Nationalism, Universalism and Diversity

The below is posted at Daily Nous.


What should be the relation of a philosophy department to the country it is in? For example, is there a sense in which a philosophy department in America ought to be distinctly American, tied more closely to the history, culture and identity of America than to that of other countries? Or should the fact that the department is in America be irrelevant to the philosophical work that is done in the department?

I will call the former view, that the department ought to be distinctly American in some sense, nationalism. And I will call the latter view universalism.

So according to nationalism, philosophy departments in, say, America, Mexico, India, Germany, Egypt and so on, though they will have a great deal of similarities and points of overlap, nonetheless will be different in their philosophical projects since they are interwoven with their home countries in different ways. According to universalism, however, philosophy departments in different countries ought to be the same in terms of content, since philosophy departments ought to transcend the contingent fact of their location.

A couple of clarifications. First, nationalism in the sense I am talking about is distinct from patriotism. The difference between a nationalist and a universalist isn’t who loves their country more. A universalist can be as patriotic as a nationalist. The difference is about the philosophical relevance of the country the department is in to the work of the department.

Second, much work done in philosophy departments is obviously universalist. Logic, philosophy of physics,  philosophy of biology, internalism versus externalism—for these it makes no difference whether one is in America or Brazil or South Africa. For that matter, if one is working on Spinoza or Shankara or Avicenna with the aim of understanding the content and historical conditions of their work, then too it is irrelevant what country one is in. So the issue between nationalism and universalism isn’t whether philosophy projects can be universalist. The issue is whether philosophy departments ought to also have distinctly nationalist projects which are more tied to the concerns, culture and history of the country the department is in.

At first blush, it might seem that universalism is the clear way to foster diversity in philosophy departments. If departments adhered to nationalism, wouldn’t that reinforce the structural privileges and biases of the country the department is in? The universalist argues that in order to think critically about the assumptions of a country, it is essential to adopt a universal perspective where people reflect on themselves not as Americans or French or Israelis, but simply as people. That the task of philosophy is to foster such universalism.

I would suggest, however, that universalism actually stifles conversation about diversity. For it replaces philosophical debate about the identity and direction of a country with a sharp dichotomy between local, unphilosophical discourse and universal, philosophical discourse. In the process, any view other than universalism is set up from the get go as something backward, insular and what is to be overcome.

This stifling of debate is experienced from at least two sides in America. First, from the side of proponents of cultural Eurocentrism. If someone says, “American philosophy departments should focus more on European philosophy since it captures the traditional culture of America,” this is not racist or automatically intolerant. Racists might say such a thing, but that doesn’t mean racism is the only way of saying it. A philosophical Eurocentrist is a nationalist, in the sense I defined above, who has a particular view about what nationalist projects philosophy departments should contribute to. This is a legitimate view in conceptual space which ought to be taken seriously, both for its potential merits and because a great many people intuitively find it compelling. Nothing is gained by dismissing it without reflection.

A similar stifling of debate can be experienced by proponents of non-European traditions. In America, this is most obvious in the case of African-American philosophy. Since African-Americans can lay a great claim to America (as people who were an essential part of it from its foundation), universalism is not necessary to argue for the inclusion of African-American philosophy in philosophy departments. Embracing nationalism is more than sufficient for that. The idea that African-American philosophy can only be defended from a universalist perspective uncritically reinforces the assumption that America as a nation is fundamentally Eurocentric. But this assumption is exactly one of the main issues at stake, and can only be resolved by explicitly doing, what one might call, the philosophy of America (What it is? What it has been? What it ought to be?).

For example, is Black Lives Matter philosophically significant? What about the alt right? Saying “yes” doesn’t require agreeing with these movements.  It requires just the idea, which is patently true, that these movements sharply raise questions related to the philosophy of America. These movements are attempts to articulate different, competing visions of America. Philosophy departments can help in better articulating these visions, and so help foster more productive and rigorous discussion between them.

Ultimately, this is the limitation of universalism. To foster diversity, we need philosophy departments to engage more, not less, with issues distinctive to the nations they are in. Though Black Lives Matter has movements in other countries, it cannot be evaluated simply as a global phenomenon. In its American, founding manifestation, it is a distinctly American movement, with people, pro and con, trying to grapple with the history of race relations in America. The unique American element of the movement is not a detriment to its philosophical interest, as universalism would imply. Rather, it is of great importance for honestly addressing the philosophical questions particular to the identity of America.

Let me end with a historical speculation. Prior to World War II, American pragmatism, especially in its Deweyean form, was unabashedly nationalist. Just as Dewey made no sharp distinction between science and philosophy, he made no sharp distinction between politics and philosophy. It was treated as entirely natural that part of the project of philosophy departments in America would be to foster the flourishing of America – including debating what America, and its flourishing, meant.

After World War II, however, universalism became more the norm in American philosophy. Like Dewey, Quine blurred the boundary between science and philosophy; but unlike Dewey, Quine reinforced a sharp separation between politics and philosophy. On the Quinean worldview, philosophers, like scientists, are trans-national thinkers, interested only in universal truth, and not in particular identities such as what country one lives in. Nor was this only an analytic attitude. A continental thinker like Marcuse blurred the boundary of politics and philosophy, and made a big cultural impact in America. Yet the politics at issue was trans-national, of the common situation of countries in late capitalism.

Why did this shift happen in America in mid-20th century? My guess is that with the civil rights movement and the end of colonialism, the concept of nationalism in philosophy departments in America became conflated with the concept of racist white nationalism in American culture. The conflation is psychologically and historically understandable. But intellectually it has been disastrous, especially for discourse about the direction of America. Philosophers in America need to resist this conflation and create spaces for debating alternate nationalistic visions, for academic philosophy and America more broadly. They would then be at the front lines of healing the divisions in the country.

2 thoughts on “Nationalism, Universalism and Diversity

  1. Gautam

    This way of looking at philosophy/politics appears to be very similar to the interplay between (small-c) conservatism of Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, contrasted with a theory-centric system-building liberalism. The former focuses on the set of dispositions and habits that constitute a polity and take these to have value (in the very fact that they are dispositions that have evolved over time and contributed to social stability); consequently, they are “nationalist” or localist in terms of the set of concerns they engage with. The small-c conservative would espouse different things depending on whether they are in Peoria, IL, or Papua New Guinea; this can include such “philosophical” things as nature of personhood, ethical beliefs, or role of government.

    The limitation of the universalist (theory-centric system-building) approach, as you note, is that it has no way to engage with the arguments of the small-c conservative. It treats those concerns as contingent, hence parochial, hence narrow-minded, hence automatically superseded by a rationalist universal approach.

    Interesting related op-ed:


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Agree. Another way of putting it is as a disagreement about how to foster pluralism.

      The universalist thinks pluralism means all local groups merging into one big pluralistic group. The assumption here being that anything less than “one big group” is something less than all inclusive, and so not pluralistic (enough? at all?). The non-universalist says, in contrast, that pluralism doesn’t have to mean inclusion of all, but rather inclusion of more than one – or how ever many perspectives there are in a given group (family, country, etc.). On this non-univeralist approach, pluralism is better fostered by focusing on local diversity, and building up from there.

      A main current confusion is identifying universalism with pluralism, and nationalism with non-pluralism (say, supremacy of a dominant group). My guess is one reason why populist movements are gaining traction is because of the implausibility of identifying universalism and pluralism. People can be for pluralism in their country, but not for a world culture. If liberals affirm pluralism in a universalist mode, they end up making pluralism sound like there are no distinctions of any kind between people; which is what many non-liberals are against. Recently a family member of mine who voted for Trump said, “I am not for Trump, I am against liberals”. By liberals, he said he meant people who believe in one global culture. As long as the choice is seen as “universalism or Trump”, I think many people will give Trump a lot of leeway, because they see him as pushing for a pluralistic nationalism.

      For me this is the most curious aspect of current American politics. Because many liberals don’t seem to talk about nationalism, Trump has been able to co-opt nationalism, and has a coalition of pluralistic nationalists (Priebus, traditional Republicans) and non-pluralist nationalists (Bannon, Miller, Steve King, parts of alt right). Pluralist nationalists believe democracy can embrace pluralism, and so they are more trusting of democratic institutions; non-pluralist nationalists not so much, and can seem disenchanted with democracy. How long can this coalition hang together? The longer liberals espouse universalism, the longer Trump’s coalition hangs together. But if liberals also start to affirm pluralistic nationalism, then they can put pressure on Trump’s coalition.

      Liked by 1 person


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