Against “Euro-American”

I noted before how there are two objections to the concept of “the West” or “Western”. I dealt previously with the objection that “the West” is meaningless, and the subpoint that it’s tied to whiteness. Now I turn to people who accept that something like “the West” exists, but don’t want to use the term.

This latter approach seems fairly specific to philosophy. Garfield and Van Norden and others understandably do not want to use “Western” – but, for reasons I can’t fathom, they replace it with the far worse term “Euro-American”, a term with absolutely nothing to recommend it. As a way of replacing “Western”, the dreadful neologism “Euro-American”, appears to be in use pretty much exclusively among 21st-century philosophers. If you Google “Euro-American”, you’ll mostly find references on Americans of European descent, including the Wikipedia page on European-Americans – also known as “white Americans”. When normal people hear “Euro-American”, they do not hear it to include Europeans who remained in Europe – or philosophy made by non-white Americans. That’s one strike against “Euro-American” right there, though I think it’s far from the worst.

Me, I naturally recoil from the phrase “Euro-American” having been born and raised English Canadian, in a place where we define ourselves against the people I now belong to, the people who actually call themselves Americans. So it is obvious to me that “Euro-American philosophy” excludes Charles Taylor or James Doull.

That much is apparently not obvious to others online, including others in Canada, as I’ve got pushback multiple times when I’ve claimed that Canadians are not Americans and get offended when they are referred to as such. I found it a little startling to get such pushback on something which has always seemed obvious to me, after being born and raised in Canada and having lived there for more than twenty years. But for the sake of the present argument, let’s assume something I would never dare say in Ottawa or Halifax – i.e. that Canadians are totally fine with being called “Americans”. Even so, even with that assumption, the term “Euro-American” is still worthless for achieving its intended purposes.

I’m happy to admit that “Western” is not a good term. It’s fuzzy: west of what? But it is the term we have, the familiar one. As such, if and when it is replaced, it should at the very least be replaced by something more accurate. It confuses matters and wastes people’s time to try to replace an existing and understood term with one that’s no better. It is far worse to replace such a term with a term that is less accurate. And that is exactly what “Euro-American” is.

One of the bigger disadvantages of “Western” is that it semantically excludes Australia and New Zealand, which are clearly culturally Western. Peter Singer and Annette Baier were Western philosophers long before they came to the UK and US. But of course “Euro-American” excludes them too – even more explicitly than “Western” does. At least you could keep going west from the Americas and get to Australia. It’s a stretch, but that’s better than you can say for including Australia and New Zealand in “Euro-American”.

A similar disadvantage of “Western” is that it implies that the non-West is “the East”, when major parts of the non-West (especially parts of sub-Saharan Africa) are geographically further west than parts of “the West”. Before the conquest, notably, the Americas and their indigenous people were not part of “the West” but were still west of it. Yet “Euro-American” does nothing to fix that problem either, since in the sense implied by “Euro-American” they too were American!

And “Euro-American” has disadvantages that are far worse than all of this. It contributes to the racist discourse that equates Western civilization with “whiteness” – because it forgets how much of the history of Western philosophy never was either European or American. It makes the West white when it is not. From its very beginning, as I noted last time, Western philosophy is neither European nor American, and a term that limits it to those two is playing into the hands of racists.

A further disadvantage of “Western” as a term is that it has historically excluded the Islamic world – the Middle East, as opposed to the West. And this is yet another exclusion that “Euro-American” makes worse! Islamic culture begins in exactly the same parts of the world as the other cultures classified under the West: its founding on the same West Asian peninsula as Judaism and Christianity, its philosophy from Greece. The central role of Islam in Western history, just like the origin of Western philosophy in Asia, is hidden from view by “Euro-American”. And of course, that Islamic philosophy then becomes essential to the history of later European thought: there is no Aquinas without ibn Rushd, possibly even no Hume without al-Ghazālī. Excluding Islam from “the West” is one more way of whitening “the West” illegitimately – and that is what “Euro-American” does yet again, by leaving out the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. (ibn Rushd himself was “Euro-American”, living in Spain as he did, but the thinkers he learned from were not – thinkers like ibn Sīnā, who began ibn Rushd’s project of integrating Aristotle into an Abrahamic monotheism).

In the long span of history, these Asians, and Africans like Augustine, have arguably been overall more important to the development of Western philosophy than has anyone in the Americas. The latter, after all, have only begun to be relevant to Western philosophy in the past century and a half. Why then isn’t it “Euro-Asian-African” tradition? (On the Americas’ past relevance I suppose one could try to make an exception for Bartolomé de las Casas, the sixteenth-century bishop of Chiapas, sinceBrian Tierney’s history importantly notes that his defence of indigenous people shaped modern Western ideas of rights. But Las Casas was born and raised in Spain, and composed his defence there too, so it’s a stretch to consider him as being of the Americas.)

If the idea was to be talking only about the current state and not the history of philosophy, well, the 20th-century Western traditions of analytic and “Continental” philosophy are now practised in academic departments in much of Africa and Asia too. It is their history, not their current state, that makes these philosophical traditions “Western” or “Euro-American”. And that history points us away from “Euro-American” for all the reasons above.

There is, in short, absolutely no good reason to use “Euro-American” over “Western”, and there are many reasons not to use it. Everything that’s wrong with “Western” as a term is even more wrong with “Euro-American”. I hope that someone will eventually come up with a brilliant alternative term that is actually superior to “Western”, and then I will be happy to embrace that. But the worthless “Euro-American” sure isn’t it. Let us banish “Euro-American” from our philosophical vocabularies. It should never have been there.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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