The Homogeneity of Philosophy


In my own department, I tried to stimulate discussion about what could be done to increase diversity. The faculty and my fellow graduate students were, to their credit, perfectly happy to have more women and minorities in the department. In fact, many spoke openly about their desire to see a more diverse department. This desire, however, seemed to be a desire mostly for a cosmetic change in the look of the department. When it came to making changes that might bring about a much deeper sense of diversity—i.e., changes in the culture and intellectual environment—there was less accommodation. In attempts to open up a discussion about diversity, I found myself repeatedly confounded by ignorance and, at times, thinly veiled racism. To various faculty, I suggested the possibility of hiring someone who, say, specializes in Chinese philosophy or feminist philosophy or the philosophy of race. I complained about the Eurocentric nature of undergraduate and graduate curricula. Without exception, my comments and suggestions were met with the same rationalizations for why philosophy is the way it is and why it should remain that way. To paraphrase one member of my department, “This is the intellectual tradition we work in. Take it or leave it.”

Eugene Sun Park, a filmmaker, explains how the narrowness of what counts as acceptable philosophy in Western departments led him to leave the discipline. Read the rest here. (via Hippo Reads and Fritz J. McDonald)

UPDATE (8/15/14): Owen Flanagan (Duke) writes: “Duke has just inaugurated a Center for Comparative Philosophy, co-directed by David Wong and myself. We are partnering with the outstanding group of philosophers at City University of Hong Kong and the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy, CEACOP, directed by P.J. Ivanhoe.” More here.

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Gene
Gene
6 years ago

The author writes:

“The excuses for excluding non-Western thinkers from the philosophical canon are sometimes more obviously derogatory. For instance, philosophers often claim that non-Western thought lacks “rigor” and “precision,” essential characteristics of serious philosophy. As a result, many philosophers simply dismiss non-Western intellectual culture as (mere) religion, speculative thought, or literature.”

I’ve heard this sort of complaint before and I don’t find it compelling. How is it “derogatory” to claim that “serious philosophy” requires “rigor” and “precision?” Or in other words, how it is problematic to claim that the kind of philosophy we ought to care about as a discipline is the kind that trades in _arguments_? Is it that the discipline allows exceptions to this claim for some works of philosophy (some of Rawls’ work comes to mind) but not others, and that the best explanation for this is that (again, for example) some of Rawls’ work gets a pass because he’s white, while others don’t because they’re not? Is that where the derogation comes into this?Report

Craigory
Craigory
Reply to  Gene
6 years ago

I take it that the “derogatory” nature of the claim is not that Philosophy should involve “rigor” and “precision,” but rather the assumption that non-Western thought does not meet these standards. Put another way, “rigor” and “precision” are themselves defined narrowly, according to current Western standards, without considering what other approached might teach us about how to understand the standards themselves.Report

Careful Goes It
Careful Goes It
Reply to  Craigory
6 years ago

I’m not sure what is particularly “Western” about high standards of rigor and precision in argument and philosophy but plenty of Chinese and Indian philosophers were meeting such standards literally thousands of years ago. The problem with ignoring such philosophy isn’t that it is ignoring different ways of thinking about how to think about “standards” but that we’re missing thousands of years of serious reflection on a wide range of philosophical issues. Why, for instance, should we be moral when it so often seems to be contrary to our individual self-interest? If you haven’t read Confucian moral philosophy, you haven’t fully done your homework. It is bad to ignore such philosophers for the same reason that, say, ignoring Descartes or Plato would be bad. It’s just irresponsible if you care about the things that philosophers have cared about since Plato and beyond in the West.

I honestly find ignoring them out of ignorance bad but find equally bad the idea that non-Westerners deserve special recognition for being oh so different and using mysterious standards ever so different from we Westerners. We should read philosophy and do philosophy according to the only standards that matter: logic, evidence, and reason. Thankfully those are standards most humans in all times and places since recorded history have used.Report

Ashamedly ignorant
Ashamedly ignorant
Reply to  Craigory
6 years ago

Hey Careful Goes It: could you point an ignoramus toward the relevant parts of Confucius’ moral philosophy for the “Why be moral?” issue? Would love to read it and incorporate it into my Ethics class!Report

maffiej2014
Reply to  Gene
6 years ago

PartI: Why “ought” we (whoever “we” are?) care about rigorous and precise philosophy? What is the source of the normativity of this prescription? What end (value) does this conception of philosophy promote? Ought philosophy seek truth or something else, e.g. proper living? Does wisdom require truth?

What metaphysical assumptions does one make when one argues that philosophy ought to be precise and rigorous? Why think the subject matter of philosophy admits of precise and rigorous answers? Perhaps metaphysics or ethics are too messy to admit of precise and rigors answers? Your meta-philosophical conception of philosophy needs justifying.

Indigenous philosophers have long objected to this meta-philosophical understanding of the nature of philosophy. They argue that stories and folktales contain the outlines of philosophical problems and issues, and function as prompts for philosophizing among the storyteller’s listeners — and hence for more participatory and perhaps democratic philosophical discussions. Unlike the authors of western philosophical treatises, the storyteller does not dictate the answers to the riddles, or the meanings of proverbs or stories. These are not completed and closed philosophical treatises – but nor are they intended to be. That would be inappropriate to their subject matter! They are not completed philosophical treatises that readers are expected to digest and contemplate along in their studies or libraries. Proverbs are by nature and by intention incomplete and open so as to allow creative interpretation and adaptation to new and changing circumstances. Storytellers do not purport to state the universal truth. Indigenous philosophers reject the idea that one size fits all, that there is a single, correct interpretation of a story or answer.

Here then is a different kind of tradition of philosophical inquiry — oral — that differs from a written one. Western philosophers (e.g. Rorty) have standardly argued that writing is necessary for philosophizing, that philosophizing requires written texts that may be read over and over again and commented upon by successive generations of philosophers. Indeed, this creates a tradition – indeed, one may argue a less creative one since it is hidebound within the limits of “traditional philosophy”. Oral tradition permits greater flexibility and creativity on the spot. Unlike the author of a western philosophical treatise who tells it like it is, who states the truth, who purports to give a complete, final, and universal theory of things, the storyteller does not dictate the answers to riddles, the meaning of stories, or the correct interpretation of proverbs.

This story-based understanding of philosophical inquiry contrasts with the text-based, intellectualist understanding of philosophy that Dewey (Reconstruction in Philosophy) argued is rooted in intellectualist understandings of religion and theology which, are in turn, rooted in sacred texts that are seen as final, absolute, and complete. Proverbs, stories, allegories as source of wisdom; as non-algorithmic philosophical tools for finding one’s way along the path of life.Report

An Asian student
An Asian student
6 years ago

One can accept that ancient non-western philosophers didn’t meet the rigor and precision. But so did western philosophers. See Marcus Arvan’s post:
http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2012/05/has-contemporary-philosophy-over-fetishized-rigor.html

It seems to me that rigor is not what makes a philosopher into the canon. Instead, it is his or her ideas, influence, and relevance that count.

Also, one can do rigorous and scholarly research on non-rigorous philosophers. All the department needs is to pose the rigorous standard on the person it hires.Report

Jonathan Weisberg
Jonathan Weisberg
6 years ago

I recently learned from Jennifer Nagel that Gettier cases were discussed by Indian and Tibetan philosophers as far back as the 8th Century. Here’s a case due to Dharmottara, as described in Stoltz (2007): “There is a fire on which meat is being cooked. While the fire has not produced any smoke, the cooking meat has enticed a large number of flies to swarm above the fire. Some person, looking at this scene from a distance, but without perceiving the fire, glimpses the swarm of flies and forms the mistaken belief that it is smoke. As a result of believing that there is smoke he ‘infers’ that there is fire. His belief that there is fire is true, but because he deduces the existence of fire from the false belief that there is smoke, his cognition should not be regarded as a knowledge episode.”

Of course, philosophers like Dharmottara helped themselves to plenty of unargued theory, conjecture, and mysticism. But so did Plato. We regard Plato as worth studying anyway, for the many arguments he *did* provide, and the many fruitful ideas and hypotheses he offered with little-to-no argument. If we knew more about the arguments provided by ancient Indians and Tibetans, and we gave their ideas and hypotheses the same opportunity to bear fruit, we might see rigour where we currently miss it, and lovingly forgive its absence where it’s missing, much as we do for Plato.Report

Barry Lam
Barry Lam
6 years ago

What Jonathan Weisberg said, with hundreds more examples of it from the history of Indian and Chinese philosophy (egs., Mohists and the philosophy of language).Report

Argo
6 years ago

The relevance of Park’s criticism differs between institutions.

Only if one thinks that the category “philosophy” picks out some particularly valuable and well-defined field of inquiry would one worry whether X is studied in the philosophy department as opposed to elsewhere. I don’t think the word “philosophy” picks out anything deep — I see no deep strand linking debates about expressivism, belief revision and ideal/non-ideal theory other than the fact that these issues aren’t likely to be decisively resolved through scientific experimentation. Consequently, (and supposing that field X is of value) it doesn’t matter much whether X is studied in the philosophy department or the X studies department, as long as it’s studied.

Take the OP’s example of Chinese Philosophy and J. Weisberg’s home institution, the University of Toronto. Toronto’s Department of East Asian studies houses Vincent Shen, Curie Virag, Atsuko Sakaki, and many others, all of whom work on Asian philosophy. A wealth of resources is available to anyone who want to study Asian philosophy at Toronto.

Nonetheless, near as I can tell, Toronto’s philosophy department lacks a dedicated hire in Asian philosophy (AFAICT, Shen’s primary appointment is the DEAS). Does it follow from this fact that Toronto’s philosophy department should hire a Confucius specialist? Given the strength of the Department of East Asian Studies (and supposing that students in philosophy can take classes in the DEAS), it clearly does not. Only if one thinks that there is something deeply important about studying Confucius (or Asian philosophy) in the philosophy department would one think that there’s additional hiring left to do. I don’t think it’s important where Asian philosophy is studied, as long as it is and is accessible to students.

Park’s criticism is far more relevant for smaller institutions who lack dedicated Asian studies departments (or X studies departments, more generally).

I think it’s especially important to make this distinction given that, in a time of extremely limited educational resources, hiring is a zero sum game. No one gives, say, Bertrand Russell the time that analytic philosophy departments give him. But no one could claim that Confucius is more (or less) important to philosophy than Russell while also claiming to be objective. So I think that it is good and right that a philosophy department at an institution with a strong Asian studies department should choose to dedicate its limited resources to studying Russell over Confucius. The choice ensures diversity at the institutional level, if not at the departmental level. And because “philosophy” doesn’t pick out a deep feature of inquiry, it’s institutional diversity that matters.Report

Jake
Jake
6 years ago

I think the author is correct that in many departments, there is a prejudice against non-western historical thinkers. I also think that to adequately address this prejudice, we need to have a clear idea of why it exists. I suspect that racism is part of the explanation. However, I believe that the more fundamental explanation is that, until fairly recently, there hasn’t been much high-quality, English-language scholarship on non-western thinkers. For example, when it comes to the philosophy of classical India (on which I’ve done some modest work), much of the secondary literature from the 20th century has failed to capture the sophistication and rigor of the thinkers it was meant to illuminate. One reason for this is that much of this literature was written by scholars in other fields (such as ancient languages or religious studies) who don’t necessarily have the right training to pick up on what’s philosophically important. I also think that these scholars from other fields have (unwittingly) reinforced prejudices against Indian philosophy by focusing on figures whose work is primarily mystical or religious, and not philosophical. It’s as if someone had looked at the history of western philosophy and decided to focus on Hildegard von Bingen. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with studying Hildegard, but I don’t people would get an accurate impression of western philosophy by reading a secondary account of her work.Report

stuck working
stuck working
Reply to  Jake
6 years ago

I’m not sure why you regard “racism” and the lack of “high-quality, English-language scholarship on non-western thinkers” as unrelated explanations. Isn’t it very likely that the former is one of the main causes of the latter and, to that extent, the “more fundamental” explanation?Report

Jake
Jake
Reply to  stuck working
6 years ago

I think this is a good point. I didn’t mean to suggest that these two explanations are *completely* unrelated. No doubt, one reason for the lack of high-quality scholarship is the legacy of racism. But I think there are other contributing factors to the lack of good scholarship. One very significant factor, which the author mentions (but I think understates the importance of), is that competent scholarship in non-western philosophy requires a huge investment of time to learn non-western languages. It’s just a lot easier for native speakers of western languages to learn French or Latin than it is for them to learn Sanskrit or (God forbid) Archaic Chinese or Sino-Tibetan. As a practical matter, I think many grad students in western programs just don’t have the resources to learn these kinds of languages. And once students graduate, if they are lucky enough to find tenure-track jobs, they’re on the tenure treadmill and have to focus on publishing in their existing specializations.

I do think that as India and China develop economically, their governments (and wealthy philanthropists) will devote more and more resources to conserving and rehabilitating their cultural heritage, including their philosophical traditions. So my prediction is that these non-western philosophical traditions will eventually be resuscitated, but moreso by their cultural inheritors than by western departments.Report

Simon Evnine
Simon Evnine
6 years ago

These are all really great comments.

I think it is helpful to make explicit a further distinction that is implicit in some of the discussion. There’s a question about including (in the canon, for hiring purposes, etc.) non-Western work that is clearly continuous with paradigmatic Western philosophy. So we might read Indian or Chinese thinkers on knowledge, reference, logic, etc. No doubt some of them would be better than others, more rigorous than others, etc., just as those in the canon differ greatly with respect to these values.

But it’s another thing to include work this is often described as philosophy, from non-Western traditions, that is quite different from paradigmatic Western philosophy, not because it’s “not as rigorous” or whatever, but because it simply doing very different things. In that case, the aim is not just of increasing the inclusiveness of who we study, but broadening the concept of what philosophy is and should be.

No doubt these two things cannot always be clearly separated in practice, but they do seem to be distinct. I’m sure that many people would be unproblematically in favor of the first, but balk at the second. Would the first just count as “cosmetic change”? I don’t know.Report

Owen Flanagan
Owen Flanagan
6 years ago

In the cup is half full department: Duke has just inaugurated a Center for Comparative Philosophy, co-directed by David Wong and myself. We are partnering with the outstanding group of philosophers at City University of Hong Kong and the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy, CEACOP, directed by P.J. Ivanhoe. In the near-term we plan live courses, seminars, and collaborations between Hong Kong and Durham NC at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Eventually, we hope to foster collaborations with colleagues at Duke, at other American universities, as well as in South and Southeast Asia on Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophy. There is superb work in African, Arabic, and indigenous philosophy in America to incorporate as well.Report

pavrpendzer
6 years ago

We don’t need space for african or asian or female philosophy. We need more africans, asians and women in our philosophy departments. What we all hope we’re engaged in is the humanistic project, not european intellectual masturbation. The fact that english-speaking philosophy is wary of other european philosophy (“continental” philosophy) should tell you that being white and male is not enough to pass as a good philosopher. That said, it certainly helps if you are. It also helps if you can afford to go to university, if you’re not dumbed by malnutrition, that you’re not scarred by PTSD, etc.

The important thing about being inclusive is that it genuinely DOES enrich our intellectual landscape. To get a good idea out of students, whether graduate or undergraduate, it helps to have a bunch of smart people from all walks and paths of life. This isn’t to say that we should welcome creationists for providing “another perspective”, but it is to say that there is no rational reason why the ethnic and gender make-up of philosophy departments should not correspond to the gender and ethnic make-up of human populations generally. The fact that it does not should be sufficient to show you that it is not rational forces that drive the gender and ethnic make-up of philosophy departments.

Women’s studies, Critical Race theory, etc. all grew up from students protests, and the demand to have space allocated for dealing with these important questions on campuses. Granted, most of it is bunk- But I’d dare to say that over 90% of all philosophy is bunk anyway. What these sets of theoretical spectacles allow us to do is understand the non-rational forces that make our departments composition diverge from that of the general public. These forces are political: gender, race, economics. Understanding them is important in understanding what we can do about mitigating these non-rational forces’s impact on the prospects of people’s ideas being heard. To admit-by-quota (whether for students or faculty) is probably not the answer. However, the first step here is to recognise that there is a problem: something is keeping our colleagues from talking to us, and stopping us benefiting from their input. For our benefit, and for theirs, we need to be aware of how these non-rational forced DO have an impact, and to limit it personally and institutionally. Shit article though.Report

trackback
6 years ago

[…] that it is too political or somehow motivated by an underlying political agenda (see, for example, the long discussion at Daily Nous). The thought, I take it, is something like this. Feminist philosophers are all motivated by a set […]Report