Clickbaiting and the evils of Western philosophy


The title of this blog is Footnotes to Plato. This is not because I am inordinately fond of Plato (among the ancients I prefer the Stoics, as many readers know), nor because I literally believe the famous phrase by Alfred North Whitehead from which the blog title derives: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (Process and Reality, p. 39, Free Press, 1979). I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it seriously, or at least I hope so.

The quip, however, does hint at a historical reality: Plato is — for good and for ill —the single most influential Western philosopher, in good part because he touched on pretty much every major topic that subsequent philosophers have been preoccupied with. The reason for this, in turn, is arguably twofold: on the one hand, he truly was a towering figure, who had a lot to say about all sorts of things; on the other hand, he was one of the earliest philosophers, which means that the field was completely open and ripe with a bunch of low hanging fruits. This isn’t a thing peculiar to philosophy: Galileo made a huge number of discoveries, from the craters of the Moon to the rings of Saturn, simply because he was the first one to use a telescope.

[Yes, I’m aware that we still study Plato in philosophy, but we don’t study Galileo in science. There are good reasons for this, which have nothing to do with an alleged superiority of science and everything to do with the fact that science and philosophy are different kinds of disciplines, with different methods and concerns. So is mathematics. And literary criticism. See here for an entire book devoted to that topic.]

Back to Whitehead: notice that the phrase specifically refers to the European philosophical tradition. An obvious acknowledgment of the existence of several other traditions, over which Plato had little or no influence. Which brings me to the point of the current post. During the last several weeks I’ve been sparring on Twitter with Bryan van Norden, a self-described “leading scholar” of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, based in Singapore. He has written a book, just out, entitled Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, in support of which he has published a piece in Aeon magazine. It is that piece that has triggered our back and forth, which has, unfortunately, reached rare levels of unpleasantness.

The title of the Aeon article is “Why the Western Philosophical canon is xenophobic and racist,” a rare instance of vilification of an entire field and of an indiscriminate attack on every professional working within it. Is van Norden justified in his accusations? Is such an obvious clickbait the best way to foster a constructive dialogue about the problem? Let’s take a look.

First though, let me make clear that I agree with some of the substance of van Norden’s article (and, presumably, book). Philosophy departments the world over — not just in North America or Europe — should indeed be teaching as many of the varied philosophical traditions as logistically possible. Then again, that goes also for history departments, or literature, and so forth, I would think.

Second, the crucial kernel of truth in van Norden’s argument is the problem famously identified by Edward W. Said in his 1978 book, Orientalism. Said defined Orientalism as a patronizing attitude on the part of “the West” in its representations of “the East,” an attitude that is inextricably tied with Colonialism between the 16th and 19th centuries. Some of the victims, according to Said, have been complicit with the West, as for instance in the case of the romantic aura surrounding descriptions of Arab Culture, which originated with French, British, and American writers, but was then deployed by Arab elites for their own repressive purposes.

Said’s work is important and well known in Western departments, though it has to be noted that it targeted primarily literature (not philosophy), and that it has in turn been criticized in part because of its over-reliance on questionable poststructural methods of analysis. Be that as it may, I know of no one in contemporary philosophy or literature departments in the West who is not aware of Said’s work and very sensitive to potential charges of Orientalism. van Norden clearly disagrees, so let’s take a look at what he says in some detail.

He begins his article with a statement just as bald (and as false) as its title: “Mainstream philosophy in the so-called West is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic. I know I am levelling a serious charge. But how else can we explain the fact that the rich philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are completely ignored by almost all philosophy departments in both Europe and the English-speaking world?”

Footnotes to Plato for more

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