Being Complicit in Eurocentrism

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.

In this blog, the kind of philosophical racism I am going to focus on is Eurocentrism, the claim that academic philosophy in America should be mainly European based.

Eurocentrism is so prevalent at a structural level in academic philosophy that it is hardly ever explictly stated and defended. One reason is because Eurocentrism is often conflated with ordinary racism, making it seem as if a proponent of Eurocentrism must be a bigot. I don’t think this. I take Eurocentrism to be a philosophical view about philosophical traditions, not about people. The equality of people doesn’t by itself imply the equality of philosophical traditions, anymore than the equality of people implies that the scientific traditions of every culture are equally valid.

To better see the distinction between ordinary racism and Eurocentrism, think of a philosopher like Michael Dummett. Dummett was a strong proponent against racism. To get a sense for this, consider the following remembrance of Dummett by Ernie Lepore:

Beyond the Academy, Michael separated himself from most other giants of the profession through his enduring commitment to eradicating injustices wherever he found them; I can’t recall how many times he backed out of an appointment because he and Ann had to be somewhere for a rally, a protest, or just to assist someone whose civil rights were being violated. Most academics never leave their study except to lecture. Though Michael did that too, his lifetime pledge to causes that moved him is incomparable.

There are many others who speak similarly about Dummett’s opposition to racism.

Now juxtapose Dummett’s anti-racism with the fact that he was part of a philosophy department in which the vast majority of classes are on European-based philosophy and where the philosophy of other cultures is minimally, if at all, taught. It is not clear how much time and effort Dummett expended to change this fact of his department and profession. What is one to make of this?

One response would be to say that Dummett failed to live up to his anti-racist ideals. That when it came to philosophy he was a racist. But what does this mean?

It might mean that, in spite of his values for the general society, Dummett was an ordinary racist when it came to the philosophy profession. That while he wanted people of all races to thrive in society in general, he wanted the philosophy profession to be white. This is highly implausible. Why would someone be vehemently committed to the claim that all people are equal, and yet prefer his profession be mainly white?

It’s more likely that Dummett wanted philosophy to be open to all people, irrespective of their race. That he would have been happy to talk with any person about Frege, realism or the use theory of language. That he might have hoped that this would happen naturally once racism in society was lessened and people of all races were equally able to go to college.

Even in this happy scenario where people of all races are in the philosophy profession, what does the philosophy they are doing together look like? What is striking is that Dummett, like his peers Strawson or Quine or Rawls, nowhere addresses this question. The assumption seems to be that even as the classrooms become ever more colorful, the syllabus stays essentially the same. This is Eurocentrism.

So here is an explanation for how Dummett could be so against racism even as he was quiet about changing the philosophy curriculum: he was strongly opposed to ordinary racism, but much less opposed to philosophical racism.

This doesn’t mean that Dummett would have affirmed the claim that “philosophy in the West should be mainly European based.” I have no idea what he would have said. It would have been a fascinating thing for him to have written about. But it does mean, at the very least, that Dummett was complicit in the Eurocentrism of the philosophy profession.

To say this is not to say that somehow Dummett’s philosophical work is racially tainted, as if he was just doing “the white man’s philosophy”, whatever that might mean. After all, he was thinking about issues regarding language, truth and reality, topics which are of interest in all philosophical traditions. But it is to say that he was pursuing these universal topics while participating in institutional structures which are Eurocentric.

He made a choice. Either he could spend his work time mainly writing about the topics he inherited from his teachers or he could have spent more time writing about an issue his teachers didn’t confront, namely, what a pluralistic philosophy curriculum can look like. Based on Dummett’s work in philosophy, it is evident he chose the former option. He chose to investigate some truths rather than other truths. That doesn’t impugn the value of his philosophy. But it does mean it came at the cost of not trying to change the philosophy profession as much as he tried to change society. To make that choice, to care more about pursuing “the philosophical topics themselves” instead of thinking about the traditions available to pursue in the profession, is to be complicit in Eurocentrism.

None of this by itself shows that Dummett did something wrong. “Eurocentrism” is a name for a view, not an argument. Even given that Dummett was complicit in Eurocentrism, maybe that’s ok, if Eurocentrism is right. The only way to decide that is to think about the merits of Eurocentrism.

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