The Student Union at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London) has issued their annual statement of their desired “Educational Priorities,” and one of them, “Decolonising SOAS: Confronting the White Institution,” has created a stir because of its demands concerning philosophy:
- “To make sure that the majority of the philosophers on our courses are from the Global South or it’s diaspora. SOAS’s focus is on Asia and Africa and therefore the foundations of its theories should be presented by Asian or African philosophers (or the diaspora).”
- “If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint. For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so called “Enlightenment” philosophers wrote within.”
Media reports on this document have been full of hysterical criticism of “political correctness,” including a quote from Sir Roger Scruton announcing that “If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.” Apparently Sir Roger is not familiar with Peter Park’s excellent book, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780–1830.
This column takes a more balanced view — noting in particular that the only degree in philosophy at SOAS is in “World Philosophy,” through the Department of Religions and Philosophies. Indeed, if one looks at the course of study for the BA in World Philosophy, it’s somewhat difficult to believe that the majority of philosophers studied aren’t already from “the Global South or its diaspora.”
I haven’t read Park’s book. For anyone who has, I have some questions on the table here:
Here’s a thought experiment.
Suppose you’re in charge of the whole philosophy curriculum at a university whose rules require the program to assign readings mostly by Chinese philosophers (and their interpreters) but allows maybe 20% or 30% of the readings to be philosophy by non-Chinese. What would you recommend, by your lights, to fill that 20% or 30%?
Two verisons of that question:
(1) in one version, the purpose of the program is to prepare the students to do philosophy (as you see it).
(2) in the other version, it’s to prepare the students to be scholars of Chinese philosophy.
Here is a terrific, insightful article by Kenan Malik following up on the SOAS debate, including conversations with Anthony Appiah and Jonathan Israel: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/19/soas-philosopy-decolonise-our-minds-enlightenment-white-european-kenan-malik?CMP=share_btn_tw
Thanks for posting this, Steve! My favorite bit was this:
I went to Soas to talk to students and academics. “That’s the one thing,” one student told me, “that no journalist has so far done.”