Two Kinds of Reflective Distance

A proponent of cultural Eurocentrism claims that academic philosophy in America should be Eurocentric because America is based on European culture. I have suggested (here and here) that this claim is committed to stunting the philosophical growth of minorities. Not every member of a minority group, since there can be exceptions for all sorts of reasons. But minorities generally. In the name of preserving American culture, cultural Eurocentrism perpetuates the racial inequalities at the heart of America culture.

By “stunting philosophical growth”, do I mean that minorities in America are philosophically backward compared to whites? Am I saying that, due to Eurocentrism, whites in America are more philosophically advanced than minorities? This is a tricky question. If I say “yes”, I seem to say that minorities have been stunted and are backward. If I say “no”, I seem to say that minorities are fine, so there is no problem with Eurocentrism.

What is needed is a way to highlight the detrimental effect of Eurocentrism on minorities without implying that minorities are philosophically backward compared to whites. The way out: to see that Eurocentrism stunts the philosophical growth of whites as well. But the way it stunts the growth is different for whites and minorities.

A main aim of philosophy is to enable reflective distance from one’s deepest assumptions: to step back from them and to question them. There are at least two ways to create such reflective distance. What I will call intra-cultural reflective distance and inter-cultural reflective distance.

Intra-cultural reflective distance is where a person is able to reflect on the philosophical assumptions of one’s upbringing. If a person grows up in an Indian household, then gaining intra-cultural reflective distance means being able to engage with Indian philosophy.

Inter-cultural reflective distance is where a person is able to reflect on the philosophical assumptions not of one’s upbringing, but of a different community. The person who grew up in the Indian household gains this kind of reflective distance when he engages with, for example, European or African philosophy.

In a Eurocentric classroom, white students are able to gain intra-cultural reflective distance, but not inter-cultural reflective distance, and it is the converse for non-white students. Since maximal reflective distance requires both kinds of reflective distance, in a Eurocentric classroom the philosophical growth of all students is stunted.

One might say, “But, surely, we have to take the merits of the different philosophical traditions into account. If European philosophy is more advanced than, or even as advanced as, say, Indian philosophy, then the students aren’t missing much in learning only European philosophy.”

However, the merits of the philosophical traditions are basically irrelevant to the idea of gaining reflective distance. What matters is not the content, as much as the structure of reflecting on a different philosophical tradition. You can live on what seems to you the most beautiful land, and all you see beyond where you live are lands which are less beautiful. But as long as you stay just on the land where you grew up, you won’t be able to gain a better perspective on that land. Without venturing out you can experience the beauty of your land, but you will not know how it fits into the broader landscape.

This fact has to be confronted and accepted: The great thinkers even in recent European and American philosophy – Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, Heidegger, Dewey, Rawls, etc. – they were unable to gain a certain kind of reflective distance. All they got was intra-cultural reflective distance, but they failed to acquire inter-cultural reflective distance. In this sense, these thinkers are not the highest ideals of being a philosopher one can aspire to. There is more to philosophy than what they achieved, or even thought to achieve.

What did David Lewis make of DuBois’ philosophy? What did Husserl think of Nagarjuna’s philosophy? The answers to these questions are now lost to history. Or perhaps there is no answer to them. No more than there is an answer to what Shankara made of Plato’s philosophy.

A culture is defined by its stable ground and its horizon. The stable ground is what is common place in the culture; what is generally accepted. And the horizon is what, from within the culture itself, is experienced as the unexplored dimensions of the culture; as what is yet to be discovered and thought through, as what it can, based on its own momentum, grow into.

Philosophy is one way of exploring the horizons of a culture. For example, Kant was pushing the limits of the European culture of his time, exploring dimensions and possibilities within it that had not yet been conceptualized within the stable ground of that culture. But because Kant never achieved, or was not in a position to achieve, inter-cultural reflective distance, the most he could do was explore the horizons of the particular European culture he was a part of. 

For Kant it seemed like he was exploring the horizons of humankind as such. But this was an illusion created by the assumption that his culture was the best in the world. It’s like if you assume the NBA is the greatest organization for basketball in the world, and that Michael Jordan is the best player in the NBA, then you will think Jordan is the best basketball player in the world, even without knowing any basketball players outside of America. Similarly, it felt to Kant as if he were exploring the horizons of humankind because he assumed that if any people were in a position to do so, it would be Europeans.

As long as Europe and America were seen by themselves and by the countries they occupied as the most powerful cultures in the world, there was no reason for Western philosophers to imagine that perhaps they could have something to learn from non-Western philosophy. The power dynamics between “the West” and “the rest” manifested in Western philosophy as the claim that Western philosophy was the pinnacle of the philosophy of all cultures, where part of what showed whether one was sophisticated was whether they knew this fact. Accordingly, non-Western philosophers were seen to be backward precisely because they seemed to deny this fact, and still assumed, as if they were wedded to their bygone eras, that Asian or African philosophy could be at the pinnacle as well.

For all of their “Enlightenment”, this is how Enlightenment philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, Hume and Kant related to non-Western philosophies. Their general silence about the philosophies of the cultures which their countries started to engage with speaks volumes regarding their attitude. If Europe was the NBA, Descartes, Hume and Kant were Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and one didn’t need to know anything about the philosophers of the non-Western world to know that Descartes, Kant, et al. are the greatest philosophers of modernity.

To show the racism of modern, Western philosophers, sometimes people focus on passages nestled here and there deep in texts where Hume or Hegel said something disparaging about non-Western philosophy or non-Westerners. The normal defense against this is to suggest that those passages were merely indicative of their times, and that we can set them aside and still engage with the universal values of their philosophies.

This criticism and the defense gets things wrong. The main objection to modern Western philosophers isn’t that they held this or that racist view, which shines through in select passages. The main objection is that their view of non-Western philosophy is encapsulated in passing it over in silence, as if it were obvious that Western philosophy can be universal without ever understanding how it might look from the perspective of non-Western philosophies. In other words, the main objection is the assumption that Western philosophy can be universal simply by cultivating intra-cultural reflective distance. That inter-cultural reflective distance could not shed new light on the deepest assumptions of Western philosophy, anymore than a child could shed new light on the thorniest problems of adulthood.

This has been the general assumption in Western philosophy even until the 20th century, and even as recent as a generation ago. Hence the unbelievable fact that Russell, Wittgenstein and Heidegger had nothing philosophical to say about the colonial period they were a part of. Or that Rawls, Nozick and Davidson had nothing intellectual to say about the civil rights movement. Or that contemporary philosophers of a generation ago, such as McDowell, Fodor and Nagel are content to speak of the universal problems of philosophy without even mentioning non-Western philosophy.

Regarding non-Western philosophy, very little changed in “elite” American philosophy departments between 1900 and 2000. Whereas in 1900 one might have brushed aside non-Western philosophy as backward, in 2000 one could politely it set aside by acknowledging one’s own ignorance, as if ignorance is a better, and more justified, reason to perpetuate the ignorance than actively putting down non-Western philosophy. Ask a philosopher in America how their ideas are related to some non-Western philosophical tradition, and if you see a look of “But why do you expect me to know anything about that in order to do the philosophy I want”, you will see in practice the deepest assumption of the superiority of Western philosophy. It is similar to the look a Christian might give regarding why he would ever have to read Kant or Nietzsche when there is already the Bible to read 365 days a year.

Whether it is the intra-cultural kind or the inter-cultural kind, if you don’t have reflective distance, you don’t know you don’t have it. The value of reflective distance is only evident as one gains the capacity of that distance. Until then, it seems unnecessary or at most an after-thought, as if even without it one were already at the very frontiers of thought.

2 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Reflective Distance

  1. Alex Scott

    Thanks for your very insightful writings concerning the lack of pluralism in academic philosophy. Perhaps the problem of Eurocentrism in Anglo-American philosophy may be related to the concept of there being a “canon” of Western philosophy that students at the undergraduate and graduate level are to study and be taught. Although the concept of a “canon” has been much criticized, it still holds sway in many academic curricula.
    Harold Bloom says, “All canons, including our currently fashionable counter-canons, are elitist, and as no secular canon is ever closed, what is now acclaimed as “opening up the canon” is a strictly redundant exercise. Although canons, like all lists and catalogs, have a tendency to be inclusive rather than exclusive, we have now reached the point at which a lifetime’s reading and rereading can scarcely take one through the Western canon. Indeed, it’s now virtually impossible to master the Western canon. Not only would it mean absorbing well over three thousand books, many, if not most, marked by authentic cognitive and imaginative difficulties, but the relations between these books grow more rather than less vexed as our perspectives lengthen…No one has the authority to tell us what the Western canon is…” (The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, (1994), p. 37).
    Perhaps, no one has the authority to tell us that we should study Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Rawls, rather than Nagarjuna, Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva?
    Perhaps the inability of many Western philosophers to engage with Eastern philosophy is due not merely to ethnocentrism, Eurocentrism, racism, cultural bias, whatever analogous term is applied to it, but also to lack of scholarly discipline, lack of “reflective distance” (as you so brilliantly describe it), lack of integrity, and lack of imagination?


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Alex, I think you put it exactly right. There is plenty of explicit and implicit racism in academic philosophy. But it is not that anything having to do with non-Western philosophy is therefore an issue of racism. Some of it is a matter of a different kind of failure, which is simply intellectual or scholarly. The cause of this failure needn’t be racism. It can be, and is, as you well put it, a “lack of imagination”. It is not a failure just to include non-whites into what whites are already doing; that is racism. It is also a failure to imagine and conceive of people of different backgrounds to engage with each other and do philosophy in new ways.

      What you say about the authority regarding the curriculum is great. Teaching involves the teacher having authority over the student. But that authority is only justified if the teachers are practicing what they teach: otherwise it is authority as indoctrination, rather than authority as education. In a pluralistic society, a teacher does not have the authority to teach only Western philosophers. Doing that can be at most a matter of habit. To say this is not to evoke racism. That is the point of this blog. The teacher can have the authority to teach only Western philosophy ONLY IF eurocentrism as a view is intellectually justified. If it is not justified, or even if that justification is not obvious and so has to be debated, then the teacher, in order to have the right authority as a teacher, has to do more than just continue on in the same old way.



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