Bright on Eurocentrism

A recent post “On Eurocentrism” from Liam Bright on his blog The Sooty Empiric raises some interesting questions about the role of Eurocentrism in the study of non-Western philosophy.  While Bright is not writing specifically about the study of Indian/South Asian philosophy, I thought it might be worthwhile to start a conversation about these issues on this blog.

Bright, who is a “consumer” rather than “producer” of work on non-Western philosophy, begins with a phenomenon he has noticed.

… so here is a thing I see a lot of in articles introducing English speakers to some form of philosophy that is not typically studied by English speaking philosophy students. (I am going to say “non-mainstream-Western” philosophy, but only because I don’t know a better way of referring to the class I have in mind, that’s not a great term either.) … I see a lot of this because I actively seek such work out – I think it is great, under-appreciated, and has immeasurably enriched my philosophical and personal life. So naturally I am going to complain about it.

Well, a particular tendency therein! Because such works frequently lead with or place greatest emphasis upon what I at this point think of as the stereotyped non-Western-philosophy list: people in <school or group under study> reject(ed) strict mind body dualism, and in particular they understand/ood knowledge in a more engaged or embodied fashion, they thought/think that some sort of communal validation processes were very important for a person to be said to know. Now, I don’t doubt that indeed people around the world in various schools of thought hold all these positions. In fact, I hold all these positions, so suits me very well to learn that I am part of a vast global majority. But I am suspicious none the less of the role the stereotyped non-Western philosophy list plays in this genre. This blog post is about why.

Bright goes on to attribute this tendency to two types of Eurocentrism.

The first sort comes from considering the question: why are these things highlighted in particular? … the stereotyped non-Western philosophy list is given pride of place exactly because: the widespread elite Protestant uptake of something like Cartesianism is distinctive of the West, so its a marker of being generally not Western that nothing like that viewpoint really gained traction therein. That is to say, its pride of place in so many different works on non-mainstream-Western philosophy in fact reflects a fact about the West …

The second thing I think is behind this is a filter somewhat introduced by me. Namely, that I am reading things in English and aimed at English speakers. … My sense is that it just so happens that the kind of person who does this (far from always, but in proportions far out of line with their prevalence in the philosophical community) has some sympathy for a kind of neo-Romantic viewpoint. They are closer to being heirs to the tradition of Herder and Heidegger than Condorcet and Carnap. …

I recommend reading the entire post here.

Rather than respond in detail myself, I thought I’d leave readers with a few questions to consider and (hopefully) to discuss.

  1. Do you think Bright is identifying a feature that is present in much work on non-Western philosophy today?  If so, is it problematic?  It this a type of Eurocentrism, “benevolent” or otherwise?
  2. Is the situation different when it comes to work on Indian/South Asian philosophy?
  3. What would non-Eurocentric work in non-Western philosophy look like (if it does not exist already)?  Are comparative projects that do not take Western philosophy as one of its subjects of comparison, more pure history of philosophy projects, or more historical-textual studies the answer?  Or do we need to imagine an entirely new approach?

Let me say a bit on question two.  My sense is that our sub-field (especially work in English and other European languages) is shaped by its opposition to “mainstream” Western philosophy, but that the precise ways in which it is shaped are somewhat different than the ways Bright has identified.

Part of this may be that there is a great deal of diversity within the Indian tradition when it comes to mind-body dualism, embodied knowledge, communalism, and so forth.  Perhaps another factor has to do with the specific forms of Eurocentrism (especially Orientalism) that form the historical context in which our sub-field developed. Consider, for instance, two major trends: the tendency to focus on “religious” or “soteriological” aspects of South Asian thought and the tendency to be especially concerned to compare South Asian philosophy with contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy.

What do you, dear readers, think about all this?

Cross-posted on my personal blog.

5 Replies to “Bright on Eurocentrism”

  1. I think Bright is generally quite right. Too often discussions of non-Western philosophy assume falsely that there is something that it has in common beyond simply being non-Western. I find the term “people of colour” problematic for related reasons: it implies that all non-white people have something in common other than the fact that we are not white. A dose of apoha might be helpful in that regard. Even the term “Asian philosophy” can be misleading here, since South and East Asian traditions have different origins and are very different in their content.

    I think Bright does a nice job of pointing to where this presumed unity leads us astray: specifically in the “neo-Romantic” approach (it’s a nice term). Romantics love to think that a reductionist or dualist view, or a rule-governed epistemology, is a uniquely Western conceit, so assumes everybody else is not that. But such a view is hard to sustain once you’ve seen the Yoga Sūtras or the Nyāya Bhāṣya. This is why I used to write so much about Thomas Kasulis’s distinction of intimacy and integrity: the way Kasulis himself applies it it is just another neo-Romantic west-versus-the-rest dichotomy, but if one understands Indian thought properly, that distinction is helpful because it allows us to see ways in which Indian thought is more like Western thought than it is like Chinese.

    Which brings me to how we avoid Eurocentrism. I think Gadamer is right that we are never presuppositionless; our inquiries are always motivated by something. I don’t think it’s wrong to start one’s inquiries from a neo-Romantic perspective – to feel that something is wrong with Western thought and turn to Asia as a way of getting there. The important thing is that one not end there: to allow oneself to recognize the ways in which Indian thought doesn’t provide the Romantic intimacy view one had hoped to find. In part because it’s when that happens – when one realizes the way the texts are not what one expected – that one can be challenged by them and thereby really learn from them.

    • Nice points, Amod. I wonder if some of what you’re saying partly explains why, at least in North America, East Asian philosophy is generally more popular within the discipline these days (at least as evidenced by the number of panels on East Asian philosophy at APA meetings in recent years, including the one that just took place in Vancouver – although some of that is also surely global political/economic trends). That is: for Neo-Romantics, Chinese philosophy is generally a lot more interesting for the reasons Bright explains, whereas a lot of Indian philosophy, especially the realist schools, is far too much like Western philosophy. I also think this is part of why the Cārvākas get so little attention even among Western scholars of South Asian philosophy, despite the recent attempts by some Indian scholars to show that there are sufficient textual fragments and testimonia to work with.

      I also like your Gadamerian point. I don’t think the reaction to Bright’s comments should be to stop or never start doing work on non-Western traditions -that’s not his point at all! But I think it’s worth being aware of one’s own prejudices (in the relatively benign Gadamerian sense of the term): why are we studying these traditions and what do we hope to get out of it? Someday I hope answers to these questions can be roughly the same as they are for various Western traditions, but I’m not sure we as a discipline or as a global culture are there yet.

    • Thank you Amod, very well said!

      I am sure you would agree that the next step is realising that also “Indian” is somehow a fictional entity and that one cannot speak of a monolithic “Indian philosophy”. Would not you?

  2. I was just thinking further that if you want a really stark example of what the neo-Romantic approach looks like (or rather sounds like), listen to the Beatles’ “The Inner Light”. Musically performed in an Indian style with sitar and tabla – with lyrics from the Daodejing!

  3. I emphatically agree with Liam Bright and Amid Lele, and want to highlight a specific danger, a hermeneutic trap. Ignoring the Carvakas, you loose Brihaspati and his historic aphorism: “From matter came forth life”. And that marks the ancient root of the Hindu commitment to medicine, so you then loose Ayurveda. Now both the Charakasamhita and the Susrutasamhita are marked by the use of Tantra Yukties, analysis of forms of statement in argument; and what follows in that vein is the Yuktidipika, acknowledged as the key text for the history of Samkhya. Strip Samkhya of any meaningful history, and you are right back with Colebrook and Max Muller, drifting on the tide of Victorian psychologism, where Frege’s historic program went under, to paradox. That throws you back on Hegel, and the whole effort seems purposeless.
    Maximally exposed was Harvard University, through William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and I’m glad to find that Harvard have noticed the slavers insignia on their heraldry, and intend to remove it.

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