On Why Cross-Cultural Conversations are Difficult for Philosophers

This paper, “The History That We Are: Philosophy as Discipline and the Multiculturalism Debate,” from Don Howard has been published for some time, but it was only recently put up on academia.edu — I thought it would be of interest to many of our readers. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

African and Native American thought may have something in common with Greek and Egyptian mythology, with the creation stories like those found in the Gilgamesh or the Book of Genesis. But as we were all taught in our own introductory courses, and as we all now teach our beginning students, philosophy is different in kind from poetry and myth. Born in the Greek settlements of Ionia in the sixth century B.C., philosophy seeks to understand nature, both human and nonhuman, not in terms of the actions of the gods and the giants, but in terms of abstract metaphysical principles . . . and abstract moral principles, like justice and the form of the good. Moreover, philosophy is unlike religion in the antidogmatic, critical posture that Socrates taught us to adopt with respect to all received opinion. And, perhaps most importantly, the philosopher’s characteristic concern with the critical distinction between true knowledge and mere opinion is not to be found in “traditional” or “primitive” systems of thought. Neither poet, nor sophist, nor carping moralist, the philosopher is a lover of wisdom. There may have been a Hesiod among the Tlingit or a Homer among the Hausa, but there has been no African Aristotle and no Plato of the Pueblo, just as there has also been no Zulu Shakespeare, as Saul Bellow is reported to have said.

“African philosophy.”— Not all such appositions strike us as being quite so oxymoronic. For while I speak here—need it be said?—the language of prejudice and stereotype, it is not simply a white, Western prejudice, which would be too easy a target. We do not stumble at the thought of there being an “Indian philosophy” (in the sense of the Indian subcontinent); nor does the expression “Jewish philosophy” give us much pause. The more generous souls among us will permit, as well, the expression, “Chinese philosophy,” though the more anthropological term “Chinese thought” is clearly preferable; and in some quarters one may even be allowed to speak of “Arabic philosophy,” especially if one agrees to confine one’s attention to long and safely dead thinkers like Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd.

Why is this so? Why do the authors of the Vedanta, domesticated by Schopenhauer and Deussen, already have a reservation at the philosophers’ Stammtisch? Why do we so easily imagine ourselves in the heaven for which Socrates yearns in the Phaedo, conversing with Maimonides … as easily as we might converse with Descartes about the soul or with Kant about the categories, whereas it has long been much harder to imagine a properly philosophical conversation with Chuang-tzu about Tao (even before the Tao-te-ching became the New Age bible), much less a conversation with a Navajo hataali about hozro and “walking in beauty”?

That this is so should give us pause when we pretend, as philosophers, to engage in cross-cultural conversations. For the measure of our aversion to expressions like “Native American philosophy” is the measure of our inability, as philosophers, to engage in such conversations, the point being that the felt sense of aversion reflects our having defined ourselves, as philosophers, in such a way as to beg many of the most important questions that should be at issue in those conversations, leaving us, as philosophers, no stance but that of condescension toward those cultures that have failed to evolve a properly philosophical culture.

From another point of view, what is going on here is that cultural boundaries have been inscribed as disciplinary boundaries. Looking out from within a department of philosophy, it is impossible for me, as a philosopher, to talk with the Ibo about their creation stories. That is a job for the anthropologist or the student of comparative religion. We can have a properly philosophical conversation only if we first persuade ourselves, as we succeed in doing in the case of the Vedanta in India, that the culture in question incorporates a genuinely philosophical tradition. But we may well be suspicious—surely it is a clue of sorts—when we find, for example, Louis Renou writing in the Encyclopædia Britannica: “The Vedic religion was brought to India by the Aryan invaders when they invaded the upper Indus basin sometime around 1500 B.C.”

One thought on “On Why Cross-Cultural Conversations are Difficult for Philosophers

  1. I’ve been exploring these same questions regarding Javanese and other Austronesian and Austroasiatic language philosophies. At present, I’m more or less convinced that the exclusion of these traditions of “philosophy” can be linked back to Anglo-Dutch-German racial theories that categorized people in terms of their distance from “developed, master races” like the English, Dutch and Germans. The fact is that these historical biases continue today as Howard rightly points out.

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