I have been considering the cultural argument for eurocentrism: that philosophy departments in America should focus on European philosophy because, on this claim, America traces its culture to Europe. But in contemporary philosophy this is not the main argument for eurocentrism.
The main argument is what I will call universal eurocentrism. According to this argument, only European philosophy discovered truly universal categories of philosophy, and that is why it should form the basis of a philosophy curriculum. On this view, just as Newton’s Europeanness is irrelevant to his physics, so too the Europeanness of Western philosophy, its “whiteness”, is irrelevant to its subject matter. In fact, this is what is seen to separate European philosophy from other traditions: the other traditions never managed such a transcendence beyond their cultural context, or at any rate, never managed it systematically. But this is the crowning achievement of European philosophy: it broke through its own cultural context to achieve universality.
Central to this narrative of European philosophy’s uniqueness is what I will call the origin claim. This is the claim of the philosophical big bang. The dawning of universal philosophy among humankind.
The Origin Claim: universal philosophy began with the ancient Greeks. It sharted with the pre-Socratics in 6th century BC, became a systematic practice with Socrates, and became a written, academic tradition with Plato and Aristotle.
The origin claim doesn’t deny there are other philosophical traditions. It denies they attained the distinctive, universal mode of doing philosophy which is claimed to be characteristic of Western philosophy. This is brought out through three other claims which are often closely tied to the origin claim.
The Rationality Claim: The distinctive feature of Western philosophy, which started with the ancient Greeks, is that it questions all assumptions, including religion. Socrates, for instance, stood apart from his culture and reflected on the essences of truth, justice, knowlege, and so on. This is the beginning of rational philosophy.
The Science Claim: The rationality of the ancient Greeks gave rise to science as a systematic understanding of nature independent of cultural values.
The Secular Claim: The rationality of the ancient Greeks also enabled secularism. Since philosophy was finally able to question religion, it enabled the possibility, which came to fruition with the Enlightenment in the 17th century, of organizing society not based on religion, but on a more inclusive and pluralistic foundation.
If you put these four claims together, a certain image starts to form of the dawning of philosophy in the world. Until philosophy flourished in ancient Greece, other cultures and even the Homeric Greeks were mired in superstition. People were slaves to tradition and couldn’t think for themselves. Then with the blossoming of Western philosophy, the first steps were taken to the emancipation of the mind, and in its wake good things such as science and secularism followed.
One way to reject universal eurocentrism is to deny these four claims as factually incorrect. One might say, with some moral indignation, that such and such other tradition had already independently achieved such universal philosophy. No doubt the four claims imply a fair number of false claims regarding other traditions. But this is not the approach I will take.
There is a bigger problem, and it enables a different way of rejecting universal eurocentrism. This is the project of this blog. The bigger problem is that the four claims are conceptually incoherent. They are internally contradictory. If you push on them in order to elucidate them, they start to crumble.
By saying they are “conceptually incoherent” I am not saying they are nonsense. Clearly enough, they make some sense. What I mean is that they fail in that characteristic way that philosophical claims might fail: not just as being empirically false, or aesthetically unpleasing, but as not being able to withstand philosophical scrutiny.
What this means will only become evident further along, since in evaluating the four claims we are evaluating what it is for something to be philosophy, and even whether there is such a thing as philosophy. Whether there is an essence to philosophy.
Could the seeming coherence of philosophy as a concept itself be an illusion which is standing in the way of pluralism, and of institutional and social change? I think so. But much argument will be needed to make this point.