McLeod Reviews Berruz and Kalmanson (eds.), Comparative Studies in Asian and Latin American Philosophies

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2018.11.01 View this Review Online   View Other NDPR Reviews

Stephanie Rivera Berruz and Leah Kalmanson (eds.), Comparative Studies in Asian and Latin American Philosophies: Cross-Cultural Theories and Methodologies, Bloomsbury, 2018, 248pp., $114.00 (hbk), ISBN 9781350007888.

Reviewed by Alexus McLeod, University of Connecticut

This excellent new collection represents a bold step forward in comparative philosophy. I hope that it will find wide readership and have an influence on the development of the field. As the editors point out in their introduction, comparative philosophy (especially done within the discipline of philosophy) has long been almost exclusively concerned with study of some Non-Western tradition alongside a Western tradition. Comparative philosophy as such has constantly had the West as a frame. Berruz and Kalmanson’s praiseworthy aim in this volume is to “disrupt this trajectory . . . to ‘provincialize’ the West within comparative philosophy and to focus explicit attention on conversations across Latin America and Asia” (1). The essays in this volume present interesting ways of doing this, even while the West remains a more-or-less shadowy presence in many of the essays and an explicit player in some.

Berruz and Kalmanson’s introduction is fantastic, and the goals they set out here are noble and worthy of pursuit. I recommend their discussion to anyone interested in thinking in new ways about comparative philosophy and philosophy more generally. In the eclectic mix of essays in this volume, the West remains central in some, and of necessity — historically, the West has often (but not always) been the medium through which Asia and Latin America have communicated with one other. Much of this is inevitable if one focuses on the modern post-colonial world (as some essays in the volume do). The authors and editors should not be faulted for failing to completely decenter the West in their exploration, as the topics covered in much of the collection deal with post-colonial topics, in which the West is an inevitable participant, even if indirectly. Rather, the editors and authors are to be commended for this still sadly very rare attempt to engage in comparative philosophy without the Western frame — looking at two Non-Western traditions in light of one another, rather than at each reflected through the West.

One strength of this volume is its breadth in terms of topics covered. While some may find the wide range of different topics too disparate, I think this is exactly what is called for in this kind of collection. Berruz and Kalmanson’s volume should not be seen primarily as a focused study on a particular topic, but rather as an invitation to consider the number of rich and expansive projects that might be undertaken in a comparative study when we decenter the West. In Asian-Latin American comparative philosophy, we find a wealth of possibilities, and the volume showcases just some of what we can expect to see if more philosophers pursue such possibilities. Non-Western comparative philosophy is a rich area that has gone neglected for far too long in the field of philosophy, and this volume demonstrates what is possible across a range of projects. This would have been impossible if the editors had chosen to limit the volume to a more focused presentation on narrower topics.

One theme running throughout many of the essays is the colonial. The West, while decentered, always looms large, in that much of what is said is in reaction to the West, in opposition to the West, or a reconfiguration of the ways Latin American and Asian societies see themselves in distinction to the West, with the assistance of the other. While this is certainly one very interesting way of doing comparative philosophy with the West decentered, I would have liked to see more focus on purely Latin American and Asian conversation. Perhaps scholars in the West cannot escape the West in our studies because of our location — but it seems to me that most area studies scholars and historians avoid it better than we philosophers do. Philosophy is still very much a Eurocentric field of study, and it may be a long time to come before we find studies in which Western thinkers are hardly mentioned at all.

The First and Third Parts are more historical and contemporary in their focus, while the essays of Part Two offer a different kind of comparative philosophy more based in conceptual examination (while still having an historical element). Part One, the longest section, includes three essays on colonial and racial identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. The articles in this section focus on Latin American readings, understandings, and uses of Asian material, generally in the context of situating themselves with respect to the West.

In the opening essay, Andrea J. Pitts looks at the development of Orientalist ideas in the writings of Mexican philosophers and intellectuals, particularly in the work of Antonio Caso. Her essay reveals very well one of the key difficulties inherent in attempting comparative philosophy with the West decentered in the post-colonial period. The readings of Mexican intellectuals of Asian texts were fraught with Orientalist readings by European and American scholars, through whose works Mexican scholars accessed them. The West, in such cases, was the necessary middleman, and in encountering Asia, Latin America was often encountering the West, in the guise of Asia. In doing this, Mexican intellectuals developed a unique kind of Orientalism, which can be seen in the work of Caso, who associates Mexico with the West, and the inverse of the East.

Adriana Novoa’s essay looks at a very interesting and understudied movement in the West, 19th century theosophy. This Western “bridge” served to connect Asian (particularly Indian) religious and philosophical ideas to Latin America. Novoa charts the fascinating history of how many Asian texts came to be encountered in Latin America, through Western appropriation of particular themes and Western readings of Asian texts. She writes: “the connection between the Americas and India was linked to the spreading of spiritualist ideas to support anti-materialist positions, and to the discussion of humanity’s origins; both coming from philosophical and esoteric sources” (37). Theosophy, mainly shaped by Helene Blavatsky in the late 19th century and Annie Besant in the early 20th century, drew from Indian and other Asian traditions, but can still be seen very much as a Western phenomenon, with themes and ideas from Asian thought picked out based on primarily Western interests and biases. Novoa describes how the early 20th century Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos constructed a conception of racial development and synthesis based partly on theosophical ideas. This is a fascinating story, as Latin American thinkers such as Vasconcelos who had access to theosophical ideas were encountering a Westernized Asia that was not really Asia. It would be as if a culture encountered China through 18th century French chinoiserie. Even the idea of race, as such, was something foreign to classical Indian thought, and the focus on it suggests a Western lens.

In Hernán G. H. Taboada’s essay, the reaction of Latin American scholars to the West’s vision of Asia looms large. In both the reaction against the East, in terms of attempting to distinguish themselves from the “Oriental other” (90), and in their later look to Asia as a way of decentering the Western narrative of Latin America itself, contributing to a movement Taboada calls “Third-Worldism”.

Part Two focuses on more theoretical issues. While all of the book’s essays are innovative and informative, I personally found those in this section the most interesting. Allison B. Wolf’s essay brings a creative philosophical perspective to the issue of breastfeeding that draws on concepts from the early 20th century Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro and current-day Argentine philosopher Maria Lugones. Wolf argues that the concept of “betweenness” (aidagara) discussed by Watsuji focuses on relationships, community, and social interactions as fundamental to ethics. Ethics, he says, is the study of ningen (人間) — the space and relationships between persons. (108) The contribution of Lugones’ work to this is that understanding that we occupy a variety of different communities (or “worlds”) interacting also with one another, (111) and an “in-between” location might be understood as a place of removal from the particular norms attached to each of these communities. In this way, Watsuji’s conception of betweenness can be understood as a relationship, as between mother and child, happening in spaces between communities with particular communal norms. This is a fascinating insight, and the only hesitation I have concerning this is that it may simply ignore the very Confucian and communalist import of Watsuji’s thought, inherent in his criticism of Western ethics.

Agustín Jacinto Zavala’s essay is the second dealing heavily with the work of Vasconcelos. Zevala looks at the parallel development of views of education in the work of Vasconcelos and the early 20th century Japanese philosopher Amano Teiyu. He draws from this consideration how one constructs a universal philosophy from the starting point of one’s unique cultural background. The views on education that the two philosophers share, according to Zavala, focus on the creativity of the student in various realms of education — political, moral, and economic, among others (147). The focus on creativity in connection with tradition as a way to give rise to a universal knowledge is indeed an interesting and vital feature of the thought of these two philosophers. The kind of local universalism (what Vasconcelos describes as “each [society] expressing the good and beautiful in their own manner” (146)) is reminiscent of attempts at pluralist synthesis in Han Dynasty China (in texts such as Huainanzi and Chunqiu Fanlu) as well as contemporary moral pluralist views like that of David Wong.

Sebastian Purcell’s essay focuses on premodern topics, investigating Confucian and Aztec conceptions of the ethical mean or middle way. While only the Confucians and Aztecs are discussed here, Aristotle is very much part of the picture. The way Purcell describes both the Confucian and Aztec views — and even the fact that he focuses on the concept of the “mean” (zhong) as a central feature of Confucian ethics, belie an Aristotelian framing of the issues. The two ethical systems are brought into conversation with one another through Aristotelian virtue ethics. Confucian and Aztec moral thought work very well in comparative engagement, and Purcell demonstrates some of the ways that each can illuminate aspects of the other. While his account of the mean in Aztec ethics strikes me as more central to that tradition than his account of the mean in Confucianism, it is certainly a theme echoed in both, and the section of his essay on the role of internal and external features of the person in achieving the mean is a particularly interesting point of resonance between the traditions. Where I think the conversation could use some distance from Aristotle is in the consideration of practical wisdom late in the essay. When we draw too close a parallel between Confucian, Aztec, and Aristotelian virtue ethics, things such as the seeming absence of a concept of practical wisdom in early Confucianism become difficult to make sense of. Mencius’ discussion of the concept of quan (weighing/balancing) does indeed seem to play a somewhat similar role, but its role is far more limited than that of a concept of practical wisdom. Quan is to be applied in cases where the moral norms fail us, where there is no clear answer — it does not itself play a role in discerning the right answer or the virtuous act.

Part Three focuses roughly on what the editors call “anti-colonial” comparative philosophy, and contains three very different and compelling essays all dealing with various forms of social resistance to European colonial power in Latin America and Asia. Susan E. Babbitt’s essay focuses on the distinction between political and intellectual freedom in Theravada Buddhism and Latin American revolutionary thought. Babbitt draws on the idea that thought is itself constrained by universals that are based on social conventions, and thus political freedom in terms of self-determination and lack of constraints does not ensure intellectual or spiritual freedom in terms of constraint of thought by the universals brought about through (potentially oppressive) social conventions. A number of Latin American revolutionaries recognized this, according to Babbitt. She writes that repression of freedoms, according to Che Guevara, “is not due to strong central government. Such a view assumes that people without strong government and leadership are not already repressed. This is false. Repression results from beliefs and values making up the social fabric” (182). Babbitt turns to Theravada Buddhism to offer a possible solution to such intellectual repression, which involves coming to understand cause and effect (specifically, the doctrine of “dependent origination”), the impermanence, insubstantiality, and connection with suffering of all conditioned things. José Martí adopted a similar view, arguing that it is necessary to understand the external causes of the contents of our thought. Recognizing this, Babbitt argues, shows us that political anarchism only results in “slavery to habit patterns, which is enslavement to imperialism” (193).

George Fourlas’ essay focuses on the role of Asian and South American martial arts (the latter being a hybrid based partly on Asian techniques) in liberatory movements in the Americas. The martial arts themselves, according to Fourlas, are primarily liberatory in nature. The overemphasis on violence in some forms of spectator martial arts in the West is far removed from the communally and ethically oriented training of schools with a liberatory focus, although, he admits, there are fewer of such schools. Fourlas’ view of martial arts is refreshing, and, in the form he considers, they have a definite role to play in liberatory struggles, as they focus on self-cultivation and “resistance to violent domination,” (203) through cultivating a particular orientation to community. Fourlas writes: “the ethically oriented and thus liberatory training hall strives to build a strong and reflective community” (203). The proper orientation for martial arts is not to dominate, but to liberate. It is in training with others and the exchange in martial arts that one can learn to work together for self-development without domination. I agree with Fourlas’ insights about martial arts, and he may have brought even more evidence to bear, such as the connection of martial arts with narratives of “foreign” resistance in Chinese fiction (the classic martial arts film theme) and history, as well as the adoption of Chinese martial arts styles for this reason by oppressed peoples worldwide.

Finally, Namrata Mitra’s essay is a discussion of the continuing effects of colonization in South Asia and Latin America. Mitra looks at ways in which the claims of colonizers continue to be perpetuated outside the context of colonization by those within now independent states. She focuses here on two ways in which we see such lingering colonial effects — in violence by states, and in silence about issues of race. She uses the work of South Asian and Latin American scholars to approach these issues. Mitra argues that one major difference between South Asia and Latin America, namely silence about or the disappearance of the idea of race in South Asia, is due to particular features of the colonial project there as distinct from Latin America. She suggests a number of possible reasons for this difference, including the possibility that native South Asians came to adopt racist European views, given their placement above some other groups, such as Africans, in the racial hierarchy proposed by Europeans.

While all of the essays in this section (and indeed the volume) were enlightening, I would have liked to see also some contributions on views of Latin America from Asia. Latin America is very much the focus throughout, in Parts One and Three almost exclusively (the exception being Mitra’s essay), and I was left wondering about the other direction. This is not to say that there was nothing suggesting this direction — but hopefully this volume will also inspire more philosophers to engage in new ways with Latin American and Asian thought. This volume is a vital resource for philosophers interested in expanding our conception of comparative philosophy and philosophy as a whole. I wholeheartedly recommend it to all philosophers, as well as scholars interested in Asia, Latin America, and comparative thought.

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