End of a Tradition?

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.”

This response underestimates the changes implied by pluralism. Consider the NYU philosophy department. Currently on its website under “Regular Faculty”, there are 27 faculty listed. Based on the areas of interests listed for each faculty member, a breakdown of the faculty by interests is as follows: 15 faculty in metaphysics & epistemology broadly, 4 faculty in value theory broadly, 7 faculty in Western history of philosophy (ancient through Wittgenstein and Heidegger), and 1 faculty in African-American philosophy (that’s Appiah, who could be in any of the other categories as well).

Assuming that the NYU department can’t add tenure lines at will, if there are going to be faculty members teaching non-Western philosophy, some other subjects will have to be taught less. Given that there are 8 faculty positions teaching history of philosophy (that is, including the position teaching African-American philosophy), how would those eight have to be divided up for all traditions to be equally represented? Could it be 4 for Western history and 4 for non-Western history? Or does it have to be more fine grained: 2 for European philosophy, 2 for Asian philosophy, 2 for African philosophy, 2 for Latin American philosophy? Would that include every tradition? Or to keep the Western history of philosophy the same, perhaps there can be decrease in positions in M&E broadly, and some of those could be given to history of philosophy: say, 9 in M&E, 4 in value theory, 7 in Western history and 7 in non-Western history. But this means that in order for pluralism to not impact how the history of Western philosophy is taught, the hit has to be taken by non-historical philosophy. So what will be taught less: metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of science?

In any case, most philosophy departments don’t have 27 faculty positions. If in order to make room for non-Western philosophy, NYU has to do less of something else, that is all the more true for the vast majority of departments, which have much fewer faculty positions.

Beyond the logistical issue of what resources can be used to teach non-Western philosophy, there is another worry: the very act of engaging substantially with non-Western philosophy seems to change the tradition of philosophy in America. A tradition is defined in part by a core set of themes, authors, modes of argument which generally one can trace from generation to generation. A tradition means a continuation of something from the past, a carrying on, a moving forward of issues or themes which one has inherited from past authors in that tradition. But given that Descartes and Kant, and Russell and Wittgenstein, and Sartre and Rawls did not look to non-Western philosophy as part of their way of doing philosophy, to engage substantially with non-Western philosophy seems to mean some kind of a break with those authors and their tradition. It would mean moving forward without assuming that we can basically what they did: that we cannot rest content with the network of texts, authors and institutions within which they worked. 

To see the significance of this change, think about how these philosophers are often characterized in contemporary American philosophy departments. Descartes: father of modern philosophy. Kant: greatest modern philosopher. Wittgenstein: greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Rawls: greatest political philosopher of the 20th century.

Of course, these characterizations aren’t meant as factual, empirical statements. But the pervasiveness of the statements highlights the culture and tradition of American philosophy departments. To say that Wittgenstein is a great philosopher can just mean that: like many philosophers, he was great at philosophy. But in context it can also mean that he is the high water mark of 20th century philosophy. Meaning: anyone who orients their philosophical activity around the topics pursued by Wittgenstein is, just in virtue of that connection, at the cutting edge of philosophy, and they don’t have to go beyond the general landscape of what Wittgenstein himself wrote about. They might use the latest advances in logic or psychology or philosophy as they see it to add to, or even disagree with Wittgenstein. 

But what if there are important, pressing philosophical questions – say, about the relation of Western philosophy to non-Western philosophy – that Wittgenstein did not even address? That Descartes, Kant or Rawls did not so much as raise or write about?

The pluralist’s emphasis on diversity in philosophy is not just an appeal to add texts or topics to the curriculum. As if the general thrust of the American philosophical tradition can be left as it is, but with some additions here and there. The pluralist is committed to the significant and far reaching claim that the great figures of the American, Euro-centric philosophical tradition missed and failed to engage with substantial philosophical questions. To say this is not to blame those past philosophers: given the context of their times, it is understandable. But it is to say that as a pluralist, one will not limit oneself to the topics and modes of philosophy of those past greats.

Pluralism is nothing less than a call for a fresh start. A change in orientation. A reordering of priorities. Looking at philosophical topics through a new filter.

It is what Descartes and Spinoza sought to do with scholasticism. What Russell and Moore sought to do with the Idealist tradition of their youth. What the positivists sought to do with metaphysical philosophy. In each of these cases, the purported changes were a response to the felt need that the older philosophers had failed to grapple with what the present generation could no longer ignore. They were meant as ways to stem the flow of an outdated tradition and begin something new and more expansive.

It cannot be sugar coated or understated. Pluralism is a threat to the American philosophical tradition and its culture. That is the aim of pluralism: precisely to change how philosophy has been done in America in order to make it more inclusive. 

It makes sense then that a proponent of Eurocentrism would feel that his tradition as he knew it and as the great philosophers of that tradition thought of it is being threatened. It doesn’t help to cover over this basic fact with well-intentioned hopes that all traditions can coexist together, as if no real change to the existing structures is being suggested.

Imagine a white family worried that their child is marrying someone from India. The couple who wants to get married can say, rightly, that this is not the end of any tradition, but a way to bring together the two families and the two traditions. Fair enough. But when the parents ask the couple, “So how will the kids be raised? Will they be Christian or Hindu or atheists? What will we eat when we visit you guys? What holidays will you observe?”, the anxiety of the parents is tracking something significant, because there is a loss here. It might be a loss that is inevitable, necessary for the greater good, a change which can no longer be kept at bay. But it is a loss nonetheless for the parents who might have hoped to see their children continue the way of life the parents themselves had.

Pluralism values an inclusive ideal where all philosophical traditions are integrated. But such integration implies that each tradition is bound to be transformed in a significant way just by the fact of the integration.

It seems to me natural that a proponent of Eurocentrism, seeing the rising tide of pluralism, would be worried about what parts of the European tradition will survive the integration and what parts won’t; what parts will still be prominent, and what parts will fade into the background.

As a proponent of pluralism, I can’t quell this worry completely. The only way to know for sure what the coming pluralistic tradition will look like is by going through the changes.

What I can do is take seriously that every construction involves some demolition, and to people living near the demolition sites the changes can seem tragic and unfair. That is not a reason to stop working towards the construction of the new thing. But it is a reason to be mindful that the greater the change, the greater the loss on all sides; and to be as respectful as I can be of that loss without letting that awareness weigh down my own growth.

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