Three Tier Conception of Philosophy


I was in Labyrinth Books in Princeton today, and I was checking out the philosophy section. It turns out there is no section simply called philosophy. There is one large section called “Western Philosophy”, which has the usual texts of a Leiterific department, though with more representation of continental philosophy.


Several aisles over, next to the spirituality and and Jewish studies and Islamic studies section, there is a smaller section on “Eastern Philosophy”. It mainly consists of Eastern religious texts and commentary on them. From a casual glance, much of it seems to have the vibe of self-help philosophy.


There is no “African Philosophy” section. In the history aisles, there is a section on “African-American Studies”, which has texts by Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Cornell West and others. In a different part of the history aisle, there is a “African Studies” section.

This is a clear instance of the three tier conception of philosophy. On this conception, African thought never managed to move beyond the most particular and contingent: history, literature and mythology. Asian philosophy grew to the level of abstract religion, which we think of as part of the modern day religions, and developed abstract religious ideas such as Brahman, the Tao, Nirvana and so on. Then came Western philosophy, which is the highest stage of philosophy because it grew beyond religious categories and developed universal concepts applicable to any culture, as long as those cultures are civilized enough to leave behind their contingent histories and religions, and use universal categories such as the rational will, utilitarianism, sense data, the social contract and so on.

Of course, no one ordinarily explicitly says or even thinks this three part conception view. They don’t have to: what is seen to be obvious doesn’t have to be thought. If not an implicit adherence to the three tier conception, what accounts for this most curious distribution of texts into different categories and spaces in the bookstore?

The section title “Western Philosophy” is particularly fascinating. Does this mean that there is a similar category of Eastern Philosophy which is not religious but universal, just like Western philosophy? If so, where in the bookstore is that section? I don’t see it.

No, the qualification “Western” is not meant to designate a contrast with non-religious Eastern philosophy. It is meant as double talk which moves back and forth between universal Eurocentrism and cultural Eurocentrism, as a way to say that the West discovered philosophy but then added “Western” just to not seem crudely colonialist about it.

It functions the way sometimes professors will say on the first day of class that this is a class on Western philosophy. It is a defensive move meant to hide the Eurocentrism which is otherwise only all too obvious. If the section heading in the bookstore simply said philosophy, the natural thought arises: given that this section only has Western philosophy, is there no such thing as non-Western philosophy? Saying “yes” sounds explicitly Eurocentrist, which sounds imperialistic and colonialist. So “Western” is prefixed to make it seem that since we are in the West, this is the philosophy of this culture.

But does that mean that Western philosophy as well has not managed to transcend its culture and place, and so is no different from the bottom tier of philosophical consciousness? This sounds like an insult to Aristotle and Hume, and one is then tempted to read the “Western” as simply a politeness so as not to rub in the face of non-Westerners that they never developed philosophy in the true sense. On this reading, far from seeming colonialist, the willingness to add “Western” reads as an act of humility, a kind gesture of unity rather than divisiveness. But is this kindness or condescension? Or the kindness of condescension?

Thinking of this question, I can’t help but wonder, “Do any of the Princeton philosophy faculty wonder about this distribution of books in their campus bookstore? Does it strike them as relevant to their interests in philosophy, or is this a merely contingent, trivial matter of how the bookstore chooses to layout the books?”

Of course the layout in the bookstore is not arbitrary. The bookstore is following the format of how departments are divided in the university. If you want to take Western philosophy courses, you go to the philosophy department (no niceties here of the department being only “Western Philosophy”). For Eastern philosophy, you go to the religious studies or Asian studies departments, or the Divinity school. For African philosophy, you go to the history or the literature or the related African and African-American Studies departments.

The layout of the departments, like that of the bookstore, is an instance of philosophical racism, the idea that some traditions are more advanced philosophically than others. The philosophical racist thinks all people are equal, but there is a gradation of philosophical traditions along the three-tier hierarchy.

Is it surprising that philosophical racism is so central to the academic institutional structures? Walking around the bookstore I almost can’t believe this purposefully segregated layout of the books. Is anyone noticing this? Does it matter to them? I see people of all cultures walking through the bookstore seemingly oblivious to this fact, as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

Modern philosophers in the West, like their fellow citizens of the time, were standard racists who thought that Europeans were better as people than others. This standard racism was buttressed by philosophical racism which embraced the three tier conception of philosophy. With the rise of the modern universities, and their taking the place in a secular society that Churchs used to have, both the standard and the philosophical racism became a part of the institutional structure.

The 20th century saw opposition to standard racism, and obviously that is why there are people from all cultures now walking around the campus. There is a progressive sense in the air, as if the very diversity of the people walking around shows that racism is a thing of the past, or at the very least is being addressed to some extent.

Yes, regarding standard racism. But not philosophical racism. People walking in the bookstore oblivious to this bizarre organization of books are like people walking around in a segregated society oblivious to the fact that segregation is not right. In a segregated society, the segregation is all too obvious: everyone can see it. What they don’t see is that it could be different in a better way, that the segregation is actually quite pernicious. That is the sense in which people are walking around the bookstore, just taking in the Enlightened feel in the air, but oblivious to the philosophical racism and why it is wrong.

Part of me wants to blame the philosophy faculty for letting this kind of organization in the bookstore happen. After all, shouldn’t they stand against philosophical racism, or at least be open about the fact of the philosophical racism? That the institution they are a part of is built on the three-tier conception of philosophy, and that far from questioning this conception, the compartmentalization and professionalization of academia have further entrenched it?

However, it is an open question how much the philosophy faculty are in a position to question and change this institutional structure. If they make a move towards the religious studies department, they are seen to be moving away from the secular ideals of philosophy, and so seem to be falling onto the second tier. If they move towards the history or literature departments, they are seen to be moving away from the universal to the particular, and so falling all the way onto the third tier. In order to stay in the first tier and so keep up the sense of its universality, it is essential that the philosophy departments not turn towards religion or history.

The eurocentrism of the philosophy department is thus not a willful racism of the philosophers in particular. It is due to the philosophical racism which is at the heart of how the academic structures were organized in the Modern period. So institutionally, philosophy departments play a certain role in the broader academic context: they are the show piece of the highest tier of consciousness, a show piece which is meant to show how academia is different from a religious institution.

Like a bishop or a cardinal in a Catholic procession, academic philosophers are symbols of the Enlightenment values of the university. But how much power does the academic philosopher actually have to change the structure they are a part of? Much less than one imagines. Philosophical racism goes much deeper than what academic philosophers themselves do: it reaches into the organization of academia, and now into how that is tied up with the financial structures which keep up academia.

Philosophical racism is a feature of our society. The problem with many academic philosophers isn’t that they are the root of the philosophical racism. It is that even though they are philosophers, they are being complicit in the philosophical racism of the society. Instead of contributing to changing the philosophical racism in the society, they are apathetically embracing it, as if after all the three-tier conception of philosophy is right, and as if, in fact, it is the most obvious thing in the world.

I imagine a philosophy faculty member walking through Labyrinth Books, perfectly at ease with where to find Western philosophy, Eastern philosophy and African philosophy. And if the philosophical racism implicit in this organizational structure is brought out, the philosopher might say, “This is but a trivial matter of how the bookstore chooses to organize itself. Hardly a topic for philosophy!” Of course, that is precisely what one would say from within the three-tier conception.

6 thoughts on “Three Tier Conception of Philosophy

    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      That’s a good question, and I am still learning about this myself. One example is the Indian materialist tradition. Google “Carvaka philosophy” to read about this.

      More broadly, there are two waves of Indian philosophy scholarship. The first, usually associated with Radhakrishnan, suggests that spirituality is essential to Indian philosophy, and that in this it is different from Western philosophy. The second, usually associated with people like Matilal and Mohanty, suggest that much in Indian philosophy is rational in the same way as Western philosophy, and is in this way beyond any local religious contexts. As a novice in this area, it is an open question to me which wave is right, or if some third wave is needed. But, nonetheless, much of the last 30-40 years in Indian philosophy scholarship is tied to the idea that Indian philosophy transcends any religious context. Though in the broader culture, inside and outside academia, the first wave Radhakrishnan idea still seems to be the prevalent view.


      1. joe

        Isn’t Carvaka really ancient – like mentioning Democritus and the Atomists? I am more interested in, say, philosophical thinking in India in the last century or two about certain topics such as, say, the nature explanation, ideal political system/constitution, morality, language, or mathematics, and so on (or what topics are philosophically treated there – these are just things that came to me). The other works you mention are meta-philosophical -what is or isn’t Indian philosophy.


        1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

          If you are interested in contemporary Indian philosophy, you might google “Indian Philosophy Blog” and check out their resources section. Given that I am just now learning about Indian philosophy, I am not the person to give you references.


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      By the way, why did you expect that I would be able to name contemporary Indian philosophers? Is it because I am in favor of pluralism in the philosophy curriculum?



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