role: "How seriously do we need to engage such a marriage of inquiry and politics? Consider the fact that right-wing and fascist forces are busily deploying instrumental reason in the service of their projects of a misanthropic future. Progressive education demands the construction of viable alternatives."
The key, Gordon explained, was for professors to view their students not merely as seekers of knowledge, but as potential agents to be deployed in the service of their “progressive” political aims. “Our students should be the optimism of possibilities,” Gordon wrote. “In effect, this means recognizing them as sites of agency where their education is as much their responsibility as ours.” (emphasis in original) Not surprisingly, in view of his attempts to fuse political activism with philosophical instruction, Gordon is a former executive editor of the Radical Philosophy Review, the journal of the Radical Philosophy Association, which bills itself as, inter alia, a “forum for activist scholars.”
But such an activist approach to teaching requires the cooperation of students, Gordon believes. Thus when Gordon switched campuses from Brown to Temple in the fall of 2004, he cited as one his motivations the more adventurous character of students of urban Philadelphia, as compared to the traditional students of Ivy League Brown. In contrast to Brown students, Gordon enthused, Temple students were “willing to take intellectual risks.” Gordon immediately set about the task of reorganizing the philosophy department, seeing to it that it was “based on genuinely radical, genuinely critical thinking.”
The results can be seen in his classes. For instance, Gordon’s course “Existentialism,” more than just a survey of the philosophical current, urges students to meditate upon the theme of “liberation.” (The accent on the revolutionary aspects of philosophy is a hallmark of Gordon’s academic career. While at Brown, he presided over a course entitled “Black Modernism and Postmodernism,” which asked students to consider how those concepts “jibe with the humanistic demands of black emancipatory thought and practices (for example, black philosophies and theologies of liberation and black revolutionary praxis).”
Ironically for a course about existentialism but wholly in keeping with Gordon’s Afro-centrist prejudices, “Existentialism” seeks to limit what he calls the “Western perspective” in order to devote greater attention to the “contributions from Africana and Eastern thought.” That Gordon regards his work as an ongoing rebellion against the “Western perspective” is further illustrated by the introduction he co-authored with his wife, Jane Anna Gordon, to a 2005 book of essays on Black Studies programs called Not Only the Master’s Tools: African American Studies in Theory and Practice. After attacking the “imperial status” of “Western ideas,” the Gordons painted an absurdly unrealistic portrait of modern America, explaining that the essays addressed “pedagogy under conditions of slavery, intimate relations in a world devoid of normative approval, struggles with and for legitimacy in political life, and ethical reflection that call for engagement with a…hostile social world.”
Similarly, Gordon’s emphasis on the “liberation” of his students, especially racial minorities, is predicated on his view that minorities generally and blacks particularly are cruelly oppressed in American society. “Generally speaking, Blacks are expected to be attacked and never respond,” Gordon has said. “To respond often leads to attacks of either being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘contentious’. There seems only to be room for docility.” His solution, besides pursuing the study of revolutionary philosophy, is to support policies that promote racial preferences. In this, he cites himself as an example: “I am a very proud affirmative action recipient,” Gordon has said.
In his one year at Temple, Gordon has already founded a special institution to combine his twin avocations, activism and racial politics, called the Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought. In September of 2005, the institute held a conference under the rubric of “Black Civil Society in American Political Life.” Among the panels was one called “Politics of Race, Gender and Class,” and another entitled “Urban Politics, Legislation and Social Change.” Gordon joined radical scholar Cornel West for a panel called “African Americans and American Democracy.”