The Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association held its 2021 annual meeting last winter. It could not meet in person, of course. I forget where it was originally scheduled to meet, but that hardly matters now. Rather: since attending philosophy conferences is usually not related to my day job, I need to use my own money and precious vacation time to travel there, so under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have attended. This year, though, since it was virtual (and spread over two weekends), I had a chance to participate and see several of the sessions.
What immediately struck me on perusing the meeting program was how drastically different the meeting’s content was from previous years. It seemed barely recognizable as the same organization. On the kinds of abstract analytical topics that are the APA’s traditional bread and butter – epistemology, philosophy of language, meta-ethics – there were surprisingly slim pickings. The sessions I’d found most valuable in past years were on interpreting and applying philosophers of the Western canon – Aristotle, Hume, Hegel – and this year, those too were in short supply. Neither kind of session was gone, their numbers were just notably smaller, at least in proportion.
A major reason for this change surely has to do with what Matthew Yglesias has called the Great Awokening: among the educated white Americans who still constitute the vast majority of the APA’s membership, there has been a massive shift toward demanding major changes for the sake of racial equality. I identify the Awokening as a key reason for the change because of the two kinds of panels that did dominate the program.
A large number of these panels had to do with social justice of some variety or another: papers on “the moral obligation to resist complacency with respect to one’s own oppression”, “disrupting dominant narratives through material formations of difference in public space”, and the like. I didn’t attend any of these, for a number of reasons. The largest is that I think Americans have a strong tendency to view such issues in a narrowly parochial American way, especially assimilating all racial issues to black and white – and the methodology of analytic philosophy is such, in my view, that it tends to exacerbate such parochialism. Analytic philosophy is a way of clarifying one’s thought in detail on a very specific topic given an enormous number of assumptions that one takes for granted on all the other issues that are not being investigated so closely. When the assumptions themselves are problematic, I think the analytic method hinders rather than helps philosophy’s approach of getting beyond the prejudices of one’s own time.
Fortunately, the exact opposite was true of the other kind of panels that were prominent throughout the program: namely, panels on philosophy outside the West, or at least outside the Western mainstream. These are a wonderful way of expanding our minds, and the Eastern APA had a magnificent variety of them: a phrase I don’t think I ever expected to say. The conference’s digital format was surely a great help in this, allowing greater attendance from faraway places. Thus a particularly welcome development was that the panels went well beyond the usual suspects of India, China and Japan: I attended a panel on modern political philosophy in Korea from Wang Yang-Ming neo-Confucianism to social Darwinism, and another on aesthetics in Mexico from the Aztecs through Sor Juana to José Vasconcelos.
Those Korea and Mexico panels were, unfortunately, not very well attended. Some of that surely also had to do with the virtual format of the conference reducing attendance. But I imagine a part of it has to do with a deeper problem: our standards for assessing new philosophies are, and must be, rooted in what we already know. It is hard to think philosophically with traditions that are far outside our comfort zone; we encounter them first as intriguing curiosities more than as candidates for truth. That can change with time, and when cross-cultural philosophy is done well, it does. But even for me as a Buddhist, there is a great deal in a traditional Buddhist worldview that is alien and hard to think with; far more is alien in the thought of the Aztecs.
I find a helpful way to think about all this in the thought of the Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan, as I understand him, classifies ideas into two categories based on their relation to our preexisting thought. (I’m not sure how much Lonergan was influenced by Gadamer, but their ideas seem to complement each other very well.) Ideas that “secure gains”, help us be more confident in our existing ideas, Lonergan calls integrators; ideas that help us look beyond those ideas and “open the door to a better system”, he calls operators.
The social-justice panels, for those who attended them, would have been integrators, and I think analytic philosophy generally tends to work as an integrator, as does scholasticism in general. In my case, it happens to be that the presuppositions those panels worked to clarify and extend would likely have been ones I do not share, such as the assumption that every human being has a duty to work for political change. So they would not have been integrators for me – but they likely were integrators for the conference’s white American mainstream, convinced of recent social-justice views that they are now looking to justify. (Better integrators for me were previous years’ panels on Aristotle and Hegel, thinkers whose views deeply inform mine – as are panels on Buddhism.) Panels on very distant traditions, by contrast, are operators; they help us see beyond the limits of our current horizon. We need both.