Cosmopolitanism and Diversity in Philosophy


“The reason why most Anglo-American philosophers don’t worry about learning non-Western philosophy is that they assume cosmopolitanism is an ideal developed by Western philosophy. This assumption can create an amazing amount of institutional inertia. Western philosophers assume that the tradition of Plato and Spinoza and Russell just is the cosmopolitan tradition, and that it is up to non-Western traditions to join in with the Enlightenment. In this sense, there’s an assumption of inequality between Western and non-Western philosophical traditions: Western philosophy is not really Western because it is actually universal, and non-Western philosophy is really only a local tradition that should merge with Western philosophy.” More here, from Bharath Vallabha, a former assistant professor of philosophy at Bryn Mawr, who was educated at Cornell and then Harvard.

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Owen Flanagan
Owen Flanagan
7 years ago

This is very interesting. My experience is a little different. First, I have heard fellow philosophers disparage non-Western philosophy. Second, I think there are a range of cosmopolitanisms. One extreme expects eventually a blended liberal gruel. This is a philosophical kind of melting pot hypothesis. It is parochial. But it would allow indifference to alternative traditions. On the other side, are kinds of cosmopolitanism that have fewer expectations about how the intersections, interactions, and collisions of deep metaphysical, epistemic, and value differences will turn out. But the expectation, for me it is also a hope, is it will not be some thin philosophical or cultural gruel. Philosophers should be at the forefront of exploring the possibility space for thinking and being better than we are now, and cross-cultural, comparative philosophy is key to doing so responsibly.Report

Thom Brooks
7 years ago

I’ve written over the last year about the promise of what I call “global philosophy” where different philosophical traditions come into contact to help each address their own specific problems. I’m strongly of the view that each/all can learn much from each other. See: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/meta.12027/abstract;jsessionid=C77F33D7BD9DDB6EC07400DF516BF3FA.f01t04Report

linsantu
linsantu
7 years ago

I think the debate boils down to the question of what philosophy is (or ought to be): e.g. is it (or ought it to be) more like science, or art, or somewhere in between (and where)? If we think philosophy is (or ought to be) like art, aiming not at truth broadly understood but at imagination and creativity, then Mr. Park is definitely right. If instead philosophy is (or ought to be) like science, despite differences in methodology etc., then he would be wrong – we certainly don’t think scientists need to know about “histories of non-Western sciences” (nor even history of “Western” science). Or perhaps it is somewhere in between, to the effect that, on the one hand, the history of philosophy is somewhat relevant to philosophical inquiry (unlike history of science) while on the other hand, it is relevant only instrumentally (unlike history of art which is intrinsically relevant to the study of art), in providing reference points, experiences of failed arguments, etc. that help us reach the philosophical truth more efficiently. If this is the case, then perhaps the Western ignorance of non-Western traditions of philosophy (and by the same token, non-Western ignorance of Western philosophy) won’t be that much of a hindrance to philosophical inquiry, as long as the particular tradition at hand has already contained many of the important arguments and methods etc. that have been developed in other traditions.Report

Dan Weiskopf
Dan Weiskopf
7 years ago

There are undoubtedly a number of tacit assumptions about the cross-cultural universality of philosophy at work in these debates. The truth, I think, is that there is at best lip service to cosmopolitanism when it comes to the content of the philosophical canon. Other disciplines in the humanities in the past few decades have had wide-ranging debates about the status and legitimacy of their canonical figures and texts, and fierce battles over inclusiveness and bias. The results have probably been mixed — revanchism by conservatives in some quarters, but a salutary opening of the field in others. Either way, it seems clear that when it comes to cross-cultural inclusiveness, this critical self-examination has barely begun within philosophy.

Other fields, however, are having these debates right now, and philosophers might benefit from paying attention to the terms in which they are being conducted. In art history, for example, a pressing issue is whether there is such a thing as a global art history, and whether the periodization of art and the language of styles, movements, etc. developed from mainly Western art traditions has any relevant application to other regional practices. These questions have striking parallels to those that arise in philosophy. For those interested in exploring further, I’d suggest starting with “A World Art History and Its Objects”, by David Carrier, and “Is Art History Global?”, edited by James Elkins.Report

Christian Coseru
7 years ago

There are surely several ways of conceiving of the cosmopolitan ideal, but I’m afraid no matter how one conceives of it, ‘cosmopolitanism’ is unlikely to have much traction among philosophers if the discipline continues on its current course. One argument I often hear is that, while some familiarity with the history of philosophy is a boon, there is precious little that can be gained from reading the classics anymore, which might explain why folks working in the history of philosophy are sometimes taken as not really doing philosophy. Even so, someone like Descartes, Kant or Hegel at least continue to inform contemporary debates, and their ideas anyway reflect issues at the core of the Western intellectual tradition (or so the argument goes). What do Nāgārjuna or Mengzi have to offer, that is, if one is not a Buddhist or a Confucian (or have some deep affinity for those cultural traditions)? We now have close to a century of solid scholarship in non-Western philosophy, and I don’t think it would an exaggeration to say that the impact on contemporary debates has been close to nil.

It’s also worth remembering that before these recent calls for a cosmopolitan approach there were calls for doing ‘comparative philosophy’, that is, for looking at one’s tradition through the lens of another. The idea was that one may thus uncover some deep unexamined assumption or get to call into question claims of universality in either philosophical tradition. That approach, unfortunately, failed to tell us whether the views and arguments so compared were good ones. Then came ‘fusion’ philosophy, a jazzy, improvisational style of doing metaphysics, epistemology or value theory, drawing from sources both East and West, but much less deferential to the purity of tradition. That didn’t catch either because, I don’t know, philosophers think, perhaps with Foucault, that there is an order of things? Now comes cosmopolitanism, which, to paraphrase Philo of Alexandria, can really only be practiced by those who have truly become citizens of the world. So you’ve got to be living and thriving in a cosmopolis to qualify, or at least near enough one.

Even though philosophy has become more like science, genuine philosophical reflection is still an art. My hope is that it will be artfully practiced with greater sensitivity to the cosmopolitan environs in which most philosophers now dwell. But don’t hold your breath.Report

Jonardon Ganeri
7 years ago

A cosmopolitan in philosophy is someone who believes that access to cognitive resources (not only bodies of ideas but also ways of thinking and attending) is not restricted according to group-membership. It is a good question whether cosmopolitanism is compatible with philosophical naturalism. Here’s why I think it is. Scientific hypotheses are often generated when the same problem is approached from a number of different directions. A scientist skilled in what one might call “intellectual binocularity” is able to see more deeply into the problem, just as binocular vision brings to visibility aspects of the perceptual environment unseen in monocular sight. An example of this is the Fields Medal winner Manjul Bhargava, who describes how he discovered a proof for Gauss’s Law when he alternated attention between looking at the properties of a Rubic’s cube and reflecting on a Sanskrit mathematical treatise written by Brahmagupta (http://www.businessinsider.com/fields-medal-winner-bhargava-2014-8). This sort of skill in attending to a single phenomenon through several encultured perspectives is thus as much a part of creative scientific practice as it is of good philosophy. I’m optimistic, in fact, that the profession will come to recognise that it is in the best interests of philosophy as a creative intellectual enterprise to appreciate and encourage these sorts of cosmopolitan philosophical skill, alongside the more conventional philosophical skills currently taught and exercised in the academy.Report

Christian Coseru
7 years ago

A follow up on one of Jonardon’s points: one way to frame the question whether cosmopolitanism is compatible with philosophical naturalism is to consider whether philosophy should be concerned with studying the world or with reading other philosophers. Of course, sometimes one studies the world by reading what others (philosophers included) say about it. But philosophical naturalism, it seems to me, entails that one cares about what others (philosophers included) say only insofar as they advance our understanding of what there is (or could conceivably be the case). So it’s an interesting empirical question whether what there is shows up differently depending on whichever encultured perspective one adopts. Finding more elegant and economical solutions to mathematical problems is one thing. Figuring out how the Higgs boson behaves is quite another. But if Max Tegmark is right, and we do live in a mathematized universe, then perhaps there is enculturement all the way down.Report