Philosophy’s Gordon Takes Race

Lewis Gordon could have spent his entire career in academia basking in his phenomenal success at Brown University, where, in a scant three years, he built the school’s Africana studies department into the top-ranked program in the nation for Africana thought, black intellectual history and Caribbean thought.

But Temple University offered something he couldn’t get at Brown or Yale, Harvard or Princeton, Columbia or Cornell.

“What Temple ultimately offered was Temple,” Gordon, the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy, who joined Temple’s faculty last fall, said matter-of-factly.

“At Brown, I was building Africana studies,” continued Gordon, who joined Brown from Purdue University in 1996 and, in quick measure, transformed an existing program in Afro-American studies into a department of Africana studies with a stellar international reputation. “I did well. But I concluded there was a limit to what I could do there.”

Gordon wanted to teach at a school where he could enhance and build programs of study, where he could mentor top students, where he could explore issues that nourished his interests and his scholarly work.

As an urban public institution, Temple offers more students “willing to take intellectual risks” and students quite unlike others he’s taught- but not unlike himself, said Gordon, who grew up in the Bronx and actually didn’t initially plan on going to college.

“If I had gone from Ivy to Ivy, I would remain in schools that are very small and risk-averse,” said Gordon, internationally known for his work in Africana philosophy, theories on race and racism, social and political philosophy and philosophy of religion.

“It’s very important to build up public institutions,” he continued. “It’s a unique opportunity we have in North Philadelphia. Some of the issues I’m particularly concerned with are happening right here. I wanted to teach philosophy in a program that was in the process of building, where there’s an opportunity to do something new.

“Temple reminds me a lot of universities I’ve seen in South Africa and Australia. Our students are not looking for rich, cherry wood walls. They’re focusing on the content of learning.”

One of five new faculty members to join the philosophy department since last fall, Gordon got right to work at Temple, founding the Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought and the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies in the College of Liberal Arts.

“It’s very important for research institutions to have research institutes,” he said, noting that Temple is one of the few schools in the nation that has had a longstanding “studies in race” requirement for all students. “Temple has an interesting cadre of professors studying race issues, and there should be a place for reflection on this field of inquiry.

“The institute can transform the way we talk about race and social thought, not just in America, but worldwide,” continued Gordon, adding that the institute will allow scholars from across disciplines to integrate their work, raising scholarship to a higher level of thought and discussion. “The people in the social sciences should be talking with those in the humanities and in the life sciences. I want this to be the premier institute for study in this area.”

In addition to connecting Temple scholars, the institute also will work to bring some of the world’s top philosophers and thinkers to the University. On April 7 and 8, the institute will host “Recent Africana Philosophy in Three Movements,” a conference co-sponsored by the Society of Fellows in the Humanities, the Office of the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, the Office of the Provost, and the philosophy department.

“We’re inviting three influential scholars, Howard McGary, Nkiru Nzegwu and Paget Henry- and their critics- to go at it,”? Gordon said. “I don’t believe in following the traditional conference pattern. I wanted to have a conference where academics can actually do their stuff.

Conferences shouldn’t just look nice and attract a large crowd. They should be intense exchanges of ideas.

“We’ll get to see a wide range of philosophers and thinkers in related areas. And we’re hoping to make this an annual or biennial event to profile the major contributions and to raise the bar of discussion in this area of [Africana philosophy] research.”

Gordon, who just co-organized a symposium on the intersection of race and sexuality and is planning a fall conference focusing on black civil society and American political life, is equally busy with the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies. Already, the center has hosted a meeting focusing on fiscal responsibility in nonprofit Jewish organizations of color and hosted documentary filmmakers for a segment on Jewish diversity in Philadelphia.

“Temple is the only place in the world with a research facility looking at the intersection of African-American and Jewish diasporas,” Gordon said. “We wanted to start something very, very new that’s both provocative and informative, something that will engage scholars in a high-powered way.”

A Temple faculty member for less than a year, Gordon already knows joining the University was the right move for him. He affirms it every day in the classroom, he said.

“At Temple, I’m finding a mixture of students who are really independent, thinking people. I see genuine thinking going on.

“When I was at Brown, I kept hearing about how great the students were, and that was, for the most part, true about some of them,” continued Gordon, who is teaching a seminar this semester on Jean-Paul Sartre that coincides with the 100th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth. “But if my first year here is an indication, I’ve thus far at Temple encountered some of the best students in my career.

“Their level of smartness is equivalent to the students I taught at Brown, Purdue, and Yale. But they’re more individualistic, more creative. They also have more chutzpah. They’re students with a great sense of humor and yet with wonderful humility. They don’t presume the world is for them. It’s refreshing and rewarding. They’re some of the most gifted people I’ve ever met.

“I’m having a ball with them.”

Gordon relishes the thought of working with Temple students to help them influence and change the face of the discipline of philosophy.

“I always think very, very big,” he said. “There has been a serious decline in the number of doctoral students of color in philosophy and in white students who want to do creative work outside of the more dominant conception of the field. When I decided to come to Temple, it struck me that we need to create a place where really creative, risk-taking people have a place in which to grow.

“This is a new philosophy department, based on genuinely radical, genuinely critical thinking,” he added. “The error is to look at the discipline in a traditional way. We’re creating a situation where there are genuine alternatives and where we have people who put knowledge forward.”