Parochialism in Western philosophy & engaging with non-Western thought
April 21, 2019 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Led willingly by Fate: Peter Adamson considers how to combat parochialism in philosophy. "Philosophy has a problem. It is an academic field that is strikingly non-diverse, at a time when universities and their students are increasingly concerned with diversity..." This is an excellent and engaging essay by Peter Adamson (@HistPhilosophy, previously) on the need to engage with non-Western philosophy and thought.
... If, when you imagine what a “philosopher” looks like, you conjure up an image of a white man, perhaps with a beard, then a visit to your local university’s philosophy department is fairly likely to confirm that prejudice. In statistics published for 2015–17, the American Philosophical Association reported that almost exactly three-quarters of its membership is male. Much soul-searching has been devoted in recent years to this striking gender imbalance, and to the likewise unsatisfactory situation with regards to racial and ethnic diversity in the profession.

Of course changing the demographic profile of an entire academic field takes time, even if that field commits wholeheartedly to doing so. But philosophy also fails the diversity test in another area that could be addressed much more quickly: teaching. The authors typically studied in philosophy curricula throughout the USA, Canada and Europe are even less diverse than the staff who deliver these curricula. There’s nothing to stop a philosophy professor from reading up on Indian philosophy and offering a course on it. People offer courses on topics that are outside their comfort zone and language competencies all the time: just about any ethicist will have taken students through some Plato and Aristotle, without necessarily having knowledge of ancient Greek or deep knowledge of ancient philosophy. But when it comes to texts from cultures beyond Europe, few are willing to take up this challenge. Instead, almost all philosophy students are nourished on a steady diet of Western texts written by men, beginning with the aforementioned Plato and Aristotle and ending with recent Anglo-European philosophers, whether these are so-called “Continental” or “analytic” thinkers. Given the increasing availability of good translations, introductions and conceptually astute secondary literature devoted to other philosophical traditions, this is more deliberate choice than regrettable practical necessity.

What then are proponents of the “non-Western” traditions to do? Write a book, obviously. That at least is the answer given by Bryan Van Norden and Julian Baggini. They approach the task in contrasting ways, befitting their different scholarly profiles. Van Norden is a professional academic and specialist in Chinese philosophy, whereas Baggini is a self-described “philosophical journalist”, albeit one who holds a PhD in Philosophy. Accordingly, Van Norden speaks in the first instance to students and colleagues, whereas Baggini seems to have in mind a broader audience with no philosophical training. There is also a significant difference in tone. Van Norden calls his book a “manifesto”; words like “polemic” and “diatribe” would not be out of place. He is not afraid to say that philosophers who ignore non-Western traditions are being xenophobic, racist and – this is the one that really stings – a bit like Donald Trump. By contrast, Baggini’s authorial persona is cheerful and wide-eyed, moving from one big idea to another like a food lover at an opulent buffet. On the other hand Van Norden has better jokes (Erwin Schrödinger he calls a “noted cat lover/hater”).

Bryan W. Van Norden (@BryanVanNorden): Western philosophy is racist: Academic philosophy in ‘the West’ ignores and disdains the thought traditions of China, India and Africa. This must change

Why the US doesn’t understand Chinese thought – and must. It's more important than ever that the U.S. understand China. So why don't our universities teach Chinese thought?

Julian Baggini (@microphilosophy>): About time: why western philosophy can only teach us so much. By gaining greater knowledge of how others think, we can become less certain of the knowledge we think we have, which is always the first step to greater understanding.

10 Schools of Philosophy that should be better known (in the West.) The author of How The World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy explains ten of the most overlooked philosophies from around the world.

Dag Herbjørnsrud (@DagHerbjornsrud): The African Enlightenment - Yacob and Amo: Africa’s precursors to Locke, Hume and Kant. The highest ideals of Locke, Hume and Kant were first proposed more than a century earlier by an Ethiopian in a cave

@AbiralCP: Pieces on Non-‘Western’ Philosophy for a General Audience: A List. This is an open list of resources for the general public on non-‘Western’ traditions of philosophy.

Previous related threads: Indian Philosophy Without Any Gaps

First women of philosophy (Historical non-Western women philosophers.)

What does it take to lead a rooted life? (Aztec virtue ethics.)
posted by homunculus (30 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I also put all these links and several more in a Twitter thread, if anyone wants to check it out over there.
posted by homunculus at 11:59 AM on April 21, 2019

Saptabhangivada, a unique seven-valued system of logic which allows sentences to be true, false, non-assertible, true and false, true and non-assertible, false and non-assertible, or true, false and non-assertible.

Aw, snap. I went to school so long ago that all the cool kids were reading Lao Tse, Omar Khayyam, and the Principia Discordia. It's only taken me an additional twenty-some years to stumble across a link to the origin of that particular nugget of wisdom.
posted by sfenders at 12:58 PM on April 21, 2019 [7 favorites]

This is a great link roundup. I love the History of Philosophy Podcast. Listened to the whole thing (so far) through twice and the bit on classical Greek philosophy three or four times. There are various sections of it that are sort of philosophically "boring" to me (endless debates about the nature of divinity don't speak much directly to me as an atheist), but Peter Adamson manages to connect the threads of reasoning in sometimes surprising ways.

It's nice that Adamson appears to be just as diversely broad-minded and intellectually compassionate as his podcast(s) would suggest. I'm looking forward to digging into the rest of this as well.
posted by biogeo at 1:19 PM on April 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

The Philosophy department in my university had hiring rounds for positions in feminist and Chinese philosophy. In both cases the finalists were all white men, so it strikes me that more than widening the Canon needs to happen.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:42 PM on April 21, 2019 [13 favorites]

Philosophy's main problem is that it studies the same texts as other fields (religious studies, comp lit, classics, etc.) but does so from a perspective of 'scholastic, dialectical debates,' which seems to be how Adamson defines philosophy. I think that privileging of verbal, adversarial, often quite caustic and hierarchical argument explains 90% of why white men are so attracted to the field and others shy away.

Furthermore, scholars should pay more attention to the thought of peoples around the world. But why should philosophers like these ones, largely trained on 20th century European and American white male thinkers, be the ones doing it? What insights do they have to offer? This kind of stuff is not inspiring:
Thus we read how East Asians are especially attentive to the “background” of paintings and other images, which fits with the thematization of “emptiness” or the “spaces between things” in Japanese philosophical writing.
Not only is it pretty lame (vaguely Orientializing generalizations), but also what do such claims have to do with 'philosophy?'
posted by crazy with stars at 2:57 PM on April 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

I remember taking a cognitive science class in grad school and someone talking briefly about how when they did philosophical thought experiments -- maybe like the trolley problem? I cannot recall -- among people in other cultures, the results were completely different. Sadly I never followed up on this to get the details.
posted by jeather at 4:09 PM on April 21, 2019

So this summer I’ll be working on creating a philosophy reader/textbook for intro students that has more than token representation of non-western sources and women authors. This list will make the start way smoother.

posted by oddman at 4:19 PM on April 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think that privileging of verbal, adversarial, often quite caustic and hierarchical argument explains 90% of why white men are so attracted to the field and others shy away.

Could you explain what you mean by this? It seems like you're saying that women and people of color don't enjoy or value debate.
posted by biogeo at 4:29 PM on April 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

biogeo: "Could you explain what you mean by this? It seems like you're saying that women and people of color don't enjoy or value debate."

I think yes, at least here in the US, white men tend to dominate and hence enjoy debates, just as American men seem to like competition more than women.
posted by crazy with stars at 5:13 PM on April 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

With the Jordan Peterson craze I've realised there's a double parochialism, where the world "Western" in "Western Philosophy" or "Western Culture" doesn't even mean anything except "the philosophy and culture that I, a 'Western Philosophy and Culture defender', like". Same with Judeo-Christian, to some extent.

Whatever term that might have a meaning by itself becomes bullshit in their usage. Therefore, their idea of "Western Philosophy" also excludes a great deal of European philosophy that any reasonable person would also call "Western".

I mean, ask those people about Ortega y Gasset or Xabier Zubiri and they will look at you like you're a Martian, because Spanish philosophy doesn't exist. Or if it does, it's not real philosophy, is it. Or if it is, it's not "Western", because it doesn't belong to the dominant traditions of the anglo and Central Europan cultural hegemony. (I admit my ignorance of equivalent writers in other European countries, but I don't go around pretending to set the canon).

Spinoza's name they may recognise, but he's not convenient, isn't he? Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine are Western, but Averroes and Avicena aren't?

Even Marx, who was a German Jew writing in London's British Library during the Industrial Revolution is considered somehow to be anti-Western, and possibly even not Judeo-Christian enough!

The emphasis on Chinese philosophy in one of the link worries me a bit because it feels like a fun-house mirror image of the above perspective. It's like we should study the traditions of thought of the potential Hegemon, because power, not the traditions of thought of everyone, because knowledge and empathy.

Rant aside, I too am interested in non-Western philosophy and culture (I recently Asked Mefi about a related topic, hint, hint). Thanks for the post and the links!
posted by kandinski at 7:25 PM on April 21, 2019 [12 favorites]

I think yes, at least here in the US, white men tend to dominate and hence enjoy debates, just as American men seem to like competition more than women.

There is a philosophical subculture, quite dominant in some places, that sees aggressive and adversarial debate as the entire point of the subject.
posted by thelonius at 7:46 PM on April 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

Spinoza's name they may recognise, but he's not convenient, isn't he?

*backs out of thread*
posted by Barack Spinoza at 9:01 PM on April 21, 2019 [19 favorites]

There is not a unifying agreement on methods and literature even within whatever you might call, in this style, "the philosophy of the united states" or "North American philosophy." For example, most philosophers working in early modern or medieval or ancient or "continental" philosophy, all in the "Western" tradition, are marginalized at "the best" American departments, which have faculty who are usually focused on topics in M&E, philosophy of language, and philosophical logic. It's fine for philosophy departments to fracture into different areas of inquiry with different names and methods in the future. We used to have "natural philosophy" and now we have "philosophy", "math", "biology", "chemistry", "physics."

Asking a department where it is currently impossible to write a dissertation in both 20th century French philosophy and contemporary philosophical logic that they also provide a comprehensive education in all world philosophies on pain of xenophobia is asking a lot. Western philosophy departments should relax their claim on the term 'philosophy' and then all this gets easier to sort out. Bonus: anybody thinks they can do 'philosophy' but if your department is the 'metaphysics and epistemology' department it becomes clear that there is a specialized literature and methodology, which there is.

A great university with an underperforming traditional philosophy department should spend some money and own one of these world philosophy corners, that would help them and the situation.

Sorry for all the scare quotes.
posted by Kwine at 9:06 PM on April 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

I hate to generalize, but the two times I dealt with white male philosophy grad students, they treated women like social competition. Both times I (gay male) was literally socializing with a female student, and instead of oh, maybe, be inclusive in the sense of share the space, the one guy I could see the displeasure on his face like a passing cloud and the other guy just swooped over and talked to the woman as if I didn't even exist. These were pretty unforgettable moments. Again I hate to generalize but it was stuff like this that I've taken a dim view of philosophy as it is practiced. The hypercompetition under a veneer of abstraction, etc. This is even a known issue; I've seen two philosophical talks (without intending to or knowing the conclusion) one Oxford (Williamson) the other Princeton (Rae Langton) that indirectly/accidentally were pointing out the empathic deficit of contemporary philosophy.
posted by polymodus at 9:10 PM on April 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

> I think that privileging of verbal, adversarial, often quite caustic and hierarchical argument explains 90% of why white men are so attracted to the field and others shy away.

Could you explain what you mean by this? It seems like you're saying that women and people of color don't enjoy or value debate.

Regarding POC, the next part of that sentence presents these as characteristics of Indian and Islamic philosophy too: "the kind of scholastic, dialectical debates so beloved of Indian, Islamic and contemporary analytic philosophers..."
posted by homunculus at 10:04 PM on April 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’ll admit that while I recognize that people are doing great work in airing out the dusty shed of Anglophone philosophy in the academia and letting in light from all over the globe, I’m not especially hopeful that things will change in any kind of meaningful way, not when the last fifty years have amply demonstrated that Anglophone philosophy departments are even resistant to the idea that philosophy can be done by the French.
posted by Kattullus at 11:06 PM on April 21, 2019 [5 favorites]


to the uninitiated, this means "monism and Erlebnis"
posted by thelonius at 3:31 AM on April 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

" I’m not especially hopeful that things will change in any kind of meaningful way, "

Then again, this conversation would not have happened even 30 years ago.

I'm in a professional group, the LPS, that explicitly disavows the "hypercompetition under a veneer of abstraction" mode of discourse.

Textbooks today, while usually doing so in a token way (and often putting women mostly just in the Ethics ghetto) include women authors. When I started studying philosophy 25 years ago, there wasn't even a token presence.

Change is frustratingly slow, but it is coming. When I design a course, there is no chance that the students will read only euro-centric, male voices (as I did). AND very importantly, when I'm on hiring and curriculum committees, I make sure to emphasize diversity of approaches and representation as necessary elements in our decision making.
posted by oddman at 5:07 AM on April 22, 2019 [4 favorites]

Philosophy was created so males could bloviate, opine, in the exclusive company of other males. They had to come up with an explanation of something other than what they were actually doing, hence philosophy.
posted by Oyéah at 10:48 AM on April 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Philosophy was created so males could bloviate, opine, in the exclusive company of other males.

That's been mostly true, certainly in the West, but there have been exceptions despite the efforts of history to erase them. For example: Aspasia of Miletus.

But for the rest of the world see this piece, which was the link in infini's previous post:

Before the canon: the non-European women who founded philosophy. Philosophy was once a woman’s world, ranging across Asia, Africa and Latin America. It’s time to reclaim that lost realm
posted by homunculus at 11:57 AM on April 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here's an excellent piece by Chris Meyns (@chrismeyns) on Elisabeth of Bohemia, who was mentioned in the piece above: Women Philosophers Get No Agency: Elisabeth of Bohemia
posted by homunculus at 12:00 PM on April 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

I enjoy that Existential Comics includes women philosophers.
posted by rebent at 1:12 PM on April 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Their Twitter account is hilarious too!
posted by homunculus at 2:01 PM on April 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ethan Mills (@Ethan_Mills_42): What Counts as a Tradition in Indian Philosophy? The Case of Skepticism

New Books podcast with Ethan Mills: Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India
Skepticism has a long history in the Western tradition, from Pyrrhonian Skepticism in the Hellenistic period to more contemporary forms of skepticism most often used as foils to theories of knowledge. The existence of skepticism in Indian Philosophy, however, has long been neglected in favor of dogmatic positions. In Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India: Nagarjuna, Jayarasi, and Sri Harsa (Lexington Books, 2018), Ethan Mills considers the thought of three very different philosophers in classical India, representative of Buddhism, Carvaka materialism, and Advaita Vedanta respectively, who can be considered skeptics about philosophy. Each of the three presents his skepticism in sometimes puzzling ways, which is often necessary, given the nature of skeptical claims (or rather, lack of claims). The three philosophers discussed in this book are not universally accepted as skeptics by scholars of Indian Philosophy, but Mills makes a compelling case for understanding them as adopting skeptical positions, and argues that they can be taken to represent a distinct skeptical tradition in classical India.
posted by homunculus at 8:00 PM on April 23, 2019

On Eurocentrism
posted by homunculus at 8:13 AM on April 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

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