Making the case for non-Western philosophy

If you are the sort of person who reads comparative philosophy blogs, you probably remember the widely read New York Times article that Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden wrote two years ago, calling for the study of non-Western philosophies in philosophy departments. I agreed with their overall point, surprising nobody that I can imagine, but had strong reservations about their underlying reasoning, then as now: in urging the study of non-Western thought they said nothing about anything valuable it actually would have to teach us, treating geographical diversity as sufficient.

Van Norden has now expanded the article’s point into a book, Taking Back Philosophy. (He invited Garfield to join in writing the book, but Garfield was too busy with other projects.) Columbia University Press sent me a free copy of the book in the hope I would review it on Love of All Wisdom and/or the Indian Philosophy Blog; I mention that as a disclaimer of sorts, though there were no specifications on the content of the review. I offer my thoughts here.

I don’t think I am the target audience for Taking Back Philosophy, and I probably wasn’t for the article either. I am, after all, not someone who needs to be convinced of the value of studying non-Western thought. Nor do I have any power to change the way any given philosophy department does things. I am delighted to see people making a case for that study to others. It matters to me, though, how one makes that case. I was worried that the article could have easily left a reader wondering why anyone should bother studying philosophy at all.

The book is significantly better than the article in this and other respects. Unlike the article, Taking Back Philosophy recognizes that we live in an anti-philosophical and anti-intellectual age where philosophy, Western and Asian, needs defending. It refers, quite appropriately, to the awful US Republican debate where three different politicians took it upon themselves to take pot shots at philosophy (Donald Trump himself, perhaps surprisingly, not being one of them). The fourth chapter defends philosophy against such thuggish detractors on the kind of pragmatic terms that would make sense in their world: philosophy graduates make more money than welders, employers value critical thinking, and so on. Against such people, perhaps that is the best case one can hope to make. But it is not a very good one. If that standard case for the liberal arts is all philosophy can bring us, then we may as well dump philosophy teaching in favour of courses in critical thinking and writing, as many lower-tier universities now in fact do.

Fortunately, the book rises above this point in its second and fifth chapters – the latter making the case for philosophy as such, the former going into detail about the contributions of Chinese (and to a much lesser extent Indian Buddhist) thought. The fifth rightly notes that philosophy is unfortunately rare among humanistic disciplines these days in its willingness to take a “hermeneutic of faith” – to listen to the great thinkers of the past and take seriously the idea that they might be right – as opposed to the “hermeneutic of suspicion” associated (rightly or wrongly) with Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, which views previous thought as oppressive dead weight. (The terms are Paul Ricoeur’s).

So Van Norden shows how philosophical ideas provided a powerful support to some major heroic figures, like James Stockdale, who endured his seven years as a prisoner of war by recalling the advice of the Stoic Epictetus on maintaining our integrity in the face of our fate. Stockdale’s story is powerful and important, and two things about it are significant. He could only have derived this benefit by taking a hermeneutics of faith; and not just any philosophy would have helped in his situation. You couldn’t just swap out Epictetus and replace him with Hume or Hegel, and expect that the benefit would be the same. You probably could have swapped in Śāntideva, whose rejection of external goods has strong affinities to the Stoics, or a number of other Buddhist thinkers. The point, though, is that it was the content of the philosophy – what is said and why it was said – that got Stockdale through his travails and could have got others through theirs.

The second chapter, in many ways, is the heart of the book, because it addresses the ideas in Asian traditions and how they actually can speak to questions that Western philosophers – surely the book’s main target audience – recognize as important. So we see how the Milindapañhā and the Chinese Buddhist Fazang both are able to respond to problems of personal identity in ways more satisfactory than Descartes (and Van Norden is better aware than many of how different the Milindapañhā and Fazang are from each other). We see how Mencius’s theory of human motivation can answer questions about the justification of politics in a way Thomas Hobbes’s cannot, and how later Confucians can answer some Aristotelian questions about practice and weakness of will.

All of this makes the book’s case for studying non-Western philosophy a real and powerful case, as the article’s case was unfortunately not. The article too often felt like it was unintentionally damning non-Western philosophy with faint praise. It is significant that the book’s substantive non-Western philosophical interest is overwhelmingly on Chinese texts (even Japan appears relatively rarely here). But I think that is a strength, because it means that Van Norden is actually able to make a persuasive case that it be studied. The article was weakened by telling everybody they should study Lame Deer and Kwasi Wiredunot because of anything particularly unworthy about Lame Deer or Kwasi Wiredu, but because not a word was mentioned about what in them was worthy of study. Those of us who have not studied a text do not yet know how worthy it is; we need to be convinced of that, whether the work in question is by Lame Deer or Mencius or Bertrand Russell. The problem is much like the one Plato stated in the Meno – that we don’t know what we don’t know. We have to start where we are, and for most of us “where we are” is at least partially Western (even when we are not ourselves in or from the West). We also can and should recognize that the West hasn’t had all the answers – but many of us need pointers about where other answers might be found. Taking Back Philosophy gives better pointers than most.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

7 thoughts on “Making the case for non-Western philosophy

  1. Amod, that was a helpful introduction to and review of the book, thank you.

    I preface my few comments by acknowledging the importance (e.g., its necessity or urgency) of Van Norden’s book, including, for what it’s worth, agreement with many of its substantial arguments. Thus whatever criticisms I have, and these are comparatively minor, assume same, meaning they should not detract from the significance of Taking Back Philosophy. (The fact that ‘the book’s substantive non-Western philosophical interest is overwhelmingly on Chinese texts’ is not surprising, given Van Norden’s own philosophical specialization.)

    I’m no doubt biased, having been fortunate enough to have had Ninian Smart as both a teacher and friend, but I do wish Van Norden had mentioned those who, like Smart, initiated the case for “multicultural philosophy” more than several decades ago (I’ve probably said this, or something like this on several occasions here as well as in other online fora, but it seems to have had no effect whatsoever). I won’t list all the examples, but they are numerous and groundbreaking, and it’s a shame they appear to be ignored or forgotten.

    I think the discussion of Hobbes in chapter 2, while perhaps conventional or even commonplace, is a caricature, as S.A. (Sharon) Lloyd’s two books on Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy attest: Ideals as Interests in Hobbes’s Leviathan: The Power of Mind over Matter (1992), and Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (2009).

    Van Norden notes, parenthetically, that he regularly teaches “Descartes, Hobbes, Russell, and Sartre, each of whom I think is deeply and fundamentally wrong.” I’m grateful for the frankness, but statements like this strike me as silly if not absurd, if only because I can’t make sense of the idea of a philosopher being, in toto, “deeply and fundamentally wrong.” Consider the following from the late Hilary Putnam by way of an analogy:

    “’Is our own way of life right or wrong?’ is a silly question [as is the question, ‘Is a philosopher qua philosopher, right or wrong?’], although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular feature of our way of life is right or wrong, and ‘Is our view of the world right or wrong?’ is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular belief is right or wrong.”

    In other words, I might find Descartes’ Cogito argument flawed but no less suggestive, as does Raymond Tallis in I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being (2004), or I might be repulsed by Descartes’ “synoptic vision of ethics … that led him in the direction of an ethics of power and control,” yet nonetheless appreciate that his picture of the “good life” was composed of disparate elements, among the more provocative parts being the fact that he “finished up resting his claims to show humans how to best live on the central idea of generosity, defined as the resolute use of the will to follow the dictates of reason,” or that he came quite close “to laying the foundations for a systematic ‘psychotherapy’ of the passions—one prepared to delve into our early childhood so as to achieve a true understanding of the dynamics of our adult emotional life” (John Cottingham).

    One could make this same point with the rest of the philosophers cited by Van Norden. I’ve spent a lifetime reading Sartre (and de Beauvoir, for that matter), for example, and while I may disagree here and there about this or that, I’ve never failed to learn from him, indeed, his ideas have deeply influenced (among other things) my thoughts on moral responsibility, while his later and more explicitly “political” works, which make a decisive break with some of the ontological and other philosophical assumptions of his existentialist views, I’ve found provocative on many fronts. And I say this as one who has been drawn to non-Western religions and philosophy since my high school days in the 1970s.

    Indeed, the moving discussion of Bertrand Russell at the end of the book appears to suggest Van Norden does not really believe Russell should be dismissed as “deeply and fundamentally wrong,” noting that “[h]e [i.e., Russell] had a powerful and moving view of the purpose of human life and how it is connected to philosophy.”

    Finally, two other small points: I wish Van Norden had discussed more explicitly questions of truth, pluralism and relativism (here pioneers of ‘comparative philosophy’ have something to say, as well as folks like Hilary Putnam, Nicholas Rescher, Lenn Goodman, and, especially, Michael P. Lynch; and philosophical ideas found in the Jain tradition are germane as well) as they bear upon “multicultural philosophy,” as well as the striking fact that the notion of “philosophy as therapy” is found in both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions (and several other philosophical traditions not covered by those terms). The last pages of the book, which speak to philosophy as central to the question of how to live one’s life (or ‘the way one should live’), begin to approach this subject, but only indirectly or by implication.

    • I think these are fair points. I wanted to make this review positive in order to stress both the book’s importance and my agreement with it. This was especially important for me because I’d been so critical of the article, and thought the book was such an improvement on the article in exactly the ways it needed to be improved. Even though I of course agreed with the article’s main practical goal of more non-Western philosophy, I thought the argument it made was quite weak and potentially damaging to the study of philosophy, and I think it’s really important to note that that’s not the case here.

      I think I would disagree with you on the idea of philosophers being “deeply and fundamentally wrong”. I think that’s a real possibility (and I think it is true of Russell!) – but that it can also be said of someone who “had a powerful and moving view of the purpose of human life and how it is connected to philosophy.” In my case I would say both of these things about Augustine, for example. His view of human life is indeed powerful and moving, and I continue to turn back to him and learn more about him. Yet at the same time, I think that on the principles that are most fundamental to him about everything – that there is an omnipotent omnibenevolent being who underlies the universe and the universe should be understood in terms of this being – he is deeply mistaken. He comes by his mistake honestly and brilliantly, but a mistake it remains, just as, say, Ptolemy’s astronomical system was.

  2. What about Globalism and Teaching Globalism– interacts “All and Everything” (also a book and esoteric practices in Globalism)…

    Globalism too, has to learn to leave room for ‘it does not know what it does not know’…

    Anecdotally–I have been told there are ways in the East for practice from one’s sensation or emotion or mentation and for practice in the West it appears as from one’s mind…

    Conjoining East and West post modern philosophy, I recommend the first hundred pages or so of a book “Her-Bak” and, as you like the book “Meetings with Remarkable Men”

  3. It seems I don’t understand, or cannot make sense of, the notion that a philosopher, qua philosopher, is “deeply and fundamentally wrong” (and Putnam’s analogy was ineffective). This normative characterization is at once too blunt or vague, damning and dismissive, suggesting the philosopher so described is not worth one’s time. One needs to specify, precisely, in what respect the proposition is true: what specific beliefs, claims, arguments, values, what have you warrant the description (notice in Amod’s Augustine example, he begins to do this!). Or one might explain that, in spite of being “deeply and fundamentally wrong” about this or that or any number of topics, one might or can learn from this philosopher’s egregious mistakes in reasoning or argument or axiomatic presuppositions, etc. But this suggests, once more, that the initial characterization was too crude or strong. Perhaps I lack the intellectual confidence to describe any philosopher more or less accepted into the global canons of philosophy in such a manner (in the course of my lifetime, I’ve made the mistake of dismissing or ignoring philosophers for reasons that later turned out to be insufficient or weak, but that may be an idiosyncratic fact not germane to others far brighter than me), even though, of course, there are some philosophers I think better than others, some who appeal to me and others who don’t and so forth. It may even be the case that, on rare occasions, someone described as a “philosopher” I’ve not found worthy of the appellation (e.g., Ayn Rand), but I concede arguments might be made to the contrary (if only because the criteria or standards may vary), so this is a bias I can live with.

    • For me it is possible to say both that a philosopher is “deeply and fundamentally wrong” and also that he or she is worthy of serious study. Indeed there is a very large number of philosophers I would say this about – Augustine is only the clearest example. I often say of the Catholic Buddhologist Paul Griffiths that he is more interesting when he’s wrong (which is most of the time) than others are when they’re right.

      I don’t see this characterization as being crude or too strong, but as expressing something important in the nature of philosophy. Philosophy is hard, because of its many nuances and subtleties. The kind of characterization we’re talking about here implies to me that a philosopher is wrong about the big stuff – the issues that matter most to that phliosopher and to oneself – but comes to a lot of valuable insights along the way (and may also be important for understanding other stronger positions including one’s own, if they are part of the history of effects of those positions).

      I suppose the point is that if one believes that nobody fundamentally wrong is worthy of serious study – well, I think that idea is itself fundamentally wrong.

  4. Re: For me it is possible to say both that a philosopher is “deeply and fundamentally wrong” and also that he or she is worthy of serious study.

    Presumably you would proceed to explain why you believed same: Van Norden did not do this, he simply stated the first half of the conjunction. You go on to make inferences, suggestions and clarifications all missing from Van Norden’s comment.

    Incidentally, what is “big stuff” for a philosopher may or may not be “big stuff” from my vantage point (in other words, what they consider of considerable importance I might judge otherwise, and of course vice versa).

    I’ll end my comments on this with the following further attempt at clarification:

    When I was a college student, if an instructor or professor had published anything having to do with a class he or she was teaching which I was going to take, I would attempt to at least skim through their work so as to get some taste of what I might expect in the course. Had I read what Professor Van Norden had said about Russell et al., I would have been skeptical about his ability to teach the material with the requisite degree of impartiality or “objectivity.” This doesn’t mean I would be averse to hearing him express his own views—in agreement or disagreement—on the topic in question or material covered in class that day (or assigned, etc.), indeed, I would welcome such things. But learning he thought a particular philosopher or group of philosophers “deeply and fundamentally wrong” simpliciter, would have created an expectation on my part that I was being taught the material so as to arrive at the same conclusion, or at least something close to it. On the other hand, had he simply said he thought this or that argument or belief, what have you, was fundamentally mistaken or wrong, proffering the reasons for that assessment, I would not have suspected a preference or bias strong enough to distort the possibility or probability of an open-minded reception or evaluation of the subject matter. Perhaps that is in fact what does in the classroom.

    When I taught comparative world religions (seven traditions), my students often asked me what my own worldview was, which I said I would share at the end of the semester, at which time they would tell me if they could discern the general contour(s) of same (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist …) from the manner in which I taught the material. Although, as it turns out, I happen to prefer religious traditions of Eastern provenance, I could never imagine the wholesale dismissal Judaism, Christianity, or Islam as “deeply and fundamentally wrong,” and the same holds for any philosopher (sans any qualification, elaboration, explanation …). Thankfully, my students typically informed me that I was fair and even-handed to all the traditions taught in the course, and they did not know what I believed (unless they had learned it from another student who had taken my class!), after which, if they asked, I would inform them.

  5. I’m sympathetic to both of your views, Patrick and Amod, and it’s just a matter of tone. Here are two episodes that I carry with me from graduate school.

    1. A fellow student in my cohort (a philosopher with no connection to Asian studies or Sanskritic philosophy) got his BA at a school with a very famous American Sanskritist. He told me that she prefaced her teaching of the Bhagavad-gita in a Hinduism course by saying “I hate this book.” Let me underscore that he was just a guy in a Hinduism class who found this noteworthy and odd; not a practitioner who had a reason to be offended or anything like that.

    2. The Classicist Paul Woodruff, who was/is an inspiration and influence on me told his students “the difference between a great thinker and a mediocre thinker is that even when a great thinker is wrong, he or she leads us to important insights.”

    I wouldn’t be to hard on Van Norden for his phrasing (which I find inapt–I certainly wouldn’t lead with “deeply and fundamentally wrong”) as he has stressed a hermeneutics of trust and respect for the classical thinkers in his work. He doubtless is on the side of the second approach.

    I tell my students that you don’t have to agree with most or even much of a philosopher to learn from them.

    Nowadays, students are culturally trained to sift the good and bad through their pre-existing political checklist in order to determine who to engage with and who to dismissively condemn. And the non-Philosophy humanities departments often aren’t helping them to overcome this.

    More then ever they need to understand the fruitfulness of learning from those with whom they may significantly disagree on important matters.

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