Pluralism and the Mind

If there was a magic wand such that with it we could get everything we wanted from philosophy, what would we ask for? There would probably be innumerable things, but near the top of the list would be having a conceptual framework which can enable:

1) Integrating older philosophical frameworks: a way to make sense of the different philosophical traditions from around the world, and see their similarities and differences;

2) Understanding the minda way to conceptualize the mechanisms underlying human cognition such that we can see how our present mental states resulted through cultural evolution since the dawn of human beings;

3) Addressing changing times: a way to make sense of and deal with new circumstances and situations, such as global warming, new technologies, scientific progress, globalization, changing identities and so on;

4) Creating dialogue: a way for people across diverse cultures and backgrounds to productively and peacefully talk to each other; and

5) Living meaningfully: a way for each each individual to flourish and grow, and have a lived experience of a synergy between oneself, others and the world.

(1)-(5) are inter-connected in interesting ways. For instance, there can’t be (2) without (1), since our older philosophical frameworks from around the world are part of our cultural history going back thousands of years. This shows the limits of a science of the mind purely based on understanding the brain. That would be like saying we can fully understand the human body without tracing the history of how it physically evolved through millions of years. Similarly, we can’t fully understand our modes of cognition now without tracing our cognitive history.

This puts pluralism right smack in the middle of understanding the mind. Pluralism is not just a feel good view which aims to get everyone together and sing “Kumbaya”. It is that too, but not just that. It is in the first instance essential for gaining an understanding of ourselves as human beings and our cognitive capacities. The philosophical traditions which eurocentrism ignores are precisely some of the key data – vast swaths of data – we need to understand in order to trace our history and understand the particular contours of our cultural evolution.

Current academic philosophy in the West is founded on ideas from several centuries ago, when Europeans assumed that they were so much better than non-Europeans that they didn’t have to engage with their worldviews. Now remnants of this presumption are not only creating social havoc, but are unwittingly standing in the way of better understanding ourselves as a species. This is one reason views like “the mind-brain identity theory” or “functionalism” are so compelling institutionally. For by suggesting that the mind can be studied just through the brain, they hold onto the idea that studying the histories and philosophies of cultures, including those of non-Western cultures, is altogether irrelevant for a philosophical understanding the mind’s place in nature, and that the basic categories from Descartes and Hume can suffice to understand our cognitive natures. (Obviously, I am not here making a claim about the intentions or the reasons given for why people believe identity theory. Rather, I am making a claim about the function of a view like identity theory within a broader institutional context.)

Until the 15th century, European philosophy was guided by a presumption of universality. Aquinas and Ockham, etc. didn’t think they were propounding just a Christian conception of the world: they assumed they were propounding a universal conception of the world. In this, they were no different from non-Western traditions at the time. It’s not like Asian philosophers at the time were studying European, African, or Native American philosophies in order to craft a truly universal worldview. Back then all traditions had a kind of naive universalism based on their geographical isolation (even with some obvious inter-connections). One way the naiveness comes out is that even though Europeans saw non-Europeans as having a wrong worldview, there was the implicit respect of engaging with a people who had a similar kind of worldview to their own Christian worldview. Everyone had Gods in their worldviews, even though there were also traditions of atheism in all the worldviews. This suggested a kind of basic similarity between the peoples. True, a similarity which led to great prejudice and war on both sides, but a similarity nonetheless.

This changed with Enlightenment Europe and imperialism. Through the 16th-19th centuries, a new kind of universalism came on the scene, what we might call enlightenment universalism. Now, as before, there was a presumption of the universality of European philosophy, but, unlike before, there was no sense that there was an analogue in the other cultures to the Europeans’ own Enlightened universalism. Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant: these thinkers worked hard to create a broad framework in which philosophy was separated from theology, and as they looked around the world, they assumed that they were the very first people (after the ancient Greeks)  in all human history to have created such a non-religious philosophical framework. They turned their presumptive gaze at the non-Europeans. But not just at them. They turned it towards their own, as they saw it, non-Enlightened European neighbors as well, and – in a move still central to certain strands of contemporary liberalism – assumed that looking down on, and being critical of, their own cultural history meant they were truly universal.

Central to this enlightenment universalism are the key concepts of modern European philosophy: the disembodied mind, the universal skeptic, the social contract, and so on. Modern European philosophers deeply disagreed with each other about these ideas, but what they shared was taking the ideas at face value, as if they are obviously coherent categories.

This changed first with Kant’s critical philosophy, and reached its peak with the non-metaphysical philosophies of the first half of the 20th century: the pragmatists, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, the positivists, the existentialists and so on. What these various philosophies shared was the sense that something was deeply amiss with the categories of enlightenment universalism. They had different diagnosis of the problem: it wasn’t scientific enough, practical enough, phenomenological enough, etc. But what runs through all these critiques is a sense that the philosophies of Descartes, Locke and Kant had not, contrary to their own enthusiasm, discovered a truly universal philosophical framework after all. Yes, their framework was not religious, but – and this was the significant point – it was not thereby automatically universal either.

It is not surprising that it was the crumbling European empires which struggled with this identity crisis in the 20th century. Nor is it surprising that given America’s ascendancy in the world in the 20th century, especially after World War II, that American philosophy departments became the heirs to the enlightenment universalism tradition, and American philosophy, at least in the “well-known” departments, became pre-critical and embraced the modern categories. This was combined with the rise of the cognitive sciences, which gave a scientific, ultra-contemporary feel to the categories of Descartes and Kant.

Why did the critical philosophies of Wittgenstein, Dewey and others fade away in America in the second-half of the 20th century? There are many nuances to take into account, but a central reason is that the philosophies critical of enlightenment universalism never managed to create a positive account of an alternate universalism. They remained negative and critical through and through, and they seemed to fall into one of three categories. Either, like the positivists, they embraced science as the locus of the universal, and so effectively did away with any positive conception for philosophy beyond meta-science. Or, like Anscombe with Aristotle, they were critical of the Modern period only to substitute a scholastic framework in its place. Or, like Derrida and Rorty, they seemed to be suspicious of claims of universality altogether and so gave up on the idea of a positive project.

What ties these three approaches together is that they failed to look beyond Western philosophy. In a way this is surprising, given how central the idea of inter-subjectivity as objectivity is to some of these approaches. But in another way, it is not surprising because they lived in a time when the idea of Western dominance was ending, but had not yet ended. In their despair they could have found the possibilities of a different kind of universalism by looking beyond the tradition of their upbringings, and seen hope for a new era of philosophy in the intermingling of global philosophical traditions. They were not yet ready for that, and so a note of despair remains in the background of their views.

Is it a happy coincidence that the possibilities for pluralism which are in the air now are also just what is needed to build new philosophical frameworks, and so to better understand the mind? Could our cultural needs dovetail so nicely with what is after all an objective, scientific inquiry into the nature of the mind?

This would be puzzling if human beings could be understand the way we can understand rocks and electrons. But if not, if our self-understanding has to change for us to better understand ourselves as natural beings, then it is altogether fitting that pluralism, which is the attempt to transform our global self-understanding, is a part of how we can understand our place in nature. It is then not surprising that (1)-(5) above cross-connect in all sorts of interesting, and even unexpected, ways.

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