Walter Mignolo on non-European thinkers and philosophers

Here is an interesting piece (though dating back to February 2013) by Walter D. Mignolo on the role of Slavoj Žižek in the global market of ideas and an exchange between the philosophers Santiago Zabala and Hambid Dabashi. All pieces have been published on the website of Aljazeera and can be easily retrieved.

I have always been thinking that the discussion on Chinese philosophy needs to take into account the larger debates about Eurocentrism, colonialism, and the very nature of philosophy which have been going on for decades (with thinkers like Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Enrique Dussel, Kwame Appiah, and others). However, quite often, this is at least my impression, scholars working on Chinese philosophy (both in China and in the West) are not willing enough to engage in these debates. In fact, Western scholars working on Chinese philosophy seem to be quite reticent to address these issues which are fiercely debated not in philosophy departments, but rather in departments of comparative literature or sociology. Or is such an impression one-sided? And might this reticency be due to the controversial legacy of Marxism? What do you think?


7 thoughts on “Walter Mignolo on non-European thinkers and philosophers

  1. Hi Kai,

    Thanks for being thought-provoking as always. If any of you are drawn to reading the short essays that Kai has linked to, I recommend starting with those by Zabala and Dabashi (none of them are terribly long), because it was only after reading those that I began to understand Mignolo. But in any event, here’s one key bit from Mignolo:

    Now, if we want to use the term “philosophy” to identify thinkers whether European and non-European, I would say that while Zizek may be the most important European philosopher today, his work is less relevant for many people than the work of Jamaican philosopher Lewis Ricardo Gordon; Iranian philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr; Chinese philosopher Wang Hui; Egyptian Nawal El Saadawi; and Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel.

    And if behind Zizek there is Derrida in continental philosophy, behind Gordon is Fanon in Africana philosophy; behind Seyyed Hossein Nasr is Ali Shariati in Muslim philosophy, behind Wang Hui there is Liu Xun [sic] in Chinese philosophy, behind El Sadawi the legacies of Muslim falsafa and behind Dussel is Rodolfo Kusch in Latin American philosophy.

    Relevance is not universal, but depends on the universe of meaning and the belief system under which relevance is determined. We have here a pluriversal world of thinkers and philosophers in the process of de-westernising and decolonising the imperial legacies of Western philosophy.

    I think that there is considerable truth here, and happily Mignolo doesn’t push this all the way toward mutual incommensurability; in one of his final paragraphs, he writes:

    So the fact that Zizek, and other European intellectuals, are seriously rethinking communism means that they are engaging in one option (the reorientation of the Left) among many, today, marching toward the prospect of harmony overcoming the necessity of war; overcoming success and competition which engender corruption and selfishness, and promoting the plenitude of life over development and death.

    So “harmony” and so on are things that can be approached from a variety of directions, and are generally valuable from each of many perspectives. This, too, seems to me to be generally correct, even if there will be real differences of conceptualization, priority, and so on: neither Mignolo nor I am envisioning an easy or even likely convergence on specific values.

    Finally, let me briefly take up Kai’s more specific challenge, namely that scholars working on Chinese philosophy seem reticent to engage in broader debates about Eurocentrism and so on. I am not so sure this is true. Some of us, to be sure, think of ourselves primarily as historians of philosophy (I’m not meaning to re-raise the “historian” versus “philosopher” issue here; I include here people on both sides of that issue), scholars of ancient traditions and practices more than philosophers speaking to the present day. But there are many others for whom their work as philosophical historians (or historians of philosophy) is linked to or informed by broader philosophical and cultural critiques. One good example is Roger Ames’s framing of “role ethics”: I think this is quite explicitly intended as anti-Eurocentrism, anti-Western philosophical imperialism. And certainly others (Tu Wei-ming and Henry Rosemont come to mind; among younger scholars working on more recent times, Leigh Jenco and Viren Murthy are good examples) are also bringing together their historical studies with broader agendas.

  2. Thanks a lot, Steve, for sharing your thoughts. I agree with many of your observations. Henry Rosemont and Viren Murthy are certainly two scholars with a very political, leftist agenda. Still, having read quite a few of the more recent publications on Chinese philosophy in English, I still do have the feeling that our field keeps a certain distance to the ongoing debates on eurocentrism, post-colonialism, and global modernity. This might of course just be my impression. And yet, I am still searching for attempts to engage critically and in more depth – from a Chinese perspective – with the Enlightenment heritage (as Dipesh Chakrabarthy has called for), in order to re-discover its emancipatory politics. Not to merely reject “Western reason” as being parochial… Admittedly, there is a scholar like Wang Hui. There is Fred Dallmayr. You mentioned Leigh Jenco. Franklin Perkins had a piece on Rodolphe Gasché recently. But I actually don’t see so many efforts to engage with postcolonial theory and subaltern studies on philosophical terms…

  3. I’ll weigh-in on this, as it has some relevance to a bit of research I’ve been doing recently on Ph.D. programs in the U.S. I hope I’m not stating the obvious.

    A good number of sinological philosophers publishing today have been educated in Ph.D. programs that have an Analytic orientation (a topic of discussion here previously), particularly Stanford and U.M. While going through these programs does not preclude one from doing non-Analytic work, I think the tendency is to not stray too far from Analytic methodology (Steve and Manyul could speak to this better than me). Your question about not engaging Eurocentrism, colonialism, etc., could just as well have been phrased: why don’t sinological philosophers engage the work of contemporary Continental philosophy more often? The answer seems to be simple, and two-fold: 1) there aren’t enough Philosophy Ph.D. programs training sinological philosophers to cover the full gamut of potential research topics, and 2) those that are training them generally don’t emphasize work in contemporary Continental philosophy. (Notice that I am not using absolutes here. Your question is a general question, and this is a general answer–and pertaining only to the U.S., where I have looked into the issue.)

    According to my research, which I’ll publish in the coming year, U.S. Ph.D. programs in Philosophy (not Languages, Religion, History, etc.), have produced an average of just 3-4 newly minted Ph.D.s in Chinese philosophy/year over the last decade. Of those, most have come out of Hawai’i (a comparative and pluralist program that is not strong in contemporary Continental philosophy (correct me if I’m wrong, current graduate students), and of which the two main advisors who produce the sinological Ph.D.s were either trained in or focus on Analytic philosophy and American Pragmatism respectively). That is a pitifully small rate of Ph.D. production and goes back to the crisis that Manyul discussed in the predecessor to this blog and that Amy Olberding brought to prominence some years back in an APA newsletter.

    I’d like to hear what new graduates from departments other than Philosophy have to say, and current graduate students. Is contemporary Continental philosophy a focus in any of your departments?

    I can say for myself that my Continental training (what little there is of it) comes up only as far as Habermas and Ricouer. Other than that, I’ve read bits and pieces about action theory (one of my main interests), but that’s all. I don’t have a particular interest in political philosophy, critical race theory, or the like that would take me into the work of the scholars mentioned. If the question is: why am I not interested? I don’t know how to answer that. It may have something, again, to do with my training (Analytic at the undergrad level). Ultimately, your question may come down to: why do so many U.S. (and other English-language) Philosophy programs have so little contemporary Continental philosophy? A topic too big for me to handle.

    What about the training of sinological philosophers from Europe? Are there many programs? What kinds of orientations do they have?

    • I’d like to suggest that the problem is not Analytic vs. Continental. I see it as Europe & North America vs. the rest of the world.

      I don’t understand how university administrations have allowed so many Philosophy departments to continue to pretend that the world consists of Europe and North America. If you look at English departments, or Comp. Lit. departments, or Music departments, you’ll simply no longer find one whose faculty focuses solely on Europe and North America. And partly that’s because search proposals aren’t approved if they relate solely to Europe and North America. But for whatever reason, Philosophy departments have been permitted to avoid this trend.

      In the long run, I think that story will have to come to an end, but it may take far too long before we get there.

  4. Paul, of course, you exactly are right. That is the root of the problem.

    Kai, I’ve thought more about this and now think that these sources should perhaps be part of the discussion in a Comparative Philosophy course. I’ve added the article to my course file and will spend some time in the future looking more closely at the sources. Thanks for sharing.

    Here is a quote from the article appropos to what Paul was saying, explaining in part why American and European (and Australian) philosophers don’t take non-European philosophy seriously:

    Western philosophy traps African philosophy in a double bind: either African philosophy is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no distinctive contribution and effectively disappears; or it is so different that its credentials to be genuine philosophy will always be in doubt.

  5. Dear Brian and Paul (if I may),

    thanks a lot for your comments. Yes, I tend to agree that lack of interest is less due to the Analytic/Continental divide, but rather to deeper-seated features, both cultural, political and economic. As has become clear in the discussions on Aljazeera, the crucial question is how different philosophical agendas are perceived by different audiences across the globe. There is not much agreement here. And the fragmentation of global discourses, I believe, is a rather disturbing feature of our age, since we simply do not know to whom we are speaking here…

  6. Kai,

    Thanks for such an interesting post and link. I’ve been concerned about the same disconnection. For a while, DePaul had two experts on post-colonialism, so it was one of the few (maybe only) places where graduate students could take classes on classical Chinese philosophy and on post-colonialism. I would note two things from that:

    1) From my somewhat limited experience with people who identify as doing post-colonial theory, the disinterest goes both ways. That is, all of the people I’ve encountered are drawing their conceptual tools from European philosophy (mostly Foucault and Derrida). So there is a kind of irony that people most vocally critiquing Eurocentrism tend to be using European philosophy, while those of us working outside of European philosophy tend to pay little attention to the legacy of colonialism. Mignola might have a broader group of people in mind, although picking Wang Hui as an example supports my impression. It is interesting that there are Chinese philosophers using indigenous Chinese frameworks to critique Eurocentrism and colonialism, but I don’t think they identify as working on post-colonialism (although I seem to remember Jing Haifeng once telling me he was working on postcolonialism). And I don’t think such people would be identified as doing post-colonialism – I doubt that New Confucianism ever ends up in courses on post-colonial theory.

    2) The students who were primarily interested in post-colonialism would usually take my classes, and vice versa, but the students were different. The students doing post-colonialism were generally oriented toward contemporary political theory with an activist bent, and not so interested in careful textual work. The students doing Chinese philosophy were much more like anyone else doing the history of philosophy (something Steve points out). I think they were equally committed to working against Eurocentrism, but they were quite different in orientation.

    I guess I want to say that the split is complicated and works on a few levels. I do think the two areas are complementary and have some need for each other, and it was great having students who were attuned to issues of colonialism.

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