Christian Coseru on “Philosophy’s Western Bias”

Our colleague Christian Coseru today posted a piece to the New APPS blog entitled “Philosophy’s Western Bias and What Can Be Done About It.” I’m curious to see what kind of reaction he receives. In my experience, professional philosophers in North America tend to get defensive when this issue comes up. (Fortunately for me, this has not been the case among philosophers at my home university, SUNY Stony Brook, where we are preparing to launch a new M.A. program called “History of Philosophies, East and West.”) Christian’s piece is in part a response to a recent blog post by Brian Leiter.

Christian’s post is here: http://www.newappsblog.com/2014/09/philosophys-western-bias-and-what-can-be-done-about-it.html#more

And here’s the original post by Leiter: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2014/09/ignorance-of-philosophy-and-identity-politics.html

It was Jonardon Ganeri who originally called the Leiter piece to Christian’s and my attention, and suggested that it called for some kind of response. So, what do you IPB readers think? Is Leiter correct to decry “identity politics” in philosophy departments?

About Andrew Nicholson

I am an Associate Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of two books, Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Intellectual History and Lord Śiva's Song: The Īśvara Gītā.

21 thoughts on “Christian Coseru on “Philosophy’s Western Bias”

  1. Thanks for this, Andrew.

    Let me just add that it helps to read the comments on Christian’s piece, where he, Owen Flanagan, and Jonardon Ganeri expand on some of the concerns raised here. Still thinking about my own personal responses. Will post later.

  2. The discussion at NewApps is heating up in a way I personally dislike (I am not interested in stating whether I am a sustainer of Brian Leiter or of Eugene Park, or of Christian Coseru). Since in this blog we can assume that we all agree about the importance of having “Philosophy” include not only Western material, could we discuss in a constructive way about the ways we can make this happen?
    This is what I personally try to do:
    —Whenever I am approached as a specialist of “the other” (say “We are editing a book/preparing a conference panel on X, would you like to write the chapter on the Asian/Indian approach to X?”), I try kindly to explain that I am happy to engage with the other authors/speakers as one who is interested in X and not as an exotic sample. Sometimes it works. (Sometimes they just contact someone else, though.)
    —I am conscious of the fact that alone I will not be able to change the way things are. For instance, not even stellar personalities like B.K. Matilal made Nyāya a regular topic at “Mind” or “Synthese”. By contrast, I am convinced that a critical mass of people who are engaged in making accessible translations and studies can have a significant impact. Thus, I try to create networks and to produce group results on topic X (say the epistemology of testimony) which will have to be taken into account by scholars of philosophy who work on X, but have until that point completely ignored that it had been discussed beyond Prague. See, for instance, my series of panels on “There is only ‘Philosophy'” (the title means that there is no separate “Non-Western Philosophy” as a separate topic) at the CBC (http://asiaticacoffeebreak.wordpress.com/there-is-only-philosophy/ and the CfP for 2015: http://elisafreschi.com/announcements/comparison-and-comparative-method-the-sixth-coffee-break-conference/) or the panel I will host with Malcolm Keating at a “mainstream” philosophical conference (http://elisafreschi.com/announcements/cfp-language-as-a-tools-for-acquiring-knowledge-atiner-conference/#more-989).

    WHAT DO YOU DO? Sharing experiences might be of help for us all.

  3. As Elisa mentioned, there’s no need to convince anyone here that non-Western traditions ought to be included in the discipline purely on account of philosophical interest. Obviously, that’s an important point in convincing our colleagues that non-Western philosophy is worthwhile.

    Nonetheless, I think it’s helpful to talk about other strategies beyond appealing to pure philosophical interest, especially when it comes to “public relations” with colleagues inside and outside philosophy, administrators, students, the general public, etc.

    This is especially salient for me since I’m currently in the process of applying to get an Introduction to Asian Philosophy course on the books (the course will focus on Chinese, Indian, and Buddhist philosophy). One of the points I will mention in my application is that such a course might help us to attract a larger and more diverse group of students to our philosophy classes. I will be the first to admit I don’t have any data to back that up. If anyone does have such data or even personal anecdotes, I would love to hear from you!

    Here’s my hypothesis: the mere fact of including philosophers from different cultures makes it clearer to students that philosophy is something for everyone and not just the proverbial “dead white guys” (and a few living ones) they meet in a typical philosophy class. I suspect that white men like Leiter and me tend to more easily see ourselves as partners in philosophical dialogue. I’m not saying anything so gauche as “people of color will only read philosophy written by people of color” – the sort of thing raised by the specter of “identity politics” that Leiter seems to want to exorcise from the discipline. The claim that people of color won’t read things written by dead white guys is demonstrably false, although I would point out that a rationale for educating students in the history of Western philosophy is to understand “our” cultural heritage (whoever “we” are). Such understanding is certainly a noble task (those dead white guys had some good ideas), but does that mean we don’t want to understand the heritage of other cultures as well? This seems especially foolish in the early 21st century.

    In any case, my idea is this: making philosophy look a little more inclusive and open from the start may have the effect of making the discipline more inclusive and open down the road. If students *begin” the study of philosophy as a global, human activity embodied in numerous traditions, perhaps they will come to expect such things later (in grad school for the small percentage who go on to philosophy grad school, but also as non-philosophy colleagues, administrators, parents, donors, interested members of the public, etc.). By all means we should keep trying to convince our colleagues about the value of non-Western philosophy, but I suspect that instilling a more diverse view of philosophy in students from the start will do far more in the long run to reveal just how odd the parochial and Eurocentric nature of our discipline really is.

    • Ethan, something you might used is this quote by Eric Schwitzgebel about the fact that Philosophy is too “white” (http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.co.at/2014/09/philosophy-is-incredibly-white-but-this.html):

      Now in a way it’s not too surprising that the study of German and Greek literature, European history, etc., should tend to disproportionately attract white folks. After all, the average white person probably identifies with such literatures and histories as part of her own ethnic or cultural heritage more than does the average non-white person. Perhaps, then, the best explanation of the overwhelming whiteness of philosophy is similar: Despite aspiring to be a broad, topically-driven inquiry into fundamental questions about truth, knowledge, beauty, and morality, perhaps philosophy as currently practiced in the U.S. is experienced by students as something closer to the study of a piece of ethnically European cultural history.

  4. Leiter makes a number of comments in his OP that, unless I’m understanding them wrongly, seem to conflate oddly with one another. On the one hand, he says, most “Anglophone” philosophers don’t consider, let’s say, Asian traditions very much not because they are hostile to them, but because they are ignorant of them. Then he expresses the desire for philosophers “of interest and importance” from other traditions to be included in an expanding philosophy curriculum. But then he decries calls for other philosophical traditions to be included in the curriculum solely for the purpose of “satisfying consumer demand” and appealing to new demographics of students. This, he appears to argue, would deprive philosophy of one of its most important functions, namely putting into question all presuppositions, including foregoing cultural ones. How are we to understand the relation between all these assertions?

    If “Anglophone” philosophers are genuinely ignorant of, once again for the present case, Asian traditions, then how could they know in the first places which philosophers from those traditions were of “interest and importance?” How would the know which thinkers or texts or schools or periods or traditions to include or exclude, or which fields for which we should request scholarly hires, in the first place if they knew nothing of these? How, under these circumstances of ignorance, would the impetus to include thinkers from other traditions ever get off the ground?

    Furthermore, why must the motivation to include more traditions into the philosophy curriculum be cast as some exclusively “consumerist” model? What if the demographics of universities in the U.S. are already such that they now feature large numbers of students from, say India, China, Korea or Japan, or students who at some other point in their educational process had been introduced to philosophers from these traditions? When these students now at a given American university look over the philosophy curriculum of a department that only offers Western content, would questions like “what about the Buddha?” “what about Confucius?” “what about Wenhyo?” or “what about Dogen?” not naturally occur to them? And, finding none of these thinkers or many others like them represented in a philosophy department’s offerings, what sorts of conclusions would they reach, reasonably enough, about why they weren’t there? Why should a philosophy department at the same American university so blithely disregard such concerns as “consumerist?” I might add, what is inherently, exclusively “consumeristic” about wanting to have curricular offerings that answer to the experiences, values, curiosities and desires to learn of the students that are already there in the demographics of those schools?

    And what of the argument Leiter makes about philosophy questioning presuppositions of all kinds, including cultural ones? It is of course perfectly fine to encourage those committed to the discipline of philosophy to question and critically examine cultural presuppositions and traditions, regardless of which cultures are in question. But if cultures with rich philosophical traditions are not being studied in the first place, again, how does such critical reflection even get started? Of course, there is also the matter of philosophy itself being a cultural activity, one grounded in historical and social experience. But I won’t pursue that issue now.

    Despite his claim, a surely admirable one if it is genuine, that philosophy curricula in the West should open up to philosophers “of interest and importance” from “non-Western” traditions, Leiter’s defense of existing ignorance about other traditions coupled with his stated objections to certain motives for broadening the curriculum leave us no entrances to these other traditions, and no way foreword in engaging with them. If philosophy is about love of wisdom, pursuit of wisdom, then we should be committed to always learning more wisdom, regardless of where it comes from, rather than enumerating all the reasons why we shouldn’t be pressed into further pursuit. Of course, we are all limited in our capabilities, interests and specializations and will never be able to learn or master everything. But if that was a justifiable reason for shrugging off any given philosophical tradition, then it would be a justifiable reason for shrugging off the Western tradition as well, for that tradition too is far too much for any one person to master. If we’re going to be real cosmopolitan philosophers, than the entire cosmos of thought is our task, not because the market demands it, but because we demand it of ourselves, and of anyone else who aspires to be a cosmopolitan philosopher.

    • Douglas, I agree with you. Philosophy should be the ability to question one’s presuppotions again and again. And facing “the other” (i.e., ideas which are geographically, historically or anthropologic distant) is one of the easiest ways to move away from philosophy as a technique to philosophy as a never-ending quest.

    • Ram, you know that I am all for reading more (and writing less —which is by the way one of the reasons why most philosophers cannot bother taking into account non-Western philosophy, they should stop writing and start reading again), thus many thanks! The fact that notwithstanding you, Matilal, Ganeri and many others, we are still discussing about this topic shows that we should join forces and work in a more co-ordinated way, I believe. What do you think?

  5. Incidentally, Richard Hayes wrote a generous review of my book, Eastern Philosophy, for the Financial Times; unfortunately, it is behind a firewall, but he brought his own considerable experience to bear on his comments. I have a copy, but hesitate to paste it into a comment.

    • Ram, consider sending Hayes’ review to me, and I can perhaps cut and paste relevant snippets either in this thread or in a new post.

      Also, please never hesitate to direct us to, um, recent-ancient-work! I am most grateful for this.

  6. Thanks, Elisa. Perhaps it is a result of having tried this for twenty-odd years, but I suppose I am somewhat less driven now by how to get western philosophers to take notice than before. None so deaf as they who will not hear, and all that. My thought then and now is that there is a cultural significance to the notion of ‘philosophy’ as a peculiar attainment of ‘Western’ culture that makes it difficult for philosophers to figure their way from here to there – from being securely located in the uni-verse of western traditions to the poly-verse of global thought. I hae been surprised that theologians have tended to be more receptive (comparatively), but that may be because the plurality of beliefs and practices is an integral part of their problematic.
    I suppose global changes will bring pressure to bear on institutions. There is no denying that there have posts in America that one way or another have mentioned Asian areas of expertise or even just competence, compared to twenty years ago. And this means Chinese more than Indian thought, simply for the reason China now looms large on the American imagination. It has had little to do with the scholarship available, its quality or the organizational nous of specialists.
    I feel that what we should do is be supportive intellectually (i.e., even if critically) of each other’s work, have such gatherings as we are able to get support for, and take a broad and capacious view of methods and approaches (without, of course, giving up on rigour). It certainly means bothering less with whether or not people are more classically or philological minded, text- or problem-oriented, deliberately comparative or not, etc.
    Those who are capable should look to secure what institutional support is possible – applying to the same grant giving bodies, working with the departments one is located in, using institutional responsibilities to open up curricula, etc.
    This is nothing new – it is what we are doing. In other words, we just have to give up being anxious of being ignored, and let history decide.
    This is not to deny that we should constantly be innovating on the modes by which we work – and certainly this blog has been a great way to go; I hope more people read this than we know, and I constantly ask people to do so. Things like your coffee conference are also great. Getting grants in the UK and Europe out of the same sources as fund Western philosophy (and we are doing that too) is important.

  7. Predictably, perhaps, given my own interests and allegiances I am sympathetic with much of the case made by Christian and Jonardon, and I am happy that Christian and others suggest some simple ways to help rectify the situation.

    I must also say that, as a matter of personal taste, I suppose, I am sympathetic to the idea that it would be better if the inclusion of a wider curricula of non-Western philosophy was motivated by the recognition that there is much of philosophical value there, and not as a kind of tokenism or the benevolent-yet-facile “patting the head of the person of color” that seems to lie behind some forays into multiculturalism, and is something of an affront to the thinkers we study. If read in this spirit, there is much in Leiter’s post to appreciate.

    That said, at this stage, if the choice is between no inclusion and some inclusion motivated by questionable reasoning, the latter is clearly the best option. Once good people are put in a position to share the best of Indian thought with students and colleagues, it will only help this shift in awareness that is already underway, initiated by Matilal and others, and people will start to see how much is really there.

    Personally, I’ve always felt supported by my anglophone teachers and had a great experience at Texas. See this thread for more discussion of that.

    As far as practical suggestions go, here’s one thought inspired by Owen Flanagan’s comments on the New APPS thread that philosophers could write less and read more: maybe some of the quality people in our field could consider condescending a bit to write a book or some materials for either students or non-Indianist philosophers. That is keep writing but write for non-specialists. At least sometimes. High quality, accesible “bridge” work is still lacking in our field. And I don’t mean we need yet another Introduction to Indian Philosophy. But something like small texts that capture certain issues or works in an accessible way (e.g., an annotated select translation of passages from Dignaga and Dharmakirti, topically organized and under 100 pages, or select translation and short commentary on arguments on over selfhood by Buddhists, Naiyayikas, Vedantins, etc.).

    My understanding is that this sensibility has informed Jonardon’s vision for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy, where the richness and depth of the Indian thinkers are not glossed over or dumbed-down at all, yet the work should be accessible, the kind of thing one could confidently hand to a colleague and say “read this to understand Indian philosophy.”

    The few times I’ve been asked to contribute something from India to collections that are topical and edited by non-Indianists, the response has been genuine gratitude and frank admission of the following sort: “I had no idea how much great philosophy was there in India. Thank you.” We can also do our part!

    • sure we can (and must, otherwise we will not be in the position to blame the others for not reading Indian philosophy —unless we really think that each philosopher should know Sanskrit).

    • I had the “I didn’t realize there was such interesting philosophy in India” comment after I presented a paper on Vasubandhu and skepticism at the central APA several years ago. I was on a main program panel just called “Epistemology,” so I think there was a wider audience than purely non-Western panels often have at APA meetings. I also agree with Matthew that good accessible publications are a key part of the process, and I’m hoping to get a few of those out there in the future (although the pressures of specialization often make it difficult).

      I’m worried that there might be a false dichotomy lurking (not here on our humble blog, but maybe in some of the original discussion): either include non-Western philosophy for the sake of attracting more interest from a wider variety of people or include it because of its intrinsic philosophical value. Why not some of both?

  8. 3:AM Magazine did an interview with Jay Garfield a year or so ago that is worth reading on this topic. A relevant excerpt is:

    3:AM: One of the issues you raise is the ethics of approaches to intellectual and cultural traditions less powerful and less respected than the Western ones. How should we think about this?

    JLG: Easy. Suppose that someone argued that the philosophical curriculum in their college could not include any texts by women, because there are just so many important books by men, and not enough time to address all of them, let alone to go on to read stuff by women, or that the faculty is not expert in women’s philosophy. He would be howled down not on the grounds that there are indeed not too many books by guys, but that given a history of sexism, it is immoral as well as irrational to ignore the contributions of women in the curriculum. But people get away with saying that their department can’t offer courses that address non-Western philosophy because they are struggling to cover the “core,” that students have so much Western philosophy to learn that they don’t have time to read the non-Western stuff, and that there are no specialists in non-Western philosophy in the department. In the wake of colonialism and in the context of racism, the only legitimate response is to howl them down.

    Read it all here: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/buddhist-howls/

  9. That’s perfect Justin, thanks! Something identical or similar to the rationalization/excuse cited by Garfield was what I often received in reply to authors of SEP entries to whom I wrote in complaint of their neglect of non-Western philosophers, as they failed to even mention Indic or Chinese philosophical material on their particular topics (and refused to qualify their entries as ‘Western…’). Some have since done so (i.e., at least mentioned this material but still feel no obligation to attempt to read and introduce the relevant literature). Of course the SEP itself has in general much improved (I hectored Ed Zalta for several years about covering non-Western philosophies, especially Indic traditions, and gave him lists of possible editors).

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