Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Garfield/van Norden: If Philosophy Won't Diversify Let's Call It What It Really Is

   I have some inclination to disagree, but largely just because I think it's a more complicated problem than these guys make it out to be.
   It's imperative that philosophy not be blinkered by tradition. OTOH, there are reasons to think that philosophy--or "Western philosophy" if you like--is kind of its own thing. The very fact that the authors hold Lame Deer up as an example of someone who ought to be prominent in the canon is telling. Lame Deer is more of a religious figure or cultural critic or something. There's nothing wrong with that...but it's obvious that that can reasonably be classified as a different kind of project than what goes on in, say, The Critique of Pure Reason. There ought to be better examples than that. Furthermore, Taoism and Buddhism are typically studied and taught in religion departments. That's the way that experts who weren't obsessing about "diversity" naturally classified them. It doesn't mean that it's the correct classification...but it's something. Those topics do get taught, but philosophers--Western ones--have not typically been all that interested in them. That's not necessarily a sign of bias. It might just as well be a sign that the projects are different.
   Just about a week ago I asked a relevant colleague of mine for some guidance about how to start learning a bit more about Eastern philosophy in general...and I hope I have a bit of time this summer to make a little progress on that front. So maybe I'll have a better perspective on this at some point.
   Finally, are women "under-represented" in philosophy? Probably...but that, too, is a somewhat complicated question. There are significantly fewer women than men; no one can dispute that. But this may very well be because fewer women are interested in philosophy. Philosophy has some similarity to math, and fewer women are interested in graduate study in math. In fact, as for the percentage of women earning doctorates, we're about even with econ and math. I don't want to dismiss the concern...but there's a (largely feminist) cottage industry in philosophy that tries to make then out to be a discrimination problem, whereas it's just not clear what's going on.


Blogger The Mystic said...

Yeah... unfortunately, I'm afraid the conversation that needs to happen in this domain will not find a particularly hospitable environment in today's academia, brimming, as it is, with neo-PC opposition to obvious facts.

That aside, I agree with your observation that "Western philosophy" is generally distinct from "Eastern philosophy" in very substantive ways. The Critique of Pure Reason is an excellent emblem of Western philosophy; extremely systematic, dedicated to arriving at an extremely clear and well-defined conclusion through a rigorous and exhaustive formulation of the relevant ideas and their relationships. The Analects of Confucius, on the other hand, is quite emblematic of what might be considered "Eastern philosophy"; not systematic AT ALL (in fact, it's just a series of utterly disjointed assertions, not even organized topically in the text) and often more similar to theology than philosophy in that the material almost always brings with it implicit theoretical assumptions which are not subjected to scrutiny.

I wrote a bunch about this, and then deleted it all because I realized a better way to make a brief but hopefully important point about this matter (which is quite difficult) is to say this (and I have to split it into two comments given the character limit):

11:41 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

The word "philosopher" really seems to me to hit the nail on the head when it is used to describe "Western philosophy." Above all, from the pre-Socratics until now, Western philosophers have been after one thing, and that is knowledge. Apprehending the truth of any matter is the pursuit of Western philosophy, and this love for knowledge is built right into its name.

The phrase "Eastern philosophy" seems to me to be most often a rather inappropriate use of the term "philosophy," for the prominent figures (e.g. Confucius) in the cultures to which that "Eastern" designation largely refers (e.g. China) are quite obviously not above-all lovers of knowledge. Plato and Confucius agreed on much, but that they both had knowledge and that they both developed knowledge should not be confused with the assertion that they both held such activities in the same esteem.

To the West, knowledge is considered the ultimate end of the project of which we are speaking. To someone like Confucius, knowledge is very much a means to an end, and that end is living rightly. Perhaps we should call them "philodeons" rather than "philosophers", for what they truly love is the Way of Righteousness, and it is this after which they establish their projects. Does such a project intersect with those of Western philosophy? Absolutely; how could it not? In fact, many Western "philosophers" themselves fall into this category, holding virtue above knowledge. As with any generalization, there will be exceptions, but I do think this is an important cultural difference and good reason to categorize the relevant projects distinctly.

Structurally, the Analects of Confucius is a series of topically-disjointed, pithy, often-cryptic proverbs. It is much more similar to the Proverbs of the Bible than to the Socratic Dialogues. Again, the Chuang-Tzu is a series of dramatically distinct stories, often wild and mystical, and though there is surely a theme underlying them all (which has been the subject of many an important discussion for millennia), it is not the systematic inquiry after truth with which the West has been so long enamored.

We need not suggest that the "Eastern philosophers" (though, again, philodeons or something like that is a good way of identifying the primary issue up-front, if you ask me) are inferior to the Western philosophers because of this difference. It is truly important and in one's best interest not to ignore or consider their works unworthy of scrutiny or understanding; they have changed my life for the better in immense and unexpected ways. However, we need not shove them into the category of "philosophy" in order to grant them this well-deserved recognition. Even categorizing the thought of someone like Confucius as "religious" can be somewhat misleading (but, if you ask me, that's because we have a shitty understanding of the term "religion"; I myself would classify it very similarly to perhaps "philodeony", but I'm just a nobody).

So, basically, I agree that they are largely separate projects. There are surely Eastern philosophers out there, but I would stand by the estimation that the general categorization of important Eastern leaders in thought as philodeons rather than philosophers is superior and indicative of the main division between the projects, if you ask me.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks man--extremely interesting/helpful.

6:01 PM  

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