Two Models for Expanding The Canon

Progress: the push for academic philosophy to overcome its ethnocentrism and incorporate works from a greater diversity of cultures has reached the point that its advocates are having fruitful public disagreements about how best to do it.

The venue for this is the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which Jonardon Ganeri (NYU Abu Dhabi) reviews Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto by Bryan Van Norden.

The review, “Taking Philosophy Forward,” is worth reading in its entirety. It begins with some beautiful remarks on the idea of disagreement as “the lifeblood of philosophy” and “the tools and techniques of philosophy—debate, reasoned deliberation, weighing of evidence, clarification of concepts, consideration of consequences—[as] instruments in the management of disagreement.” He notes that diversity is a source of disagreement, but that “philosophy as we now find it in the United States (and equally elsewhere) has come to fear and shun diversity, specifically the diversity of philosophical opinion and argumentation from extra-European cultures.”

Ganeri disagrees with Van Norden that racism is the main culprit here. As interesting as that dispute is, I want to instead focus our attention on the different models offered by the two philosophers over how to bring more diversity to the philosophical canon.

Here’s Ganeri’s presentation of Van Norden’s model:

Van Norden offers multiculturalism as the remedy, presenting the book as “a manifesto for multicultural philosophy.” Multiculturalism in philosophy, for him, consists in the idea that philosophy departments should offer instruction and research in a multiplicity of philosophical cultures, and that these offerings should be “brought into dialogue,” a dialogue that takes place in a way that is not unfairly biased in favor of one over any other. I confess that I find this to be a rather conservative and indeed somewhat old-fashioned proposal. For it is really the old idea of comparative philosophy, pioneered in the second half of the 20th century by a series of scholars who, as Van Norden does, appealed to the trope of a “dialogue between cultures” for an accommodation of philosophical texts and voices from India, Africa, China, Mesoamerica, and Indigenous worlds. That program, however, hit a wall because it shared with ethnocentrists a basic presupposition: that cultures are monolithic units or essentially integrated wholes. Moreover, the appeal to a “dialogue” between such units, which was based on the model of inter-religious dialogue, was intended to be such as to avoid making normative claims about the respective philosophical value of ideas: the ambition, instead, was mutual understanding. Yet any philosophical engagement must allow for the possibility of refutation, counterargument, and, yes, disagreement….

What it means for other cultures to be “brought into dialogue” (by us), it now seems, is for our culture to find within them expressions of ideas that we find of value in addressing problems that are important for us. Isn’t this all just a little ethnocentric? Is it consistent with the evenhandedness implicit in the very idea of multiculturalism? If culture A is brought into dialogue with culture B, but it is culture A which does the bringing and decides what is important, there seems to be an evident skewing of the field. As long as the trope of “cultures in dialogue” is in play, inconsistencies like this are unavoidable. What is particularly problematic is the assumption that “what is important for our culture” is a given, itself fixed in advance of any encounter with another culture, and something to which such encounters are answerable. No space is granted to the possibility that such an encounter might radically transform what is of cultural importance for us. And for the many philosophers who have worked in the interstices between cultures, the very idea of “our culture” would make no sense anyway.

Ganeri himself thinks a more individualist approach, which he finds hints of in Van Norden’s book, is better:

Philosophy is an intellectual activity engaged in by individuals, not cultures, and those individuals should be open to as wide a range of “new voices, alternative solutions, fresh vocabularies” as possible, if their activity is to achieve its goal, which is the slow movement of thought toward truth.

This would be a philosophy beyond borders, a cosmopolitan philosophy to which cultural boundaries are invisible, because ideas do not carry passports and are not owned by one nation or another. As one can’t sensibly claim to be a philosopher of language without knowing the ideas of Frege, or to be a moral philosopher without knowing something of Kant (translated from German into English if needs be, with sensitivity to the nuances of vocabulary), no one should rightly want to call themselves an epistemologist without a basic understanding of Śrīharṣa or Nāgārjuna (in translation from the Sanskrit, with an analogous proviso).

As professional academics, being conversant with the literature is simply an intellectual duty we have to our field. What distinguishes contemporary philosophy from philosophy as it has been practiced in the past is that the reach of this duty is now global. This is expansion without fragmentation. And what students too want and need, in my experience, is exposure to exciting ideas of every provenance, whether or not there is dialogue between cultures.

In a way, these two models recapitulate a different disagreement: one about how to teach figures in the history of philosophy, especially at the introductory level. Some people take a more historical approach that introduces philosophers and their ideas, era by era, chronologically, while others take a more problem-oriented approach and incorporate historical figures as their ideas are relevant to the problems under consideration.

You can read the whole review here. Discussion welcome.

Jennifer Brial, “Dymaxion 3”

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