Can (Buddhist) philosophy matter?

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 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.

2 thoughts on “Can (Buddhist) philosophy matter?

  1. I don’t know that you’re interested in further discussion of this question, but I’d like to offer an alternative approach.

    The core of this disagreement seems to me to depend on an assumption that neither side wants to address directly. That is, neither can conclusively refute the other without bringing up the problematic underlying issue that both sides want to keep buried.

    This is the question of the the nature and function of philosophy as a social practice. Specifically, is it meant to produce ideology, or is it meant to critique ideological assumptions and so remove obstacles to the production of better, more correct, concepts? Clearly, in its history, it has done both. There can be little doubt that Locke produced nothing more than a clear and explicit statement of nascent capitalist ideologies (of the subject, mind, language, politics, etc.). On the other hand, the goal of Hegel’s philosophy is to produce critical awareness of our everyday “common sense” assumptions (even if he clearly fails to notice some of his own). Philosophy as a social practice in Europe and the U.S. has always struggled with trying to serve both of these functions to some extent.

    To discuss philosophy only in terms of “discourse,” then, is to collapse this essential distinction between ideology and what we might call science. Then, we are left with the assumption that discourses “impose certain ways of thinking,” suggesting that they limit, distort, constrain and manipulate people. This ignores the important function of discourse to enable certain ways of thinking, in order to successfully serve a purpose. (This subtle shift of focus is probably the dominant sophistical strategy in our culture today, working always to avoid real solutions to real problems that might be economically or politically troubling).

    For instance, it is certainly true that medical discourse constrains thought in that it rules out as unacceptable supernatural or moral explanations of diseases. The result is that it has become possible to prevent and cure diseases that otherwise would still be killing many millions of people. The constraints of a discourse are meant to enable more productive thought–at least some of the time.

    If we consider why we ought to include non-Western thought in the discipline of philosophy, we might first want to consider whether the goal is to produce ideology, or to enable more productive critique of ideology. For many philosophers, the goal of philosophy is to remove ideological blockages that are prevent clarity of thought and solutions to real problems. This might be facilitated by bringing in thinkers from other traditions, who don’t share our ideological blind spots. On the other hand, all too often new texts and thinkers are imported at exactly the point at which philosophy threatens to demystify our ideologies, importing unfamiliar ideologies and claiming they have transcendent and non-ideological status.

    It is clear enough, I imagine, that Confucianism is an ideology, and not at all and attempt to remove ideological concepts that impede critical thought. It may be worth studying, as Lockean empiricism is, for its ideological power, but it is not productive to consider it a philosophy. At least, not if one accepts the idea of philosophy as the attempt to remove ideological blind spots.

    Some philosophers would argue that anything that cannot be translated is not philosophy, but ideology. If Heidegger can’t be fully understood outside of the German language and culture, this is because he is largely producing ideology, and not doing philosophy in this limited sense. In this sense, we don’t need to bring in other traditions, because the if the goal of philosophy is to remove our own conceptual blockages, caused by our own culture and ideology, then importing new blockages and blindspots from other cultures is not important. To use an analogy, if we want to eliminate the superstitious belief that disease is caused by demonic possession, it is not helpful to bring in some other culture’s belief that disease is caused by an imbalance of humours, since this is just another ideological blockage.

    The argument against making philosophy more culturally diverse, then, is that the real goal in doing so is to make it into a discourse functioning to produce global capitalist postmodern ideology: all cultures are equally valued, there is never a correct answer to anything, there is not truth, only opinions that must not be argued for or against, etc.

    As I said at the beginning, neither side in the debate seems to want to make the real stakes in the game explicit. And this is partly because philosophy does still, to some extent, function to produce ideology, and wants to avoid calling attention to its role in reproducing capitalist ideology. In the end, it probably won’t much matter. In the last three universities I taught at, one had no philosophy department, one eliminated the requirement that students take philosophy in order to cut down its philosophy department, and one limits philosophy to courses in business or medical ethics. It’s a dying discipline. Those who want to import some idea from other cultures are just hoping to resuscitate it by making it a more thoroughly ideological discipline, like psychology or Literature. I’ll be shocked if they succeed.

    Sorry for the long and rambling comment

    • Dear Tom,
      No apologies necessary, your perspective is always welcome, though at times other pressures may impede as full a discussion as they and the topic more generally deserve.
      First. perhaps I should be more clear in saying that I think the expansion of the field of academic philosophy would be a good thing, but that I’m not hopeful that the project of doing so would actually engage the basic structures of philosophy—but rather that those will be imposed on the fragmented pieces that are taken up for consideration.
      Engaging the basic structures of philosophy would require looking at alternative systems of thought in their entirety, on their own terms. It seems to me that much of what passes as “comparative philosophy” winds up taking bits and pieces out of an alternative system and attempting to fit them into the existing structures. I’m thinking here for example of the treatment of Yogacara as idealism, which at least now a century and a half on is a topic of debate, but since it is now a debate over whether it is or isn’t, or in what way or not, the debate is one still structured by Hume & Co.
      Certainly a shift of perspective to ideologies and their critique is a beneficial one. Having spent 15+ years teaching logic, my tendency is to go to analyzing the dynamics of the discourse. I would hope that that approach at least complements one of critiquing ideology, or even perhaps providing a tool for that critique.
      Sometimes one sees a comparative philosophical project justified by the claim that it will improve philosophy, which sounds a lot like an intellectual colonialism. And then I wonder, what is the point of that? Providing more clever answers to the existing “problems”?
      Drawing a distinction between philosophy and the academic field of philosophy, it seems to me that the former may encourage a critical attitude toward ideology, while a critical attitude is an almost incidental effect of the latter.
      again, thank you, and apologies for the sketchy and somewhat disjointed nature of this…

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