A Way Western Philosophy Is Racist
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.
“And contemporary Western philosophers take it for granted that there is no Chinese, Indian, African or Native American philosophy”
I am a contemporary Western philosopher and do not take this for granted. In fact, I don’t believe it, or even think that it is a very plausible thing to believe. Moreover, I hang out with lots of other contemporary Western philosophers, and none of them believe this, either. Nor, as far as I know, did any of my philosophy teachers.
It’s true that neither I, nor my current friends, nor my teachers, specialize in non-Western philosophy. But in none of these cases is it because we think that non-Western philosophy doesn’t exist or isn’t worth studying. It’s certainly not because Kant convinced any of us that non-Westerners are incapable of philosophical thought. It’s because we chose different, equally worthwhile things to focus on. Could that explanation generalize?Report
But it seems implausible that you, your friends, and your teachers all *just happened* to choose Western philosophy from a philosophy menu of “equally worthwhile” things to focus on. The path dependence is part of the problem. How many among you, your friends, and your teachers had the option to choose non-Western philosophy? And even if all of you technically had the option, then how many of you wouldn’t be punished for such a choice by, for instance, a much smaller pool of courses, a much smaller pool of advisors, a less knowledgeable/smaller pool of letter-writers, a smaller audience for your papers, the marginalization of your own work, the social isolation, the uphill battle to get your work accepted as philosophy, the poorer job prospects? (Few see and few want to see the effect of those pressures on themselves, but few would dispute that such pressures are real on the group level.)
It’s like saying, while sitting in a French restaurant, that you and all those you know *happened to* chose French food.
That said, I do Western philosophy, but that’s in large part because that’s the only philosophy that was in front of me. But addressing path dependence is a real challenge because no matter at which point on the path you try to intervene, it there are always arguments to be made as to why NOT to intervene at THAT point.Report
Suppose that Western philosophy was, in fact, more valuable than non-Western philosophy. This might explain both (a) why Western philosophy dominates in philosophy (b) why people raised in the West favor it. In other words, it may be that its preeminence explains both itself and a preference for it among those raised with it. I am not claiming this is true, but I am claiming that the standard coincidence arguments may beg the question about its value.Report
I actually like how provocative the article is (though I can understand how easy it is to get swept up by it). It gets me to reflect on my own attitudes after learning philosophy as an undergraduate. After my BA in philosophy, I had this impression that I knew what philosophy was all about. I was quite arrogant about it too. I had a lot of questions, and because of my religio-cultural background I decided to go to India to study at a small ashram-like institution near Mumbai to see if I could get some answers. When I was there, I was extremely hostile to everything that was being said (upon reflection, it’s clear that I was more interested in bashing than learning), and because of that hostility I exhausted myself mentally and physically. I isolated myself from all my peers some of whom were quite a bit more humble than I (though there were also students that expressed hostility in the other direction). Because of that, I ended up leaving the two year program early after about a year and a half. I still disagree with a lot of what I was taught there, but after coming back home and taking a fresh look at much of the literature I was exposed to there, I’ve realized I was quite an asshole. There was much I could have engaged constructively with, that I simply chose not to. Reflecting on my time as an MA student a year later, I also noticed the complete opposite attitude I had towards some of the things in the tradition I was educated in that I disagreed with.
Of course I can’t attribute this kind of attitude to every person who gets a BA in philosophy at a university in the West. Many universities have faculty well versed in diverse traditions. In fact, we had a nice comparative philosophy course where I studied. But it turns out I was an asshole in that class too, and it showed in my grade. The point is not that there should be a non-Western philosophy course at every university, but that we should be taught in some way how to engage with materials that don’t belong to the traditions in which we work. Admittedly that’s hard when there are no course offerings in different traditions, but that’s another issue. Even within the supposedly Western canon, it seems to me that we just fail to charitably engage with people of opposing viewpoints. We’re trained in hostility. Though I can’t say that my hostility and assholery is a product completely of my education, I just think it’s at least worth reflecting on whether or not it’s the result of something more than just a deep character flaw in myself.Report
The author asks what else can explain the lack of interest in non-western philosophy besides racism. Well I can think of a few things. Most notably laziness and inertia. Most people I know focus on western philosophy because that is what they were taught, and that is what will most easily advance their career. Becoming familiar with non-western philosophy would be a lot of work, for not a lot of obvious reward. While these are certainly not great reasons, they are not racist reasons either.Report
People will refer to this as “structural” racism, rather than individual-level racism. Basically, lazy inertia within a system that functions to exclude and oppress is a form of racism that requires no intentions or motivating reasons on the part of the complicit agent.
Myself, I think we need a new concept for this kind of complicity, and that calling it “racism” or “xenophobia” dilutes the meaning of those important moral concepts. Moreover, the remedies for motivated-racism and merely complicit-racism are arguably quite different… treating them as one and the same thing hinders efforts to fix the problem(s).Report
One thing that would help me to be more convinced that this line is correct is a comparative study showing that similar forces or patterns are not observable in, say, India and China. If they are, then we should be just as willing to level accusations of racism and xenophobia at those philosophical cultures… and that’s where things start to sound a little bizarre. If they are not, how are they different? I’m asking honestly, not rhetorically: do philosophy courses in India focus on almost exclusively Indian philosophers? And what about China? And are we willing to make similar judgments about those cultures?Report
Good stuff at Wikipedia “Western esotericism”…Report
In my limited experience, Chinese philosophy departments are very keen on Western philosophy.Report
I’m an academic in India. Indian philosophy departments strongly emphasize Western philosophy–both analytic and Continental–as well as Indian philosophies such as Vedānta and Nyāya.Report
I teach in China. My students are fluent in English and study western philosophy extensively. There is a particular love of Marx (no surprise there) and Kant. Courses in western philosophy and Marxist philosophy are required.Report
Thanks, all. In that case, I think that the situation in Western philosophy departments is definitely problematic.Report
A possible line of thought that should resolve the problem which is well diagnosed by Professor Van Norden: Taking philosophy to be a completely ahistorical enterprise and putting aside the history of philosophy, East and West alike, to the periphery of the business. Stop reading original text by either Kant or Dai Zhen, both of whom are dead more than two centuries ago. If any of their argument needs to be invoked, just take the regimented form from a canonical textbook. No further interpretation of extant work is needed unless it provides a genuinely novel solution to the contemporary problem. The only philosophy we have then will be the contemporary philosophy, which is unitary, to the extent that we only have the unitary empirical science (there is no Eastern or Western molecular biology) .
I admit that I have been overly provocative, but I still endorse a sort of nuanced version of it. I surmise that emphasizing history, especially when teaching students, naturally involves bitterness over identity issues. Taking an ahistorical attitude will at least subdue such problems that I believe are tangential to much of philosophical endeavors. Ahistorical nature of analytical philosophy is therefore a great virtue, I think (of course, living up to that standard will be a different issue. Moore’s attitude delineated in Van Norden’s article is obviously condemnable).Report
I think this is a terrible idea. The most blinkered and provincial attitudes towards other traditions in philosophy, in my anecdotal experience, come from those who are most convinced that the philosophy they are doing has succeeded in becoming an ahistorical discipline that doesn’t need to pay any more attention to its past than physics or chemistry does.Report
I have considered this solution, and have been on the verge of proposing it myself, but then reconsidered when I realized that it’s nearly impossible to study or teach philosophy without engaging with some tradition. This is because the content of many arguments, proposals, etc. is connected to the dialectic it’s occurring within. In the teaching and study of Western philosophy this also happens, but the conversation is simply taken for granted as existing within a certain cultural and historical context. It is present, but invisible because taken for granted. For example, when teaching Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness, there is a certain context that has to be taught or is assumed to have been learned already, namely one where materialist views are dominant and there are reductive projects underway. Normally we learn/teach about physicalism and behaviourism as well, and how Chalmers is, among other things, raising problems for them.
Those of us interested in what people in non-Western historical and cultural contexts had to say who are also philosophers/of a philosophical temperament are going to study the tradition while also engaging with the issues and making our own contribution to the philosophical conversation. We are free to do so, we gain something from doing so, others gain something from our doing so, and nobody is harmed by it. Furthermore, as I said above, it is the same sort of thing as what philosophers working within the Western tradition do, but the context is only noticed because it is not the norm/hegemonic.Report
I took a Chinese Philosophy and Religion course as an undergraduate. It was the only non-Western philosophy course I have ever been exposed to, but it introduced me to the Tao Te Ching, which has been more influential in my life as a practical philosophy than basically anything else I’ve learned from the Western canon. It’s a shame that there are not more opportunities like this for students to be exposed to a more diverse philosophical literature.Report
Roughly speaking, how are we distinguishing between philosophy and other sets of beliefs? There is definitely non-Western philosophy, under any reasonable definition of “philosophy”, that isn’t receiving enough attention. But how much is going to depend on what you take “philosophy” to be and what you take the importance of philosophy to be.Report
That seems to be the root of then problem; the redefinition of philosophy into something else when it comes to non-Western philosophy.Report
I’ll make my usual observation on threads like this that insofar as contemporary math and science are culturally neutral, the philosophy of contemporary math and science largely is too. (I don’t endorse the stronger claim that non-explicitly-historical philosophy more generally is culturally neutral.)Report
“Chinese Philosophy and Chinese Medicine” is an interesting entry from the SEP: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-phil-medicine/, especially insofar as there are contemporary discussions in medicine, and perhaps also philosophy of medicine, about qi, acupuncture, characteristics of good physicians.
There is also some research about the effects of cultural upon bioethics principles and practices; e.g., Chukwuneke et al., “”Global Bioethics and Culture in a Pluralistic World….” (Here I presume ethics of science is part of philosophy of science. But even if this is incorrect, it is reasonable to expect that culture might have some relevance to “science and value” debates.)Report
Lest I give the impression of saying that culture-ladenness enters only for ethical issues, I’ll add that Douglas Allchin has a nice paper (from 20 years ago) raising the possibility of culture-laden scientific methodology: “Points east and west: Acupuncture and comparative philosophy of science”, at http://douglasallchin.net/papers/psa-96.pdfReport
Allchin’s paper exemplifies *exactly* the issue that makes me stress this point. At its core his paper is an interesting case study in how to incorporate genuine epistemic insights from traditional practices into the scientific mainstream. But he phrases it as a contrast between “Chinese” and “Western” medicine, where the latter means “modern medicine generally”. Examples:
“Since the 1970s Western knowledge has deepened substantially, most notably through the discovery of endorphins”
“some Native American cultures guard their knowledge of the natural world from inquiry by modern (Western) scientists”
Annexing modern scientific methodology to “the West” is pernicious, and insulting to non-western scientists.Report
I’m not so sure about your interpretation, for two reasons. First, replace his ‘Western’ with your ‘modern’. Then it will turn out that no traditional practice from, say, China is ‘modern’, despite it being a contemporary practice (or ‘modern’ in a different sense.) That’s odd.
Second, I’m not so sure that it’s fair, in this context, to start with the presupposition that there’s such a thing as a culture-neutral scientific tradition (or philosophy of science, which is the case I care about). All Jim identifies methodological divergences, and the terminological point doesn’t make those differences vanish.
third reason: I’m now writing at such a level of abstraction, I’m not quite confident in what we’re saying. Case studies with details are what’s needed, or more fleshed out responses to papers like Allchin’s. otherwise I find it difficult to track the moves.Report
Indeed most subfields of philosophy are more or less completely ahistorical and culturally neutral, not just philosophy of science and mathematics. But I think what van Norden wants is for departments to hire fewer philosophers of science, epistemologists, logicians, philosophers of language, philosophers of mind, metaphysicians, ethicists, and political philosophers, and more philosophers from other traditions. But he’s clearly not very up to date on the job market. Because if he’d take a look at philjobs these days, he’d quickly notice that the standard subfields of philosophy are not at all in demand in comparison to more exotic subfields.Report
I always imagined philosophy was, necessarily, a global perspective. For instance, I am a westerner who seriously studied – and performs – Indian classical music. I can’t imagine the void if this and other world music was deemed a mere ‘sub-set’ rather than legitimate. Surely many western philosophers feel the same and study, respect and admire other culture’s philosophy?Report
I think it’s important to realize that the vast majority of contemporary philosophy is ahistorical and doesn’t engage with any clear “tradition,” either western or other. Just look in almost any philosophy journal.
I mean, what’s really “Western” about two-dimensional semantics? Or Bayesian decision theory? Or embodied cognition? Or imperative logic? Or the theory theory of perception? Or the causal theory of reference? Or the deflationary theory of truth? Or pragmatics? Or 4-dimensionalism? Or the possible worlds analysis of counterfactuals? Or Reliabilism? Or the brain theory of personal identity?
I think that for the vast majority of us, our work is not really distinctly “Western” in any meaningful sense.Report
Sorry, that’s supposed to just say “the theory theory,” not “the theory theory of perception.”Report
It’s possible there is something western about these fields. If we knew the history of the problems that led to them, and we were well versed in the history of non-western philosophy, it’s possible we’d see an assumption underlying them that most non western philosophy rejected. That could be the western thing. Very speculative on my part though.Report
This is simply false. In almost 100% of academic philosophical work in the West there is engagement with the Western philosophical tradition, e.g. by responding to claims made by Western philosophers, and continuing a conversation that has been occurring among Western people in a Western context. The questions raised and the space of positions is also constrained by the culture. For example, Gettier’s famous paper on the JTB account of knowledge only makes sense within a Western context where this account of knowledge has been proposed and has some traction to begin with. In classical Indian philosophy, for example, knowledge is not thought of as justified true belief. In general the notion of ‘belief’ does not play as important a role in Indian epistemology as it does in Western epistemology.
It is misleading to say that the philosophical work itself is Western or Indian or whatever. This is philosophy at the end of the day, not history of ideas, and that means it is concerned with the truth and reasoning, which are by their very nature universal. That is why I prefer to say it is connected to or engaging with a Western tradition or an Indian tradition rather than that it is Western itself or Indian itself. But it is almost always engaging with some tradition and it is Western-centric to deny this only in the Western case.Report
“This is simply false. In almost 100% of academic philosophical work in the West there is engagement with the Western philosophical tradition, e.g. by responding to claims made by Western philosophers, and continuing a conversation that has been occurring among Western people in a Western context. ”
OK, but if that’s what you mean by “work in the Western tradition,” then almost 100% of all work in almost all academic fields is in the Western tradition. Physics, computer science, chemistry, biology, anthropology, sociology, political science, mathematics — all of these and many other fields largely (not exclusively, but largely) developed in a “Western context” (i.e. in Europe and later in America), and contemporary participants in the field rely on and are continuing the work of those earlier Western pioneers.
I took “Western philosophy” to mean philosophy that somehow is especially preoccupied with European historical figures, or particular circumstances in Europe. In that stronger sense, most of us don’t do Western philosophy.Report
The hard sciences do not involve as much dialogue and engagement with other people’s views, so that is a false analogy. Philosophy is much more conversational and dialogic, and less empirical, than physics et al., so history and context become important because responding to earlier participants to the conversation is a more central method. Anthropology, sociology, and political science are relatively similar to philosophy in this respect so I’m relatively okay with saying ‘Western political science’, etc.
What I mean by ‘engaging with the Western tradition’ is not ‘continuing the Western tradition’. I have sufficiently specified what I mean in the above comment.
Also philosophy did not develop largely in the West: this is a Western-centric view of the kind Van Norden and I are challenging. You’ve been immersed in Western philosophy and unconsciously assumed that the West is the best at it and done the most for it, but that is incorrect and in line with and probably influenced by a general colonialist ideology that sees the West as civilized and the rest of the world as barbaric.Report
The hard sciences very much involve engaging with other people’s views. Newton reacted to Kepler. Einstein reacted to Maxwell. Yes, there’s an empirical dimension that’s not present in many subfields of philosophy, but I don’t see why that matters. Einstein wouldn’t have proposed his theory had he lived in the 15th century or if he had been unaware of Maxwell’s theory. Maxwell in turn was responding to work done by Faraday. It’s very much historically contingent when and why a particular scientific theory or hypothesis is proposed. Developments in scientific methodology are themselves highly contextual as well.
Philosophical developments are historically contingent in the same way, of course. Bayesian decision theory was developed as a result of earlier (Western) developments in probability theory, and without those earlier developments it wouldn’t exist today. For that reason, Bayesian decision theory could never have been developed in, say, Ming dynasty China. But that doesn’t mean it’s “Western” in any significant sense.
I never meant to suggest that philosophy itself was largely developed in the West. I’m saying that most academic disciplines, philosophy included, largely developed in the West. That’s the extent to which they are Western. But it doesn’t mean that the topics these disciplines deal with today are “Western” in any meaningful sense.
Let me also add that I have several times taught Chinese philosophy in my own classes. Nor do I think philosophical work done outside of Western universities is worthless. I don’t think the rest of the world is barbaric. I was just pointing out that modern philosophical research is large ahistorical and not “Western” in any obvious sense (it rarely engages with historical figures in the West).Report
Great article. There are two issues here:
1) How much non-Western philosophy is taught in a department?
2) How much self-reflection is there in a department about how Western philosophy departments got to be how they are (re cannon, institutional dynamics, roles departments played in broader social forces, etc)?
(1) is about knowing Confucius, Shankara, etc. (2) is about knowing, as in Peter Park’s great book, the role Western philosophers played in the last 200 years in reifying Western supremacy into institutional form.
No one can tell another person what to be interested in. If someone likes only Western philosophy, great; it’s their choice. But if a person is happy to study only Western philosophy – or non-historical philosophy like phil of science or the causal theory of reference – that doesn’t give them the right to to be silent about lies or fantasy about Western academia, as if its canon and institutional practices are pure as snow.
Lack of (2) is more emotionally and intellectually damaging than lack of (1). This lack of self-reflection – and the presumption that there is nothing interesting there to be aware of – is intellectually shameful. And anyone associated with a department, irrespective of their specialization, is a part of that.Report
This comment is only on a matter of historical record, and should not be seen as questioning the main thrust of van Norden’s essay, which I think deserves serious consideration.
However, I believe that van Norden may have misrepresented G. E, Moore’s relationship to Surendra Nath (or Surendranath) Dasgupgta in his article.
The original source for the Moore/Dasgupta anecdote appears to be this book: https://books.google.it/books?id=Sb6ZsSxivDcC&dq — see p. 74.
Note that in that source, the author, Surama Dasgupta – Surendranath Dasgupta’s student, secretary and eventually second wife – tells the anecdote immediately after describing a meeting between Dasgupta and Croce in which Croce said “graciously” that he was happy to have his system compared to Buddhist thought. She then says that she is reminded of “a similar occasion” and tells the story about Moore, whom she describes as a “friend” of Dasgupta. She states that the audience “roared with laughter” at Moore’s comments, which match what van Norden quotes, but she does not describe them as a putatively “devastating ‘argument’” against Dasgupta. She recounts reminding Moore later of the incident “jokingly”, remarking that Moore did not recall it. She states that “Dasgupta’s friendship with his colleagues in England and Europe was very deep and everlasting,” and notes that Dasgupta was a research student at Moore’s Cambridge from 1920-22, was made a lecturer there, and represented Cambridge at the International Congress of Philosophy in 1924. The Moore papers include three letters from Dasgupgta from 1936 (proposing to visit Cambridge) and 1947 (asking to meet, twice). (https://janus.lib.cam.ac.uk/db/node.xsp?id=EAD%2FGBR%2F0012%2FMS%20Add.8330%208%20D%2F3)
This source seems to support a much less racist reading of Moore’s remark as a joke between friends in which Moore essentially admits that he does not know anything about the subject of Dasgupta’s talk and then makes fun of himself by pretending to nonetheless have the authority to criticize it.
In any case the anecdote also seems to face at least a little historical difficulty. A search of the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society shows that Dasgupta have a talk on “The Logic of the Vedānta” on March 6, 1922 (https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/4544018.pdf for the paper, and https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/4544025.pdf for the date). The minutes for the meeting (second link just above) show that J S Mackenzie, not Moore, was presiding (contrary to what the above book states) and lists four discussants of the lecture (Carr, Thomas, Shastri, and Mead) but does not mention Moore as a discussant.
From what I can gather, Surama Dasgupta was too young to have been present at the 1922 Aristotelian Society session. The Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surendranath_Dasgupta) for Surendranath Dasgupta gives her birth year as 1907 (but without a source), and indicates that Dasgupta moved away from his first wife to be with her in 1941 or 42, and married her in 1945. So, she may have been reporting the incident based on something her husband told her. Still, Moore might have made the remark, even if he was not presiding, and if that is all that he had to say he might not have been recorded as one of the discussants. Nonetheless, it is not at all clear that the remark, if made, was intended as van Norden assumes.
It seems to me that some further research into Dasgupta’s relationship with Moore (including obtaining and examining the letters mentioned above) might be warranted before jumping to conclusions about the significance of this episode.Report
Fair enough. But even assuming Moore meant it as a joke, and that Moore and Dasgupta are close friends, that does not take away from the institutional implications of having a prominent philosopher make a joke, as if his ignorance in this case doesn’t matter. As Van Norden says: “His joke would have had an exclusionary effect similar to sexist jokes made in professional contexts today.”
If only the kind of historical detective work done in defense of a revered Western figure was done to understand just how Western academic departments came to be as they are, and what a priori assumptions of superiority got built in! The kind of assumptions which would make the joke seem so innocent.Report
It only has an obvious “exclusionary effect” if we take Dasgupta to stand in for [Arbitrary Philosopher Of Indian Descent], such that all comments about Dasgupta are also about all philosophers of Indian descent. If Dasgupta only represents Dasgupta, then Moore teased Dasgupta. There surely *could* have been institutional implications, but the article doesn’t establish them.
And honestly: if someone decides to use an anecdote to argue for [Negative Trait X] of [Group Y], it’s kinda dirty pool to accept that but then bemoan people from [Group Y] putting in the time to look into the anecdote. Either the anecdote matters for the argument, or it doesn’t. If it does, further research is legitimate. If it doesn’t, then it should have been left out.Report
What desperate attempts to save Moore the saint. The anecdote matters, and nothing Kremer says here takes away from Van Norden’s point.
As is well established, Moore was an exceptionally nice guy. He, even with his stature, probably was very nice to Dasgupta and they had a good frienship. But when Dasgupta gave his talk, there must have been others in the room who thought Indian philosophy is crap. Moore, trying to be nice on all sides, probably made the joke as a way to diffuse the tension between his respect for Dasgupta and his respect for the institutional structures and the present company in which there isn’t much respect for Dasguptas work.
Moore’s joke succeeds in the moment and people roar in laughter because Kremer and Van Norden can both be right. It can seem self-deprecating and treated in the room as a devastating rebuttal. This is an all too common occurance: one of the anointed in a group makes an off hand comment after a talk, seemingly about ones own lack of knowledge re the subject matter, and it’s taken to have shown the limits of the talk, and usually even the subject matter of the talk. It’s the “I don’t know – I don’t really need to know” double talk, which is most effective when a famous person says it. It can be said arrogantly or sweetly, and have the same effect either way.Report
I don’t know or care about Moore’s character. He could be the worst puppy-kicker of all puppy-kickers; he could be a saint. I am not the sort of person who attributes other positive traits to people because they are clever. I am criticizing the argument that Van Norden made. The Moore anecdote is supposed to assist in an indictment of all of Western academic philosophy.
No doubt the scenario you have sketched for us can happen. But lots of things can happen. I have no particular reason to think that any of the noted possibilities is more likely than the others. You are speculating about how things might have actually happened, and insisting that the only legitimate response is to accept your speculation about an *empirical claim* as gospel.
Again: I don’t care if Moore’s #1 hobby was running over nuns and orphans. If you think that Moore have once run over nuns and orphans shows that philosophers in general like to run over nuns and orphans, you should expect people to demand evidence that he actually engaged in the practice.Report
What facts might be discovered that might make you believe that Moore’s comment was a pernicious instance of institutionally dismissing indian philosophy?
Short of discovering that Moore didn’t say it at all, it shows the kind of bias that is pervasive in western departments, at least in my experience. I have had many experiences of professors and colleagues who were my friends, who were good people, who nonetheless used humor as a way to suggest that their lack of knowledge of indian philosophy – and more, their lack of knowledge of how white supremacy is built into the standaed canon – is fine and they don’t need to acknowledge even a relevant lack of knowledge. Kremer’s detective work is good and more facts the better; but the facts Kremer puts forth don’t undermine Van Norden’s point.
Nor does your argument, which is that at most Moore teased only Dasgupta but not indian philosophy in general. How exactly would you prove this interpretation? That at a time when India was a colony of the British, and it was common for the British to say Indians were backward and Dasgupta was probably one of the few Indians in the room, that nonetheless for Moore Dasgupta represented only Dasgupta. Not even sure what data could be used to prove your interpretation.
What is getting lost here is the nuance of Van Norden’s argument. Specifically the claim that it was common in Western philosophy to acknowledge that India, China and so on had philosophy, and that this was challenged precisely by academics like Kant and Hegel, as they made philosophy a uniquely Western achievement. Maybe this is historically false; am open to that. But there is some reason think it is true, and the Moore example is a part of that, and that is worth exploring.Report
If there are other equally-plausible interpretations of Moore’s actions, then of course the anecdote is undermined as a piece of evidence. That’s the entire point of evidence: find evidence that is only explained by one of the available hypotheses. It wouldn’t be hard to convince me of Van Norden’s view: show me any time when Moore said that Indian philosophy is garbage or should be ignored by a man of intellect, that Indian philosophers as a group are untalented, that Indians as a group are inferior, etc. That’s obviously more convincing than a joke between two men who appear to have liked each other. And if Western philosophy is all in thrall to Kant’s views on race, it shouldn’t be difficult to find similarly pernicious comments.
My enthusiasm for both Kant and Hegel is, let’s just say, extremely restrained. That Western philosophers (and more specifically analytic philosophers) started purposely ignoring non-Western philosophy because they believed Kant’s idiotic pseudoscience is entirely possible. But even if true, it doesn’t give me a reason to think that it’s terribly pressing to start paying attention now. Intellectual isolation may have been introduced for wicked reasons, but I’m not convinced by this article that intellectual isolation is important to terminate.
I am actually convinced of that latter point for other reasons, but I am criticizing the article for failing to do so.Report
I don’t believe Kant’s view is idiotic psuedoscience. I think it is one of the great achievements of the human mind – even if wrong in key ways.
One of those errors was his philosophical anthropology: a view of how human beings came to philosophy. Van Norden’s claim in this article is that Kant’s philosophical anthropology became foundational to academic philosophy in the west and that is why non-western philosophy isn’t taught in many departments. These are historical claims Van Norden is making. Maybe it is all wrong, but you aren’t giving any historical reasons to think so. And maybe you are not convinced; well, ok, I am not convinced by your objections. Talk of being convinced doesn’t move the discussion.
If Van Norden over reached with the Moore example, that should be critiqued (I don’t think he did, but I can understand the debate on that issue). But it hardly takes away from the bigger historical point he is making – which is based on (1) Kant and Hegel’s views of which cultures rose to the level of philosophy, and (2) the influence Kantians and Hegelians had in the formation of modern philosophy departments.Report
Michael Kremer, Your scholarship is much appreciated, but I don’t see how you arrive at some of your conclusions. Moore said in public that he was sure that whatever Dasgupta had said was absolutely false. An extraordinarily aggressive thing to say at an academic meeting; even if said in jest, it is a kind of bullying, nothing clever or witty about it. What could have justified this kind of ribaldry at a meeting of the Aristotelian Society? And the audience roared with laughter. Do you think that they were laughing because Moore had made a fool of himself.
What, by the way, is the evidence that Moore regarded Dasgupta as a friend? Your link simply takes us to a record of three letters from Dasgupta requesting a meeting. We don’t even know that Moore agreed to meet.Report
Mohan Matthen — concerning whether Moore regarded Dasgupta as a friend, in the first link I gave above, which appears to be the original source of the ancedote, Dasgupta’s second wife asserts that Moore was a friend of Dasgupta. (For the exact page, see
This was written almost 50 years after the incident described. Dasgputa’s wife appears to be reporting Dasgupta’s own account of the meeting (as I noted she was too young to have been there), and she states in the same paragraph that Dasgupta had a “deep and everlasting” friendship with “his colleagues in England.” I take this to include Moore.
I can’t see any sign in the original telling of the anecdote that either Dasgupta or his wife thought that Moore had behaved insultingly or badly, or that he had said something “extraordinarily aggressive.” Dasgupta’s wife says she brought the incident up “jokingly” with Moore years later.
Now what all this suggests is that Dasgupta viewed Moore as a friend. But perhaps Moore did not view Dasgupta as a friend. But as a friendship is a two-way street, either Dasgupta was deceived, or they were friends, I would say. (I mentioned Dasgupta’s letters to Moore only because they provide some evidence that Dasgupta continued to see Moore as someone who might respect him sufficiently to wish to meet with him or to have him as a visitor, years after this incident. Obtaining the letters would require a considerable expense and would also take some time, so I don’t know what is in the letters beyond their description at the link I provided.)
Why would the audience laugh, though? If you look at Dasgupta’s paper, it is not arguing for some or other philosophical position. It is basically an exposition of the views of various Indian philosophers. Moore would have to be saying that Dasgupta doesn’t know what he is talking about. in expounding their views. But Dasgupta had either just pubished, or was about to publish, the first volume of his Cambridge University Press History of Indian Philosophy, which discussed these same views. (That CUP would publish such a multi-volume work beginning in 1922 shows that talk of marginalization of Indian Philosophy at that point is a bit too strong.) Dasgupta was the known expert on the topic at the time. So what could Moore have intended by his remark? I take Moore’s line to be poking fun, in an ironic way. at the pretensions of anyone who would question Dasgupta’s expertise on the topic of his talk. Here it does matter if Moore and Dasgupta thought of each other as friends, I think. But neither you nor I was there, and we can’t really tell what happened from the description we have. I don’t come to a definite conclusion, but instead only question whether van Norden’s conclusion is justified and suggest an alterntaive.
What I think is a fairer criticism of me (and perhaps of Moore) would be this: all friendships between colonized and colonizers are affected by the broader situation of colonialism, and that was surely true in this case as well. I think this is what one would have to investigate further and think hard about (and what I think Bharath Vallabha is calling for above, at least in part). But that is much more work than the little time I spent on my two posts here, and it is not something I have the time to pursue.Report
I have to say, Michael, that I still find your reconstruction of the incident less than compelling. It’s true that Mrs Dasgupta refers to Moore as her husband’s friend. There are many alternative explanations of this, but let’s just allow that she thought of him that way. And let’s allow (though this was precisely what I was questioning) that Dasgupta’s asking to see Moore was evidence that he thought that Moore respected him. All of that is fine, but the question of the remark remains. You suggest (if I understand you correctly) that Moore was poking fun at a third person who had questioned Dasgupta’s expertise. If Moore’s wit was directed elsewhere, then, to be sure, there was no disrespect for Dasgupta by him or by the audience. But is there any evidence of this? In fact, there is evidence to the contrary: Mrs Dasgupta says that Moore said this “after the paper was read, . . . shaking his head.” I suspect that the paper, with all its discussion of idealism and F.H. Bradley was evidently at odds with Moore’s common sense realism, and that this is what elicited the comment. If I am right, Moore was aggressive and lacking in courtesy. But I’ll grant you that on your reading, Moore was gallantly defending a visitor to his country and his academic society.
For the record, I strongly disagree that “all friendships between colonized and colonizers are affected by the broader situation of colonialism.” In fact, I find that idea repulsive. I have heard, as any middle-class Indian of my generation would have heard, of warm friendships between Indians and English people in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I am not yet ready to think my ancestors completely deluded on this score.Report
As someone very sympathetic to Van Norden, I do wonder about the effectiveness of the examples he gives of interesting non-Western (specifically Chinese) philosophical arguments in encouraging people to look into the tradition further.
One, many of his examples are of how Chinese philosophers argued for positions which are recognizable in the Western tradition, and furthermore their arguments are presented in a way that sounds similar to the arguments we are familiar with in the Western tradition. (This seems to be a pretty common move by people arguing for engagement with non-Western philosophy.) Which can lead to the obvious response: if these are the examples of the interesting things non-Western philosophers have to say, well, it’s the same stuff Western philosophers have to say, so why shouldn’t I just read the Western philosophers (it’s easier, after all)?
Two, it’s not clear how motivating these examples are for someone whose approach to philosophy is more-or-less ahistorical. If you aren’t particularly interested in the details of what the Western philosophers of the past had to say, why should you be interested in the details of what the non-Western philosophers of the past had to say?
(Incidentally, I am not claiming there aren’t responses to these questions – I can think of a few myself)Report
On that last point, I would also be interested in getting a sense of how Western philosophers’ attitudes towards non-Western philosophy compares with their attitudes towards Western philosophy that isn’t in the tradition/field in which they work.
(Tangential but somewhat related personal note: I’m currently in a reading group that is going through a the Monograph on Exclusion by the Buddhist philosopher Jñanasrimitra (975-1025). In my opinion it is way more similar to the sort of thing I do as a contemporary analytic philosopher than, say, Plotinus.)Report
“… and furthermore their arguments are presented in a way that sounds similar to the arguments we are familiar with in the Western tradition.”
No way how weird that arguments written in English that are logical will sound like other arguments in English that are logical. It’s going to sound similar because reason is the same in all cultures, and it’s going to be presented in a way you can understand because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to understand it.
If non-Western philosophy is the same as Western philosophy, why not only study non-Western? It’s not easier because not everyone in the universe is exclusively Anglophone and you don’t actually have to know any non-English language to do Indian philosophy since there are plenty of English translations available. I do Indian philosophy and I have not yet come close to mastering Sanskrit. Also some Indian philosophy is *originally done in English* anyway since Indian philosophy didn’t end in the 17th Century or something. I mean there is such a thing as contemporary Indian philosophy you know.
Anyway non-Western philosophy is not the same as Western philosophy, because even though the arguments are going to be familiar when translated into English to an Anglophone philosopher because logic is the same the world over and it’s in a familiar language, there are different approaches to many issues than what are taken in Western philosophy. Even the meta-philosophical assumptions are sometimes different. The Gettier example I gave above is also an example of this. Another is the fact that in Indian philosophy reincarnation is a prevalent assumption that is part of common sense, whereas in Western philosophy such notions as eternal heaven and hell are relatively prevalent. And so on.
Also not to get SJW or whatever, but your comment is an example of the sort of thing both Justin and Amy Olberding warned against.Report
I’m sorry I wasn’t clear about the nature of my comment. I was not claiming that non-Western philosophy isn’t relevant – I think the opposite. I was questioning the effectiveness of a certain strategy of arguing for its relevance.Report
Just to add, I agree with all your points (except for the last sentence of course), many of which are what I was gesturing towards when I noted that I could think of responses to the questions one might raise.Report
I agree with all your points (except the last sentence of course). I was thinking of things along the same lines when I mentioned that I could think of responses to the questions that would be raised.Report
Seemingly alone among the commenters, I found this article exasperating. I have no doubt that there are cool and interesting ideas in “non-Western” philosophy that merit the attention of philosophers in the analytic tradition, but I think that this article did little to make that case. I will try to limit my critiques here.
First, I can think of a number of reasons why most analytic philosophers don’t “do” non-Western philosophy which have little to do with contemporary “xenophobia”. The most obvious is the same reason why most of us don’t “do” Ancient: we don’t want to spend years becoming proficient in a dead language and then spend our lives engaging in interpretive questions about what Philosopher X did or didn’t mean. I can do philosophy *right now* talking about problems which have been developed and reformulated for thousands of years into clearer and more concise forms. I’m not that interested in reinventing the wheel here. We owe historians a great debt here, but we don’t all want to be historians.
Second, I don’t see any reason to take seriously the view that analytic philosophy owes a duty to non-Western philosophy traditions to give them lots of attention. (This is assuming that a bunch of Anglophone white men barging into discussions of the Dao De Jing with clever counterexamples would even be welcome.) I don’t think a Chinese philosophy department which does “ethics” but is unconcerned with non-Chinese traditions is somehow failing in its obligations to Peter Singer or whatever. The view just seems silly. Study what you want to study, and if you ignore important research by others then your own research will suffer.
In short: if you want non-experts to weigh in on your field, it would be more productive to coach rather than insult.Report
” if you want non-experts to weigh in on your field, it would be more productive to coach rather than insult. ”
For what it’s worth, Van Norden offers plenty of materials useful for anyone who wants to be ‘coached’ on bringing some non-Western sources into their philosophy courses.
Thanks for sending. I also found some of the other materials after doing some Googling, and his personal website lists some resources, as well.Report
Regarding resources for non-Western philosophical worldviews and traditions, one should, in addition to reading the Indian Philosophy blog and Warp, Weft, and Way (Chinese philosophy), see the relevant entries in the two principle online encyclopedias of philosophy: the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Society for Teaching Comparative Philosophy also has some wonderful resources (some of it from yours truly) and we have a FB group that regularly posts material that in one way or another is helpful for those teaching philosophical material of Asian and non-Western provenance generally. See: http://stcp.weebly.com/
Incidentally, my late teacher and truly trailblazing pioneer in the comparative study of religions and philosophies (which he came to call collectively ‘worldviews’), Ninian Smart (younger brother of J.J.C. [‘Jack’] Smart, whose views were quite different than Ninian’s, to put it mildly, but both were uncommonly brilliant, sweet and generous persons cut from the same cloth), lamented this state of affairs well over fifty years ago! He attempted to initiate a more broad-minded and “global” approach with such books as Reasons and Faiths: An Investigation of Religious Discourse, Christian and non-Christian (1958) and Doctrine & Argument in Indian Philosophy (1st ed., 1964). He penned virtually all of the entries on “Indian philosophy” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards (Macmillan, 1967), and continued to publish articles and books on philosophies east and west, north and south. One of his later works, World Philosophies (Routledge, 1999), contained introductions (and long bibliographies) to religious worldviews philosophies around the globe. (I worked on revising the massive bibliographies for the second edition by Oliver Leaman published after Ninian’s death.) It’s simply appalling and inexcusable that this state of affairs persists (there’s been some progress, but it’s been glacially slow (as that phrase was used prior to compelling evidence for global warming).Report
Shocking as this may be doing non-Western philosophy does not actually consist in interpreting what some ancient person said after having mastered a ‘dead language’. Non-Western didn’t end in ancient or even medieval times, you don’t need to know Sanskrit or whatever to do it, and most of it is not interpretive.
Within Western philosophy there are people who do Early Modern and Ancient, which involve more of what you’re complaining about than non-Western does. Based on what I can see around me more people in Western universities are in those sub-fields than in non-Western. So clearly it isn’t about the difficulty of learning new languages or interpretive work, since as I said there is *less* of that in non-Western than in Ancient and Early Modern put together.
What it comes down to is that there is a long history of Western supremacism in Western cultures, which has made non-Western cultures seem remote or non-existent. Individual people in Western universities may not be Western supremacist in any explicit or conscious way, but it’s too easy to pretend non-Western cultures don’t exist when you’re surrounded only by representations of Western things.Report
I never denied the role of history in explaining why more Western philosophers do Ancient. I just find it more plausible that analytic philosophers ignore non-Western traditions and Ancient (and, for that matter, Continental) for much the same reason.
And my comments about interpretive work were based in part on a friend of mine who was trained in Chinese departments, who said that most of the work being done specifically on *Chinese philosophy* was overwhelmingly interpretive. “99% historian, 1% philosopher” was how he described his former colleagues. His other comment was also that Chinese philosophy was much more in line with the Continental tradition, with a higher emphasis on scholarship of particular texts and figures than on scholarship of particular problems.
But if Indian philosophy is different (or if my friend is wrong, and traditional Chinese philosophy is as generally disinterested in scholarship of texts and figures as analytic philosophy tends to be), then I would be happy to see your recommendations for where in contemporary Indian philosophy a philosopher of science or a moral philosopher who is trained in the analytic tradition might find some interesting problems or solutions raised for his or her own work and problems.
One of the reasons I found the article exasperating was that the bulk of it was spent on criticizing “Western” philosophy for unjustly ignoring “non-Western”, without much attention given to specific problems and issues which are relevant for us, but not yet talked about. I’m happy to learn about new issues that I haven’t thought about before.Report
“I just find it more plausible that analytic philosophers ignore non-Western traditions and Ancient (and, for that matter, Continental) for much the same reason.”
We’re trying to explain why non-Western philosophy is neglected in Western universities, not why individuals who are interested only in Western Anglophone analytic philosophy are so interested. But even for that explanandum your explanans is not very good because a lot of at least Indian philosophy is analytic, not every academic is exclusively or even predominantly Anglophone, some Indian philosophy is originally written in English, and for exclusive/predominant Anglophones there are English translations of those works not originally in English. Anyway to repeat my point: you can’t explain the trend of lack of interest in non-Western philosophy in terms of lack of interest in learning non-English languages, because more people are interested in sub-fields of Western philosophy that require some mastery of non-English languages than are interested in non-Western philosophy (which, again, does not always require mastery of any non-English language).
You based your view of all of non-Western philosophy on one remark by a friend. I won’t comment on this because the problem with it is too obvious. It is true that there is a lot of explicitly historical work (mostly learning who said what) that goes into non-Western because the history is usually less familiar to those doing the work. In the Western case we (i.e. people who got their higher education in Western Anglophone universities) imbibed Western philosophical history with our mother’s milk, so we don’t need to explicitly set out to learn it. That is at least part, if not all, of the explanation. Regardless, any decent quality non-Western philosophy is going to involve reasoning and arguments used to try to figure out reality (whoever’s doing 1% philosophy is just doing shitty philosophical study what can I say). It is not my job to give you lists of non-Western philosophical works to prove to you that it’s good enough to meet your standards. Go do your homework and look it up.Report
“We owe historians a great debt here, but we don’t all want to be historians.”
Doing non-Western philosophy is not doing history. Non-Western philosophers are not historians. I am not a historian, I am a philosopher. If you do not know this then you are ignorant and I suggest educating yourself.
“Second, I don’t see any reason to take seriously the view that analytic philosophy owes a duty to non-Western philosophy traditions to give them lots of attention.”
Conflating ‘analytic philosophy’ with ‘Western Anglophone philosophy’ is itself Western-centric if not downright racist. Anyway people doing Western Anglophone philosophy of course are free to be uninterested in and give no attention to non-Western. But institutions purporting to teach philosophy do have an obligation to actually teach philosophy, and therefore non-Western philosophy, and not limit themselves and their students arbitrarily (and racistly and xenophobically) to only one tradition. I am just as opposed to a South Asian university that offers degrees in philosophy only teaching Indian philosophy as I am to a Western university only teaching Western philosophy.Report
Western Anglophone philosophy is predominantly analytic. I am well aware that there are (e.g.) Chinese philosophers doing analytic philosophy, but I did not take the complaint of the article to be that analytic philosophers working in China are being ignored. Rather, the complaint seems to be that the *Chinese philosophical tradition* is being ignored. Which is why he didn’t point to a bunch of analytic philosophers of Chinese or Indian or Brazilian descent and demand to know why their brilliant work is ignored; he pointed to work in a particular non-Western historical tradition.
Moreover, I think any argument which basically lumps continental and analytic philosophy together in regards to their attitudes and projects is bound to be pretty useless. Which is why I specified it.
And frankly, I flat-out reject the claim that institutions specializing in e.g. Indian philosophy have an obligation to train their students in other philosophical traditions. I just don’t see any reason why that’s even plausible.Report
You said ‘analytic philosophy’ and meant by it ‘Western Anglophone analytic philosophy’. You did not say ‘Western Anglophone philosophy’. Using those above two expressions as synonyms when they’re not is what I was accusing of being Western-centric if not downright racist. Whether Western Anglophone philosophy is predominantly analytic or not is irrelevant.
“Rather, the complaint seems to be that the *Chinese philosophical tradition* is being ignored.”
Yes, because it (along with other non-Western philosophy) IS being ignored. It is a legitimate complaint. I’m not sure what your point is here. Maybe you’re trying to say all non-analytic philosophy should be ignored. That’s a distinct and off-topic claim that you did not make in your earlier comments.
I did not say that institutions should never be dedicated to a particular philosophical tradition, though I am wary of doing so with any tradition. I was talking about departments that purport to be of philosophy. A department of philosophy in a South Asian university absolutely has an obligation to teach Western philosophy. If it renamed itself ‘Department of Indian Philosophy’, then that would be another matter. I don’t think entire departments dedicated to a single philosophical tradition is a good idea, but either way that’s not what’s at issue here.Report
As someone who studies Chinese philosophy, I’d like to make two observations. In the first place, don’t fully understand why non-Western philosophy takes center stage in these discussions, since much of the sticking points seem to focus on the value of the history of philosophy in general, and whether or not contemporary analytic philosophers can afford to ignore it. That’s a fine debate to have, but I don’t feel comfortable using non-Western philosophy as an excuse to tell mainstream analytic philosophers that they should value the history of philosophy, as I’m agnostic on whether they should. It depends on the project. However, if the history of philosophy is valuable at all, and if it’s racist to exclude non-Western thought from the history of philosophy (it is), then non-Western philosophy is valuable for the same reasons that the history of philosophy is valuable, and not for uniquely non-Western reasons.
Secondly, I worry that the distinction between exclusion and ignorance often gets blurred in these discussions. The examples Van Norden mentions of historical figures who invent transparently bad reasons for a priori excluding non-Western philosophy from philosophy in general are both dated and rare. What’s far more common is that people are just ignorant of it for the same reasons they are ignorant of whatever other kind of philosophy they weren’t exposed to in their careers. (I have never, for example, had any proper exposure to Western medieval philosophy in a classroom setting because of the composition of the departments with which I’ve been associated.) They might be ignorant because of past practices of excluding non-Western philosophy, but so long as those practices are becoming increasingly rare, I can’t help but be hopeful that philosophers will take on the epistemic responsibility of whenever they teach a history of philosophy or philosophical survey course that they will include some non-Western stuff too.
As a personal note, my aspiration as a scholar of Chinese thought is merely to have a seat at the history of philosophy table, and for there to be a greater appreciation for ancient Chinese thinkers among people who care about the history of philosophy. When teaching intro to philosophy survey courses, it would probably at this point be pedagogically responsible to include some non-Western philosophy, as there are many resources and top-notch scholarship these days that can help. What I’d really like to see change is the phenomenon that plenty of philosophers who do little to no history of philosophy currently have a passing knowledge of Western philosophical figures based on their undergraduate experiences, but very few Western philosophers having that same “passing knowledge” of Mengzi, Zhuangzi, or Nāgārjuna. Changing that would be a huge improvement I think.Report
Since more than one person has implicitly or explicitly included non-Western under history, I would like to emphasize that this is not correct. Non-Western philosophy is not a species of history. For example, I do metaphysics of mind (mainly), not history, but I do it in the Indian tradition. Of course I have to learn a bit about the history of Indian philosophy, but so do people doing metaphysics of mind in the Western tradition.Report
It’s concerning though unsurprising to see a lot of the commenters here ignore JW’s suggestion that the title of the article has very little to do with its actual thesis. Prof van Norden’s point, as is obvious, is that more engagement with non-Western traditions of thinking would benefit the kinds of inquiries that philosophers make. Instead of considering this or talking about how it could be done, people seem tremendously eager to quibble about who counts as a racist and whether non-Western traditions are also racist and how academic philosophy is apparently just a meritocratic marketplace of ideas and if non-Western ideas were valuable they’d come up anyway. Is it really so implausible that the specializations people go on to pursue – these supposedly a-historical concerns – are founded on ideas of what counts as valuable philosophical insight? And that those ideas grow out of an understanding of the – or a – philosophical tradition that one is a part of?
It seems to me that one good and simple first step in all this would be to include non-Western texts in ‘Great Works’ or ‘Central Problems’ or ‘History of Philosophy’ courses for beginning students. What’s objectionable about that? And none of this ‘don’t have the time to learn ancient languages’ rubbish please – people who aren’t fluent in Greek and French and German frequently teach and learn Aristotle and Descartes and Kant. If possible/necessary, co-teach these classes with someone who does have an expertise, even if they’re (the horror!) employed by a different department.Report
Related to your first point, I think there is also a failure in the comments to distinguish between what is true of Western Philosophy as an institution and what is true of individual philosophers. For example, I would not be surprised if many if not most individual philosophers are no less interested in non-Western philosophy than in Western philosophy that isn’t in their tradition/field, or is simply just old. Nevertheless the fact remains that philosophy departments have people working in all these traditions/fields, and working the history of philosophy, while they often don’t have people working in non-Western philosophy.
(Also related to your first point, it is worth noting that JW himself titled this post “A Way Western Philosophy is Racist”)Report
Your response is indeed related to my first point, but only by way of illustrating what I am complaining about. Why is the concern you raise so significant to the discussion? Is your intention to clarify, just so everyone is clear, that the individual philosophers working in departments today do not literally consciously believe that white people are superior to non-whites? If it’s that charge of racism that you’re concerned about responding to, my suggestion – which I had hoped was clear in my original post – is that this missed what’s important about the article by a long way.Report
Sorry, unclear about intent again. I was merely illustrating a way in which what’s true of individual philosophers possibly (maybe likely) comes apart from what’s true of philosophy as an institution, in response to the fact that a lot of comments here conflate the two. I’m not particularly worried about responding to charges of individual racism – if anything the point is that individual racism may not always be the most productive frame through which to think about this. (I hedge with the “may not always be” – I don’t want to say that we *shouldn’t* talk about individual racism.)Report
I think you are right on and also that you are making a very common mistake. First, I agree that western philosophy could benefit very greatly by engaging with eastern philosophy. I just returned from a conference that I thought was woefully inadequate in this regard (as was the last one I attended, and the one before that…). Had the presenters or audience displayed the most basic acquaintance with eastern (especially Buddhist) ideas about the ‘reactive attitudes’, the conference would have been far richer. But the entire conference would not have had a syllable altered had the Buddha never lived, and for that matter had there never been Stoics (and who knows what else). At least half of the papers were of roughly (and implicitly) the following form: “Boy, we sure would like to be angry, resentful and blame people. However, there are certain conceptual problems that threaten to limit our ability to do these things (e.g., sociopaths or racists who are stipulated to lack basic capacities to improve or to have known better previously). Here is my way to allow us to blame people even in these highly artificial and stipulated cases.” The notion that these attitudes inherently defile the mind was utterly absent. The notion that it even might be a worthy ideal to develop a peaceful mind, one of awareness and equanimity, was not so much as parenthetically suggested in any of the talks or responses.
Here is the common mistake I think you make: you criticize people for paying attention to the charge of racism and not paying attention to the ways in which western traditions could benefit from non-western traditions. You also falsely claim that the latter is obviously Van Norden’s point. This is false not only because of the title of the article–which you should roundly criticize, given your stated priorities–but also the text of the article itself spends some real time arguing for the racism thesis. So if you think that we should focus on how we could benefit from engaging with non-western traditions, then it is both ignoble and counterproductive to accuse people of responding to charges which you imply are not even really there–charges that were demonstrably made in the article. Instead, if you agree with me that we should focus on how engagement with non-western traditions would be a great thing, and not on accusations of racism, then you should criticize whoever made up that title, as well as the author of the article for making this a focus of the article, which he did. If on the other hand you think the charges are true, then you should say so and defend them, and not accuse others of addressing them as such.
To be clear, I think what is common in this mistake is to accuse people of getting upset about charges of racism where they are arguably not warranted, and also accusing them of not being rightly attuned to the serious relevant issues in such cases, while ignoring the fact that unwarranted charges of racism are not only predictable, but justifiable deflections from these issues.
Charges of racism are serious. If they are warranted, then defend them. If they are not, then they are not only unhelpful, but positively counterproductive to the relevant aims, whether of combatting racism or of discussing how western philosophy could benefit from non-western. Since I am passionately in favor of both of these aims, I feel bound to criticize unwarranted charges of racism in these contexts. So while I agree with Justin that there really are millions of people who are more concerned with charges of racism than with racism itself, I also think that people who are really concerned about racism ought to be especially vigilant about false accusations. That is the spirit in which I am stridently opposed to such unsubstantiated charges. And since I think, consistent with the evidence, that virtue-signaling is pervasive in *all* socio-moral groups, we should not simply take my or anyone else’s word that they are oh so concerned about racism, rather than giving the appearance thereof in order to promote their own reputation, or the visibility of their article.
In my view, though there is almost certainly racism around, here and elsewhere, this has little to do with why these traditions are basically ignored in modern western philosophy. I think they are ignored for basically the same reasons that, say, Nietzsche is still overwhelmingly ignored in modern moral philosophy. The main reasons are that (a) It would take a special effort to engage with these materials, (b) this extra effort would not be worth it from a professional standpoint, partly because (c) there is prejudice against these thinkers, but it is not racial prejudice.
The prejudice against them is largely based on the fact that taking them seriously would often expose deep prejudices (not racial ones!) for what they are–prejudices that the tradition has worked very hard not to see as such, but instead to regard as ‘common sense’ or some such. Letting other traditions or thinkers in that don’t accept the same basic prejudices undermines one’s sense that one is doing deep, important work, rather than, say, privileging and coherentizing the prejudices of W.E.I.R.D. academics or some other slice of humanity, while ignoring or dismissing what turns out to be the vast majority of humans across time and space. But this is to be expected in socio-moral groups as such, and doesn’t have much specifically to do with racism, in my view. (This is not to deny that racism is rampant, and not always directed at minority groups, though this last observation, which ought to be utterly banal, is also forbidden in certain W.E.I.R.D. academic groups.)
So I say, to those who want to see these traditions given more serious attention in our departments, enough with the (weak) charges of racism and more with the positive suggestions on how our philosophy would plausibly be a lot better by engaging with non-western traditions. It’s been a while since I read the article, but I don’t recall much being offered in this vein. I recall rhetorical questions about what hypothetical westerners think about arguments by Chinese philosophers, the point of which was to show that such arguments exist and are effectively ignored. No doubt this is true. What would be nice is to see more space devoted to what we could learn from them, and less to fashionable, attention-getting charges of racism.Report
Thanks for the very careful and thoughtful post, Eric – though it’s longer than most people would want their own blog comments to be (I include myself here), it’s a model of what good, useful interaction on the internet _could_ be. I wish we had more of it. (the example used is also a great and interesting one.)Report
Thanks Matt! Though yes, I have been known to overdo it :).Report
Just to be clear, I only meant that most people are not willing to devote the time to writing careful, really helpful comments. I am often in this group myself. That’s one reason why blogs are a lot less good for philosophy (or many other types of discussion) than they might be, but this comment was really good and helpful. I’m glad you put in the time.Report
Ah, thanks for the clarification Matt. Though I had originally understood that part of your comment as mildly critical, I was not bothered by it, fwiw.Report
I think there’s a lack of distinctions that tends to affect the quality of these debates.
First, there’s the distinction between the questions of whether Western philosophy *as an institution* should include non-Western philosophy, and whether *individual* (Western) philosophers should engage with non-Western philosophy. (Incidentally to the first question I think there is no non-racist reason to answer “no.” If any decent philosophy department is expected to have specialists in the various traditions in Western philosophy, that expectation should extend to specialists in non-Western philosophy.) Now while there are ways in which these two questions are intimately connected (if you think that Western philosophy departments should hire more non-Western specialists, individual philosophers engaging with non-Western philosophy is instrumental to that), but in general the reasons given for the answers are going to be different. So you end up with one person saying “here’s why Western philosophy (as an institution) should engage with non-Western philosophy” and another saying “I don’t see why philosophers (as individuals) should engage with non-Western philosophy” and talking past each other.
Second, on the individual side, there’s a difference between there *not* being any reasons *not* to engage with non-Western philosophy, and there being reasons *to* engage with non-Western philosophy. This I think is what’s being pointed to by the skeptics: “I agree that non-Western philosophy is philosophy, and that it’s good philosophy. So theres no reason not to engage with it. However, many philosophers don’t engage with philosophy outside of their narrow specialty as a general matter – so why should they treat non-Western philosophy any different?”
Now, of course, there *are* several reasons to engage with non-Western philosophy. But this brings me to my third point: it often isn’t clear what or which reasons are being appealed to, whether and why they are reasons for engaging with non-Western philosophy *specifically* (for example, rather than reasons for engaging with the history of philosophy in general), and how these reasons interact (for example, whether one of the reasons isn’t compelling in itself, or isn’t a reason for engaging with non-Western philosophy specifically, but is working in conjunction with a bunch of other reasons). And on the flip side, people who are skeptical of arguments for engaging with non-Western philosophy don’t make it clear which reasons they disagree with and whether their disagreement is with the reasons themselves or with the relevance of those reasons to non-Western philosophy specifically. So again people end up talking past each other.Report
I don’t agree. The claim that rejecting non-Western philosophy’s role in a philosophy department is (necessarily? probably? It’s unclear how strong you intend your claim to be) racist depends on substantive assumptions about *why* a person would not want such traditions incorporated into a philosophy program. However, there may be several non-racist reasons why someone would not want to include them.
For instance, it would be possible for there to be a non-racist answer if the content or methods of Western approaches systematically differ from non-Western approaches. If so, then those favoring a Western approach out of personal preference would not be necessarily motivated by racism.
Second, it is possible that contemporary Western analytic philosophy is able to achieve progress in ways that do not benefit significantly from the inclusion of non-Western philosophy. To be clear, I am not saying that this is true. However, I am saying it is possible to think this and (a) be correct and justified in thinking it, which wouldn’t be racist, to be (b) incorrect but justified in thinking this, which isn’t racist, either.
Third, claiming that it is racist to not want non-Western philosophical traditions as part of one’s program presumes that one places special value on Western traditions. Instead, it may be that one has a specific methodological approach that is an incidental inheritor of Western philosophical traditions but is no longer dependent on incorporating Western texts into its substantive content in virtue of their being Western texts. In other words, if the rejection of non-Western philosophy is the result of a more general methodological/intellectual stance that rejects all traditions lacking or possessing certain characteristics regardless of their cultural/historical roots, then such a stance would not necessarily be racist.
My own view (not just personally, but how I’d want to see a philosophy department structured) is that philosophy is already too historical. I am entirely in favor of people who believe historical approaches are valuable to adopt such an approach to teaching and studying Western philosophy, but just as I feel individuals should be free to pursue philosophy in whatever way they see fit, and that the flowering of individual interests is of benefit to us all, I think this also applies at the higher level fo the constitution of philosophy departments, which I believe could benefit from cooperative, collective approaches to structuring a program that emphasize alternative approaches to philosophical education as a whole. At the same time, I would have zero objections to a department right next door even focusing heavily or exclusively on non-Western traditions. That just isn’t the approach I, personally, would take to structuring a philosophy department. Thus, while I am fine with the existence of philosophy departments that have non-Western philosophy, I am fine with this for the same reason I’m fine with philosophy departments teaching theology: because I don’t want to impose my own standards of what constitutes rubbish on everyone else. However, you specifically stated that it would be racist to think
“Western philosophy *as an institution* should include non-Western philosophy”
One can hold the private belief that Western philosophy should not bother with such traditions while simultaneously believing that imposing such a belief on others would be wrong. If so, you could actively favor the inclusion of non-Western philosophy in philosophy as an institution as a measure of accepting that other people hold different views about what philosophy as an institution ought to include. After all, I’m a utilitarian. I am sympathetic to totally ignoring deontology and reorienting ethics around an exclusive emphasis on working out the details of consequentialist approaches. However, I would not advocate for restrictions on deontologists participating in philosophy.
It simply isn’t racist to think that that the best approach to philosophy may be ahistorical and that philosophy students would get more value out of studying cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and programming than studying Socrates *or* Mozi.Report
I’ll hopefully have a chance to reply to your substantive points later, but I just wanted to quickly note that you are responding to a brief parenthetical aside (which is also pretty clearly intended as a quick, broad-strokes description of my opinion) as if it was my thesis.Report
Hi MA student. I take your point. I don’t intend my expression of disagreement to single you out in particular. Rather, I saw your post as the most appropriate for writing a response that captured my general view about the notion that excluding non-Western philosophy is racist. I haven’t seen much in the way of a wholesale rejection of traditionalism and heavily historical approaches to doing philosophy, and want to go on record as representing such a view. I hope you’ll have time to respond!Report
As many have said here, it’s vital to consider our historical context when evaluating arguments.
Therefore, given how much racism has become an outrage fad, I’m going to look at these arguments with the same diligence and charitability as I would anti-communist arguments in the Second Red Scare, or pro-Christianity arguments in the Inquisition.Report