In the previous post I discussed why academic philosophers have usually focused on the West, and pointed out reasons why some amount of Western focus remains valuable. Above all, I noted: “we are always already formed by some sort of philosophical tradition, whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. And a great deal of what forms us is Western.” So exploring Western philosophy is important to understand our own thought better, where we are coming from.
There are at least two important objections to be made to that claim as I have phrased it. First, one might well ask, could this Western background not be an argument to study non-Western traditions more, in order to enrich ourselves with different perspectives we don’t already share? Well, yes, to a point. Part of philosophical reflection is breaking down our established certainties. But this only goes so far. The further a given philosophy is from our existing given starting point, the more likely we are to view it as a bizarre curiosity – something that might be of exotic interest in the way that animals in a zoo are of exotic interest, but not a live option, not something that can inform or make sense of our lives. To study the politics of the Indian Mīmāṃsā school often tends to feel this way: their assertions that human beings should follow the traditional ritual order of the Vedas seems wacky at best, oppressive at worst. A political philosophy course that taught Mīmāṃsā but not utilitarianism or Marxism would no longer be doing philosophy; it would be ethics studies and not ethics. To make non-Western traditions live options, there should be Western philosophy in the mix. (This was a key reason that my dissertation on Śāntideva paid so much attention to his contrast with Martha Nussbaum.)
In a different vein, one might object to the “we” I have been throwing around here. Sure, perhaps, “we” Canadians and Americans and Italians have our ideas primarily formed by Western tradition. But that does a disservice to the Indians and Koreans and Malagasy formed in a very different context – many of whom, in this age of global migration, are now enrolled in American universities. Surely a focus on Kant and Plato will be as alienating to them as a focus on Mīmāṃsā would be to a Frenchwoman?
Here is where I say: not so fast. Like it or not, the Western tradition has shaped pretty much the whole contemporary world, certainly the world of anyone able to get on a plane to the United States or study in a modern university. True, this dominance of Western ideas comes out of unfair and harmful colonial relations of military conquest, relations that are still with us and that we may well want to fight against. But that very project of fighting for subordinate groups against a dominant order is itself one with a specific Western history, one going back especially to Karl Marx, but before him to Jesus of Nazareth and earlier Jewish prophets. Nowadays, critics of Western domination in philosophy and other cultural spheres are often especially informed by Edward Said’s Orientalism. This book not only explicitly takes its subject to be the West and representations within the West, bracketing out the question of what “the Orient” was actually like, it also (just as explicitly) derives its method from the very Western thinker Michel Foucault. The attempt to find justice for the oppressed East takes us right back, intellectually, to the West.
By contrast, as I’ve argued a number of times, this project of liberating oppressed groups would have been quite alien to Indian Buddhists like Śāntideva, let alone to the Mīmāṃsakas with their views of a right and proper social hierarchy. That doesn’t mean it’s bad – far from it! But a key part of the point of studying philosophy is to know where the ideas we already think with come from – so that we know how they have already been argued for and argued against. So we could say that a Western focus is important even when we emphasize social justice – but we might do even better to say a Western focus is especially important when we emphasize social justice.
Much of the Western tradition is now deeply implicated in the way the non-Western world thinks and even acts. Consider the case of Jawaharlal Nehru, revered across modern India as the country’s founding father. Nehru and his colleagues were faced with the task of building a new constitution from the ground up. This is the sort of task that demands reflection on political philosophy: if one is building a state that will shape the lives of billions of people, one should be thinking about what exactly a good state is. In this process, Nehru paid little attention to indigenous models; he derived his ideas from Western thinkers like Harold Laski, his teacher at the London School of Economics. Nehru studied in the UK but was Indian born and bred; he was not unfamiliar with the traditions developed in his subcontinent. But he thought Western models were worth following. His predecessor Rammohun Roy, despite being an advocate for Indian philosophy and “religion” in general, similarly built his political thought entirely out of Western materials.
Roy’s and Nehru’s choices matter. These men had access to local traditions and to Western traditions, and they chose the latter. We don’t have much respect for the ideas of these Asians if we dismiss their carefully considered ideas (on the grounds of Western-derived conceptions of social justice and diversity!) by saying that they should have been learning from “their own” tradition instead. That is not only an Indian phenomenon, of course: Mao Zedong may have urged “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but it was still self-consciously socialism, shaped more by Marx than by Confucius – and this in a country that did not have India’s experience of an education system forcibly reshaped by the British. For these Asians, Western philosophy was central to the philosophy that made sense to them. Bentham and Laski and Marx were as much “theirs” as anything from Confucius or the Upaniṣads.
So too, nowadays, a student born and raised in India or China who comes to North America for university will have imbibed local political debates which will have been fought on Nehru’s and Mao’s terms, as much as American debates are fought on Thomas Jefferson’s. And one cannot understand these Nehruist and Maoist ideas without understanding the ideas of the Western Enlightenment that shaped them almost as much as it shaped Jefferson.
The history of the West is in Asia now, not to mention the rest of the world. (European thought is as important to Latin America as it is to North America!) We can’t wish that history away. Our very reasons for wishing it were not there are themselves informed by it. Is that a bad thing? Maybe, but so is death – and Plato and the Buddha would agree that death is something the lover of wisdom must learn to deal with, and at some level accept. A Westernized world has made us who we are, and that fact is not a thing that can change. By all means let us now rediscover the oft-forgotten non-Western ideas that would enrich modern thought within the West and outside it. But to do this truthfully and productively, we – we around the world – do need to acknowledge our Western background.