Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, byBryan W. Van Norden(Columbia University Press), £20.95/$26
In May 2016, Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield wrote an article headlined “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is” for The New York Times’s philosophy blog, The Stone. Van Norden and Garfield had been long-term advocates of philosophy departments expanding their curricula to include philosophy from outside the Anglo-European world. In their post, however, they proposed something more modest: if Western universities did not want to go global, they should rename themselves “Departments of European and American Philosophy”.
It’s hard to see how anyone could object to this. If literature departments restrict themselves to works from certain regions or in certain languages, they call themselves departments of, say, Slavic, French or Hispanic literature. No Department of History simpliciter would exclude everywhere outside Europe and North America. Philosophy is unique in both its cultural isolation and its failure to signpost its cultural specificity.
Nonetheless, Van Norden and Garfield’s proposal was met with much more opposition than agreement from fellow philosophers. As Garfield writes in the preface to Van Norden’s new book, which grew out of that post, they “were not prepared for the level of vitriol, personal attacks and frank racism that characterised most of the replies”.
What is most dispiriting is how little critics believed they needed to be informed about the traditions they not only wanted to keep out but casually disparaged. The book names and shames people who wrote in objection to Van Norden and Garfield only to admit when pressed that they hadn’t actually read any Kongzi (Confucius) or Candrakirti and had only looked at a few brief passages online. Too many critics resorted to little more than argumentum per supercilia: argument by raised eyebrows. For a discipline that prides itself on the rigour of its arguments, this should be embarrassing.
Van Norden spots a telling pattern: every philosopher who has seriously engaged with other traditions acknowledges that they contain writings of philosophical richness and significance, while every philosopher who insists they are no more than “wisdom literatures” hasn’t seriously engaged with them.
So why are western philosophers so reluctant to accept their discipline would be enriched by more comparative study? The most common answer is a variant of the claim made by Jacques Derrida, who told his academic hosts on a visit to China in 2001 that “China does not have any philosophy, only thought”. As he explained, “Philosophy is related to some sort of particular history, some languages, and some Ancient Greek invention … It is something of a European form”.
Expressed more tactfully this would not be an obviously outrageous claim. Philosophy could be characterised as a specific intellectual discipline that began in Ancient Greece and continued through Europe. That makes it no better or worse than other traditions of thought that developed elsewhere, just different.
But as Van Norden persuasively argues, when you look at these other traditions, they have too much in common with filosofia to be seen as entirely different enterprises. They address the same basic questions about how we should live, who we are and how we know. They also use the same basic methods: creating distinctions and categories, using arguments, getting us to attend more closely to experience and the world.
Van Norden illustrates this with some well-chosen examples of “traditions in dialogue”. For instance, he looks at how questions of identity are discussed in the first century Buddhist text the Milindapanha, (The Questions of King Milinda), the Tang-dynasty Chinese philosopher Fazang (643-712) and the ancient Greek Heraclitus. He also discusses a historical debate in China on what western philosophers call weakness of will between Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and Wang Yangming (1472-1529). To insist on keeping these obviously related discussions separate would be like arguing that because Western, Indian and Chinese classical music developed independently, there is no reason for musicologists to study anything from outside the tradition they grew up in.
Van Norden argues that the refusal to recognise a common enterprise is a recent phenomenon. “When European philosophers first learned about Chinese thought in the seventeenth century,” he writes, “they immediately recognised it as philosophy”. Hence the 1687 translation called Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (Confucius the Chinese Philosopher).
The second prima facie credible reason to remain in splendid isolation is that “global philosophy” is too broad a church to fit in any one department. It’s difficult enough to get a grounding in Western philosophy. Invite the whole world to the party and philosophy will spread itself too thinly.
This is how I thought for many years. Whenever I encountered non-Western philosophy, it seemed very alien and my analytic training had not prepared me to make sense of it. It was as though I’d need a second (and third, and fourth…) training, combined with reading yet more canons to understand it.
But this objection also swiftly crumbles on closer examination. Aren’t all departments full of people from sub-disciplines who know little or nothing about each other’s work? Indeed, aren’t anglophone philosophers of science largely unintelligible for their colleagues in ethics and vice-versa? No department currently covers every subject and period of western philosophy equally so there is no reason to think diversity would require teaching every region and every era equally.
The debate echoes the one about the rift between Anglo-American “analytic” philosophy and the European phenomenological “continental” philosophy most of them find baffling. Now most accept that the existence of several real distinctions is not reason enough to deny the real commonalities and that the systematic exclusion of continental philosophy diminishes the discipline. The same is even more true of much global philosophy. Many will find Dharmakirti far more comprehensible that Deleuze, Derrida or Davidson, the ideas of Mengzi (Mencius) more familiar than those of Merleau-Ponty.
The only credible explanation Van Norden can find for the continued, systematic exclusion of non-Anglo-European philosophy is racism. This racism is not individual but structural and institutional, rather like the misogyny which few can now seriously doubt also affects the profession. Both sadly have roots in much more overt prejudice that has tainted the history of Western philosophy. The great David Hume did not hesitate to share his suspicion that “the negroes” were intellectually inferior. Kant was even more forthright, ranking the “races” from whites at the top, to Hindus, negroes and at the bottom indigenous Americans who he claimed were “uneducable”. This uninformed dismissiveness, confidently asserted by a man who never travelled further than ten miles from Königsberg, seems to have set the template for all refusals to entertain non-western philosophy since.
For Van Norden, the problem of philosophy’s insularity is more than an academic error, it’s a moral and political one. Philosophers are not, on the whole, enamoured of Donald Trump but the hard truth is that their intellectual protectionism follows his Mexican wall-building logic of exclusion. Van Norden leaves philosophers with a challenge many will resent. “I ask my fellow philosophers to recognise whom you are implicitly aligning yourself with when you reject – without genuinely investigating – philosophy from outside the Anglo-European tradition. You are helping those who build and maintain walls.”