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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cultural 'Diversity' In Philosophy - Keep The Western Canon

In a recent article in the New York Times (5.11.16) the authors, both professors of philosophy, lament the lack of cultural diversity in their discipline.  It is far too Euro-centric, they note, and ignorant of the many important intellectual currents of Asia and Africa which have as much if not more relevance to the discipline than Kant, Plato, or Aristotle.


While it is true that the philosophies of China and India, over 5000 years old and among the world’s most sophisticated and complex cosmologies, do indeed have relevance to any serious student in the West; while Islam and Zoroastrianism most certainly have added to the rich texture of both religion and philosophy; and while the totemism of Borneo and the Amazon may have produced a native wisdom important for all , including them to promote ‘diversity’ is little more than intellectual affirmative action – obligatory, politically-motivated, and without rigorous intellectual criteria for acceptance into the canon – only serves to demean and discredit the canon itself.

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Americans students who study philosophy are for the most part Western in orientation, Judeo-Christian in thought and religious training, and citizens of a predominantly Christian country which traces an unbroken philosophical tradition back to Ancient Greece.  Their motivation for study is either secular (they want to better understand the broad historical intellectual context which has shaped American society); personal (they want to understand the nature of religion and the origin and relevance of philosophical theory in order to navigate their own way in life); or purely academic (to be able to teach philosophy, one needs to appreciate commonalities, differences, and relative influence).

Most top-tier universities offer more than enough opportunity for all three.  An undergraduate at Harvard, for example, can take courses in East Asian Studies and choose from among a variety of offerings in religion, philosophy, or politics. The Harvard College Handbook for Students (2015-16) notes:
 The concentration in East Asian Studies seeks to develop a critical understanding of the human experience in East Asia. To study East Asia is to be exposed to a world with different forms of political activity and social relations, religious traditions of great depth and philosophical schools with enduring insights, and literatures of unusual range and power.
Students may amplify or concentrate their studies by taking courses in Asian Art, and a number of talented students have had double majors in studio art and East Asian philosophy according to which they have apply Buddhist philosophy to their interpretation of classical Chinese painting.
Those students who intend a career in East Asian philosophy can take advanced courses at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, East Asian Programs where multi-disciplinary studies leading to advanced degrees are possible:
After a full year of graduate study, a student whose subject of study is geographically limited primarily to East Asia but who is specializing in some branch of knowledge other than linguistics, literature, or history may, with the approval of the departments concerned, become a candidate for the PhD degree under a special ad hoc committee representing the department of the special discipline and the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.
The point is that students can and do expand their philosophical studies to include extra-Western disciplines all the time.   The Harvard courses are rigorous, disciplined, and purposeful.  They intend to lay the intellectual foundation for philosophical reasoning, discourse, and interpretation; and then proceed to present the structure, inter-relationships, and ultimate coherence of the specific philosophical schools of thought presented.

There is no hodge-podge, catch-all, course of study at Harvard.  No smorgasbord approach where degrees are conferred on students who have dabbled in everything from shamanism to the Gospels.  Expansion of philosophical worldview is encouraged but without sacrificing concentration, discipline, and purpose.

Most serious American students – whether secular, personal, or academic in orientation – will obviously and necessarily begin with Western philosophy and religion.  The Founding Fathers were explicit in their references to the Enlightenment, its philosophical principles, and its clear references to religion.  Rationalism, Enlightenment philosophers averred, was necessary to discover God’s hand in the universe.   One cannot understand the motivations, ambitions, and historical events of America without understanding its philosophical origins.


The Enlightenment in turn was influenced by Aristotle and Plato among others; and studying them as well as the illustrative works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides provides insight into the works of the 18th Century.

America is not only Anglo-Saxon in tradition but European.  There is no way to find 0ne’s way forward in a spiritual search without understanding the Bible, the early history of the Church, the Reformation, or the Crusades.  The study of just one book of the New Testament is a lifetime’s work.
If a student concentrates on Western philosophy, then, his choice is logical and defensible, for he has defined his purpose – to better understand the intellectual underpinnings of America and the philosophical thought which defines it. 

His purpose may be broader.  There are enough schools of thought in Western philosophy to occupy an academic for decades or to challenge the curious reader to contemplate the nature of being.  Determinism, existentialism, objectivism, idealism, atomism, cynicism, deconstructionism, and empiricism are but a few.

Given the enormity of the task of mastering just one piece of Western philosophy, students of any ilk can be forgiven for stopping there.  This is not to say that digression into Hinduism, Buddhism, or Zoroastrianism is unproductive.  Far from it.  

A friend has in his later years turned to an academic study of theology and religious history to deepen his understanding of Christianity.   Thanks to his many years in India and his familiarity with the basic tenets of Hinduism, he was surprised to find that the first verses of John 1 – perhaps the most sophisticated statement of Christian cosmology in the Bible – were remarkably similar to verses in the Upanishads.  Both talked of being before being – the essential conundrum of both religions.  This cross-cultural reference did nothing to help him grasp what John was about; but to suggest that most religions are similar not only in their moral and ethical prescriptions but in their fundamentals.

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In other words my friend could have done without the Upanishads because he had enough to do just to read through the thousands of pages written on the Gospel of John only in the last 100 years.
The authors of the NYT article go on:
Given the importance of non-European traditions in both the history of world philosophy and in the contemporary world, and given the increasing numbers of students in our colleges and universities from non-European backgrounds, this is astonishing. No other humanities discipline demonstrates this systematic neglect of most of the civilizations in its domain. The present situation is hard to justify morally, politically, epistemically or as good educational and research training practice.
There is nothing astonishing about the Western focus of university departments of philosophy; and the argument about foreign students is disingenuous at best.  Assuring that Chinese students have access to courses on Confucianism is like assuring spaghetti and meatballs on the cafeteria menu for Italian Americans.   A Chinese student opting for an undergraduate course in Chinese philosophy at an American university would be a waste of time and his parents’ money.

Harvard’s Department of African and African American studies offers students the opportunity to explore their African roots and to review the important history of colonialism, tribalism, political alliances, and other aspects of the continent’s cultural expression.  Since the important African empires – Ghana, Gao, Songhai, Mali, and Ashanti among others – left few written records and had no formal schools of philosophy as did China, India, Persia, and Egypt, focus in the Department is necessarily more disparate. 
African track concentrators come to the program with diverse interests, such as environmental concerns, public health issues, music and dance, ethnic relations, varieties of religious experience, politics and war, economic development and globalization, and art and literature…
In short, for those few students opting for courses in philosophy at American universities, offer then first the opportunity  to grapple with the 3000 years of Western thought – the foundations of American culture – and then to selectively study other intellectual traditions.   As mentioned above, most competitive universities already offer such options. 

It may be politically correct and economically expedient for Departments of Philosophy at lesser-known institutions to argue for more ‘diversity’ in their offerings, for fewer and fewer students have the aptitude or interest to spend hours parsing Kant or Schopenhauer.  To attract new students, philosophy departments are under understandable pressure to make their curricula more ‘relevant’, ‘appropriate’, and ‘inclusive’ – i.e. to mirror the social changes occurring on campus.

That doesn’t make it right or advisable.

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