Monday, September 19, 2016

What's in a name?


During the past several months, there's been some attention online to the question of what counts as "philosophy" in Anglophone academic departments. Below is an overview of the conversation, followed by just a small observation.

First, Jay Garfield and Brian Van Norden say, "If Philosophy Won't Diversify, Let's Call it What it Really Is." Their conclusion is that "any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself “Department of European and American Philosophy.”

Brian Leiter replies that philosophers in Anglophone departments are united by a certain style not by geographical focus (apparently unaware of the existence of the analytic Indian philosophical style). Jonardon Ganeri comments on this post--and is ignored by everyone there--that
It has been well known for several decades that much philosophy written in Sanskrit is highly analytical in style (one need only consult B. K. Matilal's *The Doctrine of Negation in Navya-Nyāya* to see this). So the argument from style itself favours a diversification of the curriculum and the canon.
Lots of other conversation ensues at Daily Nous. Remarks like

It is an observable fact, moreover, that the argumentation in non-Western (and Continental) philosophy is more enthymematic. (Not always, but typically.) Moreover, enthymemes are normally poorer quality arguments.
So normally, non-Western philosophy comes out as poorer in quality.
And poorer quality philosophy deserves less attention in the philosophy curriculum.
 and
I am very ignorant of non-Western philosophical traditions and perhaps this post will only expose my ignorance. Perhaps someone who knows non-Western traditions better will comment on my post. However, I am under the impression that the best arguments are generally to be found in Western philosophy. When I last read Confucius, just to take an example, I don’t recall finding any arguments at all. That doesn’t make Confucius unworthy of study, but it does make him a lot less philosophically (as opposed to anthropologically) interesting to me.
Amy Oldberding replies to this latter comment:
If Confucius seems opaque, I encourage you to read the sizable secondary literature or introduction-style texts that address him. But he is, perhaps perversely, the least compelling example for making a case that argument is absent from early China – authorship of works commonly identified as “by Confucius” is not simple so I’m not even sure what “reading Confucius” may mean here. More to the point, there’s just no credible case to be made that, e.g., Xunzi, Mengzi, or Zhuangzi have no arguments. Part of the problem here is that people know so very little about Chinese philosophy that they don’t even know where to look when looking to discount it. Sorry to sound cranky but the fact that conversations about these issues immediately devolve into discussions of whether there’s any THERE there – any philosophy IN the rest of the world – is part of the problem. Armchair speculation about this among those who have almost no exposure to any of it is really of limited utility and I share Jay’s and Bryan’s reluctance to accept that we need to demonstrate (again and again) that there is a THERE there.
Elsewhere, John Drabinski argues that Garfield and Van Norden didn't go far enough, neglecting race and ethnicity, and not being decolonizing enough:
My point is that if we’re to think more broadly about philosophy, diversity talk only gets us so far. The gaze needs to stop being so “neutral.” It needs to be deeply critical and decolonizing, not because I have an agenda, but because that’s the nature of texts and authors and ideas.
And now, just a few days ago, Nicholas Tampio has recently argued that we should think even more narrowly, in "Not All Things Wise and Good are Philosophy." His thesis is that
Philosophy originates in Plato’s Republic. It is a restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue. It takes place among ordinary human beings in cities, not sages and disciples on mountaintops, and it requires the fearless use of reason even in the face of established traditions or religious commitments.
A number of philosophers have responded, pointing out the problems with Tampio's reasoning, such as Amy Olberding (in two places), Ethan Mills, and Brian Van Norden (via Twitter). Not only do they point out that Greek philosophy (pre-Plato and, indeed, much after Plato) wouldn't on this view count as philosophy, and that Indian and Chinese philosophy is philosophy, but they diagnose some more general problems:
Articles in this style work on a confused logic of purportedly neutral disciplinary definition. They pose as trying to define what philosophy does, as if it is but one among many academic disciplines, and express a happy pluralism about the need for many different disciplines. If that were all they do, perhaps they’d be less obnoxious. But along the way, in describing what philosophy is, they assign it exclusive rights to a host of generally desirable and admiration-worthy qualities. (Amy Olberding)
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 irreligious champions of reason today take as their hero a man who heard voices and repeatedly claimed to be on a mission from a god. ... 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. (Ethan Mills)
I am not sure what to say about the rectification of names, and whether we should call philosophy departments "Western Philosophy", nor do I know precisely what to do with the long and difficult history of colonization and its impact on academic philosophy. However, looking at this conversation stretching out over a few months, I do think it's clear that a lot of people sympathetic to a more exclusionary take simply have their facts wrong. They make sweeping claims about style, content, motivation, argument form, and these are not backed up with evidence from primary texts. What to do with these facts is another matter, but we should at least get the most basic facts correct in the first place. Of course, I imagine that would be easier if more not non-Eastern philosophy were taught in the schools.

Edited to add: here's another egregious factual error, coupled with overgeneralization, from Amy Olberding's thread at Feminist Philosophers. This is from someone who claims to be a historian and has taught non-Western history! which makes it even more frustrating:
I’d like to offer my thoughts as someone trained in both philosophy and history. I’ve taught many courses in both fields (for philosophy: logic, ethics, etc.; for history: world history, world cultures, etc.), and I’ve taught more general humanities courses (world literature, cultural diversity, art history, and so on).... From someone who has taught world history (both Western and non-Western) for a while now, there is one distinguishing characteristic that I believe separates philosophers from other important historical thinkers. That characteristic, also mentioned by Tampio, is the focus on logical reasoning over mythological thinking. For most of ancient history around the globe, even the most important figures were still saturated in a world where mythological thought explained all and determined all.  (italics mine) (Philosophy & History Prof at September 20, 2016 at 12:46 am)
The implication is then that Western thought, starting with the Greeks, is logical and free of the "mythological" in a way that ancient Chinese or Indian thought is not. I hope my readers can spot the problems with this claim.