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Author Information: Jim Butcher, Canterbury Christ Church University, jim.butcher@canterbury.ac.uk.

Butcher, Jim. “Questioning the Epistemology of Decolonise: The Case of Geography.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 12-24.

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

Maori dancers about to perform at the 2017 Turangawaewae Regatta in New Zealand.
Image by Hone Tho via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This paper was prompted by the prominence of new arguments in favour of ‘decolonising geography. This was taken by the 2017 Royal Geographical Society–Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IGB) annual conference as its theme, with many preparatory papers in Area and Transactions and sessions organised around this. In both, to ‘decolonise’ was presented as an imperative for geography as a field of study, and for all geographers within it, to address urgently (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017; Jazeel, 2017).

In the USA, the annual American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference in New Orleans of 2018 also featured a number of well attended sessions that took the same perspective. The number of journal articles published advocating decolonialism has also increased sharply in the last two years.

The spirit in which this paper is written is supportive of new debates in the academy, and supportive of the equality goals of decolonise. However it takes issue with important assumptions that, it is argued, will not advance the cause of marginalised or of geography as a discipline.

The paper is in three related parts, each written in the spirit of raising debate. First it considers the principal knowledge claim of decolonise: that a distinctly Western epistemology presents itself as a universal way of knowing, and that this is complicit in colonialism of the past and coloniality of the present through its undermining of a pluriverse of ontologies and consequent diversity of epistemologies (Sundberg, 2014; Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). The paper also illustrates further how this principle of decolonialism is articulated in some key geographical debates. It then highlights a number of contradictions in and questions with this epistemological claim.

Second, decolonialism’s critique of universalist epistemology is effectively, and often explicitly, a critique of the Enlightenment, as Enlightenment humanism established knowledge as a product of universal rationality rather that varied cultures or deities (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014). The paper argues that decolonialism marks a retreat from what was positive about the Enlightenment tradition: the capacity of (geographical) knowledge to transcend time and place, and hence act as universal knowledge.

In conclusion I briefly broach the value of decolonising geography in terms of its claim to be challenging injustice. I suggest that a truly humanist and universalist approach to knowledge has more to offer geographers seeking ways to tackle inequality and differential access to the process of producing knowledge than has the epistemic relativism of decolonize.

The Epistemological Claim of Decolonise

One of the claims made prominently at the conference and elsewhere by advocates of decolonisation is that geographical knowledge can be ‘Western’ (Radcliffe, 2017), ‘Eurocentric’ (Jazeel, 2017) ‘colonial’ (Baldwin, 2017; Noxolo, 2017) or ‘imperial’ (Tolia-Kelly, 2017; Connell, 2007 & 2017). This is not just a question of a close link between geographical knowledge and Western interests per se – it is well established that geographical understanding has developed through and been utilised for partial, often brutal, interests. For example, one of the principal figures in the history of UK geography, Halford Mackinder, regarded geography as central to Britain’s colonial mission (Livingstone, 1992).

At issue here is an epistemological one: Do the ideas, theories and techniques that today’s geographers have inherited constitute a universal geographical tradition of human knowledge to be passed on, built upon and critiqued, or; are the ideas, theories and techniques themselves ‘saturated in colonialism’ (Radcliffe, 2017: 329) and hence part of a particular system of knowledge in urgent need of decolonisation.

In his advocacy of decolonialism, Grosfoguel (2007: 212) argues that it is wrong to say that ‘there is one sole epistemic tradition from which to achieve truth and universality’. Rather, he and other decolonial theorists argue for a pluriverse – a variety of ways of knowing corresponding to different historical experience and culture (Sundberg, 2014; Mignolo, 2013).

Decolonialism holds that systems of knowledge existing in colonised societies were effectively undermined by the false universal claims of the West, claims that were in turn inextricably bound up with colonialism itself. Hence in this formulation the persistence of the ‘sole epistemic tradition’ of ‘the West’ well after formal decolonisation has taken place ensures the continuation of a discriminatory culture of ‘coloniality’ (Grosfoguel, ibid.).

As a result it is not deemed sufficient to oppose colonialism or its legacy within the parameters of contemporary (geographical) thought, as that thought is itself the product of a Western epistemology complicit in colonialism and the denial of other ways of knowing. Jazeel quotes Audre Lorde to accentuate this: ‘the masters tools will never demolish the masters house’ (2017: 335).

This leads decolonial theory to argue that there needs to be a delinking from Western colonial epistemology (Mignolo, 2007). Here they part company with many post-colonial, liberal and Left arguments against colonialism and racism and for national independence and equal rights. These latter perspectives are viewed as unable to demolish the ‘masters house’, as they are using the ‘master’s tools’.

For Grosfoguel, rights – the basis around which almost all liberation struggles have been fought for the last 250 years – are ‘ … articulated to the simultaneous production and reproduction of an international division of labour of core / periphery that overlaps with the global racial / ethnic hierarchy of Europeans / non-Europeans’ (2007: 214). Rights discourse, as with ‘Western’ knowledge, is regarded as part of a Cartesian ‘Western global design’ (ibid.).

The relationship to the Enlightenment, then, is key. Enlightenment ideas are associated with modernity: the mastery of nature by people, as well as notions of rights and the social contract that influenced the development of the modern state. But for decolonial thinkers, modernity itself is inextricably tied to colonialism (Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). Hence the challenge for decolonisation is to oppose not just colonialism and inequality, but also the Enlightenment universalism that shapes academic disciplines and fields including geography (ibid.).

Decolonial theory proposes in its stead the pluriverse of ways of knowing (Sundberg, 2014). For example (Blaser, 2012: 7) writes of a ‘pluriverse with multiple and distinct ontologies or worlds’ that ‘bring themselves into being and sustain themselves even as they interact, interfere and mingle with each other’ under asymmetrical circumstances (my italics). Effectively this answers philosopher Ernest Gellner’s rhetorical question: ‘Is there but one world or are there many’ (Gellner,1987: 83) with the clear answer ‘many’.

It is important at this point to distinguish between a plurality of ideas, influences and cultures, as opposed to a pluriverse of ontologies; different worlds. The former is uncontentious – openness to ideas from other societies has to be progressive, and this is evident throughout history, if not self evident.

Cities and ports have played an important role in the mixing of cultures and ideas, and often have proved to be the drivers of scientific and social advance. Scientists have learned much from traditional practices, and have been able to systematise and apply that knowledge in other contexts. Equally, reviewing curricula to consider the case for the inclusion of different concepts, theories and techniques is a worthwhile exercise.

A pluriverse of ways of knowing has much greater implications, as it posits diverse systems of knowledge as opposed to a diversity of viewpoints per se.

The Debate in Geography

The RGS-IGB 2017 Annual Conference call for sessions set out the aim of decolonising geographical knowledges as being to ‘to query implicitly universal claims to knowledges associated with the west, and further interrogate how such knowledges continue to marginalise and discount places, people, knowledges across the world’ (RGS-IGB, 2017).

Recent papers advocating decolonise argue in similar vein. Radcliffe argues that: ‘Decolonial writers argue that the modern episteme is always and intrinsically saturated with coloniality’ (2017: 329), hence the need to be alert to ‘multiple, diverse epistemic and ethical projects’ and to ‘delink’ from ‘Euro-American frameworks’ (ibid. 330). She goes on to argue that decoloniality should cover all aspects of geographical education: ‘racism and colonial modern epistemic privileging are often found in students selection and progress; course design, curriculum content; pedagogies; staff recruitment; resource allocation; and research priorities and debates’ (ibid. 331).

This challenge to the development of knowledge as a universal human endeavour, across history and culture, is often regarded not only as an issue for geographers, but is posed as a moral and political imperative (Elliot-Cooper, 2017; Jazeel, 2017 ). For Elliott-Cooper:

Geographers sit at a historical crossroads in academia, and there is no middle, benevolent way forward. We can either attempt to ignore, and implicitly reproduce the imperial logics that have influenced the shape of British geography since its inception, or actively rethink and dismantle imperialism’s afterlife by unlearning the unjust global hierarchies of knowledge production on which much of the Empires legitimacy was based. (2017:334)

To see contemporary geography as an expression of ‘imperialism’s afterlife’ serves to dramatically reinforce a sense of geographical knowledge – knowledge itself, not its origin or application – as ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’. This approach often involves eschewing one’s own, or ‘Western’, knowledge in favour of that of marginalised people. Two academics, reflecting on their teaching, state: ‘Our efforts do not even begin to live up to decolonial land based pedagogies being implemented across indigenous communities‘ (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017: 339).

This deference to ‘land based pedagogies’, speaks to an eschewal modern geographical knowledge and method in favour of a plurality of knowledges, but with authority granted on the basis of indigeneity. Noxolo makes a similar case, arguing that ‘[t]here are material conditions of experience out of which both postcolonial and, crucially decolonial, writings emerge’ (2017: 342). Emphasis is placed on intellectual authority of the lived experience of the marginalised.

We may well want to read something due to the experience of the writer, or to consider how a society gathers information, precisely in order to begin to understand perspectives and conditions of others who’s lives may be very different to our own. But these writings enter into a world of ideas, theories and techniques in which individual geographers can judge their usefulness, veracity and explanatory power. The extent to which they are judged favourably as knowledge may well depend upon how far they transcend the conditions in which they were produced rather than their capacity to represent varied experience.

This is not at all to denigrate accounts based more directly upon lived experience and the diverse techniques and ideas that arise out of that, but simply to recognise the importance of generalisation, systematisation and abstraction in the production of knowledge that can have a universal veracity and capacity to help people in any context to understand and act upon the world we collectively inhabit.

Contradictions: Geography’s History and Darwin

There is a strong case against the epistemic relativism of decolonialism. Geographical thought is premised upon no more and no less that the impulse to understand the world around us in order to act upon it, whether we seek to conserve, harness or transform. Geographical knowledge qua knowledge is not tied to place, person or context in the way decolonise assumes – it is better understood not as the product of a pluriverse of ways of knowing the world, but a diverse universe of experience.

From ancient Greece onwards, and indeed prior to that, human societies have developed the capacity to act upon the world in pursuit of their ends, and to reflect upon their role in doing that. Geography – ‘earth writing’ – a term first used in 3,000 BC by scholars in Alexandria, is part of that humanistic tradition. From Herodotus mapping the Nile and considering its flow in 450 BC, up to today’s sophisticated Geographical Information Systems, knowledge confers the capacity to act.

How elites act is shaped by their societies and what they considered to be their political and economic goals. But the knowledge and techniques developed provide the basis for subsequent developments in knowledge, often in quite different societies. Knowledge and technique cross boundaries – the greater the capacity to travel and trade, the greater too the exchange of ideas on map making, agriculture, navigation and much else.

The 15th century explorer Prince Henry the Navigator acted in the interests of the Portuguese crown and instigated the slave trade, but was also a midwife to modern science. He was intrigued by the myth of Prester John, yet he also helped to see off the myths of seamonsters. His discoveries fueled a questioning of the notion that knowledge came from the external authority of a god, and a growing scientific spirit began to decentre mysticism and religion, a process that was later consolidated in the Enlightenment (Livingstone, 1992). Geographical knowledge – including that you were not going to sail off the end of the world, and that sea monsters are not real – stands as knowledge useful for any society or any individual, irrespective of Portugal’s leading role in the slave trade at this time.

So whilst of course it is important to consider and study the people, the society and interests involved in the production of knowledge, is also important to see knowledge’s universal potential. This is something downplayed by the calls to decolonise – knowledge and even technique seem at times to be tainted by the times in which they were developed and by the individuals who did the developing.

Deciding what is the best of this, always a worthy pursuit, may involve re-evaluating contributions from a variety of sources. Involvement in these sources, in the production of knowledge, may be shaped by national or racial oppression, poverty and access to resources, but it has little to do with epistemic oppression (Fricker, 1999).

Take for example, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1998, original 1859). Darwin’s research involved all of the features regarded as ‘imperial’ by Connell (2007) and by other advocates of decolonialism: an association with the military (The Beagle was a military ship) and the use of others’ societies for data gathering without their consent or involvement. The voyage was funded by the British state who were engaged in colonial domination. Geography and scientific voyages were closely linked with imperial ambition (Livingstone, 1992).

Yet Darwin’s theory marked a major breakthrough in the understanding of evolution regardless of this context. As an explorer sponsored by the British imperialist state, and having benefitted from a good education, Darwin as an individual was clearly better placed to make this breakthrough that native inhabitants of Britain’s colonies or the Galapagos Islands – he had ‘privilege’ and he was ‘white’, two terms often used by decolonial activists to qualify or deny the authority of truth claims. Yet the Origin of the Species stands regardless of context as a ground breaking step forward in human understanding.

Darwinism has another link to colonialism. Social Darwinism was to provide the pseudo- scientific justification for the racism that in turn legitimised the imperialist Scramble for Africa and attendant racial extermination (Malik, 1997). Yet the veracity of Darwin’s theory is not diminished by the horrors justified through its bastardisation as Social Darwinism. Contrary to the view key to decolonialism, geographical knowledge can be sound and an advance on previous thinking regardless of the uses and misuses to which it is put. That is in no way to legitimise those uses, but simply to recognise that ideas that have a universal veracity emerge from particular, contradictory and often (especially from the perspective of today) reactionary contexts.

Geographical knowledge can be (mis)understood and (mis)used to further particular politics. Darwin’s ideas received a cool reception amongst those in the American South who believed that God had created wholly separate races with a differential capacity for intellect and reason. In New Zealand the same ideas were welcomed as a basis for an assumed superior group of colonisers taking over from an assumed less evolved, inferior group. This was in the context of struggle between Mauri and land hungry colonialists.

For Marx, Darwinism provided a metaphor for class struggle. For economic liberals social Darwinism buttressed the notion of laisser-faire free trade. Anarchist geographer Kropotkin advocated small scale cooperative societies – survival of those who cooperate, as they are best fitted for survival (Livingstone, 1992). So as well as being produced in contexts of power and inequality, knowledge is also mobilised in such contexts.

However Darwin’s theory as the highest expression of human understanding of its time in its field stands regardless of these interpretations and mobilisations, to be accepted or criticised according to reason and scientific evidence alone. Geographical and scientific theory clearly does have the potential to constitute universal knowledge, and its capacity to do so is not limited by the context within which it emerged, or the interests of those who developed it. We cannot decolonise knowledge that is not, itself, colonial.

Decolonialism’s Critique of Enlightenment Universalism

It is clear that the epistemology of decolonialism is based, often explicitly, upon a critique of the Enlightenment and its orientation towards knowledge and truth. Emejulu states this clearly in a piece titled Another University is Possible (2017). She accepts that the Enlightenment viewed all men as endowed with rationality and logic, and with inalienable rights, that human authority was replacing the church – all the positive, humanist claims that defenders of the Enlightenment would cite.

However, she questions who is included in ‘Man’ – who counts as human in Enlightenment humanism? How universal is Enlightenment universalism? Who can be part of European modernity? She argues that the restriction of the category of those who are to be free was intrinsic to Enlightenment thought – i.e. it was a Western Enlightenment, not only geographically, but in essence. Knowledge, ideas themselves, can be ‘Eurocentric,’ ‘Western’ or even (increasingly) ‘white’ in the eyes of advocates of decoloniality.

Emejulu quotes Mills from his book The Racial Contract (1999):

The contemporary interpretation of the Enlightenment obscures its exclusion of women, ‘savages’, slaves and indigenous peoples through the prevailing racial science as inherently irrational beings. Savages – or the colonial other: the Native or Aboriginal peoples, the African, the Indian, the slave – were constructed as subhuman, incapable of logical reasoning and thus not subject to the equality or liberty enjoyed by ‘men’. It is here, in the hierarchies of modernity that we can understand the central role of racism in shaping the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is brought into being by Europe’s colonial entanglements and is wholly dependent on its particular patriarchal relations – which Europe, in turn, imposed on its colonial subjects.

So these authors argue that the Enlightenment did not establish, nor establish the potential for, universal freedoms and rights or knowledge either, but that it stemmed from particular interests and experiences, and played the role of enforcing the domination of those interests. Humanistic notions of the pursuit of knowledge are considered partial, as a false universalist flag raised in the service of Western colonialism.

Matthew Arnold’s 19th century liberal humanist vision of knowledge (in schools) referring to ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’ (Arnold, 1869: viii) is rejected in favour of a view of knowledge itself as relative to incommensurate diverse human experience. This perspectival view of knowledge is central to the advocacy of decolonialism.

Sundberg (2014: 38), citing Blaser (2009), claims that the concept of the universal is itself ‘inherently colonial’, and can only exist through ‘performances’ that ‘tend to suppress and / or contain the enactment of other possible worlds’. This is a striking rejection of universality. Whilst logically universal claims can undermine different ways to think about the world, assuming that this in inherent in universal thinking questions geographical thought from any source that aspires to transcend diverse experience and be judged as part of a global geographical conversation across time and space.

Whilst this point is made by Sundberg to deny the wider veracity of Western thinking, logically it would apply to others too – it suggests Southern scholars, too, should not aspire to speak too far outside of their assumed ontological and epistemological identities in search of universal truths.

Saigon Opera House in Ho Chi Minh City.
Image by David McKelvey via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In Defence of the Enlightenment Legacy

The view as set out by Emejulu (2017) and implicit or explicit through much of literature is both one sided and also a misreading of the Enlightenment. Many Enlightenment thinkers articulated ideas that were new and revolutionary in that they posited two things: the centrality of humanity in making the world in which we live (through reason and through scientific understanding replacing religious and mystical views of one’s place and possibilities), and; the possibility and moral desirability of universal freedoms from subjection by others – natural, universal rights applicable to all. Both the study of the world, and the idea that people within the world were equal and free, were central to the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014).

However, these ideas emerged within and through a world of interests, prejudices and limitations. So there is a dialectical relationship: the new ideas that point to the possibility and desirability of human equality and freedom, and the world as it was which, as Emejulu rightly says, was far from free or equal and far from becoming so.

Consider the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 – a document shaped by the new ideas of the Enlightenment, and associated with freedom and rights subsequently. Some of its signatories and drafters, including Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders or had a stake in the slave trade. Yet the Declaration served as an emblem for opponents of slavery and inequality for the next 200 years.

The most famous clause in the Declaration states: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ (US Congress, 1776). At the time principled abolitionists played on the contradiction between the grand ideas and the practice of men like Jefferson. Some even argued that the clause relating to the ‘right of revolution’ (which was there to justify fighting for independence from the British) could apply to slaves who were not being treated equally.

Martin Luther King referenced the Declaration in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech at the Washington for Jobs and Freedom Demonstration of August 28, 1963: ‘When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ (King, 1991: 217). King’s speech, holding society to account by its own highest, universal moral standards, was in a long and noble tradition.

In the same vein the French Revolution’s Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1791) also states: ‘All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.’ The dialectical tension between by the ideas that informed the French Revolution and the reality of the society is well illustrated by CLR James in The Black Jacobins (2001, original 1938). James writes of the Haitian revolution, a revolution in revolutionary France’s colony, in which slaves and their leaders took the ideas of the revolutionaries at their word. They directly confronted the limits of the revolution by insisting that its demand for liberty, fraternity and equality be made truly universal and applied to themselves, the slaves in the colonies.

The force of these Enlightenment influenced universalist conceptions of humanity, central to both Declarations, feature throughout the history of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. For example, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945 cites both the famous ‘all men are created equal’ clause from the American Declaration, and its equivalent in the French Declaration, to accuse both of these imperialist countries of denying these ‘undeniable truths’ (Ho Chi Minh, 1945). In the Vietnamese Declaration it was assumed that the denial of Enlightenment ideals, not their assertion, characterised colonialism and imperialism. This is reversed in decolonial theory.

Equally, colonialism involved the denial of the fruits of modern geographical knowledge and technique, not an imposition of ‘colonial’ ideas. Just as geographic technique and knowledge developed in the imperialist West no doubt played a dark role in the war in Vietnam – not least cartography in charting bombing missions – so those same tools (or more advanced versions) in mapping, agriculture and much else are utilised today to enable a sovereign Vietnam look to a better future.

Enlightenment ideas, expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, were drafted by people complicit in slavery and formed a rational and moral basis for equality. The former does not contradict the latter. In similar vein geographical knowledge was harnessed to oppress, and provided the basis for post- colonial governments to progress. The Declarations were both of their time and transcendent of their time, as is good geographical knowledge. It is in the latter sense that we judge their worth as knowledge to help us understand and act upon the world today.

There is much else to be said about the Enlightenment of course. There were great diversity and contradictions within it. What Enlightenment scholar Jonathan Israel (2009) terms the Radical Enlightenment consisted of thinkers who pushed at the contradiction between the potential in Enlightenment thought and some of the backward beliefs prevalent amongst their contemporaries. They went well beyond the limiting assumption of humanity characteristic of their time: that some were capable of citizenship rights, and others were not.

Thomas Paine argued against slavery on the grounds that it infringed the universal (natural) right to human freedom. He did not restrict his category of ‘Man’ to western Man. He criticised colonialism too. He argued that Africans were productive, peaceful citizens in their own countries, until the English enslaved them (Paine, 1774). Diderot, Raynal, d’Holbach and others contributed to a 1770 volume titled Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes (The Philosophical History of the Two Indies). The book asserts that ‘natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will’. It prophesied and defended the revolutionary overthrow of slavery: ‘The negroes only want a chief, sufficiently courageous to lead them to vengeance and slaughter… Where is the new Spartacus?’ (cited in Malik, 2017).

So Emejulu’s account, and the assumption of decolonialism, are wrong. The issue is not that the Enlightenment is racist and partial, and the intellectual traditions that draw upon its legacy comprise ‘imperial’ or ‘colonial’ knowledge. Rather, the Enlightenment put reason and rationality, scientific method and the potential for liberty and equality at the centre of intellectual and political life. It provided a basis for common, human pursuit of knowledge.

The growth of scientific method associated with the Enlightenment, as an orientation towards knowledge, was not linked to any particular culture or deity, but to universal reason (Malik, 2014). The implication of this is that theories should be judged for their capacity to explain and predict, concepts for their capacity to illuminate and techniques for their efficacy. That they should be judged with consideration for (or even deference towards) the identity, political or social, of their originator, or with regard to context or contemporary use – all key to decolonialism – undermines the pursuit of truth as a universal, human project.

Knowledge, theories and techniques are better seen as having the capacity to transcend place and power. The veracity of a theory, the usefulness of a concept or the efficacy of a technique are remarkably unaffected by their origin and their context. Audre Lorde’s idiom, ‘The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, invoked by Jazeel (2017: 335) to argue that the traditions of knowledge and rights associated with the West cannot be the basis for the liberation of the non-West, is simply untrue in this context. The anti-colonial and anti-racist movements of the past achieved a massive amount through struggles that explicitly drew upon iconic assertions of the ‘Western’ Enlightenment. There is clearly some way to go.

Concluding Thoughts: Decolonialism and Liberation

To decolonise has been presented as a moral imperative connected to liberation (Jazeel, 2017; Elliot-Cooper, 2017). I think it is better regarded as one approach, premised upon particular political views and assumptions such as critical race theory and the intersectional politics of identity. In its advocacy of an ontological pluriverse and of diverse systems of knowledge, there is one knowledge claim that cannot be allowed – the claim that knowledge, from any source, ultimately, can aspire to be universal. In addition, presenting decolonialism as a moral and political imperative leaves little room for alternatives which become, a priori, immoral.

By contrast, Brenda Wingfield, Vice President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, argues that: ‘What’s really important is that South African teachers, lecturers and professors must develop curricula that build on the best knowledge skills, values, beliefs and habits from around the world’ (2017) (my italics). She fears that the rhetoric of decolonialism will effectively delink South Africa from science’s cutting edge. She points out that this in turn reduces the opportunity for young black South African scholars to be involved with the most advanced knowledge whatever its source, and also the opportunity to adapt and utilise that knowledge to address local issues and conditions. In other words, decolonialism could damage the potential for material liberation from poverty, and for promoting a more equal involvement in the global production of knowledge about our shared world.

In the spirit of the Radical Enlightenment, I would argue that the best of geographical knowledge and technique be made available for the benefit of all, on the terms of the beneficiaries. In judging ’the best’, origin and context, whilst important and enlightening areas of study in themselves, are secondary.

Academics and universities could certainly more effectively challenge the marginalisation of parts of the world in academic life and the production of geographical knowledge. Suggestions would include: Truly reciprocal academic exchanges, funded by Western universities who can better afford it, where budding academics from the South can choose freely from the curriculum around their own priorities; greater joint projects to understand and find solutions to problems as they are defined by Southern governments; increased funding for twinning with under resourced universities in the South, with a “no strings attached” undertaking to share knowledge, training and resources as they are demanded from academics based in the South.

In other words, we should prioritise a relationship between knowledge and resources from the best universities in the world (wherever they are located), and the sovereignty of the South.

None of this necessitates the decolonisation of geographical knowledge. Rather, it requires us to think afresh at how the promissory note of the Enlightenment – the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality (and I would add of the potential to understand the word in order to change it) – can be cashed.

Contact details: jim.butcher@canterbury.ac.uk

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Noxolo, P. (2017). Decolonial theory in a time of the recolonization of UK research. Transactions, 42, 342-344. DOI:10.1111/tran.12202

Pagden, A. (2015). The Enlightenment: And why it still matters. Oxford: OUP Press

Paine, T. (1774). Essay on slavery, 1774. In Foot. M and Kramnick I. (eds) (1987). Thomas Paine Reader: London:Penguin: 52-56

Radcliffe , Sarah A. (2017). Decolonising geographical knowledges. Transactions, 42, 329-333. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12195

RGS-IGB (2017). Annual Conference, conference theme. Retrieved from: http://www.pgf.rgs.org/rgs-ibg-annual-international-conference-2017/ .

Sundberg, J. (2014). Decolonising posthumanist geographies. Cultural Geographies, 2, 1, 33-47. DOI:10.1177/1474474013486067

Tolia-Kelly, Divya-P. (2017). A day in the life of a geographer: ‘lone’, black, female. Area, 49, 3, 324-328. DOI:10.1111/area.12373

US Congress (1776). The American Declaration of Independence. Retrieved from: http://www.ushistory.org/Declaration/document/ .

Wingfield, B. (2017) What “decolonised education” should and shouldn’t mean. The Conversation. February 14. Retrieved from: http://theconversation.com/what-decolonised-education-should-and-shouldnt-mean-72597 .

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: Anke Graness, University of Vienna, anke.graness@univie.ac.at.

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

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

 

A view from Abwond, in South Sudan.
Image by SIM USA via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Edwin Etieyibo’s recent collection of papers is the result of the conference ‘African philosophy: Past, Present and Future’ held at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) in 2015. The presentations and lively discussions during that conference, especially those concerning the future methodology of philosophy in Africa and the steps to be taken towards integrating African philosophy in university curricula, were organised into four sections of the book: (I) African Philosophy and History; (II) Method in African Philosophy); (III) Substance of African Philosophy); (IV) African Philosophy and its Future. All four parts raise important questions and deserve a detailed discussion. However, I will focus my review on the first chapter, ‘African Philosophy and History’.

How Important Is the History of Philosophy?

The importance of the history of philosophy is vigorously contested. In particular, it was challenged by logical positivism and the analytic school during the twentieth century, both of which maintained that historiography had a weak epistemic basis. However, despite all attempts to minimise the role of the history of philosophy in current research and teaching, it continues to play a crucial role in present-day philosophy. An examination of what Africa has done towards writing a history of philosophy is of utmost relevance, especially to the formation of educational policy.

The first article is Edwin Etieyibo’s ‘African Philosophy in History, Context, and Contemporary Times’. Here, the first sentence of the essay is problematic. The author claims: ‘African philosophy does have a long history, albeit mostly undocumented, unwritten, and oral.’ (13) The author seems to assume that orality is a fundamental characteristic of African cultures and societies, and perhaps even that one cannot speak of philosophy in the absence of a written tradition.

Both assumptions have to be strongly refuted. 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. Souleymane Bachir Diagne sharply criticises the equation of Africa with oral traditions. He calls it a gaze that confines Africa to its oral tradition and de-historicises the whole continent. He argues that the debate:

is often carried out in complete ignorance of the established history of intellectual centres in Africa, where texts containing an undeniable philosophical dimension were studied and commented on, in writing, and where the names of Plato and Aristotle, for example, were well known long before the European presence. (Diagne 2016, 57)

A number of philosophers, including Henry Odera Oruka and Sophie Oluwole, have provided positive proof of the existence of philosophy in oral traditions. And as Diagne argues:

to understand orality is to understand that it too involves intertextuality, which is to say the art of producing a text (it makes no difference if this text is oral) in relation to another one, which the new text evokes in different ways: by citing it, making allusion to it, imitating it, miming it, subverting it, treating it at times with derision. In this way orality returns on itself, becoming a critical reworking of its own stories, and along with them the knowledge and values that they can carry and transmit: it produces new stories that put the old ones, often established as canonical, into question. (Diagne 2016, 54)

It is troubling that prejudices about the history of philosophy in Africa are still widespread. Precisely for this reason, a more detailed study of the history of pre-twentieth-century African philosophy is urgently needed.

Discovering Long-Maligned African Thought

While the next sections of Etieyibo’s article deal with the rejection of African philosophy and in particular with the racist theses of some European philosophers such as Hume, Kant and Hegel, the fourth section of his contribution is devoted to the question of who can be regarded as an African philosopher. I will deal with this question in more detail in a moment.

Towards the end of his essay the author names six areas in which African philosophy lags behind international discourse, among them African metaphysics, African epistemology, African logic, and African philosophy of mind. Etieyibo leaves open what the qualifier ‘African’ means in this context. Concerning the institutional frame of academic philosophy, Etieyibo rightly laments that there is an insufficient number of publications on African philosophy and limited access to them; that there are too few specialist conferences and meetings regarding it; that the discipline suffers from a lack of financial support; and that there is too little exchange between scholars in the field. He maintains that the institutional framework of philosophy production in Africa must be significantly improved.

Two scholars who made major contributions to the reconstruction of the history of philosophy in Africa, particularly African philosophy’s development since the beginning of the twentieth century, also contributed to this section of the book: the American philosopher Barry Hallen (A Short History of African Philosophy, 2002, second edition 2009) and the Kenyan philosopher Dismas A. Masolo (African Philosophy in Search of Identity, 1994).

Barry Hallen starts his article with a number of important questions which have to be answered in order to demarcate the scope of research of a history of African philosophy:

Does African philosophy include all philosophy done by Africans regardless of content?

Does African philosophy include the work of non-Africans who focus on African content?

Can Africans who focus only on researching and teaching ‘Western’ philosophy be considered ‘African philosophers’?

In other words, who should be included in and excluded from the narrative of a history of African philosophy? Hallen’s questions concern the geographical and socio-cultural origin of the scholars and concepts which should be included in a history of philosophy in Africa, or to put it differently, how to localise thought and scholarship. Hallen does not answer these questions but rather focuses his explorations on the general significance of cultural or geographical labels like ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘African’ for philosophy and examines the relationship between the universal and the culturally particular in philosophy.

What Is an African Philosopher?

However, in his article Etieyibo tries to define ‘African philosopher’ using analytic and logical methods. Etieyibo asks whether blackness or being African obliges one to do African philosophy and, moreover, who may count as an African philosopher. To answer these questions, he differentiates between a ‘narrow view’ and a ‘broad view’ of who may be deemed an African philosopher.

According to the ‘narrow view’, ‘one is an African philosopher if one engages with works in African philosophy and works towards developing it.’ (19-20) Unfortunately, Etieyibo leaves open ‘what sorts of work count as African philosophy’ (20). He argues that this issue is not decisive; however, if we do not know what work counts as African philosophy, we will not be able to apply the ‘narrow view’ criterion (‘engages with works in African philosophy’) to identify someone as an African philosopher. Thus, we are thrown back on the old question, ‘What is African philosophy?’.

In the ‘broad view’ the basis of identification as an African philosopher is the ‘person’s origin and what the person does … That is, one is an African philosopher if one is an African and works in philosophy’ (20). Furthermore, Etieyibo argues that ‘just because one … is African does not mean that she does or ought to do African philosophy’. (22) Of course, it is absolutely correct to remind us that philosophers from Africa do not have any duty to do African philosophy– if doing African philosophy means one is constrained to dealing with theories and methodologies which emerged on the African continent or with issues that concern the African Lebenswelt alone.

Like philosophers anywhere in the world, philosophers in and from Africa are free to choose their areas of research without losing their identity as an African. If I do not lose my identity as a European when I deal with philosophical traditions from Africa, the same applies to philosophers from Africa. However, Etieyibo’s remarks do not bring us any closer to answering the questions raised by Hallen, which target issues of classification.

I think it is less important to clarify the continental affiliation of those who practice philosophy in Africa than it is to clarify the definition and demarcation of African philosophy. This clarification has important consequences, for example for the integration of African philosophy into curricula and publication projects, and especially for financial support: What exactly is the ‘African philosophy’ that has to be integrated in curricula? What is to be labelled and promoted as ‘African philosophy’—the work of a philosopher from Africa who is a Wittgenstein specialist? Or does ‘African philosophy’ include only the work of philosophers who deal with African thought traditions, the relevance of those traditions, issues of the African Lebenswelt, such as questions about concepts of justice in the present-day African context, etc.?

The Wittgenstein specialist would certainly have plenty of funding possibilities via research programs in analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, continental philosophy and all kinds of funding foundations; those dealing with marginalised and formerly excluded philosophy traditions in Africa hardly any funding prospects at all. In this respect, a definition of the term ‘African philosophy’ is not only relevant here, but also decisive.

Africa and Universality

Barry Hallen discusses in his essay the relationship between the universality and the particularity of philosophical knowledge with regard to the debates on African philosophy since the 1960s, when African philosophers started to discuss and to attack centuries-old ‘Western’ stereotypes that denied Africans’ ability to think rationally, logically, and critically. During the 1960s African philosophers started to reassert their capability and reclaim their right to describe and to represent the history, present, and future of their continent as well as the African history of ideas, and they refused to be defined and represented according to ‘Western’ anthropological and colonial terms. Hallen describes the debates about the question ‘What is African philosophy?’ between the 1960s and the 1980s as being of immense importance, for here African philosophers:

were putting their own house in order, and they were conscious of their responsibility as scholars to do so. This was Africa talking to Africa about an issue that mattered to Africa. (39)

But still, during these early years of academic philosophy in Africa south of the Sahara, ‘Western’ philosophers considered these debates ‘culture philosophy’ because of the focus on African languages and culture and their philosophical dimensions. For ‘Western’ philosophers, African philosophy seemed to lack the universal dimension characteristic of philosophy.

In the following passage, Hallen refers mainly to the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu and his counterarguments against such allegations. Wiredu, who conducted a thorough study of his mother tongue Twi and the culture and political institutions of his people, the Akan, insisted that:

African philosophers are doing the same thing as Western philosophers when they extrapolate from the ideas, beliefs, and practices of their cultures to see their relevance to and for more transcendent concerns. African philosophers must therefore insist that the intellectual playing field be levelled and that our cultures be accorded the same initial integrity as any others. In Africa as in other places of the world African philosophy is philosophy, full stop. (41)

This is an important point: why is Heidegger’s theoretical work, which was devoted to the study of the German language and its origins and the Lebenswelt of his time, or Wittgenstein’s analysis taken to be philosophy, but theoretical work on African languages or Lebenswelten classified as cultural studies? Philosophy always starts from particular or contextual circumstances that give rise to further considerations. Wiredu has made this a fundamental principle of his work: he has applied the method of analytic philosophy to the study of a particular language and a particular context in order to make further, general judgments on this basis. The particular language in his case is his mother tongue Twi.

Or as Hallen expresses it:

The whole point of his philosophy is to demonstrate … that a philosophical methodology identified with the “Western” tradition … can be extracted from that tradition and applied to African content with positive consequences …’ (48) and ‘… using African content as a basis for abstracting alternative conceptualizations of truth, of the person, of the community, of development, of modernization that can then be placed in comparison with those more conventionally taken as paradigmatic by academic philosophy. (46-47)

Hallen is concerned that the current generation of young philosophers has not adopted Wiredu’s approach and method. So he asks: ‘Who else is doing philosophy in the African context along the lines of Wiredu?’ (45) Like Wiredu, Hallen argues that it is right and important to apply accepted philosophical methods to African content. He urges that those who argue that new and different forms of approach to philosophy are needed to represent African philosophy independently and fairly should develop and successfully implement such new methods.

One can only agree with Hallen’s criticism of the term ‘World philosophy’: that it is a euphemism for non-‘Western’ thought, for in such volumes on ‘World philosophy’ there is no section devoted to European philosophy (47). This also shows that there is a long way to go before non-European philosophy ceases to be considered exotica.

Africa Beyond Reaction

Dismas Masolo also begins his essay by referring to the difficulties that beset African philosophers in the twentieth century:

much of what we have done in the contemporary history of African philosophy appears to be only corrective work – that is, to respond to bad philosophy that came out of equally bad scholarship on Africa by European social scientists. (54)

Despite all the progress that has been made since then, Masolo criticises the current discourse in African philosophy as follows:

we have not developed out of those responses and corrections what Wiredu calls ‘a tradition of philosophy’ that builds on highlighting a discursive sparring among ourselves about our own specific conceptions, beliefs, or experiences in a manner that would be called philosophical. (56)

With reference to Wiredu, who demands ‘that folks throughout the continent should develop a sustainable or self-sustaining tradition of a philosophical discourse that explores Africans’ beliefs and conceptions of the world’ (57), Masolo underlines that a ‘sustainable tradition of a philosophical discourse’ has to be developed. Masolo does not provide us with a definition of ‘sustainable tradition’, but he points out that ‘sustained discourses among locals give traditions of thought their identities’ (57) and that it is important ‘to confront and interrogate the informing historical or ontological contents (such as specific socio-political or cultural interests) of philosophical or deontological principles when in competition with others.’ (57)

According to Masolo, it is vital to recognise the importance of the time and place in which philosophy emerges; no philosophers can completely free themselves from their locally and temporally conditioned context, which determines their thinking in important ways, e.g. their methodology, content, and research interests. Even so, it is necessary to try to transcend the local and to come to universal judgments. To demonstrate how local knowledge production can be made fruitful for philosophy and a ‘sustainable’, proprietary tradition of philosophy can be built, Masolo uses his own research on the famous intellectual, poet, and essayist Shaaban Bin Robert (1909-1962), who supported the preservation of the Tanzanian verse tradition and wrote Utubora Mkulima, a story about the search for human perfection which offers guidelines for a good life.

Masolo does not consider the difficult and complex situation of present-day African knowledge production an obstacle. This complexity is due to various tensions that emerge from aspects of colonial and neo-colonial heritage, among them the intersection of indigenous and colonial traditions of knowledge production, the relationship between local and global cultures, and the need to participate in international discourse and yet remain free of the domination of Western dictates of discourse. Masolo argues with reference to Hegel that such complex systems of social contradictions are a precondition for the formation of philosophy.

On campus at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Image by oncampus.ru via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Questions of Progress

The last article in this section is Edwin E. Etieyibo and Jonathan O. Chimakonam’s analysis ‘The State of African Philosophy’. Their starting point is the question: What progress has African philosophy made since the end of the great debate about its existence and nature?

Now, it is always difficult to define ‘progress’, but in philosophical debates it is even more difficult to make ‘progress’ manifest, because after all, philosophical research and debates do not lead to billable results or established form of output as do social sciences, economics or natural sciences. How can progress be measured in a discipline like philosophy, which despite continuous effort over thousands of years, has never even been able to reach definite conclusions about such key concepts as justice, truth, or being?

In order to measure ‘progress’ in African philosophy, the two authors propose to elicit numbers regarding scholars and researchers engaged in African philosophy, including the number of undergraduate and graduate students specializing in African philosophy; the number of publications, conferences, and courses about African philosophy; etc. (72) Thus, in the first line, Etieyibo and Chimakonam focus on progress as a matter of quantitative, not qualitative, analysis.

However, the authors also suggest analysing the content and substance of current research and debates in African philosophy. Here, of course, the standard or yardstick is again particularly unclear: how should the ‘substance’ of philosophical work be measured? And how can subjective preferences (with regard to the philosophical methods or schools considered relevant) be excluded from such an evaluation? What is considered to be ‘substantial’ – and what is not? The answer to these questions is never free of interests, preferences, and positions of power. What are the possible guidelines for questions about ‘substance’? The two authors do not give us any criteria.

Due to the scope of such quantitative research, the authors limit their enquiries to an investigation of the number of universities and philosophy departments in sub-Saharan Africa that offer courses in African philosophy. The two authors are well aware of the inadequate basis for their study; many of the departments they tried to contact in Africa did not respond, so no statements can be made about them, which leaves the authors’ database incomplete.

It is notable that there are many lusophone and francophone universities among those Etieyibo and Chimakonam were unable to include in their study due to lack of response to their enquiries. This suggests that the two Anglophone authors, disregarding the language issue, may have contacted those universities only in English. A language-sensitive approach would be necessary in a follow-up attempt. It is astonishing that none of the East African universities which exerted a profound influence on the development and traditions of African philosophy—such as Makerere University in Uganda, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, and Nairobi University in Kenya—appear in the authors’ study.

Even though their search cannot claim to be complete, the authors think that it is possible to prove emerging tendencies from it. In their analysis of the curricula of philosophy departments of various African universities, they come to the conclusion (which is not new in itself but rather obvious) that philosophical education at African universities continues to be Eurocentric, since there are few or no courses in the curriculum that cover philosophical traditions which originated on the African continent.

Of course, such a numerical listing is interesting–especially against the background of the call for decolonization of curricula and universities. However, it would be more interesting to make a comparison between the present time and the situation in the 1960s and 1970s than between present circumstances and those prevalent less than half a dozen years ago. Such a comparison would certainly show a significant increase in the frequency of these courses and thus ‘progress’ in the quantitative sense. After all, the figures collected in Etieyibo and Chimakonam’s study can provide a basis of comparison should such a study be repeated in a few years.

It would be important in a follow-up study to examine to what extent the integration of African philosophy has progressed on an international level, e.g. in teaching at non-African universities (the US is certainly leading here) as well as at international conferences. African philosophy and African philosophers demonstrated an impressive presence at the most recent World Congress of Philosophy (WCP), which took place in 2018 in Beijing. Here, too, a lot has happened since the first appearance of African philosophy at the WCP in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1978.

Bringing African Thought Throughout the Globe

The authors raise but do not answer a crucial question of didactic methodology concerning the integration of African philosophy in the curriculum of philosophy departments worldwide: is it better to offer standalone courses in African philosophy or to integrate topics and content from African philosophy into existing courses on, for example, ethics, metaphysics, or political philosophy? Is it better to present African philosophy separately or to weave African philosophical perspectives into general philosophy courses? (77) Which of these approaches is more effective in disseminating knowledge about the history of ideas and the current philosophical debates in Africa? Which is more effective in diversifying the conversation in both educational settings and international discourse?

Unfortunately, the authors do not answer this fundamental question. And it is indeed a central and important question, for it entails the following issues: Does presenting special courses in African philosophy perpetuate the assumption that African philosophy is an exotic discipline somehow outside ‘normal’ discourse? Courses labelled ‘European philosophy’ are rarely offered, because the European tradition is presumed to stand as philosophy proper, and as such needs no further geographical qualification. To avoid viewing African discourse as exotica, it might be better to integrate examples from it into overviews and historical lectures.

Furthermore, is it possible to solve philosophical problems solely from the perspective of one philosophical tradition? Perhaps an intercultural approach to teaching and research should be the ‘normal’ way of doing philosophy. If so, it might not make sense to present courses solely on African philosophy; it would be more effective to integrate ‘African’ content into general philosophy courses.

The last part of Etieyibo and Chimakonam’s paper addresses the issue of the ‘substantiality’ of the discourse in African philosophy. What does it mean to do philosophy in a ‘substantial’ way? The authors do not answer this question but offer very sharp criticism of contemporary discourses on African philosophy–large parts of which I, for my part, cannot comprehend at all. For example I do not see contemporary African philosophers as ‘telling worthless stories’ or view them as being isolated people (86). Personally, I see a very serious struggle to create philosophical concepts that are rooted in the African experience. I do agree with Etieyibo and Chimakonam’s observation of a revival of the ethnophilosophical discourse (87).

However, most of the criticism seems to me, especially because of its lack of specificity, to be unfounded accusations. Without reference to certain works or examples, these accusations cannot be investigated and therefore remain unproven; as such, they cannot lead to substantial reflection on ways to avoid certain mistakes. Also the authors’ accusation that Heinz Kimmerle, the German philosopher who was instrumental in introducing African philosophy to the German-speaking world, denied the existence of African philosophy (87), must be decisively rejected.

Lastly, the authors urge that a link between theory and practice in philosophy is very important. Citing Karl Marx, the authors assert that philosophy must become practical (74), and in order for that practice to be relevant, they argue, it must engage with the African Lebenswelt. Only then can African philosophy be part of the solution to the problems Africa faces today.

Conclusion

Edwin Etieyibo rightly states in his article ‘that any serious discussion of African philosophy in terms of its progress must and ought to be cognizant of its history.’ (14) However, not even one article in this part of the book is dedicated either to philosophical traditions in Africa before the twentieth century, or to methodological issues of writing the history of philosophy in Africa. On the contrary, Etieyibo and Chimakonam even claim: ‘Pre-colonial Africa was a period where emotions rather than reason primarily reigned supreme.’ (74)

Not only does such a statement testify to a certain ignorance of the long history of philosophical traditions, written and oral, in Africa, but it also plays into the hands of those who have always accused the Africans of a lack of rationality and always maintained that only the encounter with Europe made education, science, technology, and even philosophy possible on the African continent. However, Etieyibo underlines in his article that ‘saying that philosophy does not exist in Africa and among Africans because they lack rationality is to say that Africans are both biologically and ontologically inferior’ (16)–an argument Etieyibo sharply rejects. His rejection of racist arguments on the one hand and statements like the one above, that emotion rather than reason reigned in Africa, seem inconsistent to me.

A thorough reconstruction of the history of philosophy in Africa should be one of the basic tasks for African philosophers, since a self-determined view of history is the basis for a self-determined concept of the future of a discipline or even of an entire continent. How philosophies of earlier centuries can be researched and integrated into the history of philosophy and what difficulties remain to be solved (for example the question of the significance of orally transmitted philosophy, the question of the place of Arabic-Islamic philosophy in the history of philosophy in Africa, etc.) are not addressed in this part of the book. The really important questions about the history of philosophy remain unexamined. It is quite disappointing that the part entitled ‘African Philosophy and History’ of the book offers no new understanding of the really important questions in the history of philosophy in Africa.

Contact details: anke.graness@univie.ac.at

References

Bachir Diagne, Souleymane. The ink of the scholars: reflections on philosophy in Africa. Dakar: CODESRIA 2016.

Etieyibo, Edwin E. ‘African Philosophy in History, Context, and Contemporary Times’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 13-33.

Etieyibo, Edwin E., and Jonathan O. Chimakonam: ‘The State of African Philosophy’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 71-90.

Hallen, Barry. ‘The Journey of African Philosophy’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 35-52.

Masolo, Dismas A. ‘History of Philosophy as a Problem: Our Case’. In: Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan 2018, pp. 53-69.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College (Memorial University), bwills@grenfell.mun.ca.

Wills, Bernard. “Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 31-36.

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

Whoever has provoked men to rage against him has always gained a party in his favour too

Image by Vetustense Photorogue via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

On a lazy afternoon there is nothing like another defense of Weak Scientism to get the juices flowing. This one “Why Scientific Knowledge is Still the Best” is quite the specimen. It includes, among other delights, an attempt to humble my perceived pride based on a comparison between myself and my wonderful colleague Dr. Svetlana Barkanova. (Mizrahi, 2018c, 20)

Here I must concede defeat. I don’t hold a candle to the esteemed Dr. Barkanova and would never claim to be her equal. Plus, I need no metrics to convince me of this. I am well aware of her overall excellence as she is an acquaintance of mine. However, this petty display overshoots its mark. All I said was that journals have, in fact, published things (by me) Mizrahi explicitly claimed no journal would publish (2018b, 46) and, frankly, I think I have established that point with any objective reader. I am certainly not bragging or claiming I have some rock star status as a scholar. Let’s proceed then to address the specific arguments he offers in his essay.

Material Causes Behind Intellectual Appearances

I will begin with quantity. This is a point he claims I overemphasize though at the same time he claims it is a crucial component of his own argument. (2018c,19) At any rate, he goes on yet another tangent about the superior quantity and impact of scientific research. To this I respond again, so what? It is no doubt true that more research and more ‘impactful’ research is produced in the sciences but why is this so?

To quote Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy stupid”. Science serves the interests of corporations and the military in ways that the humanities do not and so more money gets directed to the sciences. Since this is the case more scientific research is produced overall.

Now one could make an argument that this speaks to an overall greater utility for the sciences as opposed to other domains, but this is not the argument Mizrahi makes. Rather he asserts raw quantity itself as a feature that makes for the superiority of science. In both my replies I explained the problem with this and in neither of his replies has Mizrahi rebutted my points.

I pointed out a. that commercials are not superior to great artworks even though their number and impact is greater and b. Shakespeare scholarship would not be superior to physics if it simply happened that there were more of it. Mizrahi’s response to this is to complain about the word ‘odd’ (Mizrahi, 19) as if I intended it as a gratuitous personal insult. Actually though, I intended only to imply that his position seemed odd. It still seems odd to me to claim that if Shakespeare scholars suddenly put out a tremendous burst of articles (and pulled into the lead in the great race to produce more and more research) then that would somehow throw particle physics in the shade.

But, if Mizrahi wants to accept that conclusion then he is certainly welcome to it. If he wants to say that weak scientism is only contingently true and that it is only contingently the case that the sciences happen currently to produce more impactful research (for whatever reason), then he has done only what he all too often does; won a debating point by reducing his own thesis to a truism, here, that more =more. (Mizrahi, 19) At any rate, the frustrating thing here is that while Mizrahi asserts again and again the quantitative superiority of science he never condescends to explain why quantity is a valid metric in the first place, he asserts the fact without explaining why I or anyone else should regard that fact as significant.[1]

An Unanswered Question: Recursivity and Science

And, since Mizrahi is obviously sensitive on the point, let me say that calling an argument a sophism is merely an objective description not a personal insult as Mizrahi seems to think. (Mizrahi, 21) Mizrahi still does not recognize the fallacy, perhaps a kinder, better word than sophism (mea culpa), he committed in his reply to my point concerning recursive knowledge. Let me try again. My point was simple. Any argument founded on the claimed quantitative superiority of science founders on the fact that recursive processes, any recursive processes, can produce an infinity of true propositions.

In response to this Mizrahi said that this is not a problem for scientism for we can reflect recursively on scientific propositions in the same manner. To this I responded by saying that this was true but irrelevant as this had nothing whatsoever to do with whether a proposition was scientific or not. Nor does his account of scientific explanation include reflexivity as a source of knowledge. Reflecting recursively on a scientific proposition is not the same as thinking scientifically.  His response his fallacious because it conflates two distinct processes.

This is why it does not matter in the least whether two people, a scientist or non-scientist, can produce an equal amount of knowledge by performing recursive acts in parallel. Neither are doing science. This perfectly obvious point is something Mizrahi claims he addresses in his replies to Brown (Mizrahi, 21) yet my examination of the passages he cites leaves me baffled for nothing in them touches remotely on the question of recursivity or explains how reflecting recursively on a scientific proposition is equivalent to uttering a scientific proposition as a scientist.

Since Mizrahi does not intend to reply any further I suppose I will just have to scratch my head on this one and bewail my own lack of native wit. Plus, as Mizrahi seems to set great store by citations and references even in informal spaces like a review and reply collective it is a little jarring to see HIS not quite panning out (more on this below however).[2]

Systems and Ideologies

Why does Dr. Mizrahi still think I am calling him a racist when I intended to speak only in terms of systemic and not personal racism (Mizrahi, 21-22)?   In a systemic and so intersectional context, non-white identity does not mean one cannot occupy a place of privilege. He still does not see the difference between an ad hominem attack and an ideological critique of scientism. (Mizrahi, 23) Lorraine Code and Helen Longino, among others, have explained how standard accounts of scientific method have (WITTINGLY OR NOT!!) excluded women as knowers and Mizrahi can consult their works if he is interested.[3]  He may also consult Edward Said on how pretensions to scientific ‘objectivity’ underwrite colonialism.

I, however, will use a different example, one closer to my own interests and experience. In the institution in which I teach a significant portion of the students are of indigenous Miq’maw heritage. They are, by and large, NOT interested in hearing that their elders convey a secondary and qualitatively inferior kind of knowledge when compared to western scientists. Now, you could say that this is simple perversity on their part; they should ‘man up’ and accept the gospel of weak scientism! Things are not however so simple.

It is idle to claim that the experience of colonial oppression is irrelevant because science is universal, objective and politically neutral. It is idle to claim that the elevation of scientific procedures to qualitative superiority has no social and political ramifications for those whose knowledge forms are thereby granted second class status. This is because the question of scientism is bound up with the question of authority.

The fact that Indigenous knowledge traditions are grounded in local knowledge, in traditional lore and in story means that on questions of importance to them indigenous peoples cannot speak. It means they have to listen to others who ‘know better’ because the propositions they utter have the form of science.[4]

Thus, whether intended or not, the elevation of scientific knowledge to superior status over indigenous knowledge elevates white settlers to authority over indigenous people and justifies the theft of their land and even of their children. Worse, indigenous people can see for themselves (because they are not blind) that this privileging of settler knowledge over their own is not benign. It is viciously exploitative and intended to keep indigenous peoples in a place of dependence and inferiority. Thus, Mizrahi’s facile assumption that scientism is ideologically innocent will not stand even cursory examination.

Partiality of Knowledge and the Limits of Learning

When I say that Mizrahi’s position is self-interested I am again simply pointing out a fact. If I were to write a paper arguing that the humanities are qualitatively superior to the sciences, deserved more funding than the sciences and that the hermeneutical practices of the humanities should be adopted by the sciences would Mizrahi not wonder if I was, in fact, being a little bit partial? Of course he would.

I, though, am not making that kind of argument, he is. I am not suggesting anyone is inferior to anyone; he is and as such I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether his position is tainted with bias. This is so especially as he has no much to say about the lack of ‘good faith’ in others.

On now to our unexpectedly long-lived example of Joyce scholars. Here I must thank Mizrahi for proving my point for me. Unaware that he is shooting his own argument in the foot he takes great pains to distinguish simplicity in scientific explanation from simplicity as an aesthetic quality.[5] He also distinguishes ‘accommodation’ (which the Joyce scholar seeks) from ‘novel prediction’ (which the scientist seeks). (Mizrahi, 25) It is indeed the case, as I myself asserted, that explanation in the humanities and in the sciences are related analogically not univocally. Terms from one domain do not immediately transfer directly to the other.

This is a perfect illustration of why scientific explanation is not the same as literary explanation. Simplicity is a desideratum for both forms of explanation but there is no answer to the question of whether general relativity is simpler than reader response theory for the obvious reason that different disciplines will parse the notion of simplicity differently.

But if this is so I ask again what makes a scientific theory qualitatively better than a critical reading of Joyce when they do not employ commensurate standards and have such fundamentally different aims? I ask again, what could ‘better’ possibly mean in this context? In what sense is a scientific theory simpler than a Joyce commentary if on Mizrahi’s own admission we are not dealing with univocal standards or senses of simplicity? In what sense is a scientific theory more coherent if we are not using ‘coherence’ in the same way in both domains?

Further I asked and ask again why the Joyce scholar even needs to make a novel prediction? Why is it a problem for his discipline if he does not use things he does not need? Further, Mizrahi resorts yet again to the canard that I am accusing him of saying the Joyce scholar does not produce knowledge as if this was even an answer to my question. (Mizrahi, 26)

Next, Scriabin. I think the best description of what my daughter did with the Prometheus chord is that she reverse engineered it. She worked backward from it to tell a story about how it came to be. Obviously this did not require any novel prediction about future Prometheus chords by future Scriabins. There is one Prometheus chord and it already exists. Further, the process by which it was created occurred once in the past.

Thus we are constructing an explanatory story about the past concerning a singular object not formulating a general law or making a testable prediction. This kind of story is used in all kinds of contexts. It is used here in music theory. It is used in those sciences concerned with past events. It is used by law enforcement to reconstruct a crime. Now, even if by some feat of prestidigitation one could contort such explanatory stories into the form of testable predictions this would be an after the fact rationalization not description of how actual people reason.

A World of Citations

Thus, let me emphasize once again that testability does not make science superior to on non-science for the simple reason that non-science does not typically need tests such as Mizrahi describes. Or, to put it another way testing is not employed in the same way in science and non-science so that if one says that, in some sense, the Joyce scholar ‘tests’ his ideas against the text one is speaking analogically not univocally as I attempted to point out in my previous reply. (Wills, 2018b, 38) Thus, Mizrahi’s claim about testability (Mizrahi, 28) is, yet again, beside the point.[6]

Now I turn to the minor objections. Dr. Mizrahi is upset that I have I have not cited the extensive literature on scientism. (Mizrahi, 18) Well Mizrahi has professed to show that science is superior to things like historiography and literary criticism even though he himself does not cite anything from those fields and shows no familiarity with what goes on in them.

Two can play at the rhetoric of citation and it is Mizrahi who claims that scientific procedures are better than non-scientific ones without making any direct comparison with the latter except for his cherished bugbear ‘armchair philosophy’. To return to the question of privilege, Mizrahi seems to assume that he is owed a deference he does not need to grant to others. As Latour says, citation is not accidental but essential to the rhetoric of an academic paper. (Latour; 1987, 30-62) Mizrahi’s use of the rhetoric of citation conveys the message that that his side has an epistemic privilege the other side does not: they are obliged to engage his literature but he is not obliged to engage theirs.

Again, Mizrahi accuses me of Eurocentric bias in citing Augustine and Aristotle (Mizrahi, 23) yet a glance at his own references does not reveal ANY citations from Shankara, Ashvaghosa, al Ghazzali, al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Lao Tzu, Kung Fu Tzu, or any other thinker outside the western tradition. Miizrahi’s own citation list betrays the very story he is trying to tell about mine!  Finally, in a somewhat involved passage he responds to the charge that he vacillates between Weak and Strong Scientism by citing the full text of a passage from one of his replies to Brown. (Mizrahi, 24) I don’t why he does this because his words say the exact same thing even when put in this larger context.

He reports that certain philosophers and scientists think of knowledge as “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study studies, as opposed to non-scientific study.” He then states, directly, that he follows this view. (Mizrahi, 24) This does indeed look like vacillation between weak and strong scientism.

However, I will not hammer him on one passage for what might, after all, be an unintentional slip or loose phrasing. If he says his position is weak scientism and weak scientism only then I take him at his word.

Conclusion

I will reiterate again the one basic reason why I think weak scientism is unconvincing and that is that it seems to be an exercise in bare arithmetic. Is there more scientific research than non-scientific? Well, more is better! Does science have 4 of the features of good explanation and history only 3? Science wins! This purely arithmetic procedure completely ignores the contexts in which different scholars work and how they reach their conclusions.  I conclude by saying what I said in my first reply: that Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism is the mountain that gave birth to the proverbial mouse.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Bohannon, John. “Hate Journal Impact Factors? New Study Gives You One More Reason.” Science Magazine. 6 July 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/hate-journal-impact-factors-new-study-gives-you-one-more-reason.

Mizrahi, Moti. “What’s So Bad About Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017): 351-367.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 41-50.

Van Wesel, Maarten; Sally Wyatt, and Jeroen ten Haaf. “What A Difference a Colon Makes: How Superficial Factors Influence Subsequent Citation.” Scientometrics 98, no. 3 (2014): 1601-1615.

Wills, Bernard. “On the Limits of Any Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 34-39.

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

[1] Mizrahi is not going to like this but some have questioned whether impact ratings and other quantitative metrics have the significance sometimes claimed for them. See Callaway, as well as Van Wesel, Wyatt,  ten Haaff, and Bohanon. Indeed, Mizrahi seems to have internalized the standards of the university’s corporate masters (with their spurious emphasis on external metrics) to an uncritical and disturbing degree.

[2] Is Mizrahi claiming in these passages that ‘scientific knowledge’ is any knowledge that happens to be produced by a scientist as ‘practitioner’ in a field (Mizrahi 21) whether accidental to her practice or not? If so, he has yet again defended his thesis at the cost of making it trivial.

[3] He may begin with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if he likes.

[4]  See D. Simmonds on this point (addressing an anti-indigenous activist notorious in Canada): “My particular interest here is the way in which science has been reified by Widdowson and Howard and used to legitimate state decision-making on behalf of oppressed peoples. Science is counterposed to indigenous traditional knowledge, which by way of a children’s parable (The Emperor’s New Clothes) is denounced as mere superstition in the service of a corrupt “aboriginal industry.” The state is called upon to harness scientific rationalism in the old colonial interest of “civilizing the savages.” In the words of Widdowson and Howard, “It is not clear how the remnants of Neolithic culture that are inhibiting this development can be addressed without intensive government planning and intervention” (252).

[5] Simplicity as I use it here does not refer to ‘simple language’ but to the economy of a work’s design. I admit though that I should have distinguished between two kinds of simplicity here. The simplicity of the work itself and the simplicity of the critic’s exposition of the work which of course formally differ. It is the latter case that more closely resembles the simplicity of a scientific theory though if Mizrahi wants to deny they are identical that is entirely to my own purpose for I deny this as well.

[6] This speaks to the overall banality of Mizrahi’s thesis. He tells us that the best explanation is one “explains the most, leaves out the least, is consistent with background knowledge, is the least complicated, and yields independently testable predictions.” (Mizrahi, 28) He then adds “Wills seems to grant that “unity, simplicity and coherence are good making properties of explanations, but not testability. But why not testability?”. (Mizrahi, 28) Well I have said many times why not. Testability as Mizrahi defines it is not relevant to all inquiries. It is not even relevant to all scientific inquiries. ‘Testing’ can take different forms that resemble each other analogically not univocally. I don’t know how many different ways I can say this: the test of a thesis on metaphysics is elenchic. The test of a thesis about Joyce is a close examination of his texts. The test of an archeological claim is the examination of artefacts. Mizrahi’s entire argument boils down to the claim that science beats non-science 4 to 3! Yet clearly Mizrahi has tilted the field by asking non-science to conform to a standard external to it and applied arbitrarily. Unity, coherence, testability and so on are resemblance terms that cash out differently in different inquiries.

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.

Author Information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology, mmizrahi@fit.edu.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Why Scientific Knowledge Is Still the Best.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 18-32.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40I

For context, see also:

Image by Specious Reasons via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

It is common knowledge among scholars and researchers that the norms of academic research dictate that one must enter an academic conversation by properly acknowledging, citing, and engaging with the work done by other scholars and researchers in the field, thereby showing that a larger conversation is taking place.[1] See, for example, Graff and Birkenstein (2018, 1-18) on “entering the conversation.” Properly “entering the conversation” is especially important when one aims to criticize the work done by other scholars and researchers in the field.

In my previous reply to Bernard Wills’ attack on Weak Scientism (Wills 2018a), I point out that Wills fails in his job as a scholar who aims to criticize work done by other scholars and researchers in the field (Mizrahi 2018b, 41), since Wills does not cite or engage with the paper in which I defend Weak Scientism originally (Mizrahi 2017a), the very thesis he seeks to attack. Moreover, he does not cite or engage with the papers in my exchange with Christopher Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), not to mention other works in the literature on scientism.

In his latest attack, even though he claims to be a practitioner of “close reading” (Wills 2018b, 34), it appears that Wills still has not bothered to read the paper in which I defend the thesis he seeks to attack (Mizrahi 2017a), or any of the papers in my exchange with Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), as evidenced by the fact that he does not cite them at all. To me, these are not only signs of lazy scholarship but also an indication that Wills has no interest in engaging with my arguments for Weak Scientism in good faith. For these reasons, this will be my second and final response to Wills. I have neither the time nor the patience to debate lazy scholars who argue in bad faith.

On the Quantitative Superiority of Scientific Knowledge

In response to my empirical data on the superiority of scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge in terms of research output and research impact (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-22; Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44), Wills (2018b, 34) claims that he has “no firm opinion at all as to whether the totality of the sciences have produced more ‘stuff’ than the totality of the humanities between 1997 and 2017 and the reason is that I simply don’t care.”

I would like to make a few points in reply. First, the sciences produce more published research, not just “stuff.” Wills’ use of the non-count noun ‘stuff’ is misleading because it suggests that research output cannot be counted or measured. However, research output (as well as research impact) can be counted and measured, which is why we can use this measure to determine that scientific research (or knowledge) is better than non-scientific research (or knowledge).

Second, my defense of Weak Scientism consists of a quantitative argument and a qualitative argument, thereby showing that scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge both quantitatively and qualitatively, which are the two ways in which one thing can be said to be better than another (Mizrahi 2017a, 354). If Wills really does not care about the quantitative argument for Weak Scientism, as he claims, then why is he attacking my defense of Weak Scientism at all?

After all, showing that “scientific knowledge is [quantitatively] better – in terms of research output (i.e. more publications) and research impact (i.e. more citations) – than non-scientific knowledge” is an integral part of my defense of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 358). To know that, however, Wills would have to read the paper in which I make these arguments for Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a). In his (2018a) and (2018b), I see no evidence that Wills has read, let alone read closely, that paper.

Third, for someone who says that he “simply [doesn’t] care” about quantity (Wills 2018b, 34), Wills sure talks about it a lot. For example, Wills claims that a “German professor once told [him] that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone!” (Wills 2018a, 18) and that “Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat” (Wills 2018a, 18). Wills’ unsupported claims about quantity turn out to be false, of course, as I show in my previous reply (Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44). Readers will notice that Wills does not even try to defend those claims in his (2018b).

Fourth, whether Wills cares about quantity or has opinions on the matter is completely beside the point. With all due respect, Wills’ opinions about research output in academic disciplines are worthless, especially when we have data on research output in scientific and non-scientific disciplines. The data show that scientific disciplines produce more research than non-scientific disciplines and that scientific research has a greater impact than non-scientific research (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-22; Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44).

Wills (2018b, 35) thinks that the following is a problem for Weak Scientism: “what if it were true that Shakespeare scholars produced more papers than physicists?” (original emphasis) Lacking in good arguments, as in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, Wills resorts to making baseless accusations and insults, calling me “an odd man” for thinking that literature would be better than physics in his hypothetical scenario (Wills 2018b, 35). But this is not a problem for Weak Scientism at all and there is nothing “odd” about it.

What Wills fails to understand is that Weak Scientism is not supposed to be a necessary truth. That is, Weak Scientism does not state that scientific knowledge must be quantitatively and qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge. Rather, Weak Scientism is a contingent fact about the state of academic research. As a matter of fact, scientific disciplines produce better research than non-scientific disciplines do.

Moreover, the data we have (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-22; Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44) give us no reason to think that these trends in research output and research impact are likely to change any time soon. Of course, if Wills had read my original defense of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a), and my replies to Brown, he would have known that I have discussed all of this already (Mizrahi 2017b, 9-10; 2018a, 9-13).

Likewise, contrary to what Wills (2018b, 36, footnote 2) seems to think, there is nothing odd about arguing for a thesis according to which academic research produced by scientific disciplines is superior to academic research produced by non-scientific disciplines, “while leaving open the question whether non-scientific knowledge outside the academy may be superior to science” (original emphasis). If Wills were familiar with the literature on scientism, he would have been aware of the common distinction between “internal scientism” and “external scientism.”

See, for example, Stenmark’s (1997, 16-18) distinction between “academic-internal scientism” and “academic-external scientism” as well as Peels (2018, 28-56) on the difference between “academic scientism” and “universal scientism.” Again, a serious scholar would have made sure that he or she is thoroughly familiar with the relevant literature before attacking a research paper that aims to make a contribution to that literature (Graff and Birkenstein 2018, 1-18).

Wills also seems to be unaware of the fact that my quantitative argument for Weak Scientism consists of two parts: (a) showing that scientific research output is greater than non-scientific research output, and (b) showing that the research impact of scientific research is greater than that of non-scientific research (Mizrahi 2017a, 356-358). The latter is measured, not just by publications, but also by citations. Wills does not address this point about research impact in his attacks on Weak Scientism. Since he seems to be proud of his publication record, for he tells me I should search for his published papers on Google (Wills 2018b, 35), let me to illustrate this point about research impact by comparing Wills’ publication record to a colleague of his from a science department at his university.

According to Google Scholar, since completing his doctorate in Religious Studies at McMaster University in 2003, Wills has published ten research articles (excluding book reviews). One of his research articles was cited three times, and three of his research articles were cited one time each. That is six citations in total.

On the other hand, his colleague from the Physics program at Memorial University, Dr. Svetlana Barkanova, has published 23 research articles between 2003 and 2018, and those articles were cited 53 times. Clearly, in the same time, a physicist at Wills’ university has produced more research than he did (130% more research), and her research has had a greater impact than his (783% more impact). As I have argued in my (2017a), this is generally the case when research produced by scientific disciplines is compared to research produced by non-scientific disciplines (Table 1).

Table 1. H Index by subject area, 1999-2018 (Source: Scimago Journal & Country Rank)

H Index
Physics 927
Psychology 682
Philosophy 161
Literature 67

Reflecting on One’s Own Knowledge

In his first attack on Weak Scientism, Wills (2018a, 23) claims that one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of [one’s] own existence.” In response, I pointed out that Wills (2018a, 23) himself admits that this reflexive procedure applies to “ANY fact” (original capitalization), which means that it makes no difference in terms of the quantity of knowledge produced in scientific versus non-scientific disciplines.

As I have come to expect from him, Wills (2018b, 35) resorts to name-calling again, rather than giving good arguments, calling my response “sophism,” but he seems to miss the basic logical point, even though he admits again that extending one’s knowledge by reflexive self-reflection “can be done with any proposition at all” (Wills 2018b, 35). Of course, if “it can be done with any proposition at all” (Wills 2018b, 35; emphasis added), then it can be done with scientific propositions as well, for the set of all propositions includes scientific propositions.

To illustrate, suppose that a scientist knows that p and a non-scientist knows that q. Quantitatively, the amount of scientific and non-scientific knowledge is equal in this instance (1 = 1). Now the scientist reflects on her own knowledge that p and comes to know that she knows that p, i.e., she knows that Kp. Similarly, the non-scientist reflects on her knowledge that q and comes to know that she knows that q, i.e., she knows that Kq. Notice that, quantitatively, nothing has changed, i.e., the amount of scientific versus non-scientific knowledge is still equal: two items of scientific knowledge (p and Kp) and two items of non-scientific knowledge (q and Kq).

Wills might be tempted to retort that p may be an item of scientific knowledge but Kp is not because it is not knowledge that is produced by scientific procedures. However, if Wills were to retort in this way, then it would be another indication of sloppy scholarship on his part. In my original paper (Mizrahi 2017a, 356), and in my replies to Brown (Mizrahi 2017b, 12-14; Mizrahi 2018a, 14-15), I discuss at great length my characterization of disciplinary knowledge as knowledge produced by practitioners in the field. I will not repeat those arguments here.

Baseless Accusations of Racism and Colonialism

After raising questions about whether I am merely rationalizing my “privilege” (Wills 2018a, 19), Wills now says that his baseless accusations of racism and colonialism are “not personal” (Wills 2018b, 35). His concern, Wills (2018b, 35) claims, is “systemic racism” (original emphasis). As a white man, Wills has the chutzpah to explain (or white-mansplain, if you will) to me, an immigrant from the Middle East, racism and colonialism.

My people were the victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide, lived under British colonial rule, and are still a persecuted minority group. Since some of my ancestors died fighting the British mandate, I do not appreciate using the term ‘colonialism’ to describe academic disputes that are trifle in comparison to the atrocities brought about by racism and colonialism.

Perhaps Wills should have used (or meant to use) the term ‘imperialism’, since it is sometimes used to describe the expansion of a scientific theory into new domains (Dupré 1994). This is another sign of Wills’ lack of familiarity with the literature on scientism. Be that as it may, Wills continues to assert without argument that my “defense of weak-scientism is ideologically loaded,” that it implies “the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers,” and that I make “hegemonic claims for science from which [I] stand to benefit” (Wills 2018b, 36).

In response, I must admit that I have no idea what sort of “ideologies” Weak Scientism is supposed to be loaded with, since Wills does not say what those are. Wills (2018b, 36) asserts without argument that “the position [I] take on scientism has social, political and monetary implications,” but he does not specify those implications. Nor does he show how social and political implications (whatever those are) are supposed to follow from the epistemic thesis of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). I am also not sure why Wills thinks that Weak Scientism implies “the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers” (Wills 2018b, 36), since he provides no arguments for these assertions.

Of course, Weak Scientism entails that there is non-scientific knowledge (Mizrahi 2018b, 41). If there is non-scientific knowledge, then there are non-scientific knowers. In that case, on Weak Scientism, non-scientists are not excluded from “the circle of knowers.” In other words, on Weak Scientism, the circle of knowers includes non-scientists, which can be women and people of color, of course (recall Dr. Svetlana Barkanova). Contrary to what Wills seems to think, then, Weak Scientism cannot possibly entail “the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers” (Wills 2018b, 36).

In fact, if it is “the exclusion of various others” that Wills (2018b, 36) is genuinely concerned about, then he is undoubtedly aware of the fact that it is precisely white men like him who are guilty of systematically excluding “various others,” such as women (Paxton et al. 2012) and people of color (Botts et al. 2014), from the academic discipline of philosophy (American Philosophical Association 2014). As anyone who is familiar with the academic discipline of philosophy knows, “philosophy faces a serious diversity problem” (Van Norden 2017b, 5). As Amy Ferrer (2012), Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association (APA), put it on Brian Leiter’s blog, Leiter Reports:

philosophy is one of the least diverse humanities fields, and indeed one of the least diverse fields in all of academia, in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity. Philosophy has a reputation for not only a lack of diversity but also an often hostile climate for women and minorities (emphasis added).

In light of the lack of diversity in academic philosophy, some have gone as far as arguing that contemporary philosophy is racist and xenophobic; otherwise, argues Bryan Van Norden (2017a), it is difficult to explain “the fact that the rich philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are completely ignored by almost all philosophy departments in both Europe and the English-speaking world.”

In fact, Wills’ attacks on Weak Scientism illustrate how white men like him attempt to keep philosophy white and “foreigner-free” (Cherry and Schwitzgebel 2016). They do so by citing and discussing the so-called “greats,” which are almost exclusively Western men. Citations are rather scarce in Wills’ replies, but when he cites, he only cites “the greats,” like Aristotle and Augustine (see Schwitzgebel et al. 2018 on the “Insularity of Anglophone Philosophy”).

As for his claim that I “stand to benefit” (Wills 2018b, 36) from my defense of Weak Scientism, I have no idea what Wills is talking about. I had no idea that History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) and Science and Technology Studies (STS) “can often assert hegemony over other discourses” (Wills 2018b, 36). I bet this will come as a surprise to other HPS and STS scholars and researchers. They will probably be shocked to learn that they have that kind of power over other academic disciplines.

More importantly, even if it were true that I “stand to benefit” (Wills 2018b, 36) from my defense of Weak Scientism, nothing about the merit of my defense of Weak Scientism would follow from that. That is, to argue that Weak Scientism must be false because I stand to benefit from it being true is to argue fallaciously. In particular, it is an informal fallacy of the circumstantial ad hominem type known as “poisoning the well,” which “alleges that the person has a hidden agenda or something to gain and is therefore not an honest or objective arguer” (Walton and Krabbe 1995, 111).

It is as fallacious as arguing that climate change is not real because climate scientists stand to benefit from climate research or that MMR vaccines are not safe (e.g., cause autism) because medical researchers stand to benefit from such vaccines (Offit 2008, 213-214). These are the sort of fallacious arguments that are typically made by those who are ignorant of the relevant science or are arguing in bad faith.

In fact, the same sort of fallacious reasoning can be used to attack any scholar or researcher in any field of inquiry whatsoever, including Wills. For instance, just as my standing to benefit from defending Weak Scientism is supposed to be a reason to believe that Weak Scientism is false, or Paul Offit’s standing to gain from MMR vaccines is supposed to be a reason to believe that such vaccines are not safe, Wills’ standing to benefit from his attacks on Weak Scientism (e.g., by protecting his position as a Humanities professor) would be a reason to believe that his attacks on Weak Scientism are flawed.

Indeed, the administrators at Wills’ university would have a reason to dismiss his argument for a pay raise on the grounds that he stands to benefit from it (Van Vleet 2011, 16). Of course, such reasoning is fallacious no matter who is the target. Either MMR vaccines are safe and effective or they are not regardless of whether Offit stands to benefit from them. Climate change is real whether climate scientists stand to benefit from doing climate research. Likewise, Weak Scientism is true or false whether or not I stand to benefit from defending it.

Image by Maia Valenzuela via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Revisiting the Joyce Scholar

Wills (2018b, 36) returns to his example of the Joyce scholar as an example of non-scientific knowledge “that come[s] from an academic context.” As I have already pointed out in my previous reply (Mizrahi 2018b, 41-42), it appears that Wills fails to grasp the difference between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism. Only Strong Scientism rules out knowledge that is not scientific. On Weak Scientism, there is both scientific and non-scientific knowledge. Consequently, examples of non-scientific knowledge from academic disciplines other than scientific ones do not constitute evidence against Weak Scientism.

Relatedly, Wills claims to have demonstrated that I vacillate between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism and cites page 22 of his previous attack (Wills 2018a, 22). Here is how Wills (2018a, 22) argues that I vacillate between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism:

Perhaps it is the awareness of such difficulties that leads Mizhari [sic] to his stance of ‘Weak Scientism’. It is not a stance he himself entirely sticks to. Some of his statements imply the strong version of scientism as when he tells us the [sic] knowledge is “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields, such as the humanities” [Mizrahi 2018a, 22].

However, the full passage Wills cites as evidence of my vacillation between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism is from the conclusion of my second reply to Brown (Mizrahi 2018a) and it reads as follows:

At this point, I think it is quite clear that Brown and I are talking past each other on a couple of levels. First, I follow scientists (e.g., Weinberg 1994, 166-190) and philosophers (e.g., Haack 2007, 17-18 and Peels 2016, 2462) on both sides of the scientism debate in treating philosophy as an academic discipline or field of study, whereas Brown (2017b, 18) insists on thinking about philosophy as a personal activity of “individual intellectual progress.” Second, I follow scientists (e.g., Hawking and Mlodinow 2010, 5) and philosophers (e.g., Kidd 2016, 12-13 and Rosenberg 2011, 307) on both sides of the scientism debate in thinking about knowledge as the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields of study, such as the humanities, whereas Brown insists on thinking about philosophical knowledge as personal knowledge.

Clearly, in this passage, I am talking about how ‘knowledge’ is understood in the scientism debate, specifically, that knowledge is the published research or scholarship produced by practitioners in academic disciplines (see also Mizrahi 2017a, 353). I am not saying that non-scientific disciplines do not produce knowledge. How anyone can interpret this passage as evidence of vacillation between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism is truly beyond me. To me, this amounts to “contextomy” (McGlone 2005), and thus further evidence of arguing in bad faith on Wills’ part.

Wills also misunderstands, as in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, the epistemic properties of unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability, and their role in the context of hypothesis testing and theory choice. For he seems to think that “a masterful exposition of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man will show the unity, coherence and simplicity of the work’s design to the extent that these are artistically desired features” (Wills 2018b, 36). Here Wills is equivocating on the meaning of the terms ‘unity’, ‘coherence’, and ‘simplicity’.

There is a difference between the epistemic and the artistic senses of these terms. For example, when it comes to novels, such as A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, ‘simplicity’ may refer to literary style and language. When it comes to explanations or theories, however, ‘simplicity’ refers to the number of entities posited or assumptions taken for granted (Mizrahi 2016). Clearly, those are two different senses of ‘simplicity’ and Wills is equivocating on the two. As far as Weak Scientism is concerned, it is the epistemic sense of these terms that is of interest to us. Perhaps Wills fails to realize that Weak Scientism is an epistemic thesis because he has not read my (2017a), where I sketch the arguments for this thesis, or at least has not read it carefully enough despite claiming to be a practitioner of “close reading” (Wills 2018b, 34).

When he says that the Joyce scholar “tests [what he says] against the text,” Wills (2018b, 37) reveals his misunderstanding of testability once again. On Wills’ description of the work done by the Joyce scholar, what the Joyce scholar is doing amounts to accommodation, not novel prediction. I have already discussed this point in my previous reply to Wills (Mizrahi 2018b, 47) and I referred him to a paper in which I explain the difference between accommodation and novel prediction (Mizrahi 2012). But it appears that Wills has no interest in reading the works I cite in my replies to his attacks. Perhaps a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the difference between accommodation and prediction would be more accessible (Barnes 2018).

Wills finds it difficult to see how the work of the Joyce scholar can be improved by drawing on the methods of the sciences. As Wills (2018b, 37) writes, “What in this hermeneutic process would be improved by ‘scientific method’ as Mizrahi describes it? Where does the Joyce scholar need to draw testable consequences from a novel hypothesis and test it with an experiment?” (original emphasis)

Because he sees no way the work of the Joyce scholar can benefit from the application of scientific methodologies, Wills thinks it follows that I have no choice but to say that the work of the Joyce scholar does not count as knowledge. As Wills (2018b, 37) writes, “It seems to me that only option for Mizrahi here is to deny that the Joyce scholar knows anything (beyond the bare factual information) and this means, alas, that his position once again collapses into strong scientism.”

It should be clear, however, that this is a non sequitur. Even if it is true that scientific methodologies are of no use to the Joyce scholar, it does not follow that the work of the Joyce scholar does not count as knowledge. Again, Weak Scientism is the view that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. This means that scientists produce knowledge using scientific methods, whereas non-scientists produce knowledge using non-scientific methods, it’s just that scientists produce better knowledge using scientific methods that are superior to non-scientific methods in terms of the production of knowledge. Non-scientists can use scientific methods to produce knowledge in their fields of inquiry. But even if they do not use scientific methods in their work, on Weak Scientism, the research they produce still counts as knowledge.

Moreover, it is not the case that scientific methodologies are of no use to literary scholars. Apparently, Wills is unaware of the interdisciplinary field in which the methods of computer science and data science are applied to the study of history, literature, and philosophy known as the “Digital Humanities.” Becoming familiar with work in Digital Humanities will help Wills understand what it means to use scientific methods in a literary context. Since I have already discussed all of this in my original paper (Mizrahi 2017a) and in my replies to Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), I take this as another reason to think that Wills has not read those papers (or at least has not read them carefully enough).

To me, this is a sign that he is not interested in engaging with Weak Scientism in good faith, especially since my (2017a) and my replies to Brown are themselves instances of the use of methods from data science in HPS, and since I have cited two additional examples of work I have done with Zoe Ashton that illustrates how philosophy can be improved by the introduction of scientific methods (Ashton and Mizrahi 2018a and 2018b). Again, it appears that Wills did not bother to read (let alone read closely) the works I cite in my replies to his attacks.

Toward the end of his discussion of the Joyce scholar, Wills (2018b, 37) says that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases.” If he accepts that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases” (Wills 2018b, 37), then Wills thereby accepts Weak Scientism as well. For to say that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases” (Wills 2018b, 37) is to say that scientific knowledge is generally better than non-scientific knowledge.

Of course, there are instances of bad science, just as there are instances of bad scholarship in any academic discipline. Generally speaking, however, research done by scientists using the methods of science will likely be better (i.e., quantitatively better in terms of research output and research impact as well as qualitatively better in terms of explanatory, predictive, and instrumental success) than research done by non-scientists using non-scientific methods. That is Weak Scientism and, perhaps unwittingly, Wills seems to have accepted it by granting that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases” (Wills 2018b, 37).

Inference to the Best Explanation

In my (2017a), as well as in my replies to Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a) and to Wills (Mizrahi 2018b), I have argued that Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) is used in both scientific and non-scientific disciplines. As McCain and Poston (2017, 1) put it:

Explanatory reasoning is quite common. Not only are rigorous inferences to the best explanation (IBE) used pervasively in the sciences, explanatory reasoning is virtually ubiquitous in everyday life. It is not a stretch to say that we implement explanatory reasoning in a way that is “so routine and automatic that it easily goes unnoticed” [Douven 2017].

Once this point is acknowledged, it becomes clear that, when judged by the criteria of good explanations, such as unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability, scientific IBEs are generally better than non-scientific IBEs (Mizrahi 2017a, 360; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17; Mizrahi 2018b, 46-47).

In response, Wills tells the story of his daughter who has attempted to reason abductively in class once. Wills (2018b, 38) begins by saying “Let me go back to my daughter,” even though it is the first time he mentions her in his (2018b), and then goes on to say that she once explained “how Scriabin created [the Prometheus] chord” to the satisfaction of her classmates.

But how is this supposed to be evidence against Weak Scientism? In my (2017a), I discuss how IBE is used in non-scientific disciplines and I even give an example from literature (Mizrahi 2017a, 361). Apparently, Wills is unaware of that, which I take to be another indication that he has not read the paper that defends the thesis he seeks to criticize. Again, to quote Wills (2018b, 38) himself, “All disciplines use abduction,” so to give an example of IBE from a non-scientific discipline does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism. According to Weak Scientism, all academic disciplines produce knowledge, and many of them do so by using IBE, it’s just that scientific IBEs are better than non-scientific IBEs.

Wills asserts without argument that, in non-scientific disciplines, there is no need to test explanations even when IBE is used to produce knowledge. As Wills (2018b, 38) writes, “All disciplines use abduction, true, but they do not all arrive at the ‘best explanation’ by the same procedures.” For Wills (2018b, 38), his daughter did not need to test her hypothesis about “how Scriabin created [the Prometheus] chord.” Wills does not tell us what the hypothesis in question actually is, so it is hard to tell whether it is testable or not. To claim that it doesn’t need to be tested, however, even when the argument for it is supposed to be an IBE, would be to misuse or abuse IBE rather than use it.

That is, if one were to reason to the best explanation without judging competing explanations by the criteria of unity, coherence, simplicity, testability, and the like, then one would not be warranted in concluding that one’s explanation is the best among those considered. That is just how IBE works (Psillos 2007). To say that an explanation is the best is to say that, among the competing explanations considered, it is the one that explains the most, leaves out the least, is consistent with background knowledge, is the least complicated, and yields independently testable predictions (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362).

Wills (2018b, 39) seems to grant that “unity, simplicity and coherence” are good-making properties of explanations, but not testability. But why not testability? Why an explanation must be simple in order to be a good explanation, but not testable? Wills does not say. Again (Mizrahi 2018b, 47), I would urge Wills to consult logic and reasoning textbooks that discuss IBE. In those books, he will find that, in addition to unity, coherence, and simplicity, testability is one of the “characteristics that are necessary conditions for any explanation to qualify as being a reasonable empirical explanation” (Govier 2010, 300).

In other words, IBE is itself the procedure by which knowledge is produced. This procedure consists of “an inference from observations and a comparison between competing hypotheses to the conclusion that one of those hypotheses best explains the observations” (Mizrahi 2018c). For example (Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2015, 196):

  • Observation: Your lock is broken and your valuables are missing.
  • Explanation: The hypothesis that your house has been burglarized, combined with previously accepted facts and principles, provides a suitably strong explanation of observation 1.
  • Comparison: No other hypothesis provides an explanation nearly as good as that in 2.
  • Conclusion: Your house was burglarized.

As we can see, the procedure itself requires that we compare competing hypotheses. As I have mentioned already, “common standards for assessing explanations” (Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2015, 195) include unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability. This means that, if the hypothesis one favors as the best explanation for observation 1 cannot be tested, then one would not be justified in concluding that it is the best explanation, and hence probably true. That is simply how IBE works (Psillos 2007).

Contrary to what Wills (2018b, 39) seems to think, those who reason abductively without comparing competing explanations by the criteria of unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability are not using IBE, they are misusing or abusing it (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-361). To reason abductively without testing your competing explanations is as fallacious as reasoning inductively without making sure that your sample is representative of the target population (Govier 2010, 258-262).

Image by Specious Reasons via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The Defense Rests

Fallacious reasoning, unfortunately, is what I have come to expect from Wills after reading and replying to his attacks on Weak Scientism. But this is forgivable, of course, given that we all fall prey to mistakes in reasoning on occasion. Even misspelling my last name several times (Wills 2018a, 18, 22, 24) is forgivable, so I accept Wills’ (2018b, 39) apology. What is unforgivable, however, is lazy scholarship and arguing in bad faith. As I have argued above, Wills is guilty of both because, despite claiming to be a practitioner of “close reading” (Wills 2018b, 34), Wills has not read the paper in which I defend the thesis he seeks to attack (Mizrahi 2017a), or any of the papers in my exchange with Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), as evidenced by the fact that he does not cite them at all (not to mention citing and engaging with other works on scientism).

This explains why Wills completely misunderstands Weak Scientism and the arguments for the quantitative superiority (in terms of research output and research impact) as well as qualitative superiority (in terms of explanatory, predictive, and instrumental success) of scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge. For these reasons, this is my second and final response to Wills. I have neither the time nor the patience to engage with lazy scholarship that was produced in bad faith.

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

Ashton, Zoe and Moti Mizrahi. “Intuition Talk is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the ‘Received Wisdom’ About Armchair Philosophy.” Erkenntnis 83, no. 3 (2018a): 595-612.

Ashton, Zoe and Moti Mizrahi. “Show Me the Argument: Empirically Testing the Armchair Philosophy Picture.” Metaphilosophy 49, no. 1-2 (2018b): 58-70.

American Philosophical Association. “Minorities in Philosophy.” Data and Information on the Field of Philosophy. Accessed on August 13, 2018. http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/resmgr/data_on_profession/minorities_in_philosophy.pdf.

Barnes, Eric Christian. “Prediction versus Accommodation.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), edited by E. N. Zalta. Accessed on August 14, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/prediction-accommodation/.

Botts, Tina Fernandes, Liam Kofi Bright, Myisha Cherry, Guntur Mallarangeng, and Quayshawn Spencer. “What Is the State of Blacks in Philosophy?” Critical Philosophy of Race 2, no. 2 (2014): 224-242.

Cherry, Myisha and Eric Schwitzgebel. “Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite.” Los Angeles Times, March 04, 2016. Accessed on August 13, 2018. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0306-schwitzgebel-cherry-philosophy-so-white-20160306-story.html.

Douven, Igor. “Abduction.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E. N. Zalta (Summer 2017 Edition). Accessed on August 14, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/abduction/.

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Govier, Trudy. A Practical Study of Argument. Seventh Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Fourth Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2018.

Haack, Susan. Defending Science–within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.

Kidd, I. J. “How Should Feyerabend Have Defended Astrology? A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016): 11-17.

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McGlone, Matthew S. “Contextomy: The Art of Quoting out of Context.” Media, Culture & Society 27, no. 4 (2005): 511-522.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Why the Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism Ultimately Fails.” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 43, no. 1 (2012): 132-138.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Why Simpler Arguments are Better.” Argumentation 30, no. 3 (2016): 247-261.

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Mizrahi, Moti. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.” Social

Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018a): 7-25.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018b): 41-50.

Mizrahi, Moti. “The ‘Positive Argument’ for Constructive Empiricism and Inference to the Best Explanation. Journal for General Philosophy of Science (2018c): https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-018-9414-3.

Offit, Paul A. Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Paxton, Molly, Carrie Figdor, and Valerie Tiberius. “Quantifying the Gender Gap: An Empirical Study of the Underrepresentation of Women in Philosophy.” Hypatia 27, no. 4 (2012): 949-957.

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Peels, Rik. “A Conceptual Map of Scientism.” In Scientism: Prospects and Problems, edited by J. De Ridder, R. Peels, and R. Van Woudenberg, 28-56. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Psillos, Stathis. “The Fine Structure of Inference to the Best Explanation. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74, no. 2 (2007): 441-448.

Rosenberg, Alexander. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Scimago Journal & Country Rank. “Subject Bubble Chart.” SJR: Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Accessed on August 13, 2018. http://www.scimagojr.com/mapgen.php?maptype=bc&country=US&y=citd.

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Stenmark, Mikael. “What is Scientism?” Religious Studies 33, no. 1 (1997): 15-32.

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

Van Vleet, Jacob E. Informal Logical Fallacies: A Brief Guide. Lahman, MD: University Press of America, 2011.

Walton, Douglas N. and Erik C. W. Krabbe. Commitment in Dialogue: Basic Concepts of Interpersonal Reasoning. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Weinberg, Steven. Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature. New York: Random House, 1994.

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018a): 18-24.

Wills, Bernard. “On the Limits of any Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018b): 34-39.

[1] I would like to thank Adam Riggio for inviting me to respond to Bernard Wills’ second attack on Weak Scientism.

Author Information: Bruce Janz, University of Central Florida, bruce.janz@ucf.edu

Janz, Bruce. “The Problem of Method in African Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 1-7.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ZC

Image by Global Partnership for Education via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Edwin Etieyibo’s recent collection of papers raises the question of the nature and use of method in African philosophy. Method is difficult to thematize as a concept in this context; the four chapters in the section on method in this book address different aspects of the concept. They come to no unified conclusion (nor would we expect that), but they do open the door to several aspects of this complex concept.

Why is it complex? Method, in the context of philosophy, is often difficult to pin down. Classically in the West, of course, it referred to the tools of reasoning, usually logic. But using the term “method” suggests a means to an end. The point of method is not at all clear. Is it to reach truth? Is it to properly represent experience, or thought, or worldviews? Is it to create concepts? Is it to ground theory?

What Is Method and What Is It For?

In most other disciplines, method is separable from theory – one can have a theory about childhood development in psychology, or the nature of crime in sociology, and use a range of methods to support that theory. Similar method can be used in different theoretical contexts – specific methods in a discipline such as sociology (e.g., surveys, database research, interviews) or more general methodological approaches (e.g., quantitative, qualitative) are theory-agnostic, although they might be tailored by theory. In philosophy, thought, theory and method are generally not so easily separated.  If our method centers on clear reasoning, this seems universal.

Of course, there are philosophical approaches that have a more clear application of reason. Phenomenology, for instance, especially that of Husserl, employs a method of reduction and bracketing in order to isolate metaphysical assumptions and allow for a focus on experience. Descartes wrote his Discourse on Method which modelled philosophy on scientific inquiry, while Gadamer’s Truth and Method seeks to place philosophy a step beyond method. And, Socrates’ dialectical method used dialogue to approach a true vision of the forms.

These versions of method, and others we could include, assume that reason is capable but for one reason or another obscured. All these versions of method aim to clear away that which stands in the way of reason operating properly. Not all versions of philosophy start from this assumption (for instance, some Christian philosophy starts from the assumption that reason is at its core systematically corrupted, and so no amount of clearing will allow it to operate properly; hence, method focusses on the transcendental underpinnings for thought), but most do.

This is relevant to African philosophy because when method comes up, it has often been against the backdrop of reason’s inability to exercise itself due to external barriers. Some discussions of method have started from the assumption that African philosophy has to demonstrate that it is truly African and truly philosophical, and that that means finding a unique method. So, sage philosophy attempts to do just that, for example. Method has also been a process of clearing colonial structures, “decolonizing the mind” as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o put it, so that a truly African philosophy can commence.

Decolonization: Forward! to Return!

There is another sense of method, and we see this in Simon Mathias Makwinja’s contribution (Makwinja 2018). He surveys some prominent anthologies and introductory readers in African philosophy, and finds most of them wanting. The issue of method here has less to do with the proper use of reason and more to do with how questions are chosen. African philosophy must “give direction to specific substantive problems” (99), something which he thinks has rarely been done.

Makwinja is concerned that focusing on establishing African philosophy’s place within the larger world of philosophy “continues to eat so much into meager resources that could have been used for examining substantive issues” (107). He is right about this, but it is worth asking why this nevertheless continues.

Philosophy in general has a tendency to return to its roots, however it conceives of those, and the justification of African philosophy’s place just seems like a mis-directed version of that. So, the question would be, what would it mean to do substantive philosophy while following this impulse of returning to roots?

What are those roots – are they excavated in a quasi-anthropological manner by attending to the patterns of culture, or do they exist elsewhere? And, is there a distinction between formal roots such as Aristotle’s first principles or Husserl’s experience and substantive roots such as African culture, or do these in the end amount to the same thing?

Thinking With Harmonious Monism

Lucky Uchenna Ogbonnaya, in his contribution, addresses his questions about method to Jonathan Chimakonam and the “logic criterion” of African philosophy. The question is, does logic come before ontology or not? Ogbonnaya’s central question (114) concerns whether a discourse or text is African philosophy or not. Note that this is a demarcation issue first – the decision about order is to answer the question of the nature of philosophy.

Method, for Ogbonnaya, is the determination of what counts as African philosophy, not the way of doing African philosophy. Also, he generalizes about Western and African philosophy – “African philosophy is not like Western philosophy, which is built on a reductionist or absolutist ontology. It is a philosophy that is built on African ontology, which Ijiomah christens “harmonious monism.”” (125)

Leaving to the side the question of whether this is an accurate portrayal of either tradition, it suggests how method is meant to work for Ogbonnaya. It is both a process of demarcation, and a way of establishing identity. “Method”, here, is probably best understood as the order of priority for thinking in African philosophy. Ogbonnaya argues against Chimakonam’s idea that logic must come first, and in so doing, maintains that there is a cultural basis for thought. Ontology, for him, is held at a cultural level rather than an individual one, and is in fact seen as a cultural artifact outside of Africa as well (he also refers to Eastern philosophies as engaging with their ontology as well).

The assumption that ontology grounds cultural philosophies means that these ontologies stand beyond the reach of method. It does not mean that one cannot work from some other ontology; presumably one can work from other ontologies (“a text/work is African philosophy if it is done from the purview of African ontology”, 127), but the ontologies, in this view, seem to be beyond philosophical reflection. This view would be similar to some religious philosophies as mentioned earlier, in which philosophy is subordinated to something else such as theology or religious belief.

Having to Look European

Jonathan Chimakonam’s contribution to the section on method takes on philosophical universalism by advocating conversational philosophy. This is a collective project that he and others at the University of Calabar in Nigeria and elsewhere have been advocating for some time, which has its roots in, among other places, phenomenological and hermeneutical method. Philosophical universalism has, in his account, held African philosophy back by always implicitly requiring that it look to European models of thought.

The alternative is not particularism, which has its own set of problems, but conversational philosophy. He conceives conversation as a quasi-dialectical process which includes both critique and creation as part of its movement. The thinking that this affords is rooted in revisions of questions and answers, as each is exposed to new conditions and new information.

The entire structure is schematized, although it is unclear whether the schematization is descriptive or prescriptive, in other words, whether it is a representation of how successful philosophy happens or whether it is a map for how African philosophy might successfully avoid universalism and particularism to create something new. In either case, there would likely be a host of exceptions or variations within the schema.

More interesting than the schema are the themes he identifies as ways of moving forward. They all bear traces of the method already described.

There are five:

  • re-tracement (a move away from attempting to represent collective African thought and toward asking new questions that can open up new vistas of thought);
  • re-engagement (finding new forms of encounter with otherness);
  • re-leasement (allowing reason to find its many voices);
  • unfoldment (the result of the previous three, a move towards the new rather than simply re-affirming what we already believe);
  • coverance (attending to areas that have not received sufficient attention in African philosophy).

Like the more generalized method, these grow out of the conviction that there are untapped intellectual resources in Africa which, with new questions and new habits of engagement can yield more complex and more applicable models of thought.

No Dogma Is Innocuous, Leave Them All

The final contribution to the method section is by Oritsegbubemi Anthony Oyowe. He focusses on a specific methodological claim, which he calls “Hume’s Law” – there should be no ought from is (“NOFI”), or more directly, we should not infer prescriptive claims from solely descriptive ones. Thaddeus Metz argues that Kwame Gyekye commits this error when he tries to derive a political theory from the metaphysics of selfhood in Africa. Oyowe’s methodological argument is that there are often bridging premises which are unstated, but which legitimate the move from is to ought.

Oyowe’s argument is closely reasoned, although given the scope of Metz’s work it does not do justice to his full ethical theory (and, one would not of course expect it to). But what is interesting here is the question of what implications there would be for method if Oyowe’s reclamation of NOFI is successful. While his specific target is Metz’s position, the general goal of Oyowe’s argument is clearly to be able to deploy descriptions of African culture and society in making a case for how Africans ought to live.

In other words, Oyowe is resisting Metz’s NOFI dictum, in part because of flaws he sees in Metz’s defense of this principle, but more importantly because having this principle available means that theorists who have used it, such as Wiredu and Gyekye among others could continue to use it. Why might this manner? Because a great deal of communitarian thought in African political philosophy and African ethics is founded on what are essentially sociological observations about African past and present.

And this raises the question relevant to method – while Oyowe is not arguing against NOFI only on behalf of Africa (he does, after all, marshall resources from other non-African writers in analytic philosophy), would the ability to reject “no ought from is” enable African philosophers to establish politics or ethics in a manner that they would otherwise not be able to do? Or, is this a kind of particularism, a way of differentiating African thought from other thought by grounding it in the specific nature of African societies?

And, if NOFI is rejected, that is, if it is possible to derive normative statements from existing or historical cultural practice, does this not simply move the question back one step, to asking about whether the descriptions of African societies themselves have been made with a philosophical agenda in mind, and whether exceptions to the rule have been overlooked or ignored in order to establish something that looks like a unified African description of social reality (the “is” part) which can then be used to produce the “ought” part, which would be specific ethical or normative principles?

An Almost-Imperialist Method

What is interesting about this group of chapters is the different approaches they have to method in African philosophy. Since there is no agreed outcome in philosophy akin to what we might find in other disciplines (something like producing theories about the processes of life in biology, or explanations of social formations and processes in sociology, and so forth), there is no agreement on the nature of method. There is, therefore, also no way of assessing the success or failure of method. What is also evident is that method in African philosophy looks over its shoulder to the alienating methods imposed upon it by colonial philosophy in the past.

Method as we see it here is a way of clearing impediments to understanding, and those impediments are largely understood in terms of past regimes of knowledge and earlier practices within African philosophy. It is also, despite the now commonly expressed sentiment that we must move past the project of defining African philosophy and start doing it, still a project of demarcation, that is, showing who’s in and who’s out, or what is in and what is out. Of course, some, notably Makwinja and Chimakonam, clearly try to distance themselves from that project of demarcation.

There is also a thread connecting these papers related to creativity. While there is an element of demarcation, which reflexively looks back on existing candidates for African philosophy, there is also a sense in all the authors of what might be possible if the foundational components of African philosophy are clarified and the barriers to the uses of reason in Africa are removed. The specifics of the results of creativity in African philosophy is, understandably, unclear in all the authors.

And yet, the fact that it is unclear is evidence that the term “method” as used in African philosophy (and perhaps elsewhere in philosophy) is not about reaching any particular goal. One can imagine philosophical method which is tied to a goal – some versions of Christian philosophy, for instance, or philosophies which have specific forms of emancipation as their goal.

This is not to say, of course, that a particular view of the world, or an outcome of emancipation, are not significant projects for philosophy, but that there exists a tension in philosophical method between having a sense of the kind of creation desired and constructing a method which follows reason where it leads. History is littered with philosophical statements on what the good life might look like, or what utopia might be, and in retrospect such visions turn out to have their own forms of domination, their own blind spots, which have no adequate response in the terms their philosophical method and assumptions have set out.

If these papers were all part of a conference panel, and I was asked to provide a response, I would be interested to see how each writer would respond to what I think is one of the best books on method written in African philosophy. Emmanuel Eze’s final book, On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism (Eze 2008), suggests a structure for reason which does not root it directly in culture, but rather recognizes a range of different forms of reason which are assembled into rationality differently in different places (see Janz 2008 for a fuller account of this). His focus is less on finding a method of philosophizing in Africa and more on finding a method of thinking able to account for both its universality and particularity.

Contributions to Philosophy

It would be interesting to see each of the contributors here interact with Eze’s argument. Eze seems less concerned about the problem of demarcation in African philosophy than he is about describing the ways in which people in particular places leverage universal aspects of human reason for localized effects. Like the contributors in the book, he is interested in a version of African philosophy which is creative, but I suspect his description of creativity would be different. And, his version of reason is less about clearing the impediments to the true functioning of reason, and more about how different forms of reason might work.

Eze does not explicitly say that he is writing a treatise on method in African philosophy, and in fact he avoids thinking about method at all in terms of looking for something unique in Africa. For him, the goal of method in the context of Africa is not to find a unique approach to Africa, or even to find a new way of clearing the impediments to reason. Nor is it to find something analogous to method in other disciplines, that is, a set of disciplined steps designed to support theories or explanations of phenomena in a particular domain. To that extent, he would agree with the contributors to this book – method in philosophy does not easily lend itself to definition in any rigid sense.

But he would likely have some questions for these contributors. For Makwinja, he might ask whether the question of method really is just a distraction from producing philosophy that is relevant to Africa? Is method only about clearing away the barriers to reasoning in Africa and establishing Africa’s place within the world of philosophy, or does it have a further relevance once those tasks are either completed or not worth engaging anymore?

For Ogbonnaya, he might ask whether the contrast between ontology and logic is really the only one that faces us. Are there not other forms of reasoning available, and the question of which comes first in the ontology/logic binary is overly simplified? For Chimakonam, he might ask how other disciplines and their traditions of reason might fit into the picture he is drawing about conversational philosophy. As Eze indicates, there are a range of forms of reason which assemble into rationality.

Is the conversational method a centrifugal one, expanding the range of reason in the context of Africa, or a centripetal one, tightening and honing rational discourse within the context of philosophy, to the exclusion of discourses in other disciplines? In other words, does conversation as a method broaden the scope of philosophy or narrow it? And for Oyowe, he might ask whether, given his rejection of the “no ought from is” dictum, if it is still possible to, as Eze puts it, “protect what I regard as the relative independence of philosophical reflection from contextual morality and political settlements.” (Eze 2008: 235).

In other words, the arrow on this dictum might go both ways – if “is” constitutes a sufficient basis for “ought”, is it possible that “ought” will influence or even produce what we think of as “is”, which would lead to a kind of relativism at best, or a capture of philosophy for political ends at worst?

Of course, we cannot truly know what Eze would ask, and I am not trying to speak on his behalf. What I am doing is taking the lead he gives us in On Reason to think about the nature of method beyond the contributions to Etieyibo’s volume. These chapters, along with Eze and other writings, are defining a disciplined and extended discussion about the difficult question of method in African philosophy, and I look forward to future conversations around these questions.

Contact details: bruce.janz@ucf.edu

References

Jonathan O. Chimakonam, “The ‘Demise’ of Philosophical Universalism and the Rise of Conversational Thinking in Contemporary African Philosophy” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 135-159.

Emmanuel Eze, On Reason: Rationality in a World of Cultural Conflict and Racism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

Bruce Janz, “Reason and Rationality in Eze’s On ReasonSouth African Journal of Philosophy 27:4 (2008): 296-309.

Simon Mathias Makwinja, “Questions of Method and Substance and the Growth of African Philosophy” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 93-112.

Lucky Uchenna Ogbonnaya, “Between Ontology and Logic Criteria of African Philosophy” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 113-133.

Oritsegbubemi Anthony Oyowe, “Is, Ought, and All: In Defense of a Method” in Edwin Etieyibo, ed., Method, Substance, and the Future of African Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 161-184.

Author Information: Val Dusek, University of New Hampshire, val.dusek@unh.edu.

Dusek, Val. “Antidotes to Provincialism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 5-11.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Wz

Please refer to:

Out on the streets of downtown Shanghai this March.
Image by keppt via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bryan Van Norden’s book rightly castigates the exclusion or minimizing of non-Western philosophy in mainstream US philosophy curricula. I was shocked by the willful ignorance and arrogance of those such as able philosopher of biology, Massimo Pigliucci, whom, before reading the quote about Eastern thought, I highly respected. Van Norden is on target throughout with his criticism of Western professional philosopher’s dismissive provincialism. I only worry that his polemic, though accurately describing the situation, will not at all convert the unconverted. Calling the western philosophers who exclude non-Western philosophy “Trumpian philosophers” is both accurate and funny, but unlikely to make them more sympathetic to multi-cultural philosophy.

A Difficult History

Westerners until the last third of the twentieth century denied that there was any significant traditional Chinese science. Part of this was based on racial prejudice, but part of it was that by the nineteenth century, after the Opium War and the foreign concessions were made, Chinese science had degenerated, and superstitious aspects of such things as geomancy and astrology, rather than the earlier discoveries of geography and astronomy dominated.  Prior to the late 1950s for professional Western historians of science, and, until decades later (or even never) the public, scoffed at the idea of sophisticated traditional Chinese science. Chinese insight into astronomy, biology, and other fields was rejected by most people, including respectable historians of science.

The British biochemical embryologist and Marxist Joseph Needham over the second half of the twentieth century in the volumes of Science and Civilization in China gradually revealed the riches of Chinese knowledge of nature. There, is of course the issue of whether traditional Chinese knowledge of nature, and that of other non-Western peoples, often with the exception of Middle Eastern science, can be should be called science. If science is defined as necessarily including controlled experiments and mathematical laws, then Chinese knowledge of nature cannot be called science. Needham himself accepted this definition of science and made the issue of why China never developed science central to his monumental history.

However, Needham discovered innumerable discoveries of the Chinese of phenomena denied in Western science for centuries. Chinese astronomers recorded phenomena such as new stars (Novae) appearing, stellar evolution (change of color of stars), and sunspots in astronomy, None of these were recorded by ancient and medieval Western astronomers. Famously, modern astronomers have made use of millennium old Chinese recordings of novae to trace past astronomical history.

In China, the compass was known and detailed magnetic declination maps were made centuries before the West even knew of the compass. Geobotanical prospecting, using the correlation of plants with minerals in the soil, the idea that mountains move like waves, and on and on. Since field biology, observational astronomy, and historical geology in modern Western science usually do not involve experiments, and many contemporary philosophers of biology deny that there are biological laws, the “experiment and mathematical laws” definition of science may be too narrow.

An example of the chauvinist rejection of Chinese science, and of Needham’s monumental work is that of a respected Princeton historian, Charles Coulston Gillispie. In his review of the first volumes of Needham he warned readers not to believe the contents because Needham was sympathetic to the Communists. Ironically, in the review, Gillispie tended to dismiss applied science and praised the purely theoretical science supposedly unique to the West, accusing Needham of “abject betrayal of the autonomy of science.”

Also ironically, or even comically, in the margin of Gillispie’s reply, doubling down on the denunciation of Communism and defense of pure, non-materialist science was an advertisement recruiting guided nuclear missile scientists for Lockheed! One hopes, but doubts, that Gillispie was embarrassed by his review, as he made similar comments in his Edge of Objectivity, also suggesting that the Arabs and the Chinese could not be trusted with nuclear weapons as “we” can, with our superior moral values.

The Heights of Chinese Philosophy

Even decades after Needham’s magisterial sequence of volumes had been appearing, Cromer in an anti-multicultural book claims not only that China had no science, but that the Chinese had no interest in or knowledge of the world beyond China (neglecting the vast trade on the Silk Road during the ancient and medieval periods, amazingly varied Chinese imports during the Tang Dynasty, the voyages of exploration of Zheng He, the Three Jeweled Eunuch (perhaps a contradiction in terms), and the most complete map of the world before the 1490s (from Korea, but probably from Chinese knowledge and available in China).

Hopefully there will be a process of recognition of non-Western philosophy by American analytic philosophers of the sort that began fifty years earlier for Chinese knowledge of nature among historians. So far this has hardly happened.

One possibility for the integration of Asian philosophy into mainstream philosophy curricula is the integration of non-Western philosophy into the standard history of philosophy courses. One easy possibility of integration is including non-Western philosophy in the standard Ancient Philosophy and Medieval Philosophy curriculum. While teaching Ancient as well as Chinese philosophy in the last two decades I have (perhaps too often) drawn parallels between and contrasts of Greek and Chinese philosophy. However, very few students take both courses. Until this coming year Eastern philosophy was offered yearly, but not as a required part of the history sequence, and few students were in both courses, I worried whether these in-class comparisons fell mostly on deaf ears.

I have thought about the possibility of courses on ancient, medieval, and early modern philosophy including non-Western philosophy of the period. There are a couple of introductory philosophy anthologies, such as Daniel Bonevac’s, apparently now out of print, that include much non-Western philosophy. (Ironically, Bonevac is literally a “Trumpian philosopher,” in the sense of having supported Donald Trump.) Robert C. Solomon included discussion of some Chinese philosophy in his survey but shows total ignorance of modern research on Daoism, doubting that Laozi was an older contemporary of Confucius but rather at least one or two centuries later. Some ways a course that covered both Greek and Chinese philosophy could make comparisons between the two are suggested below. Of course, the usual, casual, comparison of the two involves an invidious contrast perhaps less strong than that of Pigliucci.

A Genuinely Modest Proposal

My proposal involves not introductory surveys but histories of philosophy from the Presocratics to the German romantics and early twentieth century philosophers.

Parallels between the Warring States philosophers and the Pre-Socratics have been noted by among others Benjamin Schwartz in The World of Thought in Ancient China. The Pre-Socratics’ statements have numerous parallels to those of Chinese philosophers of the same period. Qi has some parallels to the air of Anaximenes, in particular in terms of condensation as the source of objects. The Dao of Laozi, as source of all things, yet being indefinable and ineffable has resemblances to the Apeiron of Anaximander.

Of course, many of the paradoxes (that an arrow does not move, the paradox of metrical extension, that a length can be divided indefinitely, that an assemblage of infinitely small points can add up to a finite length) are almost identical with those of Zeno. Of course, the emphasis on Being in Western philosophy from Parmenides through Aristotle to Aquinas and other medieval contrasts most strongly with the emphasis on non-being in Laozi and its presence with less emphasis in Zhuangzi. West’s Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient has many evocative suggestions of influences of the East on the Presocratics. There is extensive work on the parallels and contrasts of the ethics of Mencius and that of Aristotle. The concept and role of the concept Qi has strong similarities to the Stoic notion of pneuma, as described, for instance in Sambursky’s Physics of the Stoics.

A.C. Graham in Disputers of the Dao argues that as the formal logical approaches of the early Wittgenstein, Russell, and logical positivism in the first half of the twentieth century gave way to the later Wittgenstein, and French deconstruction developed, these parts of Western philosophy more closely approximated to the approaches of traditional Chinese philosophy.

Shigehisa Kuriyama has provocatively and insightfully written on the comparison of traditional Chinese medicine and Greek Hippocratic medicine on the body. There have been many articles speculating on the relation of Greek skepticism being influenced by Eastern thought via Alexander’s invasion of India. Diogenes Laertius’s claims that Pyrrho (of later Pyrrhonian skepticism) went to India with Alexander where was influenced by the gymnosophists (“naked sophists”) he met there. C. Beckwith has argued that Phyrronism is a product of Buddhism. Jay Garfield, though thinking the influence question is a red herring, has written extensively and insightfully on the logical isomorphisms between Greek and Tibetan skeptical theses.

Buddhist logic of contradiction can be compared with and at least partially explicated by some twentieth century logics that incorporate contradictions as not illogical. These include presupposition logic as Buddhist. (Though a former colleague told me three people who worked on this died horrible deaths, one by cancer, another by auto accident, so I should avoid studying this area). Other twentieth century symbolic logic systems that allow contradictions as not fatal are Nicholas Rescher’s and Robert Brandom’s paraconsistent logic on applied to Eastern philosophy by Graham Priest, dialethic logic. One can also compare Pai-chang’s Zen monastic rules to the simultaneously developed ones of St. Benedict.

Several, both Western and Asian philosophers, have compared Chan Buddhist mysticism with that of Wittgenstein. Reinhardt May in Heidegger’s Hidden Sources has investigated influences of Heidegger’s readings of Helmut Wilhelm’s translations of Yi Qing and Dao De Jing. Eric Nelson, in his fascinating recent book has traced not only the recently more well-known use made by Heidegger, but also extensive use by Martin Buber, Hans Dreisch, and a number of less famous German philosophers of the early twentieth century.

Perhaps more controversial is the comparison made between the European medieval scholastics’ fusion of Christian ethics with Aristotelian cosmology and the medieval Chinese, so-called neo-Confucian scholastic fusion of Confucian ethics and politics with Daoist cosmology. One can compare the concept of li in the “neo-Daoist of dark learning” Wang Bi and more extensively in the neo-Confucians, most notably Xuzi, as Leibniz had suggested. Beyond parallels there have been provocative arguments that Buddhist means of argument, via the so-called Silk Road in Central Asia, issued in part of European scholastic technique. Certainly, a topic in early modern philosophy is Leibniz’s praise of the Yijing as binary arithmetic, and his claims about the similarity of Xuzi’s metaphysics and his own Monadology, with brief note of Nicholas Malebranche’s less insightful dialogue between a Chinese and a Christian philosopher.

The skyline of Shanghai, today one of the world’s leading cities.
Image by Alex and David Berger via Flickr / Creative Commons.

 

In western political philosophy the appeals to the superiority of Chinese society to that of Europe, or at least the existence of a well ordered and moral society without the Biblical God, by figures such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Quesnay, Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and others, both using “China as a Model for Europe” as Maverick’s book is entitled, or as a means of satirizing European supposed morals and justice. The Chinese legalists, who were doing behavioral political science and Malthusian population theory of history over two millennia before Western political theorists did so, could be noted in a course in social philosophy that includes behavior political science.

Leibniz’s praise of the Yi as well as his extensive claims of similarity of Xuzi’s Li and Chi to his own form, substance, and monads. Also, Leibniz’s efforts of support for the Jesuit attempt to incorporate Confucian ceremonies into Catholic mass, and the Rites Controversy, detailed by David Mungello and others, deserve coverage in Early Modern courses.

There is a fascinating work by the child psychologist Alison Gopnik on possible connections that may have been made by Hume during his most creative period at La Fleche, where Descartes had studied long before, with missionaries who were familiar with Asian thought, particularly one who had lived in Siam.

In German romantic philosophy we find relatively little sophisticated treatment of Chinese philosophy (Witness Goethe’s fragmentary treatment of China.) However, there was a great reception of Indian philosophy among the German romantics. Schlegel, Schelling, and others absorbed ideas from Hinduism, not to mention Schopenhauer’s use of Buddhism. (Sedlar gives an elementary survey). In late nineteenth century philosophy there is the growing sympathy of Ernst Mach for Buddhism, as well as Nietzsche’s disputed attitudes toward Asian philosophy. Interestingly, Nietzsche copiously annotated his copy of Mach’s Analysis of Sensations, and offered to dedicate his Genealogy of Morals to Mach.

In twentieth century philosophy there have been numerous works of varying quality noting similarities between Wittgenstein’s approach to metaphysical questions and Chan Buddhism. There also are a number or works comparing Alfred North Whitehead to Buddhism.

Despite the severe criticisms that have been made of some best-selling popular treatments of the topic, I think there are significant parallels between some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics and some traditional Asian philosophies. I once had a testy exchange in print with the physicist and writer Jeremy Bernstein on this topic. His Trumpian reply was “Yogic, Schmogic.” A few decades later he wrote appreciatively of the Dali Llama’s attempt to relate Buddhism to quantum philosophy.

An Open Future for Education in Philosophy

I realize that there is always the danger of superficial comparisons between very different systems of thought, but I believe that much of the work I mention is not guilty of this. I also, realize, as a non-specialist, I have mentioned mainly works of comparison from the sixties through the eighties, and many more fine-grained scholarly articles have been produced in the last two decades.

I look forward to the integration of non-western philosophy into the core of the standard history of philosophy sequence, not just by supplementing the two or four-year sequence of history of philosophy courses with non-Western philosophy courses, but by including non-Western philosophy in the content of the history of philosophy of each period.

Contact details: val.dusek@unh.edu

References

Baatz, Ursula, “Ernst Mach: The Scientist as Buddhist?” in Ernst Mach: A Deeper Look, ed. J. T. Blackmoore, Springer, 2012.

Beckwith, Christopher I., Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton, 2015.

Bernstein, Jeremy, Val Dusek, and Ed Gerrish, “A Cosmic Flow,” “The Reader Replies” with reply by Jeremy Bernstein, American Scholar, Autumn 1979, p. 572.

Bernstein, Jeremy, “Quantum Buddhists,” in Quantum Leaps, Harvard, 2009, pp. 27-52.

Bonevac, Daniel, and Stephen Phillips, eds. Introduction to World Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader, Oxford, 2009.

Cromer, Alan, Common Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, Oxford, 1995.

Gillispie, Charles Coulston, “Prospects,” American Scientist 45 no. 2 (March, 1957), 169-176, and reply no. 4 (September 1957) 266A-272A.

Gillispie, Charles Coulston, The Edge of Objectivity, Princeton, 1959.

Gopnik, Allison, “Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism?: Charles François Dolu, the Royal College of La Flèche, and the Global Jesuit Intellectual Network,” Hume Studies, vol. 35, nos. 1 & 2, 2009, pp. 5-28.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Dao, Open Court, 1979.

Hartshorne, Charles, et al, “Symposium on Mahayana Buddhism and Whitehead,” Philosophy East and West, vol. 25, no. 4, 1975, pp. 393-488.

Kuyiyama, Shigehisa, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, Zone Books, 2002.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, Writings on China, trans. Daniel J. Cook and Henry Rosemont, Jr. Open Court, 1994.

Malebranche, Dialogue between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher, American Universities Press, 1980.

Maverick, Lewis A., China, A Model for Europe, Paul Anderson, 1949.

Mungello, David E. The Great Encounter of China and the West 1500-1800, 3d edn., Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press, 1954 -.

Nelson, Eric S., Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth Century German Thought, Bloomsbury, 2017.

Priest, Graham, Beyond the Limits of Thought, Oxford, 2002.

Priest, Graham, One: Being an Investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness, Oxford, 2016.

Reinhardt May, Heidegger’s Hidden Sources: East Asian Influences on His Work, transl. Graham Parkes, Routledge, 1996.

Sambursky, Samuel, The Physics of the Stoics, Princeton University Press, 1959.

Schwartz, Benjamin I., The World of Thought in Ancient China, Harvard, 1989.

Sedlar, Jean, India in the Mind of Germany: Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Their Times, University Press of America, 1982.

Van Norden, Bryan, Preface by Jay L. Garfield, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, Columbia University Press, 2017.

West, M. L., Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment, Part Three.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 32-37.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3VO

Please refer to:

These considerations seem to argue for some type of social-democratic ideal perhaps along Scandinavian lines. This, of course, is not a sure bet. Capital of its very nature will seek to subvert and destroy mixed economies of the social democratic type because it cannot internalize the notion of limit. As such regimes cannot exist without capital they will always be forced to accede to its demands, particularly in a globalized context. Given this a rapprochement between Capital and xenophobic nationalism, Fascism in other words, seems like a strangely logical if, finally, contradictory choice.[1]

A poster from 2012 of Barack Obama as a fascist dictator in the model of Hitler, doubling as an ad for the extremist website Infowars. Image by Madame LaZonga via Flickr / Creative Commons

For those who receive none of the benefits of globalism but bear most of its burdens it may well be a compelling choice. I should point out that in the context of declining public trust in institutions Fascist style myths of national redemption are fatally tempting. Of course neo-liberalism has laid the groundwork for this with its mania for privatizing public assets, often at low cost. These measures, along with ‘austerity’ budgets reduce the efficacy of institutions which can then be portrayed as inept and beyond reform by those who want to profit from their sale.

In this the neo-liberals make strange bedfellows with many radicals who also call for the dismantling of state institutions like the police and military: essentially, both groups take as their target the modern state which one sees as oppressive of economic enterprise and the other sees as oppressive of racial, class and gender difference. Battered from all sides of the political spectrum it is little wonder the state is now an object of general suspicion and contempt. It is little wonder people seek solutions that are radical though radical need not always (or indeed ever) equal progressive.[2]

Here, however, let me address something I think is a crucial error. We are hearing more and more of the ‘weakness of liberalism’ with the disturbing implication that we need something less rather than more liberal to deal with our current crisis. This argument, as it always has, runs like this. Liberalism is committed to the notion of pure tolerance and is thus incapable of opposing the rising tide of extremism. A commitment to pure liberalism will thus destroy liberalism altogether as extremists will use the cover of bourgeois civil rights to subvert the state. This is backed, again as always, with the argument ad Hitleram.

Exactly as the Weimar Republic was ‘too free’ so we are ‘too free’. If only, the argument goes, the Weimar state had been less tolerant and liberal force could have been used to stop the spread of Nazi ideology.[3] Thus, we too, if we are too ‘liberal’, will meet the same fate. This argument is surely balderdash. Firstly, what was it that rendered Nazi ideology a fringe phenomenon for the second half of the 20th century? Why was it that for so many decades, fascism was the preserve of isolated cranks, street thugs and lunatics? Clearly because the post war liberal consensus I have referred to above had widespread support. When did Fascism re-emerge as an option? Precisely when pro-market ideology succeeded in destroying that consensus.

It is simply wrong that Fascism has re-emerged because of excessive liberalism: Fascism re-emerged when liberalism was subverted, when liberals themselves sold out their principles to the emerging class of financiers, speculators and media barons. What is more, this is yet another argument curiously appropriated from the far right: it has been the insistent claim of right wing Islamophobes that ‘Liberalism’ is unsustainable because it entails the tolerance of “Islamists” and those feckless voices on the ‘left’ who undermine the West’s will to fight with their constant critiques of colonial oppression and craven apologies for acts of terror.

Indeed, I find it odd that a rhetorical ploy used so often on the right has now been picked up by the left apparently without anyone noticing. How many times have we been told by Bushes, Blairs and others that opposition to some foreign intervention was ‘appeasement’ because some foreign leader was the next ‘Hitler’? I certainly do think Trump represents a form of Fascism (as I explained above) but it is well to remember that Trump is NOT Hilter. For one thing his movement has nothing like the ideological coherence of the Nazi Party (as noted above) nor has he anything like the shrewdness or determination or even basic competence of its leader. He also leads a country that has a long tradition of anti-authoritarian politics and (for now at least) some functioning checks and balances.

This is important for two reasons. Firstly, the Hitler comparison creates the perception of an emergency to which any response is in principle justified: what would one not do to stop the next holocaust? Secondly, this response closes off an important discussion. If the problem with Trump is that he is Hitler then it follows that his supporters are the new Nazis: this dehumanizes them and renders their concerns moot. Politically this is disastrous for many (though not all) Trump supporters are legitimately upset about the failures of the neo-Liberal order. Fascism does not flourish in a vacuum and Trumpism is not reducible to slow witted people deciding to be jerks. Identifying and allaying these underlying anxieties and tensions is the real work of anti-fascists though it involves less than exhilarating things like humility and listening to others.[4]

A memorial statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in eastern Berlin. Image by Joan Sorolla via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Getting this balance right is crucial for the stakes are high. I believe what is at stake is a crucial component of the modern project. I believe that there is more to the idea of globalism than the ghastly parody of the Washington Consensus. I believe the ideal of a catholic and universal human society is a necessary moral challenge and a marvelous opportunity for human growth. Are we really better off retreating into the parochialism of pre-modern societies? Are we better off fearing and scapegoating the other? Are we better off with the old national rivalries and their attendant violence?

I say this in full awareness that supra-national institutions in the past have taken oppressive and imperial forms (such as the Romans and Ottomans or the modern imperialisms of the Americans and British). If there is something to be saved from the ideologies that drove those societies, it is the idea of universality: not of a universal military or commercial hegemony as in the past but of a moral society of all humans. To use Kant’s phrase there is a Kingdom of Ends that is unlimited in scope and illimitable in principle. We now know, due the simple fact of global communications, that the other is not a monster or if he is a monster, is no more a monster than we are capable of being. We have no need to engage in speculation like a Medieval person would have to concerning distant folk such as the Moors.

Given modern technology the other is among us whether we will it or no. The universal society is a simple fact however much we try to deny the moral implications of it. It is a fact that confronts us every day in the form of the world wide web. To use the language of Marx the material conditions of society already point to the necessity of a universal community!

This is reflected even in demographics: no western society currently has any future that does not involve an infusion of workers and consumers from other societies. Moreover, the many people in the west who do benefit from our current economic system will not easily forego new opportunities for consumption: having tried sushi they will not go back to meat and potatoes grown locally.

Lest both my right and left leaning colleagues sniff at the superficiality of the dining classes with their pumpkin lattes and craft beers let me say that there are many who enjoy the liberty of cultural contacts with other parts of the globe who will not give this up either. In other words, every western society contains a cosmopolitan impulse which will have at least some say in any proposed future and these people wish no return to the pristine purity of square dancing and tractor pulls. I do not mean to be flippant here: in small ways as well as in large we are coming to the understanding of Terence that nothing human is alien. This is the ideal that was once embodied in the old notion of Romanitas and persists though the imperial days of Rome are long gone.

It is well to remember that the first wave of political innovation in the West was the revived imperium of Charlemagne, a distant ancestor of our current European Union. Western culture at its best (as opposed to its worst) has never been about elevating the parochial for its own sake. Almost from the beginning (in spite of its wonderful and lively vernacular literatures) it employed the lingua franca of Latin as the universal norm of cultural discourse. This idea of universalism always has and always will meet resistance for openness entails risk and universalist ideals noble in conception have often disgraced themselves in practice. The temptation to turn our backs on this tradition are thus ever present. Yet those on the far right who trumpet ‘European identity’ while betraying everything good that Europe has ever accomplished not only deny the evident social facts of our world but its deepest moral potential as well.

Practically this means working to strengthen such international institutions as now exist and create new ones that can exercise some control over the flow of capital and enforce common labor and environmental standards. This means, and my right leaning readers will not like this, that I am indeed a globalist. As the ravages of unrestrained capitalism and environmental degradation are a global problem they call forth a global solution.

Similarly, my anarchist readers will also be displeased for I do not envisage the dissolution of the nation state but rather international agreements that will strengthen it as there is little way to enforce common international standards that bypasses national sovereignty. What, for instance, if trade deals between nations were used to buttress labor and environmental standards rather than subvert them? What if corporations that roam the globe looking for the weakest regulations and most immiserated workers were simply shut out of their own markets by newly empowered national governments?[5]

Both right and left envisage a world of spontaneously self-organizing social systems. The first group tell us that these are markets which if left to their own devices will slowly but surely solve all problems. The second group envisage workers organizing into guild like social collectives which can meet all basic needs on a purely local level. Both of these notions belong in the realm of utopian fiction. As Plato long ago pointed out classes emerge from any complex social order: antagonism and difference are grounded in the ineradicable particularity of human experience.

The individual does not merge directly with the collective but must be disciplined by the mediating power of civic institutions to regard the freedom of the other as her own. In other words, evil will always emerge as individuals absolutize their differences and the state (in whatever form it takes) is required to contain and harness these conflicts for good.[6] This banal fact of human experience has long been enshrined in religious and mythic conceptions such as the fall from paradise.

To put it bluntly, the communes envisaged by the anarchists and syndicalists (or any other form of social organization that assumes a direct harmony of interests between human beings) will last as long as it takes for the first love triangle to emerge: for the first individual to oppose absolutely h is subjectivity to another (as in the story of Cain and Abel). On this point at least the existentialist tradition (think of Dostoevsky’s underground man) has a much firmer grasp on reality than the Marxist as it recognizes the necessity of evil and conflict for the emergence of freedom.[7]

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

“”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (https://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/)

Aeschylus, The Suppliants trans. Phillip Vellacott (Penguin Classics, London 1961)

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Doubleday Books, New York, 1958)

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster (Telos Press, St. Louis, 1975)

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, London, 1978)

Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe (Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998)

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015)

Eagleton, Terry. Marx (Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London 1997)

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012)

Frank, Dana. “The Thugocracy Next Door” Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02.

Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind (Harper Torchbook, New York, 1967)

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism (Anansi Press, Concord, 1992)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986)

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology (International Publishers, New York, 1970)

Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf)

Pulver, Matthew. “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: How the Clintons Can Apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany (Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2005)

[1] In Nazi Germany this contradiction was only resolved by the personality cult of Adolf Hitler to whom, finally, the German nation and all the institutions it contained became expendable. The interests of Capital, the Army and so on were sacrificed to a war of national suicide of which the charisma and will of the fuehrer was the only binding principle. That this will was fundamentally nihilistic is shown by the fanatical orders of Hitler’s last days, orders only subverted by the intervention of Albert Speer.

[2] The easy convergence of these two positions should give us pause. That extremists of the alt-right and anti- fascist radicals on the left closely resemble each other is something readily discerned by anyone not an alt-right extremist and anti-fascist radical leftist. I do not simply refer to their unbending dogmatism or their penchant for reflexive verbal aggression and ad hominem attacks. I refer to the deeper truth that both groups are fundamentally Gnostic/Manichean in outlook. They are the lone voices of reason and integrity in an utterly corrupt world where public institutions need to be smashed instead of reformed and armies and police replaced with private militias culled from the remnant of the saints. In other words, to use a theological vocabulary, their outlook is sectarian not catholic (political errors are often secular transcriptions of theological ones). Indeed, one is reminded of Hegel’s claim that ‘absolute freedom’ finds its logical fulfilment in murderous acts of political terror: “Universal freedom can thus produce neither a positive achievement nor a deed, there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the rage and fury of destruction.” (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604).

[3] The ‘liberal’ character of the Weimar Republic should not be exaggerated, at least in this respect. As the Munich putsch illustrates attempts were made to suppress Nazism both by direct force and the banning of Nazi publications. These ultimately failed because a divided judiciary and army (many of whom were sympathetic to nationalism) were unable or unwilling to back up the fledgling Republic. (see Spielvogel, 36-39) Even so, as George Blum notes: “As economic conditions improved after the mid-1920’s, following a currency reform and the infusion of foreign credits, the prospects of parliamentary democracy were much enhanced. It is quite likely that it would have survived in Germany and Nazism would have remained a boisterous fringe movement if the chaos of the Great Depression had not cut short economic prosperity and social stability.” (8) Perhaps it is not free speech we should avoid but depressions.

[4] Exemplary in this respect is Arlie Russell Hochschild: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump “ (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf). Changing the narrative of Trump voters requires understanding the narrative of Trump voters. Russell Hochschild points out that this narrative is theological at base and very deeply embedded in the thought forms of American Protestantism (688). Appeals to reason will not affect it. Immiserated whites who abandon myth for reason will live in the exact same devastated communities as before and their view of them will only be that much bleaker. If Trump’s base is to be cracked by a progressive political party, incentives will need to be offered to his supporters to trade their despairing ‘deep story’ for a more hopeful narrative. Clinton lost to Trump because she did not offer such an incentive in material, moral or indeed any other form. No doubt she could not make such an offer loudly and publicly without offending the corporate donor class, which is most likely why she did not even campaign in the rust belt states that cost her the election.

[5] Is it inherently irrational to suggest that countries which try undercut other countries by slashing worker’s rights and throwing out health and safety regulations should simply be excluded from trading blocs that agree to enforce common standards in such matters? Corporations, of course, can impose no discipline on themselves in such matters but might they become so worried about the prospects of global capitalism that, like addicts, they agree to have their hands tied by the state?

[6] It is difficult to know why anyone would assume otherwise. The impression Marx leaves is that in a society without class conflict the individuality of each will fall into immediate harmony with the individuality of all which might, for all one knows, be true if it were not that class conflict is just one subset of conflict in general. People on the same side in the class war are quite capable of utter viciousness to each other as anyone can confirm by hanging around Socialists (or workers for that matter) for any length of time. I have spoken elsewhere of the grave loss to self-knowledge that comes from the occlusion of the theological tradition. This is a case in point: without the myth of the fall people have lost a powerful skeptical check on their motives and can, with fatal ease, identify their basest impulses with their highest and most noble aspirations. It is noteworthy that original sin is probably the least popular Christian doctrine though it is the only one capable of %100 empirical confirmation.

[7] And here I must register my fundamental criticism of Marx (at least the utopian Marx) and the point on which he has failed to heed his teacher Hegel. Total freedom can only take the form of absolute tyranny. Thus it is not in fact an accident that Marx, who gives us a wonderful vision of the possibilities of human freedom (see Eagleton, 19-23), has given us also a formula for abject tyranny. Marx of course recognizes dialectical opposition as central to history. This is what the history of class struggle is all about. However, the notion that these tensions will directly resolve themselves once the capitalist state is overthrown is both forlorn and dangerous. Forlorn because it cannot happen (differentiation will inevitably occur) and dangerous because once the ‘individual’ has been reconciled to the ‘collective’ any further assertion of personal will or individuality will simply be a falling off from the good and an object of immediate suppression. The final state can allow no real opposition or difference to emerge as the historical problem will be, supposedly, solved. This is Blake’s warning about the ‘religious’ who seek to dissolve the tensions of history into a bland unity. (MHH 16, 10) This is also the price paid for historicizing a religious symbol (the millennium and the kingdom of God) and attempting to make of it a literal reality. Thus, the utopian strain in in Marx should at very least be an object of reserve and skepticism: it is no longer possible to separate the hope of Utopian thinking from the specter of mass murder.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, SERRC Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “Action in Harmony with a Global World.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 20-26.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Vp

Image by cornie via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bryan Van Norden has become about as notorious as an academic philosopher can be while remaining a virtuous person. His notoriety came with a column in the New York Times that took the still-ethnocentric approach of many North American and European university philosophy departments to task. The condescending and insulting dismissal of great works of thought from cultures and civilizations beyond Europe and European-descended North America should scandalize us. That it does not is to the detriment of academic philosophy’s culture.

Anyone who cares about the future of philosophy as a tradition should read Taking Back Philosophy and take its lessons to heart, if one does not agree already with its purpose. The discipline of philosophy, as practiced in North American and European universities, must incorporate all the philosophical traditions of humanity into its curriculum and its subject matter. It is simple realism.

A Globalized World With No Absolute Hierarchies

I am not going to argue for this decision, because I consider it obvious that this must be done. Taking Back Philosophy is a quick read, an introduction to a political task that philosophers, no matter their institutional homes, must support if the tradition is going to survive beyond the walls of universities increasingly co-opted by destructive economic, management, and human resources policies.

Philosophy as a creative tradition cannot survive in an education economy built on the back of student debt, where institutions’ priorities are set by a management class yoked to capital investors and corporate partners, which prioritizes the proliferation of countless administrative-only positions while highly educated teachers and researchers compete ruthlessly for poverty wages.

With this larger context in mind, Van Norden’s call for the enlargement of departments’ curriculums to cover all traditions is one essential pillar of the vision to liberate philosophy from the institutions that are destroying it as a viable creative process. In total, those four pillars are 1) universal accessibility, economically and physically; 2) community guidance of a university’s priorities; 3) restoring power over the institution to creative and research professionals; and 4) globalizing the scope of education’s content.

Taking Back Philosophy is a substantial brick through the window of the struggle to rebuild our higher education institutions along these democratic and liberating lines. Van Norden regularly publishes work of comparative philosophy that examines many problems of ethics and ontology using texts, arguments, and concepts from Western, Chinese, and Indian philosophy. But if you come to Taking Back Philosophy expecting more than a brick through those windows, you’ll be disappointed. One chapter walks through a number of problems as examples, but the sustained conceptual engagement of a creative philosophical work is absent. Only the call to action remains.

What a slyly provocative call it is – the book’s last sentence, “Let’s discuss it . . .”

Unifying a Tradition of Traditions

I find it difficult to write a conventional review of Taking Back Philosophy, because so much of Van Norden’s polemic is common sense to me. Of course, philosophy departments must be open to primary material from all the traditions of the human world, not just the Western. I am incapable of understanding why anyone would argue against this, given how globalized human civilization is today. For the context of this discussion, I will consider a historical and a technological aspect of contemporary globalization. Respectively, these are the fall of the European military empires, and the incredible intensity with which contemporary communications and travel technology integrates people all over Earth.

We no longer live in a world dominated by European military colonial empires, so re-emerging centres of culture and economics must be taken on their own terms. The Orientalist presumption, which Edward Said spent a career mapping, that there is no serious difference among Japanese, Malay, Chinese, Hindu, Turkic, Turkish, Persian, Arab, Levantine, or Maghreb cultures is not only wrong, but outright stupid. Orientalism as an academic discipline thrived for the centuries it did only because European weaponry intentionally and persistently kept those cultures from asserting themselves.

Indigenous peoples – throughout the Americas, Australia, the Pacific, and Africa – who have been the targets of cultural and eradicative genocides for centuries now claim and agitate for their human rights, as well as inclusion in the broader human community and species. I believe most people of conscience are appalled and depressed that these claims are controversial at all, and even seen by some as a sign of civilizational decline.

The impact of contemporary technology I consider an even more important factor than the end of imperialist colonialism in the imperative to globalize the philosophical tradition. Despite the popular rhetoric of contemporary globalization, the human world has been globalized for millennia. Virtually since urban life first developed, long-distance international trade and communication began as well.

Here are some examples. Some of the first major cities of ancient Babylon achieved their greatest economic prosperity through trade with cities on the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east along the Indian Ocean coast as Balochistan. From 4000 to 1000 years ago, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Persian, Arab, Chinese, Mongol, Indian, Bantu, Malian, Inca, and Anishinaabeg peoples, among others, built trade networks and institutions stretching across continents.

Contemporary globalization is different in the speed and quantity of commerce, and diversity of goods. It is now possible to reach the opposite side of the planet in a day’s travel, a journey so ordinary that tens of millions of people take these flights each year. Real-time communication is now possible between anywhere on Earth with broadband internet connections thanks to satellite networks and undersea fibre-optic cables. In 2015, the total material value of all goods and commercial services traded internationally was US$21-trillion. That’s a drop from the previous year’s all-time (literally) high of US$24-trillion.[1]

Travel, communication, and productivity has never been so massive or intense in all of human history. The major control hubs of the global economy are no longer centralized in a small set of colonial powers, but a variety of economic centres throughout the world, depending on industry. From Beijing, Moscow, Mumbai, Lagos, and Berlin to Tokyo, and Washington, the oil fields of Kansas, the Dakotas, Alberta, and Iraq, and the coltan, titanium, and tantalum mines of Congo, Kazakhstan, and China.

All these proliferating lists express a simple truth – all cultures of the world now legitimately claim recognition as equals, as human communities sharing our Earth as we hollow it out. Philosophical traditions from all over the world are components of those claims to equal recognition.

The Tradition of Process Thought

So that is the situation forcing a recalcitrant and reactionary academy to widen its curricular horizons – Do so, or face irrelevancy in a global civilization with multiple centres all standing as civic equals in the human community. This is where Van Norden himself leaves us. Thankfully, he understands that a polemic ending with a precise program immediately becomes empty dogma, a conclusion which taints the plausibility of an argument. His point is simple – that the academic discipline must expand its arms. He leaves the more complex questions of how the philosophical tradition itself can develop as a genuinely global community.

Process philosophy is a relatively new philosophical tradition, which can adopt the classics of Daoist philosophy as broad frameworks and guides. By process philosophy, I mean the research community that has grown around Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as primary innovators of their model of thought – a process philosophy that converges with an ecological post-humanism. The following are some essential aspects of this new school of process thinking, each principle in accord with the core concepts of the foundational texts of Daoism, Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi.

Ecological post-humanist process philosophy is a thorough materialism, but it is an anti-reductive materialism. All that exists is bodies of matter and fields of force, whose potentials include everything for which Western philosophers have often felt obligated to postulate a separate substance over and above matter, whether calling it mind, spirit, or soul.

As process philosophy, the emphasis in any ontological analysis is on movement, change, and relationships instead of the more traditional Western focus on identity and sufficiency. If I can refer to examples from the beginning of Western philosophy in Greece, process thought is an underground movement with the voice of Heraclitus critiquing a mainstream with the voice of Parmenides. Becoming, not being, is the primary focus of ontological analysis.

Process thinking therefore is primarily concerned with potential and capacity. Knowledge, in process philosophy, as a result becomes inextricably bound with action. This unites a philosophical school identified as “Continental” in common-sense categories of academic disciplines with the concerns of pragmatist philosophy. Analytic philosophy took up many concepts from early 20th century pragmatism in the decades following the death of John Dewey. These inheritors, however, remained unable to overcome the paradoxes stymieing traditional pragmatist approaches, particularly how to reconcile truth as correspondence with knowledge having a purpose in action and achievement.

A solution to this problem of knowledge and action was developed in the works of Barry Allen during the 2000s. Allen built an account of perception that was rooted in contemporary research in animal behaviour, human neurology, and the theoretical interpretations of evolution in the works of Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

His first analysis, focussed as it was on the dynamics of how human knowledge spurs technological and civilizational development, remains humanistic. Arguing from discoveries of how profoundly the plastic human brain is shaped in childhood by environmental interaction, Allen concludes that successful or productive worldly action itself constitutes the correspondence of our knowledge and the world. Knowledge does not consist of a private reserve of information that mirrors worldly states of affairs, but the physical and mental interaction of a person with surrounding processes and bodies to constitute those states of affairs. The plasticity of the human brain and our powers of social coordination are responsible for the peculiarly human mode of civilizational technology, but the same power to constitute states of affairs through activity is common to all processes and bodies.[2]

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. Whatever is soft, fluid, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.” – Lao Zi
The Burney Falls in Shasta County, Northern California. Image by melfoody via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Action in Phase With All Processes: Wu Wei

Movement of interaction constitutes the world. This is the core principle of pragmatist process philosophy, and as such brings this school of thought into accord with the Daoist tradition. Ontological analysis in the Dao De Jing is entirely focussed on vectors of becoming – understanding the world in terms of its changes, movements, and flows, as each of these processes integrate in the complexity of states of affairs.

Not only is the Dao De Jing a foundational text in what is primarily a process tradition of philosophy, but it is also primarily pragmatist. Its author Lao Zi frames ontological arguments in practical concerns, as when he writes, “The most supple things in the world ride roughshod over the most rigid” (Dao De Jing §43). This is a practical and ethical argument against a Parmenidean conception of identity requiring stability as a necessary condition.

What cannot change cannot continue to exist, as the turbulence of existence will overcome and erase what can exist only by never adapting to the pressures of overwhelming external forces. What can only exist by being what it now is, will eventually cease to be. That which exists in metamorphosis and transformation has a remarkable resilience, because it is able to gain power from the world’s changes. This Daoist principle, articulated in such abstract terms, is in Deleuze and Guattari’s work the interplay of the varieties of territorializations.

Knowledge in the Chinese tradition, as a concept, is determined by an ideal of achieving harmonious interaction with an actor’s environment. Knowing facts of states of affairs – including their relationships and tendencies to spontaneous and proliferating change – is an important element of comprehensive knowledge. Nonetheless, Lao Zi describes such catalogue-friendly factual knowledge as, “Those who know are not full of knowledge. Those full of knowledge do not know” (Dao De Jing 81). Knowing the facts alone is profoundly inadequate to knowing how those facts constrict and open potentials for action. Perfectly harmonious action is the model of the Daoist concept of Wu Wei – knowledge of the causal connections among all the bodies and processes constituting the world’s territories understood profoundly enough that self-conscious thought about them becomes unnecessary.[3]

Factual knowledge is only a condition of achieving the purpose of knowledge: perfectly adapting your actions to the changes of the world. All organisms’ actions change their environments, creating physically distinctive territories: places that, were it not for my action, would be different. In contrast to the dualistic Western concept of nature, the world in Daoist thought is a complex field of overlapping territories whose tensions and conflicts shape the character of places. Fulfilled knowledge in this ontological context is knowledge that directly conditions your own actions and the character of your territory to harmonize most productively with the actions and territories that are always flowing around your own.

Politics of the Harmonious Life

The Western tradition, especially in its current sub-disciplinary divisions of concepts and discourses, has treated problems of knowledge as a domain separate from ethics, morality, politics, and fundamental ontology. Social epistemology is one field of the transdisciplinary humanities that unites knowledge with political concerns, but its approaches remain controversial in much of the conservative mainstream academy. The Chinese tradition has fundamentally united knowledge, moral philosophy, and all fields of politics especially political economy since the popular eruption of Daoist thought in the Warring States period 2300 years ago. Philosophical writing throughout eastern Asia since then has operated in this field of thought.

As such, Dao-influenced philosophy has much to offer contemporary progressive political thought, especially the new communitarianism of contemporary social movements with their roots in Indigenous decolonization, advocacy for racial, sexual, and gender liberation, and 21st century socialist advocacy against radical economic inequality. In terms of philosophical tools and concepts for understanding and action, these movements have dense forebears, but a recent tradition.

The movement for economic equality and a just globalization draws on Antonio Gramsci’s introduction of radical historical contingency to the marxist tradition. While its phenomenological and testimonial principles and concepts are extremely powerful and viscerally rooted in the lived experience of subordinated – what Deleuze and Guattari called minoritarian – people as groups and individuals, the explicit resources of contemporary feminism is likewise a century-old storehouse of discourse. Indigenous liberation traditions draw from a variety of philosophical traditions lasting millennia, but the ongoing systematic and systematizing revival is almost entirely a 21st century practice.

Antonio Negri, Rosi Braidotti, and Isabelle Stengers’ masterworks unite an analysis of humanity’s destructive technological and ecological transformation of Earth and ourselves to develop a solution to those problems rooted in communitarian moralities and politics of seeking harmony while optimizing personal and social freedom. Daoism offers literally thousands of years of work in the most abstract metaphysics on the nature of freedom in harmony and flexibility in adaptation to contingency. Such conceptual resources are of immense value to these and related philosophical currents that are only just beginning to form explicitly in notable size in the Western tradition.

Van Norden has written a book that is, for philosophy as a university discipline, is a wake-up call to this obstinate branch of Western academy. The world around you is changing, and if you hold so fast to the contingent borders of your tradition, your territory will be overwritten, trampled, torn to bits. Live and act harmoniously with the changes that are coming. Change yourself.

It isn’t so hard to read some Lao Zi for a start.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Allen, Barry. Knowledge and Civilization. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.

Allen, Barry. Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Allen, Barry. Vanishing Into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Betasamosake Simpson, Leanne. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2012.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Chew, Sing C. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 B.C. – A.D. 2000. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2001.

Negri, Antonio, and Michael Hardt. Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Riggio, Adam. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics II. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011.

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

World Trade Organization. World Trade Statistical Review 2016. Retrieved from https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/wts2016_e/wts2016_e.pdf

[1] That US$3-trillion drop in trade was largely the proliferating effect of the sudden price drop of human civilization’s most essential good, crude oil, to just less than half of its 2014 value.

[2] A student of Allen’s arrived at this conclusion in combining his scientific pragmatism with the French process ontology of Deleuze and Guattari in the context of ecological problems and eco-philosophical thinking.

[3] This concept of knowledge as perfectly harmonious but non-self-conscious action also conforms to Henri Bergson’s concept of intuition, the highest (so far) form of knowledge that unites the perfect harmony in action of brute animal instinct with the self-reflective and systematizing power of human understanding. This is a productive way for another creative contemporary philosophical path – the union of vitalist and materialist ideas in the work of thinkers like Jane Bennett – to connect with Asian philosophical traditions for centuries of philosophical resources on which to draw. But that’s a matter for another essay.