In light of two recent essays, it is with great hesitation that I again venture to express my reservations. The first is Jay L Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden’s ironic yet optimistic editorial “If philosophy won’t diversify, let’s call it what it really is” (New York Times, 11 May 2016). Similarly, Jonardon Ganeri has made two papers available on academia.edu under the single title of “Why Philosophy must go Global: A Manifesto.” (In a similar vein 13.7 Cosmos & Culture/NPR’s Adam Frank picked up the topic with a post on “The Greatest Philosopher You’ve Never Heard Of,” which focuses on Dōgen.)
Focusing on Garfield and Van Norden, I entirely agree with the diagnosis that academic philosophy as it exists today is parochial. If you will forgive yet another anecdote, when I finished an MA in Philosophy (thesis on Heidegger and poetry), I was well aware that what I had been able to study (with the exception of one undergraduate class and one graduate seminar) had been narrowly constricted to Anglo-American and Continental philosophy. Indeed, the Continental dimension was itself unusual in philosophy departments in the United States in the 1970s. I was fortunate to be in a department that had three specialists in Phenomenology and Existentialism. It was, however, quite possible for a student to graduate from that program having only studied Anglo-American philosophy. I was very aware that I had had no opportunity to pursue Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese thought beyond those two classes offered under the rubric of a generalized “Asian Philosophy,” much less African, Russian, Latin American. The parochial character of academic philosophy is in my mind a matter of fact, rather than one of dispute.
As in many other cases, I think it is important to look at this situation in terms of discourse. “Discourse” has two closely related meanings. At the same time that it refers to a relatively coherent way of thinking and talking about a subject, it also refers to the intent to convince. Though operative with social force (denial, rejection, disapproval, dismissal, ignoring, expulsion from the group) rather than with societal violence (imprisonment, judicial and extrajudicial punishments and killings), such social force does work to create and enforce agreement, even without conscious recognition on the part of those informed by the discourse. It is in this fashion that the discourse becomes hegemonic.
(Aside: One aspect of the increasing professionalization of mindfulness meditation is that it can create a situation in which a specific discourse may be enforced through disbarring, i.e., someone who fails to adhere to the hegemonic discourse may lose their license, be denied the right to teach.)
In thinking about academic fields such as philosophy, it is important to understand them not only on their own terms, but as discursive entities. Part of the discourse of philosophy is a claim to universality. (Ganeri makes the postcolonial point that “the colonial use of reason represented itself as impartial, objective and universal but was in fact anything but,” first essay, p. 135.) In support of this self-representation of the field as universal, one encounters claims to the effect that “all people have philosophy,” to find such claims defended vehemently, and to have problematizing such claims be treated as an affront to the standards of polite liberal society—misinterpreted not as a critique of the discursive hegemony of philosophy but rather as an atavistic expression of a dehumanizing colonialist attitude portraying the other as inferior (and in colonial thought therefore rightly subject to domination). Under this discourse, which portrays philosophy as universal, to question whether a people have “philosophy” is tantamount to denying that they are human, in a fashion comparable to the dynamics of the status of religion as studied by Chidester (see his Savage Systems, and Empire of Religion).
Sometimes claims of universality, whether of philosophy, or religion, or metaphysics, employ a fallacy of equivocation. The dynamics of the fallacy are:
1st premise) identify certain questions as philosophic in nature
2nd premise) claim that everyone has such questions
∴ conclusion) claim that therefore everyone has philosophy.
The equivocation is that between a question that has been identified as philosophic in the first premise, and the academic field of philosophy. It is this equivocation that allows for hegemonic imposition of the discourse.
The discourse of philosophy, like other discourses, is structured by its own history, evident both in established concepts, categories and concerns, and in the way in which that history is selectively constructed. Why, for example, is Descartes’ Meditations taken as a work in philosophy, and not as a work in theology? I remember the introduction being dismissed as a sop to the religious authorities of the time, as if Descartes were duplicitous in his claims to be establishing a proof for the existence of God. What? Better a duplicitous modern than a theologian? In order to establish Descartes’ Meditations as the founding moment of modern philosophy, the religious function of the work is actively ignored. Yet, the very nature of his dualism is perhaps better understood not as metaphysics, but as theology.
By taking the concepts, categories and concerns of contemporary academic philosophy as simply given, the field imposes certain ways of thinking—ways that may well not be the same for that person who is struggling with some question. The imposition already happens in the first step when the question is identified as, interpreted as, represented as philosophic in nature. Whatever that question may be, it has already at that point been forced to fit into an existing structure of concepts, categories and concerns that are presumed to be universal—and the very act of fitting the question into that structure is taken as evidence of the universality of the structure.
Van Norden and Garfield, and Ganeri suggest that philosophy should be transformed so as to be more inclusive of traditions of thought outside the Euro-American. For my part, while in the abstract that is a desirable goal, given the hegemonic character of the discourse of philosophy I am far less sanguine that philosophy will change or even can be changed. I believe that even the very best intended efforts to expand the field will be almost unconsciously subverted so as to create tokens out of the thought of the other, as was the case with the two classes available to me in my own studies.
Consider the difference in academic status between the dominant categories of specialization within the field—metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and so on—and the specializations in non-Euro-American philosophy, such as Indian philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Japanese philosophy. As marked categories the latter are always going to be understood as derivative, and are held safely in place away from the dominant discourse by being forced into intellectual barrios—or what you outside California would call a ghetto. This compartmentalization of the field is effectively what Garfield and Van Norden, and Ganeri are pointing out as requiring change. However, in addition to marking as derivative and compartmentalizing, reframing provides another protective strategy for the existing structuring of the field. It is always easier to reframe the meaning of what the other is saying by interpreting it so as to fit into the pre-existing concepts, categories and concerns of academic philosophy than it is to change those concepts, categories and concerns—which after all, are already presumed to be universal and therefore not in need of change.