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.
Imagine a society is culturally diverse – has people from all over the world – and yet the magazines show only white people as the paragons of beauty. The magazine racks in the stores are filled only with pictures of whites in different poses of beauty and glamour: at home, at work, at the beach, at the movies, and so on. Would this be wrong? If so, why?
Think of a little brown boy in that society looking at these pictures everywhere he goes. What would be the psychological effect on him? Obviously, it would be to create a perpetual sense of not being good enough, of feeling that full beauty is forever out of his grasp because of the color of his skin, the shape of his nose, the texture of his hair. Unless he sees people standing up and saying that the magazines don’t depict a universal ideal, he will assume, trusting society instinctively as a child would, that the magazines are capturing the ideal of beauty, and that yet he is different. Without a sense for how different can be equally good, he is bound to interpret different as less good. But less good why? What did he do wrong? How can he make up the difference to achieve the ideal himself? Unsure of why he isn’t able to fully make up the difference, a cycle of self-blame and guilt begins. A torrent of doubts grip him: Maybe I am not trying hard enough; maybe there is something broken in me; maybe I am defective.
Putting a person in a cage thwarts the natural growth of the person. In the beauty case, the magazines function as a cage: an invisible, psychological cage, but a cage nonetheless. Just as the physical cage thwarts a person’s physical development, the social cage of the white-washed magazines thwarts his personal development.
What about a white philosophy curriculum? Is that wrong like the white magazines case?
The pluralist claims that all traditions should be represented in the philosophy curriculum. I have been thinking about a puzzle regarding this claim: How can pluralism incorporate all traditions when making philosophy pluralistic might end the American philosophical tradition as it has been?
Here one seems to get stuck on one of two horns of the dilemma: either claim that the American philosophical tradition as it has been should end, in which case it seems as if what is being advocated is not true pluralism; or claim that the American philosophical tradition as it has been doesn’t have in end, in which case pluralism would be at best a fringe addition to the basic Eurocentric core.
I can remember many times sitting in class, wanting to speak up about pluralism, only to find myself stumbling half consciously onto this puzzle and shutting down. Speaking up for pluralism seemed like affirming the liar paradox. I was unsure about the coherence of what I wanted to say.
Is there a way out of the puzzle? Yes, there is.
In the previous post I suggested that giving up Eurocentrism is bound to change the American philosophical tradition, and American culture more generally. And the change isn’t a minor change, as in adding a few more texts to the standard Western curriculum. If the negation of Eurocentrism is implemented consistently, it would mean a radical dismantling of the distinctly European-based tradition. This leads to a puzzle: why would it be ok to radically transform the philosophical tradition in America in order to represent other philosophical traditions? It is a version of the question: is it justified to kill one person to harvest his organs in order to save ten people?
One response to the puzzle could be: “The worry is overblown. The philosophy curriculum becoming pluralistic doesn’t end or even change much the European-based tradition. That tradition right now has a de facto monopoly on the traditions taught in most philosophy departments in America. Pluralism aims to make the situation more equitable so that all traditions are equally represented.”
One argument in favor of Eurocentrism is culturally based: the philosophy curriculum in America should be primarily European because European thought captures the cultural history of America. On this line of thought, if one wants to study Indian philosophy, then they should go to India, or go to Mexico to study Mexican philosophy, and so on. But as long as one is in America, then one has to abide by the culture of America.
In order to delve deeper into this argument, let me set aside two standard responses to it. Not because the responses are wrong, but because they are not sufficient. One response is: “Philosophy is supposed to be universal, and it is meant to question one’s cultural history; so a Eurocentric philosophy curriculum for the sake of preserving culture is an oxymoron. This defense of Eurocentrism is nothing but an isolationist conservatism.”