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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Quasi philosopher
5 years ago

First, I don’t understand how we go from the admission that it is false that “cultures are monolithic units or essentially integrated wholes” to “cultures are fluid, amorphous beings whose overlaps and interconnections are of often greater significance than presumed essential identities.” There’s a more moderate, and I think more reasonable, position which accepts that cultures change across time, and its individuals vary considerably, while still being willing to admit that thinking about cultures as units is very often fruitful.

Second, what goes unmentioned in these debates (to a degree in Van Norden’s book itself and definitely in the LA Review’s article) is that there often is real value in studying a particular tradition in depth, particularly one that gives rise to multiple fields down the line. Studying the Early Moderns in the Western cannon, for example, can allow students to think about the foundations of Western Science (through Boyle’s experimental programme, say), about political legitimacy (Hobbes). And looking in depth helps you find connections which just a superficial gloss wouldn’t let you.

And I’m sure this happens to people in other traditions as well! for example, how does the Daoist text the Huainanzi systematically and subtly reinterpret earlier Confucian and Daoist ideas (among others) to produce a work that’s deeply original? You’re simply not going to appreciate the subtlety without a solid background in the ancient Chinese texts.

So the pressing questions for me aren’t based on platitudes (even if beautiful) about truth and debate and ideas, but on an admission that different idea-traditions often have different origins and concerns, and we need to decide when it’s worth teaching a particular tradition, which particular tradition to teach, and how much and when non-tradition texts need to be introduced. And we can’t really forget the power differentials, eg: I think it might be alright for different countries and regions to teach their own historic philosophical texts primarily with some space if possible for foreign ones, except that the (often unjustly acquired) prestige and resources of Western institutions makes it seem that Western institutions have a special onus to teach non-Western curriculum. There’s still messy, messy arguments about specifics that need to be engaged with in context, and even then with few clear lines, but hey, that’s philosophy.

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Great review by Ganeri. Agree very much that racism is unhelpful as an explanation at this point in time. Need to find other explanations. In that spirit, I would press some points against Ganeri similar to Quasi philosopher above.

Need to distinguish 2 roles philosophy plays: 1) a universal role applicable to all humans (like science, but also great literature, etc.), and 2) a more local role about how a culture/community/country/family, etc can deal philosophically with their situation. In Ganeri’s terms, (1) is “philosophy beyond borders”, but (2) is not. (2) is about how to engage with borders thoughtfully.

Ganeri right that multiculturalism which essentializes cultures is bad (I don’t know if Van Norden meant to say otherwise). But the alternative isn’t to do away with borders. This is most obvious in the relation of philosophy to a liberal arts education, and of such education to cultivating thoughtful citizens. What thoughtful citizens do will likely differ in America, India, South Africa, etc. Even though there are obvious common issues (rise of nationalism, social media distorting truth discourse, etc.), that doesn’t take away from the importance of the particularity of situations.

This suggests a different reason for the eurocentrism of academic philosophy: philosophers haven’t figured out how to balance the universal and the local. This is a deep philosophical problem, which should be addressed as a open problem. Focus on racism makes it seem like we have a theoretical understanding how to live together, but are failing in practice. But, as Ganeri’s own point about the dilemma of “embrace and fragment” or “exclude and contract” shows, we don’t have even a theoretical understanding in place. The arrogance of contemporary phil isn’t that of racism, but that of not acknowledging this lack of understanding.

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Also: the universal/local distinction is not the same as pluralism/non-pluralism distinction. Even granted that philosophy in America doesn’t have to be in every way universal, that doesn’t imply that philosophy can be eurocentric. America as a local space already has a great deal of plurality within itself, and eurocentrism fails to address that fact.

So there is universal pluralism and also local pluralism. These are very different things. Both good. But they just cannot be argued for together, as if they are the same. Universal pluralism is what we share simply as knowledge seekers – nationality doesn’t matter. But local pluralism is about how members of a country want to shape that country – here nationality obviously matters.

These are big topics: when should truth pursuit be beyond borders, and when not? Are there different kinds of truth: that which breaks free of context altogether and that which is inseparable from local context? And what does “local” mean in a country like America?

This is really the problem with the older comparative philosophy approach. There are many questions about global philosophy which aren’t just about comparing and contrasting traditions, but about what it means to balance the universal and local in philosophy. We need much more of that kind of thinking as well – a kind of prolegomena to global philosophy and its limits. Any philosopher can do this, even if they only know one tradition.

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

The lack of discussion on this post is absolutely amazing. Unbelievable. Two prominent, interesting philosophers having a fruitful disagreement in the public domain, and yet…where is the engagement here…from the phil bros or the social justice warriors or…most people…

Is it because of racism? Or because this topic is hard, really, really hard? The way meta-ethics or the transcendental deduction is hard. Except unlike those, there isn’t a vast conceptual infrastructure already set up to guide our instincts and gut reactions.

Great respect to pioneers like Van Norden and Ganeri, as well as others like Matilal, Adamson, Bina Gupta and many others, whose work is about the necessary conceptual infrastructure to make the topic manageable. They are fighting against the wind not of racism mainly, but ignorance. And not ignorance in a morally loaded sense (as in the ignorance of holocaust deniers) but just good old fashioned lack of knowledge and being overwhelmed by the vastness of the unexplored territory here, and the vastness of its implications.

Apologies for commenting yet again. My last in this manner. But hey, it’s not like I am not letting others speak. 🙂

5 years ago

I agree in principle with Ganeri, but it obviously makes sense to have people dedicated to certain traditions. Epistemologists can’t really be expected to learn Sanskrit and translate texts in their spare time just to see if there might be any ideas relevant to their work any more than they can all be expected to learn Latin to study medieval epistemology. Without spealists dedicated to mining specific traditions for ideas those traditions won’t be integrated into anglophone philosophy.

Talk of a dialogue between traditions or cultures is sort of vague and unhelpful. Dialogues occur between people. The best way that I can make sense of the notion of such a dialogue is as the idea that we should actively build international relationships with living academic philosophers in India, China, and Africa. But this is hardly a groundbreaking notion. Most academic fields are international in this way.

What I am wary of (and what I suspect many others are also wary of) is multiculturalism or relativism when it comes to methodology. What makes a philosophical argument good hopefully doesn’t vary by culture. But this is hardly a necessary assumption in the argument for expanding the canon.

John symons
John symons
5 years ago

And this while the World Congress takes place without so much as a mention from you or Leiter.

Paul Taborsky
5 years ago

A brief, late, comment – What I find especially revealing about these remarks is that they bring out some revealing differences between the ‘mentalities’, one might say, of current academic Sinology, and Sanskrit / Indian studies, a difference noted and remarked on by Ganeri; that is (expanding on Ganeri’s remarks with my own observations) that current Sinology, (especially in the Anglophone world), appears to be in much the same intellectual place that Indology was a generation or two ago, in that it is very much concerned with highlighting the differences bewteen various postulated cultural mentalities, their alleged grounding in cultural and linguistic factors, and especially with emphasizing their differences. For whatever reasons, Indology has moved away from this apporoach – as we can see in Ganeri’s own work, and the work of many others such as B.K. Matilal, but in Sinology this style of thinking appears to be very much alive and well. Even some of the old tropes persist – above all the imputed contrast between the supposed rational, individualistic, logical West and the intuitive, collectivist, pragmatic ‘East’, except now perhaps the arguments are made with a little more academic sophisitcation. Reading the work contemporary Sinologists such as Chad Hansen, for example, one almost feels back in the world of Radhakrishnan, etc. One wonders why the two disciplines have gone in such different directions.