CHE Article: “The Toxic History of Philosophy’s Racism”

I thought this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education may be of interest to readers of the blog (even while I am in no position to evaluate the historical claims made). Some highlights:

A particular weakness of many humanities canons remains their scant or nonexistent attention to material outside of Europe and North America, their historical dismissal of South Asian, East Asian, and African achievement due to ignorance and condescending Orientalism. Although philosophy is probably the worst among humanities disciplines in this respect, it’s hardly alone..

Now, finally, we have an excellent account of a parallel ugly history: the exclusion of Asian and African texts from the canon of world philosophy. In Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830, Peter K.J. Park, an associate professor of historical studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, expertly recounts the radical change, in 18th- and early-19th-century Germany, that took place in understanding philosophy and its history. It was a shift that powerfully affected the future of both.

Park shows how Christoph Meiners (1747-1810), a philosophy professor at the University of Göttingen and prolific scholar, initiated “a successful campaign to exclude Africa and Asia from the history of philosophy.”… “Stated more simply,” Park contends, “historians of philosophy began to exclude peoples they deemed too primitive and incapable of philosophy,” noting Hegel’s belief that the African mind-set invited slavery…

In 1865, Friedrich Michelis wrote in his history of philosophy, “No Asian people … has lifted itself to the heights of free human contemplation, from which philosophy issues; philosophy is the fruit of the Hellenic spirit.”



15 replies on “CHE Article: “The Toxic History of Philosophy’s Racism””

  1. Too bad I’m not allowed to read it unless I register: “This content is available exclusively to Chronicle subscribers.”

    Is the Middle East included in this excluded “Asia”?

  2. Why go back that far? There were plenty of philosophers in the 20th century who insisted that it was impossible to communicate philosophy in Chinese, including Derrida.

    • Wondering the same thing. Philosophy is not the only corner of the world where you would find racism in 1780-1830. But we’re in 2014 now …

    • Avery, were there really others? I mean, were there any who had the respect of some significant part of the anglo mainstream (as I think Derrida never did)?

      I don’t know where Derrida said this. I wonder whether his point might have been that Western philosophy’s project isn’t universal in import as it might seem on the surface, but is instead just a side-effect of particular languages. If that was his point, it can’t have been an operative idea in anglo mainstream decisions about how much attention to give to Chinese philosophy. Yes?

    • I wrote that if Derrida’s point was that “Western philosophy’s project isn’t universal in import as it might seem on the surface, but is instead just a side-effect of particular languages,” then his idea “can’t have been an operative idea in anglo mainstream decisions about how much attention to give to Chinese philosophy. Yes?”

      Come to think of it, I reply “Yes and No.”

      “No” because there are a couple of ways in which at least some 20thC anglo philosophers did, I think, think that at least some of Western philosophy has been just a phenomenon of particular languages.

      First, I gather some (I don’t know how many) people thought for a while that a main and maybe pretty much the only job of philosophy is to dispel confusion by analyzing the meanings of key words and phrases. On this conception, there can presumably be philosophy in any language, but it would seem that Western philosophy must focus on Western languages, Anglophone philosophy on English, and Chinese philosophy on Chinese. Arguably here’s not much point in aiming at high-level analysis of the most backbreakingly difficult words in a language if it isn’t one’s first language and one isn’t writing mainly for people who use that language.

      Second: Independently of the above extreme theory of philosophy, one might think that at least some of the main prima facie concerns of Western philosophy are actually side-effects of somewhat arbitrary forms of language, such as the grammatical categories of agent and patient (nominative and accusative cases), or (intrinsically countable) nouns and adjectives. I think there has been some Western exploration of this idea. (But I don’t know how much, and I don’t know how much of the stuff Western philosophy has been concerned with has been approached or had its universality challenged in this way.)

      The first line of thought above could support something like the claim, “Western philosophy can’t be done in Chinese.” The second line of thought, if taken to an extreme, might turn out to support something like the claim, “Western philosophy as it developed couldn’t have happened in Chinese.” But both claims seem pretty radically different from saying, “Philosophy can’t be done in Chinese.”


      There’s an important difference between saying that this or that question is a side-effect of arbitrary forms of language, and saying that this or that question is a side-effect of forms of language. Language is not just something inherently arbitrary that we impose on experience; rather it’s a selection of certain ways of organizing thought, and obviously some ways are better than others (for some ways you could think up are godawful).

      The integers, and the language-game that is arithmetic, are human inventions. They are not cultural universals: they have not been present in all cultures, and so neither have their cultural effects. But they are not arbitrary either. They have something like universal value; the things we can say only with that language have universal validity.

      (Similarly, while the language of rights, and the cluster of familiar Western rights, is a cultural artifact and a marker of cultural difference, it may nevertheless have the universal validity that it can claim on its face. Mill’s argument for freedom of expression isn’t based on cultural particulars.)

      This is not to argue that Greek is better than Chinese or vice versa, but only that insofar as there are profound differences in grammar and vocabulary, that fact does not imply that one way of organizing nouns or verbs is no more fitting than the other, no more genuinely wise. For example, the fact that Western languages seem to have evolved steadily away from the use of verb and noun endings, and the associated grammatical distinctions, may argue that doing without endings makes more sense.

    • So, Avery, I’ll sharpen up my question:

      You write, “There were plenty of philosophers in the 20th century who insisted that it was impossible to communicate philosophy in Chinese, including Derrida.”

      Can you give a reference for one?

  3. I haven’t read the full book, but given the previewed pages available on Amazon as well as the review, my sense is that some wider contexts may be missing from the author’s account of this change in attitude toward non-Western philosophy during this period.
    Take Chinese philosophy for example. The favorable attitude of many Enlightenment thinkers (e.g. Voltaire) towards Chinese thought was a largely result of earlier accounts by, say, Matteo Ricci, Jesuit missionary who went to China in late-16th and early-17th centuries (when the Ming Dynasty in China was at its zenith) and documented vigorous and fruitful philosophical exchanges. But when it came to the next wave of Sino-Europe encounters beginning in the late-18th century, China had fallen to the hands of Manchurian Qing emperors for more than a century, and the “literary inquisition” (the official persecution of intellectuals as well as the systematic destruction or malicious revision of philosophical texts) had been carried on for decades, in order to stabilize and justify the Manchurian rule. As a result when George Macartney visited China on a diplomatic mission in 1792 he documented a submissive, indoctrinated, stagnant nation that seemed to have no past or future of philosophizing. It was this new image of philosophical and political stagnation that was received by the turn-of-the-century European philosophers (and later accumulated in Hegel’s “world history”). Little wonder why they had a different (understandably ignorant) take on Chinese philosophy than Voltaire and his generation.

    • So are you saying that China’s philosophical stagnation was caused by Manchu emperors? It’s not as though Ming emperors didn’t carry out mass inquisitions of their own.

    • I don’t know a heck of a lot about Macartney’s visit. But it is indeed the case that there was a dramatic change in Qing intellectual activity, as versus Ming, and that a ruthless and thorough standardization campaign — different from and more successful than earlier efforts — played a major role in this. One dimension of this is the way in which Kangxi, in particular, sort of called the Neo-Confucians’ bluff, as discussed by C. S. Huang in “The Price of Having a Sage Emperor.”

  4. The most you could say is that the Manchu government (and we’re really talking about the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong administrations, not Manchus from start to finish) were more effective at suppressing dissent, not that they were more ruthless. Students of the Ming can’t forget episodes such as the purging of the Donglin Academy. It’s not for nothing that Li Zhi titled his work A Book to Be Burned!

    More generally, it’s tendentious to argue that political repression leads directly to intellectual servility. Qing China is by no means the only repressive regime in human history (was it really more repressive than, say, France under the Ancien Régime?), and the others weren’t able to stamp out all the free thinkers in their midst either.

  5. Efforts to suppress are usually more effective when/because suppressors are more ruthless (or more determined to be ruthless). And this was exactly the case in Kang-Yong-Qian literal inquisition.
    This is not to say that the Ming dynasty was enlightened or liberal-minded. But Ming’s efforts in intellectual suppression/doctrination were much, much less systematic (perhaps with the exception of the establishment of Baguwen style for exams). The inquisition of Li Zhi was largely a sporadic, independent incident (he died 20 years before the Dongling movement broke out), and the struggle between Dongling and the eunuchs was a relatively short and purely political episode, with little extension to the philosophical realm.
    And yes, I think the Kang-Yong-Qian literal inquisition was much more repressive than France under the Ancien Regime, and that this is as obvious as the fact that the Chinese Communist regime was/is more repressive than the KMT regime.

  6. Ruthlessness is most certainly not the same thing as effectiveness. No Chinese emperor was more ruthless than Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, and yet you seem to be convinced that the Qing government was more repressive than the Ming government. That’s why I said the most you could claim is that the Qing government was more effective, not that it was more ruthless.

    I don’t see the relevance of your comparison of the CCP vs. the KMT to the Qing vs. the Ancien Régime.

    Lastly, I’d like to revisit your original premise, namely that Macartney documented an intellectual community that had grown stagnant and servile as compared to what Ricci had seen. This interpretation is flawed because Macartney and Ricci did not come into contact with the same strata of Chinese society; in fact, they weren’t even interested in the same things. Ricci reported many elements of Chinese culture that he regarded as pitiable (such as idolatry), but praised Confucianism and tried to portray it as the dominant Chinese intellectual tradition so as to justify his theological doctrine of accommodationism. Macartney, by contrast, was interested in promoting free trade, not saving benighted Chinese souls. Macartney failed because he could not produce any good reason why Qianlong should cooperate when the balance of trade was already profoundly in China’s favor. But the main point is this: if Ricci had had Macartney’s motivations, and vice versa, they probably would have come back with diametrically opposed reports, because the Wanli 萬曆 Emperor would not have been any more interested in free trade with Britain than Qianlong was.

    • I think it important to keep in mind that the discussion is about *intellectual* suppression, not suppression in general. An emperor might be quite ruthless towards political enemies but indifferent about what intellectuals are up to, or might have quite repressive policies of thought-censorship but benign in other regards. Zhu Yuanzhang of course was ruthless in crashing (those whom he thought to be) conspirators and corrupt officials, but apart from attempting (with dubious success) to censor the Mencius, do you really think that the magnitude of intellectual suppression under his reign (or under Ancien Regime, for that matter) was even comparable to those during the Kangxi through Qianlong eras, when a roughly 100-year-long, purported and determined campaign (or successive waves of campaign with some flows and ebbs) of intellectual persecution and book burning and editing was carried out?
      You said: “if Ricci had had Macartney’s motivations, and vice versa, they probably would have come back with diametrically opposed reports” – I doubt if this would have *probably* been the case. It would be more plausible, it seems to me, to argue that their different motivations might have played *some* role in the production of different reports. But their reports are among, and are consistent with, many other documents and researches that have suggested a sea-change between the two periods (for example Mao Haijian’s 天朝的崩溃The Collapse of the Celestial Dynasty, which concluded a comprehensive stagnation – intellectually, culturally, socially, institutionally, militarily, etc. that all became manifest from the Qianlong era on). So even if there were implicit biases at play that, I think, would not challenge the basics.

  7. Even if Europeans thought Chinese philosophy was in a sorry state in 1792, I don’t know why that should have been thought to imply that it wasn’t OK earlier.

  8. The main part of Park’s reported argument that I found potentially interesting is this:

    While it may surprise contemporary philosophers and graduate students brought up on the standard canon, Park correctly reports that from “the time of Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) to the death of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-80), the prevailing convention among historians of philosophy was to begin the history of philosophy with Adam, Noah, Moses (or the Jews), or the Egyptians. In some early modern histories of philosophy, Zoroaster, the ‘Chaldeans,’ or another ancient Oriental people appear as the first philosophers. It was in the late 18th century that historians of philosophy began to claim a Greek beginning for philosophy.”

    For the picture here is that the idea of a Greek beginning is a late invention (from a tainted source), hence not the natural view.

    But I have four questions about the passage – maybe someone here has answers.

    1. Seriously?

    Were there particular pre-Greek texts or ideas that came under serious discussion in 1450-1780? To me Park’s list (Adam, Noah, etc.) suggests that perhaps the old references to pre-Greeks were just initial passing nods—maybe to paint philosophy with respectable age or universality, or to paint over Greek-inspired philosophy’s still-troubling lack of roots in biblical revelation. Adam and Noah left no remarks to speak of, and Moses’ main surviving work was not recognized as Moses’ own until after 1780. Ancient Egyptian and Chaldean (Mesopotamian) writing was not readable until the nineteenth century, and although it was long known that Chaldean astronomy had had some predictive success (and had been studied by Thales), it was not known by 1780 that ancient Egypt had wisdom literature.

    2. Who and how much?

    To what extent was the history of philosophy even a thing, in the period 1450-1780? Are we talking about more than a handful of books, or a few pages here and there?

    The way Park describes the period—from “the time of Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) to the death of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-80)”—suggests that the most notable, extreme or outstanding exemplars of the prevailing convention among historians of philosophy were Ficino and Condillac. These are names one hardly encounters in Anglo philosophy departments, but I’ve looked into them a little today, mainly in on-line encyclopedias, none of which mentions any work by Ficino or Condillac on the history of philosophy in general. (Ficino wrote plenty about the Greeks, and Condillac wrote a debunking survey mainly of his recent predecessors.) Did either of them write a history of philosophy? On the one hand, I would not be entirely surprised to find that some people wrote book-length treatments of the history of “philosophy” in that period, or at least toward the end of it.

    3. Histories of what?

    But what would be the “philosophy” that the historian took himself to be chronicling? The term used to be used quite broadly to refer to human inquiry into questions about the world (including questions in physics, medicine, etc.). (Check out the web site of Philosophical Transactions.) Surely the Germans who began with H did not deny that human inquiry, empirical astronomy, and beliefs about the gods antedated Thales? Was that uncontroversial point the main substance of the 1450-1780 assignment of the origin of “philosophy” to non-Greeks? I don’t know.

    Possibly the idea that philosophy began with the Greeks was a natural concomitant of a new narrower usage of the term ‘philosophy’, similar to the modern use, and the German racists used rather than invented the idea that this narrower project seemed to begin with the Greeks?

    How did Ficino and Condillac in particular conceive “philosophy” and its history?

    Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy :
    For Ficino, the ritualized activation of occult properties (“signed” images and “sympathies”) represented a legitimate part of natural philosophy, one to which the recently available range of later Platonic and “Hermetic” material had opened new pathways. Ficino tells (to take one typical example) of certain stars that possess discrete powers (Ficino in Kaske and Clark, 3.8, 278-79). He reports that Thebit, an ancient thinker known from the Hermetic Corpus, “teaches that, in order to capture the power of any of the stars just mentioned, one should take its stone and herb and make a gold or silver ring and should insert the stone with the herb underneath it and wear it touching [your flesh]” (ibid., tr. Kaske and Clark).

    Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy :
    Ficino also endorses an ancient theological tradition that included, to name a few, Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras, and Orpheus among its ranks. He held that this pagan tradition espoused a pious philosophy that in fact presaged and confirmed Christianity.

    Wikipedia :
    The Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum are the most important of the Hermetica, writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which survive. During the Renaissance it was accepted that Hermes Trismegistus was a contemporary of Moses, however after Casaubon’s dating of the Hermetic writings as no earlier than the second or third century CE, …
    … they were certainly not written in remotest antiquity by an all wise Egyptian priest, as the Renaissance believed, but by various unknown authors, all probably Greeks, and they contain popular Greek philosophy of the period, a mixture of Platonism and Stoicism, combined with some Jewish and probably some Persian influences.

    As for Condillac, his “Treatise on Systems” (published 1749, well before his death in 1780) is the closest thing I can find among his writings to a discussion of the history of philosophy. It is largely abstract, and seems to focus mainly on criticizing his recent predecessors. Amazon’s “Look Inside!” shows that Condillac also saliently includes what he takes to be fundamentally mindless “systems of divination” among the “systems” his study aims to cover. So if he mentions, say, the Chaldeans—and I do not know that he does—that doesn’t imply that Condillac is an example of someone who regards the Chaldeans as having done any philosophy in any sense of the term relevant to what we might mean by the phrase “philosophical canon.”

    4. Which was the deviation?

    “It was in the late 18th century that historians of philosophy began to claim a Greek beginning for philosophy.” — What then was said by other historians before Ficino, and historians of 1450-1780 (if any) not party to the “prevailing convention”?

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