Teaching Provincializing Europe in a World Philosophy Course

Provincializing Europe in a World Philosophy Course

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 PhilosopherGlobal 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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I’m not sure if this really addresses your area of study, but if you would like to share your observations of the work of Jiddu Krishnamurti your thoughts on the subject would be read with interest here. Those unfamiliar with Krishnamurti can find an introduction here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiddu_Krishnamurti

    Krishnamurti was the first writer I encountered who helped me shift focus from the content of thought to the nature of thought, so he’ll always have an appreciative friend here.

  2. I read some of Krishnamurti’s lectures many years ago. I found them quite refreshing and thought provoking at the time, but I haven’t returned to them recently so I’m afraid I don’t have any insights at the moment. Is there a particular aspect you found most interesting?

  3. Hi Ethan, pretty much the same here. Read him extensively as a young man, but it’s been awhile since I’ve revisited. He had an interesting personal story, which is described on the Wikipedia page so I won’t recount it here.

    As a refresher for us, and introduction for others, here’s a page which attempts to summarize his work.

    http://www.jkrishnamurti.org/about-krishnamurti/the-core-of-the-teachings.php

    It says in part…

    “Truth is a pathless land”. Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique.”

    So, as JK might have put it, religion, philosophy, and psychology, out the window. I recall that he enjoyed making dramatic sweeping statements.

    What JK meant is best found in his own words. Personally I have come to interpret statements of his such as this to mean that everything made of thought is just a symbol which points to the real world, and we’d be better off to discard this second hand experience and turn our attention to the real world itself.

    But of course, both JK and myself both have a great many thoughts and words about the above, a contradictory irony which I find increasingly entertaining. 🙂

    JK goes on to say…

    “He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection.”

    A focus on observation seemed a key part of his work. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to phrase this as experiencing observation for it’s own value, not as a means to some other end. I can’t say to what degree JK would have agreed with that way of putting it.

    He was an interesting character, adamant and gentle, full of contradiction, very human failings, and a touch of pure genius. The wholeness of his personality always appealed to me.

    About ten years ago I happened to chat online with a lead teacher at the Krishnamurti school in Ojai California. He said JK was the closest thing to a God we’ve ever had. I cringed and banged my head on the monitor, but such is the fate of all sages. Once they’re gone everyone else rushes in, grabs whatever is not tied down, and puts the teaching in service of their own agendas.

  4. At this point I can not really recall how much of the following I got from JK and how much I made up, but at the least he started me on the trail to something which might, and perhaps should, be of great interest to philosophers. And that is changing the focus from the content of thought to the nature of thought. A quick example…

    As far as I know, every ideology ever invented has subdivided in to competing internal factions. The universality of this phenomena would seem to illustrate how the divisive nature of thought influences everything made of thought.

    Philosophy may focus on the content of the ideologies and how they differ from one another etc. If we shift the focus to the nature of thought, how thought operates, it’s properties, we can uncover what all ideologies have in common, which is perhaps a more powerful point of entry in to the understanding of ideology.

  5. In ‘Overcoming Metaphysics’ and ‘The Question of Technology,’ Martin Heidegger demonstrates that the technological-scientific world-system ‘we’ all (all…) currently inhabit is a creation of the Western metaphysical world-view invented by Plato and Aristotle, Descartes, Newton, and Locke, and that built into that Western metaphysical world-view is a will-to-domination (Hegel) or will-to-power over the world and other people(s) that is finally self-destructive, as was evident in the wholesale self-destructiveness of Germany, Russia, and America in World War II and in the Cold War thermonuclear arms race. Which, of course, has not stopped, just gone on killing different people…

    For that reason, I believe that it is important that we all come to a critical self-consciousness of the technological-scientific world-view ‘we’ currently inhabit through study of the classics of Western philosophy, so that ‘we’ can deconstruct that self-destructive world-view and prevent another self-destructive episode like WWII. Western philosophers like Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, and Agamben were (and are) involved in the perpetual self-deconstructive effort of deconstructing Western metaphysics, but I don’t think they believe that ‘we’ can simply somehow escape the metaphysical world-system we inhabit by adopting another philosophical viewpoint, because, firstly, ‘we’ (I speak for myself…) are Western (or Western-ized) human beings, and, secondly, the multinational world-system we inhabit is a Western world-system, and there is now no ‘outside’ to it: ‘It’ is everywhere, and ‘we’ have to deal with it…

    In ‘Questioning Martin Heidegger,’ I tried (how successfully I don’t know…) to show how, by deconstructing Western metaphysics from within, ‘we’ could perhaps arrive at something like an ‘Eastern’ (Bhuddhist?) metaphysical world-view, but I don’t believe that escaping Western metaphysics is as simple as adding different names to the syllabus or accepting a self-help guru. That of course does not mean that I do not support adding those names or finding a guru—whether Krishnamurti, Bodhidharma, or, for that matter, Jesus of Nazareth—simply that I am convinced that only by studying the ‘great classics’ of Western civilization will we come to understand the predicament we have gotten ourselves into, with the hope that ‘we’ can somehow get ourselves out of it. Before we end up destroying (not deconstructing) ourselves, and the planet earth along with us…

  6. Eric writes…

    “I am convinced that only by studying the ‘great classics’ of Western civilization will we come to understand the predicament we have gotten ourselves into, with the hope that ‘we’ can somehow get ourselves out of it.”

    I share the concern you express in many of your posts, and feel you are on the right track by keeping this subject alive and kicking at all times. I would however contend that we don’t have time for making understanding the first step. But if we did…

    The accelerating knowledge explosion and the violence which threatens us arise from the same source, the divisive nature of thought. Violence and knowledge blossom and multiply all over the world, which demonstrates they arise not from this or that philosophy, but rather from a deeper source which all humans have in common.

    If it is true that it is the nature of thought which is the source of violence, then we are never going to end violence by editing the content of thought, by doing philosophy, because whatever new philosophy we might come up with will still be made of thought, and thus will inherit the divisive properties of thought. As evidence, every ideology ever invented (as far as I know) has inevitably subdivided in to internal factions which typically then come in to conflict with each other. Inventing a new philosophy just repeats this pattern yet again.

    As to the threat to civilization from violence, that’s way too pressing a matter to resolve with centuries of philosophy. We don’t have time to understand how we got here. We can do that later after we’ve removed the source of violence.

  7. Eric,

    Thanks for your comment. One of the most annoying features of internet discourse is a rampant sort of straw man fallacy in which one assumes one knows what the other person thinks and thereby launches into a vicious rebuttal from there. To avoid committing such an obnoxious error myself, I thought I’d respond with some questions.

    First of all, I wonder if your comment is directed more at my post or more at Phil’s comment? Or both? I’m unclear.
    Is anything you’re saying incompatible with what I said in the post? In particular, could one engage in the sort of deconstructive project you discuss while nonetheless teaching a few non-Western philosophers in some introductory courses? Might non-Western philosophers challenge our very idea of what “philosophy” is in a way compatible with also taking the internal critique approach? Could provincializing Europe be one of many strategies for engaging in such a process? Do you really think all I am advocating is “… adding different names to the syllabus or accepting a self-help guru”? Did I refer to any “self-help guru”?
    Does my brief comment about the current postcolonial context of the world following 500 years of European colonialism get at some of what you’re talking about?
    Did you read my post and think that I was saying we shouldn’t teach Western classics at all?
    A deeper pedagogical/metaphilosophical question: What is the purpose of introductory philosophy classes? Even if your reading of Heidegger were right (maybe it is, I’m not sure), could we ever hope to get many philosophers to agree to such a reason for teaching introductory philosophy courses that relies so heavily on a particular understanding of a particular philosopher in a particular tradition?

    I realize on the internet these questions are likely to be taken the wrong way, but in all honestly I’m really just trying to understand here. Also, to avoid further misunderstanding, I should say that I am neither endorsing nor denying anything either Phil or Eric said about Krishnamurti or Heidegger. I’m really just trying to understand in an epistemically virtuous way. As Gandhi apparently didn’t actually say, I’m trying to be the change I want to see in the (virtual) world.

  8. Ethan Mills,

    I was responding to Phil Tanny and you and also putting out my own position as briefly as I could. Yes, much of what you say is compatible with my position, and I am not arguing that greater diversity in philosophy courses is not a good thing. I am taking issue with two assumptions: 1) Western philosophy is written by phallocratic dead white males who are all staunch supporters of the Western Eurocentric patriarchal racist fascist etc. status quo; and 2) non-Western philosophers are necessarily opposed to the Western status quo because they are non-Western non-white non-male or whatever, and because they somehow exist outside the Western European/Anglo-American technological-scientific capitalist world-system (although how they achieve that prodigious feat in the contemporary multinational technocratic world-system of the world-wide web the internet the global market multinational corporations and transnational security organizations etc. is not clear to me…). These are not exactly your assumptions, but they are pervasive in the multi-culti polit-speak circles of scholarly academic conferences (and especially were so when I was in grad school in the 1980s…) and so I wanted to put on a few words on the other side, just for dialog.

    Contrarily, I would advance two opposite assumptions: 1) Western philosophy, since the ostracism of the Sophists from Pericles’ court and the Trial and Suicide-by-Hemlock of Socrates, has been a self-critical practice of spiritual and intellectual opposition to the Western status quo (for example: Greek democracy, Roman imperialism, etc.), and if taught from that position, can teach that critical self-consciousness to others. So can, for example, Nagarjuna’s doctrine of emptiness, or the study of Zen koans. (…Here’s one that passed through my mind last night listening to my mother’s dog bark: What’s the sound of no dog barking?…) But ‘we’ (…you and me, eh?…) are Western people, with deeply embedded cultural assumptions that aren’t dislodged by a 30-minute introduction to Vedanta or Zen Buddhism. (The self-help guru remark to the side, have you studied with an Indian guru? And even so, can you claim not to be a Western scholar/intellectual or whatever?…) We are born into the Western European/Anglo-American world-system, it teaches us to speak its language, it blitzes us constantly from every electronic/anti-social media, it penetrates us subliminally even in our sleep. And it is everywhere, now, thanks to the aforementioned technological inventions. So how can we expect to get out of it, simply by reading a few excerpts from Kung Fu-Tze or Sakyamuni Buddha? however edifying they may be…

    2) Instead, what happens, especially in an intro philosophy course, but also in advanced philosophy seminars, is that a non-Western philosopher is assimilated into a Western metaphysical framework, just as, in Western multiculturalism (the current ideology of non-choice for grad students…), for example, a British-Indian (Francophone/Anglophone) intellectual (Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty, et al.) is hired by a prestigious Western university to fill the funding-niche in the multicultural catalog, and to recruit a few high-desirability non-Western foreign students (for the sinister purposes of the Western institution…). And just as, for example, in the Western multinational capitalist system, non-Western peoples (Native Americans, Indians, Africans, whoever…) are assimilated into the current version of the Roman/British/American empire (the Western European/Anglo-American world-system, what Heidegger called ‘Western metaphysics,’ what Derrida called ‘global-latinity’ etc.), to serve as agents of the dissemination of Western European/Anglo-American culture to their home countries, wherever those might be, without necessarily even knowing how they have become agents of the Western European/Anglo-American technocratic multinational capitalist world-system…

    And as far as I can see, from my position (currently further outside academia than the aforementioned British-educated postcolonial intellectuals…), the only alternative to the above-described predicament is for professors/students to have achieved critical self-consciousness of their enormously privileged position within the Western European/Anglo-American multinational global world-system, to the point that they might be able to deconstruct that position from within, and to arrive at an alternative position outside the Western European/Anglo-American multinational global world-system, which is an enormously difficult task (not to mention teaching that skill to undergrad students…), as Heidegger and Derrida acknowledged without claiming to have achieved it themselves. (Do you remember the final paragraphs of Derrida’s ‘The Ends of Man,’ written in response to the May ’68 Paris student protests?: “The only choices ‘we’ have, from inside [Western metaphysics] where we are, are…” I won’t bore you by re-citing it, and I haven’t memorized it, anyway, but it’s worth thinking about, every now and then…) I can’t claim to have achieved it myself, but I realize it’s a endless pursuit, and one not achieved by simply introducing a few snippets of non-Western thought into the curricula, when Western students might benefit more from learning to read their own culture self-critically, if that’s possible…

    You remark on Hegel’s master/slave dialectic as a model of the relationship of ‘the West’ to ‘the non-Western world’ (which you find unacceptable?). But, again, as far as I can see (from my subaltern slave position…), Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ and Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology’ offer the two best descriptions of the sublimation and internalization of the psychological and physical domination of the self-conscious master by the subconscious slave available to contemporary students of what Spivak or Chakrabarty might call ‘subalternity’; and they are certainly more accessible to students (and less self-defeatingly pessimistic!) than Spivaks’ ‘Can The Subaltern Speak?’. (But check out Agamben’s ‘The Use of Bodies’ for a contemporary reading of Aristotle’s description of the master/slave relationship. Yes, it’s Eurocentric, but so is the current version of technocratic gadget-slavery…) And if contemporary philosophy teachers could only teach what Aristotle and Hegel are describing (doubtless from their own self-conscious master-positions…), I’m convinced it would do more to free the currents slaves of the Western European/Anglo-American technocratic multinational capitalist system from their gadget-slavery than even ten years of studying Vedanta or Nyanya, however beneficial studying Zen with a Westernized self-help guru (…Dipesh Chopra?!?…) might be…

    And can I mention the Western Eurocentric spiritual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? the spiritual teachings of a Palestinian Jew, which are now maligned as ‘Christo-centric,’ ‘phallocentric,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘racist,’ or whatever, but which have no doubt done more to raise the former slaves of the Western (Greek and Roman) imperialist world-system from their debasement and servitude than all the Bodhisattvas in the Golden Buddha-fields of the Buddhist dharma, who could teach spiritual liberation by no-mind or non-ego (sunyata, non-attachment, etc.), but couldn’t begin to change the Indian caste system. But then, you know about that…

    As a final example of what I’m saying, from within your discipline: In the 18th C. British colonialists purveyed a theory of the Aryan conquest of the Harappan civilization (c. 1200 BCE?) which was suspiciously helpful to the British master-race in colonizing India, and which was subsequently adopted by Adolf Hitler (by way of Nietzsche, the Nazi master-philosopher…) to proclaim the superiority of the Aryan master-race in its conquest of the Eastern European Slavic/Jewish slave-races in WWII. Hence the Holocaust or Shoah… But simply because that 18th C. British theory was terribly misapplied and horribly abused in that way doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a crucial kernel of world-historical truth, as current anthropological archeological and linguistic studies of the migrations of the Proto-Indo European (Proto-Indo-Iranian, Proto-Indo Aryan etc.) tribes, to my mind, substantiate. (Think of British colonization of the North American continent, for example, and compare that to the Aryan conquest…) But because ‘the Aryan conquest theory’ has been stigmatized in multiculturalist circles (and especially, as you know, in the Indigenous Aryanists in India…) by guilt-by-association with Western (British) imperialism, as ‘Western Eurocentric’ ‘imperialist’ ‘racist’ and so on, nobody wants to associate themselves with it, even if it might someday (Indra forbid!…) prove to be true…

    And instead, Indian intellectuals are promoting a double-reverse, upside-down-and-backwards version of the Aryan conquest theory, in which it is the Indian people (no doubt high caste Brahmins…) and not the Germans or the Brits who are the Aryan race! And the Harappan culture and not Western Indo-European culture which colonized the rest of the world! And the Harappans who invented Sanskrit and the Indo-European languages! and so on. Ignoring the ‘alternative facts’ that all the archeological and linguistic evidence points the other direction (the PIE languages spread from west to east, not east to west…), and that the Indian intellectuals who promote this Aryanized Indo-centric world-view (not those mentioned above…) are British-educated, English-speaking scions of the British colonial school system, who are themselves in many ways products of the Western European world-system they despise. And that it is manifestly Western European/Anglo-American technocratic capitalist culture which is currently in the process of colonizing India’s Silicone Valley, Bangalore, as a quick call to your Microsoft help-line will demonstrate: an imperialist neo-colonial colonizing process which I suspect many Indians actually secretly want, despite Modi and the BJP and all that Indigenous Aryanist backtalk…

    At this point I’d like to go on to talk about Martin Heidegger’s analysis of the Western European/Anglo-American technocratic neo-imperialist world-system (die Technik) as a creation of ‘Western metaphysics’ … the world-wide web as a materialization of Cartesian geometry (das Gestell)…the positioning of the Cartesian metaphysical subject (the Cartesian ego, Aristotle’s hypokeimenon) within this technocratic global grid-work… and so on. But I’m worn out with blogging, and you’re no doubt worn out with defogging, so we’ll save it for another time, eh what?

    But thanks for your response and I hope I didn’t waste your time by replying…

    EDM

    PS: Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. I’m always glad to be corrected. I might just learn something…

  9. Wow, impressive post Eric, truly, and thanks to Ethan for engaging and inspiring it. I can not hope to meet the two of you on your own ground, and so I’ll offer what I can from a different angle.

    On the surface level, within the content of thought, philosophically, there is a great deal of diversity within and between Eastern and Western cultures. But all philosophical roads taken lead to essentially the same place in both East and West, we are brilliant, and insane. All societies being discussed here have within them their gems of genius, and all live by design only a few minutes away from self extermination.

    To the degree the above is true, a surface level examination of philosophical differences begins to seem less important, less interesting. If everyone is traveling to essentially the same place, what difference does it really make what road they took to get there?

    A more productive inquiry might arise from shifting the focus from how cultures differ to what they have in common. That is, a shifting of focus from the content of thought to the nature of thought.

    If we understand that human conflict on both the personal and social level arises directly from the inherently divisive nature of thought, from the way in which thought divides the single unified reality in to conceptual parts, it will soon become clear that no philosophy is going to lead to peace because all philosophies are made of thought and thus inherit the properties of that medium. This is what the evidence shows. The philosophies of East and West may differ profoundly in many respects, but they have produced the same result, brilliant societies on the verge of self extinction.

    Given the above, the path of logic should be taking our exploration away from examining how we differ, and towards how we are all the same. That is, away from the content of thought, and towards the nature of thought. Away from the surface level, and towards the deeper levels of the human condition.

  10. Phil Tanny:

    Briefly, I think you are making a ‘Western’ argument to say that all human beings are essentially alike, and that there is a basic human nature that is shared by all human beings, West or East. That may be true, Western philosophy often assumes that it is, but I’m arguing that there are cultural/linguistic/tribal differences between human beings that make the idea that we can simply transpose concepts and feelings across cultures without something getting lost in translation difficult to believe.

    I would argue, for example, that the almost constant warfare that has gone on for thousands on years in the Middle East is the result of what Samuel Huntington calls a ‘clash of civilizations’ between those Western European culture-groups whose culture and language (and religion) are derived from the Proto-Indo European tribes, migrating out of the Central Asian steppes into Mesopotamia and the Middle East c. 4200-1200 BCE, and those Afro-Asiatic or Semitic culture-groups whose culture and language are derived from the Afro-Asiatic tribes migrating out of East Africa many thousand of years earlier, who had already established the Great Mesopotamian civilizations (c. 5000 BCE?or dating back to the Neolithic Revolution, c. 12000 BCE?) when the PIE tribes were still semi-nomadic pastoralist warriors wandering around the Central Asian steppes. I think Western European (Greek and Roman etc.) imperialists have always assumed that Afro-Asiatic or Semitic peoples (crudely, in contemporary terms, Muslims and Jews…) could simply be assimilated into Western civilization, and have persisted in attempting to do so for several thousand years, ignoring the blunt fact that Afro-Asiatics and Semites have a different culture that may not be congenial to Western-style democracy or Western-style materialism and so on, with tragic results.

    There are cases where the two culture have merged successfully: Brahminic Vedic Indian culture (presuming Harappa was Mesopotamian…), Persian (Zoroastrian) culture (Iranians=Indo-Aryans…), and, most notably, Christianity (if we remember that Jesus of Nazareth was a Semite…). But the contemporary international war on terrorism is, I’m afraid, evidence that these cultural differences don’t simply go away if the Muslim groups are exposed to McDonalds, Walmart, and the Playboy Channel, which everybody everywhere wants, right? And there are cases where the attempt to assimilate (or eliminate…) people of different culture groups results in enormous tragedies, and the Holocaust or Shoah, for example, may be one of those tragedies…

    It may be that a Western European/Anglo-American multinational world-system will eventually succeed in obliterating these cultural differences and assimilating everybody to a Western-style homogeneous global culture, but it will be at the cost of millions (billions…) of casualties. Meanwhile, I’m simply arguing that Westerners should come to self-consciously critique their own cultural biases before assuming that ‘we’ can simply assimilate other cultures, despite the good intentions with which ‘we’ may attempt to do so…

    EDM

  11. Hi Eric,

    Ok, I agree, there are differences at the level of philosophy which may not be possible to fully transfer from one culture to another. An example that comes to mind was the influx of Indian gurus in to western society during the 1970s. The hippies who followed these gurus got a children’s coloring book understanding of those traditions. As you suggest, even the Western scholars may not be able to fully plumb the depths of philosophies from other cultures. Seems a fair point.

    Ethan suggests we step back from an exclusive focus on Western philosophy and “make philosophy more cross-cultural and less Eurocentric”. He stepped back for a wider view and created a course called World Philosophy.

    Stepping back for a wider view seems a good plan, so let’s keep stepping back. As we do we may begin to get a view of philosophy that might be compared to the view one gets of the Earth from the Moon. The Earth appears as a single thing from space, not a collection of million different things. The differences between this group and that group fade and the focus tends to shift to humanity as a whole, or even life as a whole.

    From this kind of wider view the differences between this philosophy and that philosophy seem less interesting than what all philosophies have in common, what they are all made of, human thought. This perspective seems useful because whatever the properties of thought are determined to be everything made of thought, including all philosophies, will inherit those properties.

    One of the properties of thought which deserves our attention is the way it divides reality in to conceptual parts, a process illustrated by the noun. It is this inherited bias for division which causes philosophies to divide from one another, and then subdivide within themselves, with the subdivisions often continuing to fragment in to ever smaller units.

    By shifting our focus from the content of thought to the nature of thought, by stepping back and taking an even wider view, we can see where all the rich diversity being discussed and explored originates, in the nature of what all philosophies are made of.

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