Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Pre-Prolegomena to Future Discussions of Including Non-Western Philosophy in the Curriculum

If you come here for the science fiction or you aren't an academic philosopher, you may be surprised to learn that the academic discipline of philosophy is extremely Eurocentric. I've discussed this odd state of affairs on the blog before (for instance, here and here).

Over at the philosophy blog Daily Nous, the discussion of whether philosophy should try to be more inclusive came up yet again this week in a post called "End Philosophical Protectionism," which is in turn based on an interview with my friend and colleague Anand Vaidya at 3:AM MagazineAnd, as prophesied by Amy Olberding in an earlier post, the discussion in the Daily Nous comments section quickly took on some familiar beats.

Against my better judgment, I dipped my toes into the comments section.  As I read the comments, it occurred to me that maybe before the next one of these discussions takes place, we might stop to think about some things (we are, after all, philosophers!).  Maybe it's worth rethinking about some presuppositions and unquestioned assumptions that serve to make the familiar beats so annoyingly counter-productive.  To help, I came up with the following "Pre-Prolegomena to Future Discussions of Including Non-Western Philosophy in the Curriculum."  Enjoy!  Feel free to add your own pre-prolegomena in the comments.  (And thanks to Anand Vaidya, Amy Olberding, and Justin Weinberg for inspiring this post!)

1. What do you see as the point(s) of philosophy? Of philosophy education? Obviously these are contentious issues, but could it be that participants in these discussions are so far apart on these questions that discussions might be served by spelling out, in brief, some of what one thinks?

2. Is the sole criterion of whether something is “philosophically interesting” whether it contributes directly to your personal research program? The research programs of philosophers at prestigious R1 universities? The research programs of some philosophers somewhere? Could something be interesting even if nobody is working on it at the present moment?

3. Is the concept of being “philosophically interesting” something other than a fancy way of re-stating one’s personal intellectual tastes? If so, can this concept be articulated with anything resembling the rigor some people expect from philosophers?

4. How would one know that non-Western philosophy is useless, inessential, not really philosophy, etc.? What kind of argument would it take to establish such propositions? Alternatively, what sort of argument or criterion would establish that non-Western philosophy is useful, essential, really philosophy, etc.? Where does the burden of proof lie in this situation?

5. Is it reasonable to ask for proponents of non-Western philosophy to produce something that is simultaneously similar enough to Western philosophy that you can understand it without further study, but also significantly different so as to meet the (rather strange) demand that non-Western philosophy must be somehow different? Is it possible to fulfill both sides of this dilemma? Why can’t non-Western philosophy be both similar and worth studying? How would you recognize radical difference if you saw it rather than simply declaring it non-philosphy or bad philosophy? (For more on this dilemma, see Amy Olberding’s article, “It’s Not Them, It’s You: A Case Study Concerning the Exclusion of Non-Western Philosophy.”)

6. Are proponents of non-Western philosophy trying to make everyone care about the same things they care about? Could any philosophical argument ever do that? And would you want to do so? Do all proponents of non-Western philosophy care about the same things? Can you give a philosophical argument to make people care about a particular philosopher, topic, or tradition?

7. Why do you care about whatever you care about? Is it because someone in a blog comment or journal article convinced you to care about it via a single philosophical argument? By analogy, can you give a single philosophical argument to make people care about others in a moral sense? Are things like “caring about such-and-such a philosophical issue or tradition” or “being philosophically interesting” more complicated matters than can be contained by blog comments or journal articles?

8. Is there a salient difference between a suggestion that the discipline as a whole find ways to be more cross-cultural and some sort of requirement or expectation that each and every member of that discipline radically alter their research and teaching to be more cross-cultural? What do you think proponents of non-Western philosophy are asking for? Have you asked them?

9. Given the rules of logic in Indian, Western, and other traditions, is the following argument circular? – “I don’t know about non-Western philosophy, because it’s not worth knowing about. It’s not worth knowing about, because I don’t know about it. Therefore, non-Western philosophy is not worth knowing about.” Furthermore, does this argument or any other appeal to the property of “being worth knowing about” presuppose that one is the arbiter of all that is worth knowing about? Is that maybe a bit presumptuous?

10. Is it possible to like, research, and teach more than one tradition of philosophy? What do we mean by a “tradition” of philosophy, anyway? How do you define “the Western tradition”?

11. Should one make vast pronouncements about the essential properties of entire philosophical traditions? Is asking for encapsulations of non-Western traditions any more sensible than asking, “What is Western philosophy about?”

12. Is it possible that you don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to some particular tradition? Is it possible that some of what you do know is filtered through harmful, outdated stereotypes or mistaken assumptions? How would one put such stereotypes or assumptions to the test? Is admitting one’s ignorance the first step to education? Is it good to be intellectually humble?


  1. These questions are very hard to answer. Regarding the first one, it is unlikely that philosophers will ever come to an agreement on what the 'purpose' of philosophy is. The analytic-continental split immediately comes to mind. The second question is even more fundamental in nature, for what is "philosophically interesting" is determined by human perspectives, although I think some "interesting" areas of philosophical inquiry should be acknowledged as such, or even as "important" in some sense. For example, I think it is imperative that people recognize the importance of metaphysics and epistemology to philosophy in general.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Unknown. I completely agree with you that these questions are hard to answer and that there will be little agreement. Part of my point is philosophers often presuppose their own answers to these questions without articulating these presuppositions. For instance, consider Philosopher A who thinks the point of philosophy is to find correct theories about things like perception, selfhood, knowledge, etc. in light of the best science of the day with little understanding of the history of philosophy in any tradition. Imagine this person talking to Philosopher B who thinks the point of philosophy is something more in line with Pierre Hadot's concept of philosophy as a way of life or as something that enriches us in other ways (by developing critical thinking skills, intellectual imagination, being fun, etc.). Philosophers A and B might have an interesting conversation (I don't think these metaphilosophies are mutually exclusive), but they also might get off track and talk past one another given their different metaphilosophical orientations. Some of this misunderstanding could maybe be avoided by spending a little time thinking about these questions before diving in.

      With regard to discussions about non-Western philosophy, type A and B philosophers will be focusing on different things: type As will want to know what non-Western traditions can do for their theoretical inquiries while type Bs will look for something that can help us live better lives or help us develop skills like critical thinking or intellectual imagination. I think non-Western philosophical traditions have a lot to offer both types, but I also tend to think there's something a bit weird about these requests, even though they often come from entirely well meaning colleagues. I think we should drop the whole Western/non-Western binary and just be interested in philosophy wherever we find it for whatever reasons we find philosophy interesting. Why do we need "non-Western" philosophy to pass some bar or test, usually concocted by people who know little about it? I'm not terribly interested in making normative claims about why other people should be interested in philosophy, but I think that whatever your reasons for being interested in philosophy may be, these interests are not served by keeping the discipline monocultural and Eurocentric.

      This gets at my criticism of wielding the idea of "being philosophically interesting" as if it means anything very precise. Lots of things are philosophical interesting even if I personally happen not to be interested in them. I'd prefer dropping the whole way of speaking, but if we're going to keep it, it has to mean something other than "I decide for everyone and everywhere what all philosophers should be interested in." I have trouble understanding this as anything but a sort of self-centered pomposity (but in the interests of remaining intellectually humble myself, I should admit I may have missed something).