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Previously Marginalized Voices

Continuing on the diversity theme, Philosophy Professor Steve Gerrard has an article that ties the debate to Wittgenstein. After a too long preamble, he concludes with:

My Wittgensteinean argument has been: the pursuit of truth depends on the selection of a plurality of salient and representative examples; the selection of such examples is, at the very least, partially determined by what strikes the individual as salient; thus, the pursuit of truth partially depends on a community of seekers of truth who consider different examples salient.

What kinds of diversity are epistemologically relevant is a contingent matter, and it is a contingent truth that in our particular society at our particular time, race and gender (and not, say, the color of one’s eyes) are crucial (but not necessarily overriding) factors in determining what examples an individual considers worth noting and investigating. This becomes especially significant in the case of individuals who are members of groups that have historically been marginalized in the academy.

Thus, in addition to the moral, political, and pedagogical reasons for Williams College’s affirmative action programs, our institution, as a community of seekers of truth, depends on the increasing participation of diverse and previously marginalized voices.

If the United States Supreme Court voids affirmative action programs, that would not be the first time that government has made philosophy more difficult.


1) I shouldn’t be too critical since I love it when professors write for the Record and otherwise engage in the public intellectual life of the College. Williams needs more of this, not less.

2) To be cool, remember to say, “Vittgenstein.”

3) It has been a long time since I read Wittegenstein, but, as best I remember Professor Lipton’s class on the topic, Gerrard is perfectly correct in his argument.

4) As a “contingent matter,” I couldn’t disagree more with Gerrard’s claims about the importance of race, at least as it is currently used by Williams. While it is true that my lovely daughters are members of group (women of mixed race ancestry) that has been “historically been marginalized in the academy,” I don’t think that it is true that their perspectives will be different enough from randomly selected Anglo (more polite terminology than “white”, in my view) applicants to warrant a preference in the admissions process.

5) But I would still go along with this argument — i.e., that Williams provides a better education with preferences than it would without them because of the increased diversity of viewpoints thereby provided — if it were more widely applied. For example, an applicant who had grown up in a city like Sarajevo or Grozny or Bahgdad would be likely to have a dramatically different viewpoint regardless of the color of her skin then one who had grown up in the typical US suburb. If affirmative action as practiced at Williams bought more of these students to Williams, then it would seem a lot more reasonable than a program which seems mostly designed make for pleasingly diverse pictures in the admissions brochures.