Nationalism, Universalism, & Diversity in Philosophy (guest post by Bharath Vallabha)


The following is a guest post* from Bharath Vallabha, former assistant professor of philosophy at Bryn Mawr College. In it, he raises questions about the relationship between the geopolitical location of a philosophy department and the philosophical work done in it.


[Jasper Johns, “Map (Based on Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Airocean World)”]

Nationalism, Universalism and Diversity in Philosophy
by Bharath Vallabha

What should be the relation of a philosophy department to the country it is in? For example, is there a sense in which a philosophy department in America ought to be distinctly American, tied more closely to the history, culture and identity of America than to that of other countries? Or should the fact that the department is in America be irrelevant to the philosophical work that is done in the department?

I will call the former view, that the department ought to be distinctly American in some sense, nationalism. And I will call the latter view universalism.

So according to nationalism, philosophy departments in, say, America, Mexico, India, Germany, Egypt and so on, though they will have a great deal of similarities and points of overlap, nonetheless will be different in their philosophical projects since they are interwoven with their home countries in different ways. According to universalism, however, philosophy departments in different countries ought to be the same in terms of content, since philosophy departments ought to transcend the contingent fact of their location.

A couple of clarifications. First, nationalism in the sense I am talking about is distinct from patriotism. The difference between a nationalist and a universalist isn’t who loves their country more. A universalist can be as patriotic as a nationalist. The difference is about the philosophical relevance of the country the department is in to the work of the department.

Second, much work done in philosophy departments is obviously universalist. Logic, philosophy of physics,  philosophy of biology, internalism versus externalism—for these it makes no difference whether one is in America or Brazil or South Africa. For that matter, if one is working on Spinoza or Shankara or Avicenna with the aim of understanding the content and historical conditions of their work, then too it is irrelevant what country one is in. So the issue between nationalism and universalism isn’t whether philosophy projects can be universalist. The issue is whether philosophy departments ought to also have distinctly nationalist projects which are more tied to the concerns, culture and history of the country the department is in.

At first blush, it might seem that universalism is the clear way to foster diversity in philosophy departments. If departments adhered to nationalism, wouldn’t that reinforce the structural privileges and biases of the country the department is in? The universalist argues that in order to think critically about the assumptions of a country, it is essential to adopt a universal perspective where people reflect on themselves not as Americans or French or Israelis, but simply as people. That the task of philosophy is to foster such universalism.

I would suggest, however, that universalism actually stifles conversation about diversity. For it replaces philosophical debate about the identity and direction of a country with a sharp dichotomy between local, unphilosophical discourse and universal, philosophical discourse. In the process, any view other than universalism is set up from the get go as something backward, insular and what is to be overcome.

This stifling of debate is experienced from at least two sides in America. First, from the side of proponents of cultural Eurocentrism. If someone says, “American philosophy departments should focus more on European philosophy since it captures the traditional culture of America,” this is not racist or automatically intolerant. Racists might say such a thing, but that doesn’t mean racism is the only way of saying it. A philosophical Eurocentrist is a nationalist, in the sense I defined above, who has a particular view about what nationalist projects philosophy departments should contribute to. This is a legitimate view in conceptual space which ought to be taken seriously, both for its potential merits and because a great many people intuitively find it compelling. Nothing is gained by dismissing it without reflection.

A similar stifling of debate can be experienced by proponents of non-European traditions. In America, this is most obvious in the case of African-American philosophy. Since African-Americans can lay a great claim to America (as people who were an essential part of it from its foundation), universalism is not necessary to argue for the inclusion of African-American philosophy in philosophy departments. Embracing nationalism is more than sufficient for that. The idea that African-American philosophy can only be defended from a universalist perspective uncritically reinforces the assumption that America as a nation is fundamentally Eurocentric. But this assumption is exactly one of the main issues at stake, and can only be resolved by explicitly doing, what one might call, the philosophy of America (What it is? What it has been? What it ought to be?).

For example, is Black Lives Matter philosophically significant? What about the alt right? Saying “yes” doesn’t require agreeing with these movements.  It requires just the idea, which is patently true, that these movements sharply raise questions related to the philosophy of America. These movements are attempts to articulate different, competing visions of America. Philosophy departments can help in better articulating these visions, and so help foster more productive and rigorous discussion between them.

Ultimately, this is the limitation of universalism. To foster diversity, we need philosophy departments to engage more, not less, with issues distinctive to the nations they are in. Though Black Lives Matter has movements in other countries, it cannot be evaluated simply as a global phenomenon. In its American, founding manifestation, it is a distinctly American movement, with people, pro and con, trying to grapple with the history of race relations in America. The unique American element of the movement is not a detriment to its philosophical interest, as universalism would imply. Rather, it is of great importance for honestly addressing the philosophical questions particular to the identity of America.

Let me end with a historical speculation. Prior to World War II, American pragmatism, especially in its Deweyean form, was unabashedly nationalist. Just as Dewey made no sharp distinction between science and philosophy, he made no sharp distinction between politics and philosophy. It was treated as entirely natural that part of the project of philosophy departments in America would be to foster the flourishing of America – including debating what America, and its flourishing, meant.

After World War II, however, universalism became more the norm in American philosophy. Like Dewey, Quine blurred the boundary between science and philosophy; but unlike Dewey, Quine reinforced a sharp separation between politics and philosophy. On the Quinean worldview, philosophers, like scientists, are trans-national thinkers, interested only in universal truth, and not in particular identities such as what country one lives in. Nor was this only an analytic attitude. A continental thinker like Marcuse blurred the boundary of politics and philosophy, and made a big cultural impact in America. Yet the politics at issue was trans-national, of the common situation of countries in late capitalism.

Why did this shift happen in America in mid-20th century? My guess is that with the civil rights movement and the end of colonialism, the concept of nationalism in philosophy departments in America became conflated with the concept of racist white nationalism in American culture. The conflation is psychologically and historically understandable. But intellectually it has been disastrous, especially for discourse about the direction of America. Philosophers in America need to resist this conflation and create spaces for debating alternate nationalistic visions, for academic philosophy and America more broadly. They would then be at the front lines of healing the divisions in the country.

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Anne
Anne
4 years ago

One obvious major issue is language. The hegemony of the universal approach is very much connected – although not insurmountably so – to the status of English as a global lingua franca. At least in political philosophy, this partly explains the dominance of the liberal tradition, with its (fairly problematic) assumptions concerning the link between moral and linguistic agency. Philosophically, of course, this is an obvious epistemic challenge for the universal approach.Report

Stephen Clark
Stephen Clark
4 years ago

I think the main problem with “universalism” was identified by Chesterton, in The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“We moderns”, said Barker, “believe in a great cosmopolitan civilization, one which shall include all the talents of all the absorbed peoples…”

“The Senor will forgive me,” said the [former] President [of Nicaragua]. “May I ask the Senor how, under ordinary circumstances, he catches a wild horse?”

“I never catch a wild horse,” replied Barker, with dignity.

“Precisely,” said the other; “and there ends your absorption of the talents. That is what I complain of your cosmopolitanism.
When you say you want all peoples to unite, you really mean that you want all peoples to unite to learn the tricks of your people.
If the Bedouin Arab does not know how to read, some English missionary or schoolmaster must be sent to teach him to read, but no one ever says, ‘This schoolmaster does not know how to ride on a camel; let us pay a Bedouin to teach him.’ You say your civilization will include all talents. Will it? Do you really mean to say that at the moment when the Esquimaux has learnt to vote for a County Council, you will have learnt to spear a walrus?”Report

Anne
Anne
Reply to  Stephen Clark
4 years ago

Terry Pratchett makes a similar point: “Ignorant: a state of not knowing what a pronoun is, or how to find the square root of 27.4, and merely knowing childish and useless things like which of the seventy almost identical-looking species of the purple sea snake are the deadly ones, how to treat the poisonous pith of the Sago-sago tree to make a nourishing gruel, how to foretell the weather by the movements of the tree-climbing Burglar Crab, how to navigate across a thousand miles of featureless ocean by means of a piece of string and a small clay model of your grandfather, how to get essential vitamins from the liver of the ferocious Ice Bear, and other such trivial matters. It’s a strange thing that when everyone becomes educated, everyone knows about the pronoun but no one knows about the Sago-sago.”Report

Mateo
Mateo
4 years ago

There seems to be an important distinction between:
(1) Philosophers joining public debates in their communities (local, national, or global) whenever their expert knowledge is relevant.
(2) Philosophy departments being focused on theories and intellectual traditions that reflect the history, culture, and identity of the country they are located in.

Unfortunately I think this post conflates these two things. We certain want more of (1), but I don’t think we need to reject universalism to get it. Many philosophers work in a general and universal way, on questions about political legitimacy, ethnic/national identity, multiculturalism, migration, distributive justice, racial discrimination etc. We certainly want these philosophers to join national debates in the countries they reside in or identify with and bring philosophical clarity and sophistication to those debates. However, they don’t need to reject their universal orientation to make such contributions. They can continue to work on ‘general theories’ and yet contribute to national debates by applying their theories to more specific problems currently in the spotlight. Furthermore, there is worry that if (2) holds then the quality of philosophical contributions to public debate is diminished because it is more likely to reflect culturally dominant views and assumptions rather than challenging those assumptions as is sometimes necessary. We want philosophers to participate in national debates. However, would we prefer a situation where most philosophical contributors in the USA defend strong individualist values and most contributors in China defend Confucian values, or would we prefer a situation where there is a diversity of philosophical viewpoints present in each nation’s debates, allowing the status quo to regularly be challenged?Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Mateo
4 years ago

To challenge culturally dominant views, it is not necessary to adopt universalism. In fact, universalism uncritically reinforces culturally dominant views by treating them as definitive of those cultures, and under appreciates diversity within a culture. For example, is America more for “individualist values” and China more for “Confucian values”? Even if true, at best these are claims of how these countries have been. It doesn’t address the philosophically interesting issue of what should be American culture; the issue of what kind of culture America should have. Once this normative question is on the table for American culture, then more of the diversity within America comes to the surface by Americans themselves debating what kind of culture they want.

Generalizations about cultural identities of countries are historical remnants, and when these identities are treated as essential to the culture, it doesn’t enable diversity but the opposite sense that each country have some intrinsic essence. This leads to paranoia that if “that essence” is being challenged, it must be because of outsiders, immigrants coming in and changing things. Universalism reinforces this paranoia by saying, “yes, we should take a trans-national perspective in order to be critical of our own views”; as if it is obvious what “our own” views were or ought to be.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
4 years ago

I should think that a moderate view is obviously true. Academic departments have an interest in both pursuing universal truths *and* pursuing historical projects that are relevant to the particular culture in which they are situated. Pure universalism and pure nationalism strike me as being pretty awful views. Vallabha seems to only be suggesting that universalism isn’t obviously true, and not that pure nationalism is true and that we shouldn’t also pursue projects of universal interest.

To this I will add that the entire debate seems a bit malformed insofar as it isn’t entirely up to academics to decide what they should be pursuing. Academic departments are only possible due to various sorts of funding. Even if you thought that particular historical questions aren’t worth pursuing just because they are tied to your culture, it is plausible that many of the people funding you think differently. It is fairly problematic to simply take their money and then do whatever you want with it, both at a moral and purely pragmatic level. (Following this line of reasoning it also seems completely perverse that philosophical research isn’t freely available to the public, but that is a dispute for another day.)Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  YAAGS
4 years ago

Agree very much. Though I would put it slightly differently. It is part of intellectual inquiry that the inquirer, here the academic, pursue their ideas as they see fit; one can’t imagine what the public, or anyone else, would want and do that, if that is not intrinsically motivating for oneself.

I suspect what is at issue is a different assumption, about how to get the public interested in philosophy. The universalist view is that to get the public interested in philosophy is get them to care about topics which are trans-national: nature of properties, free will, consciousness, utilitarianism, etc. This might be true for some people. But as a general issue about people, this strikes me as completely wrong. People are much more drawn to issues in their lives and culture, the kind they debate and fight with their families, friends and neighbors, which touch on questions of the direction and meaning of their shared lives as citizens. The basic question is, “Where are we going? Who are we? Who do we want to be?” I These nationalistic questions are much more intuitive and exciting for most people, and can draw them into reflection. And inevitably such reflection will lead to further questions about free will, ethics, identity, etc.

The universalism in academic philosophy for last 65 years has tried to motivate philosophy while bypassing issues of nationalism. This has created a bizarre situation where the issues debated in intro philosophy courses or in dissertations are, on the surface, not the same as the issues that are dividing people in the culture at large. If there is a connection, most people don’t know it is. In fact, bypassing nationalism is historically bizarre as well. We might read Plato without worrying about what it means to be Greek, or Kant without worrying about what it means to be Prussian, but it was certainly not true for Plato and Kant. They would not have been able to easily separate out the nationalistic (or communalistic) aspects of their view from the more universal aspects. And obviously not because they were weak thinkers. And if it was true for Plato or Kant, how much more true it must be for most people.

My own suspicion is that universalism has been dominant in academic philosophy not because we as humans have transcended issues of nationalism. But because academic philosophy for the last half century became afraid of anything remotely nationalistic, as if nationalism as a concept is identical to white supremacy. This Is throwing the baby out with the bath water.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

Could you give some examples of “issues in their lives and culture, the kind they debate and fight with their families, friends and neighbors, which touch on questions of the direction and meaning of their shared lives as citizens” for the modern USA?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

How departments should be constructed depends on how they serve the public. If a philosopher is publishing internationally, they may have good reason to take a “universalist” approach, rather than focusing on the specific needs of their nation. On the other hand, if a philosopher gives public talks, they may have good reason to focus of topics of particular national importance. It all comes down to how exactly one’s ideas leave the ivory tower. (If one’s ideas don’t leave the ivory tower, it doesn’t matter how one focuses).Report

Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

Hey Nonny Mouse, re your question of some examples:

1) What is it to be an American? How to balance socio-historical sense of being American (crudely: the longer one is in American, the more American one is) with a legalistic-citizenship sense of being American? Even in the socio-historical sense, how to balance the founding fathers image of America with other images of America?

2) Can different religions coexist? What does a secular society look like? Does secularism flatten out human experience, or can it enable a robust sharing and coexistence of diverse religious and atheistic cultures?

3) Should there be a global government? If not, should there be a global culture? If not, how to foster a sense of togetherness and oneness across all humans, while respecting diverse cultures? Is hope of such a balance a fantasy?

4) If income inequality grows, and if humans become more enmeshed with technology, will the masses of the poor be left behind as the rich and the upper middle class acquire a proto-cyborg like life? Then will differences of race and religion become less important than how cyborg-like one is able to become?

Call these “thick philosophy questions”. There are certainly academic philosophers who are doing important work on these questions, either directly or in the vicinity of these questions.

But my sense is that most undergrad philosophy courses, and even public philosophy, is aimed at “thin philosophy questions” in the more familiar, finding the essence form, “What is justice? What is the mind? What is knowledge?” I think most people – as opposed to people who naturally gravitate to philosophy – can grab hold of philosophy better through thick questions, and lose grip with the thin questions. So starting with the thick questions can be socially, and I would say even intellectually, more productive.Report

Sikander
Sikander
4 years ago

People within some country have a diversity of interests as well. It doesn’t ‘foster diversity’ to reduce the space within academic philosophy for people with various interests in philosophy, because those interests aren’t seen as connected enough to the country they are in. One’s thinking and research cannot be restricted by country, but if academic space is, then this results in unjustified exclusion of philosophers whose interests are seen as irrelevant to the country they’re in (the issue of who has the power to make these decisions is a related one worth thinking about).

Another issue is that countries are not the same as nations. Canada and Pakistan, for example, are multi-nation states. I suppose you might deal with this by saying that all the nations, ethnicities, classes, genders, sexual orientations (these also have their own cultures associated with them), and subcultures within the country should be included in the set of acceptable or emphasized topics in philosophy departments in that country.

Finally, and most importantly to me, we already have area studies departments in universities that are doing something similar to what you are proposing. Someone interested in an academic study of Black Lives Matter can have this need fulfilled in fields such as history, black studies, American studies, etc. Philosophy is by its nature universal and concerned with abstract issues that are not as connected to historical and geographic contingencies. For these reasons I lean strongly towards universalism.Report

Sikander
Sikander
Reply to  Sikander
4 years ago

Also, I do not agree with this:

“For it [universalism] replaces philosophical debate about the identity and direction of a country with a sharp dichotomy between local, unphilosophical discourse and universal, philosophical discourse. In the process, any view other than universalism is set up from the get go as something backward, insular and what is to be overcome.”

Universalism does not present such a dichotomy. Some people might misuse it this way, but it’s not inherent to universalism. Some issues are genuinely unphilosophical or not of philosophical interest, and those can justifiably be excluded from academic philosophy to a greater extent than philosophical issues. Many academic fields exist other than philosophy, so I really don’t see it as a problem that philosophers are not expected to study or teach everything under the sun, no matter how important some of those things may be.Report