Philosophy’s Western Bias

By Justin E. H. Smith

There is much talk in academic philosophy about the need to open up the discipline to so-called non-Western traditions and perspectives, both through changes to the curriculum and also within the demographics of philosophy departments themselves. These two aspects are seen as connected: it is thought that greater representation of non-Western philosophy will help to bring about greater diversity among the women and men who make up the philosophical community.

When I teach classical Indian philosophy, or advocate teaching it, for example, I often hear in response that doing so provides a service to the university community, and to the student body, insofar as it enhances the diversity of the philosophy curriculum, and makes the curriculum representative of a wider portion of the student body. But what I’m teaching are topics such as 5th-century Indian theories of logical inference, or the concept of qualitative atomism in classical Buddhism: material that is sufficiently obscure that no student, of any background, should be expected at the outset to recognize him or herself in it.

The goal of reflecting the diversity of our own society by expanding the curriculum to include non-European traditions has so far been a tremendous failure. And it has failed for at least two reasons. One is that non-Western philosophy is typically represented in philosophy curricula in a merely token way. Western philosophy is always the unmarked category, the standard in relation to which non-Western philosophy provides a useful contrast. Non-Western philosophy is not approached on its own terms, and thus philosophy remains, implicitly and by default, Western. Second, non-Western philosophy, when it does appear in curricula, is treated in a methodologically and philosophically unsound way: it is crudely supposed to be wholly indigenous to the cultures that produce it and to be fundamentally different than Western philosophy in areas like its valuation of reason or its dependence on myth and religion. In this way, non-Western philosophy remains fundamentally “other.”

One good way to begin to correct this problem would be to stop describing it as “non-Western,” but instead to be explicit about which geographical region, or which tradition, we are discussing: Kashmir Shaivism, for example, or Chinese Mohist logic, just as we would speak of German Aristotelian Scholasticism or American Pragmatism, without, ordinarily, bothering to specify that these are both “Western.”’ Imagine, for comparison, the righteous vigor with which we would condemn the academic subfield of agricultural history if 95 percent of all the research in this field were devoted to irrigation techniques in Southeast Asia, while the remaining 5 percent was required to package itself as the study of “non-Southeast Asian irrigation techniques.” This sounds absurd, and it is, but it really is no more so than when the small minority of scholars who work on say, Indian or Chinese philosophy, are obligated to present their research as having something to do with “non-Western philosophy” for the simple reason that it does not come from Northwest Eurasia.

An alternative approach to the history of philosophy — one that takes the aim of opening up the discipline seriously — would treat both Western and non-Western philosophy as the regional inflections of a global phenomenon.

When we say “West” we mean, ordinarily, Europe, along with its recent extension into North America. Europe is, literally, a peninsula of Eurasia, comparable roughly in size, cultural diversity and civilizational antiquity to the Indian subcontinent. Certain significant things happened first in Europe rather than elsewhere, such as industrialization; other important things first appeared outside of Europe, such as movable type. Now it is of course very difficult to define “philosophy,” but if we think of it broadly as systematic reflection on the nature of reality and on humanity’s place in that reality, then it is clear that Europe can make no special claim to be the home of philosophy.

What Europe does claim is a certain tradition reaching back to Greek antiquity. But even that claim is in question. The “Greek miracle” is in the end only a historiographical artifact, a result of our habit of beginning our histories when and where we do, for there was always influence from neighboring civilizations. But whatever the complexities of the world in which Plato wrote, it is at least true that the subsequent tradition that would come to be called “Western” or “European” — with of course a long detour through Islamic Spain, North Africa, Persia and Central Asia, without which the Greek tradition would surely have died out — really does constitute, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, a “series of footnotes to Plato.” Seen from this perspective, the only reason to take European philosophy as the default tradition for our curricula is that it just happens to be, for contingent historical reasons, our tradition.

But nearly every subject taught in Western universities developed in large part out of the Western intellectual tradition, yet this legacy has not prevented any discipline other than philosophy from aspiring to an objective, global and, I dare say, scientific perspective on its object of study, free of the idea that the European instance of it is something special in the history of humanity.

Now, a large part of the difficulty of thinking of Western philosophy as one tradition among others has to do with the fact that many if not most of its practitioners reject the idea that what they do is essentially bound to the discipline’s past. Philosophy is conceived on the model of the sciences, which are indeed free to ignore disproven theories from long ago, and thus to ignore not just, say, ancient China, but early modern Europe as well. In this respect the history of ancient Chinese philosophy is doubly peripheral, not just because of Eurocentrism, but also because of presentism, a lack of interest in history in general. This stems from the fact that philosophy, modeling itself after the sciences, believes it is closer to the truth than it was in the past, and that if a theory is not true there is little reason to spend much time on it.

I will not argue against this view of philosophy here. But I will point out that it does make the current situation of philosophy, when considered from a global perspective, fairly difficult to comprehend. Chinese and American polymer researchers speak exactly the same language when they are doing their job, and there was never any danger that A. Q. Khan’s development of Pakistan’s nuclear program would be slowed down by cultural differences in the understanding of uranium enrichment. With philosophy, however, it is plainly a different story.

In the developing world in particular, the version of philosophy put forward — be it French or Anglo-American in character, or entirely home-grown — has very much to do with the country’s broader project of national identity construction. In Iran, Islamic philosophy is given priority; in Turkey, at least until recently, there was scarcely any mention of local or regional traditions in the university philosophy curriculum, but only a fervent devotion to a vision of philosophy principally concerned with analysis of the language and methodology of science. Now one can’t say — or at least I’m not prepared to say — that Iran is doing things wrong, as one might if they were to teach medieval Islamic alchemy in their chemistry departments. The difference is that philosophy is simply not like science; it is much more intricately wrapped up in cultural legacies (some have argued that science is just another cultural practice too, but I’m not prepared to say that either). Much of the difficulty of taking a rigorous and serious approach to the teaching and study of non-Western philosophy in Western philosophy departments is that many philosophers remain attached to the article of faith that philosophy is something independent of culture.

G. W. Leibniz, writing in the early 18th century on the future course of Sino-European relations, suggested evocatively that “the commerce of light,” which is to say of illumination, or knowledge, always piggy-backs on the commerce of goods. Indeed, the past 2000 years reveal a fairly close correspondence between the global centers of economic activity and the centers of intellectual production. Most tellingly, Europe becomes the principle locus of philosophical and scientific activity only when it comes to dominate the global economy through the conquest of the New World and the consequent shifting of the economic center of the world from Asia to Europe.

It is no secret that the center is shifting once again, this time toward the Pacific. A bit of historical perspective makes it easy to see that this shift will have consequences for our understanding of what philosophy is, and of who gets to define the set of questions with which it is concerned.

The West has an extremely rich philosophical tradition — one of the two or three richest, in fact — and it is eminently worthy of preservation and transmission to future generations. But its richness has always been a result of its place as a node in a global network through which ideas and things are always flowing. This was true in 500 B.C. and is no less true today. Increasingly, moreover, this interconnectedness is something that is not only of interest to the antiquarian trivia collector who can’t wait to tell you where the printing press really comes from. It is fast becoming the defining fact about our geopolitcal reality. In this reality, Western academic philosophy will likely come to appear utterly parochial in the coming years if it does not find a way to approach non-Western traditions that is much more rigorous and respectful than the tokenism that reigns at present.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times’ Opinionator.


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7 Responses to Philosophy’s Western Bias

  1. Very difficult to read this kind verbage, which although very high-sounding, actually goes nowhere. Another intellectual, intoxicated with his ability to string words together.

    Bhaktivedanta Swami used to say, religion without philosophy is sentiment and philosophy without religion is simply mental speculation.

    There is one video of Srila Prabhupada talking with a collection of professors of religion in L.A. He asks the professors that since they are looking for God, now that he can give them God, why don’t they take it. Silence……… They are not really looking. They simply like to play with ideas, and posture as “thinkers”.

    One sentence I liked, however:

    “Now it is of course very difficult to define “philosophy,” but if we think of it broadly as systematic reflection on the nature of reality and on humanity’s place in that reality, ……”.

    Well this is something that vaishnavism has. It is full. It is tasty. It is refreshing. It is encouraging. It is practical. it provides a sense of direction.

    The question is, are these people serious? The test is, do they take it up, or are they simply satisfied sifting through ideas and considering themselves to be intellectuals. If they don’t investigate the claims of vaishnav philosophy, scientifically, through hypothesis, procedure and conclusion, then they are only posing as philosophers.

    At the same time, the stance taken by a man like Smith could be a kind of door opening, whereby a course in vaishnavism, vedanta, etc., could be introduced.

  2. Yes, this stance by Smith is a cue to us. With Swami Tripurari’s approval and leadership we should put together a course outline and present it to Justin Smith, along with a set of our Swami’s books.

    Babhru may be just the man to act as an ambassador as he has one foot in both camps.

    Course Titles:

    Vedantic Conceptions of God: Personal and Impersonal

    Bhagavad-gita: The Perfection of Yoga

    Etc.

    Who could carry the demeanor of “the professor” more beautifully than our Swami Tripurari? Armed with jnana and vijnana, and capable of speaking in both eastern and western conceptions.

    In this electronic age his lectures could be transmitted from any location to appear on a university wall-size monitor, or on the laptops of students. Not just at one university, but syndicated.

  3. It is my suggestion that Babhru contact Justin Smith on Swami Tripurari’s behalf, presenst him with Swami’s books and ask him if he will consider implementing an honorary Ph.D. for Swami in view of his vast learning, research, writings, on-going teachings, and practical application through the establishment of on-going communities.

    Then, armed with a Ph.D., Swami Tripurari can begin his on-campus career, while continuing to propagate Krishna Consciousness in other spheres.

    These are of course only ideas that come to my tiny mind, and nothing should go forward without first gaining our Swami’s consent and approval.

    If all these philosophy professors can beget Ph.D. status, how much more so is Swami Tripurari qualified in view of the fact that with no contemporary western credentials he has single-handedly conceived and developed three on-going communities wherein the principles of spiritual sustainabilty that he teaches are successfully implemented?

    This is not simply more armchair philosophy. Rather, it is philosophy with practical application which is an answer to the most pressing challenges of the contemporary global community. Therefore real thinkers of integrity must recognize the Swami’s on-going contribution, and are obligated to help bring his teachings to the forefront of the university curriculum.

    Armed with Swami’s books, CD’s. and DVD’s, an appropriate team should be configured, with the goal of placing these materials in university libraries, while remaining on the outlook for receptive professors who are attracted to these materials, with a view to installing Swami Tripurari into their ranks.

    I am very tiny and inconsequential, but somehow these ideas have come to mind.

  4. I actually found Professor Smith’s piece readable and useful. He’s suggesting an alternative to the narrow-mindedness that results from (or results in?) the marginalization of approaches to philosophy outside the Greek-influenced thought that dominates US and European universities. His writing is pretty clear, I think, if you consider that his audience is largely those interested in philosophy as taught in the academy. It seems to me simply too easy to overgeneralize and paint such persons with such a broad brush as we see early in Ishan’s first post. And we should acknowledge that some of those academics in Srila Prabhupada’s LA garden, and elsewhere, have over the decades given their support to efforts to help others understand the mercy of Lord Caitanya. So I’m less inclined to dismiss him as just another karmi blowhard who’s too full of himself. We may find it more helpful to find what spark of sympathy may show itself in this gentleman’s efforts and seek ways to fan it.

    That’s why I really want to highlight the wonderful suggestion in Ishan’s second post here. This shows the intelligence and kindness we appreciate so much in experienced practitioners. And we may note that there has been movement in that direction. I think we would do better to find out and forge whatever connections we can in the areas of education, media, etc., and make others fortunate by demonstrating Mahaprabhu’s mercy, than to simply tout our own good fortune. Thanks for the article, and thanks, Ishan, for your thought-provoking response.

    • Yes Babhru Prabhu,

      You are correct in pointing out my off-hand rejection of these persons, or of anyone else for that matter. It only demonstrates my lack of growth. As Srila Prabhupada used to say, we can’t tell a fool until he opens his mouth.

      Actually, Satsvarupa took up the placement of Srila Prabhupada’s books in university libraries around the country when His Divine Grace was still with us.

      But from my limited point of view, the writings of Tripurari Swami are presented more in the vernacular/style of westerner philosophers, and his words may indeed wet their appetite. If only one or two of these men/women became devotee initiates of our Swami, they might be moved to put all of their heartfelt energy into bringing Tripurari onboard in their departments, either in person, or by placing some of his writings as course materials.

      Srila Prabhupada always used to stress on the idea (as does Krishna in Bhagavad-gita) that if/when the leading citizens become Krishna conscious then great changes can come about in the society at large.

      It is encouraging to hear that you and others are already thinking along these lines and cultivating this kind of cross-fertilization. Thanks for your kind words.

  5. A good course of study for today’s philosophically minded students is,

    SUSTAINABILITY: WATERING THE ROOT

    Sustainability is not merely a question of scientific implementation with good intentions. We already have both of these and still sustainability has become an alarming concern.

    What has to be understood is that the deciding factor between which of our efforts becomes dysfunctional and which becomes functional, wholesome and beneficial, is the degree to which our intentions are to please God through our thoughts, words and deeds.

    Krishna says that He lives in everyone’s heart and that He supplies knowledge, rememberance and forgetfulness. Bhagawatam tells us that knowledge and detachment are by-products of pure devtional service. In this way one’s endeavors become most fruitful. And Srila Rupa Goswami points out that pure devotional service brings about all-auspiciousness. Therefore the key to sustainability is pure devotional service. This transcendental feedback loop, the yogic equation, has to be recognized and implemented. This functional relationship with the Creator by injecting the bhakti principle into every aspect of daily life is the highest technology, more efficacious than thousands of volumes of research and developement. Intelligent thinkers should be charmed and excited to put this hypothesis to the test.

  6. Thanks to Ishan das and Babhru for wonderful insights. I have been imagining a school of philosophy, sort of a mind cult, as an alternative gateway into the culture of Bhakti-yoga, just as yoga centers can offer a bridge to Gaudiya Vaisnava culture. The idea would be to attract the ‘dabblers’ or ‘synthesizers’ and this would be essentially a preaching strategy, prepping the mind for the infusion of a corresponding culture enveloped in Bhakti. So, I wholeheartedly support the spirit of Ishan das’ suggestions regarding elevating our Guru Maharaja’s stature in philosophical circles.

    I also agree with Babhru that Mr. Smith has a very reasonable approach to understanding where philosophy is failing today. After all, it is implying that Stephen Hawking’s statement about philosophy being dead actually derives from the success of the Power Elite’s strategy that involves the homogenization of regional cultures through the adoption and proliferation of a capitalist consumer-oriented global economic paradigm. When we take God out of the living then he cannot be in the thinking, or perhaps it is the other way around.

    This paraphrased quote of Srila Prabhupada is most interesting to me:

    Bhaktivedanta Swami used to say, religion without philosophy is sentiment and philosophy without religion is simply mental speculation.

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