The duty to do philosophy interculturally

“Is the debate on global justice a global one?”—asks Anke Graness at the beginning of an article (available OA here) in which she analyses the more common positions on global justice held in Western academia and confronts them with the perspective on justice of two contemporary African philosophers (the Kenyan Henry Odera Oruka and the Ethiopian Theodros Kiros) and with the reinterpretation of the traditional African concept of ubuntu (yes, it is not only an IT system!).

This cross-cultural comparison is generally neglected by Western academics, who rather debate among their peers, who tend to be other Western academics. This lack of inclusion is particularly ironic in the case of the debate on global justice, since:

Astonishingly, even though the goal of the debate is to find and justify universally valid principles of global justice, the concepts, norms, and values of regions of the world other than Europe and North America are rarely taken into account. While the possibility for discourse and exchange […] was and is available […] the lack of a truly intercultural exchange reveals the injustice of the academic discourse. (p. 127)

Apart from the interesting topic of global justice, Graness makes some points which could be applied to potentially any philosophical enterprise. First, she notes the risk of

‘othering’, namely the belief that every culture or region has to develop by default ideas essentially different from European theory to be worth consideration. (p. 131)

I have discussed this risk especially on the Indian Philosophy Blog while speaking about possible strategies to make Western scholars aware of Indian philosophy. Readers might remember that I expressed the concern that a strategy like Matilal’s could have meant leading people to consider that Indian philosophy is so similar, that it does not deserve separate consideration. Now I know how to call this risk.

The risk of “othering” quickly leads to another risk, which I would call of “exoticisation“, so that the West is considered the norm and other views are welcome as exotic additions to the norm. Graness points it out when she writes:

Here we are confronted with biased expectations which shape our perception of theories from different regions of the world, namely that ‘Western’ scholars formulate universal theories, whereas scholars from all other regions formulate regional theories. (p. 132)

This is what happens, I believe, when a book on topic X discusses Western views of X for 23 out of 24 contributions and then adds a chapter on “Non-Western views on X”.* To put it plainly, a discussion of X which welcomes challenges, answers and ideas from wherever they come appears to me to be more likely to be fruitful of new stimuli.

Further, Graness discusses the causes of the lack of inclusion of non-Western (and, I would add, non-mainstream) ideas in the mainstream philosophical discourse:

  1. “Even though the academy claims to be free of politico-economical and ideological constraints, it cannot avoid being affected by the structural imbalance of power relations in our world” (p. 135)
  2. “The canon-forming power of the universities” (ibid.). This point reminds me of Eric Schwitzgebel’s acute formula: “Because the dominant academic culture in the U.S. traces back to Europe, the ancient Chinese philosophers were not taught to, and thus not read by, the succeeding generations. Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy. Because they have little impact on our philosophy, we believe we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.” (for a fuller discussion with further links, see here).
  3. “An author’s ability to choose a publisher has an enormous influence on which audience a publication will reach” (p. 135.)
  4. Financial resources
  5. Language: “a lingua franca clearly gives native speakers an advantage over non-native speakers” and one risks to assume that “what is not translated into English is irrelevant” (p. 136)

The result of all these factors, concludes Graness, is that

Euro-American-dominated philosophical discourse is in its majority unawre of concepts and arguments beyond its narrow discursive boundaries (p. 136).

Graness is however not content with the exposition of the problem and tries to suggest solutions:

First, philosophers have to be aware of their own contextuality and how it influences their thinking. (p. 137)

A point which could be enlarged as to encompass the scrutine of one’s prejudices as the constant duty of a philosopher qua philosopher (see this post).
Further:

Second, […] this means undertaking the often-difficult, time-consuming search for voices and sources from other regions of the world to start a comprehensive discussion This is not the easy way, but choosing the easy way keeps one at the navel-gazing stage. (ibid., emphasis added)

Graness works on cross-cultural and on African philosophy. Would we, as scholars of different traditions within philosophy, share her views? What would we say differently?

*Full disclosure: I have myself contributed a chapter on “Indian Philosophers” to the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Action edited by Timothy O’Connor and Constantine Sandis. It is possibly the most read thing I have ever written and I enjoyed writing and discussing it, but I sense the risk of ghettisation that these enterprises carry with them.

(cross-posted, with minor modifications, on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

11 thoughts on “The duty to do philosophy interculturally

  1. Great post, Elisa!

    We could express the dilemma like this: If you say that Indian philosophy is fundamentally the same as Western philosophy, then philosophers will say, “why bother?” But if you say it’s somehow fundamentally different, then you engage in othering and exoticizing.

    I tend to navigate this dilemma by presenting Indian philosophy as more philosophy (whatever “philosophy” means) with all the internal diversity that you find within Western or other traditions as well as interesting resources for contemporary reflection. I find this more accurate, but also more conducive to creating what Matilal called a “horizontal relationship” between cultures, that is, avoiding the Western tendencies to see Asians as either “subhuman or superhuman.”

    I don’t know whether this approach will convince our monocultural colleagues to take Indian philosophy seriously. Thoughts?

    • Thanks, Ethan! In principle, I completely agree with you on the need of horizontal (and peer-to-peer) relations among philosophical traditions. Still, the balance remains difficult, as you efficaciously say through the implied metaphor of the Scylla of Exoticising/Othering and the Charybdis of Sameness…

  2. I think Graness is right that a) non-Western perspectives have generally not been brought into conversations about global justice and b) those conversations don’t mean much without them. The tricky part is to figure out just what it is to include those perspectives. We’ve noted in our field how tricky can be to figure out what Indian political philosophy would even consist of in the first place, let alone how to bring it into a global conversation.

    Related is the question of what counts as a non-Western voice in the first place. Nehru, for example, doesn’t seem to have drawn much of anything from precolonial or even postcolonial Indian philosophers. But he was himself entirely Indian. If the conversation about global justice includes people like Nehru as representatives of India, is that enough? The question is not rhetorical.

    • Thanks, Amod. The problem you point to (the difficulty of finding exact equivalents of Western disciplines in different milieus) is a real one and points to the fact that disciplines are not universal kinds and are rather historical products, so that it is difficult to find them unchanged in different contexts. One can nonetheless look for functional equivalents (ethics and epics, for instance, as suggested by Matilal). Moreover, the very effort of reconceiving one’s questions and looking for the essence while everything else has changed could be a fruitful, although painstaking, exercise.

      As for contemporary, Western-influenced philosophers, I think Graness would answer (but perhaps she can answer herself? I will write her) that one has really no excuse to refuse to engage with at least contemporary, Western-influenced authors. Thus, the lack of engagement with even those easily-reachable philosophers proves that one’s lack of engagement is not due to the difficulty in translating concepts (see above), but rather to the lazyness of many Western scholars.

  3. This topic came up a lot at the SACP–I have plans to write a post summarizing some of the presentations, so I’ll leave that aside for now. One tension that is related to your question, and which was present at the conference, is the relationship between the obligation for individual philosophers to engage in cross-cultural philosophy and the “obligation” for philosophy as a discipline (I put it in quotes since I’m not sure if we can make sense of a field having an obligation!).

    For any particular paper, how widely ought philosophers cast their net for resources, given that we think the field ought to be construing philosophy more widely? We might consider indigenous peoples (Jim Maffie’s work on Aztecs for instance), oral as well as written philosophy, philosophy across the North-South not just East-West “divide”, and so on. I think no one would be against limiting the scope of one’s focus, especially given limitations of time and expertise, and so on.

    And yet we also ought not remain ignorant of important philosophical contributions outside of our tradition (however that difficult term is to be understood). We also probably ought to be self-reflective about the structures you point to in your post which limit philosophizing across boundaries, but we cannot all write methodological papers on the impact of colonialism, power structures, and etc. Surely there is place for some papers which treat questions within, say, the prevailing analytic philosophical framework.

    I raise this not because I think claims of ignorance or lack of expertise are always legitimate excuses for remaining comfortably within the dominant paradigm in one’s research, or for not including non-Western/marginalized figures in teaching, but because I think there are some genuinely difficult questions about just how to encourage change and what that change would look like. I’m interested in what people think on this question.

    • Hi Malcolm,
      I look forward for your summary! I think one can always play with glass perls in one’s own garden and this can legitimately be part of one’s philosophical curriculum. I am slightly surprised, however, that philosophers are not spontaneously keen to look for new questions and new challenges. This becomes paradoxical in fields such as global justice (see Graness’ observation at the beginning), but it is pertinent, I believe, also in all other fields.

    • Thanks for pointing out the significance of Aurobindo’s philosophy. Unfortunately, this blog is made of human beings and none of us focuses especially on Aurobindo. That’s why the blog has no specific post dedicated to him (just like it has no specific post dedicated to some of the giants of Indian thought, such as Raghunātha Śiromaṇi).

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