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Remembering Seminal Philosopher Charles W. Mills

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Western philosophy has long been the province of old white men. Scan most any standard intro to philosophy course load and you'll see it yourself. Teachings of white philosophers compose the political fabric of our society.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Philosopher Charles W. Mills pointed out that those liberal frameworks missed a key detail - white supremacy.

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CHARLES W MILLS: So my lecture this evening seeks to address the issue of racial justice and in the process, look also at the question of why the subject has been so little addressed in Western and, more specifically, American political philosophy. It's not as if the demand for racial justice is a new one.

SHAPIRO: That's how Mills opened a 2020 lecture called Theorizing Racial Justice. He cites Black Lives Matter, the civil rights movement and anti-imperialism efforts as examples of this work happening in the real world. And then...

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MILLS: Despite - or should that be because of - this history and the larger history of modern Western imperialism and conquest, which is embedded, white American political philosophers in particular and white Western political philosophers more generally have almost completely ignored the subject.

FADEL: Mills died last week at the age of 70. He was best known for his book "The Racial Contract."

SHAPIRO: He was born in the U.K. and grew up in Jamaica, where he studied physics at the University of the West Indies. But during a period of intense political struggle in Jamaica in the 1970s, he pivoted to graduate studies in philosophy and was immediately bewildered.

FADEL: He couldn't square the philosopher John Rawls describing society as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage with the colonial legacy of Jamaica and the West. But Mills didn't just want to tear liberalism down. He wanted to reshape it - in his words, create the liberalism that should have been, says Neil Roberts, professor of philosophy at Williams College.

NEIL ROBERTS: What does it mean to live in an equal society? What does it mean to be free? These are all questions that Mills is saying that the Western tradition and what he would call white political theory has talked about for centuries, but the issues of kind of race in relation to those questions gets eclipsed.

SHAPIRO: Many in the field, including Roberts, have remembered Mills for his humanity, in addition to his intellect, for opening the door to younger Black philosophers and supporting their growth. Charles W. Mills' legacy in theory and practice is one of chipping away at the biases of history's oldest tradition without abandoning its integrity.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSKAR SCHUSTER'S "FJARLAEGUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.