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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.