Wittgenstein argued that traditional philosophy questions are incoherent and a kind of nonsense. For example, Descartes asks in The First Meditation if the world he is experiencing is an illusion. How does he know he is not dreaming or that an evil demon isn’t deceiving him?
To this Wittgenstein responds: “What nonsense! There is no such thing as experiencing the whole world as an illusion. There are particular illusions: experiencing an oasis in the desert, seeing the stick as bent in the water, etc. But in these cases we can recognize the illusion because overall we know we are experiencing the world. To show someone the bent stick is illusion, you take the stick out of the water. The doubt Descartes considers has no such grounding, and so is ill conceived: it has the outward form of a legitimate doubt, but that itself is an illusion. The doubt is only a confusion. The job of philosophy is to uncover this confusion, and free us from it.”
To see the flaw in this response, let’s distinguish between, what I will call, a status-quo context and a transformative context. A status-quo context is one in which a person feels at home in the prevailing social structures. A transformative context is one in which a person dislodges from prevailing social structures and feels that significantly new structures are needed.
Imagine a society is culturally diverse – has people from all over the world – and yet the magazines show only white people as the paragons of beauty. The magazine racks in the stores are filled only with pictures of whites in different poses of beauty and glamour: at home, at work, at the beach, at the movies, and so on. Would this be wrong? If so, why?
Think of a little brown boy in that society looking at these pictures everywhere he goes. What would be the psychological effect on him? Obviously, it would be to create a perpetual sense of not being good enough, of feeling that full beauty is forever out of his grasp because of the color of his skin, the shape of his nose, the texture of his hair. Unless he sees people standing up and saying that the magazines don’t depict a universal ideal, he will assume, trusting society instinctively as a child would, that the magazines are capturing the ideal of beauty, and that yet he is different. Without a sense for how different can be equally good, he is bound to interpret different as less good. But less good why? What did he do wrong? How can he make up the difference to achieve the ideal himself? Unsure of why he isn’t able to fully make up the difference, a cycle of self-blame and guilt begins. A torrent of doubts grip him: Maybe I am not trying hard enough; maybe there is something broken in me; maybe I am defective.
Putting a person in a cage thwarts the natural growth of the person. In the beauty case, the magazines function as a cage: an invisible, psychological cage, but a cage nonetheless. Just as the physical cage thwarts a person’s physical development, the social cage of the white-washed magazines thwarts his personal development.
What about a white philosophy curriculum? Is that wrong like the white magazines case?
The pluralist claims that all traditions should be represented in the philosophy curriculum. I have been thinking about a puzzle regarding this claim: How can pluralism incorporate all traditions when making philosophy pluralistic might end the American philosophical tradition as it has been?
Here one seems to get stuck on one of two horns of the dilemma: either claim that the American philosophical tradition as it has been should end, in which case it seems as if what is being advocated is not true pluralism; or claim that the American philosophical tradition as it has been doesn’t have in end, in which case pluralism would be at best a fringe addition to the basic Eurocentric core.
I can remember many times sitting in class, wanting to speak up about pluralism, only to find myself stumbling half consciously onto this puzzle and shutting down. Speaking up for pluralism seemed like affirming the liar paradox. I was unsure about the coherence of what I wanted to say.
Is there a way out of the puzzle? Yes, there is.
In the previous post I suggested that giving up Eurocentrism is bound to change the American philosophical tradition, and American culture more generally. And the change isn’t a minor change, as in adding a few more texts to the standard Western curriculum. If the negation of Eurocentrism is implemented consistently, it would mean a radical dismantling of the distinctly European-based tradition. This leads to a puzzle: why would it be ok to radically transform the philosophical tradition in America in order to represent other philosophical traditions? It is a version of the question: is it justified to kill one person to harvest his organs in order to save ten people?
One response to the puzzle could be: “The worry is overblown. The philosophy curriculum becoming pluralistic doesn’t end or even change much the European-based tradition. That tradition right now has a de facto monopoly on the traditions taught in most philosophy departments in America. Pluralism aims to make the situation more equitable so that all traditions are equally represented.”
One argument in favor of Eurocentrism is culturally based: the philosophy curriculum in America should be primarily European because European thought captures the cultural history of America. On this line of thought, if one wants to study Indian philosophy, then they should go to India, or go to Mexico to study Mexican philosophy, and so on. But as long as one is in America, then one has to abide by the culture of America.
In order to delve deeper into this argument, let me set aside two standard responses to it. Not because the responses are wrong, but because they are not sufficient. One response is: “Philosophy is supposed to be universal, and it is meant to question one’s cultural history; so a Eurocentric philosophy curriculum for the sake of preserving culture is an oxymoron. This defense of Eurocentrism is nothing but an isolationist conservatism.”
Suppose I feel Eurocentrism is wrong, and I feel frustrated by the Eurocentric structures of academic philosophy. What is the best way for me to contribute to progress?
It is to set aside blame and to convert my thoughts and feelings into philosophical questions which raise the issues that are bothering me.
In the previous post I distinguished standard racism from philosophical racism. Standard racism claims that all people are not equal. Philosophical racism claims that all philosophical traditions are not equal.
There are many ways to be a philosophical racist, depending on the philosophical tradition one claims is the best. And many great philosophers have been philosophical racists. Hegel was a philosophical racist, since he thought that Western philosophy was the epitome of human rationality, and the philosophical traditions of other races were less sophisticated steps towards Western philosophy. Aurobindo was a philosophical racist but in the other direction, since he thought Indian philosophy was the epitome of human excellence, with, as he saw it, rationalist Western philosophy being only a step in the direction of Indian philosophy.
If someone said to me, “Indians are less intelligent than Europeans,” I wouldn’t engage in argument with him to change his mind. I would just think he was a racist, that he had a backward view. If he was open to talking about it, I might talk to him. Not in the sense that maybe there is something right about his view, but in the sense that he is just mistaken. I would ignore him if I can, and if I can’t, then I would act out of moral indignation. If he was in a position of power over me, I would engage in activism to get him out of that position.
True, one can have a philosophical discussion about any topic. Even about whether one group is smarter than another. It’s pretty easy: you just ask, “what is intelligence?”, “who is a European?”, and so on and you are off to the philosophical races.
One reason the pluralism issue can seem intractable is because there are so many dimensions to the problem, which are all different and yet inter-connected in many subtle, and not so subtle, ways.
The issue can seem strait-forward when it is thought of as “minorities not being oppressed”. But the surface coherence of this idea covers over what makes the problem so complex.
Think of a contemporary college philosophy department in America. The students in the department come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds from around the world. The students also have a wide variety of identities, including those of gender, race, economic background, sexual orientation, disability and many others. Given this plurality of student backgrounds and identities, what should the philosophy curriculum of the department look like?
Consider the dimension of culture and race. The curriculum right now at most departments in America, and especially at the elite (that is, the most financially well off) departments, is almost entirely based on Western, European-based philosophy. In most departments the focus in history of philosophy is ancient Greek and Roman philosophy from about 600BC to 400AD, modern European philosophy from 1600 to 1900, and European and American philosophy from the 20th Century. In some places the Medieval period between 400 and 1600AD is taught as well. I will call this general focus on Europe in the curriculum Eurocentrism.