by Ethan Mills
Most philosophers in the United States today teach their philosophy courses as if places outside of Europe and North America simply never existed. This is not so much a claim as a challenge. Try to convince me otherwise.
I have little doubt that some members of our discipline would gleefully take up my challenge. Others might concede my point while offering a battery of excuses for the Eurocentric nature of our discipline. Attempts at the former often involve declarations of controversial metaphilosophical claims with little argument based on scant evidence (e.g., “philosophy by definition doesn’t exist outside the West” or “I’m going to make judgments about vast and varied intellectual traditions based on having read Confucius once”). Attempts at the latter often take the form of milder quotidian claims like “one can’t know everything” (does anybody deny this?) or “it would be irresponsible to teach something I don’t know” (often coming from people who are not specialists in ancient Greek philosophy but who regularly teach Plato in translation).
I’m not going to offer detailed rebuttals here. Many others have done so elsewhere. See a 2016 New York Times article from Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield which spurred Van Norden’s book, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto.I also recommend articles such as Jonardon Ganeri’s “Why Philosophy Must Go Global”, Amy Olberding’s “It’s Not Them, It’s You: A Case Study Concerning the Exclusion of Non-Western Philosophy,” and Eugene Park’s “Why I Left Academia: Philosophy’s Homogeneity Needs Rethinking.” Historians of philosophy can benefit from Peter K. J. Park’s Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy, which offers a thorough history of European scholars’ exclusion of Africa and Asia from the history of philosophy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
I will assume those who are still reading by this point are more-or-less on board with the project of making philosophy more cross-cultural and less Eurocentric. There are many ways to do this.
One way is to hire and support specialists in non-Western traditions: African, Indian, Latin American, Chinese, Indigenous, Japanese, Islamic, etc. I’m aware that counting some of these as “non-Western” is controversial (especially for Latin American and Islamic philosophy), so maybe the term suggested by Bryan Van Norden makes more sense: less commonly taught philosophies. But – speaking as a specialist in classical Indian philosophy myself – I don’t think hiring specialists is enough (although we will gladly consider your job offers).
A small group of specialists cannot be expected to do all the work. We need non-specialists to help. A great way to help is to offer cross-cultural introductory courses. Unless the course title or description designates a course as “Western” or “European,” almost any topics-based introductory course could be turned into a cross-cultural course (while you’re at it, why not add women philosophers like Elisabeth of Bohemia?) There are many resources for philosophy teachers looking to add cross-cultural content to existing courses; some good ones are The Deviant Philosopher, Global Philosophy, and the APA’s Resources on Diversity and Inclusiveness. Podcast fans might enjoy Peter Adamson’s and Jonardon Ganeri’s History of Philosophy in India as well as the upcoming History of Africana Philosophy with Chike Jeffers.
At my home institution, our entry-level courses were designated as specifically Western, so I created a course called World Philosophy. The course description describes it as “a cross-cultural introduction to philosophy.” In my design of the course I was consciously relying on a metaphor developed by historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, who discusses “provincializing Europe.” (I’m offering a condensed, simplified version of Chakrabarty’s idea here; see his book Provincializing Europe for the full story.)
Within the contemporary academy Europe is often taken as the center of our understandings of history, literature, culture, religion, and philosophy. Europe is taken as the standard by which all things are evaluated. Europe (or the idea of Europe, anyway) is the capital; everywhere else is provincial.
In opposition to taking Europe to be central in our conceptual frameworks, we might aim to provincialize Europe, to make it one of many, rather than the center of all things. Of course, we live in a postcolonial context: Europe is difficult to dislodge from the center of everything seeing as Europeans spent much of the last 500 years inserting themselves everywhere. This process will require far more than a single college course. But, to paraphrase Laozi, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
One thing I like about Chakrabarty’s metaphor is that it does not seek the elimination of European matters or some sort of “reverse colonization” or reversal of a Hegelian master-slave dialectic. We need not think of our coverage of non-Western philosophical traditions as an either/or affair; it’s a both/and. By analogy, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” does not indicate that other lives don’t matter.
Covering some non-Western traditions does not entail the elimination of Western traditions from our curricula. It makes the Western tradition one of many. This picture of the world’s philosophical traditions is not politically correct. It is merely correct. It’s about time the discipline accepted this reality.
This conception of philosophy has directed my own career. In graduate school I decided to study Indian philosophy in philosophy departments rather than religious studies or area studies, because I love Western philosophy. I don’t see my love of Nāgārjuna as precluding my love of Spinoza. My delight in reading Jayarāśi doesn’t cancel out the ways I’m enriched by reading Plato. As a teacher and a scholar, my philosophical interests are not geographically circumscribed.
I consider my World Philosophy class to be a “buffet of philosophy”: we cover a wide breadth of material, but don’t stop to feast on any one thing (with the exception of Buddhist philosophy, which we cover for a few weeks toward the end of the term). We cover a range of historical contexts, from the early Upaniṣads (c. 800’s-500’s BCE) up to contemporary philosophers like Angela Y. Davis. We manage to cover at least one reading about a tradition or figure from every continent except Antarctica (I am open to Antarctic philosophy should such a tradition develop, perhaps in the form of meditations on penguins or melting ice sheets). Our main textbook is Introduction to World Philosophy, edited by Daniel Bonevac and Stephen Phillips. Like most textbooks, it has drawbacks, but it provides a thorough – albeit not exhaustive – menu for a philosophical buffet in a World Philosophy course.
For their midterm and final assignments, I ask students to compare two philosophers from different traditions as a way to develop their own thesis statement on a philosophical topic. I was initially worried that this level of synthesis and comparison might be too much for students in an introductory general education course, but many have risen to the challenge. I’ve had excellent papers and presentations on Xunzi and Akan ethics, Mencius and Al-Farabi, Jain ethics and Augustine, Elisabeth of Bohemia and Cārvāka materialism, Nāgārjuna and Zhuangzi, Nyāya and Sextus Empiricus, Aztec and Buddhist metaphysics, Plato and Zera Yacob, Buddhist and Yoruba views on personal identity, Native American and Maori views on environmental philosophy, and so forth.
While there are dangers of over-simplification and cultural essentialism in such exercises, I encourage students to see philosophy as global set of overlapping conversations, rather than merely one conversation of a small part of humanity. I hope to encourage them to develop intellectual tools to correct whatever mistakes they may make as beginning philosophy students. (I should add that my buffet model is merely one of many ways to teach a World Philosophy course; one might, for instance, delve more deeply into a small handful of texts or traditions).
A common response to calls for enhancing the cultural diversity of the discipline is to claim that one lacks the requisite knowledge to teach non-Western traditions. But anybody with a general training in philosophy can teach a World Philosophy class with a bit of background research. Sources I mentioned earlier can help. Alternatively, at your next APA meeting, check out some of the many panels on non-Western or less commonly taught philosophies.
Neither must one entirely eschew one’s specialization. My background is in Indian philosophy, and I include a fair number of Indian texts in my World Philosophy course. There’s no reason a specialist in, say, ancient Greek philosophy couldn’t include a great deal more ancient Greek material than I do (Greece is, last I checked, part of the world; remember that Europe should be provincialized, not eliminated).
While I teach some familiar material, I also include material that I’m less familiar with, like African philosophy, or material I had no experience with before, like Aztec philosophy. For my section on Aztec metaphysics, I looked at a few sources like Jim Maffie’s Aztec Philosophy,and then assigned an excerpt of Maffie’s text for the class. I found the Aztec concept of teotl fascinating, as did the students, creating an excellent case of teaching to learn.
I became a professor because I enjoy learning. The attitude that academic philosophers should never branch out beyond their original specialization, to close themselves off from further inquiry, seems to me profoundly unphilosophical. It’s also to miss out on a lot of really interesting philosophy.
Another benefit of teaching introductory course like World Philosophy is that it might contribute to changing the discipline in the long run. The idea that philosophy is essentially Western is not innate; it is the result of the current acculturation process within our discipline.
American students often come to their first philosophy course with little idea what philosophy is, so they typically have no sense that philosophy is Western. Grand narratives about students’ “Western values” are more tenuous than ever given cultural diversity in the United States, but even if one were to grant this assumption, a Western cultural background does not translate into any innate familiarity with specific Western philosophers. Philosophers are odd people in whatever culture produces them.
I remember being perplexed as an undergrad that coverage of Daoism, for example, was only available in the Religion department (although my excellent undergraduate professors were supportive of my efforts to go beyond Western traditions; I wish all American undergrads were so lucky). When I ask my students in introductory classes whether they think philosophy is something only found in the West, they not only say no, but they’re often confused about why someone would believe such a thing.
Granted, my results are anecdotal and based on self-selected samples (a more scientific study of this phenomenon would be welcome). My hypothesis, though, is that the idea of philosophy’s Westernness is not innate, but it is implanted rather quickly when students see that all of their philosophy courses are on Western figures and traditions (much the same could be said on other axes of diversity such as gender, race, sexuality, ability, etc.). By the time students are in their third or fourth year of a philosophy BA, they have often formed, whether implicitly or explicitly, the idea that philosophy is a Western phenomenon. If a student goes to graduate school this idea is almost always firmly cemented, especially given the paucity of specialists in non-Western traditions in graduate programs (while hiring specialists is not enough, it is part of the solution).
But if students learn from the beginning of their philosophical careers that philosophy is a cross-cultural endeavor, the notion that philosophy is essentially Western that they encounter later will look strange. They might even turn their philosophical skills toward questioning this assumption. And this, far more than specialists who tend to be pushed to the fringes, is what will change the discipline in the long run.
Ethan Mills is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a member of the APA Committee on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies. He teaches a variety of courses including Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy, Philosophies of India, Intro to Asian Philosophy, Popular Culture and Philosophy, and World Philosophy. His book, Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India: Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa, will be published by Lexington Books later this year.