Taking Philosophy Forward

By Jonardon GaneriAugust 20, 2018

Taking Philosophy Forward

Taking Back Philosophy by Bryan W. Van Norden

“IT’S HARDER to get two philosophers to agree,” says the ancient savant, “than two water-clocks.” Philosophers love to disagree, and disagreement is the lifeblood of philosophy. The tools and techniques of philosophy — debate, reasoned deliberation, weighing of evidence, clarification of concepts, consideration of consequences — are all instruments in the management of disagreement. And there is disagreement whenever there is reflection — whenever, that is to say, people think about things, and seek to comprehend and make sense of what is going on in the world around them, or between themselves and others, or inside their own minds. Then the question arises: who is right? Which brings in its train further reflection on who has the better evidence and the sounder arguments and so, inevitably, still more reflection on what it is that counts as good or bad in matters of evidence and argument. Even before the times of Socrates and the Buddha, in the oldest of the surviving Upanishads, we find these questions, and they have been asked ever since by people everywhere.

Because philosophers love disagreement, they also love diversity. There is nothing better in philosophy than a startling, fresh idea, a possibility in the landscape of thought not previously encountered and explored, some new perspective on an old problem, an original refutation to a seemingly inviolable tenet or tenaciously held belief. It’s notoriously much harder to defend a new claim than to knock an old one down; fresh thinking in philosophy is comparatively rare, and all the more exciting for it. And, perhaps exactly because it deals with issues at a high level of abstraction, philosophy is a very broad church. From the philosophers of physics, who ask questions about the standing and implications of theoretical physics and experimental method that practicing physicists rarely consider, to the moral philosophers, who wonder how it can be and what makes it the case that some of our actions are praiseworthy and others deserving censure, the reach of philosophy is quite wide.

Yet it is a remarkable feature about philosophy that, no matter how different their areas of specialization are, philosophers can and do talk to each other. In your regular departmental colloquium, it would be normal for a visiting speaker to be questioned by specialists in Aristotle as much as by the resident philosopher of mathematics. This is because what philosophers share is what I described before as a basic tool kit for the management of disagreement: spotting inconsistencies in an argument or an overlooked alternative explanation that can reconcile apparently contrary assumptions, winkling out hidden assumptions and missing steps. This ability to talk to each other across specialization is something philosophers greatly prize, and rightly so. It is what gives meaning to many of the activities they engage in, from presenting their ideas at weekly meetings to convening in workshops and conferences. This is why many of the most prestigious philosophy journals are open to submissions from any quarter rather than being restricted to a particular subfield.

All, though, is not as rosy in philosophy’s garden as I have so far made out. There is a great conundrum, or — if you prefer — a dark secret, about modern philosophy: while diversity is the lifeblood of philosophy, philosophy as we now find it in the United States (and equally elsewhere) has come to fear and shun diversity, specifically the diversity of philosophical opinion and argumentation from extra-European cultures. How did this happen? And why?

In Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, Bryan W. Van Norden provides an answer. He thinks that what he calls “racial nationalism” has led to “building walls” that exclude philosophical voices from outside the Anglophone and European worlds. His claim is that “the desire to draw a sharp boundary between Anglo-European philosophy and supposedly nonphilosophical thought is a manifestation of a broader pattern of xenophobic, chauvinistic, nationalistic, and racist efforts to separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’” “Almost all philosophers,” he continues,

would categorically reject explicit racism. But I ask my fellow philosophers to recognize whom you are implicitly aligning yourself with when you reject — without genuinely investigating — philosophy from outside the Anglo-European tradition. You are helping those who build and maintain walls.

These are strong words, and not lightly spoken. They come from someone who has spent a career in careful scholarly study of classical Chinese philosophy, and who has tried repeatedly and persistently to persuade his colleagues to engage with, or at least acknowledge, that there is something of philosophical importance here, ideas which ought to be noticed, if only to be dissented from. I myself have spent my entire career working within departments of philosophy, reaching into sophisticated and complex theoretical philosophy in classical Sanskrit for philosophical insight on the issues that have concerned me, whether they have been about the nature of linguistic meaning, or the structure of logical argument, or the function of epistemic practice, or the nature of mind.

I can then second Van Norden’s affirmation that there are huge philosophical riches in the non-Western materials, and my own experience too has been one of general indifference and ethnocentrism. Yet I have been reluctant to reach for the easy conclusion that racism, even implicit, is the fundamental cause, and I am still reluctant to do so. There is, first, the obvious objection that racism cannot be a sufficient explanation. This is because there is no reason to think that the distribution of commitment to racist ideologies in philosophy is any different than in other branches of the humanities, and yet indifference to the extra-Anglo-European is particularly distinctive of philosophy. So one cannot imagine the curriculum in a history or literature department teaching only the history or literature of white Europeans, yet I doubt if the spread of racist ideas is statistically different there than in philosophy, and neither is likely to be very different from that in the population at large. And, second, I might say that, as someone of mixed race who grew up in midlands Britain, I am privileged to a rich and diverse, first-personal acquaintance with the phenomenology of racism, yet it has not felt to me that the ethnocentrism of a colleague has its basis in racist attitudes. One might, of course, define a concept of “structural racism” such that any institution as monolithically white as is philosophy is, by definition, structurally racist. But then we do not have an explanation, just a re-description of that which stands in need of explanation. Where I agree that there is implicit bias is in hiring and promotion practices, where inequalities of gender and ethnicity are still very much in evidence.

Perhaps there is a simpler explanation of modern philosophy’s “dark secret.” I said before that we philosophers prize above all else our ability to talk to one another, across specialization, and we do so because of some grasp on what counts as a good or bad move in the so-called space of reasons. Cultural diversity seems now to present a dilemma, the horns of which we might call “embrace and fragment” or “exclude and contract.” Suppose we just embrace the fact that there are many philosophical traditions, written in languages other than English or a major European tongue, and we broaden our departments so that there are specialists who can teach and research in these traditions. Won’t we then surrender the cherished prize of being able to talk to each other? This seems to be the force behind the tired old cliché: “Well, it sounds interesting, but I really don’t know anything about Indian [read: African, Chinese, et cetera] philosophy and so I can’t comment.” What they generally mean (if they are not simply being bigoted) is that they don’t know how to make use of the standard tool kit in the context of arguments that have been couched in an unfamiliar vocabulary, and which draw upon texts they have never read, not even in translation. It’s a short step (but still a step) from here for someone to feel that they are being pushed into accepting that each tradition has its own tool kit, and so down the road to a dreaded cultural relativism.

Philosophy has, therefore, gone with the second option, though it is no more appealing. In excluding voices from outside, the cherished prize is preserved, but the very lifeblood of philosophy is diminished. For it is evident that the texts and traditions of non-Anglophone and extra-European philosophies are an immense repository of startling, fresh, and (by Anglophone/European lights) highly original philosophical insights and arguments. To turn one’s back on all of this is to deny the spirit of philosophy itself. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it,

any claim to truth involves a claim such that no consideration advanced from any point of view can overthrow or subvert that claim. Such a claim, however, can only be supported on the basis of rational encounters between rival and incommensurable points of view.

How can philosophy escape this dilemma, this apparent contradiction between practice and precondition? Van Norden offers multiculturalism as the remedy, presenting the book as “a manifesto for multicultural philosophy.” Multiculturalism in philosophy, for him, consists in the idea that philosophy departments should offer instruction and research in a multiplicity of philosophical cultures, and that these offerings should be “brought into dialogue,” a dialogue that takes place in a way that is not unfairly biased in favor of one over any other. I confess that I find this to be a rather conservative and indeed somewhat old-fashioned proposal. For it is really the old idea of comparative philosophy, pioneered in the second half of the 20th century by a series of scholars who, as Van Norden does, appealed to the trope of a “dialogue between cultures” for an accommodation of philosophical texts and voices from India, Africa, China, Mesoamerica, and Indigenous worlds. That program, however, hit a wall because it shared with ethnocentrists a basic presupposition: that cultures are monolithic units or essentially integrated wholes. Moreover, the appeal to a “dialogue” between such units, which was based on the model of inter-religious dialogue, was intended to be such as to avoid making normative claims about the respective philosophical value of ideas: the ambition, instead, was mutual understanding. Yet any philosophical engagement must allow for the possibility of refutation, counterargument, and, yes, disagreement. An early critic of this program was Bimal Matilal, an expert in analytical Indian philosophy (with a PhD under W. V. Quine), who staunchly denounced relativism and pointed out that cultures are fluid, amorphous beings whose overlaps and interconnections are of often greater significance than presumed essential identities.

Van Norden’s formulation of the view seems also to recapitulate another difficulty when he gives his analysis of what philosophy in fact is. “We are doing philosophy,” he says, “when we engage in dialogue about problems that are important to our culture but we don’t agree about the method for solving them.” Again, “dialogue about methodologically unsolved but important questions is what philosophy is for us now.” There is a puzzling but insistent reference here to “our culture” and to what is “for us.” What it means for other cultures to be “brought into dialogue” (by us), it now seems, is for our culture to find within them expressions of ideas that we find of value in addressing problems that are important for us. Isn’t this all just a little ethnocentric? Is it consistent with the evenhandedness implicit in the very idea of multiculturalism? If culture A is brought into dialogue with culture B, but it is culture A which does the bringing and decides what is important, there seems to be an evident skewing of the field. As long as the trope of “cultures in dialogue” is in play, inconsistencies like this are unavoidable. What is particularly problematic is the assumption that “what is important for our culture” is a given, itself fixed in advance of any encounter with another culture, and something to which such encounters are answerable. No space is granted to the possibility that such an encounter might radically transform what is of cultural importance for us. And for the many philosophers who have worked in the interstices between cultures, the very idea of “our culture” would make no sense anyway.

There are hints in the book of a better vision for philosophy’s future than the sort of multiculturalism for which it is a “manifesto.” One hint refers to the role of pluralism in truth-seeking: “[P]hilosophy only becomes richer and approximates the truth more closely as it becomes increasingly diverse and pluralistic.” Another references an important intellectual virtue: “[T]o be open to new voices, alternative solutions, fresh vocabularies, and different formulations.” Philosophy is an intellectual activity engaged in by individuals, not cultures, and those individuals should be open to as wide a range of “new voices, alternative solutions, fresh vocabularies” as possible, if their activity is to achieve its goal, which is the slow movement of thought toward truth.

This would be a philosophy beyond borders, a cosmopolitan philosophy to which cultural boundaries are invisible, because ideas do not carry passports and are not owned by one nation or another. As one can’t sensibly claim to be a philosopher of language without knowing the ideas of Frege, or to be a moral philosopher without knowing something of Kant (translated from German into English if needs be, with sensitivity to the nuances of vocabulary), no one should rightly want to call themselves an epistemologist without a basic understanding of Śrīhara or Nāgārjuna (in translation from the Sanskrit, with an analogous proviso). As professional academics, being conversant with the literature is simply an intellectual duty we have to our field. What distinguishes contemporary philosophy from philosophy as it has been practiced in the past is that the reach of this duty is now global. This is expansion without fragmentation. And what students too want and need, in my experience, is exposure to exciting ideas of every provenance, whether or not there is dialogue between cultures.

Philosophy’s dark secret is its fear of the knowledge of others. We don’t solve the problem of ethnocentrism in philosophy by multiplying cultures in dialogue, but by subtracting a manufactured notion of “culture” from the ways we classify and opening ourselves to philosophical genius, wherever and whenever in the world it is to be found. Let us in this way take philosophy forward.


Jonardon Ganeri is a philosopher and Fellow of the British Academy, and author of books including The Lost Age of Reason(Oxford, 2011) and Attention, Not Self (Oxford, 2018). He is a professor at New York University, part of its global network.

LARB Contributor

Jonardon Ganeri is a philosopher whose work draws on a variety of philosophical traditions to construct new positions in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and epistemology. He is the author of Attention, Not Self, The Self, The Concealed Art of the Soul, The Lost Age of Reason, and Semantic Powers, all published by Oxford University Press. He joined the Fellowship of the British Academy in 2015, and won the Infosys Prize in the Humanities the same year, the first philosopher to do so.


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