Hypatia 21.4 (2006) 232-238
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Elizabeth V. Spelman
The very existence of a genre of writing called Musings in a journal of philosophy gives a little jiggle to what might be thought to be appropriate philosophical territory, or at least appropriate ways of covering such territory. One can neither write nor read such a column without being made aware at some level of the typical parameters for recognizably philosophical work, the constraints upon and expectations about what our 'umble sweet laboring selves might produce. (I am reminded here of the semi-wide berth H. J. Paton (57) granted Kant some fifty years ago in an article entitled "Kant on Friendship": "In this discussion we have been concerned, not so much with the Critical philosopher as with the sage of Köningsberg—almost, one might say, with Kant in slippers"). At the same time, one doesn't have to be invited to poke away at such constraints or to scratch against such expectations in order to sense their presence. I suspect most of us hear them clearing their throat whenever we put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Indeed in some of my most recent projects I found myself more than usually aware of the pressure of their company. I also found myself more eager than usual to disturb them—even though, or maybe especially because, I acknowledge them and greet them in somewhat the same way I welcome the walk to my office along a well-worn path through the woods. I noticed I was ready to give more thought than usual to the ways in which they can suffocate the very thinking innocent inquirers might assume philosophical writing is supposed to invite.
Most of us probably are familiar with the way dogs tend to mark or stake out their territory. They try to cover every possible place another dog has been or might be with unmistakable evidence—to those other dogs, if not to humans or other critters—of their presence and their claim to ownership. When Fenway, [End Page 232] our neighbor's beagle, spends five minutes lifting his leg at prime spots around our lawn, he's exhibiting what in the veterinary world has been described as "the ancient drive to establish and protect a territory," despite the fact that unlike wild dogs in packs, the thoroughly domesticated Fenway doesn't need to stake out territory in order to get enough food and water to stay alive and to protect his canine family. But for both Fenway and his more feral cousins, "marking serves as a marvelously efficient way to avoid confrontations": leaving their scent advertises the threat of territorial battles without actually engaging in them (Milani).
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| Figure 1 |
Courtesy of Cornelia Maude Spelman, © 2006.
At a certain stage in their careers—not only when writing their dissertations or entering the job market, but also simply when on the philosophical prowl—many philosophers we know, maybe even love, maybe even recognize in the mirror, assume, probably quite rightly, that in order to display their professional chops they've got to provide ready and palpable evidence of their skill at defining territory and then covering it. One widely used and reliable approach is to make the territory very small ("The wild dog pack's territorial nature leads its members to claim an area large enough to support them and any offspring, but not one so large that it requires excessive energy to adequately defend it") [End Page 233] and then corner it, seal it against possible intrusion—a little spray here, a little spray there, a little spray everywhere (Milani). The only way to prevent such intrusion is to anticipate every conceivable question that might occur to your thesis advisor, or prospective employer, or one of those philosopher-vultures (to change the animal metaphor briefly) who perch in the back of conference halls and live off the conceptual carrion of unsuspecting speakers. You better make sure to cover the territory, and to indicate that you know full well where intruders might slip in. Your territory may be a...