N.Y. Times Blog Post on Western Bias in Philosophy

HERE. Posted by Justin Smith of Concordia University, Montreal. (Hat-tip to Sam Crane, who has his own discussion of the piece going, over on his blog, The Useless Tree.) Much of Smith’s piece is probably “preaching to the choir” for our readers, but it’s good to see these points made in the mainstream. Here is an excerpt:

Western philosophy is always the unmarked category, the standard in relation to which non-Western philosophy provides a useful contrast. Non-Western philosophy is not approached on its own terms, and thus philosophy remains, implicitly and by default, Western. Second, non-Western philosophy, when it does appear in curricula, is treated in a methodologically and philosophically unsound way: it is crudely supposed to be wholly indigenous to the cultures that produce it and to be fundamentally different than Western philosophy in areas like its valuation of reason or its dependence on myth and religion.  In this way, non-Western philosophy remains fundamentally “other.”

One good way to begin to correct this problem would be to stop describing it as “non-Western,” but instead to be explicit about which geographical region, or which tradition, we are discussing: Kashmir Shaivism, for example, or Chinese Mohist logic, just as we would speak of German Aristotelian Scholasticism or American Pragmatism, without, ordinarily, bothering to specify that these are both “Western.”’ Imagine, for comparison, the righteous vigor with which we would condemn the academic subfield of agricultural history if 95 percent of all the research in this field were devoted to irrigation techniques in Southeast Asia, while the remaining 5 percent was required to package itself as the study of “non-Southeast Asian irrigation techniques.” This sounds absurd, and it is, but it really is no more so than when the small minority of scholars who work on say, Indian or Chinese philosophy, are obligated to present their research as having something to do with “non-Western philosophy” for the simple reason that it does not come from Northwest Eurasia.

An alternative approach to the history of philosophy — one that takes the aim of opening up the discipline seriously — would treat both Western and non-Western philosophy as the regional inflections of a global phenomenon.

When we say “West” we mean, ordinarily, Europe, along with its recent extension into North America. Europe is, literally, a peninsula of Eurasia, comparable roughly in size, cultural diversity and civilizational antiquity to the Indian subcontinent. Certain significant things happened first in Europe rather than elsewhere, such as industrialization; other important things first appeared outside of Europe, such as movable type. Now it is of course very difficult to define “philosophy,” but if we think of it broadly as systematic reflection on the nature of reality and on humanity’s place in that reality, then it is clear that Europe can make no special claim to be the home of philosophy.

11 thoughts on “N.Y. Times Blog Post on Western Bias in Philosophy

  1. >Now it is of course very difficult to define “philosophy,” but if we think of it broadly as systematic reflection on the
    >nature of reality and on humanity’s place in that reality, then it is clear that Europe can make no special claim
    >to be the home of philosophy.

    Absolutely. For that matter, why define philosophies by the region they originate in? (Chinese Mohist logic, or American Pragmatism, to use the article’s examples.) If we suppose that these are all valid theories about the nature of reality — and I think we should — then the geographic location or time when they were first recorded seems unimportant.

    In science, where we presuppose a continual progress toward greater “truth” in our theories and understanding of the world, this might make sense. But philosophies, while they may be “wrong” or deeply out of step with thinking of the day, are more timeless. I don’t think Daoism is any less relevant in contemporary Sweden than it was in Warring States China

  2. I think the examples of “Chinese Mohist logic” or “American pragmatism” show how it’s both the source and the class of philosophy that need specific identification. The kinds of Western philosophy are so different that it’s pretty much useless to label them simply as “Western,” as if Plato, Augustine, Marx, and Ken Wilber all had “Westernness” in common. The same goes for the diversity of Chinese philosophy.

    • Hmmm. Thanks for that thought, Brian. But broadly speaking, wouldn’t you say that Augustine, Marx, and *fill in just about any European and North or South American philosopher’s name here* are very much influenced by Plato and/or Aristotle, either directly or indirectly, in pretty significant ways that philosophers in South Asia and East Asia aren’t? I would say “Western” is actually much better at picking out a group of philosophers with much in common than “Eastern” or “Asian” is, simply because the latter tend to be grossly constructed categories of Europeans for some fantasized “other.” You’re right that there is variation within Western philosophy, but within a range that has conceptual boundaries loosely identifiable through argument or reasoning style and basic assumptions about ontology. That said, there are philosophers located in the Western world, historically as well as in the present, who’ve been influenced (evident by their own professed allegiances) by non-Western thinking — whether the non-Western thinking was received accurately by them or not. Ken Wilber is an example of that, isn’t he?

    • Thanks Manyul. Maybe you’re right that there are detectable background commonalities to almost all Western philosophers. But in my own view, there’s not much in common between Augustine, Marx, or Wilber. Nor do I see much similarity between Chuangzi, Confucius, and Mao. I’m not sure what the “Westernnes” of the first group, or the “Chineseness” of the second group is. That’s why I like your use of both source and class names for philosophy, like maybe Wilber would be a voice of “American transcendentalism,” and there’s definitely “Chinese anarchism.”

    • I agree with Manyul, and I’d go on to say (and I’m not sure if Manyul would agree or not) that it’s not so much a matter of commonalities as a shared debate that continues over time. Zhuangzi was most definitely responding to Kongzi (Confucius) and other early Chinese philosophers, not Plato and Aristotle as European medieval and early modern philosophers were. There may be commonalities shared by many Chinese thinkers, but what defines it as a distinct tradition to me is more this idea of a continued debate that took certain texts and thinkers as a common thread. While Chinese thought was heavily influenced by Buddhism from India, non-Buddhist Indian philosophy had very little impact and I don’t know of any Chinese texts that became significant in India. In that sense, I agree with Manyul that “Asian” is not a very useful category because for India and China at least they really were largely distinct.

      Finally, I can’t think of anything in Mao off the top of my head, but Liu Shaoqi, one of the early leaders of the CCP, wrote a well-known essay called “On the Cultivation of a Communist Party Member” in which he quotes both Kongzi and Mengzi to illustrate the importance of cultivation. These connections persist more than you might think.

    • I think Mozi anticipated Mao’s mass line, but I don’t know if Mao knew that.

  3. I’d have to say that this article reveals that bias itself. There are plenty of individuals in ashrams in India studying philosophy but they are reading Udayana and Sankara, not Wittgenstein and Husserl, just as there are plenty of folks throughout South and Southeast Asia reading the Abhidhamma texts or learning Tibetan dialectics, and aspiring thinkers in the Middle East working their way through Al-Ghazali or al-Shatibi that do not have knowledge of Plato or Hegel. They are certainly not approaching philosophy as implicitly “Western” unless we want to deny what they are doing is philosophy. So, at least a qualifier is required. Coming from the one philosophy department in the United States that specifically focuses on non-Western geographies’ contemplative traditions (University of Hawai’i), I have to say that there are models that do no treat these traditions a “crude” and that there are philosophers, like myself and many others, that do not treat these traditions dismissively.

    We do, however, see things through the lens of culture, and most individuals who study philosophy in the West do it assuming the backdrop of 2500 years of Greek-derived philosophy, receive training specifically if not exclusively in the Western tradition (as pointed out, a diverse one it itself), and therefore approach and identify similar or dissimilar motifs as they approach other texts and thinkers. We look for things like “the problem of universals” or models of argumentation because those are issues that know exist, and knowing that, we can identify. When we encounter different traditions, they can add to our understanding of those problems, but they can also confront us with problems that were unique to their tradition–problems we may not even understand or identify at first glance. I think it is absolutely appropriate, also, not to limit oneself to philosophical exegesis of these non-Western texts but to use their ideas, approaches and models to rigorously engage contemporary issues of philosophy–no matter where the problem or question was raised. Will the philosopher trained in the Western analytic tradition read these texts differently than one trained in Navya-Nyaya tradition of India or trained as an Abhidhammika in Sri Lanka or Myanmar or in Zen in Japan? Yes–a lifetime of acculturation isn’t something we can just shed as we pursue the fiction of the “objective, disinterested academic.”

    Problems remain, of course. Of non-Western philosophical texts (where a tradition has a textual tradition), many are inaccessible as they remain untranslated into Western languages. Many have presented these other traditions as just familiar philosophies in another clothing, such as Indian Nyaya philosophy as “just like Anglo-American analytic philosophy” or Chinese philosophy as “just American pragmatism.” This is in part, I think, just because individuals have tried to present these traditions in such a way as to make them more palatable by associating them with ideas familiar to their audience so that they do not seem “exotic.” But really, is Spinoza or Leibniz any more exotic that Sankara or Dogen? I really don’t think so.

    The key idea, here, is that more exposure is needed to “world philosophy” in philosophy departments today; that departments need to be adding specialists (hint, hint) who can bring a sophisticated understanding of these different traditions to their colleagues and students in a rich and meaningful way. Research and research funds to support the translation of texts into Western languages to make them accessible to non-specialists should be made available. And finally, professional philosophers and academics those who do not know of or understand these other traditions should not treat them with disdain just because they do not know them. I think taking these steps can truly move us towards doing “global philosophy” and, as is my conviction, significantly move the discipline forward in this new millennium.

  4. Speaking of Western bias in philosophy, this morning I read a review of ”The Continuum Companion to Ethics” in NDPR. The reviewer mentioned that the book includes a chapter called ”Chronology of Ethics,” whose author prefaces the timeline with the statement that it is ”unabashedly Eurocentric.” I couldn’t believe this at first, but I checked on the Amazon preview, and it’s true. In what other discipline besides philosophy would this not be considered a complete embarrassment?

    • No kidding! It was pretty clear from the review that the volume takes a very narrow perspective on ethics, but it was too bad that the reviewer didn’t say anything more about this dimension of narrowness. Christian Miller, the editor, has participated in at least one comparative philosophy APA panel; though his own paper at that panel was purely Western-based, the subsequent discussion made clear the resonances with and also challenges to his position that emerge from Confucian ethics. Hopefully that will lead somewhere!

    • Thanks for that info, Steve. I guess that to be charitable, “unabashedly” could mean “straightforwardly” or something like that rather than “unapologetically”–i.e. the author doesn’t want to misleadingly convey that his timeline is anything other than Europe-based. But even so . . .

  5. I have learned a lot from non-western philosophy and am happy to see the growing scholarship on various world traditions, I am skeptical of the article’s main points. In particular, he complains that many western philosophers, ”remain attached to the article of faith that philosophy is something independent of culture,” but he neither unpacks the content of this ”article of faith” in a way that makes the attribution plausible, nor gives a convincing argument against it. In the same vein, his characterization of ”presentist” and ”scientistic” biases of western philosophers need support. Many philosophers I know doubt philosophy will achieve the sort of rational consensus that science does and their admiration for contemporary work is more focused on stuff like the clarity and rigor of argument, the care in making pertinent distinctions, etc.

    As Jarrod suggests, part of the real solution here is to have more people teaching in more departments, but I think that if this is the aim it is a *very bad* strategic decision to wed the call for more diverse philosophy departments to any kind of relativistic sounding doctrines (even if they could be defended).

    I also find the idea of re-naming fields a pretty weak suggestion. Isn’t the ”solution” to the neglect of eastern philosophy the continuation of excellent work, done by people who can make the ideas, arguments, etc intelligible to people today?

    More generally, I find it hard to believe that the use of ”non-western” as a label does much to explain the lack of respect non-western philosophy – both historical and contemporary – gets in the western academy. I suggest that it is better explained by (1) ignorance and lack of exposure to eastern/non-western philosophy, (2) the new-age-ish representation of eastern philosophy in the popular media/bookstores/culture, (3) difficulty accessing/reading eastern texts, and (4) sociological pressures or incentives that lead grad students to lack any significant exposure. If we want to change things these are the kinds of causes that need to be discussed and addressed.

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