Eurocentrism, Scientism and Racism

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.

But one can give scientism as a reason for eurocentrism without racism at all. One can give all sorts of cultural, economic and sociological reasons for why modern physics and biology started in Europe several centuries ago, while disavowing any intrinsic superiority of the whites as a race. On this view one says: “We should focus on Descartes, Kant and Quine not because they are white. Rather, it’s because any modern philosophy has to engage with modern science, and because modern science started in Europe, these philosophers just happen to be ahead of the curve.”

This is the view I encountered the most in contemporary academic philosophy. Obviously responding to it by affirming the evils of colonialism and racism is ineffectual, because that is besides the point. The real issue is: what is the relation between modern science and philosophy? If philosophy is essentially meta-science, then, it is claimed, eurocentrism is justified without any reference to race.

There are three ways one can reject this scientistic defense of eurocentrism.

First, even granted the assumptions that modern science is essential to philosophy and modern science began in Europe, a great deal of non-European philosophy of the last few centuries is still essential. If the ideas of Berkeley, Spinoza and Hegel are all ways of combining modern science with philosophy without reducing the latter to the former, then so are the ideas of thinkers like Bhattacharya and Aurobindo (to name two 20th century Indian philosophers who accepted modern science as much as any European philosopher).

Precisely because making philosophical sense of modern science has nothing to do with race, it is as important to look to non-European philosophers taking on that project as looking to European philosophers. Just because modern science began in Europe 400 years ago doesn’t mean that even into the 19th and 20th centuries European philosophers have a special claim on coming to grips with that revolution. For a good while now, many non-European philosophers have also been trying to integrate modern science into their philosophies.

Second, one can distinguish science from modern science, and say that insofar as philosophy engages with the scientific spirit broadly understood, then non-European philosophy is equally relevant. What is good for Plato and Aristotle is also good for Nagarjuna and Dharmakirti.

One might here push back the “discovery of science” trope to ancient Western philosophy and say, “But Plato was making sense of the connection between philosophy and mathematics, and Aristotle the connection between philosophy, biology and logic. Just as modern science was discovered by modern Europeans, so science in general was discovered by the ancient Greeks.” This views identifies reasoning and a general scientific outlook as discoveries of European civilization, and so affirms eurocentrism.

But the idea that Europeans discovered reasoning (or Reason) is preposterous, as if humans did not reason prior to the pre-Socratics. One might as well say, on the assumption that human life began in Africa, that Africans discovered human perception which makes observation and science possible. Or that Egyptians discovered “modern” memory, since writing began with them. And even if one means by “Greeks discovered reason” something like, “They engaged in systemic inquiry independent of religion”, it’s still not true. Ancient atheistic and atomistic traditions can be found outside of Europe.

Even assuming that reasoning and science began in ancient Greece, there is here an origin fallacy. Suppose logic began with Aristotle and it spread from ancient Greece to, say, ancient Buddhist philosophy. Is that any reason to treat Aristotle as emblematic of rational philosophy in a way Nagarjuna isn’t? That’s like saying, “No point reading 18th century Germans like Kant since modern philosophy really began with 17th century French philosophers like Descartes.” At root, these origin claims are just ways of marking territory and have no normative significance.

Third, it is just not true that all philosophy, or even most philosophy, begins with reflection on science. So even supposing that science began in ancient Greece or that modern science began in Europe, that doesn’t tell us what in general philosophy is or should be.

For example, one way to raise the problem of free will is to ask, “How can humans be free if modern physics is true?” But to raise the question of free will, one doesn’t have to refer to modern physics at all. One can raise it just as well with a generic sense of “atoms in the void” which many ancient civilizations came to on their own. But what is more, to raise the issue of free will, one doesn’t even need to refer to atoms. One can instead simply speak of being determined in terms of cultural conditioning, a concept which simply requires that one has the concept of different cultures – hardly a modern or scientific concept.

In fact, this is still for most people the root of the free will problem: “Can one act freely if one is a member of a community? How can freedom and social identity be compatible?” There is nothing about this huge, exciting philosophical problem which couldn’t have arisen in ancient Egypt or India or even in nomadic, hunter gatherer communities. If philosophy consists of questions that can arise to any thinking being, including young children, then it is really absurd to think that for the vast majority of human history people were just sleep walking through their lives even though they were discovering agriculture, creating chariots, forging empires and taking over other cultures.

There is no one free will problem. It arises in many different ways. We might ask, “How can humans be free if quantum mechanics is true?” (A question about indeterminacy.) Or “How can humans be free if Newtonian mechanics is true?” (A question about billiard ball determinacy.) Or “How can humans be free if evolution is true?” (A question about genetics.) So even with respect to modern science, there are differences in how the free will question gets posed.

It is all the more true when we think of the free will problem independent of science. We might ask, “How can humans be free and social beings?” (A question about individuality.) Or “How can humans be free if there is God?” (A question about omnipotence.) Or “How can one choose between identities such as being a son and an artist?” (A question of roles.) Or “How can one become free of attachments to material possessions?” (A question of enlightenment.)

The problem with scientism is that it takes some problems which arise from philosophical reflection on science, and treats those as the only real philosophical problems. As if any problems that don’t arise out of, or in relation to, science must be bogus problems. But there is nothing specifically scientific about many pressing problems we face as humans – even as humans in an age of science and technology. Science is no doubt relevant to the problems, but the problems still aren’t reducible to science or meta-science. They arise not from reflection on science, but from within our day to day culturally infused lives.

We read Descartes and Kant in part because they engaged with modern science, but that is not the only reason. Descartes’ Meditations, Kant’s Groundwork, Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Nietzsche’s Geneology of Morals – these texts speak to many problems of our human condition, problems which can, and often do, arise without reference to atoms or genes. They help us think through conceptual issues that arise simply in virtue of us being cultural beings – what it means for us to belong to cultures and what kind of cultures we want to create going forward.

The central fallacy of eurocentrism is: because modern science began in Europe and science is universal, only the philosophy arising from European culture is universal. But philosophy is not just meta-science, not even modern European philosophy. Universality in philosophy cannot be inherited from science. It has to be created in its own terms, through the hard work of bringing our different cultures together.


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