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If Anglo-American Philosophy Is So Great, Where Is Its Las Casas? (guest post by Manuel R. Vargas)


Many of my philosophical friends are puzzled by my interest in Anglo-American philosophy… If Anglophone philosophers—especially those who have studied in the U.S.—have done anything important, anything that matters, they tell me, surely there would be evidence in the other humanities, in the architecture and ambitions of the great universities, or in the visible structure of the political world… 

The following is a guest post* by Manuel R. Vargas , Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. It originally appeared at Philosopher.


[Roberto Matta, untitled]

If Anglo-American Philosophy Is So Great, Where Is Its Las Casas?
by Manuel R. Vargas

Many of my philosophical friends are puzzled by my interest in Anglo-American philosophy. In occasional moments of conspiratorial earnestness, they ask me why I spend my time studying issues within a tradition that has produced no Platos, no Descartes, no Las Casases, no Sor Juanas, no Villoros? If Anglophone philosophers—especially those who have studied in the U.S.—have done anything important, anything that matters, they tell me, surely there would be evidence in the other humanities, in the architecture and ambitions of the great universities, or in the visible structure of the political world. Unlike philosophy’s obviously important achievements, there is no trace of specifically U.S. Anglophone philosophical work in the symbols of state, in (for example) the mottos of universities, or in the political discourse of the day. Instead, the tradition relies on its European heritage for anything of world-historical importance, and it seems to produce barrenly scholastic irrelevancies that are of no interest to anyone outside their cloistered world.

When my friends working in Latin American, Asian, Africanist, Indigenous, and comparativist philosophy press me in this way, I protest their parochialism. I tell them that there is a great deal of interest, potential, and even payoff in the work of my colleagues in Anglophone philosophy. But to see how and why there is something of value there requires some work. You can’t expect to be familiar with the value and virtues of Anglophone philosophy without actually studying it. At the very least, before we condemn it we should have some serious study of it.

This response is usually met with some skepticism, and mutterings that from what they’ve heard, it is all derivative dreck, not particularly good, and generally irrelevant to anything that matters for real philosophy. I then hasten to acknowledge that some Anglophone work is derivative dreck, uninspired, or of little real importance. I go on to insist that other Anglophone work is wonderful, inspiring, and about things that genuinely matter.

When my friends in Latin American philosophy and beyond learn that a good deal of Anglophone philosophy has not been translated into their locally preferred philosophical languages, their interest in reading it wanes. The idea that a scholar should have to study another language in order to read material not already in their own tongue(s) strikes them as vaguely repellent, given how much good philosophy is already available to them. I sometimes detect a whiff of dismissiveness about the philosophical potential of the English language.

I suppose I could attribute their attitudes to racism or ethnocentrisms of various sorts, but that seems unlikely. After all, like philosophy elsewhere, Anglophone philosophers are of a wide and diverse set of races and ethnicities, and the neglect of Anglophone philosophy seems unlikely to be explained by something so simple and crass.

Sometimes, friends will tell me that Anglophone philosophy is just “me-studies.” My response is sometimes ill advisedly strident. I would have hoped that others would readily grant that reflections on the nature, interests, and challenges of the groups with which I affiliate might be worth some reflection, at the very least by those of us who are members of those communities. Even though Anglophone moral psychologists and metaphysicians are mostly members of a particular and easily identified social identity group this does not mean that our work fails to aspire to universality, or that it does not speak to more-than-parochial interests.

That my Anglo-American philosophical colleagues self-identify as, for example, “analytic” philosophers, and tend to overwhelmingly restrict their attention to other self-described “analytic” philosophers and their colleagues, does not mean that they are doing “me-studies.” And just because those who occupy the social position of analytic philosophers overwhelmingly fit particular demographic categories does not mean that their interest in that work is merely narcissistic interest in themselves and the ideas produced by that ilk. They—we!—earnestly think the work is good, worth reading, and genuinely valuable. Moreover, the widespread symptom of not reading outside this literature is not necessarily a judgment about other work, I tell them. It is only a reflection of their communities of discourse, their personal interests, and how they have been habituated by their local metrics of value.

At this point in the conversation, I am sometimes met with a vaguely skeptical silence, as though my other-than-Anglophone friends are too polite to voice the thought that the only reason I’m interested in Anglophone philosophy is because I was raised in a context where English was widely spoken, and that I identify in various ways with the culture and circumstances that produced this work. I believe there is nothing wrong with wanting to study issues and topics that are familiar, valorized by one’s idiosyncratic and local culture, or that one finds personally interesting. Moreover, it isn’t as though Anglo-American philosophy is one thing. There is a considerable diversity of topics, orientations, and methods in philosophy in the Anglophone world.

When I say these things, my other-than-Anglophone philosophy friends tend to get bemused looks on their faces. They tend to gently press me on the hard question: why it is so hard to find work in my tradition with actual evidence of importance? Why aren’t your philosophers culturally significant figures, architects of culture and policy, or involved in the major national issues of the day, they ask? Anglophone philosophers seem exclusively concerned with the narrow topics of interest only to members of their own tribes.

I gesture at the possibility of different metrics of interestingness. This does little to alter their dissatisfaction.

In older surveys of Anglophone philosophy, written for those outside of the Anglophone world, I sometimes come across a suggestive but now impolitic idea. The idea is this: maybe there is a cultural defect in the spirit or character of Anglophone people, especially in the former colonies, that undercuts the possibility of any real philosophical value to their thought. The idea is, roughly, that the particular legacy of colonialism in much of the English-speaking world has left Anglophone philosophers in those countries inclined to flee from reality and the central challenges of human existence. So, Anglophone philosophers fixate on and regard as prestigious work on metaphysics and theoretical epistemology because these subjects are the purest escape from what is unavoidably immediate and real—ethics, politics, culture. Many but not all of my non-analytic friends think this reflects a disorder of merit. Metaphysics and epistemology have their place, of course, but it is manifestly not at the center of what matters, they say. So, they read the Anglophone preoccupation with metaphysics and epistemology as a kind of pathological cultural neurosis (helped along, perhaps, by the evident irrationalism of the English language). As one author has put it, if philosophy can be done without personal risk, then it is not worth the name.

Fortunately, diagnoses of cultural pathologies are—like satires—less commonly proposed than they once were.

I’ll close by noting that sometimes my Anglophone philosophical friends express puzzlement about my interest in Latin American philosophy. In occasional moments of conspiratorial earnestness, they ask me why I spend time studying issues within a tradition that has produced no Platos, no Descartes, no Humes and so on. The ensuing conversation is oddly familiar.

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M
M
3 years ago

I’m sure we could supply you with plenty of Anglo-American Sepúlvedas . . .Report

Anderson Brown
Anderson Brown
3 years ago

“Anglophone” philosophy is the only school existing today that continues to work on metaphysics and epistemology as developed by the Classical and the Early Modern philosophers – that is to say, actual philosophy. It is also the only school that pays scrupulous attention to developments in natural science, which is the principal engine of culture in this era. No one in 4th century BCE Greece knew that Plato was Plato or that Aristotle was Aristotle; Hume and Kant didn’t know that their work would be canonical. But that the most important work during the Classical period was being done in Greek and Latin was clear enough. In my experience name-calling usually indicates that people don’t understand the philosophy that they claim to reject; that’s easier than investing the work required to grasp it. And the motivation for the European intellectual ego to reject the USA in general is transparent, childlike and oh so tedious. Obviously the intellectual action of the age, whatever that turns out to mean for posterity, is being expressed in the English language. I repeat, OBVIOUSLY. You can scream and cry and roll around on the floor but that doesn’t change a thing. I’m a veteran of 20 years+ at the University of Puerto Rico, surrounded by Latin American intellectuals and living much of life, with my Puerto Rican wife and daughter, in the Spanish language which I love. Latin Americans’ impressions and criticisms of the United States are ones that I listen to carefully, respect and try my best to absorb: that also, contrary to European mythology, describes pretty well how they in turn regard the USA (and this is also true of Africa). But Europeans? You must be joking. Report

Ian Heckman
Ian Heckman
Reply to  Anderson Brown
3 years ago

This comment deserves an eyeroll or two.

OBVIOUSLY, huh? Is this obviously to even the most casual observer? Or obviously to everyone who shares the same values and beliefs as you do?Report

Nemo
Nemo
Reply to  Anderson Brown
3 years ago

Please read the blog again.

“Fortunately, diagnoses of cultural pathologies are—like satires—less commonly proposed than they once were.”Report

Bob
Bob
3 years ago

Wow, I’m beginning to think analytic philosophy is useless after reading this post. Report

crumb
crumb
Reply to  Bob
3 years ago

I’m beginning to think analytic philosophy is useless after reading so many comments by people who completely missed the point of this article.Report

Simon A. Lee
3 years ago

If you find yourself in a conversation like that, having to defend philosophy–Anglophone or otherwise–to skeptical listeners, you should consider doing a Socrates and teaching by example:

‘The Socratic proposition “It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong” is not an opinion but claims to be truth, and though one may doubt that it ever had a direct political consequence, its impact upon practical conduct as an ethical precept is undeniable; only religious commandments, which are absolutely binding for the community of believers, can claim greater recognition. Does this fact not stand in clear contradiction to the generally accepted impotence of philosophical truth? And since we know from the Platonic dialogues how unpersuasive Socrates’ statement remained for friend and foe alike whenever he tried to prove it, we must ask ourselves how it could ever have obtained its high degree of validity. Obviously, this has been due to a rather unusual kind of persuasion; Socrates decided to stake his life on this truth–to set an example, not when he appeared before the Athenian tribunal but when he refused to escape the death sentence. And this teaching by example is, indeed, the only form of “persuasion” that philosophical truth is capable of without perversion or distortion; by the same token, philosophical truth can become “practical” and inspire action without violating the rules of the political realm only when it manages to become manifest in the guise of an example. This is the only chance for an ethical principle to be verified as well as validated. Thus, to verify, for instance, the notion of courage we may recall the example of Achilles, and to verify the notion of goodness we are inclined to think of Jesus of Nazareth or of St. Francis; these examples teach or persuade by inspiration, so that whenever we try to perform a deed of courage or of goodness it is as though we imitated someone else–the imitatio Christi, or whatever the case may be. It has often been remarked that, as Jefferson said, “a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear than by all the dry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written,” and that, as Kant said, “general precepts learned at the feet either of priests or philosophers, or even drawn from one’s own resources, are never so efficacious as an example of virtue or holiness.” The reason, as Kant explains, is that we always need “intuitions . . . to verify the reality of our concepts.” “If they are pure concepts of the understanding,” such as the concept of the triangle, “the intuitions go by the name of schemata,” such as the ideal triangle, perceived only by the eyes of the mind and yet indispensable to the recognition of all real triangles; if, however, the concepts are practical, relating to conduct, “the intuitions are called examples.” And, unlike the schemata, which our mind produces of its own accord by means of the imagination, these examples derive from history and poetry, through which, as Jefferson pointed out, an altogether different “field of imagination is laid open to our use.” This transformation of a theoretical or speculative statement into exemplary truth–a transformation of which only moral philosophy is capable–is a borderline experience for the philosopher: by setting an example and “persuading” the multitude in the only way open to him, he has begun to act. Today, when hardly any philosophical statement, no matter how daring, will be taken seriously enough to endanger the philosopher’s life, even this rare chance of having a philosophical truth politically validated has disappeared.’ (Arendt, ‘Truth and Politics’, §3)Report

Julián C.
3 years ago

Here’s a Spanish version of this article!
Si les interesa, pueden encontrar una versión en castellano del artículo, aquí:
https://www.facebook.com/notes/revista-ensayo/si-la-filosof%C3%ADa-angloamericana-es-tan-grande-en-d%C3%B3nde-est%C3%A1-su-equivalente-a-de-l/488669414797489/ Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
3 years ago

Great essay and very amusing.

It seems from this that it is not only anglophone philosophers who make the mistake of thinking that philosophy can make progress while avoiding metaphysics, so I wonder why we should imagine that anglophone philosophy is any worse than that of the author’s ‘non-analytic’ friends’.

I also wonder what a ‘non-analytic’ philosopher might be. Is this someone who just makes up their mind without thinking?

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Roll
Roll
3 years ago

I found the last paragraph of this nice essay quite significant. Many analytic philosophers consider e.g. Latin American philosophy as uninteresting, detached from any important research topics, and completely parochial. No wonder, given human nature, that some Latin American philosophers think exactly the same about analytic philosophy.

On another note, I think some of the ideas thematized in various forms of continental philosophy are easier to apply directly to aesthetic and cultural issues. Analytic philosophy, which is often concerned with rather technical things, as e.g. the relation between logical and natural languages, may appear to lack relevance for “life”.

On still another note, the writing style typically favoured in analytic journal articles, for all its merits, is sometimes viewed as painfully parochial by readers from parts of the worlds outside the Anglo-American countries. The Lebenswelt suggested by the examples and by aspects of the style in these articles can be repellent to some. I suppose this resistance may fade away as the world become more globalized and so to speak more American, and also because the community of philosophers working in the analytic community is becoming so much mo´re international than it used to be.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Anglo-American philosophy has a huge amount to offer, but does have way too little impact. Traditionally, philosophers in Eng;and and the US, and not just the analytics, only talk to each other. Who knows what impact we might have if we tried to talk with folks outside our cliques and specialties? Books pitched at the public sell well, but writing for the public is not generally seen as important and worthwhile in the academy. No wonder we have so little impact! Our attitude seems to be born from blindly following scientific departments, but the research of scientists, unlike our own, benefits people who don’t understand it. For our ideas to have an impact, they must leave the ivory tower.Report

Docfe
Docfe
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Yeah, they talk to each other…but this true of philosophy and philosophers in general. Name 10 contemporary philosophers whose work addresses issues and write for the general public. Kinda hard, eh? Derrida? But my point is that philosophy itself is not a discipline that addresses the public (or else there would be no call on this site for philosophers to become ‘public’.

No doubt we need to address public issues. And get beyond the petty crap based on categorizing any of us as analytic, continental, post modern, feminist or whatever divisive label is now popular that allows its users to simply dismiss contrary views. “Oh, he’s just an anti-feminist,” “continental goobldegook,” “analytic junk that accomplishes nothing.”

How about restoring the idea that we are all working together and seeking the same end? So ask a 69 year old retiree who has tired of the ego driven, ideological, and personal animus in his chosen field. Chosen for its dedication to the truth and, as he thought as an undergrad, objectivity.Report

Led
Led
3 years ago

Am I the only one reading this whole thing as a satire which is given away in the last two paragraphs?! Report

Lizzy
Lizzy
Reply to  Led
3 years ago

This is supposed to be obvious, but you wouldn’t have thought so from some of the comments here. Perhaps the other comments are actually also just a really cutting kind of satire? Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Led
3 years ago

Amen. Analytic philosophers can be so thick sometimes.Report

Docfe
Docfe
3 years ago

Sounds like nothing but bull…. to me. Can’t we get beyond denigrating crap like this and recognize that truth is accessible from more than one perspective? And I said as much in the old days of the 70-80’s when the analytic vs continental wars waged. Sad that we are supposed to be rational agents who can discuss what is true or justified but yet rip every other view viciously. How is this different than Trumpism, Soviet Lamarckism, and such ideological bigotry?Report

Triactry03
Triactry03
3 years ago

How are so many people missing that this is an obvious (and brilliant) piece of satire???Report

Colin
Colin
3 years ago

I guess I missed the satire, too, I guess. It’s probably my fault for not often taking Anglo-American philosophy very seriously.Report

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