The Absences

Eric Schwitzgebel writes in the LA Times about the lack of Chinese philosophy in philosophy classes and, by extension, the profession at large.  He rehearses the familiar depressing statistic:  “In the United States, there are about 100 doctorate-granting programs in philosophy. By my count, only seven have a permanent member of the philosophy faculty who specializes in Chinese philosophy. Ancient Chinese philosophers are more commonly taught in departments of history, religious studies, Asian studies and comparative literature than in departments of philosophy. The same is true — even more so — for Indian and other non-Western philosophers.”

Of course it’s hard not to wonder where we’d end up if we start to inventory all that philosophy programs are missing.

6 thoughts on “The Absences

  1. A popular argument against including Chinese philosophy (and other non-Western philosophies) into the philosophical canon seems to be based in ignorance of the historical development of Philosophy in ancient civilizations. It goes something like this:

    1. These other philosophies are religious texts, not philosophy.
    2. Western philosophy is not a religious text, it is philosophy.

    Western philosophy in Ancient Greece was intimately tied up with ‘religion’ and divinity. Half of Aristotle’s arguments (in biology, physics, politics, etc) wouldn’t make any sense to us if we didn’t also consider this fact; he thought human beings were the magical space between gods and other animals. After this, through scholars like Aquinas, the Medieval period was maximally theological rather than ‘properly philosophical’. Scholars reacted to this period of ‘theological philosophy’ by being maximally irreligious. Thus, a long period where Western philosophy didn’t think about god at all. There seems to be something of a change happening in contemporary metaphysics, where we see the ‘problem of evil’ as an interesting problem (rightfully so, I might add).

    The point of this is just to say that the level of ‘spirituality’ or ‘religiosity’ in a philosophical text is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for a text’s having philosophical merit. Thus, claiming that Chinese or Indian or other non-Western philosophies are not ‘properly philosophical’ because they are spiritual, as if these are mutually exclusive qualities, is a Bad Argument, and we can see this by examining the historical trajectory of Western Philosophy.

  2. @Leslie Green: You make some good points in your piece, but I would wager that many UC students do speak a second (if not first) language reflecting their own ethnicity. Likely languages include Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Tagalog, or one of the tongues of the Indian subcontinent.

  3. I think the problem is deeper than it is often taken to be, not remediable by adding some courses to the curriculum and faculty to our departments–not that that’s a bad idea, especially since it might well push us toward addressing the deeper problems, which have to do with the creation of philosophy as an academic discipline in Europe and then in settler colonial countries, bound up with the creation of “Europe” and the annexing of ancient Greece as proto-Europe. I’m thinking of scholars such as Bernal and Chakrabarty (on “provincializing Europe”). I don’t think we can start by assuming some ahistorical, unsituated understanding of what “philosophy” is and fault folks for being overly narrow in curriculum, hiring, etc., as though that were some sort of oversight. Philosophy is not just an institutionalized discipline, but it is importantly that and we need to be thinking about the history of that institutionalizing.

  4. Naomi, agreed that there are complicated issues about how we implicitly construe “philosophy” given its institutional status and history. You might enjoy reading Carine Defoort’s “Is There Such a Thing as Chinese Philosophy? Arguments of an Implicit Debate.” She tries to capture and address much of the ambiguity to which you allude.

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