More on the Homogeneity of Philosophy


Continuing on the theme of the homogeneity of philosophy:

I strongly believe that it is central to a thorough education in the human sciences that we be compelled to learn in detail about traditions that precisely and obstinately do not speak to us…. I want to move myself somewhere other than where I started out. I agree that it is most urgent for the ‘white men’ who dominate philosophy to take up this challenge and to belatedly acquire a proper humanistic education, but the cosmopolitanism to which I’ve already committed myself prohibits me from maintaining this expectation only vis-à-vis other ‘white men’….

Even my allies who are pushing for greater demographic inclusiveness in academic philosophy frequently express condescension toward the variety of scholarship that takes an interest in low-status expressions of culture such as the oral traditions of nomads… This is because they continue to share in the prejudicial view that philosophy concerns itself exclusively with high-status, rarefied expressions of human culture, so rarefied in fact that they are not really part of human culture at all, but rather exist on a trans-historical, immaterial plane of ideas. It is nothing more than the history and economics of institutions that gives certain expressions of ideas this rarefied appearance, and, I maintain, it is precisely the prejudicial attachment to these expressions that is the cause of philosophy’s current exclusive character.

That is from a recent post by Justin E.H. Smith (Université Paris Diderot) at his blog. Meanwhile, Tricycle Magazine has a long and fascinating interview with Evan Thompson (University of British Columbia) about Buddhist philosophy of mind and science. From the interview:

Buddhism has very sophisticated and technical traditions of philosophy, every bit as sophisticated and technical as Western philosophy. Here we enter the arena of concepts, analysis, abstraction, models, and arguments, all of which bring us closer to science. Buddhist philosophy is very concerned with analyzing cognition, concepts, and consciousness—the subject matter of cognitive science….

What I’d like to see is a collaborative effort to develop a much richer understanding of the human mind—a cognitive science of wisdom, for lack of a better term. For example, although self-knowledge is a topic of cognitive science research, it has yet to be informed by the kind of ethical and contemplative perspective that Buddhism upholds. We need to bring into cognitive science the recognition that the human mind can cultivate mature emotional and ethical capacities of benevolence along with cognitive capacities of deep insight and understanding. Right now cognitive science has a view of the mind that’s rather narrow, where the database for mental function is mostly college students. Also, informed by that kind of cognitive science endeavor, I’d like to see a much more critical perspective on what’s happening with the commodification of mindfulness and… social looping effects.

The rest of the interview is here.

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Argo
7 years ago

Let me reiterate the point I made on the previous thread about this topic.

In situations without limited resources, diversity costs little. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

In situations with limited resources, diversity has an obvious opportunity cost. In such situations, the promotion of diversity isn’t a simple expression of goodwill and open-minded inquiry; it’s a claim about what our priorities should be as philosophers. It’s no surprise, then, that pushback against including the oral traditions of nomads exists in philosophy department. The claim that we should start studying nomadic storytelling implies that we should stop studying something else, something which perhaps many of us already hold dear.

Moreover, depending on how we allocate our resources in particular situations, the promotion of diversity in a particular philosophy department may reduce diversity at the institutional level. Philosophers are just about the only people in the university who study, e.g., expressivism. Understanding expressivism, or moral language generally, requires unusual fluency with ethics, metaethics, linguistics and logic, an uncommon mix of interests. Should we decide to hire a specialist in Bedouin creation legends rather than an specialist in expressivism at a university with a thriving storytelling research cluster in the Literature department, we may end up with less diversity than otherwise.

Sometimes hiring either the expressivist or the Mongolian metaphysical poetry specialist would increase institutional diversity. In such a case, shouldn’t we toss a coin? Perhaps Smith might argue that hiring the fresh graduate with a dissertation on mind/body relations in Roma jazz songs over the expressivist would increase diversity in Philosophy as a discipline, across institutions. But then, what should it matter that Roma song is ignored in philosophy if it is studied elsewhere? And if it isn’t studied elsewhere, particularly in disciplines and departments already mobilized to study song or the Roma, perhaps there’s a reason why no one is writing a dissertation on the topic.Report

Matt
Matt
Reply to  Argo
7 years ago

Perhaps “Bedouin creation legends” are beyond the pale. But what about classical Indian and Chinese philosophies? Are the opportunity costs too high to learn something about or hire someone who works on, say, Nyāya theories of perceptual cognition (or universals, epistemology, nature of the self, metaphysics of persistence, etc, etc), or Buddhist accounts of intentionality and self-consciousness (or concepts, causation, mereology, personal identity, ethics, etc, etc), or Mencius’ moral psychology or Daoist philosophy of action, etc, etc, etc? These traditions are deep and rich and every bit as sophisticated and technical as Western philosophy. But if the discipline continues to maintain that its just too hard to learn about other traditions or hire experts in these areas, perhaps we should start calling our “philosophy” departments “Anglo-European Studies” departments.Report

Argo
Reply to  Matt
7 years ago

Hi Matt, thanks for your response. It’s not clear to me where your post falls on the is/ought divide.

If it’s about the way things are, then thanks for calling my attention to the important ideas and traditions you mention.

If it’s about the way things should be, then I have two points:

First, as I imply in the last thread, I think there’s nothing to a name: calling philosophy departments “Departments of Anglo-European Studies” would be just fine by my lights as long as “Probabilities of Conditionals and Conditional Probability” is still read by people who find themselves there. I like Rorty’s thought that philosophy is nothing more than a particular conversation we’ve been having with the Greeks, where ‘we’ is just those people who’ve intentionally engaged with the Greeks in the way that we’ve come to call philosophy.

Second, nothing I’ve said implies that the traditions you mention are neither sophisticated nor technical, only that they are more likely to be studied outside of a philosophy department than is, say, the discussion about how to extend classical logic to account for vagueness. No doubt you’ll agree that said discussion is every bit as deep, rich, and sophisticated, to say nothing of its technicality, as Nyāya theories of perceptual cognition: to deny that it is so is a failure to recognize the contribution it makes to diversity in our discipline.

My point is that we should take care to preserve the discussion from Russell and Sidgwick to Fine and Parfit, because if we don’t, no one else will. And, when resources are limited, we can’t choose to fund research in both Nyāya theories of perceptual cognition and supervaluationism.Report

gradstudent
gradstudent
7 years ago

I’m quite pluralistic about how philosophy should be done, and I would definitely like to see more non-Western history of philosophy in mainstream departments.

But the way Justin Smith characterizes the discipline seems to me to leave a lot out—a great deal of what gets done in philosophy departments is simply not part of the “human sciences” and does not have anything to do with “expressions of human culture”, whether low-status or high-status. Philosophers who work on the mind-body problem, for instance, aren’t asking questions about cultural representations of minds and bodies in élite Western cultures, or nomadic cultures, or anything else: they’re just asking questions about minds and bodies.

I don’t think these sorts of direct questions about the world are *all* that philosophers should be concerned with, by any means. But they surely comprise *a large part* of what philosophers are and should be concerned with. It’s important to realize that in order to be able to have a serious discussion of the place of non-Western traditions in philosophy departments. For a lot of us (and I include myself in this number, at least most of the time, though I do sometimes do a little bit of history on the side), the question “Aren’t you limiting yourself by working within the Western canon and nothing beyond it?” has a false presupposition: we don’t care about the Western canon, or any other, for its own sake; our interest in what other people have written about philosophy in the past, or really in what human beings have thought about anything in the past, is purely instrumental.

Again, I don’t think that this should be the research practice of *all* philosophers: we would be impoverished if everyone adopted only an instrumental attitude to the history of philosophy. But it’s a natural attitude for *many* philosophers to adopt, given what they work on, and I think it unlikely that significant progress could be made in philosophy unless at least some people held it. I don’t think it’s useful to discuss the structure of the discipline without giving it at least some recognition.Report

Avi
Avi
7 years ago

It is well worthwhile and quite feasible for someone with a Western philosophy specialty to take the time necessary to explore in a serious way what Chinese, Tibetan, Indian, etc. philosophical traditions might contribute to issues in her specialty. More broadly, it is also feasible for someone already expert in a Western philosophical specialty to take the time in order to become an expert in a non-Western philosophical period or approach. As an exemplary instance of this kind of cosmopolitan scholarship, which in no way compromises rigour, I would like to mention the great phenomenologist, Iso Kern. After accomplishing some of the most important editorial and interpretive work ever done on Husserl, Kern went to study Chinese philosophy for many years in Taiwan and mainland China. He has recently published a very impressive monograph on the neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yang-ming and has written articles exploring approaches to sympathy and empathy in Confucianism, Adam Smith, and Husserl . Evan Thompson himself furnishes another example of someone comfortable in phenomenology, analytic philosophy of mind, and Buddhist philosophy of mind.Report

Daniel Nagase
Daniel Nagase
Reply to  Avi
7 years ago

I haven’t read it yet, but Graham Priest’s last book apparently contain some reflections on Eastern metaphysics.Report

Jerry Dworkin
Jerry Dworkin
7 years ago

For a critique of Priest and , in effect Smith, see this: http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/graham-priest-on-buddhism-and-logic/
Does “ineffable” mean ” incapable of being f….d up?”Report

PeterJ
7 years ago

Philosophy is surely about discovering truth. It cannot be a good approach to ignore a philosophy rather than to refute it. Let us refute Lao Tsu and the Buddha or concede that they might be worth studying. I see western academic philosophy as a large collection of people rejecting an entire philosophical tradition and then wondering why they cannot make any progress in their own. It is rather strange and sad from a certain perspective.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

I happen to have some experience with this. I’m in the philosophy dept of a top university in China, I have obtained a degree in studies in Buddhist philosophy and is now changing to a phd program in continental philosophy. Here in our department, except many teachers who are scholars of analytical philosophy, phenomenolgy and history of philosophy, we have also quite numbers of professors specialised in Chinese philosophy, buddhist Philosophy, and to a (dubious) extent, marxist philosophy. However, as far as I know, teachers working in different traditions rarely meet with others to discuss philosophy in general. There seems to have mutual incomprehensibility between different fields. Same situation with the students, students of Buddhism for example, believe what they are working on have more relation to Sanskrit language and Chinese literature(or intellectual history in the broadest sense) than with philosophy, and when I attended a course which discusses Quine I get incredible(and kind of contempt, I guess) looks from my fellow classmates.
So that is the atmostphere of what a philo department with apparent ‘diversity’ elements look like here, and remember, most of the scholars are Chinese(as well as the students, but we have also american students and American, german professors). Then is my experience with dealing with both Buddhist thought and european philosophy in my master’s thesis. I saw in Argument For Establishing Idealism(ChengWeiShiLun, a very sophisticated yogachara text) a serious debate between Buddhist and Hinduist, over the ontological import behind metaphorical expression. For example, Hinduist say that when the buddha says I do sth in sutras, the selfhood must exsit in some way for the expression to have meaning, but Buddhist deny selfhood, so the Buddhist can’t even give a satisfactory account of there own text; while Buddhist says that here ‘I’ is just a metaphorical manner of speaking and so doesn’t entail any kind commitment to the exsitence of selfhood, etc.. I work on this debate, pick out arguments from both sides, evaluate their premisses and soundness in there system etc. And that is the reason I take courses on Quine, Decartes, read Frege, Russel on reference, denoting, pay attention to discussions of fictionalism, read books from Scholar’s like Mark Siderit, examing French translation of the text by de Vallée Poussin, intepretation of indian logic, Dignana etc.. I believed at first what I was going to do was very meaningful, I believed that this hugely complex and technical buddhist text could be translated into modern philosophical terms and internal debates in it could be shown to be not merely a Buddhist problem, but a real, universal problem, that is to say a philosophical one. And I believed that after this modern up-to-date philosophical translation, some insights from the yogacara text may contribute to contemporary philosophical discussion. But it turned out in the end of my working this thesis out that I was wrong, both sides of the debate are from modern regard not very philosophically sophisticated, the Buddhist can even be said to often muddle the woud-be-serious-debate and hold onto quite naive views of workings of metaphors and meaning. The technical aspect of the text doesn’t have much to do with its philosophical depth. Even where there’s interesting discussion of conciousness(concerning its structure of reflexivity), its very long chinese commentary concern mainly with its theological aspect( that is to say evidences from meditations, which are every hard to evaluate even if you have meditative experience, since there are many different sorts of meditations and with each many folds of depths, and monks themselves aren’t in agreement with each other in their detailed contents). So a lesson I draw from my writing this thesis is that ‘philosophical translation’ of a non-european text may let the contemporary philosophy ‘eat up’ the original text. I should have noticed from the start to save my effort, since even in such a fine scholar like Siderits, I didn’t find new ideas that come out after his translation of buddhist literature into contempary analytical arguments. The translation has an echo Chamber effect: after painstaking, time-consuming transcription of an old oriental text into intelligible philosophical language, what show up are just some arguments and views that are already there in western philosophy perhaps for 2500 years, or ones that are very easy to refute or already amply refuted. There isn’t real dialogue from both sides, it’s a one-sided monologue. What I mean is not to say that other philosophies are inferior to western philosophy, but that the only philosophical language under which other philosophies should be translated into, somehow make the translated result not fruitful.
As for making my paper intelligible for my teachers of Buddhism, who have only very limited knowledge of history of philosophy and is in general igorant of analytical tradition, I didn’t use any symbolic formula in my paper and explain every background knowledge used in it. I passed the defence, though my teachers said frankly that they don’t understand my thesis, but they were very sure that I have solid knowledge of Buddhism, and so they also voted my passing the defence.
I don’t know if phenomenology can be engaged into a fruitful dialogue with Buddhism, perhaps it will, As Natalie Debraz and Michel Bitbol suggest. Anyway I’m now interested on Merleau-Ponty and Sartre and didn’t wish to bring any buddhist reading into them.

Besides, Graham Priest’s reading of Nagajuna is plainly wrong, no buddhist masters deny principle of non-contradition, the nature of catuskoti among scholars of Buddhism have long been explained, it’s nothing mysterious. ‘x is p, y is p; x is -p, y is -p; x is p, y is -p; x is -p, y is p’are the for catuskotis. And for mahayana Buddhism(so nagajuna included), everything’s nature is ineffable, nagajuna’s point is not cryptic, it’s the same as Bergson: you cannot make continuous being out of discontinuities, you cannot make a thing out of concepts.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

my mother language is of course chinese, sorry for clumsiness in my english writing.Report