In the previous post I suggested the change between the Homeric and Socratic Greeks was not a change from no reflective distance to reflective distance, but from, what I called, communal reflective distance to individual reflective distance. If we focus only on the Greeks, we are liable to see this change as going from religion to philosophy. But this isn’t right, for a similar change is central to what we in the modern world think of quintessentially as religions: Zorastrianism, Judiasm, Hinduism, and so on.
Consider Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Issac in the Old Testament. From our current perspective what jumps out is the fact that Abraham was willing to do such an “immoral” action out of his belief in God. An atheist might claim this is what following God looks like, and so is a prime example of the irrationality of faith.
To Abraham’s contemporaries, it would have looked very different. They could have understand the idea of sacrificing humans, and perhaps even sacrificing one’s own child., though maybe not in community Abraham belonged to. But what they would not have understood is what Abraham was doing as following God, or Gods. This would have been their sticking point. As Abraham’s contemporaries saw it, a religious act was not something you do away from your community, alone, on your own on top of a mountain. For them, following God was something essentially communal, which was experienced in the midst of others as a shared experience, in their accepted social roles.
According to the origin claim, universal philosophy began with the ancient Greeks. Before then, in ancient Greece and around the world, there was only religion and a communal mind-set ruled the days. But this changed with the dawn of Western philosophy, and Socrates was one of the first people to truly think for himself. This beginning of “thinking for oneself” is what renders Western philosophy universal, since it is not, unlike other philosophical traditions, based on the acceptance of tradition. With Socrates everything was open to being questioned.
The origin claim makes it seem as if while all was dark before, suddenly there was light; as if while until the 6th century BC everyone was walking around in a daze of conformity, thereafter a new, hitherto unknown capacity for challenging tradition dawned on humanity. We can put the point in terms of reflective distance, the ability to step back from one’s impulses and reflect on what one should do. The origin claim states that the ability of reflective distance was first exercised by the pre-Socratics.
But can there be any human society without reflective distance? Even if we focus just on ancient Greece, could it really be true that before the pre-Socratics there was only a blind adherence to tradition?
One thing I want to do on this blog is think out loud about texts which I think are central to pluralism. Often these will be texts I haven’t read, or read carefully, before. So I am not an expert on these texts and what I say about them is not in any way exhaustive. If any reader find errors in what I way, I am grateful to have it pointed out in the comments. I write about these texts simply because I am drawn to them in my own thinking, and because they seem to me incredibly philosophically fertile. In what ways fertile exactly, and how that relates to pluralism, is what I try to understand as I read the texts.
The first text is W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and in this post I focus on Chapter 1 of the book.
In thinking of Du Bois’ book, even before picking it up, one question presents itself: “Is this philosophy? In particular, is it universally applicable to all human beings?” The title itself seems to announce its limitations: The Souls of Black Folk. So is this book mainly about, or for, blacks? What can, say, an Indian-American such an myself gain about his life and his philosophical interests by reading it? Does the book translate beyond African-Americans to all people in the way philosophy purports to?
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.
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.
I have been suggesting (here and here) that the reason to have non-Western authors in the curriculum is not to satisfy identity politics, but precisely so that non-whites can gain reflective distance from their background. In order to reflect on the assumptions of one’s background, one has to engage with those assumptions. Eurocentrism is thus an obstacle to many non-whites gaining philosophical reflection.
Consider the analogous case of feminism. The reason to have women authors isn’t just so that women are pacified. Given the generally patriarchal structures of society, for many women (perhaps not all) as they come to philosophical self-consciousness, their being women – that they are different in that way from the famous male philosophers – is central to their initial perspective on philosophical questions. This is neither right nor wrong; it is a matter of psychology. The way for someone who is conscious of the male dominated structures to do philosophy would be for her to start by reflecting on the situation of women in philosophy. That is her starting point into philosophy, a starting point which might be very exciting to her as philosophy. As illuminating not only her condition as a woman, but our shared condition as human beings.