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.--Jay Garfield & Bryan Van Norden "If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is" New York Times.
The quoted passage are the first few lines of an editorial that has generated huge discussion. It proposes for professional philosophy departments to embrace "faculty" and "curricular diversity" or failing that to rename their departments, "Anglo-European Philosophical Studies." I dislike and reject Garfield & Van Norden's use of the "Western" (or European) vs "non Western" (non-European) philosophy distinction--I reject not in the name of universal, homogeneous reason. Before I get to the substance of my concerns, I offer two examples to motivate my rejection of this distinction:
First, 'Islamic' philosophy is categorized as non-Western (non-European). But this is geographically odd because so much of the best of it (Ibn Rushd, Ibn Tufayl) was written in what we would now call Spain. They sometimes understood themselves as 'Western' and treated earlier generations of Islamic philosophers as writing in the Orient. (Sometimes they also seem to suggest that they are at the periphery far from the main centers of learning [Baghdad, Damascus, etc.]). To treat 'Islamic' philosophy as non-Western is conceptually odd because it so clearly influenced philosophy we characterize as 'Western' in subsequent ages (for example through Italianate Averroests, and eventually Spinoza.) It is also strange in a more important sense, perhaps, nearly ALL of what counts as 'The Golden age of Islamic philosophy' is explicitly or implicitly a commentary on Plato and Aristotle (or a correction to it). [Something similar can be said about "Jewish" philosophy.]
Second, Franz Fanon -- try divorcing his stuff from Hegel, existentialism, psycho-analytic theory, etc. -- and Du Bois are both enmeshed in 'Western philosophy' (I am not claiming they are enmeshed in the same bit. Their criticisms are as much immanent to (okay) 'Euro-centric' philosophizing as external to it. And, in virtue of being immanent to the tradition, they also revive it and extend it. The previous sentence gets at some of the more philosophical reservations about the terminology.
Before I get to those, I frankly acknowledge that I have political reasons to dislike the distinction between Western vs non-Western. Because I live and work in an environment in which 'Western' is treated as a term of approbation and superiority over other civilizations and philosophies, especially Islam (and Africa) I think it is dangerous when intellectual contributions are (apologies for the jargon) othered by way of negation as strange or alien. Clearly Van Norden and Garfield don't think Western philosophy is superior or that non-European traditions are inferior. But they unintentionally reinforce the sense that we're talking about extremely distinct and opposed, perhaps even incommensurable, traditions. This may be true in some respects (as they suggest), but it is not true in all respects for all the traditions lumped as 'non-Western.'
A moment's reflection on the fact that Islamic and Jewish philosophy are lumped in with so-called N0n-Western (and non-European) philosophy suggests that Christian philosophy just is Western philosophy. Leaving aside the fact that traditionally, the Christian element in European philosophy has always been traced back to Jerusalem not Athens, the tacit identification of Christian with Western had been thought awkward after, say, Auschwitz. More subtly, it is notable that whole branches of Christianizing philosophy associated with various strands of Greek/Russian Orthodoxy are unfamiliar to even very competent historians of (okay) western philosophy.
So much for terminology. Garfield and Van Norden misrepresent what contemporary professional philosophy is like when they focus on the canon. As I have said before in response to arguments by Nathaniel Coleman, while there is, indeed, a fairly narrow historical canon in professional philosophy, this canon is not central to philosophical education, philosophical method, and professional advancement/success within analytical philosophy. In addition, the way the canonical texts/authors are treated is often extremely a-historical (even by folk who are committed to contextual history of philosophy). That means that, in part, it is not obvious in what sense "broadening the philosophical curriculum" in the way that they suggest really challenges the way philosophy is practiced.
There is a more subtle point lurking here. Some of the texts/authors from these non-Western traditions also express rather sectarian commitments. Some of the Islamic philosophers that I teach use examples that may well be thought racist (whatever their intent) and they call/permit for genocide on certain kind of savages (anticipating some of the worst features of 18th and 19th century European philosophy). It's a bit awkward to promote diversity by removing more tolerant/broad-minded authors in favor of dogmatic types, and this suggests that the underlying vision for their proposals has not been thought out carefully (I extend this point below).
Now you may think I am writing from an ultra-conservative perspective on diversifying the canon. But (as regular readers know) that's not so: as a scholar, I have enthusiastically embraced the recovery of knowledge of and produced by female philosophers in the early modern period and in early analytical philosophy; recovery of forgotten male feminists in the early modern period; and I have started teaching and blogging about Islamic political philosophy. In all cases this has influenced my teaching, my scholarship (and blog posts), and my self-understanding. (I am not suggesting I am a pioneer in any of this.) I do so not just out of curiosity about the unfamiliar. But because I sense that such recovery helps me contribute to the improvement of philosophy today and in the future.
'Philosophy' in the previous sentence stands for the traditions, which are oriented around certain problems and puzzles, and certain non-trivial commitments about the nature of logic and reality (tied together by what I cal 'Tractarian semantics'), as well as some canonical figures/texts and thought experiments, that I have been partially educated in and, perhaps, help extend. It has, as Van Norden & Garfield argue, elements of parochiality and, as I note regularly, as much an elevating as sordid history.* But, as Abe Stone reminded me on Facebook, there is a difference between being a department of (such) philosophy or about that philosophy. When I note the racism or eugenics in certain thought experiments or texts that I teach or admire or use, it calls for a response which, after soul-searching, can generate creative philosophical moves or a reckoning of the problem. It always runs the risk (or joy) of generating a transformative experience of me (and less likely) the tradition (recall). But that's not so when one studies another tradition's philosophy and learns about their commitments. That can be kept at arm's length, undigested, without transforming me or my own traditions.
It does not follow we should not study genuinely other traditions nor should we keep them from our students and ourselves. I agree that even given scarce resources (of time, attention, money), we need to be also outer-oriented. More important, in some parts of the world, where our elite universities are engaged in a peculiarly new form of educational mission -- with host countries paying to have a campus with a liberal arts education that in some ways reflects aspirational values not to mention economic hopes [Garfield teaches at Yale Singapore]+ --, it's quite possible that there a new curriculum and diversity may generate a new form of philosophy that, in turn, will help transform the philosophy practiced in North America, Europe, and many of their former colonies. That's an experiment in the philosophy of education we may see come to fruition in the times of our lives. **
+I had misidentified Garfield's professional affiliation in an earlier post. Thanks to Julianne Chung for the correction.
**I thank John Drabinski, Liam Kofi Bright, Chike Jeffers, Peter Adamson, Catarina Dutilh, Keith Green, Yoram Hazony, Joshua Miler, John Protevi, Olufemi O. Taiwo, Janice Dowell, Dan Kervick, Thomas Sturm, Paul Prescott for comments on a facebook thread that helped me think about these issues.