In his recent Hippo Reads essay describing why he left academic philosophy, Eugene Park makes two important claims. First, he says most Anglo-American philosophy departments, especially those often considered the best, do not engage with non-Western philosophical traditions. Second, he says this is because “professional philosophers today often perceive non-Western thinkers as inferior.”

The first claim – that most Anglo-American philosophy departments don’t engage with non-Western philosophy – cannot be denied. It can be verified just by looking at the courses offered in most Anglo-American philosophy departments.

However, in a response to Park’s essay, Brian Leiter, a prominent philosopher at the University of Chicago and the embattled editor of an influential ranking of Anglo-American philosophy departments (whose resignation has been the subject of a recent petition), denies Park’s second claim. Leiter suggests the reason most departments don’t engage with non-Western philosophy is nothing as nefarious as their perceiving non-Western traditions as inferior. Rather, it is a matter of ignorance. Leiter writes: “My own impression, from having talked to a lot more philosophers than Mr. Park and for a much longer period of time, is that most Anglophone philosophers have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it.”

I think it’s true that most Anglo-American philosophers do not consciously think Western philosophy is superior to non-Western philosophy. In my sixteen years in academic philosophy in America (from being a student to a professor), I never once heard a professor or colleague belittle non-Western philosophy.

But I also rarely heard a professor or colleague raise the topic of how non-Western philosophical traditions can be more integrated into the philosophy curriculum, which is almost entirely centered on Western philosophy. When, after much hesitation, I would raise the topic once in a while, what I heard was a version of Leiter’s response to Park: “Sorry, but we just don’t know much about non-Western philosophy.”

Of course, this response is biographically accurate. Most Anglo-American philosophers don’t know much about non-Western philosophy. Unsurprisingly, they know only what they were taught. And since what they were taught is Western philosophy, that is what they know. And so that is what they teach. No mystery there.

But can we conclude from this admission of ignorance that Anglo-American philosophy aims to speak only as a continuation of the Western tradition of philosophy? That, since it is focused only on one historical tradition, it does not aim to capture universal philosophical truths, but only expresses how people in Western cultures think philosophically? That, in front of every conclusion drawn by an Anglo-American philosopher, there should be the qualifier “according to how we think in Western philosophy…?”

This would be absurd. When one wonders, for example, if the 17th century French philosopher Descartes was right about his theory that the mind and the body are completely separate entities, the issue isn’t what one should think within Western categories of the mind. That would treat philosophy as trapping us within the contingent features of our cultural situation. The power of philosophy is that, by raising abstract questions about human beings, it generates inquiry to which any person can contribute, irrespective of their local, contingent situation. Universality is intrinsic to philosophy, and most philosophy classes in the Anglo-American tradition are taught with this aim of universality firmly in mind.

How can ignorance of non-Western philosophy be compatible with this universal impulse of philosophy? How can Anglo-American philosophers claim to seek universal philosophical truths and concede that they are only aware of the Western philosophical tradition?

Leiter reads Park as if Park were merely a disgruntled Asian-American trying to get more of “his people” into the curriculum. According to Leiter, instead of participating in the cosmopolitan dialogue, Park is fixated on his local tradition.

But it is, in fact, Park who stands for a cosmopolitan worldview. Park is not speaking simply as an Asian-American. He is asking: If philosophy departments teach only Western philosophy, in what sense can they be, as Leiter says they are, “guardians” of the cosmopolitan ideal?

If most Anglo-American philosophers have “no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it,” then in what sense can they speak about philosophy itself, rather than just about Western philosophy?

These questions should concern not just minorities, but any person who values cosmopolitan ideals. A person who wants to understand, say, the nature of free will cannot be content with ignorance of alternate traditions. What if alternate traditions have developed a better understanding of the nature of free will – or at the very least, an equally compelling alternate understanding?

It is not about minorities trying to get “their people” into Anglo-American philosophy. Rather, it is about creating a truly cosmopolitan dialogue in which no philosophical tradition is overlooked. An Anglo-American philosopher should be as worried about not knowing Confucius as he or she would be about not knowing Plato.

So why are most Anglo-American philosophers content to just continue the debates they inherited from their teachers, who inherited them from their teachers, and so on? Park articulated the urgent need to bring Western and non-Western philosophers into dialogue. Where is the urgency to do that on the part of most Anglo-American philosophers, not for the sake of minorities, but for the sake of their own growth as philosophers and world citizens?

At this point, implicit assumptions of superiority begin to surface. The reason why most Anglo-American philosophers don’t worry about learning non-Western philosophy is that they assume cosmopolitanism is an ideal developed by Western philosophy. This assumption can create an amazing amount of institutional inertia. Western philosophers assume that the tradition of Plato and Spinoza and Russell just is the cosmopolitan tradition, and that it is up to non-Western traditions to join in with the Enlightenment. In this sense, there’s an assumption of inequality between Western and non-Western philosophical traditions: Western philosophy is not really Western because it is actually universal, and non-Western philosophy is really only a local tradition that should merge with Western philosophy.

Even as Leiter denies that Anglo-American philosophers have any sense of superiority, he gives a clear expression of this inequality. Warning against giving in to “the consumer demands of minorities,” Leiter writes, “the cosmopolitan impulse, which was central to the Enlightenment… should not be given up lightly, especially not by philosophers.”

This is a striking statement. In the name of cosmopolitanism, Leiter is actually defending his local tradition, and excusing himself and fellow Anglo-American philosophers from the changes required to become cosmopolitan thinkers. According to Leiter, minorities should go beyond their traditions and engage with Western philosophy, but the only thing Western philosophers have to do is to continue on with the internal momentum of Western philosophy. In fact, they must guard it from being corrupted by the “consumer demands” of minorities.

However, cosmopolitanism doesn’t belong to any one tradition. It is about different traditions coming together in order to create an increasingly universal understanding of human life. This ideal is central not only to Western philosophy, but to other traditions as well. In this sense, all philosophical traditions carry within them the seeds of their own transformation. To excuse oneself from this impetus to change – and to do so in the name of cosmopolitanism – is to excuse oneself from the challenges of philosophy itself.

It is understandable that Descartes and Kant in the 17th and 18th centuries did not engage with non-Western philosophy; after all, they wrote within a culture of colonialism. But what is the excuse for contemporary Anglo-American philosophers? Especially now that advances in civil rights, immigration, and technology have made our society more open than ever? Enlightenment philosophers stood ahead of their culture, prodding their contemporaries to look beyond their local traditions to a global world. Contemporary Anglo-American philosophers, however, are lagging behind their culture, even as our global society hungers for new ideas.

Anglo-American philosophy frequently trumpets the values of cosmopolitanism. But as long as it identifies mainly as a Western tradition and remains ignorant of other traditions, it will fail to live up to those values and will be unable to address the philosophical needs of our time.

Further Reads:

Image credit:  Seth Anderson via flickr

  • Murf Mensch

    Philosophers have the means to fix their ignorance. I have been to the APA. Scholars will not experience any pain by visiting a session on philosophy from Africa, Asia, or Latin America. There are also many sessions that focus on responses to widely-read Western authors, And there just aren’t many philosophers there.

    Journals and conferences could issue CFP’s that ask for responses to particular Euro or Amer figure or tradition.

    The University of Hawaii organizes quite a bit of such work but they aren’t part of the problem described here.

    The problem here is that ignorance and lack of effort do not affect academic reputations at the moment. They don’t seem to rattle the highly ranked departments.

  • Alex Scott

    I think that the problem may also be framed in terms of a lack of scholarship on the part of Western academic philosophers who feel no need to broaden their horizons with respect to areas outside their own particular fields of expertise. The ignorance of many Western academic philosophers with regard to the teachings of Eastern philosophy is a matter of poor scholarship. It is also a matter of institutionalizing disciplines of the Western tradition considered to be “mainstream,” and marginalizing disciplines considered to be outside the mainstream. The mainstream is, of course, whatever white male Western academic philosophers decide should be institutionalized.
    The cosmopolitan ideal needs to be more widely promoted within academic philosophy.
    There are, of course, philosophers who are good scholars in terms of having a broad range of philosophical commitments. An example is Martha Nussbaum, a highly respected philosopher, writer, social thinker, and scholar of ancient and modern philosophy, who is interested in both Eastern and Western philosophical and social concerns, and who is committed to a wide range of philosophical disciplines, including ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, feminist philosophy, and other disciplines, But such scholars constitute a minority within academic philosophy.

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  • CK Dexter

    “There’s an assumption of inequality between Western and non-Western philosophical traditions: Western philosophy is not really Western because it is actually universal, and non-Western philosophy is really only a local tradition that should merge with Western philosophy.”

    This is exactly right, and it’s refreshing that someone who realizes the assumption is false still sees that this is the real point of debate. Many of Park’s supporters and Leiter’s critics too quickly assumed that the issue was one of simple prejudice, a moral disagreement. But there is a substantial philosophical disagreement: those who take Leiters view believe that for the most part (allowing for exceptions) western philosophy has consciously and carefully striven for a cosmopolitanism of both content and form, with its arguments about reason and method as the heart of that effort. That’s true to a substantial degree. However, they falsely assume that in non-western philosophy that has not also been the case, instead assuming that even where there is careful thought and debate about method, it is secondary to core doctrines that are matters of religious and cultural tradition. That’s false to a substantial degree.

    And of course, to the degree that it’s true, the reverse is also true. It would be absurd to think that the explicitly and implicitly theological doctrines of medieval and early modern western philosophers aren’t matters of cultural tradition first, and philosophical commitment second.

    In any case, I hope readers of this article see that its strengths lie in its refusal to object to a straw man version of the defenders of homogenous philosophy. The defenders are misguided about a point of real philosophical disagreement, not just expressing prejudice.

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  • josephzizys

    wonderful article, thank you. I agree with it’s sentiment wholeheartedly.

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  • Gautam

    Nice post. I agree that Leiter’s response shows unjustified satisfaction with the status quo, and it is also very patronizing. But there is an interesting issue embedded in it: should non-Western (say, Chinese) philosophical ideas be introduced and discussed qua Chinese philosophy, or can they be introduced and discussed simply as ideas (with Western labels)?

    For example — one could discuss Confucian ideas of virtue as explicitly Chinese by situating them in Chinese history and intellectual traditions. Alternatively, one might have a label, e.g., “Exemplary Virtue”, and discuss Confucius as merely one exponent of Exemplary Virtue-ism. But I suspect the latter approach would quickly run aground — after all, how can one reasonably talk about Confucian ideas without discussing the context in which they were created? I think this is what Leiter is really resisting. He wants his philosophy to be nice and abstract (with a sheen of generality) and staying within the Western tradition makes this all seem possible, because there is so much that can be taken for granted. Serious engagement with non-Western ideas means serious engagement with the messy and contingent forms of life in which those ideas were produced. But my impression is that academic philosophers don’t want to play this messy, muddy game – they want to play a comfortable game of chess by the fireplace (i.e., to think that they can merely discuss ideas without discussing people and social traditions and institutions).

    Apropos: Native speakers of a particular dialect of a language often think that they don’t have an accent — “Accent” is something that other (non-native) speakers have (whereas, they, the native speakers, exchange pure unsullied semantic information) .