Mainstream philosophy in the so-called West is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic. I know I am levelling a serious charge. But how else can we explain the fact that the rich philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are completely ignored by almost all philosophy departments in both Europe and the English-speaking world?
Western philosophy used to be more open-minded and cosmopolitan. The first major translation into a European language of the Analects, the saying of Confucius (551-479 BCE), was done by Jesuits, who had extensive exposure to the Aristotelian tradition as part of their rigorous training. They titled their translation Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, or Confucius, the Chinese Philosopher (1687)....
So why did things change? As [Peter] Park convincingly argues [in Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon (2014)], Africa and Asia were excluded from the philosophical canon by the confluence of two interrelated factors. On the one hand, defenders of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) consciously rewrote the history of philosophy to make it appear that his critical idealism was the culmination toward which all earlier philosophy was groping, more or less successfully.
On the other hand, European intellectuals increasingly accepted and systematised views of white racial superiority that entailed that no non-Caucasian group could develop philosophy. (Even St Augustine, who was born in northern Africa, is typically depicted in European art as a pasty white guy.) So the exclusion of non-European philosophy from the canon was a decision, not something that people have always believed, and it was a decision based not on a reasoned argument, but rather on polemical considerations involving the pro-Kantian faction in European philosophy, as well as views about race that are both scientifically unsound and morally heinous...Bryan Van Norden "Western philosophy is racist: Academic philosophy in ‘the West’ ignores and disdains the thought traditions of China, India and Africa. This must change"@Aeon
Bryan Van Norden's essay, which has been shared widely on social media, is in one sense overdue and in other sense quite puzzling. First, it is important to be clear and forthright about the history of racism and xenophobia that is a recurring pattern in the philosophical tradition developed out of Plato. There are really four distinct, albeit often conflated, temptations in the tradition(s) arising out of Plato: (i) the positing of a cognitive hierarchy that, for all its complexity, is tied to ethnicity/race/geography (recall these). Obviously, ethnicity, race, and geography are not identical, so if you wish you can distinguish among them. Such a hierarchy is tied to (ii) a hierarchy of value or political right (recall). The hierarchy underwrites (iii) various kinds of eugenic programs (recall these). Philosophy is characterized by (iv) a double movement in which there is a polemic with sophism or some other false philosophy, while simultaneously so-called 'rustic wisdom' is simply effaced (my posts on rustic wisdom here, here, and here).
While there is much to rejoice about a robust defense of open-mindedness and cosmopolitanism, these are not identical. It is worth noting thus, that one can reject (i-iv) without being a cosmopolitan. For, one can be an open-minded particularist or localist. Throughout his piece, Van Norden tacitly assumes that the only (legitimate) default position is cosmopolitanism. While there are days I am fond of a cosmopolitan eclecticism that draws on many traditions, it is important to recognize that there are alternative options that do not re-inscribe the vices of the Platonic tradition. One may well think that one reason to explore other traditions is to become more fully aware of the peculiarities and vices of one's own tradition in order to extend it knowingly and with care (to avoid its past vices). My own (somewhat amateur) sense is that the previous sentence describes well (albeit superficially) the attitude within many traditions worth having.
I don't mean to sound sour about Van Norden's piece. It's not just that I think it's much better than last year's famous NYT editorial (co-authored with Jay Garfield; recall my response).* I am especially pleased he begins the long overdue and important process of assimilating the insights of Said's Orientalism to professional philosophy (and not to leave these to subaltern studies). But I don't think Van Norden takes it seriously enough in the Aeon piece. (Maybe he does so in his book.)
This becomes clear if we reflect on two peculiar omissions in Van Norden's narrative (which draws on Park's book, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon (2014)): first, the absence of imperialism or military (and increasingly economic) superiority of European states.+ (Somewhat ironically, German imperialism outside Europe was not as successful as some of its European rivals, and this may well have something to do with its rather intensive identification with an image of Greek culture and philosophy.) Second, it is precisely Kantian cosmopolitanism, with its progressive vision of a history that tends toward a global confederacy if not world republic state, that suited these imperialist, racialist tendencies. (Here, too, we must also note that Kant's philosophy provides resources for a more ennobling cosmopolitanism--of the sort that Van Norden seems to embrace!) These omissions have in common an unwillingness to contextualize (or historicize) the history of philosophy.++ But with the revival of military and economic power of the great Asian cultures, and the opening up of Anglo-American campuses in the region, we should expect increasing interest in the philosophies of these cultures as well as exciting developments of hybrid philosophies (see some remarks at the end of this piece).
Let me close with an observation. Van Norden claims that "mainstream philosophy in the so-called West is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic."** But his evidence for this is (a) primarily historical (that is, facts about the canon); (b) curricular lacunae in professional philosophy; and (c) reports of particular acts of xenophobia by members some departments. All of this is deplorable. But it is not evidence for his claim that "mainstream philosophy in the so-called West is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic." For, most of professional philosophy (that is, the hegemonic analytic tradition) the historical canon is at best a teaching device. The canon's influence is, of course, large, but largely indirect and often only obliquely recognized by leading practitioners. While one can grant that the curriculum prevents the encouragement of the full play of the imagination, there is, in fact, an adventurous spirit in today's philosophical scene with lots of hybrid projects underway (some of which I have tried to document here at Digressions). That is to say, Van Norden does not engage the 'mainstream' and so fails to unmask it.*** That's his right. But without such a more thoroughgoing engagement -- cf. Said on 'Orientalism' -- one can predict that only the converted will be convinced. That's all of our loss.+++
*Why better? Well, because some of the better cosmopolitan instincts of the tradition have not been effaced this time.
+Park himself does mention the significance of imperialism and colonialism. Some other time I'll try to say something about his treatment
**I am no fan of the terminology of the 'West/Western' because it generates a tendency to exclude all kinds of philosophy from the Platonic traditions that are presently not located in the 'western' imagination.
++Regular readers will know I am not a pure historicist.
***That's not his goal: "I am not saying that mainstream Anglo-European philosophy is bad and all other philosophy is good."
+++I thank Liam Kofi Bright and Amy Olberding for discussion of some of themes in this post.