Archives For comparative philosophy

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Belief in a Weird World: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 1-5.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-470

H. P. Lovecraft’s creation, Cthulhu, is one of the world’s most famous symbols of the weird.
Image by Chase Norton via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Weird is a strange word. The idea of weirdness itself is rather strange, as suits the subject I suppose. Bernard Wills has written the essay anthology Believing Weird Things, in part, to explore what weirdness is. The book itself, however, is rather weird. Or at least, it’s weird to an academic audience.

Let me explain. While I write quite a few book reviews for SERRC, over the last while, the amount of time between my receiving a review copy and actually writing and submitting the review of the book has lengthened from a flexible to a messianic duration. So my reviews often end up being informed by other reviews of the same book, where others have gotten around to it before me.

So this review is also, though in small part, a rebuke to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things published late last year.[1] Although it remains far from perfect, Wills has written a book that is both challenging and accessible to a wide audience. Believing Weird Things is a popular book of philosophical thought, in the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s public philosophical essays. For some audiences of researchers, a book of that character may be too weird to understand at first.

What Is Weird? The Weird? Weirdness?

Whether something is weird is not a matter purely of ontology. There is no weird in itself, since weirdness is a relational property. Something is weird only in comparison to something else, relative to surroundings, wider environments, or the expectations of people regarding those surroundings and environment.

Weirdness is most fundamentally an epistemological concern. When a sudden disturbance appears in the smooth flowing of a natural process, that disturbance is simply disruptive and destructive. We as self-conscious observers may call it weird, but regarding the process and its disruption in themselves, there are matters of fact alone.

Science-fiction and horror literature has probed the nature of weirdness in more nuance than many philosophical arguments. The weird unsettles expectation, which creates an immediate fear and a profound fear. Speaking immediately, a weird encounter is a sign that presumptions about the reliability of the world to sustain your own life are in doubt. That causes fear for your life.

The more profound fear of the weird inspires is that, more than just your life being at risk, the fundamental nature of reality is at risk. It would be extremely dangerous to encounter creatures like the Shoggoths of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” one of the stories that helped forge the genre of weird fiction, but their nature is weird enough such an encounter would call into doubt everything you believed about reality itself.

To be weird is to have a character or nature that is such an anomaly for your expectations of how and what the world is, as to be unnerving. A natural process cannot be unnerved, only a self-conscious subjectivity. What is, is; what is weird must be understood as weird.

Weirdness, therefore, is in the eye of the beholder. At least that’s what I would say if I were disposed to cheap clichés. Different people with different histories, cultures, moral and aesthetic values will consider different things weird.

The Relative Relativity of Weirdness

Wills himself describes it well in his essay on Rastafarian religious beliefs, one of the best in the volume. Rastafarianism is a Caribbean religious minority, its people marginalized in the faith’s Jamaican birthplace. The religion’s cultural influence far outshines its size because of the global fame and historical influence of Rastafarian musicians in reggae, such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee Scratch Perry.

But to someone raised in a generally Christian culture, some Rastafarian beliefs are genuinely strange, even though much of the religion is a clear outgrowth of the Abrahamic tradition. The Rastafarian Jah is the same God as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Rastafarianism recasts the Jewish concept of the chosen people to refer to all Africans who suffered from colonization and the Atlantic slave trade, their Exodus being the ongoing process of decolonization. Like Islam, the moral principles of the religion incorporate rituals of worship into everyday social life, and it roots those moral principles in the shape of world history.

Rastafarian parallels with Christianity are, as Wills and I agree, rather weird. Rastafarianism has a Messiah figure that operates according to the same metaphysical principles as Christ. Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian Emperor from 1930 to 1974, is the living incarnation of God for Rastafarians.

I use the present tense because Rastafarians hold that Selassie is alive in some form, despite his 1974 assassination in Ethiopia’s communist uprising. In all seriousness, I expect there eventually to be a theological schism in Rastafarianism over how to reconcile their faith with the fact that Selassie was murdered and his body stuffed under the toilets of a palace bathroom, discovered decades later, long after that palace had been converted into government offices.

I can talk about this with an air of humour, as though I’m joking from a position of relative privilege at the expense of Rastafarianism and Rastas. The detachment that allows me to dehumanize Rastafarian culture with this smirking bemusement is rooted in my attitude toward the faith: it is alien, a culture I know only through song lyrics and cultural stereotypes. I find the Rastafarian faith’s messianism weird, but only because I was not raised a Rasta or near any Rastafarian communities.

In Wills’ best essays, he uses these extended philosophical case studies to uncover the epistemic, political, and moral implications of who considers what weird, and why.

Bernard Wills - Believing Weird ThingsA Disjointed Path to Its End

The only real problem I have with the book is that not all of its essays are as good as its best. If I can use terms that more often describe albums, Believing Weird Things is a little front-loaded. The book is divided roughly in half. The first essays explore weird ideas and beliefs as a philosophical historian building a book of fascinating case studies. The second half of the book describes different ways in which weirdness has been weaponized, how difference and strangeness become no longer guides to fascinating places, but targets to be destroyed.

If I can take a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean, consider this. The best essay in the first half of Believing Weird Things is “Why I Am Not a Rastaman.” The best essay in the book’s second half is “Portrait of an Islamophobe.”

Yet I don’t want to linger too long on praise for the actual best essay in the volume, where Wills insightfully and incisively identifies the dynamics of racist discourse that show how Islamophobic ideology merges the dehumanization of colonial racism with the paranoia and massification of classical European anti-Semitism.

That’s all I really need to say other than that “Portrait of an Islamophobe” alone is ethically worth your buying Believing Weird Things at its affordable price, expressly for the purpose of rewarding Wills with one more purchase in his next royalty payment.

So when my biggest critique of a book is that some essays aren’t as good as others in an essay collection, you can be pretty sure that I don’t have a significant problem with what he’s doing. Believing Weird Things ends with two essays that originally appeared in earlier forms at SERRC, two analyses of the nationalist turn in Western conservatism.

Those essays offered quality insights on the true nature of conservatism as a tradition of English political philosophy whose classical works were the landmarks of Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke, and how the nationalism that dominates today’s right wing itself betrays many of the principles of those great thinkers.

However, they make for an odd fit with the other essays of the book, all of which explicitly experiment with our concept of the weird to develop a new philosophical insight. These last two essays are fine in themselves, but as they appear in Believing Weird Things, they amount to filler tracks that stand apart from the main themes and style of the book.

Misunderstanding the Will to Weirdness

My last point is a soft rebuttal to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things. I couldn’t help but find Dentith’s critiques a little off the mark, since they were rooted in a conception of the weird that Wills didn’t share. This conception of the weird is rooted in Forteana, the study and archiving of generally weird and strange phenomena, rumours, objects, folklore.

There are two central organizing concepts in the work of Charles Fort, as he first developed his project and how it has continued since. They are anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism. Fortean catalogues of weird things and events make no attempt to understand these departures from the norm as expressions of some underlying order. This is anti-systematicity, which parallels skepticism of skepticism, the refusal to doubt that something exists or occurred merely because its existence contradicts or is contrary to established knowledge.

Any system of knowledge based on these principles of anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism will regularly produce weirdnesses, because if you hold them, you will accept without much trouble radical departures inductively valid expectations about what is and is not possible. But these principles do not exhaustively define what is weird or what weird is. Fortean epistemology is openness to the weird, but does not itself define that which is weird. Dentith’s analysis of Wills’ work conflates the two.

But Dentith’s error is a learning opportunity for us in who the best audience for Believing Weird Things would be. Dentith’s misinterpretation flowed from his prior experience in academic research. Earlier in his career, the study of Forteana and the works of Michael Shermer, particularly his 1997 Why People Believe Weird Things, was important to his intellectual development.

In the introduction, Wills frames his own Believing Weird Things as a response to Shermer’s arguments from the end of the last century. Dentith critiques Wills for having chosen an apparent interlocutor from more than 20 years ago, seeing this as an attempt to restore Shermer’s ideas to a place in contemporary philosophical debates in the spheres of academic publication. But Wills never justifies such a restoration in his own book. Indeed, Wills never refers to Shermer in as much detail in the rest of the book as he does in the introduction.

Such a use of Shermer appears sloppy, and I do think Wills should have been a little more explicit in explaining the role that Shermer’s work plays in his own thinking. A figure who plays such a major role in an introduction, but disappears throughout the main body of the book makes for poor academic writing.

But Wills’ only mistake here was having given Dentith the opportunity to make his own mistake. Wills does not aim to restore Shermer to some more prestigious position in academic philosophical debates. Engaging with Shermer’s ideas has a more personal meaning for Wills, because a chance encounter with Shermer’s work was the inspiration for a trilogy of books that explore the nature of weirdness, of which Believing Weird Things is the second.

Wills refers to the work of Shermer to invoke him as an inspiration for his in-progress trilogy. Invoking an intellectual ancestor is not a reason that can inspire most academic writing, especially that based in paywalled research journals. Dentith did not understand this aspect of Believing Weird Things because he kept his analysis inside the context of the academician’s writing.

Conclusion: Life Is Weird

Bernard Wills has written a book for a general thinking audience, a contribution to the social and ethical antidotes to rouse the red-pilled from their dogmatic slumbers. Believing Weird Things asks readers to re-evaluate what they consider reasonable and strange, that weirdness is a category without a simple definition or clear boundaries.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

Wills, Bernard. Believing Weird Things. Montréal: Minkowski Institute Press, 2018.

[1] Okay, that makes me sound way, way too late.

Author Information: John Lamola, Fort Hare University, jlamola@mweb.co.za.

Lamola, John. “Africa in Van Norden’s Philosophical Manifesto and King’s Multicultural Canon.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 30-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45v

Campus at University of Cape Town, overlooked by Table Mountain.
Image by Ian Barbour via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Although written from an American setting, and pointedly directed at challenging the pedagogic modalities and epistemological assumptions of the organisation of the philosophy curriculum in the United States, Bryan W. Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (2017) has an acute and timely resonance with the current fractious debate on the decolonisation of the philosophy curriculum in South Africa.

It is indeed a scandal that African philosophy, in Africa, is still what Van Norden (p.2) formulates as an LCTP (less commonly taught philosophies). Equally, as one stuck in the racialistic trenches of this debate (Lamola 2018, Benatar 2018), it was comforting to hear a non-radical voice of Jay L. Garfield assert in the book’s Foreword that ‘ignoring non-Western Philosophy in our research, curriculum, and hiring decisions is deeply racist’ (xix).

In addition, Van Norden’s critique of the Eurocentrism of the philosophy canon and syllabi not only validates a founding motif of post-colonial African philosophy; it foregrounds into the American academe a protestation, stated in Barry Hallen’s words in his A Short History of African Philosophy, against the ‘West that ethnocentrically flaunts that culture’s philosophical priorities as things that should be universal’ (Hallen 2009,50).

A Model for Philosophers’ Practice: Peter J. King

The foregoing sentiments have impelled me to endeavour a contribution to this book symposium from the vantage position of African philosophical experience. In doing so, I propose to draw attention to a project which, in our view, experimented and proved that what Van Norden is advocating can be done.

This was the publication in 2004 by Peter J. King, lecturer at Pembroke College, Oxford of One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. In line with Van Norden’s disquisition, King (2004) creatively broke the boundaries of the traditional canonical criteria of Western Philosophy, and installed into a singular chronological compendium thinkers from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas as philosophers whose works set the frontiers of philosophic erudition.

I published polemic essay that extolled the instructive intervention of this book, ‘Peter J. King and the Transformation of the Philosophical Canon: An Africanist Appreciation’ (Lamola 2015) in Phronimon, a journal of the South African Society for Greek Philosophy and Humanities.[1]

In the Phronimon article I argued that the conceptual framework of ‘epistemic pluriversalism’ as advanced by Argentine semiotician Walter Mignolo (2009, 1-23) is a cogent theoretical basis against which King’s work could best be appreciated. I propose, similarly, that Van Norden’s transformation program could be grounded on such a corrective paradigm against the globalistic universalism of the West. Pluriversalism, whereby all knowledge systems as emerging from diverse geo-cultural regions of the world are accorded equal recognition and respect, is a critical transformative imperative for contemporary academic philosophy.

Here, for reasons of brevity, our restricted mission is to carve a space for African philosophy in Van Norden’s regrettably excessively pro-Chinese philosophy blueprint of a transformative multicultural curriculum.

Africans in the Global Philosophy Canon

As Van Norden would, I was perturbed to find one of the editors of the Dictionary of Philosophy (1983), Antony Flew, justify his criteria for the choice of entries in the dictionary with these words,

Very little attention is given to anything that is philosophical only in the more popular interpretation. This, and not European parochialism, is why the classics of Chinese philosophy get such short shrift. The Analects of Confucius and the Book of Mencius are both splendid of their kind. But neither sage shows much sign of interest in the sort of questions thrashed out in Theaetetus. (Flew and Speakes 1983, xi)

In this justification of the preferential adoption of the epistemology of Plato’s Socrates as the criterion for the canon on epistemology, in essence, Flew claimed that the Western modus cogens is more advanced than the Chinese one and is of a superior quality in deciphering, judging, and resolving the dilemmas of human life.

It is regrettable that Flew (1923-2010) did not live long enough to see Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World: the end of the western world and the birth of a new global order (2012), and Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies (2012).

This ‘comparative anthropology’ that condescendingly judges the world’s cultures against the putative superiority of Anglo-European traditions is much harsher in its judgement of African systems of thought. There is no reference to African philosophy or any of its themes in the Dictionary of Philosophy. Flew, above, sounded like Immanuel Kant who wrote in Observations on the feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764) that:

If we cast a fleeting glance over the other parts of the world, we find the Arab the noblest man in the Orient . . . he is hospitable, generous and truthful . . . if the Arabs, so to speak are the Spaniards of the Orient, similarly the Persians are the French of Asia. They are good poets, courteous and of fairly fine taste . . . The Japanese could in a way be regarded as Englishmen of this part of the world, but hardly in any other quality than their resoluteness . . . The Negroes of Africa, on the other hand, have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. (in Eze 1997, 54-55)

In succession to Kant, G.W.F. Hegel’s notorious Afrophobic history of philosophy is not even worth recounting. It is aptly contextualised in Peter K. J. Park’s Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy; racism in the formation of the philosophical canon, 1780-1830, as cited by Van Norden (19). In a recent review of an African philosophy text in SERRC, refuting this claimed absence of Africa in the history of philosophy by making reference to the monumental research of Chiekh Anta Diop ( [1954] 1974) and Martin Bernal (1987), Anke Grannes alerts that:

There is a long tradition of written philosophy on the African continent, extending from the time of the ancient Egyptians and including Ethiopian philosophy, the Arabic-Islamic philosophical tradition in Africa south of the Sahara, the Ajami tradition, and the written tradition in the Swahili culture (Grannes 2018, 45).

Choosing Ignorance of Africa

In the year 2012 two books were published in London with a proclaimed ambition at presenting definitive compendia of those identified as the thinkers who the whole of contemporary humanity must regard as the producers of the most profound ideas that continue to shape our lives and world.

The first of these canon-forming publications was Stephen Trombley’s Fifty Thinkers Who Shaped the Modern World (2012). The second was Phillip Stokes’ Philosophy: One Hundred Essential Thinkers (2012) which according to its jacket promotion, ‘introduces one hundred of the world’s greatest philosophers’.

Trombley’s fifty thinkers who shaped the modern world are led by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and have the Bulgarian-French feminist philosopher, Julia Kristeva (1941-), on the fiftieth spot. According to Trombley’s selection, not a single mind outside of Europe and the United States of America merits a place in the top fifty that has shaped the modern world. He could even blithely aver that:

The Greek philosopher was a wealthy, upper-class man whose leisure time was purchased with slave labour…We can compare the situation of philosophy in ancient Greek with our time, in which—despite the fact that more philosophers may be women or people of colour or from modest social origins—it remains a profession dominated by white men (Trombley 2012 11).

On the other hand, Stoke’s one hundred of the world’s greatest philosophers who have produced ‘the ideas that have shaped our world’, predictably, starts off with Thales of Miletus, and ends with American logician, Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000).

Without a declaration anywhere that the book’s proscribed scope is on the Western Philosophical tradition and academy, thus maintaining a pretence of encyclopaedic universality, in Anno Domini 2012 Stokes could not find any Chinese, Indian or African philosopher worthy of recognition for a contribution to the ideas that have shaped or are continuing to shape our world.

Even Kwame Nkrumah, a trained and published philosopher who incarnated his ideas into the Presidency of the first African nation to achieve independence from colonial rule, thus setting a trend and inspiration for the seismic independence movements that dominated the discourse of international politics for decades, is not recognised.

A year earlier, in an implicit demonstration of a growing consciousness against the interpretation of philosophy as Reason conscious of itself and evolving through European institutions, Jay L. Garfield and William Edelglass’ truly multicultural and global Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy (2011)[2] had been published. But Trombley and Stokes were to testify to the enduring force of the interpretatio hegeliana, that views Europe as the exclusive fountain and Eden of human reason to which Africa does not exist.

King’s Pluriversal Historiography

King’s multicultural rendition of the protagonists in the history of philosophy negates this Eurocentrism as an active theoretical intervention, and in our assessment precociously fulfilled and demonstrated the efficacy of Van Norden’s manifesto.

His selection of his ‘one hundred philosophers’ is presented in a sequence that is only governed by their year of birth. In this way the tradition of presenting the history of philosophy as some kind of progressively successive schools, the interpretatio hegeliana, is obviated. Simultaneously, through this structure, the particularity of cultural categorisation is trumped by the universality of time.

This birth date sequencing delivers a pantheon that starts off with Thales of Miletus, seamlessly gliding through K’Ung fu-zi (Confucius) and Lao Zi, both Chinese philosophers, before it gets to Plato. This introduction of ancient sages is rounded off with the profile of the work and life of an African woman philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria (c.415-370 BCE). King’s compendium boasts uncharacteristic profiling of women thinkers, and draws attention to the injustice women have historically suffered and continue to endure in academic philosophy.

In selecting a constellation of noteworthy thinkers during the period 500CE-1599CE, which in Western historiography is styled the Medieval Period, King endeavours to set these thinkers against a broader appreciation of global historical developments. They are for instance set against the background of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad PUN (570CE), and the appearance of the first printed book from China in 868CE.

Ancius M.S Boethius of Rome (480-524) the martyred pioneering translator of ancient Greek philosophical works into Latin, and Adi Samkra of Kerala (781-820), the founder of the adviata school of Hindu philosophy are introduced as equal pioneering thinkers at the start of this period. In a historical rendition that attempts to present a just procession of religious thought, the narration of the philosophical heritage of the Irish Church philosopher, John Scotus Eriguena (810-977) is placed after that of the Muslim philosopher Abu-Yusuf Yaqub Ibn Ishuq of Baghdad (801-873).

Skipping to the modern period, in the interest of the demand for brevity in our demonstration of the cultural and epistemological plurality of King’s philosophical canon, we note the exceptional gesture he makes in contributing to the uncovering of Anthony William Amo (1703-1784), the Ghanaian who graduated in philosophy at the University of Wittenberg in 1734, and proceeded to earn an appointment as Philosophy professor at the University of Jena in 1740.

Amo, who advanced scholarship on Descartes, is perked between George Berkeley and Baron de Montesquieu as notable philosophers of the Early Modern Period of Western philosophy. King’s presentation, which due to its chronological approach has to list Amo before David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), unwittingly exposes the bigotry of the latter two celebrated luminaries of the Western philosophical canon in their assiduously recorded views that there is no empirical evidence of any genius among ‘the Negro’ (see Eze 1997, 29-30).

While the government clerk David Hume was battling with his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature that ‘fell dead from the press’ (King 2004, 108), Professor Amo had just successfully published in 1738 Treatise on the Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately (King 2004, 103).

King’s treatment of twentieth century evolution of philosophy subverts traditional reading of a linkage of the philosophies of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein by inserting between them an account of the works of Servepali Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), the most celebrated exponent of Indian philosophy who was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1939, and of Sir Muhammad Iqbal Khan (1877-1938), the iconic philosopher of Islam and graduate of Russell’s alma mater, Cambridge. In a rare irony, the ‘heterodoxical’ Khan was knighted by King George V in 1922, whilst Russell was persecuted and ostracised in England for his ‘unorthodox’ beliefs.

King (2004) interrupts his presentation of the twentieth century notable philosophical minds with an editorial chapter titled, ‘Overview: African philosophy’. This is one of ten such topical editorial insertions interspersed between his encyclopaedic profiling of his selected philosophers. This overview lays the ground for his recognition of Kwasi Wiredu (1931- ) as one of the world’s one hundred greatest thinkers.

Notwithstanding this recognition of only Wiredu and the introduction of Amo, he accords African philosophy a rare appearance on the stage of global intellectual traditions. It is significant that this ‘Overview: African philosophy’ (King 2004, 172) is simply a neat summation of Henry Odera Oruka’s famous 1981 paper ‘Four Trends in Current African Philosophy’ (in Coetzee & Roux 2002, 120-136). King, in line with Van Norden’s broader and more contemporaneous pleadings, seems to have taken seriously Oruka’s contention that:

Philosophy as a discipline that employs analytical, reflective, and rationative methodology is therefore not seen as a monopoly of Europe or any one race but as an activity for which every race or people has a potentiality (in Coetzee & Roux 2002, 120).

Contact details: jlamola@mweb.co.za

References 

Benatar, David. ‘Obscurity, falsehood, and innuendo: A response to M. John Lamola,’ South African Journal of Philosophy, 37, no.1 (2018): 66-68.

Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, Volume 1. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Diamond, Jared.  The World Until Yesterday: What Can we Learn From Traditional Societies. London: Penguin Books, 2012.

Diop, Cheikh. A.  The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality,  trans. Mercer Cook. New York: Lawrence Hill &Co, 1974.

Eze, Emmanuel, C. (ed.). Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997.

Flew, Antony, Jeremy Speake (eds). A Dictionary of Philosophy. Second edition. London: Macmillan Press, 1983

Garfield, Jay L, William Edelglass. Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Graness, Anke. ‘African Philosophy and History.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 45-54.

Hallen, Barry. A Short History of African Philosophy , Second edition. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2009.

King, Peter J. One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. London: Quarto Publishing, 2004.

Lamola, M. John. ‘Peter J. King and the transformation of the Philosophical canon: an Africanist appreciation’.  Phronimon, 16, no.1 (2015): 63-77.

Lamola, M. John.  ‘On a Contextual South African Philosophy Curriculum: Towards an option for the excluded’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Decolonisation, Africanisation and the Philosophy Curriculum. London: Routledge 2018, pp.183-189.

Mignolo, Walter. ‘Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom.’ Theory, Culture and Society, 26, no.7 (2009): 1-23.

Stokes, Phillip. Philosophy: One Hundred Essential Thinkers. London: Arcturus Publishing. 2012.

Trombley, Stephen. Fifty Thinkers who shaped the Modern World. London: Atlantis Books, 2012.

Van Norden, Bryan W. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

[1] Parts of this submission are revised paragraphs from this Phronimon article.

[2] See Garfield and Edelglass 2011,461-533 ‘Philosophy in Africa and the Diaspora edited by Albert Mosley and Stephen C. Fergusson II.’

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk.

Fuller, Steve. “‘China’ As the West’s Other in World Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 1-11.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42x

A man practices Taijiquan at the Kongzi Temple in Nanjing.
Image by Slices of Light via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay was previously published in the Journal of World Philosophy, their Summer 2018 issue.

Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto draws on his expertise in Chinese philosophy to launch a comprehensive and often scathing critique of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. I focus on the sense in which “China” figures as a “non-Western culture” in Van Norden’s argument. Here I identify an equivocation between what I call a “functional” and a “substantive” account of culture.

I argue that Van Norden, like perhaps most others who have discussed Chinese philosophy, presupposes a “functional” conception, whereby the relevant sense in which “China” matters is exactly as “non-Western,” which ends up incorporating some exogenous influences such as Indian Buddhism but not any of the Western philosophies that made major inroads in the twentieth century. I explore the implications of the functional/substantive distinction for the understanding of cross-cultural philosophy generally.

Dragging the West Into the World

I first ran across Bryan Van Norden’s understanding of philosophy from a very provocative piece entitled “Why the Western Philosophical Canon Is Xenophobic and Racist,”[1]  which trailed the book now under review. I was especially eager to review it because I had recently participated in a symposium in the Journal of World Philosophies that discussed Chinese philosophy—Van Norden’s own area of expertise—as a basis for launching a general understanding of world philosophy.[2]

However, as it turns out, most of the book is preoccupied with various denigrations of philosophy in contemporary America, from both inside and outside the discipline. The only thing I will say about this aspect of the book is that, even granting the legitimacy of Van Norden’s complaints, I don’t think that arguments around some “ontological” conception of what philosophy “really is” will resolve the matter because these can always be dismissed as self-serving and question-begging.

What could make a difference is showing that a broader philosophical palette would actually make philosophy graduates more employable in an increasingly globalized world. Those like Van Norden who oppose the “Anglo-analytic hegemony” in contemporary philosophy need to argue explicitly that it results in philosophy punching below its weight in terms of potential impact. That philosophy departments of the most analytic sort continue to survive and even flourish, and that their students continue to be employed, should be presented as setting a very low standard of achievement.

After all, philosophy departments tend to recruit students with better than average qualifications, while the costs for maintaining those departments remain relatively low. In contrast, another recent book that raises similar concerns to Van Norden’s, Socrates Tenured (Frodeman and Briggle 2016),[3] is more successful in pointing to extramural strategies for philosophy to pursue a more ambitious vision of general societal relevance.

Challenging How We Understand Culture Itself

But at its best, Taking Back Philosophy forces us to ask: what exactly does “culture” mean in “multicultural” or “cross-cultural” philosophy? For Van Norden, the culture he calls “China” is the exemplar of a non-Western philosophical culture. It refers primarily—if not exclusively—to those strands of Chinese thought associated with its ancient traditions. To be sure, this arguably covers everything that Chinese scholars and intellectuals wrote about prior to the late nineteenth century, when Western ideas started to be regularly discussed. It would then seem to suggest that “China” refers to the totality of its indigenous thought and culture.

But this is not quite right, since Van Norden certainly includes the various intellectually productive engagements that Buddhism as an alien (Indian) philosophy has had with the native Confucian and especially Daoist world-views. Yet he does not seem to want to include the twentieth-century encounters between Confucianism and, say, European liberalism and American pragmatism in the Republican period or Marxism in the Communist period. Here he differs from Leigh Jenco (2010),[4] who draws on the Republican Chinese encounter with various Western philosophies to ground a more general cross-cultural understanding of philosophy.

It would appear that Van Norden is operating with a functional rather than substantive conception of “China” as a philosophical culture. In other words, he is less concerned with all the philosophy that has happened within China than with simply the philosophy in China that makes it “non-Western.” Now some may conclude that this makes Van Norden as ethnocentric as the philosophers he criticizes.

I am happy to let readers judge for themselves on that score. However, functional conceptions of culture are quite pervasive, especially in the worlds of politics and business, whereby culture is treated as a strategic resource to provide a geographic region with what the classical political economist David Ricardo famously called “comparative advantage” in trade.

But equally, Benedict Anderson’s (1983) influential account of nationalism as the construction of “imagined communities” in the context of extricating local collective identities from otherwise homogenizing imperial tendencies would fall in this category. Basically your culture is what you do that nobody else does—or at least does not do as well as you. However, your culture is not the totality of all that you do, perhaps not even what you do most of the time.

To be sure, this is not the classical anthropological conception of culture, which is “substantive” in the sense of providing a systematic inventory of what people living in a given region actually think and do, regardless of any overlap with what others outside the culture think and do. Indeed, anthropologists in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries expected that most of the items in the inventory would come from the outside, the so-called doctrine of “diffusionism.”

Thus, they have tended to stress the idiosyncratic mix of elements that go into the formation of any culture over any dominant principle. This helps explain why nowadays every culture seems to be depicted as a “hybrid.” I would include Jenco’s conception of Chinese culture in this “substantive” conception.

However, what distinguished, say, Victorians like Edward Tylor from today’s “hybrid anthropologists” was that the overlap of elements across cultures was used by the former as a basis for cross-cultural comparisons, albeit often to the detriment of the non-Western cultures involved. This fuelled ambitions that anthropology could be made into a “science” sporting general laws of progress, etc.

My point here is not to replay the history of the struggle for anthropology’s soul, which continues to this day, but simply to highlight a common assumption of the contesting parties—namely, that a “culture” is defined exclusively in terms of matters happening inside a given geographical region, in which case things happening outside the region must be somehow represented inside the region in order to count as part of a given culture. In contrast, the “functional” conception defines “culture” in purely relational terms, perhaps even with primary reference to what is presumed to lie outside a given culture.

Matters of Substance and Function

Both the substantive and the functional conception derive from the modern core understanding of culture, as articulated by Johann Gottfried Herder and the German Idealists, which assumed that each culture possesses an “essence” or “spirit.” On the substantive conception, which was Herder’s own, each culture is distinguished by virtue of having come from a given region, as per the etymological root of “culture” in “agriculture.” In that sense, a culture’s “essence” or “spirit” is like a seed that can develop in various ways depending on the soil in which it is planted.

Indeed, Herder’s teacher, Kant had already used the German Keime (“seeds”) in a book of lectures whose title is often credited with having coined “anthropology” (Wilson 2014).[5] This is the sense of culture that morphs into racialist ideologies. While such racialism can be found in Kant, it is worth stressing that his conception of race does not depend on the sense of genetic fixity that would become the hallmark of twentieth-century “scientific racism.” Rather, Kant appeared to treat “race” as a diagnostic category for environments that hold people back, to varying degrees, from realizing humanity’s full potential.

Here Kant was probably influenced by the Biblical dispersal of humanity, first with Adam’s Fall and then the Noachian flood, which implied that the very presence of different races or cultures marks our species’ decline from its common divine source. Put another way, Kant was committed to what Lamarck called the “inheritance of acquired traits,” though Lamarck lacked Kant’s Biblical declinist backdrop. Nevertheless, they agreed that a sustainably radical change to the environment could decisively change the character of its inhabitants. This marks them both as heirs to the Enlightenment.

To be sure, this reading of Kant is unlikely to assuage either today’s racists or, for that matter, anti-racists or multiculturalists, since it doesn’t assume that the preservation of racial or cultural identity possesses intrinsic (positive or negative) value. In this respect, Kant’s musings on race should be regarded as “merely historical,” based on his fallible second-hand knowledge of how peoples in different parts of the world have conducted their lives.

In fact, the only sense of difference that the German Idealists unequivocally valued was self-individuation, which is ultimately tied to the functional conception of culture, whereby my identity is directly tied to my difference from you. It follows that the boundaries of culture—or the self, for that matter—are moveable feasts. In effect, as your identity changes, mine does as well—and vice versa.

Justifying a New World Order

This is the metaphysics underwriting imperialism’s original liberal capitalist self-understanding as a global free-trade zone. In its ideal form, independent nation-states would generate worldwide prosperity by continually reorienting themselves to each other in response to market pressures. Even if the physical boundaries between nation-states do not change, their relationship to each other would, through the spontaneous generation and diffusion of innovations.

The result would be an ever-changing global division of labor. Of course, imperialism in practice fostered a much more rigid—even racialized—division of labor, as Marxists from Lenin onward decried. Those who nevertheless remain hopeful in the post-imperial era that the matter can ultimately be resolved diagnose the problem as one of “uneven development,” a phrase that leaves a sour aftertaste in the mouths of “post-colonialists.”

But more generally, “functionalism” as a movement in twentieth-century anthropology and sociology tended towards a relatively static vision of social order. And perhaps something similar could be said about Van Norden’s stereotyping of “China.” However, he would be hardly alone. In his magisterial The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, a book which Van Norden does not mention, Randall Collins (1998)[6] adopts a similarly functionalist stance. There it leads to a quite striking result, which has interesting social epistemological consequences.

Although Collins incorporates virtually every thinker that Chinese philosophy experts normally talk about, carefully identifying their doctrinal nuances and scholastic lineages, he ends his treatment of China at the historical moment that happens to coincide with what he marks as a sea change in the fortunes of Western philosophy, which occurs in Europe’s early modern period.

I put the point this way because Collins scrupulously avoids making any of the sorts of ethnocentric judgements that Van Norden rightly castigates throughout his book, whereby China is seen as un- or pre-philosophical. However, there is a difference in attitude to philosophy that emerges in Europe, less in terms of philosophy’s overall purpose than its modus operandi. Collins calls it rapid discovery science.

Rapid discovery science is the idea that standardization in the expression and validation of knowledge claims—both quantitatively and qualitatively—expedites the ascent to higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity by making it easier to record and reproduce contributions in the ongoing discourse. Collins means here not only the rise of mathematical notation to calculate and measure, but also “technical languages,” the mastery of which became the mark of “expertise” in a sense more associated with domain competence than with “wisdom.” In the latter case, the evolution of “peer review” out of the editorial regimentation of scientific correspondence in the early journals played a decisive role (Bazerman 1987).[7]

Citation conventions, from footnotes to bibliographies, were further efficiency measures. Collins rightly stresses the long-term role of universities in institutionalizing these innovations, but of more immediate import was the greater interconnectivity within Europe that was afforded by the printing press and an improved postal system. The overall result, so I believe, was that collective intellectual memory was consolidated to such an extent that intellectual texts could be treated as capital, something to both build upon and radically redeploy—once one has received the right training to access them. These correspond to the phases that Thomas Kuhn called “normal” and “revolutionary” science, respectively.

To be sure, Collins realizes that China had its own stretches in which competing philosophical schools pursued higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity, sometimes with impressive results. But these were maintained solely by the emotional energy of the participants who often dealt with each other directly. Once external events dispersed that energy, then the successors had to go back to a discursive “ground zero” of referring to original texts and reinventing arguments.

Can There Be More Than One Zero Point?

Of course, the West has not been immune to this dynamic. Indeed, it has even been romanticized. A popular conception of philosophy that continues to flourish at the undergraduate level is that there can be no genuine escape from origins, no genuine sense of progress. It is here that Alfred North Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato gets taken a bit too seriously.

In any case, Collins’ rapid discovery science was specifically designed to escape just this situation, which Christian Europe had interpreted as the result of humanity’s fallen state, a product of Adam’s “Original Sin.” This insight figured centrally in the Augustinian theology that gradually—especially after the existential challenge that Islam posed to Christendom in the thirteenth century—began to color how Christians viewed their relationship to God, the source of all knowing and being. The Protestant Reformation marked a high watermark in this turn of thought, which became the crucible in which rapid discovery science was forged in the seventeenth century. Since the 1930s, this period has been called the “Scientific Revolution” (Harrison 2007).[8]

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, all appeals to authority potentially became not sources of wisdom but objects of suspicion. They had to undergo severe scrutiny, which at the time were often characterized as “trials of faith.” Francis Bacon, the personal lawyer to England’s King James I, is a pivotal figure because he clearly saw continuity from the Inquisition in Catholic Europe (which he admired, even though it ensnared his intellectual ally Galileo), through the “witch trials” pursued by his fellow Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic, to his own innovation—the “crucial experiment”—which would be subsequently enshrined as the hallmark of the scientific method, most energetically by Karl Popper.

Bacon famously developed his own “hermeneutic of suspicion” as proscriptions against what he called “idols of the mind,” that is, lazy habits of thought that are born of too much reliance on authority, tradition, and surface appearances generally. For Bacon and his fellow early modern Christians, including such Catholics as Rene Descartes, these habits bore the mark of Original Sin because they traded on animal passions—and the whole point of the human project is to rise above our fallen animal natures to recover our divine birthright.

The cultural specificity of this point is often lost, even on Westerners for whom the original theological backdrop seems no longer compelling. What is cross-culturally striking about the radical critique of authority posed by the likes of Bacon and Descartes is that it did not descend into skepticism, even though—especially in the case of Descartes—the skeptical challenge was explicitly confronted. What provided the stopgap was faith, specifically in the idea that once we recognize our fallen nature, redemption becomes possible by finding a clearing on which to build truly secure foundations for knowledge and thereby to redeem the human condition, God willing.

For Descartes, this was “cogito ergo sum.” To be sure, the “God willing” clause, which was based on the doctrine of Divine Grace, became attenuated in the eighteenth century as “Providence” and then historicized as “Progress,” finally disappearing altogether with the rising tide of secularism in the nineteenth century (Löwith 1949; Fuller 2010: chap. 8).[9]

But its legacy was a peculiar turn of mind that continually seeks a clearing to chart a path to the source of all meaning, be it called “God” or “Truth.” This is what makes three otherwise quite temperamentally different philosophers—Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger—equally followers in Descartes’ footsteps. They all prioritized clearing a space from which to proceed over getting clear about the end state of the process.

Thus, the branches of modern Western philosophy concerned with knowledge—epistemology and the philosophy of science—have been focused more on methodology than axiology, that is, the means rather than the ends of knowledge. While this sense of detachment resonates with, say, the Buddhist disciplined abandonment of our default settings to become open to a higher level of state of being, the intellectual infrastructure provided by rapid discovery science allows for an archive to be generated that can be extended and reflected upon indefinitely by successive inquirers.

Common Themes Across Continents

A good way to see this point is that in principle the Buddhist and, for that matter, the Socratic quest for ultimate being could be achieved in one’s own lifetime with sufficient dedication, which includes taking seriously the inevitability of one’s own physical death. In contrast, the modern Western quest for knowledge—as exemplified by science—is understood as a potentially endless intergenerational journey in which today’s scientists effectively lead vicarious lives for the sake of how their successors will regard them.

Indeed, this is perhaps the core ethic promoted in Max Weber’s famous “Science as a Vocation” lecture (Fuller 2015: chap. 3).[10] Death as such enters, not to remind scientists that they must eventually end their inquiries but that whatever they will have achieved by the end of their lives will help pave the way for others to follow.

Heidegger appears as such a “deep” philosopher in the West because he questioned the metaphysical sustainability of the intellectual infrastructure of rapid discovery science, which the Weberian way of death presupposes. Here we need to recall that Heidegger’s popular reception was originally mediated by the postwar Existentialist movement, which was fixated on the paradoxes of the human condition thrown up by Hiroshima, whereby the most advanced science managed to end the biggest war in history by producing a weapon with the greatest chance of destroying humanity altogether in the future. Not surprisingly, Heidegger has proved a convenient vehicle for Westerners to discover Buddhism.

Early Outreach? Or Appropriation?

Finally, it is telling that the Western philosopher whom Van Norden credits with holding China in high esteem, Leibniz, himself had a functional understanding of China. To be sure, Leibniz was duly impressed by China’s long track record of imperial rule at the political, economic, and cultural levels, all of which were the envy of Europe. But Leibniz honed in on one feature of Chinese culture—what he took to be its “ideographic” script—which he believed could provide the intellectual infrastructure for a global project of organizing and codifying all knowledge so as to expedite its progress.

This was where he thought China had a decisive “comparative advantage” over the West. Clearly Leibniz was a devotee of rapid discovery science, and his project—shared by many contemporaries across Europe—would be pursued again to much greater effect two hundred years later by Paul Otlet, the founder of modern library and information science, and Otto Neurath, a founding member of the logical positivist movement.

While the Chinese regarded their written characters as simply a medium for people in a far-flung empire to communicate easily with each other, Leibniz saw in them the potential for collaboration on a universal scale, given that each character amounted to a picture of an abstraction, the metaphorical rendered literal, a message that was not simply conveyed but embedded in the medium. It seemed to satisfy the classical idea of nous, or “intellectual intuition,” as a kind of perception, which survives in the phrase, “seeing with the mind’s eye.”

However, the Chinese refused to take Leibniz’s bait, which led him to begin a train of thought that culminated in the so-called Needham Thesis, which turns on why Earth’s most advanced civilization, China, failed to have a “Scientific Revolution” (Needham 1969; Fuller 1997: chap. 5).[11] Whereas Leibniz was quick to relate Chinese unreceptiveness to his proposal to their polite but firm rejection of the solicitations of Christian missionaries, Joseph Needham, a committed Marxist, pointed to the formal elements of the distinctive cosmology promoted by the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, that China lacked—but stopping short of labelling the Chinese “heathens.”

An interesting feature of Leibniz’s modus operandi is that he saw cross-cultural encounters as continuous with commerce (Perkins 2004).[12]  No doubt his conception was influenced by living at a time when the only way a European could get a message to China was through traders and missionaries, who typically travelled together. But he also clearly imagined the resulting exchange as a negotiation in which each side could persuade the other to shift their default positions to potential mutual benefit.

This mentality would come to be crucial to the dynamic mentality of capitalist political economy, on which Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage was based. However, the Chinese responded to their European counterparts with hospitality but only selective engagement with their various intellectual and material wares, implying their unwillingness to be fluid with what I earlier called “self-individuation.”

Consequently, Europeans only came to properly understand Chinese characters in the mid-nineteenth century, by which time it was treated as a cultural idiosyncrasy, not a platform for pursuing universal knowledge. That world-historic moment for productive engagement had passed—for reasons that Marxist political economy adequately explains—and all subsequent attempts at a “universal language of thought” have been based on Indo-European languages and Western mathematical notation.

China is not part of this story at all, and continues to suffer from that fact, notwithstanding its steady ascendancy on the world stage over the past century. How this particular matter is remedied should focus minds interested in a productive future for cross-cultural philosophy and multiculturalism more generally. But depending on what we take the exact problem to be, the burden of credit and blame across cultures will be apportioned accordingly.

Based on the narrative that I have told here, I am inclined to conclude that the Chinese underestimated just how seriously Europeans like Leibniz took their own ideas. This in turn raises some rather deep questions about the role that a shift in the balance of plausibility away from “seeing with one’s own eyes” and towards “seeing with the mind’s eye” has played in the West’s ascendancy.

Conclusion

I began this piece by distinguishing a “substantive” and a “functional” approach to culture because even theorists as culturally sensitive as Van Norden and Collins adopt a “functional” rather than a “substantive” approach. They defend and elaborate China as a philosophical culture in purely relational terms, based on its “non-Western” character.

This leads them to include, say, Chinese Buddhism but not Chinese Republicanism or Chinese Communism—even though the first is no less exogenous than the second two to “China,” understood as the land mass on which Chinese culture has been built over several millennia. Of course, this is not to take away from Van Norden’s or Collins’ achievements in reminding us of the continued relevance of Chinese philosophical culture.

Yet theirs remains a strategically limited conception designed mainly to advance an argument about Western philosophy. Here Collins follows the path laid down by Leibniz and Needham, whereas Van Norden takes that argument and flips it against the West—or, rather, contemporary Western philosophy. The result in both cases is that “China” is instrumentalized for essentially Western purposes.

I have no problem whatsoever with this approach (which is my own), as long as one is fully aware of its conceptual implications, which I’m not sure that Van Norden is. For example, he may think that his understanding of Chinese philosophical culture is “purer” than, say, Leigh Jenco’s, which focuses on a period with significant Western influence. However, this is “purity” only in the sense of an “ideal type” of the sort the German Idealists would have recognized as a functionally differentiated category within an overarching system.

In Van Norden’s case, that system is governed by the West/non-West binary. Thus, there are various ways to be “Western” and various ways to be “non-Western” for Van Norden. Van Norden is not sufficiently explicit about this logic. The alternative conceptual strategy would be to adopt a “substantive” approach to China that takes seriously everything that happens within its physical borders, regardless of origin. The result would be the more diffuse, laundry list approach to culture that was championed by the classical anthropologists, for which “hybrid” is now the politically correct term.

To be sure, this approach is not without its own difficulties, ranging from a desire to return to origins (“racialism”) to forced comparisons between innovator and adopter cultures. But whichever way one goes on this matter, “China” remains a contested concept in the context of world philosophy.

Contact details: s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk

References

Bazerman, Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Frodeman, Robert; Adam Briggle. Socrates Tenured. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

Fuller, Steve. Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences. Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997.

Fuller, Steve. Science: The Art of Living. Durham UK: Acumen, 2010.

Fuller, Steve. Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. London: Routledge, 2015.

Harrison, Peter. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Jenco, Leigh. Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Jenco, Leigh; Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145.

Löwith, Karl. Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Needham, Joseph. The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

Perkins, Franklin. Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Van Norden, Bryan. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Wilson, Catherine. “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide. Edited by A. Cohen. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014: 191-210.

[1] Bryan Van Norden, “Western Philosophy is Racist,” (https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-western-philosophical-canon-is-xenophobic-and-racist; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[2] See: Leigh Jenco, Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145 (https://scholarworks.iu.edu/iupjournals/index.php/jwp/article/view/1261/128; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[3] Robert Frodeman, and Adam Briggle, Socrates Tenured (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

[4] Leigh Jenco, Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[5] Catherine Wilson, “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide, ed. A. Cohen (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 191-210.

[6] Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[7] Charles Bazerman, Shaping Written Knowledge (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

[8] Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[9] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949); Steve Fuller, Science: The Art of Living (Durham UK: Acumen, 2010).

[10] Steve Fuller, Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History (London: Routledge, 2015).

[11] Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969); Steve Fuller, Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences (Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997).

[12] Franklin Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Author Information: Priyadarshini Vijaisri, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, vijaisri@csds.in.

Vijaisri, Priyadarshini. “The Turn of Postscript Narratives.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10. (2018): 22-27.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41H

Image by Ian D. Keating via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Recalcitrant narratives are ever relegated to the status of dispensable appendages of dominant ideological and epistemic regimes. Vaditya’s paper captures the turn of such postscript narratives’ epistemic concerns that are gaining critical significance in African, Latin American and Asian countries, emerging from intellectual and sociopolitical movements within and outside the Western context.

The driving force being the inadequacy of Eurocentric philosophical and epistemology to engage with contra Western cosmologies and the critical recognition that epistemology is no pure science but mediated by ideologies, shaped by historical factors and undergird by institutionalized epistemic suppression and entrenched in power. Such turn fundamentally foregrounds fidelity to ‘fact’ and universe of study rather than acquiesce to epistemic mimesis and has immense potential to bring in critical reflexivity into newer disciplines like exclusion and discrimination created precisely due to the failure of traditional disciplines to deal with issues concerning the marginalized.

Prior to making some very preliminary points to think about future directions in exploration of these issues would require recognizing problems dominant epistemic practices pose, especially in thinking about marginality in the Indian context. Proposed here is a promising mode of enquiry to disentangle the over-determined idea of the oppressed, i.e., the aesthetic frame.

An Essence of Oppression

It is increasingly recognized that the predominance of western epistemology based on dualism, certitude, and mechanistic conception of the universe is culmination of negation of contra episteme, worldviews and technologies. Its methodological and ideological epistemic filters occlude range of ideas, experiences and processes from its purview that can barely pass through scientific rationalist sieve or appear within a specific form; power should appear in the political, reason must be untainted by emotion, fact must correspond to the principle of bivalence, and true belief could be certified as knowledge if it arrived in a particular mode, any non-rational detour could consign it to false knowledge – deformed episteme, methodless technologies, illogical mythical, irrational sensorial etc.

Thus, the simmering discontent in non-western societies, especially its marginalized collectivities, against a soliloquy of the western rational self which entitles itself as arbitration of true knowledge; and whose provenance of authority is expanded and reinforced by its apologists outside itself by virtue of institutionalization of epistemic authority in the image of the western ‘form’. Such that the West is the transcendental form, and replication being impossibility, the rest are at best ‘copies’ or duplicitous entities whose trajectory is deeply bound to the center.

For the diverse ideologies, grounded in positivism and enlightenment philosophy, the non-Western subjects (especially the marginalized amongst them) are the feral boys, who have accidentally strayed into civilization and ought step into universal history to reclaim humanness. Such modernist discourses riddled with a priori conceptions have impoverished the oppressed and resulted in mystification and entrenched impertinence towards other cognitive modes has caused damage both in representations of and self-representations by the non-west/marginalized on the validity and relevance of their forms of knowing, and technologies.

The crisis in Marxist politics and ideological framework, despite its brief revolutionary spells and significant role in generating radical consciousness in few regions, is too evident despite its entrenchment in the academia. While it has rendered native categories and non-western world as regressive deviance the crisis is reflected in politics too, with exit of oppressed from the Marxist bands, paradoxically due to its own convoluted caste bias and negative valuation of their worldviews.

Inversely, the Subaltern subject is a peculiar species whose appearance and consciousness in finitude nature of appearances/traces is at best mediated, its very essence or ephemeral ontology simply lost in the many layers of obfuscating consciousness; an ontology of the disembodied subject. Thus, the Freirean pedagogic vision was in India at best an inadvertent idyllic where the epistemic base for liberation couldn’t take off, given the many ‘lacks’ in the subject/cognitive agent and distorted worldview and materiality. It is against this history of many interstices in cartographies of repression that B. Sousas Santos’s subversive stance resonates and foregrounds break from the epistemic center as a necessary condition for emancipation.

Diversity and Homogeneity

Thus, standpoint perspectives’ critique of positivism marks a fundamental shift making legible/accountable cognitive agency and diversification and revitalization of discursive space. Positivist epistemology’s conception of scientism and universalism (unadulterated by particularities) is consequence of homogenization, which allows for transposition of singular particularity (of the West) as the universal. Scientific method by implication is premised on the presupposition that truths and representations are products of cognitive process free from cultural and ideological bias.

Thus, the conception of the knower as outside the world of enquiry by implication reinforces a positivist common sense, that errors/distortions are solely a consequence of method, absolving the epistemic agency (complicity/accountability) of the knower, precluding recognition of the nature of relation between epistemology and worldview. While, epistemology originates in the need for exposition and justification of ontological and metaphysical truth claims. As such it creates discursive space both within particular philosophical tradition and outside it for debate and justification of its claims and thus epistemology is a collective dialogical process and open to critique and revision.

Thus, within Indian philosophical tradition deeply antithetical ideas (eg., multiplicity of standpoints on truth or ideas of self/selves/non-self) could be disputed/conceded as a consequence of epistemic plurality and debate (as exemplified in the theory of sources of knowledge).

Worldviews/structures are founded on cultural substratum with their own rendering of the ontology of ideas/mental artifacts- i.e., the cognitive, unconscious/conscious and experiential states by which axiomatic truths are arrived at from the seamless flows between intuition, reason, emotion etc. Such ontology is complexly interwoven with the distinctive conceptions of self and effect the ways in which the knower is defined in relation to the objects of knowledge or the phenomenal world. Application of a mechanistic worldview or historical materialism is incapable of engaging with entirely different universalisms opposed to it.

Also, while dominant codified systems offer coherent theories in grasping the essence of ideas, understanding oral tradition is beset with problems over form and validity of knowledge. In speech traditions codified text (of art, technology or knowledge practices) where knowledge and skills are transmitted orally by collectivities textualization marks a crisis in a culture. Text at best is instrumental for purposes of legible affinity or entitlements rarely a referent for practice or validation of epistemic claims.[1]. Failure to appreciate such epistemic practices have resulted in repression of technologies and cognitive systems of the marginalized as invalid forms of knowledge.

Genuinely Overcoming Domination

This double bind of falsified traditional representations and positivist accounts have led to creative explosion of other representative forms that enable more critical introspection as in literature, fiction and the autobiographical. Dominant ‘disciplinary matrix’ overlooks ‘crisis’ as a dissoluble diversion. Such politics of knowledge fetters the marginalized in a double bind; tradition has its own pernicious facets while modernity, (its antidote to internal repression and non-recognition), and its evocation serve as a justification of the credibility of such episteme and politics.

Struggles of emancipation find legitimacy within a specific mode, i.e., through eliciting proof of their abomination-the prototypical ideal of the oppressed, and irreverence to oppressive tradition. This entails a conscious repression of histories and traditional forms of cultural critique, grounded in a logic and worldview that is in contradiction with modern values. It is within this contradictory pull of modern/negation of tradition and pathos and pre-modern/positive self-affirmation that the consciousness of the oppressed wrestles given the distortion of these spaces with the privileging of textual and singular dominant historical and cultural representations. Abandoning such discourses constricts routes to retrace the lost epistemic/metaphysical ground and its non-redundancy via folk cultures and further obstructs the resources for a grounded critical subject.

It would be erroneous to assume that the domain of the marginalized is distorted/disjointed part of the whole, incapable of unfolding universals or coherent systems. Claims to validity of such cognitive systems and technologies rest on its firm anchoring within the whole. By nature of inherence constituent parts of a whole possess the potential to reveal the whole. Thus, the margins is a site of immense potentiality, as signifier of a space that has no fixed or categorical relation with any single institutionalized or hegemonic discourse. Its potentiality rests in refractory power and thereby offers pathways to retrace the basic organizing principles of Indic systems of knowledge.

The evidence for such epistemology is offered in the perceptible folk/marginalized non-androcentric worldview. Such universe as a play of elements, the distinctive ontology of the elemental body, transfigures the conception of and interrelatedness between spirit and matter, non-human entities, spatiality and the many planes of existence and states of consciousness and their relevance for relating to realities beyond conscious mind, the value attributed to work untethered with profit, meaning of and relation with land, difference/hierarchies, ethics, the cyclical nature of time, etc.

This metaphysical substratum mediated by and enlivened through enactments, myths, rituals, customs as part of coherent system is formative of Indic universalism and it is this shared ground that is expressive of the inherence of truth claims of the marginalized discourses. Undeniably, presentation and disputations against dominance, violations and counterclaims manifest within this form and experience. The material artifact, a product of collective labor, itself becomes a universal metaphor for positive self-affirmation, and re-imagination of the universe, radically centering collective self in cosmology. The modern conceptions of labor, materiality and individualism substitute such aesthetic with a mechanistic and atomistic worldview.

The Validity of Validity

The hegemonic deontic texts and archives with a purposive language enunciate a desired ideal and a ‘fact’ isolating it from the diffuse cognitive/cultural system and can barely provide a clue to the aesthetic. What then are the sources of validity of such folk beliefs and experience? This question strikes at the core of any epistemology founded in orality; ‘uncodified’ technologies, cognitive systems and experience and problematizes the naive idea of the detached knower and the distant object of knowledge. Such an enquiry necessitates understanding the general folk epistemic orientation and the identifiable connections between the folk and the classical to grasp the continuities and disjunctions.

The folk is the proximate arche and constitutes the substratum of a culture. Pervasion of orality signifies its primal quality in virtue of which it transcends the definitive value attributed to it in philosophical and epistemic practices. Thus, its validity lies as much as its locus within the general knowledge tradition as its inherence to ontology and synchrony with the essence of its cosmology. Given the current limitations some very basic links can be identified between folk modes of knowing and ‘formal’ epistemology.

Word or testimony/sabda is recognized, though not uncontested, among most schools of Indian epistemology as a valid source of knowledge, and has two broad conceptualizations; one in terms of the self-evident, infalliable truth of the Vedic scriptures and the other the truth claim of statements of reliable person accompanied by necessary conditions (absence of deceit and specific form of presentation). Uniqueness of orality is evidenced by the creative combination of various skills of narration, argumentation and presentation/artistic representation in highly stylized form involving a sensibility and intimacy different from Mimamsa hermeneutics and Nyaya logic.

Another shared epistemic resource is analogy/upamana with divergent conceptualization as source of knowledge and subject to intricate analysis. Generally it is a specific type of cognition generating new knowledge through similarities or resemblances.  For folk cultures analogy possess a truth bearing quality, as a proof of an idea, wise dictum of deontic value that shed light in times of moral dilemma, or exposition of a metaphysical truth.

Analogical reasoning for the folk has special significance as a didactic and literary device to elicit truth, in establishing common ground, in grounding disputes and subversion and allows for seamless flows of ideas and experiences. Off the repertoire of the reliable knowers analogical and logical reasoning is a skill cultivated optimally.

Thus, self-evident truth of such beliefs are referents of ‘facts’ or of factive collective experience whose meaning and value is tied to and codified in custom, mythologies, collective rites, festivities, everyday life and tales people tell about themselves and others. Thus, orality has a very distinctive metaphysical and epistemic value in this context.

It thus cannot be strictly translated as orality for in subsumption of other epistemic forms it radically attains a quality of universalism. Sustained by specialized communities (genealogists/bards) as testifiers/transmitters of such primal truths untethered by external justification, verdicality is intrinsic in its efficacious quality to produce culturally desired goals and reconfiguration of the world. It gains legitimacy from collectivities that participate in its recreation with the knowers.

Subversive Aesthetic

Such being the overarching frame of reference subversion and conflict are presented in specific cultural forms that resonate with the spirit of the whole. Such an aesthetic mode (continuous with the theory of emotions/rasa vada) is grounded in a positive valuation of emotions and sense experience different from western aesthetics/formalism. Emotions in folk aesthetic have a positive value as catalytic states for realization of higher states of being and grasping of truth, of the heroic, and refinement. If any it is the marginalized who have sustained the robust tradition of aesthetic as it is in this form that their representations of their self and the world are anchored.

Ironically, Nietzsche would have found an unlikely protagonist in the ‘Pariah’! Inevitably, any systematic exploration of aesthetic, and its cultural trajectories would mandate a return to its basic connotation as relating to sense(s)/perception, for discerning root categories, foundational to epistemology and metaphysics.  It then becomes possible to trace the broad trajectory of primacy accorded to reason and its affinity with sense of sight in western thought (from the Platonic allegories, idea of panoptican vision, concept of gaze) to its deployment as a mechanism of power, (as in racial differentiation, color being secondary property of vision) and technologies of surveillance. Any uncritical application of such concepts, originating within a particular historical context, to non-Western contexts obscures other realities, mechanisms of power and worldviews founded on contrary conceptualization of the senses.

Thus, sustainability of critical ‘pluriversal’ epistemology demands an investment in comparative philosophy/epistemology. It would be a fallacy to assume that engaging with the oppressed is little more than working on the fringes, with the residue of dominant knowledge systems. These vital sites allow for looking at the whole from the peripheries in enriching ways and paradoxically as one of the solid anchors by which to retrace the credence and rootedness of culture specific epistemological traditions in its critique of traditional forms of oppression.

To maximize the progress made thus far entails identifying newer sources of knowledge, exploring knowledge practices, generating root concepts that can enable coherent understanding of the many universalisms in comparativist perspective. Fundamentally, such quests are about restitution of lost ground of the oppressed, undoing the immeasurable damage of epistemic stigmatization through demystification of hegemonic myths and repositioning of and meaningful dialogue across alternative ethical cosmologies.

Contact details: vijaisri@csds.in

References

Friere, Paulo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Obeyesekere, Gananatha. The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Matilal, B. K., A. Chakrabarti. Knowing from Words: Western and Indian Philosophical Analysis of Understanding and Testimony Dordrecht: Springer Science Business Media, 1994.

Sarukkai, Sundar. What is Science? Delhi: National Book Trust India, 2012.

de Sousa Santos, Baoventura. Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. London: Routledge, 2014.

Vaditya, Venkatesh. “Social Domination and Epistemic Marginalisation: Towards Methodology of the Oppressed,” Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1444111, 2018.

[1] Observations are based on folk/marginalized communities of Southern India wherein knowledge is hereditarily transmitted. For example, communities have cultural mechanisms for transmission of particular types of knowledge within each community, for example among the leather workers, potters, ironsmiths, masons, sculptors, stone cutters, artists, toddy tapers, rope makers, weavers, washermen, healers, acrobats, jugglers, nomads, and tribals etc.