A Puzzle

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.”

A second response is: “Why is European thought the culture of America? After all, African-Americans were in America as well from its very beginning. And Native Americans were here even before the colonies started. And America is a land of immigrants, which could not have become what it is without people coming from Mexico, China, Japan, and so on. America is a melting pot, and so it’s culture isn’t restricted to what came from Europe.”

Both responses make important points. And there is a temptation to say, “Well, those points settle it! Let’s move on to practical task of making the curriculm pluralistic.” However, that is too quick.

Consider an example. An Indian-American goes to college, and is confronted with Eurocentrism. He claims there should be more Indian philosophy in the curriculum, because Indian philosophy is the intellectual tradition of the culture of his family. So in making the argument for more Indian philosophy, the student is affirming the link between the Indian philosophical tradition and Indian culture. But in order to make this move, he is forced to deny a similar link between the European philosophical tradition and the culture of America. So why can there be such a link between Indian philosophy and Indian culture, but no such link between European philosophy and American culture?

Perhaps the difference is that Indian culture is somehow more monolithic than American culture. But that is not true. Both the arguments above apply as much to Indian philosophy (or to any other tradition) as to European philosophy. If a European curriculum for the sake of preserving culture is an oxymoron, then so is an Indian philosophy curriculum for the sake of preserving culture. And if America is a melting pot, so is India. The standard narrative of Indian philosophy and its history no more speaks for the plurality of communities in India (including communities which have been historically marginalized in India) than the standard narrative of European and American philosophy speaks for all the communities in America.

Here there is a puzzle. Either America is special (different from other countries) or it is not special. If it is special, then its uniqueness comes from the Enlightenment values upon which it was founded, and so Eurocentrism has to be safe guarded in order to preserve America’s special culture. And if America is not special, then it seems like America doesn’t have to be held to different standards than other countries and communities. If Indian philosophy can have a special connection to Indian culture, then so can European philosophy to American culture. In which case, giving up Eurocentrism would be a form of cultural dissolution. So if America is not special, then since it is the same as other countries, and so its culture is on a par with other cultures, then it has a right to be protected in the same way other cultures have a right to be protected.

What the puzzle highlights is that in order to create a pluralistic curriculum it is not enough to show that Eurocentrism has some problems. Because every philosophical tradition and culture has problems, including the traditions which the pluralist wants to include in the curriculum. The pluralist has to come up with a coherent argument for why it is alright to displace the current American philosophical tradition in order to make room for other traditions.

One might say: “Coherent argument be damned! This is just another ploy to make the minorities play the justification game. And we are not going to do it anymore. Change comes first, and then reasons.” If one wants to say this, there is not much one can say in response: if a crowd is going to stampede because they have had enough, then better to get out of the way, and accept it as the inevitable result of pent up frustrations. But it is to give up the moral high ground that comes with having a consistent philosophical worldview, the kind of worldview which not only can overturn the status quo, but has the resources for constructing new structures.

Real change becomes possible when one is able to stand up not only to physical power, but to intellectual and philosophical power. This was the point made by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Change isn’t enough. In order for it to be productive, it has to happen in the right way. And what is the right way? One which isn’t hypocritical or has obvious inner tensions. In other words, a path which is able to deal with, rather than avoiding, the puzzle.


One thought on “A Puzzle

  1. Gautam

    The puzzle here is a variant of the general puzzle with the liberal/enlightenment project. The enlightenment project motivates a drive toward universality founded on rational principles (here, toward the notion of a curriculum — something assumed to be shared by all students). This drive assumes that rational skepticism can be used to burn away tribalism and get at some ideal.

    But once the “rational skepticism” laser beam is turned on, it cannot be turned off. It burns everything away and turns to its own foundations, discovers tribalism there, and burns those away as well. The rational skeptic looks down and realizes with surprise that he/she is standing on thin air. How does one get solid ground to stand on while avoiding tribalism? A puzzle!



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