academia, Alasdair MacIntyre, APA, āyurveda, Bryan Van Norden, Canada, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jay Garfield, mathematics, pedagogy
Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden have a widely circulated article in a recent New York Times, chastising American philosophy departments for paying insufficient attention to non-Western traditions of thought. It will surprise nobody that I sympathize with them, since I’ve been trying to get non-Western thought a hearing for years. But in part for that reason, I’ve also been thinking a lot about why it hasn’t got that hearing so far. The reasons for this are not all bad ones, and anyone working to change the situation needs to understand what those reasons are. Perhaps most importantly, they need to ask a vital question that I don’t see asked in Garfield and Van Norden’s article: why should we study philosophy?
Before getting into the detail of the argument, a quick note on terminology. Garfield and Van Norden replace the usual term “Western” with the far worse term “Euro-American”, or sometimes “European and American”. Overall, these latter terms are less accurate than “Western”, since they exclude not only Australia and New Zealand but Canada as well. A term for Western philosophy that leaves out Charles Taylor and Peter Singer makes no sense. (No, “American” does not include Canada. Calling a Canadian an American is as likely to cause offence as calling a Scot an Englishman.) We haven’t found a precise and accurate term here (don’t get me started on “white”), so we are far better off with the term in common and widespread use. So, “Western”.
Now to the arguments. Garfield and Van Norden confront an important and major objection: “it is unfair to single out philosophy: We do not have departments of Euro-American Mathematics or Physics.” Here is their response:
This is nothing but shabby sophistry. Non-European philosophical traditions offer distinctive solutions to problems discussed within European and American philosophy, raise or frame problems not addressed in the American and European tradition, or emphasize and discuss more deeply philosophical problems that are marginalized in Anglo-European philosophy. There are no comparable differences in how mathematics or physics are practiced in other contemporary cultures.
Is this “shabby sophistry”, though? Consider medicine. Indian āyurveda and Chinese and Tibetan traditional medicine certainly offer distinctive solutions to problems discussed within modern Western medicine: i.e. how to treat illnesses of the body. They raise or frame holistic questions that are rarely addressed or marginalized in Western medicine. That is quite comparable to the situation in philosophy. But I don’t want to rely on āyurveda to prevent malaria or fix a broken leg, and I doubt Garfield or Van Norden do either. There are very likely ideas of value in āyurveda, but there are reasons for excluding it from the mainstream of medicine. It is accepted in the West and in Asia that those traditions of medicine developed largely in Europe and North America for the past few centuries (out of the earlier Islamic Golden Age) have demonstrated their value enough to get pride of place.
Now is the same true of philosophy? No, but the reason is more complicated than the glib dismissal of “shabby sophistry” lets on. The value of modern Western medicine over its competitors has been demonstrated time and again through its pragmatic efficacy at solving what the vast majority of people in any tradition can agree are problems: everybody whose leg is broken would like to see it put back together the way it was before, thank you very much. Ascertaining the relative worth of different traditions of philosophy is a more complicated task.
But ascertain this worth one must, when one is making the difficult decisions of what to teach and what not to teach. Not everything is philosophy, and not everything has the same value. We do not teach the aphorisms of Forrest Gump as philosophy, nor should we. The most dangerous thing I see in Garfield’s and Van Norden’s article is that they do not ask what makes philosophy a worthwhile activity in the first place, why one would study philosophy rather than anything else. It leaves the impression that the selection of which philosophy to study is essentially arbitrary – that in terms of what a student can get out of studying them, there’s no real difference between Rāmānuja and Nietzsche except that one is Indian and one isn’t.
What makes the assessment of philosophical worth a complicated task is incommensurability, as MacIntyre describes it: the clearest standards of worth are those to be found within a given tradition of inquiry. It is the traditions of thought in which we are situated (whether Yogācāra Buddhism or liberal scientism) that give us reasons why anything, including philosophy, is worthwhile. No standard is truly neutral. So there is a certain circularity in the choice of what to include and what to leave out.
But here is the thing: this circularity is not arbitrary. Our preexisting standards for what is good and bad, our assumptions or “intuitions”, are shaped by history, not by whim. Gadamer reminds us, correctly, that we are always already formed by some sort of philosophical tradition, whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. The study of philosophy comes to matter most at those moments where our existing beliefs come into question – but those now-questioned beliefs still form the starting point from which we are able to move somewhere else.
And a great deal of what forms us is Western. When we argue for political change on the basis of human rights, we are arguing from within a Western history centred on William of Ockham and others. When we claim that observation of the empirical world is always fallible and could potentially be overturned, we are thinking in ways made possible by Western thinkers like David Hume. (And Muslims of the Golden Age before him, I would argue, but that is because they are themselves part of the history of Western thought in a way that the Indians and Chinese are not.)
There is more to be said about the point that what forms us is Western – some important objections that I will pick up next time. For now, though, I hope it’s obvious that I am not saying philosophy departments should just stick to their Western status quo. Coming from me, such a claim would be ludicrous. They should be teaching far more non-Western works than they do. But they should do it because of the content of those works: the fact that Mencius’s ideas on partiality or the epistemology of pramāṇas are ideas worthy of consideration in their own right, as judged from the preexisting starting point of the students and instructors who might learn them. The instructors might not know that those ideas are worthy from such a standpoint, but they are – and as advocates of Asian philosophy it is our job to show them that fact.
Contrast the current structure of the American Philosophical Association, with its committee for “Asian and Asian-American” philosophy. That title indicates to me that this committee is there for the wrong reasons. There is no committee for “Greek and Greek-American” philosophy, and there will never be one, nor should there be – even though American philosophy departments study more Greek philosophy than Asian philosophy, and will in all likelihood continue to study Greek philosophy for as long as they exist. They study Greek philosophy, and should study it, not because they are trying to attract more Greek people to the study of philosophy, but because they recognize the merits of Greek philosophy and find it worthwhile. That is what Asian philosophy can be and should be. If there is a need to represent the interests of contemporary Asian-American philosophers as an underrepresented minority (and there probably is), it is quite separate from the reasons to study the great (and internally distinct) traditions that have emerged in Asia.
I share Garfield’s and Van Norden’s hope “that American philosophy departments will someday teach Confucius as routinely as they now teach Kant, that philosophy students will eventually have as many opportunities to study the Bhagavad Gītā as they do the Republic…” But this will and should happen only when Confucius and the Gītā inform the background of everyday American thought as much as Kant and the Republic do. To make that happen, we must address the merit of their ideas, not merely geographical diversity. If the latter is our main reason for advocating their inclusion, philosophy departments will have good reason to continue to resist including them. Let us change that.
You make some good points, Amod. Asian philosophy doesn’t need charity, it needs study. If we wonder whether philosophy is a worthwhile activity then it definitely needs study.
Amod Lele said:
Thank you for your illuminating post. As a philosophy student in Asia I found the recent debate over Asian philosophy in Anglo-American universities somewhat exhilarating but also bewildering at the same time. I construe history of philosophy, which for me encompasses both Eastern and Western tradition (the latter of which including Isalmic philosophy as well), to be the repository of ideas which can potentially be unearthed so as to be applied to contemporary issues, not something that every philosopher needs to be well-versed in per se. Such an ahistoric conception of philosophy might not go along with your general view expressed in your other posts, but I would still like to express gratitude for delivering the point that seemed to have been neglected in the current debate.
Amod Lele said:
Thank you as well. I think our disagreement on this point is pretty clear. Philosophical conceptions of contemporary issues are always already informed and constituted by their history; the question for me is whether they’re aware of that fact or not. When they are not well versed in their history, then the answer is not, and their ability to speak in a coherent, nuanced and thoughtful way about contemporary issues will suffer as a result.
Ted Marr said:
An interesting rejoinder, but I’m most caught by the assertion
“The study of philosophy comes to matter most at those moments where our existing beliefs come into question”
I would argue that modern neuroscience is currently in the process of dissecting a lot of our notions of “self” as understood by most of the Western tradition that I encountered in college, and that the ongoing conversation between Buddhism and Hinduism (or reductively; “no self” and “great self” strains of thought) have had a LOT to say on the subject. So hopefully the value can be proved in that arena.
(to say nothing of the emergence of machine learning, and artificial intelligence… but that’s in such early stages that its relevance to our daily experience is marginal at the moment)
Amod Lele said:
I agree, and I think that’s indeed likely to be a place where Asian philosophical ideas become more influential.
I have read many of the responses to this NY Times piece, and this is the first one that has so clearly articulated my first hand experience with this issue. As a grad student in a traditionally Western philosophy department, I have certainly had my moments of frustration with the blatant lack of Asian philosophy. However, I have also found a content driven approach is the best path to change.
Your remark: “The instructors might not know that those ideas are worthy from such a standpoint, but they are – and as advocates of Asian philosophy it is our job to show them that fact” exactly reflects my experience. Perhaps I am just coming from an open minded department, but on those occasions when I can articulate the relevant philosophical content, my colleagues have no problem recognizing its value both as 1. philosophy and 2. as worthy of investigation.
Although I feel the urge to wave the flag and criticize Western philosophy for ignoring so much of the rich philosophy of Asia, I just don’t think that’s the best way to go about this. We need to demonstrate the value of these traditions in order for the powers that be to change the situation. I think the only way to do this is to take a content based approach.
Amod Lele said:
Thank you and welcome. I agree with you and am glad you found this post helpful.
I think the level of open-mindedness may vary by department. Those who care little about “the history of philosophy” in general may have a harder time seeing the worth of non-Western philosophy.
I’m with you on this, Louisanna,.
History would be important and relevant but what matters in the end for a philosophy is whether it would work. The department is not usually full of people who have the slightest idea whether this other philosophy would work. The idea that a philosophy could actually work such that it would remain unchanged and become perennial is such an alien idea that it is rarely given houseroom. Pessimism rules.
I’m a bit surprised by your conclusion here, Amod. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood.
You suggest: “To make that happen, we must address the merit of their ideas…”
The argument made by Garfield and Van Norden is, I think that we *have* addressed the merit of their ideas and found them worthy. Experts in Asian philosophies continue to assert that Asian ideas *are worthy* – only to fall on deaf ears in Western Philosophy departments and discussions. Their conclusion is that they are excluded merely due to geography.
Amod Lele said:
On a charitable reading, one could take that as the argument that Garfield and Van Norden have made in other places; I know Garfield especially has aimed to do that elsewhere, and I think it’s an excellent thing. But this piece makes no mention of that argument whatsoever; indeed, it makes almost no mention whatsoever of the very idea of the idea of philosophical merit or worth. They claim that Lame Deer and Frantz Fanon are “equally profound” to “their colleagues in the contemporary philosophical canon”, but give us not the slightest reason to believe that that is actually the case.
I think it is too generous to refer the idea in this paper that Asian ideas are excluded merely due to geography as a “conclusion”. A conclusion requires premises and deduction or induction from them. In this piece there is no argument to this “conclusion” – one which I think is completely wrong. The exclusion has much less to do with geography and much more to do with history – and I think neglecting that history, as they do here, seems likely to create its own problems, if not make the existing problem worse.
True, this piece is more of an attention-grabber perhaps (they do say it “seems futile to rehearse arguments for greater diversity one more time…”). The say that the argument for equality has been made, and I and others agree; here the idea of Eurocentrism is given as an assertion but it is a “conclusion” based on previous experience and writing. My point (and I think theirs) is that the “merit of ideas” case should be behind us – this is echoed by writers at the DailyNous – not in front of us as you suggest.
Amod Lele said:
What is “the argument for equality”? Equality of what, exactly? Should the New Guinean tradition of philosophy be considered equal to the Greek, the Uruguayan tradition equal to the Chinese?
What unnerves me in your comments as well as in Garfield’s and Van Norden’s is the potential implication that somehow all philosophers are equal and all philosophies are equal. I am not sure what kind of “equality” is being implied here, and if an argument has been made for it, I do not think it has been successful. It certainly has not persuaded me.
Notice in particular that Garfield and Van Norden cite philosophers who are way, way out of their area of expertise as examples of those who they declare we should all be studying. I’m willing to grant that Garfield has made a good case for studying Candrakīrti alongside Hume. But for Lame Deer and Kwasi Wiredu? Where does either of them make the case that these thinkers are worthy of the canon?
I would also object to the idea of equality. The bets of Asian philosophy is streets ahead of the dualistic muddle we call philosophy over here, where even the idea of solving a problem is treated with suspicion.
I can only speak for Indian (and through some reading Chinese) philosophy, but the argument is roughly that what ‘those folks’ were doing over the last 3000 years amounts to ‘philosophy’ in virtually any sense one wants to use the word; they are ‘equally’ philosophical (better in some areas no doubt and lacking in others).
I can’t speak for Uruguayan thought or explain why Garfield and Van Norden chose to highlight the particular thinkers they did. Using google, we find that Wiredu already is, sort of, part of the canon: http://www.iep.utm.edu/wiredu/
Sure, I grant that the argument that they are doing philosophy has been made and doesn’t need to be made further – in the case of Indian and Chinese thought. In the case of Wiredu I’m not sure anybody ever would have denied that claim in the first place, about a man who studied philosophy at Oxford under Ryle and Strawson. The argument likely does need to be made further in the case of Lame Deer, or of traditional Yoruba, Bantu or Aztec thought.
But the claims of the article go much, much further than this. No department teaches all the philosophy that exists. No department conceivably could do that. The argument that goes further is that philosophy departments, especially those in the United States, should be teaching significant numbers of those non-Western traditions-which, especially but not only in the current age of shrinking resources, necessarily implies that they will be teaching fewer of the Western traditions they had been teaching before. I think that argument the argument for non-Western traditions can and should be made; I think a great deal of this blog does make that argument, often implicitly and sometimes explicitly. But like any good philosophical argument it needs to be dialectical: it needs to acknowledge and understand the reasons behind the opposing position and respond to those, which this post has been a start at.
What worries me in an “argument for equality” is twofold. First, the assumption which I think is made without argument: that every culture out there has philosophy to be represented, not just the Asian traditions that Garfield and Van Norden have legitimately made an argument for. Second, the implication that from an accepted thesis that tradition X is doing philosophy, it follows that philosophy departments should be teaching it. If there were no limit on available resources, that claim would be easier to make (as is the case for the IEP, which has no effective limit on how much it can contain). But when one is making the hard decisions of what to teach and what not to teach, I think it would be an absolutely disastrous idea for philosophy departments to remove Kant and Aristotle in order to make room for Siberian shamans just in the name of diversity. At that point the result would be so incoherent that it could not be called philosophy.
“But the claims of the article go much, much further than this. No department teaches all the philosophy that exists.” I think we’re reading the article differently.
I take them to be saying something much more measured; as in – philosophy departments have no excuse to continue *excluding* all non-Western thought.
And Lame Deer might be worthy of being taught alongside, or in the place of, Marcuse (?):
I’d suggest 3 further brief points:
1) Asian ideas *are* in American thought insofar as they’ve been borrowed and filtered through 2000+ years of contact and trade with Europeans. You’ve written about Heidegger’s influence from the East; certainly Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others have been shaped in at least small ways through contact with Asian thought.
2) America is growingly multicultural. True, Asian Americans account for just 5.6 percent of the American population, but we cannot say that the Gita or Confucius are entirely alien to American thought.
3) Globalization means that Americans *should* be much more knowledgeable of the Gita and Confucius. Their ideas, which again have been deemed philosophically valuable to experts working on them, shaped the lives of a third of the world population. For our students to remain ignorant of them due to geography is a shame.
Amod Lele said:
The thing here is that Western ideas are in Asia now, and they are so much more than vice versa. I’ll be taking up that point a lot more in the next post. It is not that the Gītā or Confucius are “entirely alien” to the US (let alone to Asia itself), but that they have played a smaller role in shaping our background thoughts and ideas. Even our Chinese students are at least as likely to think in utilitarian or Marxist terms as Confucian ones. If we are to teach philosophical ideas – any philosophical ideas, Asian, Western or otherwise – as live options worthy of consideration and not merely as goofy museum pieces, then we must bring them into dialogue with the ideas our students, colleagues or other interlocutors already bring with them. Those ideas are largely Western, and we can’t make that not be the case by ignoring Western influence and hoping it will go away.
“If we are to teach philosophical ideas – any philosophical ideas, Asian, Western or otherwise – as live options worthy of consideration and not merely as goofy museum pieces, then we must bring them into dialogue with the ideas our students, colleagues or other interlocutors already bring with them.”
OK, I think I begin to understand your perspective from this remark, Amod. At first I too was a bit confused. To argue, as you do in conclusion, that teaching Confucius or the Gita “will and should happen only when Confucius and the Gītā inform the background of everyday American thought as much as Kant and the Republic do,” strikes me as somewhat circular. But if you are taking a more or less pragmatic (Pragmatist?) approach, this makes more sense. You are saying, I take it, that the criteria for inclusion must be something more substantial than inclusiveness per se; that we find this criteria already in play; and that we are thus already at liberty to argue (rather than merely assert or insist) for inclusion on the basis of merit.
I may have mis-read you somewhat thusly, but in any case I strongly agree that just saying “X is philosophy too” (and thus that X deserves equal air-time along with Plato or Marx or choose-your-Dead-White-Male) is a pitifully weak argument. However, it does strike me that it is hard to make the case that Anne Conway or Confucius should be taught at all, without teaching them. (I don’t mean to muddy the waters by including a Western but female name here, but I’m just thinking of ‘excluded’ voices qua excluded).
To my mind the best and dare I say only real way to address this as real philosophers (as opposed to administrators or activists) is simply to love the wisdom one ones. If in our own life and work we make a real, living case as examples for the ‘relevance’ of Lady Tsogyal or Lame Deer or whoever, we may or may not be persuasive, but in any case we will have done our best. To cite someone who is not often taught as a philosopher, “The best teacher in the world is somebody who loves what he or she does and just loves it in front of you.” If you find wisdom to be loved in Forrest Gump or Scientology or (like Sloterdijk) in Osho, and you want to argue for it’s relevance, more power to you. Go for it. I’m not saying I will agree, but I’m down with letting the “free play of ideas” sort it out.
Sorry for misprint; I meant, “simply love the wisdom one loves.”
Amod Lele said:
Yes, you’ve got it. One thing I probably should have stressed more is that the ideas that philosophy teachers should teach most are the ones they themselves believe, or at the very least take as viable candidates for truth. This is particularly important to me coming out of religion departments, which tend to teach a wide variety of non-Western philosophy but (de facto if not explicitly) present it as “a bunch of goofy shit that nobody in their right mind would ever actually believe.” They usually hide that approach behind a supposedly respectful but actually insulting façade of relativism, but their complete refusal to take the ideas they study seriously remains there.
The great strength of philosophy departments, analytic warts and all, is that they do not do this. They take the ideas they study as serious candidates for truth – but they can only do that because they see the intrinsic value to be found in the texts they study. For them to get rid of such criteria, for them to become religion departments in this respect, would be a catastrophe of the first order.
Abel Molina said:
Agree that “Western” seems like a better choice than “Euro-American”. However, even within the “Western” world, the attention paid is still quite related to how much is the environment where the thoughts come from involved in the migration of people and social structures that resulted in the US. Or at least, that is my impression comparing what is paid attention in the US to what I was taught in Spain (somewhat relatedly, this also means that “Asian” thought is paid much more attention than in the context where I was taught, even if it’s still on the fringe).
Abel Molina said:
And this is all quite understandable, as the article points out, and the onus is on the people that want to introduce new ideas – it’s their task to make the ideas they appreciate feel relevant to other people if they are interested in leaving the fringe.
I would disagree about making these ideas relevant since they are not new but very old and well-known. I prefer to think that if a person is paid to do philosophy then they should do it. It is not my job to persuade them. I have no sympathy whatsoever where a person chooses to ignore most of it. .
Amod Lele said:
Welcome, Abel. Agreed on all counts. “The West” is a much more diverse place of thought than we give it credit for. It not only includes the greatest thinkers of Muslim tradition, it includes Latin American thinkers like Maria Lugones (whom Garfield and Van Norden cite as an example of greater diversity). She is at least as much an “American” as, say, Charles Taylor – probably more, since as far as I know, being called americano is not the affront to Latin Americans that it is to Canadians.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò said:
Good post, and thanks for opening up this side of the discussion. I respond at length on PhilPercs, if you’re interested, but I do have a question following up on BuddhistPhilosopher’s point 2 and your response to it. You don’t seem to think that demographics of the student body are directly relevant in the sort of way that would justify linking Asian and Asian-American philosophy together, but you do seem to think there’s some connection to the ideas you expect students to have been exposed to and the content we teach. Is that something that you plan to put in the next post? If so I’ll wait, but if not then I’m interested in what you sort of social trends are worth responding to (if any) and how.
Amod Lele said:
Welcome, Olufemi. I think at least some of my answers would be provided at least indirectly in the next post, and also in the comment I left on your own blog. I’m not entirely sure those comments form an adequate answer, but perhaps let’s wait till the next post (posts are biweekly so that would be 5 June) and I invite you to take it up there.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò said:
Works for me. Until then!
S. Anderson said:
Amod, thank you so much for your post. You are absolutely right that the decision what to teach should be driven by the *content* of works, and you are also right to stress that an important justification for featuring Western philosophy is that it forms us. But it seems to me that proponents of non-Western philosophy agree with you on both points: the content of non-Western philosophies are important to explore, in part *because* Western philosophy forms us. As you’ve said, “The study of philosophy comes to matter most at those moments where our existing beliefs come into question.” As you know, much East Asian, South Asian, African … and Asian-American, African-American, Native American, and other philosophical work presents important alternative approaches to core questions that can inspire us to interrogate and critique the Western ideas and ideologies that have formed us. I see this displayed beautifully in my Early Modern courses when students who have studied East Asian philosophy challenge, e.g., Western dualism, and so wrestle genuinely with texts, enriching our analyses. I take it that it’s partly for *this* reason that two stated purposes of the Committee for Asian and Asian-American Philosophy are “to promote the interaction between Asian and Western philosophical traditions and to help draw out their mutual relevance,” and “to advance teaching and study of Asian and comparative philosophy,” … and not only to attract more Asian-American people to philosophy and address concerns related to their underrepresentation.
Amod Lele said:
Thank you. I agree with this in general. There’s one caveat I would make to it, which I’ll be addressing in the next post, but I am on board with it in general. I should stress that I do count myself very much a proponent of non-Western philosophy; I also want to see it done in the right ways and for the right reasons.
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Intrigued as to why you deleted all my comments and your responses on this thread?
I did what now? … Oh, I think our thread was over on the IPB rather than here. http://indianphilosophyblog.org/2016/05/22/why-philosophy-departments-have-focused-on-the-west/#comment-165494
I think it’s helpful to cross-post topics that are of interest to both, but that’s a hazard.