Why philosophy departments have focused on the West

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden have a widely circulated article in a recent New York Times, chastising American philosophy departments for paying insufficient attention to non-Western traditions of thought. It will surprise nobody that I sympathize with them, since I’ve been trying to get non-Western thought a hearing for years. But in part for that reason, I’ve also been thinking a lot about why it hasn’t got that hearing so far. The reasons for this are not all bad ones, and anyone working to change the situation needs to understand what those reasons are. Perhaps most importantly, they need to ask a vital question that I don’t see asked in Garfield and Van Norden’s article: why should we study philosophy?

Before getting into the detail of the argument, a quick note on terminology. Garfield and Van Norden replace the usual term “Western” with the far worse term “Euro-American”, or sometimes “European and American”. Overall, these latter terms are less accurate than “Western”, since they exclude not only Australia and New Zealand but Canada as well. A term for Western philosophy that leaves out Charles Taylor and Peter Singer makes no sense. (No, “American” does not include Canada. Calling a Canadian an American is as likely to cause offence as calling a Scot an Englishman.) We haven’t found a precise and accurate term here (don’t get me started on “white”), so we are far better off with the term in common and widespread use. So, “Western”.

Now to the arguments. Garfield and Van Norden confront an important and major objection: “it is unfair to single out philosophy: We do not have departments of Euro-American Mathematics or Physics.” Here is their response:

This is nothing but shabby sophistry. Non-European philosophical traditions offer distinctive solutions to problems discussed within European and American philosophy, raise or frame problems not addressed in the American and European tradition, or emphasize and discuss more deeply philosophical problems that are marginalized in Anglo-European philosophy. There are no comparable differences in how mathematics or physics are practiced in other contemporary cultures.

Is this “shabby sophistry”, though? Consider medicine. Indian āyurveda and Chinese and Tibetan traditional medicine certainly offer distinctive solutions to problems discussed within modern Western medicine: i.e. how to treat illnesses of the body. They raise or frame holistic questions that are rarely addressed or marginalized in Western medicine. That is quite comparable to the situation in philosophy. But I don’t want to rely on āyurveda to prevent malaria or fix a broken leg, and I doubt Garfield or Van Norden do either. There are very likely ideas of value in āyurveda, but there are reasons for excluding it from the mainstream of medicine. It is accepted in the West and in Asia that those traditions of medicine developed largely in Europe and North America for the past few centuries (out of the earlier Islamic Golden Age) have demonstrated their value enough to get pride of place.

Now is the same true of philosophy? No, but the reason is more complicated than the glib dismissal of “shabby sophistry” lets on. The value of modern Western medicine over its competitors has been demonstrated time and again through its pragmatic efficacy at solving what the vast majority of people in any tradition can agree are problems: everybody whose leg is broken would like to see it put back together the way it was before, thank you very much. Ascertaining the relative worth of different traditions of philosophy is a more complicated task.

But ascertain this worth one must, when one is making the difficult decisions of what to teach and what not to teach. Not everything is philosophy, and not everything has the same value. We do not teach the aphorisms of Forrest Gump as philosophy, nor should we. The most dangerous thing I see in Garfield’s and Van Norden’s article is that they do not ask what makes philosophy a worthwhile activity in the first place, why one would study philosophy rather than anything else. It leaves the impression that the selection of which philosophy to study is essentially arbitrary – that in terms of what a student can get out of studying them, there’s no real difference between Rāmānuja and Nietzsche except that one is Indian and one isn’t.

What makes the assessment of philosophical worth a complicated task is incommensurability, as MacIntyre describes it: the clearest standards of worth are those to be found within a given tradition of inquiry. It is the traditions of thought in which we are situated (whether Yogācāra Buddhism or liberal scientism) that give us reasons why anything, including philosophy, is worthwhile. No standard is truly neutral. So there is a certain circularity in the choice of what to include and what to leave out.

But here is the thing: this circularity is not arbitrary. Our preexisting standards for what is good and bad, our assumptions or “intuitions”, are shaped by history, not by whim. Gadamer reminds us, correctly, that we are always already formed by some sort of philosophical tradition, whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. The study of philosophy comes to matter most at those moments where our existing beliefs come into question – but those now-questioned beliefs still form the starting point from which we are able to move somewhere else.

And a great deal of what forms us is Western. When we argue for political change on the basis of human rights, we are arguing from within a Western history centred on William of Ockham and others. When we claim that observation of the empirical world is always fallible and could potentially be overturned, we are thinking in ways made possible by Western thinkers like David Hume. (And Muslims of the Golden Age before him, I would argue, but that is because they are themselves part of the history of Western thought in a way that the Indians and Chinese are not.)

There is more to be said about the point that what forms us is Western – some objections that I will pick up next time. For now, though, I hope it’s obvious that I am not saying philosophy departments should just stick to their Western status quo. Coming from me, such a claim would be ludicrous. They should be teaching far more non-Western works than they do. But they should do it because of the content of those works: the fact that Mencius’s ideas on partiality or the epistemology of pramāṇas are ideas worthy of consideration in their own right, as judged from the preexisting starting point of the students and instructors who might learn them. The instructors might not know that those ideas are worthy from such a standpoint, but they are – and as advocates of Asian philosophy it is our job to show them that fact.

Contrast the current structure of the American Philosophical Association, with its committee for “Asian and Asian-American” philosophy. That title indicates to me that this committee is there for the wrong reasons. There is no committee for “Greek and Greek-American” philosophy, and there will never be one, nor should there be – even though American philosophy departments study more Greek philosophy than Asian philosophy, and will in all likelihood continue to study Greek philosophy for as long as they exist. They study Greek philosophy, and should study it, not because they are trying to attract more Greek people to the study of philosophy, but because they recognize the merits of Greek philosophy and find it worthwhile. That is what Asian philosophy can be and should be. If there is a need to represent the interests of contemporary Asian-American philosophers as an underrepresented minority (and there probably is), it is quite separate from the reasons to study the great (and internally distinct) traditions that have emerged in Asia.

I share Garfield’s and Van Norden’s hope “that American philosophy departments will someday teach Confucius as routinely as they now teach Kant, that philosophy students will eventually have as many opportunities to study the Bhagavad Gītā as they do the Republic…” But this will and should happen only when Confucius and the Gītā inform the background of everyday American thought as much as Kant and the Republic do. To make that happen, we must address the merit of their ideas, not merely geographical diversity. If the latter is our main reason for advocating their inclusion, philosophy departments will have good reason to continue to resist including them. Let us change that.

25 Replies to “Why philosophy departments have focused on the West”

  1. Great post Amod. I am on board with everything you say. But for critical discussion I did have some questions based on your “To make that happen, we must address the merit of their ideas, not merely geographical diversity. If the latter is our main reason for advocating their inclusion, philosophy departments will have good reason to continue to resist including them. Let us change that.”

    Why do non-western traditions have to show that their ideas are worthy of discussion when no one says the same about western ideas? Don’t we include some western thinkers simply because of their location and cultural heritage? Who and what is that standard?

    I agree that we should do more than say: these ideas are from that region and we are excluding them, so we should include them. We should go further and say: these ideas are good and can be engaged meaningfully. And we should argue for that by listing out how these ideas are good and where they can be applied and meaningfully engaged. I think my published work tries to do this, and many people have done this far better than me. But recently I learned that many Indian philosophers do this by doing either of two things: (a) showing that an accepted western philosophical idea can be found in Indian philosophy or (b) showing that an Indian philosophical idea is superior to a western one. But one might wonder why not dump the west as the standard. I wonder how much gets in on the western side without real assessment of the ideas.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts!

    • Good points and questions, Anand. “Location and cultural heritage” are ambiguous terms. It’s relatively unusual to include Western thinkers because of where they came from; it does happen, as when American philosophy departments give special priority to James and Dewey because they’re American, but even those departments will still teach Kant and Mill and Plato, and probably more than they teach the Americans.

      What really gives the Western thinkers pride of place is not their “cultural heritage” but ours – we need to understand where our own thought is coming from. Let’s not forget the number of departments that barely teach “the history of philosophy” at all; these effectively focus even more on understanding their own thought, but understand it merely in its present without any reference to its past. For them, even teaching Aristotle and Hume is a step up from their usual approach. But it is important for them to do so – to figure out how they got here and learn the history of the arguments already made on their positions so they’re not reinventing the wheel. Their thought and ours is “always already” Western as its starting point, and that is why it’s the standard. To “dump the west as the standard”, before the difficult work of making the case for something else has already been done, is to have no standard, and effectively no philosophy.

      Now it is true that the “we” is ambiguous as well: how much is it the case that “our” heritage is indeed Western? That’s a major objection and I want to take it up in my next post.

      • I think it is so important to remember the influence of the Upanishads on Western philosophers like Schopenhauer, Schelling, and Emerson, who is a major influence in American (US) thought. In fact, an instructor of mine specializing in Kant, encouraged me to read the Bhagavad Gita and explore Buddhism to have a better understanding of Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s writings. It would have been so much easier if they just offered courses on these in the philosophy department. There have been numerous publications comparing influences and similarities between the Upanishads and Western philosophies, including ancient Greek ones. Its important for students to study ideas that predated the ancient greeks, especially the mathematical and scientific ones, to get a better educated view about philosophical thinking in general.

        • And it doesn’t stop there. If the northern American milieu is the emphasis, the influence of Mahatma Gandhi’s political philosophy is extensive in American life, and not just on Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement. Gandhi’s ideas were influence by traditional Hindu philosophies. It is incumbent on philosophy departments deepen students’ understanding of the social and political inheritance by teaching them the philosophical foundations of such. At some point, it cannot keep being about Western vs. Eastern philosophy, but about timelines.and influences, regardless of what area of the world they are coming from. An understanding of the historical realities of trade and migration and importation and exportation of ideas should inform the formation of curricula of philosophy.

          • These definitely matter. The question is their extent. The philosophers you mention are ones who were influenced by Asian philosophy in a way that is so far unusual among Western philosophers; we need to understand the Gītā and Gandhi to understand Schelling and King, in a way that is less important for Hegel or Nietzsche, let alone Kant or Rawls. We’ll see – I think interest in Schelling and King among philosophers is increasing, and that’s a good thing.

  2. The following comment is serious, so please do not think that I am joking or dismissing the whole post.

    There is one simple way, I think, to solve this conundrum: all philosophies, Western and non-Western (alas, why not use Eastern?) are a produce of human thought. So, if we think that aliens exist, we could always contrast Human and Alien philosophy, and discuss whether the aliens have a philosophy or not, or whether it is worth at all to study their thoughts.

    • I wouldn’t dismiss the analogy, but I don’t think it solves the problem. If there were aliens and we knew what their philosophy was, it would extend the problem further – we’d still need to understand our own human thought before studying alien thought.

      • Yes, you’re totally right and that was the point of the analogy. Against the background of an alien (lato sensu) culture, you try to understand your own culture with even more effort. If we expand the category of alien to extra-terrestrials, then we might start to see why it is important to study all human philosophical traditions. The problem is that now the aliens are still humans.

  3. Concerning “Euro-American”: What about “Anglo-European”? It has perhaps the advantage of including New Zealand, etc., better than a pseudo-geographic label such as “Western” (New Zealand is closer to the “East” than to the “West”).
    Perhaps some readers might be interested in Cosimo Zene’s answer to Garfield and Van Norden, here: https://www.academia.edu/25671916/THE_RISKY_CHOICE_OF_CALLING_IT_WORLD_PHILOSOPHIES-_BEYOND_THE_ANGLO-EUROPEAN_CANON

    • I like “Anglo-European” a little better than “Euro-American”, although it’s still not ideal. One of the most influential thinkers of this tradition is Augustine, who spent most of his life in Africa and was therefore neither Anglo nor European. I would argue that Latin American (and Québécois) thought should be considered part of this tradition as well – as should the thought of the Islamic Golden Age, some of which occurred in Spain but at least as much in Iran. There is a continuity that goes beyond Europe and the Anglosphere.

      Philosophically, the “Western” tradition to me is defined by a Greek and Semitic heritage – one whose origins are really more Mediterranean or even “Middle Eastern” than European.

  4. Pingback: Should we have more dialogues, or more Asian philosophy? | elisa freschi

  5. This focus on globality seems to be contagious, the BA in World Philosophies is not the first enterprise of this kind at SOAS (https://www.soas.ac.uk/news/newsitem106751.html).

    One major point that has not been dealt with enough, I think, is why should philosophy be taught at all? Why should literature be taught at all? Thuis must be explained and justified for the non-specialists. Again, given the tendency to cut fundings for universities everywhere, no wonder that there is no space for philophies other than Anglo-European (is Russia still Europe?) philosophy in departments of philosophy. Sorry for sounding like a broken record, but that’s the point nowadays: attracting money and appropriating resources. Or maybe it has always been so?

  6. I’m not sure if the euro-american term is much of a problem. Do other “Westerners” (Canadian, Australian) feel marginalized in the context of this kind of article? Euro-american is already an extraterrestrial designation for people with some resemblance to european/american culture – it’s not a question of nationality but cultural resemblance – it’s not ideal but neither is “Western” since that designation is relative to where you put your pin on the world map. In Hawaii, America is “The East” and Japan are “Westerners”. Also you say: “But here is the thing: this circularity is not arbitrary. Our preexisting standards for what is good and bad, our assumptions or “intuitions”, are shaped by history, not by whim” – and the implication is that history is not at all “whimsical”? If better cryptography were available to the German high command in the 1940’s perhaps the kind of philosophy studied in the owrld’s universities today would be very different to the way it looks today?

    • I’m Canadian, and I feel marginalized by “Euro-American”. I acknowledge that “Western” is inaccurate; the point is that “Euro-American” is just as inaccurate and there is no point whatsoever in replacing one inaccurate term with another.

      The implication is not that history is not “whimsical” (ie arbitrary). But what was arbitrary in the past is not arbitrary in the present. The American pilgrims could have chosen to set up their main port in a different site somewhere different from the present site of Boston. But they didn’t. And this means that if we now live at that different site we live in wilderness, whereas if we live at the actual site we live in an urbane city. History determines the possible conditions of our human living – including the preexisting reasons and assumptions (“intuitions”) we bring to philosophical inquiry.

  7. > I’m Canadian, and I feel marginalized by “Euro-American”.
    Okay, (adds one to the tally) – but clearly not to the degree where your voice is in jeopardy of routinely being overlooked, hidden or seen as being any less legitimate than a Brit or a Yank, which is perhaps the most significant criteria for claims to being marginalized? I don’t want to challenge your right to feel marginalized, only whether or not it amounts to anything other than a feeling, which might be enough for some people to want to make a change to the vocabulary. Anyway, if we put a judgement to one side about which term is the most problematic for people I’m not sure that it’s the case that one term is being “replaced” wholesale? I don’t see any reason to imagine a conspiracy at that level at play here, but there might be. Surely it’s a question of editorial judgement on a case by case basis? …and I would say it does at least escape from the perceived “low status” of the term “Western” which is used in much less well formed arguments along various political agendas? I suspect given the readership of the NY times a deliberate decision was made to introduce a *sense* of precision where – and here is where I agree with you – precision doesn’t really add anything to the point(s) being made. In terms of your analogy with Boston – I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that the path dependant realities we live with today – “the possible conditions of our human living including the preexisting reasons and assumptions (“intuitions”) we bring to philosophical inquiry.” are a more reliable basis for undertaking research than a psychological whim as you suggest. To do so invites cliques based ona prejudice in favor of history I think, and threatens the requisite variety in human thought and thinking to produce a useful, humanitarian response? If, that is of course the humanitarian project is of any interest to you – it may not be.

    • Regarding precision, I think the point of agreement is the most important point. It is counterproductive to pretend there’s precision when there isn’t – that’s a standard assumption in quantitative sciences. (“A chain is only as good as its weakest link”, it was explained to me – if you can only read an instrument that measures in tenths, don’t state your measurement in hundredths.) So far we haven’t found a genuinely precise term to describe the tradition or culture in question, and insofar as we haven’t, we should own up to the fact; pretending that we have is worse, because it’s misleading. It’s my contention that “Western” owns the imprecision and “Euro-American” misrepresents it with a false precision. I think we agree on that.

      Where I think we disagree is on the supposition that path-dependent realities are no more reliable than whim. They are what constitute our rationality in the first place – they provide us with language, with standards of truth, reason, norms. We always want to be working on improving those standards, absolutely, but we’re on a leaky raft; we can never start from some universal culture-neutral position of absolute equality. The humanitarian project that seeks to diminish cultural inequalities is itself one with a very particular – and very Western! – history.

      Which is perhaps a segue into the followup post, coming this Sunday.

      • >> Regarding precision
        Let’s be clear, we are not measuring a brute, physical property here like heat capacity – we’re evaluating a short piece of ephemeral literature. AGREE, we can actually be more accurate by being less precise (we know water canons do better with crowds than lasers, right?) BUT if the authors/editors decide to introduce some (meaningless) precision with the term “euro-american” to “spice up” their main point (which is, as I see it about lack of diversity in philosophical training at graduate level?) then I think that can pass my lights at least – but it is certainly contestable – and you have contested it – but your alternate suggestion – “western” dances on the head of a pin I think – never mind tho’ – it probably only amounts to anything if your business is academic study of eastern/western ideas – so you’re probably right to flag that up in that context.
        > Where I think we disagree is on the supposition that path-dependent realities are no more reliable than whim.

        Yes. All you say on what constitutes our rationality is on the money BUT – since you admit it is “a leaky raft” and “we can never start from some universal culture-neutral position of absolute equality” then can I suggest we ditch it when it becomes too cumbersome – and (again) in tems of evaluationg “social objects” like literature I would suggest there is as much truth in fiction as their is in fact? On that basis alone we are surely reminded of the importance of innovative, even facetious thought as providing the requisite variety to disrupt whatever norms and standards we may have cherished to pass muster with our sponsor or to get published in a presitigious journal? My opinion is Beckett was a much better philosopher than Kant, yet I’m not sure he would even admit to doing philosophy? So I look forward to your next post 🙂

        • The main point is that to “ditch it” is harder than it sounds. As with Kuhnian paradigms, even when there are a lot of anomalies and problems, you can’t really get rid of one way of understanding things until you have another one that at least appears to be better.

          • Oh – my understanding of your main point(s) in the article is you are against changing programs because of the “arbitrary” criteria of “equality” and so on which you (accurately IMO) classify as “whimsy” because we already have (“rational” / nromative / standard) “path dependent realties” to base our judgements on. Your point is fairly clear in your article – it isn’t that it is “hard” to change – but it is that it is “worse”? I am only arguing that is ISN’T worse – not least because we can arrive at the “right” place purely by serendipity – so improving the chances for serendipitous discovery by wilfully rejecting nroms and standards may in fact be the most “rational” response to messy problems like this? There is plenty of evidence to support a view that story telling seems to be the our favourite medium for accounting for the world? So if we improve the practice of philosophy by telling stories rather than with independently verifiable data – is there still a problem?

  8. That it’s hard to change, is one of the reasons is often – not always – worse to try. I think we almost never arrive at the right place “purely by serendipity”. Those are usually the points when we delude ourselves and engage in deliberate ignorance – as when Descartes or Freud, say, pretend that they are doing something entirely new when they are recycling ideas already existent in their time. That “serendipity” is an un-Indian path to take, in a sense: Indian philosophers more typically go in exactly the opposite direction, as when Śaṅkara tells you he’s just expounding what’s already in the Gītā when he’s pretty obviously doing something newer and different. But either approach is to be unaware of our real relation to the traditions that always already constitute us. We should work to change things, but in a way that acknowledges why we’re doing that work – the “why” always coming back in some way to our particular historical situatedness.

    Absolutely we should be telling stories. The question is which stories we tell. For philosophers, we are likely going to want the stories to be true. Descartes and Freud effectively tell stories of their own philosophical development that are false – and worse, they believe those false stories.

    • So, if something looks hard to achieve then we might want to think harder about doing it too? Sure – okay. I think you’re assuming many participants to these kinds of conversations are all at least sharing a similar mental image of the desired outcome, and that’s a pretty safe assumption to make for now I think, at least until there is some push back from some quarter suggesting otherwise.

      You suggest that an attempt to integrate “non-Western” philosopy at a “whim” (here, we are at the social scale of institutions being more “sensitive” to issues such as “diversity” or “equality”) is not necessarily the way to go because you correctly remind us that a more optimal philosophy would be one with better access to information from all the most “notable” thoughts of every “important” philosopher – “eastern” and “western” – and yes – that’s a path dependent thing. But a pragmatist voice tells us this is not obviously, or easily achievable so the watered down solution for acute information asymmetery is for institutions to undertake some form of monitoring, evaluation and demonstration about which ideas “fit the best” on a course of philosopy, no matter the provenance yes?

      Sounds eminently sensible to me.

      But here’s the thing – we are discussing the business of delivering philosophy… er… by way of “teaching and lecturing”, and (whether we like it or not) serendipity is already “in the system” when we first apply to university and is with us for our entire career.

      The chances of a Sentinelesian adolescent savant applying to MIT is, I would imagine close to zero, no?

      So, if we actively follow your suggestion and try and reduce the opportunity for serendipidous discovery – which the (paradigm?) of “optimization” is all about – we are actually crippling the “process” of accounting for the world – we’re making philosophy worse by trying to make it better – in systems thinking I think that’s something like “a fix that fails” – not sure – long time since I knew my models…

      I think you are a bit cavalier in your underestimation the affect serendipity has on people, society, philosophy… and well… reality.

      I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that forming an account of reality at the level of quantim mechanics certainly requires a much firmer grasp of the heuristics of chance and serendipity than the sort of standard model we have been used to rely on for an explanation of brute facts?

      So, I this is where I disagree with you. For me – “the points when we delude ourselves and engage in deliberate ignorance” is when forget to take into full account the effects of serendipidous discovery, and in terms of philosophy to take our “relation to the traditions that always already constitute us” to be more concrete than they actually are is a crippling defeat and to my mind. The most unsophisticated and obscure literature from anywhere deserves a look as much as anything found within established, canonical literature… from anywhere…

      I am not arguing for false stories or true stories, because they are all stories which can only be judged by the outcome, not the content. When you’re at the beach on a hot summer’s day – if the fable of Icarus motivates us to slap on sun cream and reduce the chances of skin cancer in later life that’s a much better story than the laws of thermodynamics that explains the problem much more sophistication but seduces us into ignoring the sort of folksy wisdom that might (albeit by chance) improve our chances for wellbeing for example?

  9. I don’t take the attempt to seek diversity and equality as a whim. Rather, as I argue in yesterday’s post, it is itself a Western ideology! We can acknowledge the Western roots of our own push for diversity and equality, and thereby understand it more deeply, or we can pretend it exists in some sort of ahistorical space that hides that understanding. If our criterion for selection is diversity and equality, then we should be reading the New Testament, Marx, Fanon and the other Western thinkers who gave us that idea, so that we understand why we take these goals to be worthy things.

  10. I agree diversity and equality (and b.t.w. a few other often taken for granted virtues like human rights) are a part of something I recognise as being “Western ideology” so I don’t need convincing there – BUT you said: “The most dangerous thing I see in Garfield’s and Van Norden’s article is that they do not ask what makes philosophy a worthwhile activity in the first place… It leaves the impression that the selection of which philosophy to study is essentially arbitrary” then (shortly after)… “our assumptions or intuitions, are shaped by history, not by whim”. So it’s hard not to infer that you see attempts to shape (for example) course syllabuses like the pretentiously grandiose “world philosophies” course at SOAS by any other means than through rigorous appraisal of the merit of the content as “whimsy”? Whether or not Garfield, Van Norden or your readers see equality and diversity as “Western ideology” is surely moot because your main point from what I infer from your writing here is is that philosophy should be studied according to the paradigm of “optimization” while you miss the opportunity to also say something about the idea that course materials and design should be as diverse as possible simply to “increase the chances” of students discovering something worthwhile – and I’m not sure that thinking systematically about a problem by introducing measures to supprt diversity *can* be accused of being “Western ideology” if it is done *in that way* – without negatively implicating the rest of the world in some way in some lesser category of cognitive functioning. So, I made my comments assuming you were on an “optimization” ticket here – not trying to second-guess Garfield or Van Norden’s motivations for recomending a particular course of action which would be a bit wacky I think. The implication that an “optimized philosophy” is desirable even if (as you admit) it is not achievable is a worser kind of philosophy, not a philosophy made better. If you’re not arguing for optimization – then I’m sorry but we may have wasted our time. If you are, then I disagree, philosophy is made better with variety – and the only consession I’ll make for optimization is if we concentrate on *optimizing the variety* (i.e. achieving “requisite variety”) not based on some (arbitrary) evaluation of content ow what might be in the minds of two academics writing in the NYT – and this may be the point where we can agree?

    • So, I do get the points you’re making about spontaneity – what creates a spark in one student is going to be different from what creates a spark in another. Professors can and should teach material they disagree with. But I do think they should have a high enough opinion of its worth that they can teach it sympathetically, to help provoke the spark in a student. I doubt you’re going to find a single student in an American university who read Mīmāṃsā texts and came out spontaneously thinking “yes! We should all perform the agnihotra sacrifice!”

      I should note here that I’ve frequently taught courses in cross-cultural ethics myself, incorporating Buddhist, other Indian, Chinese and Muslim thinkers of various times and contexts. I’ve adjusted the list every time I’ve taught them. The question for me has always been: what are the thinkers doing there? What can students get out of it? In that regard, I found that those courses worked a lot better when they began with Bentham, Kant and Nietzsche – and putting those thinkers at the beginning was key, as a familiar point of reference for something corresponding to the students’ own presuppositions, from which they could then come to explore the others. It’s a lot easier to ask beginning students “Do you agree with Bentham?” than “Do you agree with Mencius?” – but the latter question is easier to ask once you’ve asked the former.

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