A Way Out of the Puzzle

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.

Like many philosophical puzzles, the puzzle regarding pluralism has an air of sophistry, as if it results when a person is trying to be too smart for their own good. When a person is abstracting from the particulars of a situation too quickly. As if a problem which seemed vivid and personal in the concrete becomes tangled within itself when it is stated too abstractly. As Wittgenstein would say, language is leading us astray, and we need to bring it back to the particular.

The root of the puzzle is the phrase: “All traditions should be represented”. Once that all is there, then pluralism seems either self-contradictory or too weak to displace Eurocentrism. So do we need that “all”? Does pluralism have to be articulated in that way?

No. To see this, consider the root motivation for pluralism.

Often opponents of pluralism characterize it as a form of identity politics. For example, if an Chinese-American student wants to see non-Western philosophy in the curriculum, the opponent bemoans the narrow-mindedness of the student: “The point of philosophy is to get you away from your background, to free you from it; not to have you identify with it as if that captures the essence of who you are. Philosophy is about gaining reflective distance from one’s background, and learning to think for oneself. But the pluralist merely substitutes group identity for philosophy.”

This argument is half right, and half radically wrong.

It is right that philosophy is about gaining reflective distance and learning to think for oneself. But it is radically, and pretty obviously, wrong in the assumption that a person can gain reflective distance from one’s background without knowing what that background is.

Imagine the Chinese-American student who grew up with his parents and family in America. Within his home they speak Chinese and in general follow the culture of the part of China they are from. Perhaps they don’t in the family talk about Chinese philosophy. Still, much of Chinese philosophy is implicit in the culture which they partake of. Now, the student goes off to college, ready to embark on his path of thinking for himself. He takes classes on Aristotle and Hume, and he gets the hang of thinking for himself. But would those classes be sufficient for him to gain reflective distance from his Chinese background?

Certainly they help him think for myself to some extent. But for the most part what he gains is not reflective distance, as much as simply separation and segregation. True, Chinese culture need not dictate any longer what he will do; he has gained that ability. But this is far short of gaining the ability of reflective distance. In order to gain that ability, he has be able to decide, based on his reflection, whether to affirm the philosophical foundations of his family’s Chinese culture.

Simply acting differently from his parents doesn’t mean that the student has gained the skill of reflective distance; it could just mean that he has substituted one group for another. Nor is simply thinking “philosophically” about his family culture enough to engage deeply with the philosophical foundations of that culture. For it is an open question how the categories he learnt in his Western philosophy classes relate to the categories of Chinese philosophy, and in ways the student can manage to bring those two sets of categories into conversation (especially given that he has not seen how to do that in his classes).

Here is the root motivation of pluralism: the way to reflect on the deepest assumptions of one’s life is to think about the philosophical assumptions of the culture within which one grew up. In order to do that, one has to learn about those philosophical assumptions and how to engage critically with them. One has to therefore be taught and introduced to those assumptions. 

To some extent, philosophy is philosophy. As long as one does any philosophy, one gains some ability for reflective distance. But the more similar the philosophy is to the culture one grew up in, the more the ability for reflective distance gains traction.

Pluralism thus is not identity politics. It is not a way to become ensconced in one’s own culture. To the contrary, pluralism is the way to enable a student of any background to gain reflective distance, by letting him engage with something of his background in the curriculum. And to thereby give him the ability to truly step back from his background, and think more for himself and look at the world more objectively.

Now we can see that the worry of the puzzle, that pluralism is not open to all traditions because it will destroy the American tradition of philosophy, is altogether besides the point. The motivation for pluralism isn’t to preserve all the traditions of the world, as if the pluralist sees the philosophy department as a kind of Noah’s ark for philosophical traditions. It is in the nature of traditions that they will wax and wane; sometimes this aspect of them will be dominant, sometimes that aspect; at times this feature of a tradition will recede into the background, only to be forgotten, and then later it might be recovered.

The basic thurst of pluralism doesn’t concern traditions, understood in the abstract. It concerns individuals – the students in the classses – and the conditions required for them to maximize their philosophical abilities. You can teach philosophy in a classroom without a board or even chairs and desks. But it won’t be very successful, because there are basic conditions that need to be met in order to students to flourish. Similarly, you can have a Eurocentric department even though its students come from around the world. But it will fail to unleash the philosophical abilities of most of the students in the classes.

The reason to have, say, Chinese philosophy classes isn’t to preserve, or represent, that tradition; it is to enable people whose background is Chinese, or who identify with Chinese culture, to gain reflective distance from Chinese culture, and to thereby grow as thinkers and philosophers. In order for the same to be possible for people whose background is European, or who identify with European culture, it is not necessary that the department continue the dominant Eurocentric philosophical tradition. All that is necessary is that the department have classes in European philosophy, which would certainly happen in a pluralistic department.

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