UPDirectory Highlighted Philosopher of August 2017: George Yancy

George Yancy

Professor of Philosophy, Emory University

AOS: African American Philosophy, Philosophy of Race

As an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, my initial passion was for sense data theory after philosopher Wilfrid Sellars directed my honors thesis on this aspect of Bertrand Russell’s work. After doing graduate work at Yale, I became interested in questions of hermeneutics, especially its impact on science and questions of how our judgments are mediated by paradigms and communities of intelligibility. I was influenced by the work of Kuhn, Feyerabend, Hesse, Bloor, Barnes, Lipton, and Laudan. I moved beyond the question of the “givenness” of perceptual objects to the ways in which objects are inextricably linked to discourse and how our historical situatedness impacts our epistemological horizons. There was a short distance to philosophical inquiries related to race as embodied, as “given,” as culturally and historically embedded, and as linked to our fundamental modes of being in the world (our assumptions, motility, grieving, loving, and subtle sensorial engagements). Sellars’ influence is still present. He argued that philosophy aims to comprehend how things (cabbages and kings, numbers, duties, possibilities, finger snaps, aesthetic experience, and death) in the broadest possible sense hang together in the broadest possible sense. Surely, “race” is one of those “things,” one that is far more existentially turbulent, politically and socially urgent, than either finger snaps or cabbages.

My work engages questions regarding the lived experience of race and how it is an embodied phenomenon that is enacted at the socially complex quotidian level of our experiences. My approach engages how the “raced body” is linked to discursive and affective sedimentation, and how the “reality” of race, while socially constituted, functions as a powerful political, social, juridical, and existential vector, one that has a lived status that impacts bodies differentially as raced. More recently, my work has focused on whiteness, its structural invisibility, its embodied normativity, its spatial motility, the opacity of white psychic life, and the embedded nature of whiteness, which raises questions of white complicity and white racism.

My current work provides a vocabulary for rethinking whiteness as a possible site of unsuturing, which I theorize as an experience of profound risk and mourning the abandonment of veils that white people are afraid to live without. Suturing, then, has deep epistemological and phenomenological implications for living a life of bad faith and ontological closure. Unsuturing is a practice that implies a radical vulnerability that has deep implications for questions about how we fail or succeed at dwelling within shared spaces.

I see my work in the above areas as linked to African American philosophy. Here, I work on issues related to the nature of philosophy and standpoint epistemology, Black Erlebnis, early African American philosophers, questions of African American resistance, and ways of theorizing African American modes of knowledge production and world-making.

Finally, I have a deep passion, which manifests for me in the form of a specific mood of suffering, for understanding the meaning of death, the existence or nonexistence of God, and the meaning of why we are here at all.