“European Philosophy” Is No Good


At least not as a helpful label:

So I have a provocative proposal of my own: intellectually speaking, the more valid distinction is not between ‘European’ and ‘non-European’ philosophy, but between philosophical cultures that respond to Greek thought (however indirectly), and those that do not.

That’s Peter Adamson, professor of philosophy at LMU Munich and creator of the podcast History of Philosophy Without Any Gapswriting in Philosophy Now in response to an earlier piece by Jay Garfield (Yale-NUS) and Bryan Van Norden (Vassar) discussed here previously.

Garfield and Van Norden had proposed renaming philosophy departments that fail to cover “non-Western” philosophical work and traditions as “Departments of European and American Philosophy.” This led Adamson to wonder just what “European Philosophy” is. After introducing the distinction between philosophical cultures that respond to Greek thought and those that do not, Adamson continues:

Philosophers of the Islamic world—Jews, Muslims, and Christians writing in Arabic or Syriac—belong to the former category, as do Latin American thinkers. Philosophers of pre-modern Asia—India, China Korea, Japan, etc—as well as thinkers of the pre-colonial Americas and Africa, belong to the latter. Of course some believe that there may have been an exchange of ideas between the Greeks and India, but if so the influence was not determinative as it was in the case of the Islamic world, and in any case the influence is more usually thought to have traveled from India to the Mediterranean rather than the other way around.

So we reach another possible critique to add to Garfield and Van Norden’s polemic: ‘Eurocentric’ philosophy doesn’t even manage to be Eurocentric! It fails to cover its own supposed cultural domain, by omitting world-class thinkers who lived and worked in Europe, as well as those who lived and worked elsewhere. Much the same, by the way, can be said of other intellectual labels, such as ‘Western philosophy’.

Adamson’s essay is here.

UPDATE (10/4/16): See this follow-up post by Meena Krishnamurthy (Michigan) at Philosopher.

detail of photo by Jason Tozer

detail of photo by Jason Tozer

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Greg Gauthier
5 years ago

“some believe that there may have been an exchange of ideas between the Greeks and India, but if so the influence was not determinative” – this seems a bit over-generalized. The Pythagorean, and the Orphic influences on Socrates were pretty determinative of at least some aspects of his philosophy, yes?Report

Pete1187
Pete1187
5 years ago

With respect to labels like “Western” Philosophy and the Ancient Greeks, this reminds me a bit of a post on r/philosophy a while back:

https://www.reddit.com/r/philosophy/comments/3z70yf/is_ancient_greek_philosophy_western_gordon_hull/

Top Comment brought up a good point: You’re attacking the word “western” as if it changes the fact that they’re in many ways the foundation of “western” civilization.

That being said, I kind of like Adamson’s idea, as Middle Eastern philosophers were hugely influenced by the Greeks and tried building on their ideas.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Pete1187
5 years ago

And those Middle Eastern philosophers in turn hugely influenced medieval “European” philosophy.Report

Manyul Im
5 years ago

I’m shaking my head a little in disbelief. I always took it to be obvious that “European” appended to “Philosophy” was just the code word for exactly this: influenced by and responding to the long conversation that started with ancient Greeks. You might as well critique the phrase “footnotes to Plato” as inaccurate since not everyone literally and explicitly references Plato. Maybe we’re reaching a bit far in the defense against what Garfield, et al, find objectionable. We can’t just admit that there’s a real problem?Report

Epikoureios
Epikoureios
Reply to  Manyul Im
5 years ago

Thank you, Manyul. I for one share your irritation with the caginess at play here. Whatever position one may take toward Garfield and Van Norden’s criticisms, the main thrust of that criticism should be painfully obvious to anyone with a neuron on active duty: philosophy departments in the contemporary West have grandfathered in a large (albeit occasionally fuzzy) cast of accepted characters and ideas that “count” as sources of credible input for ongoing philosophical reading, reflection, discussion, and dispute. Other figures and ideas may from time to time overlap with those concerns and are by no means banned outright from the conversation, but all too often are viewed either (a) with suspicion as part of the “not-us”; or (b) as useful sources of ideas to be harvested and compared self-servingly with members of the “us.” Hume on the bundled self is mandatory, but Nagarjuna on shunyata is peripheral. Plotinus’s idealism is approved, but Abhinavagupta’s idealism is not. The Middle Eastern Ibn al-Haytham likely wouldn’t raise eyebrows, because he’s “one of us” by tradition, but Chandrakirti very well might, because he’s something else.

When Garfield and Van Norden criticize this tendency by calling for departments to adopt the label “European and American Philosophy,” they aren’t suggesting that this is because Europe and America are the exclusive loci for the *sources* of the ideas covered in those departments (though they certainly consolidated there in the form of real interest in most departments). Rather, the problems are (1) that Europeans and Americans overwhelmingly dictate *who counts* as worthy of serious attention in their departments of philosophy; and more crucially, (2) the metric by which they do so is often tainted at the outset by complete ignorance of, disinterest in, and sometimes hostility to the notion that thinkers outside the traditional cast might have powerful insights to offer. The issue is chiefly one of power and excessively insular professionalization, not geographical origin taken alone.Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
5 years ago

While I see Adamson’s point, I agree with Manyul. What difference does it make? Finding some nomenclature that will satisfy those doing _____ philosophy is unlikely so long as part of that naming project consists in highlighting the vast swaths of philosophy regularly ignored or, worse, derided. Call it majority philosophy, institutionally entrenched philosophy, your grandpa’s philosophy, normal philosophy, conservative philosophy. Call it three in the morning and four at night philosophy and, if that doesn’t go over well, call it four in the morning and three at night philosophy. Satisfying those doing _____ philosophy that we’ve got their name and description right is tiring, especially if this is somehow the never-ending preface to recognizing philosophy that isn’t ______.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

I cannot see any way to disentangle the vague terminology and geographical stereotyping.

Heidegger, If I remember right, saw the division as originating in later Greek philosophy as a consequence as the loss of the idea of Unity with Aristotle and Plato. Then one whole tradition evolved to be irrevocably stuck in dualism. One could see this as the ‘West’ splitting from the ‘East’ although this is very clumsy. Still, for me Socrates would be ‘Eastern’ and Plato ‘Western’.

I’d usually characterise ‘Western’ or ‘European’ philosophy by its rejection of ideas that smack of Unity, esotericism and nonduality. That is, it would not be geography that matters but ideas. It would be the rejection of certain ideas that would lead me to use the word ‘Western’, not the birthplace of its exponents. But everybody does it differently so the discussion is almost impossible to sort out. Eastern thought is more comprehensive and open for it includes all the ideas the appear in Western thought as well as those that don’t and I doubt the idea that there are two distinct ways of doing philosophy would make sense to many ‘Eastern’ thinkers, unless it’s just ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

It is a serious and genuine problem. I’ve just read a professional essay arguing that Zen has no metaphysical scheme. Such failures of scholarship should not be possible and it seems to be the price of building a wall around the Academy to keep out all that Eastern nonsense. My feeling is that any serious philosopher will have nothing to do with tradition or geography and just pursue the truth, for this goal would be best served if we forget about where ideas came from.and simply assess them on their merits.

The issue is a genuinely tricky one for teachers, perhaps, but fortunately it can be entirely ignored by truth-seekers with internet access.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

Why do we need a to do about labels? Why not just address the persons and issues directly? It seems to me the labels are only there so one can applaud or denigrate all or some “western philosophy “, “eastern philosophy “, “continental philosophy” and so forth. Labeling seems an outdated endeavor.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Traditional philosophy (or whatever label you want to use for the dominant tradition in the West) does not take itself to be concerned only with a geographical or cultural subset of philosophy, but only with what is good philosophy. Where it fails to take into account good philosophy from different traditions, this is not a sign that it is concerned in principle only with philosophy from its own tradition, but a sign of philosophers failing on their own terms.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

Hey NM – Very much agree.Report