Often eurocentrism, scientism and racism are conflated, as if they are really just the same thing. This comes out in broad generalizations like that western philosophy is scientific, but eastern philosophy is spiritual. Or that western philosophy is racist and there has to be a distinct Asian philosophy which captures “the Asian experience”.
If we are to truly get beyond eurocentrism, we have to tease apart these concepts and move beyond unhelpful generalizations.
Eurocentrism is the claim that European (and Anglo-American) philosophical texts are the most central to philosophy. That they should be the foundation of our philosophical education and inquiry more generally.
Scientism and racism are two very different – and independent – reasons one can give for eurocentrism. One might say: “We should focus on Descartes, Kant and Quine because they are white, and white people are the smartest.” This is racism in a very crude form, where one race is just bluntly asserted as superior. But often even racism isn’t asserted so bluntly. Rather, some specific achievements of a race are specified as proof of the superiority of that race. Like that, supposedly, white people discovered science or democracy or the one true religion, etc.
Why are black people being killed by the police? What does it mean?
At root is the assumption of the black person’s intellectual darkness. In America blacks are experienced by many whites and others as basically non-intellectual beings, as not carrying within them the light of reason and enlightenment, as animalistic.
Frantz Fanon captures this phenomenon in a colonist framework as follows:
The colonist turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil. Colonized society is not merely portrayed as a society without value. The colonist is not content with stating that the colonized world has lost its values or never possessed any. The “native” is declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values. He is, dare we say, the enemy of values. In other words, absolute evil. (The Wretched of the Earth, Chapter 1)
This is the pervasive, still lasting influence of slavery in our society. The slave owner doesn’t think the slaves are intellectual beings with whom he might discuss arguments for God’s existence or play chess, but who just happen to be his slaves. To affirm total power over the slaves, it is essential to see the slaves as beings who, left to themselves, would degrade themselves and the world. Slavery then is a burden, a kindness taken on by the slave owner to improve the world and improve the slaves. It is seen by the slave owner as his gift to the slave.
The institutional racism in academic philosophy comes down most basically to this fact: while a black or brown philosopher is supposed to read a white author like Russell and think, “Russell speaks to my human potential beyond racial differences,” it is completely permitted, even encouraged, for a white philosopher to read Du Bois and think, “Du Bois speaks as a black person to the black experience, and so doesn’t speak to my human potential beyond racial differences.”
This is the brute force of Eurocentrism in philosophy: it is asserted, without argument, even without self-awareness really, that the universal is found only in the European tradition. All others traditions are local, to be transcended. Only European philosophy is the space of having transcended.
What a twisted effect this can have on a black or brown philosopher’s mind! From the get go, the black philosopher is set an enormous hurdle which is not there for the white philosopher: that the black thinker has to overcome their entire being – their culture, their history, their physical appearances and unreflective modes of comportment – to transcend to philosophy. For the white philosopher the message is: think for yourself. For the black philosopher it is: think beyond yourself.
The white philosopher is seen as going from one aspect of white culture, that of their upbringing, to another aspect of white culture (Plato, Hume). The black philosopher is required to go from their culture to an aspect of white culture (Plato, Hume). If the reflective distance required to go from C.S. Lewis to Quine is like crossing a river, the reflective distance required to go from Malcolm X to Quine is like crossing an ocean. And yet what is the conclusion? It is the white philosopher who can teach how to have reflective distance, and the black philosopher who has to learn it. The person swimming the ocean has to take swimming lessons from the person swimming the river!
The central disagreement between Russell and Wittgenstein was on the question: is philosophy universal in the way science is universal?
Two different aims are being run together in the Black Lives Matter movement: one for which protest is apt, and the other for which protest is not. The difference is essential.
One aim of the BLM movement is to make sure officers who kill innocent blacks are not protected by police departments. This is the immediate aim. It’s clear what would count as succeeding in this aim, and when the protests can stop: if police departments reform their practices and hold officers accountable for killing innocent black citizens.
But there is something much bigger which the BLM movement highlights: that America is waking up from its fantasy of the last 50 years. There has been the illusion that the civil rights movement of the 60s basically made America equal for all its citizens. Part of what the BLM movement is bringing out is just how untrue this is: ending slavery didn’t make blacks equal as citizens, and ending segregation didn’t either. Much more work was needed after ending slavery, and there is much more work to do after ending segregation. This is the bigger aim. But protest doesn’t help with this aim.
Protest to achieve the bigger aim assumes there is already a theoretical answer about what true equality in America looks like. Protest is seen as the way to actualize that answer. But do we actually have such an answer even in theory? Who figured it out?