End Philosophical Protectionism

Economists generally agree that protectionist policies (tariffs, subsidies, and other measures that shield domestic firms and laborers from foreign competition) are harmful to a nation’s overall economic well-being. Yet they continue to be implemented, in part because they sound good to an uninformed population susceptible to being swayed by nationalist rhetoric, and in part because of lobbying on the part of small relatively powerful groups who would benefit significantly from them. Those benefits come at a large cost, but that cost is spread out over many, many people, each of whom are made worse off individually, on average, only in very minor ways.

Though there are limits to the metaphor, consider the idea of philosophical protectionism: a set of practices and institutional arrangements, supported by a range of attitudes and beliefs, that have the effect of shielding Western philosophy from engagement with other philosophical traditions.

Unfamiliarity with and disdain for non-Western philosophy function as tariffs on it, making its entry into philosophy’s main marketplace of ideas more difficult, and discouraging its production by making it professionally riskier.

The professional cost of philosophical protectionism to a typical individual philosopher in the West may appear negligible. Sure, there may be insights on one’s research topics to be gleaned from non-Western traditions, but (a) the Western philosophical canon is sufficiently large that there is no obvious shortage of “domestic” material to work with; (b) there are very few professional opportunities individual philosophers will miss out on because they don’t engage with non-Western philosophy, and (c) frank admissions of ignorance of some of the most important philosophers in non-Western traditions do little to damage to the status of  individual Western philosophers in the eyes of their peers.

However, the costs of philosophical protectionism, in the aggregate, may be quite large. The lack of interest in non-Western philosophy: (a) discourages the very research, exposition, and argument that could show us just how much valuable and relevant material we’re currently ignorant of, opening up new questions and problems or reframing existing ones in productive ways; (b) limits the number and type of publications, speaking engagements, projects, and funding available to philosophers (on the assumption that the broader the field, the more of these things we’d likely have, for various reasons); and (c) makes philosophy (and philosophers) appear chauvinistic and culturally illiterate to others in a world (that on the long view is) increasingly comfortable with cultural diversity (which may have various bad effects for the status and future of the profession).

The possible opportunity costs of maintaining the status quo—especially the aggregate possible opportunity costs of doing so—are hard to see. Perhaps it would help to imagine what the Western philosophical landscape would be like today if, say, British philosophy had always received as little attention from Western philosophers as Indian philosophy actually has. If you can make sense of the ways in which philosophy overall would be poorer for that, you can make sense, at least in form, of how costly the shunning and ignorance of much of the rest of the world’s philosophical thinking could be.*

These thoughts were prompted by a very interesting interview with Anand Jayprakash Vaidya, professor of philosophy at San José State University and director of the school’s Center for Comparative Philosophy, at 3:AM Magazine. He has lots of thoughtful things to say, so if you don’t like my protectionism metaphor don’t let that discourage you from reading the interview.

Interviewer Richard Marshall asks Professor Vaidya about what he sees as “‘the next step’ for philosophy,” when “all philosophy will get used to taking good ideas from wherever they can be found rather than tying them to a powerful but restricted range of traditions.”

Here are some excerpts of Professor Vaidya’s reply to this question and some that follow:

Philosophy needs to go beyond the borders that have historically been imposed through the epistemic injustices, such as colonialism…

Should philosophy be allowed to persist on the basis of known epistemic injustices? I think not, there is room for correction, which will lead to better philosophy. We know what the consequences of colonialism are, on a variety of traditions. In the main, and at times, not all times, it has shielded Western philosophy from having to engage with the ideas that come from non-Western traditions. It is long overdue that we move toward wider engagement…

Let me also separate out two different threads of thought, so as to clarify things. There is a political point and a philosophical point. The political point is that we need to recognize that the history of philosophy is embedded in a situation where epistemic injustices were, and are, present. But when we recognize those injustices we don’t automatically, on my view, say all the ideas are good and worth pursuing. Rather, we need to recognize that moving forward on the basis of not giving others a chance in the philosophical game is the error, but once everyone is in the game, we simply just do philosophy and see what ideas win the day in terms of being pursued. There is a lot of bad analytic philosophy. And I think everyone who is serious about the discipline would agree with me on that. Furthermore, when I look at some of the papers written by 20th century Indian philosophers I really wonder why I was not introduced to this material in my analytical philosophy education.

My point is that we need to think about the conditions under which we ratify the direction we as philosophers collectively want to go, if there is such a joint body of individuals doing philosophy. And we cannot ratify this direction if the conditions under which we generate this ratification are exclusionary in a problematic sense. It seems clear that this is so. We have excluded perfectly legitimate work from the conversation and included a bunch of garbage for no good reason…

As a philosopher I seek a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon, such as the self or consciousness. As a consequence, I think I need to look at what many different cultures and disciplines have said about the phenomenon. I use this as a base for generating and synthesizing a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon. In this sense, I think the methodology of philosophy I like might just be a combination of feminist standpoint epistemology unified with components of Jain philosophy, such as nayavada (epistemic stances). Progress in philosophy, at least some of the time, simply consists in the improvement of our understanding of something. This can be understood itself in different ways, such as through building better models. I think cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary philosophy just provides a good base of resources for building better models and having a better overall conversation.

The whole interview is here.

Nikki Rosato, “If I Paint Us (in gold) VI”

* (Who stands to benefit from philosophical protectionism? Those whose status, in their own eyes, or in the eyes of the profession or broader culture, is bound up with the status quo, that is, with preserving the unique importance of Western philosophy. One needn’t think that philosophers are largely or even explicitly concerned with their status (though some may be), or harbor especially chauvinistic views (though some do), to think that at some level such attitudes might have a motivational effect. And, in somewhat of a departure from the metaphor, one needn’t think the motivational effect is even all that strong. It may just function to make the relevant power holders less enthusiastic about, say, changing curricular requirements, or about hiring in Latin American philosophy instead of Kant, or about including non-Western perspectives at a conference or in a collected volume, and so on—things which together may have a large effect.)


There are 98 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address