Setting Aside Guilt and Blame

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.

Blame is the natural first reaction of an awakening consciousness. Something is not how it should be. It is natural to attribute the cause to a willful neglect: if only someone did what they are supposed to do, the problem wouldn’t arise. It is particularly tempting to look to people in positions of power and assume that the willful neglect starts from those positions. The people in power are busy, so what is the way to get their attention, to demand it? Moral indignation. Outrage. Expression of blame.

This approach, though understandable and initially inevitable, is ultimately counter-productive. By conceding that someone, somewhere else in a position of power is better suited than me to change the situation, I am myself reaffirming the power imbalance in the institutional structures. To change the structures, it is not enough to supplant the arrogant or the confused prince with a benevolent prince. It is to recognize oneself as a prince in spite of the current social structures. Then instead of revolving around distant centers of gravity, I become myself a center of gravity such that I am able to exert force on the structures, instead of just the other way around.

How can I do this? What can enable me to transcend the current structures such that I don’t feel trapped by them? Philosophy.

Eurocentrism is a philosophical position. It is a view about what philosophical traditions should be dominant in academic philosophy. It is not a factual view, like that water is H20. Nor is it a self-evident truth. It is extremely unobvious what the curriculum should be in a pluralistic philosophy profession. Like any philosophical view, Eurocentrism is a significant, nontrivial claim which can’t be settled by observation or authority.

The philosophical nature of Eurocentrism is the wedge that enables one to resist the momentum of the current structures. Since the philosophy profession values philosophy, the fact that Eurocentrism is a debatable philosophical position means that Eurocentrism itself is an open issue in the profession, even if it isn’t often recognized as such.

Fostering philosophical debate about Eurocentrism enables greater change than simply seeking to implement anti-Eurocentrism in the profession through outrage. Moral outrage, though it is important and has its place, can ultimately impede change. For the deepest foundations of the philosophical profession are not brick and mortar, or even prestige and rankings. They are ideas. And the best way to change an idea is not just to replace it with its opposite, but to call into question the very legitimacy of the idea. To get underneath the idea and to uproot it from the foundations. That is the work of philosophy.

Either the philosophy profession is based on brute power or the power of ideas. If it is based on brute power, then blame is besides the point, since only brute power can supplant brute power, and both are morally equal; all that changes is who is in charge. And if the profession is based on the power of ideas, then again blame is besides the point, since the way to disarm ideas is to argue against them in a spirit of shared reflection.

Since Eurocentrism is so pervasive in academic philosophy, in most conversations in the discipline (in the classroom, or at a conference, or at a professional social gathering) there are innumerable places in the conversation where one can flag the assumption of Eurocentrism and raise the question of whether it is correct. Ultimately power and status quo in the discipline is maintained by passing over these moments in the conversation in silence or with a wave of the hand. The reproach is often ready: “we are doing philosophy, let’s not make it political”. But this response conflates the current norms of the philosophy profession with philosophy itself. The beauty of philosophy is that the momentum of the status quo can be halted by raising a philosophical question in its most basic form: “What is …. ?” There is material power and financial security in the prestigious positions of the profession. But philosophical power resides with anyone who is able to give voice to one’s concerns through philosophical dialogue.

By advocating philosophy as the engine of change I am not saying what people often say in order to shut down dissent: “So, what is your alternative?” This question is misplaced, for the options aren’t just to either keep to the status quo or present a fully thought out, dialectically impenetrable alternate framework. In order to resist the status quo, one doesn’t need to have a fully worked out alternate theory, or an alternate theory at all. This is the legacy of Socrates. Philosophical dialogue is most basically founded on questions: which questions are raised as foundational, which as secondary, and so on. To effect change the normal rhythm of asking philosophical questions in the profession has to be changed: when they asked, how they are asked, with what intonations they are asked. This kind of change doesn’t begin with others, as if one is going to prove what questions others ought to ask. It begins with oneself: what questions I am going to ask, and how I won’t let habit or prestige dictate to me what counts as the proper philosophical questions to ask.

Just as blame is ultimately counter-productive, so too is guilt. The best way to change the profession is to give voice to the philosophical questions that lie deepest within oneself. Philosophical questions are of the form, “What is Justice?”, “What is Truth?”, etc. But what is salient in asking these questions changes from time to time, from era to era. The big picture philosophical questions (regarding truth, reality, value, knowledge, action…) are conceptual structures for expressing our deepest puzzlements. They are not already set in a Platonic heaven, already complete. The form of the questions has to be filled with what we care about the most. The questions are a conceptual apparatus which we have to mold to the needs of our times and lives. And to do that, we have to let the questions spring from the deepest and best parts of ourselves, and for that we have to be good to ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Setting Aside Guilt and Blame

  1. Christy Mag Uidhir

    Though few of us I assume (perhaps too charitably so) would explicitly endorse Eurocentrism, I take it that most if not all of us are to some substantial degree complicit in the Eurocentric state of contemporary philosophy. Is merely moving the Eurocentric question itself sufficient to avoid this complicity altogether?

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  2. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    I think there are many ways to avoid being complicit in Eurocentrism, none of which are sufficient by themselves. Raising the question about whether Eurocentrism is justified, and treating it as an open philosophical question, is one such way. One advantage of this approach is that it doesn’t prejudge the issue or force proponents of Eurocentrism onto a moral defensive. I have seen both whites and non-whites defend Eurocentrism, and they have made plausible points (which come down to what I call in the “Contents” the culture argument and the universality argument). Eurocentrism is an open question in the philosophy of education. If it is justified, then much of the status quo remains. If it is not right, then much will have to change, though how it has to change is part of what has to be thought through.

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