What counts as philosophy? On the normative disguised as descriptive UPDATED

As a scholar of Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā I am well aware of how the normative is often disguised as descriptive. “It is seven o’ clock” says the mother, but what she means is rather “Get up! You have to go to school”.

Similarly, complex discourses about the nature of philosophy, how it was born, e.g., in Greece or in Plato’s Republic, and how it developed in (Latin), German, (French) and English, are only meant to say “We are not going to welcome colleagues working on things we do not care for in our departments”. Why so? Because as soon as one tries to reason with the authors of the allegedly descriptive statements (as done on this blog, here by Ethan Mills and here by Amod Lele), one gets answers such as “the universality of philosophy”, “the primacy of logical argumentation”, “the importance of debate”, “the supremacy of reason over tradition” etc. All of them can be easily found at least in some Indian schools. I am not saying that they are not found in African, Chinese, Mesoamerican philosophy, I am just saying that no matter how restrictive your definition of philosophy, Navya Nyāya, etc., will fit in. Conversely, Thomas the Aquinas, Augustine, Nietzsche etc. will end up being excluded by such definitions. Thus, the argument is in fact overtly not descriptive.

Does it mean that we should try to make philosophers accept at least Navya Nyāya etc? Or should we rather uncover the normativity of the discourse and call for a broader definition of the enterprise of philosophy?

An insightful discussion of the same issue, with extensive quotes and critical reflections about them can be read in Malcolm Keating’s blog, here.
Eric Schwitzgebel offers further interesting reflections on the issue in his blog (be sure to check the comments and his accurate replies to the “ignorance justifying ignorance” argument, as well as the labels for the “not really philosophy” and “low quality” arguments).
UPDATE: “Prof Manners” has an interesting post here explaining that articles trying to say that Confucius is not “philosophical” because philosophy is x, y, z in fact only list “generally desirable and admiration-worthy qualities”.

(cross-posted on my personal blog, where you can read also some interesting comments regarding the inclusion (or lack thereof) of Islamic philosophy.)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

10 Replies to “What counts as philosophy? On the normative disguised as descriptive UPDATED”

  1. I think it is important to make a distinction between what philosophy is, and what should be taught in philosophy departments now. No department – not even a huge department like the one at University of Texas – can teach all the philosophy that has ever been out there. Most philosophy departments will teach and research nothing about Hugh of St. Victor or Marburg Neo-Kantianism, and I think that’s okay. But it is still important for them to acknowledge that such obscure figures *are* philosophers – if for no other reason than to authorize students they might have who might want to investigate them and try to discover something of interest there.

    • Yes, sure. Just like no department will cover all subfields of philosophy, from philosophy of art to bioethics. Why do you think this needs to be stated? So that people don’t panic of loosing their jobs to accommodate a colleague working on Chinese philosophy?

      • Because some people do seem to think philosophy departments should try to cover everything – or at least represent everything. That was my problem with Garfield and Van Norden’s article – they seemed to argue philosophy departments should try to teach Kwasi Wiredu simply so that African philosophy is covered, not because of the merit of Wiredu’s actual ideas (however that merit might be defined). The fact that he is African and a philosopher (undeniable, in my mind) does not entail that he should be taught in every department; they seemed to think that it does.

        • Now I understand. In a charitable reading they were trying to encourage people to consider scholars of, e.g., Nyāya whenever a chair of, e.g., “Logic” is advertised and not just confine whoever happened to live and work outside Western Europe and North America in some form of “local philosophy”.

          • I would hope so. Even there I have some concerns, though. I wouldn’t want a chair in logic filled by someone who was simply a textual scholar of Nyāya without considering the truth or falsity of their ideas – any more than I’d want a chair in biology filled by an anthropologist who studies creationists. What such a chair most needs is an actual Naiyāyika (or Ghazzālīan, Prāsaṅgika etc.) who can and does argue the case for that approach to logic to people who are not themselves members of the school.

          • Yes, but this counts for all scholars. I would not want a scholar of philosophy of language who is an acritical Chomskian nor one who is obsessed by just one tradition of thought (be it Mīmāṃsā or Frege and so on) and refuses to get engaged in a dialogue. As a positive example people like Arindam Chakrabarti, who can speak of the philosophy of absence ranging from Analytic philosophy to Navya Nyāya, come to mind.

    • Footnote: here at Stony Brook we have two specialists in Marburg Neo-Kantianism on the faculty. Neo-Kantians, please come study with us!

      Alas, no one here works on Hugh of St. Victor (perhaps at Notre Dame?).

      There are real issues about scarcity of resources. This is one of the reason rankings of Ph.D. programs in philosophy are potentially destructive–they tend to arbitrarily privilege some subdisciplines (philosophy of language, philosophy of mind) over others (philosophy of religion, philosophy of race). So, with rankings in mind, a department may choose to hire a third philosopher of mind in spite of the many gaps in its curriculum–meanwhile, Avicenna, Confucius, and Nagarjuna are not covered at all.

      • Thank you, Andrew. Now, forgive me my naïve question, but did the ranking system in the US start with Brian Leiter? If so, and given that there are no official (nor widely recognised) rankings in Europe, the problem could be said to have been only solidified by the PGR, not created by it. But maybe I am overlooking something obvious to a North American scholar…

  2. A comparative philosopher sent me this comment:

    “Well, what you say: ‘Or should we rather uncover the normativity of the discourse and call for a broader definition of the enterprise of philosophy?’ is what I think our job as cross-cultural philosophers is.
    Unfortunately, for large stretches of time, many of us our caught up emulating what the mainstream understanding of philosophy tells us to do.”

    • I agree with this. I’ve been thinking about this point lately in relation to Buddhist ethics. Something’s wrong with our current Western definition of ethics and we need to enlarge it, in a way that I think Buddhism helps us to do.

      At the same time, I don’t think we can just jump out of our preexisting fore-understanding and create a random new definition of “philosophy” or “ethics” that had no relation to what was there before. Such a definition isn’t going to stick, nor should it, really. “Philosophy” and “ethics” are words in Western languages with no direct native equivalent in classical Sanskrit (or even classical Arabic, which is why it relied on a transliteration). I think it’s vital that they move in Asian-influenced directions, but they do also need to start where they are. The transition to a more enlightened definition is gradual, not sudden.

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