Mainstream philosophy in the so-called West is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic. I know I am leveling a serious charge. But how else can we explain the fact that the rich philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are completely ignored by almost all philosophy departments in both Europe and the English-speaking world?
Those are the words of Bryan W. Van Norden, professor of philosophy at Vassar College, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple professor at Yale-NUS College, and chair professor at Wuhan University (China), in a recent essay at Aeon, “Western Philosophy Is Racist“. (As a side note for those out there who, for example, worry more about accusations of racism than about racism itself, note that Professor Van Norden doesn’t put his thesis in those words in the body of his essay, which suggests the title was the work of an editor.)
Van Norden begins by noting that the current exclusions were not always in place, and provides some examples of how “Western philosophy used to be more open-minded and cosmopolitan.” He notes:
the only options taken seriously by most scholars in the 18th century were that philosophy began in India, that philosophy began in Africa, or that both India and Africa gave philosophy to Greece.
What caused the change? Van Norden endorses the findings of Peter K.J. Park (UT Dallas):
As Park convincingly argues, Africa and Asia were excluded from the philosophical canon by the confluence of two interrelated factors. On the one hand, defenders of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) consciously rewrote the history of philosophy to make it appear that his critical idealism was the culmination toward which all earlier philosophy was groping, more or less successfully.
On the other hand, European intellectuals increasingly accepted and systematised views of white racial superiority that entailed that no non-Caucasian group could develop philosophy. (Even St Augustine, who was born in northern Africa, is typically depicted in European art as a pasty white guy.)
So the exclusion of non-European philosophy from the canon was a decision, not something that people have always believed, and it was a decision based not on a reasoned argument, but rather on polemical considerations involving the pro-Kantian faction in European philosophy, as well as views about race that are both scientifically unsound and morally heinous…
Kant is easily one of the four or five most influential philosophers in the Western tradition. He asserted that the Chinese, Indians, Africans and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are congenitally incapable of philosophy. And contemporary Western philosophers take it for granted that there is no Chinese, Indian, African or Native American philosophy. If this is a coincidence, it is a stunning one.
He also provides examples of Continental and analytic philosophers engaging in extraordinarily dismissive ways towards non-Western philosophy.
We have hosted a few discussions about the cultural narrowness of contemporary mainstream philosophy before, and invariably a few commenters will skeptically ask for examples of distinctly philosophical work by those from the cultures being excluded. Van Norden has a paragraph full of questions in his essay for these skeptical commenters, which everyone should read.
Anyone who wants to comment here should consider as required reading this post about a comment from Amy Olberding (Oklahoma) in which she notes the absence, in such conversations, of “reasonable intellectual humility, anything like the inveterate curiosity philosophy purportedly cultivates, or responsiveness to epistemic authority and expertise.”
You can read Van Norden’s full essay here.