Philosophical Vanities

In an article posted on Aeon and approvingly described by Brian Leiter, Nicholas Tampio argues that philosophy, as the trajectory of thought emerging from Plato (and only Plato), would lose itself (and its funding) if came to embrace thinkers such as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and Confucius. I can’t speak to the characterization of al-Ghazali, but the remarks about Confucius are comically unsophisticated and deploy orientalist stereotypes. I make some remarks about this here. But every time some argument of this sort is trotted out to “defend” philosophy, I get embarrassed to be in philosophy. The reasons are multiple, but let me focus on the breathtaking lack of self-awareness.


Articles in this style work on a confused logic of purportedly neutral disciplinary definition. They pose as trying to define what philosophy does, as if it is but one among many academic disciplines, and express a happy pluralism about the need for many different disciplines. If that were all they do, perhaps they’d be less obnoxious. But along the way, in describing what philosophy is, they assign it exclusive rights to a host of generally desirable and admiration-worthy qualities. See, philosophy is interested in critical thinking; it is fearless; it is unbound by unexamined commitments; it uniquely challenges the status quo; it is independent in mind; and so on, ad nauseum. In the ascription of generally desirable and admiration-worthy qualities to philosophers, as their defining feature, the philosopher who wants to thereby exclude some body of texts or assemblage of people does not sound like someone articulating reasonable disciplinary definitions. He sounds like someone denying that those he would exclude have what it takes, and this makes all his softening “not that there’s anything wrong with that” gestures toward other disciplines and people especially insulting. [I’ve written a bit on the slippage from description to honorific here.]


First, in all of these articles I can recall, the purportedly defining characteristics of philosophy beggar belief as the exclusive province of philosophers. They tend to be characteristics in evidence not only in a host of academic disciplines, but in all sorts of human endeavor. So philosophers laying sole claim to them sound wildly arrogant and, far worse, incredibly ignorant, as if they’ve never encountered other human beings with anything like an open mind or curiosity about what those other human beings do.


Second, the purportedly defining characteristics of philosophy are ones actual philosophers, both historical and contemporary, regularly fail to exhibit. E.g., in the article cited above, there are so many unexamined stereotypes of Confucianism deployed that you might take the article for satire. So claiming that philosophers excel in examining everything and being unbound by hackneyed ideas holding others in thrall is just absurd. Philosophers who claim this regularly demonstrate its falsity while claiming it.


The level of inadvertent self-satirization in this sort of exercise is plainly embarrassing. What I get from this sort of thing is that where philosophers really excel is in exercises of self-congratulation wholly unmoored from actual learning, curiosity, or reasonable intellectual humility. For people who boldly claim to corner the market on open-minded, radical curiosity that seeks to leave no stone uncovered, they look a lot like people hiding under rocks. If philosophy is ever going to be better, even at what its old guard claims it does, it really needs to see that puling self-flattery and wanton arrogant insult of others is not the same thing as “defining philosophy.”

8 thoughts on “Philosophical Vanities

  1. Thanks for the critique, though I’m not certain about the advantages of anonymity. If people search the internet, they can find my other writings that provide background to this piece. For instance, I wrote an article with a section on Deleuzian ethics and Sufism. I’m all for studying diverse intellectual traditions, I just don’t think that it makes sense to call all of these traditions philosophy.

    So maybe I can pose a question to you: how would you draw the line between philosophy and its others? Should everything that is smart and deep be called philosophy? Or does the judgment call about intelligence and profundity still grant us too much power over the other? In this case, what stops us from calling anyone who writes or talks a philosopher?

  2. Hi, Nicholas. Sorry if the pseudonym made this odd – I’m Amy Olberding. I work in Confucian ethics and so a bit of background might be useful. Your article features in a long a line of articles, blog posts, and general talk in professional philosophy that fairly habitually tries to exclude much of “non-western” philosophy. There are of course debates internal to those working in Chinese intellectual traditions about whether “philosophy” is appropriate given that this is not an indigenous concept for describing the thinkers that might be included. I think those debates are quite important, but the debates that bother me are those occurring within professional philosophy that appear to transpire without the participants having any meaningful exposure to the materials they would exclude. I have no idea whether your average philosopher would, after substantial exposure to Confucian materials, insist they are not philosophy. But neither does this average philosopher, yet this doesn’t seem any sort of barrier (for some) to hold rather strong views that Chinese thought cannot be philosophy or, more saliently, has no business featuring in a philosophy curriculum. Worse, arguments for exclusion are sometimes delivered with a tone of contempt. So, with that as background, I worry that your article reinforces this, not least because it seems to take as a given some odd and sometimes stereotyped ideas about Confucianism.

    The bigger question you ask is one I can’t answer. In truth, most days I have no idea what philosophy is, and that’s part of why I like it. I also doubt that it’s healthy for us to have a terribly stable idea of what it is, particularly, as I already said, because we can be exceptionally bad at trying to define it. And here too, to the extent that our definitions are poorly formulated, excluding things based on those definitions just pushes that intellectual poverty onward. That doesn’t help much when we’re trying to decide curricular issues, but it does incline me to think we ought to be expansive rather than so reflexively conservative. At the very least, that way we can uphold one quality philosophy purportedly likes to promote: curiosity.

  3. Dear Dr. Amy Olberding and Nicholas Tampio,

    I think you have both raised good points regarding the tricky task of defining academic fields, especially the field of philosophy. I’d like to offer my thoughts as someone trained in both philosophy and history. I’ve taught many courses in both fields (for philosophy: logic, ethics, etc.; for history: world history, world cultures, etc.), and I’ve taught more general humanities courses (world literature, cultural diversity, art history, and so on). Since I have an interdisciplinary background, I can definitely understand the urge to expand on the traditional Western scope in philosophy departments. However, there are some issues with being too inclusive.
    First, as Tampio noted, philosophy cannot simply be the process of thinking deeply about a topic. That’s obviously much too vague as that simply describes all of academia. Nor can “human curiosity,” as Olberding suggested, be a defining factor. A quick survey of human history will tell you that human curiosity is a great thing and led to many developments—everything from the arts to the sciences—but they were not all “philosophy.” In other words, while curiosity may be a necessary precondition for the existence of philosophy, philosophy is not a necessary precondition for the existence of curiosity. So, again, we are left with the need for a stricter definition.

    Next, as Tampio and others have noted in the NY Times article, over-inclusiveness can lead to a lack of specialization. While that may be alright in survey courses, a lack of important detail is detrimental to upper-level and graduate courses. As with most academic fields, the devil really is in the details. Students can gain a broad knowledge about a topic, and that’s great, but we shouldn’t risk glazing over or even eliminating important philosophers (who have had tremendous impact throughout human history through the modern world) in order to incorporate or represent lesser-known thinkers simply for the sake of inclusion. That’s academically dishonest, and we run the risk of perpetuating sophomoric thinking on complex subjects.
    So again, we’re brought back to the bigger question: what counts as “philosophy”? From someone who has taught world history (both Western and non-Western) for a while now, there is one distinguishing characteristic that I believe separates philosophers from other important historical thinkers. That characteristic, also mentioned by Tampio, is the focus on logical reasoning over mythological thinking. For most of ancient history around the globe, even the most important figures were still saturated in a world where mythological thought explained all and determined all. We see a shift (some refer to it as the Axial Age, although I have some issue with that term) where important thinkers began to try new ways of looking at the world. We see it with Socrates, Confucius, Zoroaster, and others. But what was so important about the Greek philosophers was that they purposely tried to figure out the world through a rational process—not with a mythological premise nor a political one. Their ideas, while often at odds with each other, rested on the notion that there were certain universal laws about the state of the world that humans could figure out by using their reasoning skills. It is this very concept that makes philosophy unique and has driven the field of philosophy through now. The fact that the Greek philosophers and many of the philosophers that came afterwards happen to come from the “Western” tradition doesn’t affect their impact. In fact, lumping 2500 years of a variety of philosophical ideas into a faulty category of “dead white European men” is extremely culturally unaware and just plain historically inaccurate as we are dealing with very diverse cultures across various places and times. Just because they happened to be dudes with whiter skin doesn’t mean their cultures were homogenous. In other words, the state of philosophy departments as they are now are already quite diverse. But the fact of the matter is that philosophy takes a very specific approach—the use of logic to make rational arguments. It is, and should always be, the foundation of the field of philosophy. While religious thinkers, cultural critics, artisans, writers, poets, and mystics may all have something to offer us and should be discussed in various humanities fields, they don’t necessarily have a place in philosophy departments.

    As scholars, we have to be wary of presentism and the is/ought error. Just because we wish that, let’s say, more women were philosophers or more Africans were philosophers, the reality is that these traditions were limited in scope and we have to understand them in context to the times and places in which they were developed. While I would love to teach about all the women philosophers from the ancient world in my courses, the reality is that they were very few women who produced influential philosophical texts at this time, and it would be a disservice to my students to not fully cover people like Plato and Aristotle to the depth which their ideas deserve in exchange for inclusion of people whose ideas aren’t technically philosophy. That is not to say these thinkers shouldn’t be covered. Quite the contrary. In fact, they should definitely be covered in their appropriate fields, be that literary studies, art history, cultural studies, religious studies, political science, or other related disciplines. But we can’t simply abandon important thinkers and their contribution to important ideas about democracy, reasoning, human rights, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics—ideas which we all hold dear—simply because they happened to be European or male. Philosophers and historians are similar in they both have a chief concern: a quest for truth. We need to be careful as scholars to not let our modern biases, whether they are left or right, rewrite history. The truth is that these philosophers were incredibly impactful on our world, and they shouldn’t be pushed out so that we include non-philosophy figures purely for the sake of some superficial form of inclusive diversity.

  4. “But what was so important about the Greek philosophers was that they purposely tried to figure out the world through a rational process—not with a mythological premise nor a political one.”

    This mischaracterizes both non-Western philosophy–which generally does try to explain the world through a broadly rational, non-mythological process–and Western philosophy, which often incorporates mythological premises (be it Greek myths with Plato or Christian myths with Kant) or is incredibly political (e.g. Hobbes and Locke). I’m honestly baffled by how anyone who has studied either can in good faith make that claim.

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