If you are the sort of person who reads comparative philosophy blogs, you probably remember the widely read New York Times article that Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden wrote two years ago, calling for the study of non-Western philosophies in philosophy departments. I agreed with their overall point, surprising nobody that I can imagine, but had strong reservations about their underlying reasoning, then as now: in urging the study of non-Western thought they said nothing about anything valuable it actually would have to teach us, treating geographical diversity as sufficient.
Van Norden has now expanded the article’s point into a book, Taking Back Philosophy. (He invited Garfield to join in writing the book, but Garfield was too busy with other projects.) Columbia University Press sent me a free copy of the book in the hope I would review it on Love of All Wisdom and/or the Indian Philosophy Blog; I mention that as a disclaimer of sorts, though there were no specifications on the content of the review. I offer my thoughts here.
I don’t think I am the target audience for Taking Back Philosophy, and I probably wasn’t for the article either. I am, after all, not someone who needs to be convinced of the value of studying non-Western thought. Nor do I have any power to change the way any given philosophy department does things. I am delighted to see people making a case for that study to others. It matters to me, though, how one makes that case. I was worried that the article could have easily left a reader wondering why anyone should bother studying philosophy at all.
The book is significantly better than the article in this and other respects. Unlike the article, Taking Back Philosophy recognizes that we live in an anti-philosophical and anti-intellectual age where philosophy, Western and Asian, needs defending. It refers, quite appropriately, to the awful US Republican debate where three different politicians took it upon themselves to take pot shots at philosophy (Donald Trump himself, perhaps surprisingly, not being one of them). The fourth chapter defends philosophy against such thuggish detractors on the kind of pragmatic terms that would make sense in their world: philosophy graduates make more money than welders, employers value critical thinking, and so on. Against such people, perhaps that is the best case one can hope to make. But it is not a very good one. If that standard case for the liberal arts is all philosophy can bring us, then we may as well dump philosophy teaching in favour of courses in critical thinking and writing, as many lower-tier universities now in fact do.
Fortunately, the book rises above this point in its second and fifth chapters – the latter making the case for philosophy as such, the former going into detail about the contributions of Chinese (and to a much lesser extent Indian Buddhist) thought. The fifth rightly notes that philosophy is unfortunately rare among humanistic disciplines these days in its willingness to take a “hermeneutic of faith” – to listen to the great thinkers of the past and take seriously the idea that they might be right – as opposed to the “hermeneutic of suspicion” associated (rightly or wrongly) with Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, which views previous thought as oppressive dead weight. (The terms are Paul Ricoeur’s).
So Van Norden shows how philosophical ideas provided a powerful support to some major heroic figures, like James Stockdale, who endured his seven years as a prisoner of war by recalling the advice of the Stoic Epictetus on maintaining our integrity in the face of our fate. Stockdale’s story is powerful and important, and two things about it are significant. He could only have derived this benefit by taking a hermeneutics of faith; and not just any philosophy would have helped in his situation. You couldn’t just swap out Epictetus and replace him with Hume or Hegel, and expect that the benefit would be the same. You probably could have swapped in Śāntideva, whose rejection of external goods has strong affinities to the Stoics, or a number of other Buddhist thinkers. The point, though, is that it was the content of the philosophy – what is said and why it was said – that got Stockdale through his travails and could have got others through theirs.
The second chapter, in many ways, is the heart of the book, because it addresses the ideas in Asian traditions and how they actually can speak to questions that Western philosophers – surely the book’s main target audience – recognize as important. So we see how the Milindapañhā and the Chinese Buddhist Fazang both are able to respond to problems of personal identity in ways more satisfactory than Descartes (and Van Norden is better aware than many of how different the Milindapañhā and Fazang are from each other). We see how Mencius’s theory of human motivation can answer questions about the justification of politics in a way Thomas Hobbes’s cannot, and how later Confucians can answer some Aristotelian questions about practice and weakness of will.
All of this makes the book’s case for studying non-Western philosophy a real and powerful case, as the article’s case was unfortunately not. The article too often felt like it was unintentionally damning non-Western philosophy with faint praise. It is significant that the book’s substantive non-Western philosophical interest is overwhelmingly on Chinese texts (even Japan appears relatively rarely here). But I think that is a strength, because it means that Van Norden is actually able to make a persuasive case that it be studied. The article was weakened by telling everybody they should study Lame Deer and Kwasi Wiredu – not because of anything particularly unworthy about Lame Deer or Kwasi Wiredu, but because not a word was mentioned about what in them was worthy of study. Those of us who have not studied a text do not yet know how worthy it is; we need to be convinced of that, whether the work in question is by Lame Deer or Mencius or Bertrand Russell. The problem is much like the one Plato stated in the Meno – that we don’t know what we don’t know. We have to start where we are, and for most of us “where we are” is at least partially Western (even when we are not ourselves in or from the West). We also can and should recognize that the West hasn’t had all the answers – but many of us need pointers about where other answers might be found. Taking Back Philosophy gives better pointers than most.