Author Information: Pankaj Jain, University of North Texas, email@example.com
Jain, Pankaj. “A Call From the Great Wall of China.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 26-30.
This article is inspired by my first ever China trip in May 2018 in which I participated in a workshop at the Dalian University of Technology on American and Chinese approaches in environmental ethics and responsible innovation. In this article, I first summarize my recent exchanges with Robert Frodeman, Adam Briggle, and another colleague. In the final part of this article, I critique the review by Briggle and Frodeman of the book Taking Philosophy Back: A Multicultural Manifesto (Van Norden 2017).
The Breath of Another Land
After the philosophy workshop in Dalian, I chose to stay few more days in Beijing before flying back to the USA. Being in China for the first time, I wanted to make full use of my department’s funding that supported my trip. I had enriching experiences at Beijing’s historical landmarks such as the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Beihai Park, Jingshan Park, Lama Temple, Confucius Temple, Bell and Drum Towers, Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square. One of the world’s oldest surviving civilizations, in my opinion, has tremendous lessons for the world at so many levels and this was my chance to immerse in China.
At the workshop, almost all the papers by Chinese philosophers made references to Euro-American philosophers but American philosophers’ papers strictly remained Euro-American in their focus and approach. Realizing the pattern of indifference towards Asian intellectual traditions by American scholars, I shared my thoughts with my colleagues and graduate students upon my return from China. I had shared them also at the concluding session of the workshop in China,
During the silk route era, hundreds of Chinese scholars traveled to India and learned Indian languages such as Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit to translate hundreds of Buddhist and other texts into Chinese. Most famously, Faxian and Xuan Zang traveled on foot for more than a thousand miles across China, and Central Asia to reach India. and many others followed in their footsteps and became key bridges between the two most ancient Asian civilizations. In that period, Chinese scholars turned Indian knowledge systems into uniquely Chinese systems by mixing them with Daoism and Confucianism.
Their translation was so perfect that today India has lost some of its ancient knowledge systems but thanks to Chinese preservation efforts, we still have access to that lost knowledge. Chinese ethics of translation did not have the colonizing tendencies that the Western systems sometimes have tended to demonstrate. China seems to be doing the same with Euro-American knowledge systems currently. Chinese philosophers are meticulously learning Euro-American systems and are combining this with their own indigenous systems like they did with Indic systems more than 1000 years ago.
Compared to the Chinese openness for American scholarship, we in the American philosophy departments appear pretty xenophobic. We have a long way to go to truly understand and embrace “alien” philosophical ideas and Chinese scholars are good role models for us. Almost 90% of our philosophy students, even today, do not take any course on Eastern thought. Aren’t we producing new generations of Eurocentric scholars who continue to remain ignorant about the intellectual history of major Asian civilizations that are becoming increasingly important today? Almost all philosophy departments in Asia or elsewhere study Western thought.
When will the reverse happen? Philosophy majors studying Asian thought? Today, China is already one of the biggest economies in the world and yet how long will Euro-American philosophy students be stuck in the 19th century? The students in other departments or majors such as religion, anthropology, and history are much better as they do study several major world cultures.
The Barely-Noticeable Weight of Presumptions
Upon reading my message, even with his disagreements, my colleague Professor Adam Briggle shared his (and Frodeman’s) review of a recent book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto because the book makes the similar arguments as I did. Inspired by the book’s powerful arguments about Euro-centricity in American philosophy, I took a look at some of the philosophy courses and noticed that almost all of the philosophy courses focused only on Western philosophy. Although Asian courses are being taught in my department, including by me, they are taken almost exclusively by religion students, not by philosophy students. So, I sent another message,
Interacting with philosophers in China has really opened my eyes to this issue and hopefully, we can together begin to rectify the Euro-centric nature of this oldest field in humanities that seems stuck in the colonial times of 19th century (when Euro-America were dominant in every way unlike today’s globalized world). Luckily, many other departments/majors have diversified considerably, e.g., my own field of religious studies has “Great Religions” course that introduces all the religions, not just Western ones before a student chooses his/her specialization, of course. Similarly, anthropology, history, art history, etc. are much more inclusive. It is time to get to the oldest field that continues to resist this reformation.
Frodeman responded, “philosophy is a western term, which is explained in every intro class (Philos, Sophia)”. To that, another professor and I replied saying that if many other departments with their “western” title such as religion, art, and history can be much more inclusive, why philosophy must continue to be focusing only on western thought. Briggle mentioned, “I am also sympathetic and open to discussion. I’d like to avoid devolving into identity politics where somehow knowing the race or gender of a philosopher becomes all we need to know, or where race and gender are the only forms of diversity that matter.”
Another professor responded, “So our discussion doesn’t devolve into a caricature of the justice issues concerning race, gender, and sexuality: identity politics is not about diversity but freedom, equality, and dignity. Backlash discourses have trivialized it since the 1980s but identity politics is squarely in the liberal tradition – and if you believe Nussbaum, it draws equally on the Romans and Greeks.”
When You Need the Eyes of Another
The above is the summary of my exchange with some of my colleagues including Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle that captures oft-repeated arguments both in favor and against the efforts to make philosophy department more inclusive and diversified. I will now respond to the book-review by Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman. In their review, both start by noting their similarity and overlaps with the project by Bryan Van Norden. Both projects started with their respective columns in New York Times with a call for reforming professional philosophy and rejecting Kantian approach.
However, even as they note these similarities, they seem to be missing few points. Briggle and Frodeman advocate that philosophers must engage with scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and community groups. Almost, each of this set of people in the 19th century primarily consisted of people of Euro-American heritage, ethnicity, or nationalities. However, in the 21st century United States, more than 25% of all scientists and engineers are from Asian and other non-Western heritage.
Similarly, no national or even state policy today can ignore the geopolitical conditions in China, India, and other countries. Finally, the fourth set of people, i.e., community groups are similarly becoming increasingly diversified in the United States. In summary, Briggle and Frodeman need to revise their own project to reflect today’s diversified, globalized, and pluralistic world, not just the interdisciplinary world that they already recognize in their project.
The next blind spot or loophole I discovered in their book review is when they challenge Van Norden’s approach by stating, “He tends to focus only on ‘top’ (via Leiter’s definition) philosophy departments or PhD-granting departments. This can give a skewed picture, which is something we wonder about, given that we have two faculty members in our relatively small department focused on Southeast Asian philosophy and religion.”
First, they conflate South Asia with Southeast Asia, a very common mistake by American scholars and students who do not understand the differences between two of the biggest regions of the world. The major countries of South Asia are India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh whereas Southeast Asian countries include Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Two groups of countries with distinct histories and geographies conveniently or mistakenly often clubbed by many Americans. It would be as wrong as combining Central and North American countries together.
Next, they note that two of the UNT faculty members who focus on Asian philosophy and religion but again forgetting to note that most of the philosophy students almost completely ignoring these classes. Almost all our Asian philosophy courses are taken exclusively by religion students, not philosophy students. This once again shows the openness of religion students and parochial nature of their philosophy counterparts.
Next, they state, “He first isolates different kinds of LCTP (Chinese, Indian, Native American, and African) and then notes how rarely each feature on the roster of philosophy departments. But it could be that when LCTP are aggregated the problem dissipates”. This statement seems to be ignoring the fact that as of now philosophy departments are overwhelmingly dominated by experts only in Western thought. Rarely if ever a faculty is hired to teach non-Western philosophy.
If I compare this situation with the religion counterpart, I have noticed that there are two or sometimes three professors who focus on different eras and/or aspects of Judaism and/or Christianity but almost all religion departments have distinct individuals with expertise in Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and in some cases with indigenous traditions as well. Similar is the case with most history departments in North America where two or three professors focus on Euro-American history with other professors focusing on South Asian (Indian), East Asian (Chinese), and other regions of the world. I am humbly requesting a similar model for American philosophy departments. Just as in other departments, philosophy also should not be West-only and also not “West and all the aggregated rest” either.
Further, I disagree with their statement, “We certainly would not list ourselves as specialists in any LCTP (Less Commonly Taught Philosophies), but we both draw from a variety of traditions and cultures in the classroom. We suspect this kind of practice is widespread”. This kind of sprinkling of non-Western traditions is not the way citizens of today’s globalized and pluralistic world can be prepared. This approach will continue to keep American philosophy students oblivious about the worldviews of more than three fourth of world’s population whose heritage is not based on Western thought.
A Shrug Is Not Enough
So, when philosophy folks say, “we cannot cover every kind of philosophy,” they effective end up dedicating almost 100% of their resources on the knowledge traditions of less than quarter of humankind. No other discipline is as parochial and xenophobic as this oldest humanities discipline that is now the most obsolete as well. One final and important criticism they make is this,
We subscribe to a different conception of philosophy. On our view, philosophy does not primarily consist of a series of problems (e.g., free will; intrinsic value) which one can take a variety of positions on. Philosophy consists of a tradition and a narrative across time. The thoughts of Hegel or Heidegger can best be understood as a rumination on an ongoing conversation involving Nietzsche, Christianity, Duns Scotus, Aristotle, Plato, etc.
In short, we picture philosophy in narrative and historical terms as embedded in cultural contexts. And given that there is only so much time and so many credit hours in the degree plan, a philosophical education is understandably limited to one tradition (though, again, not exclusively – there should be room for cross-cultural comparisons).
This again shows some blind spots in their thinking. Are they forgetting once again the long history of interactions among Western and Asian philosophers? For instance, what about such monumental works as The Shape of Ancient Thought (McEvilley 2002) that demonstrate continuous exchanges between Greek and Indian philosophers? Similarly, others have demonstrated similar exchanges between Indian and Greek Aesthetics (Gupt 1994), Christianity and Buddhism, European Enlightenment with Muslim and Indian traditions and so on. When much of the history of the Western intellectual tradition has been a history of interactions with Muslims and Asians, why must today’s American students forget all those interactions and live as if three fourth of world’s people do not exist intellectually?
In conclusion, most of the arguments by Briggle and Frodeman are already responded by Van Norden and others. I hope my colleagues will recognize their blind spots and be as zealous about internationality of philosophy as they have been about interdisciplinarity. It is time for our field philosophers to realize that the field today already has become a global village. The study of LCTP is not just about justice, diversity, or identity politics, it is about professional ethical commitment to preparing tomorrow’s students as well-rounded as possible. Philosophy professors need to just look over their shoulders at their Religious Studies, Anthropology, and History colleagues and that will be a good beginning.
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Gupt, Bharat. Dramatic Concepts Greek & Indian: A Study of the Poetics and the Nāṭyaśāstra. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1994.
McEvilley, T. The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative studies in Greek and Indian philosophies. New York: Allworth Press, 2002.
Van, N. B. W. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. Columbia University Press, 2017.