Four Claims and a Project

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.

6 thoughts on “Four Claims and a Project

  1. M.

    Any time you’re talking about a tradition that involves the participation of many different individual philosophers across time and space, you’re going to have people with subtle or overt differences in the doctrines articulated. There’s no reason to believe that if you take a bunch of qualities identified as roughly characterizing a tradition, come up with abstract statements about those qualities, and juxtapose them, you’re going to get a coherent system of beliefs. There are internal tensions in abstract characterizations pretty much ALL traditions or schools of thought, and these tensions are part of what drives intellectual change. There are important differences between the historical characterization of a broad tradition (there going to be are internal tensions, and that doesn’t mean the characterization is wrong), and the systematic evaluation of a single philosophical thesis (where internal tensions can be a problem). So trying to use a charge of ‘conceptual incoherence’ to argue that these four hyper-generalized theses can’t possibly characterize a tradition strike me as going down the wrong path for assessing a historical argument.

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      My point isn’t that the four claims are inconsistent with each other, but that there are internal tensions within each claim. Also, I agree there are internal tensions in all traditions. This is nothing unique about European philosophy. For example, it is often said that Indian philosophy begins with the Vedas. I would say this claim as well is problematic. But I am starting with European philosophy because I am thinking about eurocentrism.

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  2. Phil H

    Why do you think that US/European philosophy has to be making any kind of universalist or claim at all? Given that you apparently recognise the existence of separate traditions, why should we not just allow institutions in the western/Euro world to teach and research in the western tradition?

    That is, if you’re not comfortable with the claim of universalist theory, then why are you saying that western universities should follow the universalist practice of teaching all traditions?

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      In other posts I consider the view that it is justified for departments in the West to be focused on Western philosophy. You can see the posts in “Contents” under “cultural eurocentrism”.

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  3. Phil H

    I see. Your “puzzle” is exactly what I was getting at. But the answer you offer is a bit unsatisfactory. US universities should teach diverse traditions because they have diverse students? But what if your class doesn’t have diverse students?

    There are also major worries with this functional conception of philosophy: the idea that what philosophy is should be determined by what will be best for the students. There are a lot of other factors that feed into what philosophy is: the nature of the pursuit itself, its own traditions, possible universal truths.

    I also think that you’re wrong about the way individuals relate to traditions. A modern Chinese person has no more inherent connection to the ideas of Confucius – and certainly not to the ideas of Zhuangzi or Mozi – than a modern American. 2000+ years of distance makes it an alien tradition. The identification of Chinese person with Chinese tradition comes not from a direct relationship between a modern student now and the ancient ideas, but precisely through the medium of the academic tradition of philosophy. My connection to Plato (I’m British) runs through Aquinas and Descartes and Locke and Hume and Russell and Wittgenstein. And to some extent the discipline of philosophy is the tracing and elaborating and building on those links: the philosophy teacher builds the tradition anew for every cohort of student. It doesn’t exist as something to which they naturally, ethnically resonate.

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      In an important way a Chinese student does have an intrinsic connection to the ideas of Confucius. And that is not gotten through academic philosophy. That important way is through one’s own upbringing. Suppose the Chinese student is brought up in a traditional way, where her parents and family emphasize ancient Chinese customs and values. They might never explicitly mention Confucius, but those ancient philosophical ideas are the foundation of the practices her family follows. So if the student wants to reflect on her own upbringing, and grow as a person, she cannot do that without reflecting on ancient Chinese philosophy. The same is true even if the student is brought up in a communist household, only now her relation to the ancient past is through more modern Chinese philosophers defending Marx, and so on.

      The same is also true for someone British. You say your connection to Plato is through Aquinas, Descartes, etc. Agreed. But that is not your only connection to Plato. The connection is implicit in the culture of Britain and the background habits one takes for granted in one’s upbringing. The idea that one relates to philosophy only through academia is I think not right. Philosophy is implicit in the general culture. And academia can enable a person to reflect on the culture, by bringing out, and questioning, the philosophical assumptions which were already present in the way the person was brought up.

      This is my main objection to the idea that its ok to teach only Western philosophy in Western departments. It means anyone who was brought up in Britain in a way other than the British/European culture doesn’t have a chance to reflect on the assumptions of their upbringing. It is to condemn them to just accepting that upbringing without question or denying the upbringing as not being philosophical at all; what is made impossible is a philosophical engagement with one’s upbringing. Here what matters is not whether one is Chinese or white. The point applies to a white student who was brought up by her hippie parents in, say, a traditional Indian or Japanese way. Certain kinds of basic reflection on her upbringing are lost to that white student if the only things taught in the classroom are European philosophy.

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