To Be a Department of Philosophy (guest post)
“There are many reasons to expand the story we tell about philosophy. But a main reason is just that the best, most interesting, and even the correct answers to philosophical questions that interest us might be found anywhere.”
The following is a guest post* by Alexander Guerrero, Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. It is the second in a series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.
To Be a Department of Philosophy
by Alexander Guerrero
The profession of philosophy and the education of philosophy students—at both the undergraduate and graduate level—must change.
It has now been almost exactly six years since Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden published their “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is” in the New York Times, and it has been five years since Van Norden published his follow-up book, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. They and many others have been pointing out, for years, that the vast majority of philosophy departments in the United States (and most other parts of the Anglophone world) offer courses only from one strand of the world’s philosophical traditions, the Anglo-European strand. (And even within that strand, it is narrow, giving prominence to Ancient Greece, France, Germany, the UK, and the US.)
As those of us who went through such programs know, this story begins in Ancient Greece with fragments of Thales and Parmenides and a few others, and considerably more from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; skips forward to Medieval Europe and Anselm and Aquinas (or skips this period entirely); continues through a few prominent ‘early modern’ or ‘modern’ Anglo/European men (Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, maybe also some Leibniz, Spinoza, and Rousseau); picks up a few others in the 19th Century (Bentham, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Mill); and arrives with an early 20th century philosophy origin story that goes through Frege, Russell, Carnap, Wittgenstein and into central figures like Quine, Kripke, Lewis, Rawls; and then a topically-driven focus on many distinct philosophers in the last quarter of the 20th Century and early 21st Century on the analytic side (substitute Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze, Foucault, etc., on the continental side). The dominant version of the story includes no chapters on African, Chinese, Indian, Latin American, or Indigenous or Native American voices or views; nothing (or almost nothing) from the long grand traditions intertwined with Buddhism, Islam, or Judaism; nothing from other non-Anglo-Europeans.
This story of philosophy has been overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white, and, as Garfield and Van Norden are at pains to point out, overwhelmingly Anglo-European, dominated by Europe, the UK, and, joining later, the United States. Why is this the story that has been told, over and over again, to undergraduates moving through philosophy programs? Why is this the story that we continue to tell through our major requirements and PhD distribution requirements?
There are two broad families of answers. The first aims at justification and vindication: here are the substantive, justifying reasons why this is what we teach and require and put at the center of ‘Philosophy’ in our educational institutions. The second aims at debunking these justifications (arguing that there is no justification for doing things this way) and supplementing that with diagnosis and historicization: here are the empirical explanations for why this what we do; notice that there are no justifying reasons in that story, nor no new justifying reasons to embrace now.
The first kind of answer makes a substantive claim about philosophy. It claims that, in sticking to the story above, we teach and require everything that is most centrally well-described as philosophy. We leave out, or put to the margins, work that is just religion, or anthropology, or literature, or cultural studies, or “thought” that doesn’t constitute philosophy.
I’m not sure anyone still really believes this. At any rate, they shouldn’t.
This kind of answer requires (a) that there is some kind of meta-philosophical view for sorting things as ‘philosophy’ or not, (b) that it is an attractive, non-question-begging meta-philosophical view, (c) that those telling this standard story agree on this view and use it to sort work into the ‘philosophy’ basket or not, (d) that this view compels us to include what we teach and require but exclude what we don’t currently cover, and (e) that this sorting just happens to include only Anglo-European work and almost nothing from non-Anglo-Europeans prior to 1950 or 1960 or something like that (at which point Jaegwon Kim and a few others get to become the very first non-Anglo-Europeans ever to do philosophy!). (Or perhaps there isn’t just one meta-philosophical view that all agree on, but, by amazing coincidence, the various meta-philosophical views are all such that they get extensionally equivalent results regarding (d) and (e)?) That is already quite a lot to swallow. I know that, at least in the places I’ve been, I would not expect any kind of broad meta-philosophical agreement, nor has there been any recent sorting or meta-philosophical discussion. What would the meta-philosophical view be? Something about arguments? Arguments about certain topics? Counterexamples—from inside and outside our standard story—abound. Garfield and Van Norden offer many of these.
But, even more decisively, we can tell that this isn’t what is really going on, because of the second difficulty with this answer: those who endorse it have either no or only glancing acquaintance with work from these other traditions, so the actual explanation for inclusion or exclusion can’t be some faithful, careful application of an attractive meta-philosophical principle. Nor can we defer to our wise forefathers (and they were certainly almost all men) who first crafted this story by using some (now forgotten) beautiful meta-philosophical sorting principle. We might not know that much about them, but one of the things we do know is that they, too, knew very little about any work that isn’t part of the standard story.
I expect that almost all of us teach and study in departments in which we just inherited the basic structure of coverage and the (at best) implicit understanding of philosophy revealed by that structure. These are the courses on the books, these are the professors we have to teach them, this is what I learned about in my philosophy education, these are the readers and textbooks we use, this is what we know about already, so, this is philosophy.
Obviously, that’s not any kind of argument toward substantive justification. We might try to come up with some attempts at post hoc rationalizations, but, once we acknowledge we don’t know anything at all about what is in the shadows, why should we continue to maintain that the pedagogical light is shining in just the right place?
The main answer to this is a human one: it’s natural to feel defensive and protective of what you have come to know and love. The vital point—at least by my lights—is that the problem with the standard story isn’t what it includes: what we all have come to know and love is, in many deep ways, important and beautiful. It makes sense that we want it to be taught and studied forever. The problem with the standard story is entirely about what it excludes. Figuring out how to move forward, figuring out how to begin telling a different, broader story, requires looking backward to better understand these patterns of exclusion. The second kind of answer to the ‘why this story’ question—the debunking and historicizing answer—helps us in that regard.
The second answer to our initial question of why this is the story of philosophy that we offer focuses on historical factors, explaining why we are in this situation without purporting to justify it. The long version of this story would need to be told by someone with more knowledge and historical and sociological expertise than I have. Randall Collins, in his unbelievably comprehensive masterpiece, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, tells some relevant parts of this story, focusing on the shift of philosophy into universities, particular networks of philosophers and intellectuals and the stories they tell about their own origins, and the gradual accumulation and ossification of a story as generations of students encounter it and learn about the key figures within that story (and, just as importantly, do not learn about other things).
Most of us who went into philosophy didn’t know all that much about what it was; we learned via example and ostension: this, these texts, the writings and ideas of these people, is philosophy. We have been told various things to justify this particular set of people, these starting points and texts. But often what we were told is just something said on the first day or two of class, not rigorously questioned or challenged even by those telling us the story. We are all, after all, mostly philosophers, interested in philosophy, not intellectual historians, interested in intellectual history. Once we have some interesting philosophy in front of us, we might not be inclined to ask all that many questions about what we haven’t been shown and why.
So, for much of the recent history of philosophical education in the Anglo-European world, what was pointed 75 years ago is still what is in the story today. Martin Luther King Jr.’s syllabus for an introductory social and political philosophy class he taught at Morehouse College 60 years ago could be identical to one that might be taught today.
For some significant part of that time, many of those doing the pointing have plausibly had biases against work by women and work by non-White people. Racism and sexism are part of the story of exclusion.
But another key part of the story is just a story of cycles of ignorance: your teachers don’t know about X, so they don’t teach you about X, so you don’t know about X, so when you teach you don’t teach about X, so your students don’t know about X… It might be that what falls under ‘X’ is a result of racism and sexism. It might also just be a matter of what is easily accessible at a particular time and place. We live at a time of unprecedented access to texts, ideas, and traditions from throughout history and from around the world, in addition to sophisticated scholarly commentary on and distillation of all those texts, ideas, and traditions.
Those parts of the explanation suggest good news and concrete steps for the project of beginning to tell a different story. I will suggest six such steps, concerning both undergraduate and graduate philosophical education. These might not all be equally easy to implement, depending on one’s particular local situation. But I hope that many of them can be taken up by those involved with philosophical education in almost any educational setting.
(1) Continue Your Philosophical Education
First suggestion: if you regularly teach philosophy, see it as a personal project to develop competence with material in your areas of specialization and/or competence from a philosophical tradition outside of the Anglo-European tradition that could be brought into your regular teaching (and perhaps also your advising and research).
Very few people who graduated with an undergraduate degree and a PhD in Philosophy from schools in North America, Australia, or the UK will have had any courses in any of Africana, Buddhist, Chinese, Indigenous or Native American, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American, or any other non-Anglo-European philosophical work. This is the central mechanism of the vicious cycle of ignorance that keeps us where we are. The only way to get out of the cycle is for many of us who were exposed only to the standard story to do some work. We can’t wait for someone else to do it. We aren’t teaching anybody else to do it. As Garfield and Van Norden wrote in 2016:
The vast majority of philosophy departments in the United States offer courses only on philosophy derived from Europe and the English-speaking world. For example, of the 118 doctoral programs in philosophy in the United States and Canada, only 10 percent have a specialist in Chinese philosophy as part of their regular faculty. Most philosophy departments also offer no courses on Africana, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American, Native American or other non-European traditions. Indeed, of the top 50 philosophy doctoral programs in the English-speaking world, only 15 percent have any regular faculty members who teach any non-Western philosophy.
Very little has changed in this regard in the past six years. There are excellent people working in these areas, but there are simply not yet enough people who are experts in these areas, and the vast majority of PhD programs in Philosophy are not producing people who work or teach in these areas.
Fortunately, one thing that is changing significantly are the resources available to people for their own continuing philosophical education with respect to work from outside the standard story.
There is a new program, the Northeast Workshop to Learn About Multicultural Philosophy (‘NEWLAMP’), which has this as its central purpose. Twenty philosophy instructors from across the country will meet in July to expand their knowledge of African and African social and political philosophy. Future iterations will cover different traditions and topics. More such programs should be created.
But there are also many things one can use on one’s own, or in a small reading group. Last Spring, I ran a reading group on African, Latin American, and Native American philosophy over Zoom. This was very fun and relatively easy to do. All the readings and plan are available here, and many other similar groups could be organized, covering all manner of topics.
Perhaps the single-most remarkable resource, The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps project, now has extensive coverage of Islamic Philosophy, Indian Philosophy, and African Philosophy, thanks to the truly amazing work of Peter Adamson, Jonardon Ganeri, and Chike Jeffers, among others. The future plan includes coverage of ancient China with the help of Karyn Lai. It is helpfully organized chronologically but also indexed thematically, so that one could learn just about aesthetics or ethics or mereology.
Familiar resources, like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Philosophy Compass, are significantly expanding their coverage of philosophical work from outside the Anglo-European tradition. For example, Guillermo Hurtado and Robert Eli Sanchez have created a remarkable overview entry for the SEP on Philosophy in Mexico, there is a fantastic entry on metaphilosophical questions concerning ‘Latin American Philosophy’ authored by Susana Nuccetelli, and Stephanie Rivera Berruz has written a brilliant entry on Latin American Feminism. Philosophy Compass has new Section Areas on African and African Philosophy, Indian Philosophy, Latinx and Latin American Philosophy, and Native American and Indigenous Philosophy, to accompany the longstanding Section on Chinese Philosophy. Keep an eye out for articles that will helpful both for professors looking to get their bearings and for assigning to students. Also, check out The Philosophical Forum, as Alexus McLeod (a world expert on several different philosophical traditions from outside the standard story) has been brought on as the new Editor of that journal, and he aims to make it a leading forum for work from all philosophical traditions.
There are several great blogs and other online communities to help one get a sense of the people working on these topics now, and to become familiar with some of the topics and issues. Warp, Weft, and Way, focusing on Chinese and Comparative Philosophy, is one of the most active and oldest blogs. 20th Century Mexican Philosophy provides discussion and links to many valuable resources. The Blog of the APA has been running a series of posts on teaching material from outside the traditional canon, such as this wonderfully helpful entry by Liam Kofi Bright and Peter Adamson, So You Want to Teach Some Africana Philosophy?
The Center for New Narratives in Philosophy, directed by Christia Mercer, is creating events and other resources aimed at bringing work from outside of the standard story into view. This includes a book series, the Oxford New Histories of Philosophy (co-edited with Melvin Rogers), which brings both primary texts and secondary materials helping to make accessible and “available, often for the first time, ideas and works by women, people of color, and movements in philosophy’s past that were groundbreaking in their day but left out of traditional accounts.”
Bryan Van Norden has put together a remarkable bibliography of readings on Africana, Chinese, Christian, Indian, Indigenous, Islamic, Jewish, and Latin American philosophy, including many helpful suggestions under the heading ‘Where Should I Start?’ for each of these areas.
As I hope is clear, although it might have been hard to know where to begin 10 or 15 years ago when thinking about trying to learn more, it is considerably easier now. Please mention other resources in the comments!
(2) Make Connections at Your Institution
There are almost certainly philosophers and people teaching and studying philosophy outside of your home institution’s department. They are quite likely to be teaching and studying philosophical work from outside the standard story. They might be in Departments of Religion, East Asian Studies, History, American Studies, Africana Studies, Comparative Literature, and so on. Learn about who they are. Reach out to them. Build connections between them and the Philosophy department. Co-teach with them. Co-organize conferences with them. Encourage your Philosophy students to take their classes. Cross-list their classes with Philosophy. Give them a presence on your departmental webpage. Perhaps, if it makes sense, pursue giving them more institutional power within Philosophy (through joint-appointments and so forth).
(3) Create Courses to Expand Your Department’s Story About Philosophy
Once you have identified what is already offered at your institution, think about what isn’t being covered, even if those courses are brought also into philosophy, and learn enough to create introductory courses on that topic or to bring that material into existing courses. This is actually one of the best ways to take up the first suggestion, as nothing helps one learn a topic more than teaching it.
At many institutions, it is not very difficult to get a new course on the books. In my experience, it was very easy to get institutional approval for a new course on African, Latin American, and Native American Philosophy. (You can read about my experience in that regard.) Most departments at most institutions are already way ahead of Philosophy in expanding the story they present to students, and administrators are excited when this happens. My philosophy colleagues have always been nothing but supportive in this regard. I expect yours will be, too.
There is now a remarkable collection of syllabi collected by the American Philosophical Association on topics in all of these areas. These are excellent for making it easy on new instructors, so that you don’t have to start from scratch.
Even if you don’t create a whole new course, work on adding material from outside the standard story into your classes in Ethics, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Mind, Political Philosophy, and so on. Many of the above resources will help in that regard, too, and this is, in some ways, an even more direct way to expand the standard story and to make evident the way in which philosophy really is a subject that has been done by people of all kinds and everywhere.
(4) Change the Official Story Your Department Tells – Undergraduate Level
Once you have identified courses being offered at your institution that expand the standard story, or once you and your colleagues have increased your knowledge and created such courses, start requiring your undergraduate and graduate students to take these courses.
At many institutions, the Philosophy major is structured so that philosophy majors have to take something like 11 or 12 total philosophy courses, with 1 course in Logic, 1 course in Ancient or Medieval Philosophy, 1 course in Modern Philosophy, 2 courses in Metaphysics, Epistemology, or Language, 1 course in Moral or Political Philosophy, and then 5 or 6 electives, spread out over courses at varying levels. This is the basic pattern at Rutgers, Penn, and NYU (the three philosophy departments that I have spent the most time in, but also three pretty different institutions), but it is also similar to some places that have specialists on the Philosophy faculty who work on topics outside the standard story, like Michigan. Often, there is a list of courses on historical topics that specifies which courses can count as fulfilling the requirement, and that list almost always leaves off courses that aren’t part of the standard story. At Michigan, for example, these are the courses that count for history:
At Rutgers, we somewhat regularly offer courses on African, Latin American, and Native American Philosophy, Hindu Philosophy, Buddhist Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy, Jewish Philosophy, and Chinese Philosophy, but these are not listed as courses that fulfill any of the philosophy major requirements.
Given that many are very attached to everything currently required as part of the standard story, an easy initial recommendation would be to add in an additional requirement for a course from one of these other traditions, once those courses are being offered regularly enough at one’s institution. Prior to that, I would suggest pushing so that they can count as alternative ways of fulfilling existing requirements, but I know that is likely to engender more controversy.
Having these courses either be required for the major or at least count for a major requirement is essential for changing the story. It also is essential for creating a new generation of philosophers with more competence than the ones before it with respect to work outside of the Anglo-European tradition. In my experience, these classes are also very popular and bring in many students who might not otherwise have been considering Philosophy as a field of study.
Please, share in the comments if you teach at an institution that has made changes in this direction!
(5) Change the Official Story Your Department Tells – Graduate Level
Obviously, there are tens of thousands more students learning philosophy at an undergraduate level than at a graduate level. But if departments of philosophy are ever going to change the story they tell at any kind of scale, it will need to be through making it easier to get a PhD in Philosophy while also working on philosophy from outside the standard story. This is also vital for creating philosophers who can work on these philosophical ideas and traditions as researchers, bring them into conversation with other philosophical work, and do so at a high level of sophistication and competence, learning the relevant languages, and so on.
An initial, somewhat modest set of steps is to encourage MA and PhD students to take up the first suggestion, learning about philosophical work from outside the standard story in an area that is an AOS or an AOC. They might do this via directed reading groups, teaching their own courses on these topics or TA-ing for courses that faculty teach, or other mechanisms from your program that help to provide both time and support for those doing this. This has obvious non-instrumental benefits, but there also now is a significant demand for new faculty with competence or expertise in these areas. As Marcus Arvan documents, the number of jobs in ‘Non-Western’ Philosophy was roughly half what it was for all of Mind, Language, Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Logic combined. Developing an AOS or even an AOC in these areas might really help students on the job market.
Of course, to do work in these areas in a serious way will be hard (even if not impossible) to do without more direct expert advising. And there are very few people teaching in Philosophy PhD programs who are experts in these areas. This is not a trivial problem, given the current composition of faculty at most PhD programs in North America, the UK, Australia, etc. Most such faculties include no one who can advise a dissertation on these topics or traditions. (To find those that can, or to find potential experts to consult, you might look to The Pluralist Guide for some of these areas, or to the discussion on Warp, Weft, and Way concerning graduate programs in Chinese Philosophy.) And although departments could hire away experts from some of the other institutions out there, this won’t address the overall numbers problem. (It still might be an important signal to the profession if more ‘fancy’ PhD programs were to do this.)
To address this concern, an obvious initial step is to look within one’s institution, as suggested above, to see if there is expertise on these philosophical topics outside of the philosophy department.
An additional obvious next step is to actually hire people who are experts and specialists on philosophy from outside the standard story. That’s not always possible, of course, but when one sits around in a department meeting thinking about what holes there are in the current program coverage, one should start to take these holes more seriously.
A somewhat less obvious step, but one that I think deserves more consideration and discussion, is to hire (at adequate compensation) experts from other institutions to teach mini-courses, give lectures, and perhaps serve as outside advisors for students at one’s institution.
The overall suggestion here is to do what one can to support PhD and MA students in becoming experts and competent teachers with respect to philosophical work outside the standard story.
(6) Hire People Who Know More of the Story
As some of the foregoing suggestions indicate, there are things that people should do even if they can’t bring experts in these areas into faculty roles in their department. But that is obviously an excellent thing to do if it is a possibility. Just as it is impossible for most graduate programs to be excellent in their coverage of every single area of even the standard story, it won’t be possible for graduate programs to cover all of these areas and philosophers. But departments can develop specializations and strengths in some of them, and if some of those are outside the standard story, that will do quite a lot to change the perception of the department and the field.
* * * * *
Many of these suggestions ask for some effort and even sacrifice on the part of current professors and graduate students in philosophy. It’s worth talking about the reasons to see this both as beneficial and morally imperative. There are several reasons, and they do not compete, although they may differ in the degree and nature of force they provide.
The first is already obvious, I would expect: if one of the main reasons we tell the story we do through our philosophy curriculum and requirements is simply historical racism, we should do something about that. Continuing to do nothing, to just run out the exact same philosophy curriculum and to produce students with the exact same limited understanding of philosophy, is to both be complicit in that racism and to perpetuate it. Perhaps one thinks that racism plays very little role in the initial crafting of the story; it was, instead, just that people taught what they knew about and what was available to them. That just makes us doing nothing all the worse. It is then our racism—or culpable negligence, or something close to that—that is keeping the story alive. Because work from all these traditions is, at this point, relatively easily available to us.
This is the kind of scolding reason. It’s also a problem: none of us like to be told that we have to do anything. That’s why we got into philosophy! It’s also a disaster! Because—in my experience—every person I’ve seen encounter ideas and arguments and thought experiments from these other traditions finds something there to be excited about. There’s something for everyone, whether one works in ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, mind, language, political, social, logic, or anything else.
And it’s not surprising that it is exciting. It provides a new dimension of interest and even a kind of validation to see that people in considerably different sociohistorical circumstances might have also been thinking about some of the same things that keep you up at night. Comparative philosophy, whether across history or cultural difference or both, is tricky, and it is easy to be too quick to see commonality even when the reality might be more complicated. But it is undeniable that there are many common questions and concerns, and many interestingly different and interestingly similar ideas and arguments.
And for those of us interested in philosophical ideas, there is a more basic kind of excitement: meeting something new and beautiful and possibly bewildering that helps you understand something you are fascinated by and care about.
There are familiar arguments that racism is inefficient: by only considering people from one racial group for hiring, for example, one narrows one’s search in an arbitrary way, missing out on brilliance and ability for no good reason. Here, too, in the quest for philosophical truth, racism is inefficient.
If you think there are better and worse answers to philosophical questions, or even correct and incorrect answers to them, some worries emerge with the dominance of the standard story. The “streetlight effect” is the name of a kind of observational or investigational bias that occurs when people are searching for something but look only where it is easiest, rather than all the places where the thing might be (based on a story of a drunk person looking under the streetlight for his keys, even when he is pretty sure he left them in the enshadowed park across the street).
There are many reasons to expand the story we tell about philosophy. But a main reason is just that the best, most interesting, and even the correct answers to philosophical questions that interest us might be found anywhere. If we think there are genuine answers here, we should be concerned about parochialism. And we should be concerned about the streetlight effect.
To be a department of philosophy, we must change the story we are telling.
Related: When Someone Suggests Expanding the Canon, Philosophical Diversity in U.S. Philosophy Departments, End Philosophical Protectionism, Two Models for Expanding The Canon, Bad Arguments Against Teaching Chinese Philosophy, Why Don’t We Study African Philosophy?
I should add, too: although the college is ending, along with its philosophy program and first-year two-semester Philosophy and Political Thought course, Yale-NUS College, where I teach, has striven to do many of the things Alex describes in this excellent, thorough post.
If anyone is interested in hearing how philosophers with little to no previous experience in Indian philosophy managed to teach a global philosophy course spanning multiple philosophical traditions and thousands of years, and how they found it fruitful for their own research, my podcast has short, fifteen-minute interviews with current and former philosophy faculty (Season Three: https://sutrasandstuff.wordpress.com/seasons-and-topics/)
Tomorrow (1 June 2022 Eastern Time), I’m airing an interview with Robin Zheng, now at University of Glasgow. She talks about connections between contemporary feminist philosophy and premodern Indian philosophy.
My hope is that this series will encourage others to experiment in their own courses.
On a personal note, I’m happy to email with anyone interested in teaching Indian philosophy or in expanding their research interests in that directions.
Finally, I might add to this remark:
Yes, and also: studying other philosophical traditions can expand our understanding of what counts as philosophical questions. Mark Siderits has a nice metaphor for expanding the philosophical canon in his latest book, How Things Are, of global philosophy as being like viewing through a stereoscope. The two images we experience are slightly different, resulting in a kind of “queasiness” until one learns to adjust and see through the two lenses together.
In the spirit of this metaphor, I’d suggest that bringing together the different methods and organization of the discipline of philosophy (and its analogs globally) can result in some unease, since there may not be perfect alignment even in how we’re investigating the world or what we’re focusing on. But it may lead to more depth in our experience, as Mark and many others have suggested.Report
Some might find this helpful with regard to comparative philosophy: https://www.academia.edu/46923618/Thinking_about_Comparative_Philosophy_a_bibliographic_introductionReport
I’m genuinely curious, as someone who supports broadening and globalizing the *historical* canon in philosophy, how widely this argument goes. For example, much contemporary philosophy is, at least in terms of participants, “global” (though written in English). As someone who neither teaches nor particularly likes the history of philosophy, I’ve wondered how best to incorporate these kinds of arguments into my own teaching which typically doesn’t touch things written more than about 40 years ago.
Are these arguments targetted, as they seem to be, at those who primarily teach “History” of philosophy? If so then it makes a lot of good sense. It also makes sense, to a degree, to think about the normative traditions that have arisen outside of the standard Western story (i.e., outside of utilitarianism, deontology, contract theory, virtue ethics).
However, suppose we’re largely teaching courses that have little direct contact with the “deep” history of philosophy. I can understand how someone might see, for example, 20th and 21st century philosophy of mind (or psychology for that matter) to be deeply rooted in the Western tradition though even global research on the mind, the brain, etc., have converged on something like naturalism (I know I know…everyone disagrees about everything but here I mean this in the thinnest sense of naturalism as a commitment to a very weak empirical thesis). Similarly, suppose we teach courses in artificial intelligence or some other technology-related area (genetic engineering, etc.). To what degree are we under an obligation here not just to make sure that we’re reading literature being written today but people around the world but research that is steeped in (broadly) non-scientific traditions?
I don’t think I owe students, for example, a deep dive into psychoanalytic theory in order to talk about mental states nor, for similar reasons, do I think that quasi-religious theories (Western and Non-Western) should have a deep place in that sort of class. Am I wrong about these sorts of thoughts? I ask this as a genuine question and from the position of someone eager to learn more so please don’t take this question as sarcasm.Report
Yes, my own view is that whether there is relevant philosophy from non-Anglo-European traditions out there on some topic or not will depend on the topic (no different than, say, whether there is some part of Kant or German Idealism that bears on the topic).
For example, if you work on philosophy of quantum mechanics, there might be work written by people from all over the world that is relevant, but it won’t necessarily be drawing on a distinct philosophical tradition (or that tradition is something like ‘contemporary global analytic philosophy of science’). It would obviously be bad to only read work written by Anglo-European men on the topic, but that seems to me to be a different matter. I teach plenty of courses where we don’t read anything written more than 10 or 15 years ago. It is totally fine by my lights for there to be lots of classes like that.
But I do think that for many other philosophical topics, there is much work that is relevant from other philosophical traditions or perspectives, in some cases including *contemporary* philosophical perspectives, held by contemporary living philosophers, from outside the Anglo-European world. So, to speak to your example re: artificial intelligence, if one is teaching about ethical issues relating to data privacy and design of AI/ML systems, one might find it useful to engage with the work of Sabelo Mhlambi, who draws on the concept of ubuntu in engaging those issues. https://sabelo.mhlambi.com/ubuntu/
As discussed in the other thread, there is interesting, provocative work, drawing on modern interpretations of Confucianism, being done in China by Tongdong Bai and others concerning non-democratic, non-egalitarian political systems: https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691195995/against-political-equality
If you are teaching a course on existentialism, I would consider adding a unit on the Mexican existentialists: https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/contingency-and-commitment-mexican-existentialism-and-the-place-of-philosophy/
If you are teaching a course on philosophy of ecology or environmental ethics or climate change and sustainability, I would definitely consider having a unit on Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences and Kyle Whyte’s work: https://kylewhyte.seas.umich.edu/articles/
So, I don’t think there’s any obligation to go into deep history or any history in courses that are focused on philosophical problems for which there isn’t much of relevance written more than 10 or 15 years ago. But there is a lot of contemporary work that falls under the heading of African Philosophy or Native American Philosophy or Chinese Philosophy etc. that might well be relevant. (There are large meta-philosophical debates about what should be placed under what heading and why; many of the resources mentioned in the main post get into those issues…)Report
It seems to me that if non-Western traditions have much to contribute to contemporary debates, that implies there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked up. Given there’s a market in academic publishing (better contributions are more sought after, and make you more likely to get hired) this would suggest that anyone who dislikes the current state of affairs would have a much easier time finding these non-Western contributions than sticking to those that everyone else is, as there’s far less competition. This admttedly seems less plausible when it comes to thinking about historical traditions, where what counts as ‘canon’ arguably is more sensitive to precedent. But when it comes to contemporary topics, it seems that people pushing for more non-Western inclusion need an account of why this purported low hanging fruit isn’t being picked up.
‘It’s in fact really good but you all can’t recognise it because of how you were raised and what you find familiar, so make more of an effort’ isn’t convincing, or at least, misses some really important features. Even if one honestly believes this, and is genuinely curious about new kinds of philosophy, they immediately encounter what I take to be a bigger problem, which is that one can’t identify from the outset which ideas are going to be fruitful and which will have little intellectual payoff. There is no a priori reason to think a certain idea or tradition is useful or true or interesting just because it’s non-western (especially if, again, it would imply there is low hanging fruit no-one is picking up), and more importantly, the ‘it’s good but you just don’t yet recognise it’ response can be made from people defending crackpot theories too, see e.g. random ramblings of various thought leaders. The broader a church we encourage, the harder it is to discern signal from noise, and you can’t insist everything is signal without undoing the entire purpose of having peer reviewed journals. This is also why arguing that people inclined towards the current status quo can’t defend their position because they can’t defensible point to what counts as philosophy risks sawing off the branch we are all sitting on. If there’s no boundaries to what counts, then there’s also no basis for excluding ‘thought leaders’ who commit very basic fallacies.
I take Guerrero to be complaining that we have too many false negatives (philosophy that is in fact good but not identified as such), but any proposed solutions really need to show that they won’t introduce too many false positives (bad ideas identified as good philosophy), which are a far greater problem in the long run. Especially if we collectively begin to admit false negatives from an area simply on the basis that it’s non-traditional, which then brings down the average relative quality of work in that area, which will be eventually noticed by others, leading to a stereotype that work in that area isn’t very good. Favouring ideas encountered from within existing networks, though imperfect, has much more quality assurance, especially if it seems that the assessments of people pushing for change are being motivated by ideological considerations and assumptions that I don’t share, or hinge on arguments implying there is not such thing as quality. Rather than trusting people who insist there is fruit to be picked, and tell me X is fruit that I can’t recognise, I’m more likely to instead wait for specific demonstrations from people who have picked up that fruit and can make others see it e.g. Evan Thompson’s great work on how Indian philosophy contributes to philosophy of mind.
To be clear, I’m not arguing against widening our usual scope or that we shouldn’t include non-western traditions. I’m just saying that arguments in favour of such changes usually somewhat misrepresent the nature of the problem, and that I’m sceptical of solutions which basically amount to collectively agreeing to be motivated by a different set of considerations.Report
There’s a lot here.
A few quick things.
I don’t know what you have in mind when you talk about introducing false positives, but there are just homerun after homerun works of philosophy that we don’t teach, but which are very well studied outside of philosophy departments in North America, UK, etc. I don’t know what you are picturing, but the idea is not to just include anything everywhere that might fall under the label ‘Chinese Philosophy’ or ‘Africana Philosophy’ or whatever. There has already been a ton of vetting, engagement, discussion, by very careful, serious philosophers. Just not in philosophy departments. So, we’re not flying with our eyes closed. (Just like we aren’t wandering through the stacks of everything that might be labeled ‘philosophy’ that was published in Germany in the 18th century and just picking stuff at random to assign when we teach our Kant courses.)
I’m not sure what you mean by the ‘picking up low hanging fruit’ metaphor. It kind of seems like you mean ‘publishing articles about non-Western philosophical ideas’ or ‘publishing articles drawing on non-Western philosophical ideas’ or something like that. If that’s what you mean, I’m sure you can see an obvious impediment: even if there are great ideas, many leading philosophy journals NEVER publish anything engaging with work from these traditions. Princeton philosopher Harvey Lederman just published an article in Phil Review on the Ming dynasty philosopher Wang Yangming. That was the first research article in Phil Review on a non-European philosophical tradition since 1948, and the first research article in the journal dedicated to the works of a single Chinese philosopher since the journal started in 1892. Phil Review is tough for lots of areas. But the same holds for many, many journals, although the times are changing (albeit slowly).
That said, I absolutely think that there are many exciting ideas that constitute ‘low hanging fruit’ ripe for much more philosophical engagement and discussion. Rather than being the 50,000th person to write about Kant’s ethics in the broadly analytic vein, why not be the 2nd or 3rd person to write about Nzegwu’s discussion of dual-sex governance systems in pre-colonial Igbo society? Write a careful, thoughtful dissertation that contrasts Spinoza’s monistic view with the Aztec/Nahua monistic idea of teotl. Consider how the different elements of Akan conceptions of the person (as debated by Gyekye and Wiredu) might illuminate or contrast with Parfit’s relation-R. Write an article that sets out the philosophically distinctive components of the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace (Kaianere’kó:wa). I think all of these (and millions more) would be absolute bangers and would represent real philosophical contributions. And it would be much easier to be making an interesting and important philosophical advance than by writing the 346th article on quasi-expressivism (no judgment!) or the 1347th article on Rawlsian reasonableness (very tolerant!) or the 568th article on whether knowledge is the norm of assertion (probably not), etc. It might also be easier to publish on those topics, but that’s harder to say, because of the previous point.
Honestly, rather than banging out more pseudo-economic analysis of philosophical progress, I’d encourage you just to pick a few things at random from Van Norden’s bibliography list and start reading. You’ll find lots of fruit, some high up, some low down, some harvested and all packaged up for market, others that you might be the first to have tasted or combined with just these other flavors–all delicious. Report
Professor Guerrero rejects the justification that “We leave out, or put to the margins, work that is just religion, or anthropology, or literature, or cultural studies, or “thought” that doesn’t constitute philosophy.”
Any of the subject areas listed may be relevant to philosophy and I can see any of them being taught about in a philosophy course, but isn’t there a subject that is distinctly “philosophy”? If not, why have philosophy departments at all? When we ask for money for philosophy, what is it that we say we do?Report
I’d like to add something to clarify (sorry Justin and thanks as always!)
I appreciate that the boundaries of philosophy are fuzzy and that some work has been excluded in an arbitrary way. I think it makes perfect sense to strive to include relevant work. I think it’s a great idea to look for ideas that have been arbitrarily excluded. I just don’t think that we should get rid of the boundaries altogether.
There is something important in the tradition that we have called “philosophy”, something to do with reasoned argument, offering justifications and considering objections. I can’t offer you a definition that everyone will accept but I don’t want to lose this special thing either.Report
Some think we shouldn’t have any boundaries at all (or that we shouldn’t spend any time focused on those issues, or policing those boundaries, or…). I’m certainly not committed to anything like that.
My point is that the way work has been included or excluded in telling the standard story is not at all about some faithful, accurate application of some meta-philosophical boundary principle, concerning boundaries between philosophy and religion, or philosophy and science, or philosophy and literature, etc. As I try to stress, the main way in which we can see this is that exclusion of this work has been done without knowing the first thing about it, just assuming (often in an explicitly racist way) that it must be ‘thought’ or ‘religion’ or something that isn’t philosophy.
The ‘something to do with reasoned argument, offering justifications and considering objections’ sounds pretty good to me, but that definitely includes a ton of work that we exclude, including every area I mention in the original post: African Philosophy, Buddhist Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, Indian Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy, Latin American Philosophy, Native American and Indigenous Philosophy, etc.
And it’s not just like a few things here or there that should have been included. It is completely systematic exclusion of tons of philosophy, and that’s true if by ‘philosophy’ we mean ‘something to do with reasoned argument, offering justifications and considering objections.’Report
Please forgive the self-promotion:
Steve Phillips and I have been teaching courses and editing textbooks including large amounts of Non-Western material for thirty years. When we started, materials that were clearly philosophical outside the Western tradition were often hard to find; now, it’s much easier. For anyone who’s interested, here are links to books we’ve done. Only the first is still in print.
There are also some videos that cover Non-Western thinkers on my YouTube channel. Many of the videos on traditional philosophical concepts include references to both Western and Non-Western works.
Allow me to set aside history of philosophy considerations and focus on live philosophical debates. Are there ideas—present or historical—from outside of Anglo-European philosophy that would contribute to contemporary debates? I presume so and the philosophy of this audience would be the better for including them. As such, journals should publish (that is, philosophy should incentivize) articles that retrieve these ideas. In other words, there should be an exception to the originality requirement for articles to include “original to this audience.” This would fast-track getting these ideas into the system. (Ideally, these ideas would be written as the author’s own for blind review purposes but that seems infeasible.) A journal with precisely this mission might be low-hanging fruit. However, insofar as any material cannot stand on its own outside of its identification as a particular [ethnic/regional] philosophy, then it seems a matter only for historians of philosophy and history of philosophy classes (none of which should be required by the way—you should read Kant’s Critique in Epistemology not some historical class). (Also, we should all have been posting in Esperanto by now.) Report
When first taught Kant’s ethics, students often ask about how it relates to the golden rule. Professors are typically well-equipped to explain why the categorical imperative is not the same. This helps many students better understand Kant. Thousands of undergrads in the US each year (at least ones with a South Asian background, but I’m guessing many others too) can’t help but also notice the resemblance between Kant’s ethics and Krishna’s Gita in the Mahabharata. It would be great if their professors didn’t draw a blank, when asked about this resemblance—quite apart from the value of studying the Gita, I’d imagine it would help students develop a more nuanced understanding of Kant.
My point here is not about adding more non-western thinkers. But rather, even with respect to helping students understand western thinkers it helps to be able differentiate the views from nearby views students might already be familiar with. Sometimes these nearby views are going to trace back to thinkers outside of the western canon.
For what it’s worth, see S. Radakrishnan’s, “The Ethics of
the Bhagavadgita and Kant” published in 1911 in Ethics (at
the time, “International Journal of Ethics”):
“Much has been made of the apparent similarity between the ethical
systems of the Bhagavadgita and Kant, the critical philosopher. To the
superficial reader, the similarity is no doubt striking. Both systems preach against the rule of the senses; both are at one in holding that the moral law demands duty for duty’s sake. In spite of the agreements between the two systems, however, sober second thought will disclose differences of great moment.”Report
This makes me think that maybe I should re-read the _Bhagavadgita_, which I haven’t read since I read it for an undergraduate “Asian Philosophy” class many years ago!Report
So have you read much Islamic philosophy? That would be a necessary condition of recommending it to someone else.Report
I have read some of both Al-Farabi and Avicenna.
But I also dispute that a necessary condition of A appropriately recommending X is that A has read X. It might also be that A trusts B, and has excellent reason to trust B, and one knows that B has read X and that B recommends X.
In this case, I would recommend to everyone interested in Islamic Philosophy one truly excellent B, Peter Adamson, whose podcast does an amazing job introducing a wide array of Islamic Philosophy: https://historyofphilosophy.net/series/islamic-world
If you aren’t a podcast person, much of the content has now been published by OUP: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/philosophy-in-the-islamic-world-9780199577491?q=peter%20adamson&lang=en&cc=us
I am not a specialist in any of these areas, but I am learning, and by the end of next year I will have taught African, Latin American, and Native American Philosophy and Introduction to Chinese Philosophy. After several more years of gaining competence and taking up some research in those areas, who knows, I might add Intro to Islamic Philosophy as well. Keeps things interesting!Report
I’m pretty interested in Russian philosophy, both pre-Soviet and some Soviet stuff. Interestingly, this work is almost never covered in US philosophy departments, and is also almost never mentioned in discussions like this one. (The last time I looked, it was a giant “gap” in the “History of Philosophy with no Gaps” project!) (In grad school I wanted to fulfill my language requirement by taking some Russian classes, to get my very slow reading speed up to a more workable level, but was told I could not because “there was no tradition” to work on. That wasn’t true, but it’s a very common belief, and it didn’t seem worth fighting over. Instead I satisfied my requirement by not actually learning enough German to do me any good.)
But, despite my interest in this stuff, with one very small exception (co-authored and largely discursive), I’ve not written anything on Russian philosophy, and rarely mention it in my work. Why not? Because it’s hard work, often is addressed to topics than are different from those I’m mostly writing on, and doing it very well would be quite time consuming, taking me away from work that’s likely to have larger career pay-offs (for reasons both good and bad.) I have taught a little bit – of Kropotkin, in a criminal law theory class, to law students – with some descent success. And, it would be fun and interesting (and maybe even useful for other people) to be able to spend more time on this stuff. But it would also be very bad for me professionally. No doubt there’s a collective action problem here, but such problems are, by their nature, not ones that most individuals can address on their own. I suspect that similar things apply for others who are not already very comfortably situated in more or less the exact job they want.
(the short piece mentioned can be found here: https://www.academia.edu/1757103/Philosophy_in_Russia If I were approaching the subject today, I’d emphasize different things, but maybe it’s still of some use to some people.)Report
Yes, I actually considered mentioning Russian Philosophy by name (maybe thinking about past conversations we’ve had?)! I instead just went with the very first parenthetical, partly because there actually are quite a few other arguably ‘European’ or ‘Eurasian’ philosophical traditions that also are left out, with a host of meta-philosophical questions about how to draw various boundaries…
It’s definitely true that taking these things on is easier to do once one has a lot of job stability/security. I hope at some point you’ll be able to design and teach a Russian Philosophy class!Report
You could switch to Igbo philosophy, medieval Thai Buddhist or Serbian philosophy in 18th century and walk the talk! I mean – really do it, do something that is actually different, learn the languages and found a new direction for US academic departments, independently of what the current or one’s own or preferred by current culture demographics demands – which is, after all, the wrong way to go since that is how the current status quo came about. How about that?Report
While I largely agree with the goal of this article, I think it leaves out some of the systemic hurtles embedded in academia. It can take a lot of time to sincerely improve knowledge in another tradition so that an entirely new course can be taught. If one has tenure, then one isn’t at risk of losing their job unlike someone who does not have tenure. To get to that point, one will need to publish in their field of expertise which is already likely western philosophy. So the systemic incentives need to change. The publish or perish model, that capitalist model of academia, must end.Report
Yes, I very much agree that people at different career stages and at different positions in the field will be able to take up different parts of this.
My dissertation and all of the research that helped me to get a job and then to get tenure was on contemporary moral and political philosophy unrelated to any work from these excluded philosophical traditions. I had interests in some of these other areas going all the way back to my undergraduate studies, but it wasn’t until I felt secure in my path toward tenure that I took up the project of creating a new course, and I didn’t begin teaching it until after I received tenure.
I do think some of these incentives are changing. As I noted in the post, there are starting to be many more jobs advertised in these areas, and there still are very few programs producing students working in these areas, so it’s not clear to me it’s professionally disadvantageous to have research strengths in these areas. And in many places, there is high student demand for courses in these areas, so it would be advantageous to be able to teach those courses.
But it’s certainly true that one must pay attention to one’s local situation and do what one can in light of those constraints.Report
A couple thoughts:
1. While perhaps it’s clear that the predominant story of philosophy in the West is “overwhelmingly male”, I don’t think it’s clear that this story is “overwhelmingly white” on /any/ of the prevailing definitions of ‘white’, at least if we include pre-early-moderns, as the predominant story does.
2. I grant that your two “broad families of answers” to your opening questions (“Why is this the story that has been told, over and over again, to undergraduates moving through philosophy programs? Why is this the story that we continue to tell through our major requirements and PhD distribution requirements?”) are accurate and exhaustive–these are the two main options. However, you then argue that the first family or “kind of answer” “claims that, in sticking to the story above, we teach and require everything that is most centrally well-described as philosophy. We leave out, or put to the margins, work that is just religion, or anthropology, or literature, or cultural studies, or “thought” that doesn’t constitute philosophy.” Note that this is only one way of giving the first kind of answer, but, as your post admits or implies at many junctures, there are many other ways of doing so. For instance, it may be that (most) Western philosophers are qualified to teach only the tradition with which they are familiar, believe they ought to teach what they are qualified to teach, but grant that there are other traditions that qualify as philosophy. You touch on this sort of view later on, but it isn’t included in your first family as you describe it in your opening argument. This is not to defend this way of giving the first answer, but it is to say that it’s not clear why we should think that you are justified in narrowing as severely as you do the option space available to those who take the first option.
3. More effort should be put into figuring out how Western philosophers might justify why they tell the predominant story as they do. Jumping so quickly to debunking stories about how it’s natural to “feel defensive and protective of what you have come to know and love” seems beyond premature. Debunking stories this general and weak are a dime a dozen–we can tell parallel stories about many of those who are currently promoting changes to the predominant story–and they often just obscure or prevent authentic and open dialogue.
4. It’s not clear to me why wider historical and geographical coverage in philosophy story-telling is valuable in itself. I can see why it is troubling to represent a narrow subset of philosophy as /philosophy/, but, again, I don’t think many people actually would take this line (per the above). I can see why it is not good to ignore relevant evidence for viable answers to philosophical problems in general…and thus that provided by other traditions (this is a version of your final “main reason” at the end of your post). Etc. Granted. But it’s hard to see why merely broader coverage is valuable in itself. And even if it is valuable in itself, achieving broader coverage comes at significant costs in other similar values that are not being addressed here with any seriousness. Perhaps this comes down to a disagreement about what the primary goal of a philosophy department should be, which is one of your concerns, I take it. I think it’s clear that it’s not /primarily/ about representing philosophy as a global and timeless whole accurately. Why should we think it is?Report
Thank you so much for the original post, for all of the work behind it, and for the comments, Alexander. There’s an impressive amount of intellectual, social, and emotional labor there!
I’ve also appreciated the discussion in the comments. It’s cool to see folx resourcing and pushing each other in these ways.
PhiloHawg—I take your providing mostly criticism in concise, numbered points as reason to believe you appreciate direct criticism as a form of engagement at times. I do too. So, in that reciprocally-critical spirit, I want to be honest that I felt like your contribution lowered the level of collaborative exchange, intellectual responsibility, and willingness to listen to understand.
I want to engage your individual points to try to give a sense of why I felt this way in the hopes of getting us back in some alignment:
(1) You say that there’s no prevailing definition of ‘white’ which would make the following sentence true: “the story of philosophy in the west is overwhelmingly white”. Especially if we’re listening to understand and applying a principle of charity, there are numerous ways of understanding ‘white’ that scholars and activists of race would argue give a true interpretation of the sentence. My guess, though, is that you’re implicating that all prevailing definitions of ‘white’ take some central notion of race to be a clearly modern phenomenon, such that people only become white (or Black or Indigenous or AANHPI or Latin@ or MENA) in the modern period. I actually tend to adopt and have argued for a particular type of social constructionist view which would agree with that. That said, there’s lots of accounts of race, racism, and whiteness out there that argue that these apply prior to the modern period. As Charles Mills (rest in peace, rest in power, rest in love) points out in one of his last papers (a brilliant one that everybody ought to read on five different ways of reading Locke on slavery),
“until a few decades ago a strong scholarly consensus existed that racism was a product of modernity. Ethnocentrism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, all existed in pre-modernity but not racism because the concept of race had not yet been invented…But in a recent wave of revisionist work initiated by Benjamin Isaac’s 2004 The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, a growing number of theorists are contending that this scholarly consensus is quite wrong. For Isaac and at least some other supporters of this longer periodization, Aristotle should be seen as the pioneering racist theorist of the Western tradition.” (Mills 2021, p. 488)
Furthermore, Geraldine Heng has done really cool work on race and racism in the European middle ages, especially in her book, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. In a separate direction, that I would endorse, the STORY of philosophy in the West could be overwhelmingly white even without it being true that most of the individual philosophers from the story are white (because they lived in pre-modern, pre-racial times). The thought here could be that the story is white in the sense of being a part of structures of white ignorance, white supremacy, white silence, white collusion, etc. A very natural way to do this would be to look at a genealogy of the modern story (canon) of philosophy, like Peter KJ Park’s fantastic book, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830. This shows that histories of philosophy up until the middle of the 18th century were overwhelmingly much more diverse than even our own today. The vast majority of historians of philosophy up to this point not only included much more focus on different philosophical traditions from Africa and Asia, they also took one or the other of these continents to be the birthplace of philosophy and sources of influence for the Greek philosophers. Then, a group of racist philosophers, historians, and anthropologists, like Christoph Meiners, Dietrich Tiedemann, Wilhelm Tennemann, and Immanuel Kant, gave white supremacist recharacterizations of the history of philosophy for largely racist reasons. This seems to me to make it true that there’s a sense in which the canon of philosophy can be called ‘white’, even if it isn’t accurate to call Socrates or Plato or Aristotle ‘white’.
(2) I read Alexander’s point much differently than you did, PhiloHawg. I read Alexander’s point in a collective sense and I think you’re reading it in a more individualistic sense. The types of justification and vindication that Alexander was talking about were all put in terms of ‘we’. That is to say, what is being sought is a justification for us deciding to continue to tell the story of philosophy, to present the canon of philosophy, in the ways we currently do. The types of justification you’re pointing to would be an individual faculty member justifying their continuing to teach the story they’ve been taught. An individual faculty member could think they were justified in teaching that story without thinking that what we’re doing as a philosophy department, discipline, community, etc. is in any way justified or vindicated.
Furthermore, it seems to me like part of what Alexander did above was give, and point to, reasons that would override their desire to teach only the tradition with which they are familiar. Or, another way to read Alexander could be as giving reason to think that one couldn’t all-that-reasonably hold on to an unrestricted principle that they ought to only teach that tradition with which they are currently familiar. After all, it turns out that almost all of us are familiar with what we are for largely oppressive and unjust reasons. On top of that, part of the point seems to be that the story of philosophy, the canon we present, doesn’t even familiarize us with a tradition. Lots of critical theorists of race and gender over the last handful of decades have shown that folx interested in western and anglo-european and anglo-american traditions miss out on a lot of the potential of those traditions with the standard story which leaves out Anton Wilhelm Amo, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, David Walker, Maria Stewart, Antenor Firmin, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, Luisa Capetillo, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, George Wilmot Blyden, James Baldwin, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, and more. I’m thinking of writings by Charles Mills, Lewis Gordon, Dwight Lewis, Myisha Cherry, Kathryn Sophia Belle, Liam Kofi Bright, Stephanie Rivera Berruz, Darryl Scriven, and more.
(3) I’m very surprised by your suggestion that there hasn’t been effort put into figuring out how western philosophers justify why they tell the predominant story as they do. I would take it that Alexander shows some of that effort in this thread and gives resources to see much more of that effort. Similarly, others have added resources in this thread to see further efforts and I hope to have provided a few more resources to see even more efforts here. On top of that, I’ve done some work on this front myself. From a lived experience perspective at the APA Blog, Where the Hell Have Us White Philosophers Been? The Need for Peace, Love, and Racial Justice in Philosophy . From a more theoretical perspective, Race, Gender, and the History of Early Analytic Philosophy . In podcast form, The Question of Inclusion in Philosophy , Baldwin as Juneteenth & Pride , Open the Books , Black Masculinities: the super predator-not , A Counter Narrative using Non-western, Anti-western, and Other-western Philosophers and Philosophies , Rage & Social Justice: A New Beginning , and Black Planetary Ecology: Diamonds in the Cave .
So, again, Alexander seemed to me to be anything but premature in going to an explanation of defensiveness and protectiveness of what we’ve come to know and love. Rather, he seemed to me to be being a best-and-highest-self charitable reader. Because, as the above shows, the alternative explanation is intentional complicity in racism, white ignorance, and the like. Alexander seemed to be assuming that folx have good intent and aren’t intending to have such an impact—they simply have that impact as a result of systemic ignorance combined with an inclination to respond in protective ways to challenging what we’re used to. My own efforts to understand this defensiveness have been to see this as significantly located in the body. We need to understand this in terms of trauma and trauma responses—in particular, racialized trauma. I think we cannot have authentic and open dialogue without recognizing these bodily phenomena and tendencies that encourage us to take certain cognitive stances—not just in people I disagree with, but in myself and my comrades as well. Folx interested in this should look at the work of scholar-practitioner-activists like Ruth King https://ruthking.net and Resmaa Menakem https://www.resmaa.com .
(4) I genuinely just don’t see where Alexander suggests that “wider historical and geographical coverage in philosophy story-telling is valuable in itself”. I certainly see that he suggests “wider historical and geographical coverage in philosophy story-telling is valuable”. I just don’t see where the “in itself” piece comes from. Alexander seems to be taking a very naturalistic, practical, and empirical approach to philosophy and pedagogy. He isn’t so much focused on ideal theoretic arguments about what we do in principle or what’s valuable in itself. The point is that, given the actual world we live in, the institutional policies, practices and protocols in place, and the cultural narratives, standards, and myths at play, it will always be prudent for us to take a wide historical and geographical approach to story telling in philosophy. Given what we know about how the current Eurocentric canon was created, we should absolutely move away from the standard story. That this is how Alexander would be oriented shouldn’t be surprising when we understand the role of ideal theory and non-ideal theory in ideology construction and deconstruction (again, see the wonderful work of Charles Mills).
Again, this was offered in the spirit of Baldwinian love, where “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within” and where “if I Love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” I hope you’ll reach out if you want to engage more.Report
Hi PhiloHawg; I just want to say I disagree with this in Matt LaVine’s reply to your post:
Thanks for the feedback, Preston! Although ten years of interacting together is starting to make me think you can just put a negation sign in front of my views to get yours and vice versa! HahaReport
Indeed, Matt. Though I’m enough of a Peircean optimist to think we may eventually see eye to eye, and sufficiently Sellarsian to suspect we would, even now, agree about more than we realize if we had the right language. Hope all is well.Report
I appreciate the intellectual and personal hopes, Preston! Hope you’re taking care of yourself in these difficult times!Report
Thanks for the post Alex. An addition suggestion for things we can do individually to bring about a more diversified view of philosophy is to incorporate corresponding discussions elsewhere in our professional lives– for example, in departmental talks, at conferences, in inter-institutional committee work, in article reviewing. The focus on teaching and what is taught, as well as PhD education and focus is important, but to be really effective this perspective on philosophy needs to find its way into all aspects of the broader philosophical culture. That too requires disrupting business as usual and some additional work on the part of each of us when we find ourselves with an opportunity to introduce some lesser known sources or raise some largely unasked questions.
I approach this much like I have philosophy for children over the past nearly 40 years: get people thinking constructively about it whenever you can, even when its not the focus of discussion. In both case, students at all levels are especially receptive to hearing about these alternatives that lie beyond what they have been exposed to (or exposed to less) in their philosophical education.Report
On this topic, I’d like to shamelessly plug an upcoming textbook I’m editing. It’s on ethical theory, covers a range of non-Western views (Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and African) in addition to the usual suspects in Western ethics, and tries to put them all into conversation in a meaningful way. Most importantly, it’s highly accessible and should be able to be used in the run-of-the-mill kind of ethical theory course you find in most departments, and taught by faculty with little to no background in non-Western philosophy.
Hopefully it should be out with SUNY Press in the next year or so, so if it sounds like something you’d be interested in, keep an eye out for it.Report
Excellent! I look forward to seeing it!Report
I think this is mostly very helpful and insightful. I will raise my usual concern, though: a significant part of modern philosophy – the part that is in close dialogue with contemporary science and mathematics – isn’t really part of any specific philosophical tradition. That covers at least the philosophy of the specific sciences and most of formal logic; it probably extends across most of general philosophy of science, and the more formal parts of epistemology and the more science-adjacent parts of mind and language, though there’s room to debate the exact boundaries.
I don’t think Prof. Guerrero would disagree and I don’t read his post as doing so. (His reply to ‘Caligula’s Goat’ makes that explicit.) But I do think some of these discussions either elide science-based philosophy entirely or – worse – treat it as ‘western philosophy’, and in doing so inadvertently support the disastrous and pernicious message that science is ‘western science’.
That said, I think philosophy of science can also benefit intellectually from a broadening of the canon of historical philosophy. I don’t myself spend a lot of time reading historical philosophy – in any tradition – because it’s hard to justify the time cost when there is so much physics and math to keep up with, so I benefit a lot from colleagues in more mainstream areas of philosophy who can tell me what to look at and what insights to gain. I absolutely welcome those colleagues (individually or collectively) having a broader range of historical traditions to draw upon.Report
With apologies for the double-posting: on reflection, I think the existence of the historical-tradition-neutral part of philosophy actually strengthens the case for the sort of diversification Prof. Guerrero advocates. I don’t actually think there would be anything wrong with a university – especially a European university – offering the chance to major in the history of European philosophy and having a department of European philosophy that taught that major. But it’s hard to make a good case for a department of (History of European philosophy plus modern analytic philosophy of science) – unless that case is based on a normative assessment of the European tradition being just objectively better, which I find pretty implausible for broadly the grounds the OP develops.Report
Regarding the MLK syllabus: Augustine was from North Africa, and it is Augustine’s view that an unjust law is no law at all (i.e., an unjust law has no real normative authority over us) that MLK appealed to when justifying civil disobedience in the Letter from Birmingham Jail. In making this comment, I am not suggesting that Alex is wrong when he says that the philosophical canon in the West is overwhelmingly white, male, and European (where “European” includes English, Scottish, Australian, and US-American). No doubt it is. But still, the point about Augustine is worth keeping in mind. (Although Alex did not say that MLK’s syllabus was all dead white men, I do think that many people reading Alex’s post would naturally infer that MLK’s syllabus was all dead white men. And that inference is false.)
A distinct but related point can be made about Christianity: Students sometimes tell me that Christianity is all about dead white men. When I respond that Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles were all Middle Eastern, they tend to say, “But you know what we mean.” At that point, I tend to say, “Okay, let’s move on.” Yet I am not actually sure that I do know what they mean. I understand that Christianity as they think of it is white, male, and European. But that is not how I think of it, and historically, it isn’t accurate.Report
There’s also the fact that most Christians, historically, or now, have not been and aren’t white. Believing otherwise is only possible for someone with a very Euro/USAcentric outlook. Pointing that out can be a bit embarrassing if you’ve been raised to be polite.Report
This is a great post, thanks for sharing! I think one thing a lot of us are up against is a story that goes like this: we’re at mid-tier state schools, with shrinking faculties. There are no more hires coming, maybe for 5+ years. The few of us hanging on are trained in analytic, Anglo-dominant traditions. Service loads are creeping up. Teaching loads probably gonna go up. Enrollments are plummeting.
So against the backdrop of all that, we’re supposed to reinvent philosophy, retrain ourselves to teach more courses, and so on. I mean ok, I get it, but that’s a heavy lift. Especially when the classes we *have* to teach are mostly biomedical ethics, engineering ethics, and so on. Our deans etc. aren’t going to give us dispensation to go create some Latin American Philosophy class, because it’d have like 6 people sign up for it.
And so I think the realities are on the ground are probably pretty different from Rutgers. That’s not an excuse or anything, just where we’re at. The bigger issue here isn’t whether *faculty* can do more, it’s whether our *institutions* even have the capacity to think this big. Or whether the students would care. (N.B., I got a development grant to run a course called “African, Latin, and Native American Philosophy”. It ran once, had low enrollment, and hasn’t been offered again. Our next move has been to try to repackage some of that content into “traditional” courses–e.g., introduction to ethics, introduction to philosophy–to ease some of those enrollment bottlenecks. In the meantime, the pandemic hit and all our enrollments tanked.)
Thanks again for sharing; will keep thinking about ways to contribute and move this forward.Report
Fritz: I think this is right; there is certainly no “one size fits all” approach – I will say that in our case offering courses in Chinese and Indian Philosophy increased our overall enrollment in philosophy courses, which lead to more hires down the road. But of course not all universities have similar undergraduate populations who may be interested in these courses….Report
Thanks for the thought-provoking essay, Alex. I’ve spent a couple of days now trying to figure out whether I’m teaching Western philosophy on your account, and now I’m more puzzled than ever.
Many of your remarks seem to be directed at those people and courses who rely significantly on the philosophical canon. I can certainly understand the notion of Western philosophy when applied to that: people who focus on Chinese philosophy, say, will be familiar with a central core of historical figures, just as it was once possible in the west (and still is in some quarters) to assume that every professional philosopher had a strong familiarity with Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkely, Hume, and Kant. I’m not sure how much that still holds: I’ve met many people in the profession who admit that they have very little (if any) knowledge of many of those figures.
It seems to me that the topics approach to teaching philosophy has been gaining considerable ground over the last decades relative to the historical approach. Also, there seems to be less and less offered (for good or bad) in the way of a story of philosophy given to the students. In our major, for instance, there is no required introductory course. True, there are still a couple of historical requirements (in many departments, I know, there are ongoing pressures from some of the newer faculty seek to get rid of those requirements, and whether those succeed seems to depend on idiosyncratic political factors that vary from department to department). But I’m not sure how much of a departmental story of philosophy that leaves us with.
However, the sense I get (perhaps incorrectly) is that you mean for this discussion about Western philosophy to apply also to people like me and many of our colleagues whose teaching doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Western canon. I’d be interested in teaching some such courses again at some point, but it’s been over a decade now since I’ve assigned any historical readings for any of my courses. So I come back to this question: am I teaching Western philosophy?
If I’m right that you intend your comments about Western philosophy to extend to more than just the canonical works of various philosophical traditions, then it seems the factors that will make a work or course ‘Western’ will come down to either
If I’m missing some important option that you have in mind, please let me know.
Considering these in order:
1. The author of the text under discussion: When I teach _Logic, Reason and Persuasion_, I often use a critical thinking text written by Bruce Waller. That book covers nothing about the history of philosophy, and makes (as I recall) no reference to any canonical figures or texts in the Western tradition. I also sometimes teach an upper-level course on metaethics, for which I have always used Mike Huemer’s book, ‘Ethical Intuitionism’, as a text. The closest Huemer gets to anything canonical is a chapter in which he objects to the Humean views of reasons and motivations. But he doesn’t delve very far into Hume to do this, nor is it essential to his discussion that he mentions Hume at all: as I understand it, similar ideas were discussed in Chinese philosophy. Huemer’s point in raising the issue is to discuss whether the Humean view is correct or not, not to prepare his students to revere or even read Hume. There are no details on Hume’s life or his overall philosophy. Even shorter shrift is given to Socrates, who (as I recall) is mentioned extremely briefly as the source of the Euthyphro problem.
Do Waller and Huemer count as ‘Western philosophers’? Certainly, they are Americans, and I don’t think that either of them immigrated to the country or belongs to an ethnic subculture. It isn’t difficult for me to imagine a well-educated member of a very different culture writing a similar book in a different part of the world and reaching the same conclusions on the basis of the same arguments.
2. The topics covered in the text under discussion: this seems more promising at first, but I’m not sure how far it takes us. Reincarnation and karma are both (since Christianity came to dominate in the West) foreign, Eastern ideas. But are all works that philosophically analyze those issues thereby non-Western? Paul Edwards’ 2001 work _Reincarnation: a Critical Examination_ claims to be “the first comprehensive and systematic evaluation of reincarnation and Karma in any language.” Edwards himself is, it seems, best described as a westerner. But if the same work, word-for-word, had been written by a former Hindu living in a major Indian city, would it then count as Western or non-Western? What if the Indian writer of such a book turned out to have been a lifelong atheist, rather than a former devout Hindu? I’m trying to get a sense of what, if anything, the term ‘Western philosopher’ is getting at when applied to non-canonical works.
3. The methodology involved in the philosophical work. Like medical traditions, wisdom traditions emerged in more or less all the world’s cultures. But also like medical traditions, wisdom traditions are not equally reliable. What has allowed western science and medicine to flourish was not the superiority of the traditional ideas (which were as poor in the west as anywhere else), but the development of rigorous, self-critical methodologies for testing and improving on our hypotheses. And these, it seems, may have arisen as the result of nothing more than happy historical accidents. There is no reason why non-Western cultures could not have developed similarly rigorous methods for doing philosophy: in fact, I agree that some of them did. But the more similar another culture’s philosophical methodology is to our own, the less clear it is what we miss by failing to learn from that alternative methodology; and the more different it is (for instance, it if allows much more room for dogmatic assertion as a final move in an exploration of an issue), the less clear it is why we should incorporate those methods and norms uncritically into our philosophical practice. If this is the sort of thing you have in mind, it would be helpful to me at least to have some examples.
None of this applies if you are confining your remarks to the portion of Western philosophy that remains canonical. But I get the sense that you mean something broader than that.Report
Justin K, it seems pretty clear to me that Alex’s post is open to understanding “non-Western” in any or all of your (1-3), and that his examples make clear the sort of things he has in mind. He was pretty explicit that meta philosophical questions can be bracketed without our thereby losing the sense of “non Western” he has in mind.
It doesn’t make much sense to look for necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as “Western” or “non Western” but is there any question that what we teach in US philosophy courses is largely—often exclusively—Western philosophy? Genuine question. I always introduce my courses by telling students that my education was quite limited and that as a result they shouldn’t take what they learn about moral theory, or free will, or whatever, to be exhaustive, since I’m just plain ignorant of what was thought and written by people who fall outside the tradition described by Alex—ancient Greece, then Europe/UK, then America.
One does not need a meta philosophy or a clean distinction between Western and non-Western to recognize this, do they?Report
I wrote a longer post that is awaiting approval, but yes, Moti gets me pretty much exactly right here.
Also, I avoid ‘Western’ in my post precisely because people like to go on about what is and isn’t ‘Western.’
I don’t know if my work counts as ‘Western Philosophy’, but I know that it doesn’t count as Chinese Philosophy or Islamic Philosophy, and I’ve got good arguments that, despite my Cuban heritage, it doesn’t count as Latin American Philosophy either. I’ve written one piece on the philosopher Wub-e-ke-niew, however, and I do think that counts as work in/on Native American Philosophy.
But there are big debates about (1)-(3) and how to do metaphilosophical classification of work that goes in different directions. I just don’t think we need to resolve them or agree on all the fine points to say pretty clearly that we are not currently teaching or requiring students to engage with very much African, Buddhist, Chinese, Indigenous or Native American, Indian, Islamic, or Latin American philosophy, for example.Report
…but is there any question that what we teach in US philosophy courses is largely—often exclusively—Western philosophy?
When, above, David Wallace says this: I will raise my usual concern, though: a significant part of modern philosophy – the part that is in close dialogue with contemporary science and mathematics – isn’t really part of any specific philosophical tradition. That covers at least the philosophy of the specific sciences and most of formal logic; it probably extends across most of general philosophy of science, and the more formal parts of epistemology and the more science-adjacent parts of mind and language, though there’s room to debate the exact boundaries.
I take him to be questioning what you suggest there’s no question on. Of course, Wallace can speak for himself if he thinks I’ve read him wrong, but that’s how I’ve read him, and I think it’s at least a pretty plausible claim. (I can see a possible reply, but I’m not sure how strong I find it to be. My point here is only that there does seem to be a serious question here.) And, of course, many people do teach these topics “historically”, so that they are part of a “tradition” in a fairly straight-forward sense. It would be crazy to deny that. But it isn’t clear that this obviously applies to all ways of teaching philosophy.Report
Just replying to Matt L here: that’s one reason I don’t like the label “Western.”
Many of us think what we are doing “isn’t really any part of a specific tradition,” but of course that’s just our present bias showing itself.
Someday people will refer to “Anglo-American Philosophy of Early Physics” or “Anglophone 21st Century Political Philosophy” or whatever. We just see ourselves as without a particular tradition because we are the currently dominant tradition. (It’s kind of how some white people say things like ‘I don’t think in terms of race.”)
We all like to think we are neutral universalists, but of course we are bringing a ton of culturally and historically specific baggage and non-philosophical stuff to our philosophy. One reason for studying work from other traditions is that it makes this very evident and helps us to see some of those culturally specific assumptions (like learning a new language helps us see options that were unimagined previously).Report
Someday people will refer to “Anglo-American Philosophy of Early Physics” or “Anglophone 21st Century Political Philosophy” or whatever.
I don’t have much of a dog in this fight, but it seems to me that there’s a pretty clear difference between these two subjects that fits at least to a degree with the claim Wallace wants to make. (My understanding is that there’s not a huge amount of difference – and likely little to none – in how _physics_ is done in, say, the US and China, and for at least certain approaches to the _philosophy of physics_ we should expect that to be at least pretty similar, right? If so, then I think there would have to be an equivocation in the two uses if applied to both.)Report
Yeah, my thought was something like: philosophy of physics as done by people like David Wallace and David Albert and Jill North and Tim Maudlin will kind of all be collapsed by historical distance, and there might well be some people from other parts of the globe who are also contributing to that work, but that it will eventually by 2200 or whatever be given some imperfect gloss like ‘Anglo-American Philosophy of Early Physics’ and they will be like, see, all these people trying to figure out the metaphysics of what they called ‘the wave function’ but which we now know was just like this imprecise, poorly understood metaphor which couldn’t really be understood before we knew more about atoquarks and black nets or whatever. So, some people now in China might be doing what will later be called ‘Anglo-American Philosophy of Early Physics.’ The key will be whether they accept these seveal tenets of physics that were dominant circa 1975-2025 (until the discovery of atoquarks) or whatever.
Perhaps with increased globalization and academic interconnection the historical markers of the future will be less geographic and more ideological or based on particular schools of education/training or whatever. The point is that it will be understood as a historically specific philosophical tradition, movement, school, etc., at some point.Report
I’m really skeptical about using geographical labels for contemporary philosophy of science. Those labels make sense in periods where you have distinct, geographically-separated traditions operating in parallel, with very limited communication between them. I don’t think this applies for modern physics or modern philosophy of physics.
Consider: mid-19th century mechanics was dominated by France; early 20th century physics was dominated by Germany; the postwar period in particle physics has been dominated by the US; but in no case do we refer to that period by a geographical label. The reasons this make sense (I think) are partly that it would falsely imply the presence of concurrent rival programs, but mostly because it denigrates the work of people who aren’t in the dominant national or ethnic group. (There are massive contributions to postwar particle physics from Japanese and Russian physicists, for instance.)
Right at this minute I’m working on the black hole information loss paradox. It’s an interdisciplinary activity where I cite physicists and get cited by physicists. Among the most influential physicists whose work I’ve engaged with are Ahmed Almeiri (from Abu Dhabi), Samir Mathur (India), Juan Maldacena (Argentina), and Thanu Padmanabhan (India). I won’t call out philosophers by name here (many are junior) but there is really important work in the sub-field by people from, e.g., South America and the Middle East – to say nothing of the massive contributions from people from (non-UK) Europe, or from non-white backgrounds in the UK or the US. No doubt historians of the future – if this work has any historical shadow at all – will recognize its limitations, infelicities, and blind spots, but in what sense is it ‘Anglo-American’?
(Perhaps this is all compatible with your last comment that ‘the historical markers of the future will be less geographic and more ideological’ – I’m just concerned that it’s potentially really problematic, not least for outreach and recruitment, to start associating national or ethnic markers with contemporary science or philosophy of science absent a good argument for it.)Report
Yes, these are just toy examples to make the point that we are all working in ways that will later be classified as traditions of one kind or another. Call it ‘Early Quantum Pre-Atoquark Philosophy of Physics’ or whatever. We don’t know what they will be.Report
OK, that’s helpful. (& at that level it’s going to be true of science too, of course-Early Quantum Pre-Atoquark Physics will also be a thing.)Report
Good discussion on this point: I agree with what Matt L. and David Wallace have been saying, for the most part.
My point was not to imply that there must be a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something counting as Western (or, if you prefer, Anglo-European) philosophy. I was trying to make a point, though I perhaps made it too un-pointedly.
I’ll try to summarize it more pointedly here. There seems to be a sort of trilemma: either
1. Anglo-European philosophy is to be defined by the close attention it pays to a certain philosophical canon (to the exclusion of the philosophical canons of other cultures, or
2. Anglo-European philosophy is to be defined by the topics it addresses, or
3. Anglo-European philosophy is to be defined by its methodology.
(The necessary and sufficient conditions that might — if they exist — define ‘Anglo-European’ philosophy more precisely are not needed for the reasoning that follows).
– If 2 is the correct understanding of ‘Anglo-European philosophy’, then it becomes unclear how any plausible distinction here could be maintained, even if the distinction is quite rough. I gave the example before of Paul Edwards’ book on Reincarnation, but such examples seem almost ubiquitous once we get away from the criterion of attention to a certain canon. Such a distinction becomes more difficult to maintain, it seems, the more cross-over of ideas there is between different world cultures, just as has happened in the sciences (as David Wallace has stressed).
– If 3 is the correct understanding of ‘Anglo-European philosophy’, then it’s not obvious why we should be critical in promoting it. As you say, we could then limit ourselves to work that follows the norms of presenting clear reasoning for one’s views, welcoming and addressing critical objections, and so on. But the more a philosophical culture does those things, the less clear it is what makes it an alternative methodology.
– If 1 is the correct understanding of ‘Anglo-European philosophy’, then the reasoning you have presented for our taking pains to include it seems plausible; but in that case, it begins to seem that many of us doing mainstream philosophy in the English speaking are not in fact doing Anglo-European philosophy.Report
You set this out as a trilemma, but it’s not. These are not precise categories–there is no *definition*–just loose categorizing and sorting, and those are not exclusive categorizations. There is no difficult choice from among these three options that has to be made.
I continue to resist ‘Anglo-European Philosophy’ as too much like ‘Western Philosophy,’ with both being far too broad to be useful. But it seems reasonable to speak of ‘Anglo-European philosophical traditions’ which includes Ancient Greek Philosophy, Medieval European Scholastic Philosophy, Early Modern Philosophy in Europe, Modern Philosophy in Europe, British Empiricism, German Idealism, French Existentialism, etc.
Those more specific traditions can be understood as involving different complex overlapping categorizations, and not always being the same. Sometimes it’s about who is engaged with and read (1), sometimes it’s about the topics (2), sometimes it’s about the method (3), sometimes it’s also about where the work is being done in terms of time and place (4), sometimes it’s about what shared sociocultural or scientific or religious assumptions are being brought to the philosophical work (5), sometimes it’s about all of these, or some combination of these. These classifications have evolved over time in haphazard ways, and they are not all at the same level of generality/specificity (the higher one zooms out, the more philosophers who are covered, the less likely it is that all or many of these (1)-(5) or others will be part of the categorization).
But I feel like you’re not really engaging with what I’m saying in my replies or my original post, nor have you read any of the meta-philosophical discussions that accompany all of these topics. And I take it you’re not confused about whether, for example, Rutgers requires undergraduates to take any courses in African, Chinese, Indian, Islamic, Latin American, or Native American Philosophy; nor are you confused about whether you yourself might happen to be teaching African, Chinese, Indian, Islamic, Latin American, or Native American philosophy (and that’s true even if the methods of argument and discussion are very much the same); so I’m not really sure what are we even talking about?Report
As in a memorable exchange we had on this blog a couple of years ago, Alex, you seem quite keen on helping yourself to the presumption that the places where we disagree about which questions are open *must* be due to my failing to read things that you have read (and never vice versa) and to my failing to read or think about what you have said.
That’s a very easy game for anyone to play: I could play it myself in return. And in fact, I read non-western philosophy quite devotedly for years before I ever read a work of western philosophy. I could point to places here where you give clear evidence of not having read what *I* wrote in my two comments n this thread. For instance, I specifically mentioned that I find it easy to understand what Chinese, Western, etc. philosophy are when we are talking about philosophical canons (or courses or works based closely on canonical figures), but that I have not taught any such figures for over a decade. So the fact that I’m not confused about whether I’m teaching Chinese, African, etc. philosophy is not to the point. The alternative possibility that I’m exploring is whether, as in the sciences, those of us (I think the majority) who are not working on canonical figures are doing a localized sort of philosophy at all, or just philosophy.
No doubt, you will be able to find grounds in what I have already said for further suggestions that I am too ignorant or poorly-read to have my views considered in that discussion. And you are of course entitled to your opinion, as is anyone else who reads this comments thread. But in fact you have already given me what I hoped for in this discussion. As I said when I joined this discussion yesterday, your interesting post got me thinking about the meanings of the localized sorts of philosophy, whether they have application outside of canonical works, and whether it makes sense to talk about those of us who don’t teach canonical figures as working in one or the other cultural/geographical area of philosophy. I thought that you might have an answer to this question, since you have obviously spent considerable time thinking about this general matter. But as you make clear in the third paragraph of this response, you don’t mean anything definite by these labels, and instead admit that the terms involve a whole bunch of ideas thrown together “in haphazard ways,” as you put it.
That being the case, I can see that the question I asked has no clear answer: the central concept we’re dealing with is just too unclear to sustain any of the analysis one would need to subject it to in order to answer even straightforward questions about its application to this or any related matter once we move beyond the somewhat old-fashioned, canonical method of teaching philosophy.
So with that, I will bow out of this discussion. Thanks for the clarification about the lack of clarity!Report
Everybody in these conversations–Mengzi, Nāgārjuna, Anselm, Wollstonecraft, Kant, Zea, Kripke, Hountondji, Deloria Jr., David Wallace, Sosa, Nussbaum, etc.–is equally “just doing philosophy.”
It is also true that eventually, all of us working now will also be organized and categorized as socio-historically located philosophers in various ways. In the contemporary moment, it is hard for us to say what those categorizations will look like. (Frege and Russell likely didn’t know that they would be put in ‘Early Analytic Philosophy’ or ‘History of Analytic Philosophy’ boxes.)
We currently do this by ‘subfield’ and ‘topic’ (and none of these classifications are very clear or precise, either, it is worth noting), but I guarantee that we will have more classifications added down the road to sort us further, as those in the future try to make sense of and draw attention to schools, traditions, interactions, influences, shared assumptions, etc. In that sense, we are all also equally doing “localized sorts of philosophy” too (at least as I understand how you are using that phrase).
My basic point is that we should be teaching the philosophy done by Mengzi, Nāgārjuna, Zea, Hountondji, and Deloria Jr., too, in both free-standing classes focused on them and the people they were engaging with the most, and in our classes where their philosophical work is relevant and we bring them into conversation with people located in different times, places, and traditions. That won’t be every class!
Anyway, not sure if we disagree about anything in any of the above, but we can perhaps pick this up in person at some point. Report
This seems to be overcomplicating Prof. Guerrero’s original point (which I mostly agree with). Let’s grant that philosophy is defined by a culturally neutral methodology. Then the problem is that the historical canon as taught in UK/US departments is much too focused on one particular historical tradition (or a narrow family of such), with bad consequences for scholarship and inclusion. That could be justified if that particular tradition in fact is the overwhelmingly best and most successful realization of philosophy’s methodology, but that looks implausible and in any case the causal reasons for the UK/US historical canon are not very well linked to any dispassionate assessment of the various historical traditions.
The implications for non-historical courses are somewhat more complicated, which was what my earlier intervention was getting at, but I don’t think Prof. Guerrero disagrees here either.Report
You will notice that I do not use the term ‘Western philosophy’ anywhere in my post. That suggests to me you are responding to something other than the precise content of my post.
There are elaborate metaphilosophical discussions of how to understand things like ‘African Philosophy’ or ‘Latin American Philosophy’ or ‘Ancient Greek Philosophy.’ I won’t rehearse those here, but for an example you can read the SEP post by Susana Nuccetelli on metaphilosophical issues in Latin American Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/latin-american-metaphilosophy/
As I say explicitly in reply to Caligula’s Goat above, many of us teach classes in philosophy that focus just on particular problems in philosophy. That’s great. I have no issue with that, of course. Almost all my classes are like that. In such a class, one might still teach work by people coming from distinct philosophical traditions (depending on the class; this might be harder to do, as discussed above, with something like philosophy of quantum mechanics).
So, one could teach a class on personal identity that assigned Parfit, contemporary and historical discussions of anātman doctrine from Buddhist Philosophy, the proto-physicalist view of Cārvāka philosophers from the Classical Indian tradition, work by Gyekye and Wiredu explicating and discussing Akan conceptions of personhood and personal identity, the ship of Theseus case as discussed by Hobbes, John Perry’s dialogue, etc. Or one could just teach Parfit and Dean Zimmerman, Hobbes, John Perry, Trenton Merricks, Anthony Brueckner, David Shoemaker, and David Wiggins. Both could be great classes. One would be bringing in philosophical ideas that plausibly have connections and even origins outside of Anglo-European philosophy–the ideas were developed partly in other geographic places, emerging out of different sociocultural contexts, by people who are not Anglo-European or Euro-American. I think there are reasons to have at least some of our classes that do this, in part to avoid parochialism in our perspectives, intuitions, and approaches to finding truth regarding these philosophical topics. In part for other reasons that I also discuss above.
There are, of course, many hard borderline kinds of cases we can come up with. I promise you, there are many metaphilosophical discussions already out there of how to classify all of those complex borderline cases. Lots to debate there. But I take it you can see at least several different ways in which those two imagined classes might differ, even though they are both focused on the same particular topic.
A separate issue is that we do continue to require students to take certain courses, including many that are focused on figures or philosophical periods/schools/traditions, rather than just classes on particular philosophical problems or topics. That is part of the story we are telling about what philosophy is.
I don’t have an argument that we should be doing that, rather than just teaching classes on particular philosophical problems or topics. But if we are going to require students to take at least some courses focusing on particular figures or philosophical periods/schools/traditions, as we currently do, then there is a case for adding (or allowing as a substitute) courses on philosophers and philosophical traditions other than Anglo-European ones. That is the case that I sketch in my post, but which is really made much more extensively by others (such as Van Norden) who are genuine experts on these various excluded traditions.Report
Though school only exposed me to the “narrow” sliver of philosophy described here, it seemed deep enough at the time for a kid to begin fathoming, to see into what seemed infinite. But more importantly, they taught me where the library was. If anyone is interested, the rest of the perspectives are there, across the research libraries of the big cities. I grew up in New York City, and got the idea that different races found different sets of ideas to resonate more than others. So when I began appropriating my heritage, I researched my background in philosophy, for the mexican side I researched the Aztecs and Mayas, then the Olmecs, exhaustively, and for my german side, I spent ten years reading Hegel and Goethe as a hobby, daily. Then as I got to know other people with different backgrounds, I’d try other things, branching out into whatever interested me, the polish Jewish philosophy poets, the shamans from all the native american cultures, and the Daosits, Hindus, and Buddhists, all struck the deepest chords for me, and I learned that my Mexican background was related to the Chinese background. Decades later my hobby is translating 1500-year-old Daoist scriptures, a daily hobby. And what i discovered at the end of the storybook of world religion and philosophy, was that, contrary to the perspective of the isolationists of every persuasion, and contrary to the academic perspective, they aren’t all different, conflicting views; I disagree when they try to point out that maybe this or that branch was ‘influenced’ by this or that other branch. A shaman myself, now, I see a single pattern, a single goal, a single vision, explained from different angles with different emphasis, and with varying degrees of clarity across the writers and across the cultures, but a single vision, so it seems to me they weren’t influenced by each other, rather it’s a world history of people describing the same experience, stepping stones and maps pointing to the same country outside the tiny world of consensual reality. So the “narrowness” of the american college system doesn’t seem like such a problem, if it’s taught by people with whom those ideas resonate. On the contrary, it’s probably too broad. Better to get to know people you are interested in, and dive in from their angle, and branch out like the roots of a tree, the better to blossom, decades later, with the fruit, invisible to materialistic culture, that are the prayers for all beings.Report
Re. logic and mathematics: I argued in https://philpapers.org/rec/ARATPT-2 that Takeuti’s proof theory drew on a different conception of the infinite than the founders of proof theory had had in mind, a conception coming from his Japanese context, specifically the Kyoto school and in particular Nishida. Takeuti’s work in proof theory is as mainstream as logic gets, yet to make sense of his defense of finitism after Gödel we should recognize that the concept of infinity is not uniquely determined.Report
Thanks for a great post.
Re why phil depts are as they are, Peter K Park’s book Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy is really good. Does an amazing job focusing on Kant and Hegel’s role in conceiving philosophy as essentially European and making that story part of philosophy’s self-identity in a modern academia. Park argues that around around 1800 there was a lively debate about whether to see philosophy as originating outside Europe (a common older view) or to see it as essentially European (modern view which institutionally won out for mainly racist pseudo-scientific reasons of the time.) It would be wonderful to rekindle that debate again and see how it might go without the racist assumptions of that time.
Re why things don’t change more, a big reason is the collective action problem. Suppose depts do follow this post and expand hiring, course offering and stories told about philosophy. But suppose NYU hires a bunch of experts in Asian philosophy, and Princeton hires in African philosophy, and Rutgers in Latin American philosophy, etc. What then is the relation between these departments? Is there a common story they are telling such that their undergrads can go to each other’s grad programs, and hire each other’s grad students, etc? A coordinating meta story for such interdepartmental connection can’t be as broad as “Global philosophy” or “Noneurocentic philosophy” – that’s too expansive! Departments get bound by identities like analytic, continental, Wittgensteinian, naturalistic, pluralistic, etc because they are buzz words for which departments, as it were, huddle together. A main obstacle to expanding the discipline is that changing the story is mainly a surface change as long as the huddling together of departments continues in the old, standard way. And yet what new forms of interdepartmental connections can work without being insular? Ironically, analytic philosophy has spread far because it suggested a common language for connecting departments. But that common language was mired in Eurocentrism. How to move beyond that without falling into a Tower of Babel scenario? One doesn’t have to answer this to implement the many great suggestions of this post. But I suspect at a gut, emotional level this issue is a key stumbling block to significant change.Report
Thanks for your comment. I wonder about this. Already there is a surprising amount of variance across departments, even ‘top’ departments just in the US, with respect to what they cover, whether they have many faculty or graduate students working on any philosophers pre-1950, which philosophers are foregrounded, which subfields are foregrounded, how interdisciplinary the programs are, etc. Rutgers and Princeton have significant points of overlap, but also huge points of difference. It seems that could be true here, too.
Additionally, for some of these currently excluded traditions, there are similar overlapping questions and concerns, both at the level of metaphilosophy (what do we make of ethnophilosophy, what are different forms philosophy can take, how do we define what work counts, what is the relationship between philosophy and textuality, etc.) and substantive philosophy (with shared questions about the influence and effects of colonialism, language, religion, globalism, race, questions regarding indigeneity and authenticity, etc.). So, someone working on Latin American Philosophy will have a lot to talk about with someone working on African Philosophy, someone working on Classical Chinese Philosophy will have a lot to talk about with someone working on Classical Indian Philosophy, etc.
The bigger point, perhaps, is that these departments are all producing graduate students who go on to teach at very different kinds of institutions. I’m not sure there needs to be all that much overlap. It might actually be better if there is more differentiation and segmentation in order to better reflect and cover the vast landscape of philosophy. And I don’t think we will end up not being able to have conversations across these areas, as so much overlap–in topics, methods, and particular figures and influences–is likely to remain.Report
Agree with this broadly and wish the vision you sketch comes about. But to press a bit on a deep emotional obstacle to it: Suppose all depts in America expand their narratives in the way suggested here. Would NYU, Princeton, Rutgers et al continue to be, and be seen as, “top” departments in the new landscape?
One might say: “Yes, because they have the most resources and will attract the best of the new vision.” But this seems like pouring new wine into old wineskins. After all, there are depts now in the US and elsewhere, less prestigious, which already implement this vision and have done so for many decades and so mapped more the contours of this landscape (precisely some of the overlapping of the excluded traditions you mention). Can the “topness” of NYU et al survive being late to the new game? Should it?
An advantage to phrasing it this way is it side steps to some extent the racism issue. Even though there is a causal link from NYU et al in the present to Kant and Hegel’s vision of academic philosophy, what sustains the present status quo doesn’t have to be racism as much as the desire to have a stable sense of topness. It seems innocuous enough to think people should add some diversity to their curriculum, like donating more to charity. That suggests the transition from the old to the new can be smooth, but the very extent to which the top depts have been uninterested for decades in the new game suggests otherwise.
Can the transition happen without a mea culpa from the top depts, without their taking some responsibility for ignoring and marginalizing the other depts which have been doing this? If they come on the scene now as if they are the vanguard of the change, that only seems to perpetuate some of the old narrative. And yet how many, esp when at the top, can willingly take responsibility for their limits? That too in a genuine way without feeling guilted into it? Curriculum change, etc is all great. But what is needed more deeply is for people to model such behavior of self-criticalness with an open spirit. This doesn’t necessarily require studying other traditions as much as accepting that it’s ok for our sense of topness to shift in unexpected ways.Report
A couple of thoughts.
First, it might well be true that everyone can find something that excites them in an unfamiliar philosophical tradition. But still they might not. The analogy: those of us who immerse ourselves in other disciplines or whatever it is we do philosophy ‘of’ typically succeed because we have expert guidance. Without that you end up reading a lot of really bad stuff. I hardly read any bad philosophical work because I am trained to identify it early and avoid it. (I don’t even read much boring philosophical work, of which there is loads that is perfectly good, because I have tenure so I needn’t). But for a while I read a lot of bad work in the educational sciences. I stopped when I got expert advice (because of my privileged situation I was able to demand that the best people in the field tutor me, basically). I imagine that philosophers in any particular tradition, if they have established a certain expertise, will be very impatient with the bad work, which is most of what they’ll read from other traditions without active guidance from actual people. (One reason analytical philosophers think their tradition is superior is because they only read the good stuff in their tradition but read bad stuff in other traditions because they’re not skilled at avoiding it).
Second. Your story is very discipline-focused. As opposed to student- focused. Here’s a different story – we should be even more self-critical than you are suggesting and ask “what do we really have reason to value our (undergraduate) students learning? What curricular materials would we ideally use for that purpose? And what pedagogical skills would we need?” My guess is that if we did that there wouldn’t be much connection between our learning objectives for the students and any particular philosophical tradition. (We certainly wouldn’t treat the historical canon you describe as canonical). But we’d also, if reflective, recognize that our teaching is probably not very good, and prioritize learning and becoming experts in the use of more effective pedagogical techniques and strategies over learning unfamiliar traditions in philosophy.
Maybe all that is going on in my head is that I suspect our profession (academics, not philosophers) of being so disdainful of instruction that we’ll always jump on discussions of curriculum if it helps us to avoid thinking about instruction. So when I read (even well-considered and convincing, as in this case) criticisms of our curricular decisions, my reaction is to see a slightly injured cat on the table and worry people are going to focus on it to the detriment of the numerous bleeding children slumped in the chairs.Report
Yes, there is a different post I could write (and I’ve written similar posts already) in which I talk more about what we should be thinking about with respect to our students when we think about what story we are telling. (I took myself to be thinking about students in thinking about what we are teaching, but I didn’t foreground that discussion.)
In my experience, at the institutions at which I’ve taught (Rutgers having one of the most demographically diverse undergraduate populations of any big public school in the US), many of our students have felt significantly left out of the standard story. And there has been great excitement and enthusiasm in the classes I’ve offered on philosophy outside of that story. By changing the story, we are very likely to change who even sets foot in the world of philosophy. But the extent to which that is true might be different at different schools, certainly. (This goes some way to addressing Fritz’s completely fair points above, too.) Where I’ve been, I would say the racism built into the current curriculum is much more than a ‘slightly injured cat’ problem.
I’m completely with you in thinking that we should also be talking more about instruction and pedagogy than we do. (I’m less sure about trying to think about and articulate and measure ‘learning objectives’ in philosophy courses as the way to do this, but you know much more about this than I do, and I’m sure there are good ways of doing this that I could learn more about!)
But do you really feel like we’ve been talking too much about changing the philosophy curriculum in the direction I argue for in the post? I mean, every few years there’s a blog post or something, but at least in my experience, this has not been a huge topic of discussion, and there has been pretty much zero movement on this in PhD programs over the past 25 years. Philosophy is singularly behind on this compared to almost every other humanistic or social scientific field.
It seems to me that we could do both. And I think that actually stepping back and asking why we teach and require what we do is a good way of getting people to be somewhat more reflective and concentrated on the question of what we expect students to get out of their philosophy courses and philosophical education.Report
Sorry, I can’t resist a comment on this new topic. You say, “In my experience, at the institutions at which I’ve taught (Rutgers having one of the most demographically diverse undergraduate populations of any big public school in the US), many of our students have felt significantly left out of the standard story.”
It’s certainly true that Rutgers has a very demographically diverse undergraduate population. After teaching thousands of students here since 2011, I haven’t yet run into any who indicated that they felt left out based on their ethnicity or any other demographic features. But I’m not sure how you poll your students on the topic, or whether there’s something about how you present things that makes them say such things, or whether it’s because I haven’t taught them any canonical figures.
I can, however, recall my own first encounters with philosophy pretty well, and I’m not sure how it squares with the idea of feeling left out on the basis of one’s race, religion or other demographics.
I was raised in a Jewish home in Vancouver. I attended a Jewish day school for most of my time in elementary school, and assumed for many years after that that the answers to the big questions would be those given by Judaism, which I planned to study closely for the rest of my life. The first exposure I had to anything philosophical came in the form of Jewish parables and other bits of wisdom from traditional sources.
When I was 15 or 16 years old, someone I admired at school (this was now a non-religious public school) kept urging me to read the Taoist classics. I did, and I was blown away by how interesting they were. I must have read the Tao Te Ching cover-to-cover at least ten times. When I read Zhuangzi, I became obsessed with trying to figure out how relativism was to be applied to all sorts of cases. I would talk with people about it whenever I could find people who were interested. (I took for granted that it could be: Zhuangzi was clearly so profoundly wise that it would have been folly to imagine that there were any defects in what he said). These books of Chinese philosophy kept making references to people and things I wasn’t familiar with, and I tried to understand traditional Chinese culture and history to the point where the trickier parts would make more sense to me.
I didn’t get my first real exposure to philosophy at university until I was 20 years old. I took an introduction to ethics in which we read James Rachel’s book, and was blown away by the challenges he gave to relativism and subjectivism. I couldn’t stop thinking about everything I’d come to think from reading Zhuangzi, and wondering whether I had to abandon much of it. But since you seem to be talking just about canonical figures here, I’ll avoid saying more about Rachels.
After I decided to switch to a major in philosophy, I had to take some historical courses. One was a year-long overview of medieval philosophy. I was greatly excited by this course, which began with a brief overview of Plato and Aristotle and then took us from Tertullian and St. Augustine all the way to Ockham and Grosseteste. The professor was well aware that reading Aristotle, for almost any student, involved grappling with a completely foreign set of concerns and ideas, and a radically different way of breaking up the world. He did a great job of making the broad strokes at least somewhat comprehensible, and his enthusiasm and clever examples made us care about it. As we reached the early Christian thinkers, the professor had to make clear what was at stake and why, or more or less nobody in the course would have been able to make head nor tail of what we were reading. The idea that the best metaphysics at the time ultimately entailed that a sinful nature in the prototype of a species would be heritable was very new to me, but fascinating to try to get my head around. I think we were all grateful for the fact that the professor had started slow with classical Greek philosophy, because the medievals’ concerns would otherwise have been impossibly foreign.
True, the early modern philosophers are not as foreign to students today as the medieval philosophers. But without considerable background work there, too, it’s difficult to get students to understand the significance of these works. It’s shocking to most undergraduates that Hobbes’ defense of what seems to be unmitigated totalitarianism was not scandalous to his contemporaries, but that his materialist views were. Spinoza and Leibniz can barely be understood without a fair idea of how substance, attribute and mode work in the Aristotelian metaphysics that still held sway in 17th century universities. The architectonic structure of Kant’s first Critique will make little sense to those who haven’t learned any Aristotelian logic, which it is doubtful that most students will. Locke’s project of showing the limits of our knowledge in the Essay, and his emphasis on what might seem to be strange questions like whether a king might switch bodies (souls?) with a cobbler, need to be understood in light of the presumption at the time that a well-ordered society needs to be built around a certain religion, together with some key details of the religion people had in mind. But none of that will be clear to most students today, so again a considerable amount of background must be supplied. I’ve found that students today (or at least of a dozen years ago, which was the last time I taught early modern philosophy) had a hard time understanding why Hume should have been so cagey in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: if he really meant to show problems with the argument from design or with various responses to the problem of evil, why wouldn’t he have just come out and said it? Hume was writing in an environment that most people today would find remarkably foreign.
At every point in my exposure to the canonical philosophers — and also to the Chinese philosophers I started reading a few years earlier — I had to do considerable work (sometimes helpfully abridged by a good professor’s lectures) to learn the background that made many of the discussions intelligible. But so did everyone studying those philosophers with me.
At no time did I come upon any canonical philosopher whose writing just spoke to me directly across the ages, with no need for any preparatory work — with the exception of Socrates in some of his more accessible dialogues, and Socrates’ culture is perhaps the most foreign of all!
I have also not made a study of any canonical figures who shared my race or religion. It’s really been the furthest thing from my mind, really. And if I had had an opportunity to take a course on Maimonides and Gersonides, I would have needed at least as much background on their philosophical presuppositions and cultural context as I did with any of these other philosophers — even though I attended a Jewish day school for a few years. Their world was just vastly different than ours is today.
If you’re talking about geographic origin or race rather than religion, then again I strike out (but it never occurred to me to care): my ancestors were Ashkenazi Jews living mostly in present-day Ukraine, and I don’t know of any Ashkenazi Jews or Ukrainians in the philosophical canon, nor any Canadians (my more recent ancestors immigrated directly to the Canadian prairies).
It was the furthest thing from my mind to consider whether I belonged in philosophy or not on the basis of the religion, culture, geographic origin, or race of the canonical philosophers I read. I just wanted to read anything that would interest me and make me think. If someone had presumed that I’d be most excited about reading Canadian, Ukrainian, Ashkenazi, or Jewish philosophers, I would honestly have felt somewhat depressed that someone would think that my philosophical passions could be read off of my biographical details. In fact, that would make me feel more stereotyped and dehumanized — reduced to superficial demographic details that don’t make me me — though nothing in the long story of my encounters with these ‘foreign’ canonical philosophers did.
I’ve dwelt on this story of how all this feels because it’s the only one I know from the inside. If you say that you’ve had many students at Rutgers tell you that they feel “significantly left out” of the story of philosophy because nobody from the culture, race, nation, or religion of their distant ancestors appears in the canon, I guess I have to believe you. But why would they have had reactions so completely different from my own? One possibility is that I’m a sort of freak of nature, and that it’s perfectly normal for most students to approach philosophy this way. (Again, I’ve never had a single student out of the thousands I’ve taught at Rutgers tell me such a thing, but perhaps most of them do and they just don’t tell me for some reason).
But there’s another possibility: perhaps the students who say these things have been primed to give reactions like that, by professors they’ve had, or perhaps high school teachers or things they’ve seen on the internet, that have got them to see things in these essentializing ways. And if that’s the case, then I think it would be better for philosophers to resist that essentializing mindset rather than cater to it.Report
Thanks for sharing so much of your story about how you came to philosophy. Many don’t have the kind of early encouragement into philosophy (of any kind) that you had. Many (most?) arrive at college never having read any philosophy and without any idea what it is. There’s a question of why anyone takes a first philosophy class. I think that will vary quite a lot, but I know the few times I’ve taught African, Latin American, and Native American Philosophy, that it has been the first philosophy class for almost everyone in the class. (Which is particularly surprising as it is a 300-level class.) It’s also the only Philosophy class I’ve ever taught where a majority of those enrolled were Black or Hispanic, and the only class where I’ve had any Native American students.
Like you, I was interested in all kinds of philosophy, all of which I just assumed would be written by people who shared nothing or little of my personal heritage, because that was what school had been like up until that point. But there’s a real risk of survivorship bias here.
Maybe some of us are (for various cultural or random reasons) just intrigued by the idea of ‘philosophy’ (whatever we have associated with that in our heads) or are such that however we encounter it, we are fascinated by all kinds of philosophy, right at the beginning, no matter the topics, no matter the biographies of those writing the philosophy, etc. Maybe we argue a lot with everyone about everything and someone says, ‘here, read some of this.’ But I don’t see a good reason for only wanting people who have that fortunate random exposure or temperament and initial reaction to the subject to go further into philosophy.
Also, as white people (even though you are also Jewish, and I am also Hispanic), and white men at that, you and I see ourselves reflected back, more or less (even if not perfectly), by pretty much the whole history of philosophy. And when we speak in a classroom, no one finds it at all surprising, or questions why we are interested in the topics we are interested in, or dismisses what we are interested in as just ‘me studies,’ or ignores our contributions, or talks over us, or…
But I don’t want to try to litigate the question of ‘why does philosophy remain so overwhelmingly non-demographically proportionate along racial lines at every level’ here with you. Curriculum is at most one part of that story. And there are other reasons to care about changing the curriculum that don’t turn on it being a particularly large part of that story.
(None of this requires any essentializing assumptions to explain what might be going on. I’ll leave it to you, based on what I’ve already said, to work out what else might be going on besides some racial essentializing thing.)Report
Thanks for the reply, Alex.
I see what you’re saying, I think, but I still think the point goes both ways. Curiously, when I think of Plato now, the image that comes to mind is of Teagle F. Bougere, the (black) actor who wonderfully played the role of Plato in Tim Blake Nelson’s _Socrates_ off Broadway a few years ago. Prior to that, I didn’t have a mental image of Plato at all, and I liked the way that Bougere (helped by the wonderful script) made someone who otherwise seems a bit dogmatic and inhuman into a likeable character for me.
When I sat down to watch the play, it at first felt a little odd to see Aristotle as a redhead, Plato (and Alcibaides, Xanthippe, etc.) as black, and so on. But it only took a few minutes for it to feel natural. I couldn’t at first get myself to identify the character on the stage as Socrates, either, though the actor who played him was white. But pretty quickly, these actors just became the characters they were playing. It would probably be difficult to stage a good version of the play with only people with the right genetic pedigrees to match up with characters from Athens or Macedonia as they were populated over 2,400 years ago. And why would we want to? And those Mediterranean places are about as far from northern Europe as they are from sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t know what Socrates actually looked like other than from that famous replicated bust based on an original by a sculptor born nine years after Socrates’ execution. For Plato, I’m even less confident. As for whether Aristotle could plausibly have been a redhead, I remember sitting there at the opening scene (which began with Aristotle alone on stage) and trying to remember the lines about ‘red-haired Menelaus’ from the Iliad… but I quickly just thought, “Who cares?” The influence of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the interest they sparked about thinking, goes far beyond their time and to people of their cluster of islands or even their hemisphere of the globe. Their writings and ideas now belong to all of us. I actually love the idea that the accuracy of physical depictions of them should be decided by those who care enough about their legacy to devote their energy to it.
From the Martin Luther King syllabus you discuss, it seems that King didn’t feel that the race of the thinkers he wanted his students to engage with was important. And should he have? I don’t think so, and in fact I remember being quite surprised when I first saw pictures of philosophers I had already spent so much time reading (Descartes, Hume, Locke, Kant, etc.). I did know a little bit about where they were from and the languages they wrote in, so I suppose I would have been somewhat more surprised if they had turned out to be of Indian, African, Chinese, etc. ancestry. But it was certainly in the realm of possibility. Their races, or their non-racially-related physical features, weren’t something I gave any thought to.
To be clear, I’m entirely in favor of encouraging the community of philosophers to read broadly enough to make sure that we don’t miss some great ideas hidden in the writings of thinkers who lie outside of the canon, but I’m less persuaded by this idea of encouraging people to see philosophers as being appropriate or inappropriate for them on the basis of things like race and skin color, or even culture. Perhaps it’s inevitable that some students will categorize philosophers by race or skin color and then come to feel that the ones that match their own physical features are the ones they should study and maybe even agree with. But if so, that’s a habit of mind I think it would be best to eradicate! I find your justification in the essay you actually wrote here more compelling.Report
You write: “I’m less persuaded by this idea of encouraging people to see philosophers as being appropriate or inappropriate for them on the basis of things like race and skin color, or even culture. Perhaps it’s inevitable that some students will categorize philosophers by race or skin color and then come to feel that the ones that match their own physical features are the ones they should study and maybe even agree with.”
Yes, just to be very clear, absolutely nobody thinks this is a good idea, or inevitable, or to be encouraged. Nobody is advocating for this. It’s a ridiculous strawman.Report
I’m trying my best to be charitable here, Alex. You did just write, “Also, as white people (even though you are also Jewish, and I am also Hispanic), and white men at that, you and I see ourselves reflected back, more or less (even if not perfectly), by pretty much the whole history of philosophy.”
Could you please what you mean there if you don’t mean what I was responding to? I wholly agree that the view I’m attacking is ridiculous. But whether it’s a straw man depends on whether there’s some plausible benefit to
“seeing ourselves reflected back” by philosophers who happen to share our racial phenotypes
that is completely different from
thinking of philosophy (or philosophers) as appropriate objects of study based on whether the philosophers we see share our racial phenotypes.Report
Justin, by ‘reflected back’ I just meant the banal thing that in thinking of who is a philosopher, according to the standard story that philosophy departments tell, you and I are not all that likely to think that we don’t look the part.
That was maybe clearer in light of the next sentence, too: “And when we speak in a classroom, no one finds it at all surprising, or questions why we are interested in the topics we are interested in, or dismisses what we are interested in as just ‘me studies,’ or ignores our contributions, or talks over us, or…”
At least in my PhD training, the core class we all took for proseminar was Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, Kripke, Lewis… My first philosophy classes were Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant… They were all men, none of them were Chinese, or Black, or Indigenous, or Latin American, or Muslim, or Buddhist.
It’s not necessarily a huge thing, but it might well be enough to create some sense of alienation or ‘this isn’t for you’ in some students who are not white men. (Not all, obviously. Not necessarily in every case, obviously. And yes, we will see through our own local racial categories in sometimes ahistorical ways–Ancient Greeks and others are only ‘white’ in some sense from our vantage point now.) As others have suggested, it is plausibly particularly true for those students who know that there is philosophy from people who are Chinese, Black, Indigenous, Latin American, Muslim, Buddhist, etc., and that philosophy departments are leaving that stuff out.
None of this is about anyone being intrinsically drawn to certain substantive views because of shared racial or ethnic identities. None of this is absolute; of course some students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds will fall in love with philosophy no matter how it is presented to them; of course students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds might be interested in any subfield or topic or any figures from the history of philosophy.
I feel like this should all be familiar at this point, though. Maybe you have spent less time thinking about how students react to our presentation of the standard story, who talks to *you* about how welcome they feel in philosophy, as well as who does and doesn’t show up in our various classes in the first place?Report
“I feel like this should all be familiar at this point, though. Maybe you have spent less time thinking about how students react to our presentation of the standard story, who talks to *you* about how welcome they feel in philosophy, as well as who does and doesn’t show up in our various classes in the first place?”
This really seems to take for granted that the facts of the matter are uncontroversial. Why else would the explanation you leap to be that *I*, rather than you, have spent insufficient time thinking about these things? But it is those very facts that I thought you were inviting us here to try to sort out.
Granted, people often *speak* with great authority as though these matters were settled; but I have not seen any compelling evidence that they are.
Since you invite me to consider more deeply my own experience with students, I’ll do so, openly, here.
In Fall 2021, I taught two sections of a critical thinking course and one section of an ethics course. Each of those three courses had about 150 students, for a total of about 450. None of those courses involved discussions of major figures in philosophy. The critical thinking courses were taught without a text, on the basis of lectures and activities.
The ethics course did have a central text. As it happens, it was written by a non-white woman from a non-western culture. I didn’t select it because of that, but because I thought it would be good for other reasons.
I saw no important demographic differences between the engagement or success rates of the students in the different courses. I would be happy to go back and extract statistical data if desired, but I just don’t think there was much there, regardless of those demographical details of the book authors.
Then, in Spring 2022, I taught another course in critical thinking with well over a hundred students. This time, however, I used a text written by Bruce Waller. Therefore, both the text and the instructor that time were white males.
I noticed after awhile that some of the students seemed particularly keen on the material, and that they used to come up to the front of the lecture hall at the end to talk with me and with each other. I encouraged them to continue this, and in return they invited me to run some in-person discussion sessions over the summer. I’m just arranging that now. I invited all interested students to join.
Looking over the list of students who indicated an interest in joining, I see that two of them are black, two are Indian, one seems to be an Arab, one is Chinese, and one — the only white one of the seven — is an Orthodox Jew.
Now, perhaps completely different rules apply if the text is written by Frege or Wittgenstein or Russell than if it’s written by Bruce Waller and taught by me. Or perhaps the students I’ve had these past years are radically skewed. But at the very least, I think I’m entitled on the basis of my experience to have *some* doubts about the purported causal relationship I keep getting told about. And whether this apparent counter-evidence will be interesting to *you*, I think, depending on how much you already presume that your hypothesis is so clearly correct that anyone whose mileage varies must not be looking very closely at the odometer.Report
I agree with all you say about the context necessary to understand philosophers. This is a lot of work, however, and I suspect that, quite often, this kind of contextualization is mainly done in classes designated as “history of philosophy” classes, with the assumption being that when we read Kant in an ethics class (for example) he is providing a universal account that speaks across all cultures. This may be true; but there is also a cultural specificity that is assumed.
I teach at a university where every student has to take two philosophy classes. The thing I hear from my Asian and Black students most specifically is not a claim about biography being destiny. Rather, it is about being able to connect their own upbringing and existing beliefs and cultural context to philosophy itself. For instance, I teach personal identity in an intro philosophy class, and I have had multiple Asian students talk about how foreign they found the “standard” views of personhood because of assumptions the authors were making about personhood. When we read Buddhist theories of self, they were then able to see what it is was other thinkers were assuming and that provided a way “in” to the debate that connected them to it. Now, perhaps obviously, I don’t want them (or any of my students) to see philosophy as just validating their pre-existing beliefs, but I do want students to see how philosophy matters to the deep questions about existence that are, at the end of the day, essentially human. Western culture is not the only culture that has grappled with those issues, and I think it is beneficial for students to see that.
For many of my students, they will not go on to become majors or minors, but I do hope they will think of learning how to do philosophy as having a lasting impact on them. If, for a number of them, reading philosophical arguments concerning familiar views helps them to see how philosophy connects to their own lives (as it seems to me I have evidence to believe it does), then we ought to do more of that.
A final confession: I don’t do nearly as much of this as I should. I am in a department where I have colleagues who would be appalled if they knew I didn’t teach certain canonical figures and our major requirements glorify and entrench a certain historical canon as central. I am pre-tenure, and in the near future, there does not seem to be any hope of changing this latter aspect. But, with what I can do in my own classes, I am at least attempting to challenge the view that the only people to do philosophy belong to a particular tradition.Report
“pretty much zero movement on this in PhD programs over the past 25 years”; I’m guessing this is intentional overstatement, but I also think it bears noting that there has been *some* progress. For example, I can think of one west coast PhD program that now has several faculty members who can and do teach classical Chinese phil and two that teach in Latin American, which certainly wasn’t true 25 years ago. Give us a few more years and you’ll start seeing some newly-minted PhDs prepared to teach in those areas. I can also think of an elite PhD program that has someone visibly making noise about these issue out in the state of NJ. These developments aren’t nothing. But I agree that this change has been long-coming, and that more can and should be done.Report
Manuel, y’all are building the best department in philosophy out there!
I worry that despite some progress in some places, there has actually been regression in other places (not wanting to name programs), as programs that had some expert faculty in these areas have let those faculty move or retire without replacing them. So, maybe a little progress? Gotta stay positive…Report
Other resources (forgive the self-promotion): My recent contribution to Aeon, co-authored with Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach, aligns well with Guerrero’s points here. The Aeon piece reflects our work at the series Bloomsbury Introductions to World Philosophies and Studies in World Philosophies and our co-authored book A Practical Guide to World Philosophies,Report
Excellent! Thanks for sharing this Aeon piece which is wonderful and which I somehow missed, and I should have linked also to the Journal of World Philosophies and the two Bloomsbury series, as well as your own Practical Guide. Thanks for posting them here!Report
Thank you! I think it’s probably a good sign that there’s enough conversation about this, in so many different circles and via different venues, that we can lose track of all that’s out there. I enjoyed your article here and really appreciated the focus on concrete strategies for change.Report
I would like to note someone who was a pioneer in this regard, my late teacher and friend, Ninian Smart (he penned the entries on Indian philosophy in the eight volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Macmillan and The Free Press, 1967)], and among his many books, published World Philosophies (Routledge, 1998), a second edition of which was edited by Oliver Leaman after Ninian’s death (2008) (I did the bibliographies for the latter: 467-551).Report
Agreed! Ninian Smart’s work remains an excellent resource and has helped open the door to so many later efforts, including mine.Report
I don’t think the addition of more traditions would help us understand the already standard story which has reached the point from where it began. I don’t think there is an aspect of human experience which is left out in the standard story. Even within the standard story, some works are kept and suppressed for political reasons. I think we need to work on making the standard story more teachable.Report
Is there a demand for such courses? If there is, then let’s teach them. If not, then not. I imagine some schools have a demand, and others don’t. But this issue – that of demand – seems to be the most important issue.Report
This is probably put too quickly. For one thing, there will almost always be more “demand” for courses that meet requirements – either for a major or minor, or “general education”. Would the demand for a standard “modern philosophy” class be as high in most departments if it wasn’t a requirement for a major? Probably not. Could a department reasonably put in a requirement to take one or more “world philosophy” courses, increasing demand? Of course. Or, if an ethics (or whatever) requirement could be met by taking a “traditional” ethics class, or a class on Confucian ethics, or ethics as worked out in some other tradition, this would no doubt change the demand for all of the relevant courses.
Beyond this, while Say’s law probably doesn’t apply in all cases, we might well think that this is an area where “supply creates its own demand”, at least if what’s supplied is well done by a good instructor. That may not happen immediately, but can happen over time. So, while “demand” is something to keep in mind, it’s also something that’s not just given or static.Report
On my Academia page I have a number of compilations that have proven of interest to some philosophers so I will share some of these along with some study guides that might also be helpful for some courses:
· Africana & African American Philosophy
· B.R. Ambedkar
· American Indian Law (this list goes considerably beyond ‘law’)
· Buddhism & Psychoanalysis
· Classical Chinese Worldviews
· Thinking about Comparative Philosophy
· Ecological & Environmental Politics, Philosophies, and Worldviews
· European Enlightenment
· Frantz Fanon
· Paulo Freire
· The Life, Work, & Legacy of Mohandas K. Gandhi
· Human Nature and Personal Identity
· Indigenous Peoples: Culture, Law and Politics
· Islam, the Arts, and Aesthetic Experience
· Islam and Jurisprudence
· The Jain Tradition
· Judaism and Jewish Philosophy
· Marxism (or ‘the Left’), Art & Aesthetics
· Philosophy & Racism
· Progressive Philosophy of Education and Pedagogical Practices
· Psychoanalytic Psychology and Therapy
· Theology and Philosophy in Islamic Traditions
· Utopian Imagination, Thought and Praxis
I somehow left out the compilation for Indic (or Indian) Philosophy from my list.Report
Thanks—it’s a very exciting vision and guideline!
I have always been—unjustifiably—a little skeptical about non-Anglo-European philosophy. I did my pre-doctoral study in China, and honestly it was very painful to sit through classes on Chinese philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, etc., because the texts are obscure and illogical—despite my amateurish passion for classical Chinese and Buddhist tradition outside of the academic context. At that time, analytic philosophy, despite seeming alien and sometimes tedious, was the least boring subject because it is intellectually engaging. There were arguments, and if they are wrong I can spot it. But I did meet a philosopher, with whom talking about Buddhist philosophy was completely fascinating. IJust hard-core philosophy with very different viewpoints and arguments from the standard analytic literature.
After my new appointment, the first humanity class I offered to my university is “Space and Time” in which I tried to insert Indian and Chinese philosophy apart from the standard western canon from Zeno to Poincare&Einstein. I think students have a lot of fun with different traditions. But in the end, I still feel like being out of my depth in teaching those. There were intriguing views but the scholarship was not first-rate, and I suspect some students liked it precisely because it was vague and imprecise—great for their grades comparing to the rest:)
The moral of all these stories is just that it is so very difficult to teach well in different traditions. Excellent scholarship will make all the difference, but is so rare and difficult!Report
I have posted a critical response to Alexander Guerrero at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. You can find my response at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY here: Guerrero and the Effects of Claims About “Ignorance” for Change in Philosophy – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHYReport
What would help me incorporate more perspectives from more parts of the world into my intro philosophy courses is a reading list or anthology that is better suited to students like mine, i.e., diverse, first-generation college, apprehensive about philosophy, etc. I’ve looked at some of the other resources out there and they mostly haven’t worked for me. The kind of reading list or anthology I’m looking for would have readings with the following properties:
None of these problems is at all specific to non-“canonical” philosophy. I think it reflects a discipline-wide attitude towards student learning. So the introduction to A Practical Guide to World Philosophies, which is recommended above, pitches the book entirely in terms of its global breadth. If they have anything to say about the pedagogical value of the book, it’s well hidden. I don’t know if that book is meant to be for students in intro courses but, even if it isn’t, I think the approach to education that I just attributed to it is shared by most authors of intro texts and anthologies, whether “canonical” or not.Report
As a community college instructor I have a more pedestrian concern: I need 3-10 relative strangers to read and write, and I don’t want to lose 50% of them to attrition. Will I have more success teaching to *the* canon or by diversifying it?
The answer is neither. What I think is the kernel of truth behind the contemporary criticism of the canon is that people are seeing a failure to connect philosophy to the real lived concerns of students. But it misses the boat on everything else: the canon and all of these “traditions” are irrelevant to them and their day-to-day concerns.
There are corollaries in most academic disciplines. Look to see how many Shakespeare courses exist in today’s community college vs those of 10 years ago. What happened? Teachers stopped being able to connect Shakespeare (and his turgid language) to the concerns of real people living today. Shakespeare disappeared from a lack of interest, not from a lack of funding or because of his race.
Bring philosophy back to earth and these issues will start to look like the complaints of a decadent academic culture that just got too far away from the things that matter to people.Report
As ever, I have enjoyed reading both the OP and the exchanges beneath. Perhaps I have not read closely enough, but I feel there is an elephant in the room when it comes to the Western canon (I realise this is a dubious notion but here by this I mean the Ancient Greeks, the empiricists, rationalists, and the major figures of post 19th century philosophy: analytic and continental inclusive).
Mostly, I think the authors here are talking about philosophy as a discipline within higher education. Yet there is a gap between what goes on there and what goes on in the few places remaining where philosophy is provided without charge, namely, the primary (5-11) and secondary (11-18) education systems. The teachers in such systems will have, like me, mostly been educated within the Western canon; if they are lucky a course or two might have been offered outside it. What then to teach: what has been taught or the fruits of a hasty autodidacticism?
There is a deeper problem – the elephant – which forms the culture wars in literature and history: how to fit together a conservative appeal to tradition (what has been taught) and the moral demand for diversification? It is very well to implore further reading for academics at elite universities, who have both the freedom and the community of expertise to fall back upon in their intellectual pursuits. What of those constrained by curriculum, by time, by metrics, by political forces beyond their control?
This is a good essay but it does not provide a practical way forward for the teaching of the humanities beyond the hallowed halls. And let us remember that the universities depend upon these entry routes for their very existence. In a world of STEM, STEM, STEM, I tend to be of the view it is good for students to be studying philosophy (or literature, or history) however ridden it is with sin. Philosophy, unlike literature and history, is, I believe, uniquely placed to overcome a canon subjected to our contemporary understanding of social injustice: its concepts and tools span time and space. English literature might require Shakespeare, but philosophy can be done without Descartes.
The question is how? A reading list or selected podcasts is not enough. Teachers will need to be taught again – and what chance this in all but the most feverish dreams of liberal democracy? The deepest question is why? Is it better to teach the philosophy of bigots than no philosophy at all? Furthermore, how do we deal with the conservative challenge that the Ancients and the Moderns are part and parcel of Western culture, and that this culture should be sustained by inculcating successive generations with their wisdom?Report