Last week there was a call from political science professor Nicholas Tampio to narrowly define philosophy as a discipline responding either directly to Plato’s Republic or at least part of a self-consciously Socratic-Platonic tradition of inquiry. I recommend reading Tampio’s essay, “Not All Things Wise and Good Are Philosophy,” for yourself here. Tampio was responding in large part to a piece from Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden called “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is.”
I find much of Tampio’s essay to be either plain wrong or downright odd. While Tampio mentions Candrakīrti, he doesn’t discuss Indian philosophy, which is a shame, I think, because Indian philosophy may provide several important counter-examples to his claims.
There have already been some excellent responses to Tampio’s article. See this collection of tweets from Bryan Van Norden (one of the authors of the piece to which Tampio is responding) that offers some education about Chinese philosophy. See also this post on the Feminist Philosophers blog by Amy Olberding as well as her almost sentence-by-sentence response to Tampio on her personal blog. Our very own Malcolm Keating has also written a post on the topic.
I personally found Tampio’s article so filled with oddity and plain errors that I could easily write a paragraph or two responding to each sentence. Olberding has already done something like that, so I will merely respond to a few of the more confusing and/or erroneous aspects of the article. I should add that what follows is in the style of vitaṇḍā or pure criticism. I am criticizing Tampio’s thesis, but I am not attempting to present a counter-thesis about what philosophy is.
Tampio starts by telling the reader that he has published on Islamic political thought. This is a nice way to inform us that he’s not a cultural chauvinist, which makes the rest of the piece all the more bizarre. He inconsistently refers to the Islamic intellectual tradition either as “thought” or “philosophy” throughout the piece. This would seem to undermine his thesis unless there’s some subtlety there I didn’t understand (perhaps ibn Sina and al-Farabi are “philosophers” while al-Ghazali is a “thinker,” but then there are at least two philosophers in the Islamic tradition…). The rest of the introduction paragraph nicely sets out his thesis, strange as it may be.
Then we’re presented with perhaps the strangest and most obviously erroneous claim:
“Philosophy originates in Plato’s Republic.”
Nobody believes this (except maybe Tampio himself). Even Aristotle said that philosophy began with Thales in the 6th century BCE (Thales was apparently lambasted for being useless, which might be a reason to think he was a philosopher!). Even if you were to discount the Presocratics and Socrates himself, the Republic is usually classified as one of Plato’s middle dialogues. Does Tampio mean that Euthyphro and Apology aren’t really philosophy? Also, while the Republic is justly praised as a great work of philosophy today, as Plato scholar Julia Annas has pointed out, it wasn’t really until the 19th century that most people came to see it as Plato’s magnum opus. There are some more odd claims about Plato, such as the claim that anyone who uses the word “idea” is evincing their Platonic heritage. Let’s move on to a strange paragraph.
“I am wary of the argument, however, that all serious reflection upon fundamental questions ought to be called philosophy. Philosophy is one among many ways to think about questions such as the origin of the Universe, the nature of justice, or the limits of knowledge. Philosophy, at its best, aims to be a dialogue between people of different viewpoints, but, again, it is a love of wisdom, rather than the possession of wisdom. This restless character has often made it the enemy of religion and tradition.”
I suppose that’s a good thing to be wary of, especially since I doubt there’s a non-circular way to define philosophy as reflection on fundamental questions (i.e., “fundamental” = “philosophical”). I also think philosophy can be humorous, but I take it “serious” here means something like rigorous or sustained (Zhuangzi and Jayarāśi show us that philosophy can occasionally be both humorous and rigorous).
It’s odd that philosophy is “a dialogue between people of different viewpoints” when the whole point of this article is that many of those people shouldn’t be considered philosophers, a point that Olberding makes better than I. I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that, at least etymologically speaking, philosophy could be seen as the love of wisdom rather than possession of it. One would hope this would result in some intellectual humility when it comes to what the love of wisdom might be and where one might find it.
I’m a bit dubious about the idea that philosophy has “often” been the enemy of “religion and tradition,” at least in the eurocentric way Tampio seems to intend. I love teaching Plato’s Socratic dialogues. Every time I do, I become more confused that so many contemporary irreligious champions of reason take as their hero a man who heard voices and repeatedly claimed to be on a mission from a god.
I don’t think it’s particularly wise to discount possible sources of philosophical illumination just because they’re tainted by whatever one thinks of as “religion.” If you did so, you’d have to throw out almost all of Western philosophy before the 19th century. Even the Greek and Roman Skeptics said you should follow local religious customs, and the Stoics had theological beliefs. Descartes and Kant talk about God more than most classical Indian philosophers, even those few, like the Naiyāyikas, who do endorse belief in a creator deity. It’s interesting to imagine what the irreligious and materialist Cārvākas would have said about Plato’s metaphysical dualism, mysticism, and belief in reincarnation–it would make for a challenge to religion and tradition!
All of this makes me suspect that people with eurocentric conceptions of philosophy sometimes don’t understand the history of Western philosophy as well as they claim to. And most fare much worse when it comes to understanding the traditions they disparage as non-philosophy.
As critical as I’m being of Tampio, I am glad that he’s familiar with Islamic philosophy (or thought as the case may be). On that point, I see no reason to say that al-Ghazali isn’t a philosopher in some sense even if he denies being one in a very particular sense, maybe the same way that Sextus Empricus, Nāgārjuna, or Zhuangzi could be philosophers even as they’re deeply critical of almost everything their fellow philosophers have to offer.
When it comes to Chinese philosophy, Van Norden and Olberding, who are experts, have already done more than I could to correct Tampio’s errors. I will add that cherry-picking one quote from Confucius to disparage an entire 2,500-year-old tradition would be much like this: imagine someone read Heraclitus’s fragment in which he says that donkeys prefer garbage to gold (DK B9) and said,
“Well, these Western people don’t really do philosophy… as we all know, philosophy is defined in terms of Kauṭilya’s ānvikṣikī … Heraclitus, from whom we can generalize to the entire Western tradition, is merely offering sagely pronouncements of wisdom, which can’t be taken seriously as philosophy because he doesn’t justify anything with a pramāṇa.“
Tampio ends with
“But demanding that philosophers treat al-Ghazali or Confucius as one of their own is unreasonable, and provides ammunition to people who are ready to banish philosophers from their midst.”
His idea is that articles like Garfield and Van Norden’s are giving ammunition to short-sighted university administrators and politicians like Marco Rubio (who fallaciously argued that we need “less philosophers”). Whether such people are looking at the philosophy series of The New York Times website for reasons to reduce or eliminate philosophy departments I can’t say. What’s odd about Tampio’s claim, though, is that he seems more concerned about the fact that people might point out the eurocentrism of academic philosophy than whether this might be true or worth changing or, more importantly, if making philosophy less eurocentric might actually help it survive.
(A somewhat different version of this post appears on my personal blog.)