The whiteness of philosophy?

In some of the discussion on this post I took issue with the idea that philosophy as it exists today is primarily a product of and reflection on the experience of white men. In correspondence, JJ suggested the question would make a good topic for a post. What you’re reading is the result. Content warning: I am not a historian. Please don’t yell at me if I get something wrong.

If we think of philosophy as a series of “big questions” and our resultant, flailing attempts to answer those questions, then it’s clear that philosophy has never been the province solely or primarily of white men. Thinkers from a myriad of cultural and intellectual traditions have grappled with these questions, and continue to do so. But what if we think of philosophy — or, more carefully, the philosophy that’s going on now in the English-speaking world — as specifically tied to its cultural background and intellectual heritage. Construed as such, is the philosophy we’re doing now primarily the product of white men thinking about their own experience of the world?

Arguably it isn’t, because the philosophy we’re doing today owes a tremendous intellectual debt to Islamic philosophy. Below are just a few specific examples (suggestions of further examples are welcomed and encouraged!):

Ibn Sina – his development of the existence/essence distinction (probably much more so than Aristotle’s, because he actually makes it clear what’s going on), has had a strong impact on modern theories of modality; his “Floating Man” thought experiment was also one of the original wacky-outlandish philosophy of mind thought experiments

Ibn Rushd: one of the foremost defenders of the “analogical” conception of being/existence (“being can be said in many ways”), which has recently enjoyed a renaissance in contemporary metaphysics; his defence of the “primacy of reason” had significant influence on the development of rationalism

Al-Ghazali: one of the original sources of the post-Aristotelian cosmological argument as we know it today (he certainly gives one of its clearest early formulations); perhaps the earliest clear and methodological application of the “method of doubt” familiar from folk like Descartes (and, more generally, a major figure in the transition from classical Greek skepticism to early modern skepticism)

Islamic philosophy more generally had a massive impact on the development of the theory of occasionalism (which as far as I know no one believes anymore, but was instrumental in the development of causal anti-realism), the distinction between essence and accident, the distinction between the necessary and the contingent, and medieval logic.

Does any of this go to show that *today’s philosophy* isn’t just the product of white male theorizing? I’d say that it does, but there’s obvious room for disagreement. With the exception of the kalam cosmological argument — which is defended by William Lane Craig — I don’t know of a contemporary philosopher who defends *exactly the same view* found in classical Islamic philosophy (though, it’s worth nothing, that’s the case for most of the medieval philosophy I know about, Islamic or not). The examples I was giving are cases where there’s recognizible similarity and recognizible influence. That is, a modern student of metaphysics can read what Ibn Sina wrote about essence and say “oh, right, this is familiar”, and you can trace the causal origin of current essentialist debates at least in part to the writings of Ibn Sina.

I think it’s fair to say that we tend to under-estimate the influence of Islamic philosophy on “Western” philosophy (and we likewise tend to over-estimate the influence of Greek philosophy on Islamic philosophy). Our discipline, even considered embedded in its own intellectual heritage, isn’t nearly as white as we often think.

For more information, I highly recommend the Philosophy Talk episode on Islamic philosophy and the fantastic resource Islamic Philosophy Online.

23 thoughts on “The whiteness of philosophy?

  1. Wow. Fascinating stuff. I knew a little about Al-Ghazali but have never heard of Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd. I’m off to check out the ‘Floating Man’ ! Thanks for the links.

  2. Amen.

    You might have heard of some of them under other guises.

    Ibn Sina = Avicenna
    Ibn Rushd = Averroes

  3. Western, anglo-speaking philosophy might (probably) actually owe a debt to these three philosophers, but the problem is that it doesn’t acknowledge the debt. For instance, I would be incredibly surprised if these three philosophers landed on a “top twenty/fifty more influential / important Western philosophers of all time” list. Or again, I–a student of philosophy–have never heard of these philosophers before (Or I’ve forgotten about them). I haven’t heard them be included in the narrative of what philosophy is, and who made it be what it is today.

    I know many philosophers might pay lip service to Islamic philosophy, but I don’t know many philosophers who study Islamic philosophers. I know lots of philosophers that study Aristotle and Plato, though. Hell, I know multiple philosophers who study obscure English dudes.

    The charge of the whiteness of philosophy is not (primarily) a charge of what philosophy actually, historically, has been. It’s first a charge about philosophy’s self image. When philosophy looks in the mirror, it sees/expects a white man.

    Thus, the fact that Islamic philosophers and black philosophers and women philosophers actually influenced philosophy is no consolation to the potential Islamic, black, and/or female philosophy student if those influences are ignored or marginalized, and philosophy (unconsciously) presents itself as the musings of white men (with a little help from guest speakers here and there).

  4. In light of comment #2, hmm I think I have heard of them then, though mostly in passing.

  5. Hi MM,

    Yes ! I have heard of Avicenna and Averroes ! Thanks for the clarification !

    @Logoskaieros: I’ve found that sometimes reading letters (rather than big works) by the philosophers in question (or good biographies of them) sometimes helps to find out who else influenced them besides the usual (often white, male) suspects. There are a few nice pieces on less obvious background influences on seventeenth century philosophy in the Cambridge History of to Seventeenth Philosophy, edited by Michael Ayers and Daniel Garber. Eileen O’ Neill has a few interesting papers on women philosophers in the Early Modern period. Her web-page is here: Jacqueline Broad also has a lovely book on Early Women women philosophers who corresponded with the more mainstream male thinkers. It’s great stuff. And I’m sure there’s more out there.

    And yes, you are right : it’s a shame more of this kind of stuff isn’t worked into some undergraduate courses. But that can change… :)

  6. You all seem to tacitly agree that the ancient Greeks were “white” whereas the great Islamic philosophers were not. I find this rather puzzling since, culturally, Ancient Greece was at least as distant from, say, contemporary England as was the medieval Islamic world; and phenotypically, Greeks and Near Easterners generally look more similar to each other than to Northern Europeans. So by what criterion does Aristotle count as “white” and Avicenna not?

  7. Well said, Zorro.

    I remember learning about Averroes and Avicenna as a student, and it wasn’t until years later that I figured out they were Islamic philosophers. I’d just assumed they were white Europeans (and no one told me otherwise).

    The downplaying of Islamic influence on Western philosophy is particularly striking given that it’s not like these guys are footnotes to intellectual history — in the Divine Comedy, for example, Dante portrays Ibn Sinna and Ibn Rushd alongside Plato, Socrates, Virgil, Homer, etc enjoying an eternal smart-people heaven. You really had to get somebody to that room in heaven. :-)

  8. OK, Zorro, may I ask you what your take on the issue is then? Were the Ancient Greeks white? Were the Islamic philosophers white? What does “the whiteness of philosophy” mean to you (and others)?

  9. Re: Ben’s question “so by what criterion does Aristotle count as ‘White’ and Avicenna not?”

    I’d like to second Ben’s question, which strikes me as an important question to ask in the context of this discussion. The operative criterion that first comes to my mind is that contemporary philosophers tend to think of Aristotle as “white”, and Avicenna as “not-white.” This is not much of a criterion, perhaps. But there it is. Does anyone have other thoughts?

  10. I do have another thought, though it is in its early stages: Influential canonical white philosophers who were keen on the classics accorded intellectual ancestry to select Greeks and not to any/many Islamic/Arabic philosophers. In short, European white males ‘coded’ Greeks as their ‘founding fathers,’ thus, I daresay, rather whitening their images in the heads of those of us who read these canonical dudes.

    I see it as akin to the European painters who depicted Jesus as a handsome European and white man, images I grew up with. In laying the stamp of approval upon the image, I could argue, white philosophers accorded those of whom they approve a kind of tacit whiteness. This is just a thought.

  11. Sorry for the confusing post — my “well said, Zorro” refers to Zorro’s previous comment (I hadn’t seen either Ben’s question or Zorro’s response when I posted that comment).

    Ben, I think it’s a mistake to think of being white as specifically phenotypic. It’s cultural as much as anything. Plato and Aristotle — well, who knows whether if we saw their physical duplicates today we’d be inclined to describe them as “white”, but they’re European, and they came from a region whose present occupants are generally described as white. Perhaps more importantly, though, they’re historically thought of as white Europeans. Look at Raphael’s School of Athens. There’s Plato and Aristotle in the middle: two white guys. Then there’s Ibn Rushd to the side: recognizibly not white in a sea of white faces. Historically, it seems, Plato and Aristotle were recognized as white. Ibn Rushd (among others) is a figure who was both (i) recognized as not white; (ii) taken to be a really important philosopher anyway.

    And that’s a big deal, given the tendency to assume that “Western” philosophy was done exclusively by a bunch of white men. There may be a separate question of whether Aristotle and Plato should’ve been assimilated as “white” in the first place, but that’s a question that will probably delve pretty far into theory of race.

    I think you can sidestep that very complicated question and still make a simpler, important point about the history of philosophy.

  12. Also what profbigk said. I really need to learn how to use the “refresh” button.

  13. Hmmm, now about ethnicity and whiteness, we might put Augustine too into the mix. From that reputable source Wikipedia (I’m lazy today): “Regarding his ethnic origins, there is a consensus among scholars that his origins represented an intermingling of the main North African peoples, that is Berbers, Latins and Phoenicians.” And again from Wikipedia, “Berbers (Berber: Imazighen) are the indigenous peoples of North Africa west of the Nile Valley.”

    We also should not erase the cultural differences among various Islamic philosophers.
    Al-Ghazali and Ibn-Sina were Persian.
    Ibn-Rushd was a Spanish Muslim from generations of the same, living in Spain (also from generations of judge), and he too a judge in Cordoba (also in Seville and Morocco).

    I’m definitely no expert on this issue, but it seems to me fair to say that Ibn Rushd (Averroes) is just as Spanish as other “western” or “classical” philosophers like Seneca, also Spanish, also from Cordoba). Last time I checked Spanish people were Europeans, although of course here in the good ol’ USA they don’t always count “hispanics” as “white.” And ethnic Greeks are often taken to be something else (non-white “Turks”), just as “regular Americans” have confused, say, Sikhs with Arabs and attacked them in misguided ethnic hatred. For a philosopher like Emerson, the Irish were not “white.” One place to begin reading more on this is Nell Painter’s The History of White People which does have quite a bit to say about antiquity.

    I’ve tried teaching materials from (what I know them as) Avicenna and Averroes in my classes and what I get in response from Muslim students is “that’s not Islam.” Yes I say, that’s part of the point, philosophers tend to challenge religious doctrines, and then they get mad at me for “distorting the truth” and only teaching the “renegades”. You can’t win.

  14. Ben:

    What magicalersatz said. Also what profbigk said.

    The philosophers I had in mind were philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, Boyle, Newton, Locke, Berkeley, Hume,and so on. These philosophers (and scientists) are, standardly, recognized as white, male, European (and mostly Christian) philosophers. Perhaps you disagree. If you are asking for necessary and sufficient conditions for who counts/doesn’t count as white. Well, as I am sure you are know, they can’t be given. But then, necessary and sufficient conditions can’t be given for most things (anything?): knowledge, causation, laws, and so on. But this doesn’t mean cases are not standardly recognized and categorized in a particular way. Throwing a rock at a bottle and smashing it is standardly recognized as a case of causation, even if you can’t analyze the concept in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

    I think it’s important to recognize that philosophy is not something solely done by white, male, European (and mostly Christian) philosophers. The contributions of philosophers who are not recognized as falling into these categories should matter too. But perhaps you disagree.


  15. @Zorro ” it’s a shame more of this kind of stuff isn’t worked into some undergraduate courses.”

    Just to note, I was referring to my graduate experience, where it is also a shame more non-white philosophers are not studied.

  16. Surely no-one but die-hard racial essentialists thinks that two people, in whatever historical circumstances, must have a significantly similar form of experience just in case their skins are of the same hue (or they stand in some ancestral relations to each other, or they both have, or lack, Y chromosomes). When critics today charge that philosophy is the province of white males, it’s not the skin color, ethnic group, chromosome pattern of the major philosophers they are complaining about. What they are really concerned with, I have always assumed, is that it is the province of those who are politically dominant. Even assuming we know what it is to be white or non-white (or male or female), the mere fact that Aristotle, Augustine, Avicenna or Descartes were white/non-white is of little significance. The question is to what degree their philosophizing, and the philosophizing they engender, are tied to cultural dominance. The answer to that question presumably requires much more detailed knowledge of their circumstances (though being male has, in all those cases, no doubt been tied to extensive privilege).

  17. Interesting discussion. My philosophical interests, are, for example very much driven by an individualistic viewpoint of the world (see my Islands post). I have often wondered about the philsoophies of more Eastern cultures and the collectivist point of view that remains influential in China and Japan, and how our understanding of the world and therefore our philosophical ideas are necessarily seen through a certain prism. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” might not even be that important a statement in collectivist cultures and so it throws up challenges to how we rank and rate the importance of ideas. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that we are all subjected to our own internal biases.

  18. Brava to Cynthia for pointing out Augustine. The first great medieval philosopher, and one of the most influential shapers of the Western philosophical tradition, was a nonwhite (so I’ve always understood) African who did virtually all of his most important philosophical work in Africa.

    Simon’s point is well taken too.

  19. Simon, I would’ve thought there was more to a complaint about the whiteness of philosophy than just a complaint about political dominance. Otherwise why talk about race at all? Class, rather than race, would seem like the more pressing issue. Political dominance is part of the picture, sure (especially when we’re considering the absence in philosophy of persons that have been racially subjugated — African-Africans, for example).

    But, at least to my understanding (and maybe I’m wrong about this) part of the worry is also that the philosophy we do today is the product of a very specific, very narrow cultural background (that of white Europeans). And while the influence of Islamic philosophy doesn’t address the worry that philosophy is the product of the privileged, it does address the worry that philosophy (at least philosophy as it’s currently practiced in English) is the product of a specific and narrow cultural background. The great Islamic philosophers might have been socially and politically comfortable (and so may not represent a socio-ecomnimally distinct perspective), but they definitely represent a *culturally* distinct perspective when compared to the great non-Islamic philosophers.

    Though, for the sake of interest, I suppose Moses ben-Maimon (Maimonides) might be an example of a highly influential philosopher who was both non-white and racially oppressed.

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