The Value of Marginality

I came across these couple of paragraphs of Amy Oliver, who I hope won’t mind my sharing:

Expounding on Leopoldo Zea’s notion of marginality:

“Marginality is a gift to philosophers who live and think on the margin in the sense that it affords them a certain latitude to make original contributions in areas that have been ignored through the undetected or unimagined provincialism of the mainstream. Marginality then becomes a methodology that challenges how values are grounded, and by whom, to such an extent that margin thinkers believe their vantage point better illuminates and more comprehensively grounds values. Since philosophy from the margin more easily lends itself to self-criticism, whereas philosophy from the center has no pressing need to criticize itself precisely because it is the center (“the universal”), marginal philosophy is frequently more thought-provoking and compelling.”

And a quote from Sartre’s Troubled Sleep, quoted in Oliver’s article:

“It was so natural to be French… It was the others who had to explain why, either through circumstance or their own fault, they were not completely human. Now France is a giant broken-down machine. And we think: this was an accident of history. We’re still French, but it’s not so natural anymore. There as been an accident to make us understand that we are accidental.” –“Values in Modern Mexican Thought.”

If Zea and Oliver are right, especially about the point of being more self-critical, there is a sense in which philosophy on the margins is potentially more philosophical or a sense in which good philosophy is essentially marginal.

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2 responses to “The Value of Marginality

  1. I can see how marginality has a critical edge and is also more exposed to self-criticism. What surprises me about Zea’s notion of marginality is that he thinks it is a place from which values can be grounded. I’m not familiar with Zea’s conception of value, but this part of the passage has a universal kind of ring to it. I found this to be interesting because just a few lines down he equates the “center” with the universal. Perhaps it’s not universals that are the problem; just unquestioned universals?

    • Nice point, Lori. Zea wasn’t arguing against the value of the universal. We might say, in a Hegelian turn of phrase which I bet Zea would like, that marginality helps the marginal to pursue a universal that is more universal (i.e., one that is more comprehensive and that doesn’t uncritically identify the universal with the mainstream or with “what we do”). I think his general point is that conservatism is dangerous in philosophy and that having to prove one’s legitimacy is an essential component of increasing the scope of “the center” or “the universal.” The grounding of values for Zea, I think, happens at the site of conflict between the center and margin, as with the case Latin American philosophy’s having to justify itself in the US today. But still, I think there are plenty of problems with Zea’s view, such as Zea’s desire to lump the previously-marginalized group in the center once they’ve been included, and his Hegelian tone more generally.

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