Where is Philosophy?: A Response to Nicholas Tampio

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.)

19 thoughts on “Where is Philosophy?: A Response to Nicholas Tampio

  1. Namaste Ethan: This is an excellent response to a pretty lame article, but I do wonder if you are glossing over what seems to be Nicholas Tampio underlying angst, if you will. This article seems to be more about the larger threat to the humanities and what he feels are political movements afoot to undermine his own discipline, that of Western (he wouldn’t call it that) philosophy. To me, as I think I’ve mentioned on this forum, the “paradigm shift,” not without some reference to Kuhn, would occur, if it occurs, when we start training undergraduates and graduates (MA, PhD, postdoc) to “do” Indian philosophy as part of philosophy writ large. My impression is that Western philosophers feel like they have enough on their desk trying to make sense of their own issues and people, eg Plato, contemporary neuroscience, etc. When we come along and say, “hey, you’ve got to also understand these really complex Indian thinkers who mainly wrote in this ancient and complex language called Sanskrit, and there are these really sophisticated 20th century interpreters of them that you’ve also got to think about,” they think, “I don’t have the time and I don’t want to make a mess of it.”

    My point: arguing about the reality of philosophy in other civilizations is probably secondary to implementing training in non-Western philosophies for the youth. Thoughts?

    • Thanks for the comment, Jonathan. I think that you get part of what my worry is, and I’ll elaborate.

      Every great intellectual tradition has a long and complex history that takes years to master. In response to this piece, I’ve had people ask me what I would do with the Presocratics, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Those are hard authors! I see their inclusion within philosophy because they are part of an ongoing conversation, but they all stretch any definition we could make of the philosophical style of thinking. So, my initial answer is that philosophy as a tradition includes them, so it’s no problem to consider them philosophers doing philosophy, though we can still debate the relationship between reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem, etc.

      But now people are saying we should consider as “philosophers” smart people from around the world doing all sorts of different activities. I’m curious: when did people first identify themselves as doing Latin American philosophy or African philosophy or Chinese philosophy? I’m sure people have been exploring and thinking for millennia, but my question is about the term “philosophy.” What is gained or lost when we use this term to describe other intellectual traditions? In the article, I mention how towering figures in other intellectual traditions do not or would not want to be called philosophers, though many scholars disagree with my readings (though a few agree!).

      To return to the point: what happens to “philosophy” departments when they dispense a dollop of Greek philosophy, Confucian ethics, Islamic jurisprudence, and lots of other wisdom traditions? It becomes a cafeteria serving cafeteria food. If you are going to have a coherent intellectual tradition, you need walls and doors. That’s why I ask people who critique my conception of philosophy: what’s yours? Because if you don’t want to defend a robust notion of philosophy, it’s not clear why there should be philosophy departments at all.

      To conclude, Socratic-Platonic philosophy does not hold a monopoly on wisdom. I’m fine with universities having a wide array of centers, departments, speaker series, etc. that expose students to different intellectual traditions. It’s also fine if philosophy departments branch out (my main critique of the NYT op-ed was the violence of its recommendations: go along with immediately diversifying or get dragged). But to keep philosophy departments the same size they are now, and to fill lines with wisdom traditions with a tenuous relationship to philosophy, means in effect to damage the academic discipline of philosophy. And that would be a shame.

        • Re. Aristotle. It is possible that other intellectual traditions bear more of a family resemblance to Aristotle than Plato. So it would be harder to exclude them from a global conception of philosophy if we include Aristotle. Myself, I think Socratic zeteticism (open-ended inquiry) is a defining feature of philosophy, so I hesitate to call “philosophies” worldviews that do not have Socratic features (but do have Aristotelian elements of natural philosophy).

          Re. Hume. Hume was famously skeptical of reason discovering much on its own, and his conception of ideas (impressions of reflection) challenges the Platonic conception. So he can be seen as trying to deflate the pretensions of philosophy/metaphysics.

          • Well, if your definition of philosophy moves to exclude two of the people most commonly taught as philosophers for centuries (and still continuingly so), one might hazard the suggestion that that is not a problem with them but with your definition. They certainly don’t stretch “any definition we could make”.

      • Professor Tampio, thank you so much for taking the time to visit the blog and engage in conversation. I’m really impressed with your willingness to respond so widely on blogs and twitter. It’s very Socratic!

        I think I’ve responded to many of your specific points in my comment above, so let me step back for a moment.

        As contentious as my post may have seemed, I admit that my main response was confusion. And I wonder how much of that is due to disciplinary differences.

        For instance, like many philosophers, I was confused about the claim that philosophy began with Plato’s Republic. A friend of mine who’s a specialist in ancient Greek philosophy suggested that this might be the result of a Straussian background on your part (something that did come up in your Twitter exchange with Malcolm Keating). From a Straussian point of view, perhaps it makes sense to identify Plato’s Republic as the beginning of Western political philosophy if not philosophy as such. Like many other philosophers who don’t specialize in political philosophy, however, I don’t necessarily see the Republic as primarily a work of political theory.

        There’s also a tendency among some (but not all) continental philosophers to define philosophy as a specific tradition that explicitly names itself with the word “philosophy.” I find this wrong-headed on numerous counts (I’ll say more on that in another comment), but I do think it might explain why someone like me experienced confusion about some of your claims.

        I would love to keep writing comments, but I do — coincidentally and amusingly enough! — have to make sure I’m ready to start teaching Plato’s Republic tomorrow!

    • Thank you, Jonathan. I think you make a great point. I’m not denying that philosophy, and the humanities more generally, aren’t under some serious threats. Because I agree with that aspect of Tampio’s argument, I didn’t comment on it.

      I agree that starting with new philosophy students is vitally important, especially since most students (at least in the United States) come to college with little to no preconceived idea of what philosophy is. They only become socialized to the idea that philosophy is essentially Western later. At least this was my experience: as a young philosophy undergrad I didn’t understand why the Chinese philosophers I had heard about were nowhere to be found (I eventually found them in the religion department).

      I wonder if some of the resistance to diversifying the discipline is based on straw man arguments. While Garfield and Van Norden maybe stated things a little dramatically, nobody I know is actually calling for anything like the full-scale replacement of Western philosophers in philosophy curricula. Plato is awesome, and I would be sad if people stopped teaching Plato in philosophy courses or if scholars stopped specializing in Plato.

      Nobody is saying we all must become Dharmakīrti scholars overnight or philosophy is racist. But if someone like me who doesn’t read Greek and isn’t up on all the latest Plato scholarship can teach Plato in an undergraduate course, surely someone who specializes in some area of Western philosophy could learn enough about Buddhist philosophy to teach something like the arguments against the self in The Questions of King Milinda or enough about Confucianism to teach the debate on human nature between Mencius and Xunzi.

      And if the objection is, “But I didn’t learn about Buddhist philosophy as a student!” I somehow missed most of medieval European philosophy as an undergrad. Much later when I taught courses that were supposed to cover Augustine and Aquinas, I took it as an opportunity to do a little bit of work to expand my teaching repertoire even though I have no intention of specializing in those figures.

      There’s no good reason philosophy teachers can’t include one or two non-Western texts in general introductory courses or in relevant topics courses. Nobody is saying they have to be specialists. Nobody is saying they have to learn all non-Western traditions.

      And for specialists (like many of us here on the blog), I have modest ambitions that someday Indian philosophy might be viewed as a respectable sub-discipline like Hellenistic philosophy (Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics): something that’s respectable, but it wouldn’t be a crime to the discipline if an undergrad major didn’t learn as much about it as they learn about Plato.

      • I agree, Ethan, that one doesn’t necessarily need to be a specialist to teach x text, but in my experience with trying to get Western philosophers (or Republican philosophers via Nicholas) is that there is a feeling that that’s not what they can do well enough to teach it.

  2. Greetings Nicholas Tampio: thank you for the reply. Before I would respond to your concerns, I would note a point of agreement: a discipline does need doors. It can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do everything; it would then be nothing.

    They Nyaya tradition of philosophy, no polemics implied, gave a lot of attention to defining a definition, and at least Annambhatta said it should provide a distinguishing characteristic of a thing, one that doesn’t include things outside the definition and doesn’t exclude things inside. A distinguishing characteristic should tell what is unique or special about the item defined, but that unique feature should at the same time be common to all things that are said to fall under the definition.

    What is your definition of philosophy according to these structures?

    • Thanks. The word tradition, etymologically, means handing over (same root as treason). So academic departments make sense insofar as they are responsible for different traditions, or parts of the tradition. As a political scientist, I teach Machiavelli, the Federalist Papers, and Robert Dahl’s Democracy and its Critics. I don’t teach Weber, Durkheim or other sociologists, not because they’re not important for understanding politics, but because they are not my tradition.

      So my first response is to say that the philosophical tradition includes people who “hand over” the Republic and other books that engage it.

      Shortly after the Aeon piece appeared, somebody tweeted that is a tautology. Philosophy started with Plato and must remain in conversation with Plato. Isn’t philosophy like chemistry, another friend asked? Who cares who “invented” it, just as long as people do philosophy they are philosophers?

      I would respond that Socratic-Platonic philosophy has a certain style (zeteticism, agonism, dialectic) that differentiates it from other intellectual lineages.

      Scholars have told me that this is an ignorant claim and that I need to read more Buddhist, Indian, and Chinese philosophy. I have a reading list and I’ll make my way through it. Perhaps they are right and I’ll change my mind.

  3. Ok, so you really do mean what I thought, i.e. that “Philosophy,” as it is used in, say, an American university department that grants a BA, MA, etc. means “a tradition that started in Greece.” This is a geographical definition of philosophy. It is “area studies” then. Why not, then, call it “Greek Philosophy,” and move it under one of the existing branks area studies, eg “South Asian Studies,” “East Asian Studies,” “Middle Eastern Studies,” “European Studies,” and keep Indian philosophy in “South Asian Studies” or “Indology”? Is that what you’re calling for? That we define disciplines by their place of origin?

    • First, to define philosophy as Western philosophy is to humiliate it, to say from the start that it fails in its aspiration to pursue universal knowledge. That strikes me as an unnecessary insult.

      Second, people all around the world do philosophy. The history of philosophy considers Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes as one of their own. And right now, philosophy’s doors are in principle open to anyone. W.E.B. DuBois studied with Santayana at Harvard and did graduate work at the University of Berlin; his notion of double consciousness reflects his study of Hegel. There are many more examples, including ones going on right now.

      So philosophy began at a certain time and place, but I don’t think we need to use that geographical marker to describe it going forward.

      • Hello Nicholas,

        I really appreciate your efforts in seeking out a reading list.

        I just want to push back a bit on the humiliation point. I don’t think anyone is claiming that the there weren’t some parts of the Greek traditions that were -aspiring- to pursue universal knowledge (though I would argue that there were certainly some in dialogue with your examples that wereresisting that possibility in some ways ). Rather, the problem is that such aspirations come out of a particular context, unless of course one presumes they were successful from the start. For all intents and purposes this is problematic as well; it is clear with something like the Republic that even Plato saw the shortcomings of his own project, hence the Laws.

        As much as it may undermine a version of the tradition to presume that Western Philosophy has not achieved its aspiration for universal knowledge, I think it is equally problematic to discount the arguments within those traditions that problematize such aspirations, whether ancient or contemporary. If we do assume that the aspiration to pursue universal knowledge is the essential characteristic or defining feature of philosophy, then it seems equally insulting to large parts of Western philosophy as well by giving primacy to those particular figures in that particular context without appeal to any standard beyond “it’s well received within the tradition”.

        Lastly, I’m a bit hesitant about bringing “humiliation” and “insult” into this conversation. I don’t think anthropomorphizing the discipline of philosophy is healthy for conversation. I could just as easily make the argument that defining Philosophy as the aspiration to pursue universal knowledge is a humiliation because it presumes that rationality is primary and successful. That seems like an unnecessary insult to empiricism. Rather than appeal to the discipline’s honor, perhaps it is better to find a definition whose scope allows us to achieve success in the field.

        There have been scholars of the history of philosophy who have done some great work on explaining how canonical narrative have been constructed. Since you’ve got a reading list going, it might be worth reading Park’s Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy, as well as Lloyd and Sivin’s The Way and the Word. These texts give the background information that illustrates why we cannot just assume the context doesn’t matter when trying to define our notion of Philosophy.

  4. It seems you contradict yourself. Philosophy = “people who “hand over” the Republic” and philosophy does not = Western/Greek. Both can’t be true.

    You suggest that Western/Greek phil seeks the universal, which could be doubted of course, but of course that’s what all philosophers seek; the universal might called Brahman, tattva, pramana, etc. in India. Maybe you just haven’t read Indian philosophy? It seems so.

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