Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Why do philosophy departments pretend that Western philosophy is all there is?

Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden in The Stone, in the NYTimes:
The vast majority of philosophy departments in the United States offer courses only on philosophy derived from Europe and the English-speaking world. For example, of the 118 doctoral programs in philosophy in the United States and Canada, only 10 percent have a specialist in Chinese philosophy as part of their regular faculty. Most philosophy departments also offer no courses on Africana, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American, Native American or other non-European traditions. Indeed, of the top 50 philosophy doctoral programs in the English-speaking world, only 15 percent have any regular faculty members who teach any non-Western philosophy.

Given the importance of non-European traditions in both the history of world philosophy and in the contemporary world, and given the increasing numbers of students in our colleges and universities from non-European backgrounds, this is astonishing. No other humanities discipline demonstrates this systematic neglect of most of the civilizations in its domain. The present situation is hard to justify morally, politically, epistemically or as good educational and research training practice.
This is well known and the authors, along with others, have spent decades trying to get American philosophy departments to broaden their range, to little avail. There's a simple fix:
Instead, we ask those who sincerely believe that it does make sense to organize our discipline entirely around European and American figures and texts to pursue this agenda with honesty and openness. We therefore suggest that any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself “Department of European and American Philosophy.” This simple change would make the domain and mission of these departments clear, and would signal their true intellectual commitments to students and colleagues. We see no justification for resisting this minor rebranding (though we welcome opposing views in the comments section to this article), particularly for those who endorse, implicitly or explicitly, this Eurocentric orientation.
Alas, no one's buying it. Why not?


  1. That god had given European males a philosophical beard for ornamental purposes and to distinguish them from women is an older perspective. Earlier still the first anthropology was identifying nations of beard haters who had considerable antipathy to that most natural ensign of European manhood.

    "The beard-wearers dominant feature of mind
    Is animal pride, most repulsive in kind;
    Define if you can their boundless conceit
    Could they lengthen their ears, as the lengthen their
    (A cross twixt an ass and a grizzly bear,)

    Rhythmical Essays on the Beard question while attacking the symbol does so by suggesting it's a savage feature of foreign nations and a 'monkeyfied will'. Its not exactly moving forward simply using a popular idea to attack.

    I suppose one get out of jail excuse is that the arguments can be complicated. Motivation can be questioned or invented to justify doing nothing.

  2. I can see why the departments wouldn't want to include non-Western philosophy. There's a lot of it, where to begin, what to cover? But to not own up to the limitation by a simple renaming? I guess by putting the limitation on the table, it leaves an uncomfortable feeling.

  3. Putting an item on the table with its potential for full and open democratic discussion provokes a range of emotions in academics from deep discomfort to full blown horror.

    The issue with a name change is I thin,k if not the reality the ideal has to hold that you are free to follow any line of critical enquiry that seems to present itself.

    Constricting the name allows for Departments to point at the sign on the wall and say no constricting the subject further.