Rewriting the story of philosophy

Via Feminist Philosophers, I learned of this paper by Don Howard, entitled “The History That We Are: Philosophy as Discipline and the Multiculturalism Debate.” A couple of excerpts:

The hypothesis that I want to put forward here is that the conception of the “philosophical” underlying this state of affairs does not correspond to a timeless Platonic form, but that it is instead a construction undertaken in a specific cultural context, at a specific historical moment, for some very specific reasons, not all of which have to do with the love of wisdom. The time is the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. The place is northern Europe, chiefly, though not exclusively, Prussia and Hanover.

The reasons have to do, among other things, with the development of industrial capitalism, the onset of a period of European colonial expansion, and the rise of the secular state and the consequent need to train bureaucrats for careers in civil administration.

The construction was carried out in two main ways: First, there was a new way of telling the history of philosophy, one that valorized what was now claimed to be a distinctively Greek and Aryan philosophical impulse and emphasized, as rarely before, a distinction between religion and secular philosophy. Second, a new form of organization was imposed on university faculty and curricula. Departments of philosophy were for the first time clearly distinguished from other faculties, most importantly the faculties of theology or religion and psychology, while the thought and literature of other cultures—aside from those of ancient Greece and Rome, now assigned to the central new field of classics—was made the object of anthropological and philological investigation. . . .

. . . [O]ne measure of the strength of a culture is its ability to construct convincing stories about itself and its origins. We know not who we are without a story about whence we came. “We are the children of ’76.” “We are the people who came over the mountains.” “We are the descendants of those who emerged from the earth.” “We are the world, we are the children.” Even if the “we” is one cobbled together for some present end, as opposed to one given by biology or a profession of faith, we need a narrative whereby to draw the boundary between “us” and “them,” not for purpose of exclusion, at least not for that purpose alone, but more importantly simply for understanding who we are as individuals and members of a community.

Given this need, the story that we commonly tell about Thales, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato may not be so much worse than others we could have told. In any case, the task we face is therefore not simply that of subverting or deconstructing this old story, but rather that of choosing which story we wish to tell . . . .

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