Questioning ‘Western Philosophy’: Philosophical, Historical, and Historiographical Challenges
Lucy Allais (Professor of Philosophy, Johns Hopkins University, US / University of the Witwatersrand, ZA)
Revisiting Problematising Western philosophy (2016)
Reflecting on “Problematising Western philosophy as one part of Africanising the curriculum” (South African Journal of Philosophy, 35(4), 2016). This paper argues that one part of the picture of thinking about decolonising the philosophy curriculum should include problematising the notion of Western philosophy. I argue that there are many problems with the idea of Western philosophy, and with the idea that decolonising the curriculum should involve rejecting so-called Western philosophy. Doing this could include granting the West a false narrative about its origins, influences and interactions, perpetuating exclusions within contemporary and recent North American and European philosophy, perpetuating exclusions and failed acknowledgements within the history of so-called Western philosophy, while at the same time rejecting a tradition which has included in itself so many topics and methodologies that what is left after excluding it would leave other traditions with limited resources, at the same time as wrongly granting the West proprietary rights over any ideas it has happened to investigate, rather than seeing these as belonging to all of humanity. I therefore conclude that a central part of curriculum change should be problematising Western philosophy, including our learning more about, and teaching, more complex views of its history and interactions with other traditions.
Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach (Chair of Diversifying Philosophy, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, NL / Professor of Philosophy, Konstanz University, DE)
Appropriating, Borrowing and Retelling the Philosophical Story: Countering Conceptual Hegemony
In the early decades of the twentieth century, intellectuals from colonized and oppressed communities drew attention to intellectual debates in Europe that fed into the formation of what is today termed ‘Western Philosophy’. In their analysis, the conceptual hegemony that emanated from this formation sought to control those parts of the world it deemed to be ‘the non-west’. This hegemony—as well as the control it exercised—could be countered by developing adequate conceptual frameworks in transnational collaborations. My paper will first sketch the strategy developed by protagonists from South Asia who participated in these networks. It will then consider whether, and how, aspects of their counter-strategy can be used today to narrate global, entwined, connected histories in philosophy.
Christoph Schuringa (Assistant Professor in Philosophy, New College of the Humanities, London / Northeastern University, UK)
Canonization and Its Discontents
It is widely recognized by those working in academic philosophy departments that the curriculum stands in need of decolonization. This is often conceived of in terms of the inclusion of 'non-Western philosophy', presupposing the concept of 'Western philosophy'. 'Western philosophy', which is in truth an ideological construct with a specific history, is assumed to take the form of a canon: a collection of works by a set of canonized 'figures'. Decolonization is then often thought of as 'expanding the canon', through the inclusion of the work of 'non-Western' 'figures'. I examine, first, various immediate pitfalls of this approach, including replicating features of canonization, and of the ideological construct 'Western philosophy' that it supports, that were part of the problem in the first place. Second, I offer a diagnosis of why it is so difficult for those working in academic philosophy departments to progress beyond this approach. It is not merely that the traditional canon of philosophy is difficult to escape, but that the very idea of a philosophical canon plays a distinctive structural role within the social realm of academic philosophy that is inseparable from an ingrained use of the history of philosophy as a tool of marginalization.
Robert Bernasconi (Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Philosophy & African American Studies, Penn State University, US)
The Role of Races and Religions in the Rewriting of the History of Philosophy
The emergence at the end of the eighteenth century of accounts of the history of philosophy that for the first time confined it to the West is now well documented, but this transformation needs to be seen against the backdrop of the close relationship in the West between philosophy and Christianity. The restriction of philosophy to Western philosophy was in large part accomplished by reclassifying as religions those philosophies that flourished outside of Europe. This endeavor had a racial component to it too, insofar as at this time religions and races were still largely seen as intertwined. But what began as an effort to maintain the close association of philosophy with Christianity soon came to be transformed by efforts to emancipate philosophy from religion altogether
Lea Cantor (Doctoral Candidate, Philosophy, University of Oxford, UK)
The Origin Story of ‘Western Philosophy’
Histories of ‘Western Philosophy’ commonly endorse a stark mythos-logos distinction to justify a ‘Greek beginning’ of philosophy. These accounts largely present rationality as having emerged at a particular historical moment: the earliest Greek philosophers, the story goes, moved away from religion and mythology and discovered or even invented rationality, marking the birth of philosophy. This kind of narrative may strike the specialist of ancient Greek philosophy as outdated and simplistic – if not obviously mistaken. The issue might even seem unworthy of serious scholarly attention. But that would underestimate vastly how the framework still widely informs contemporary scholarship in the history of philosophy as well as specialist work in ancient philosophy.
In §1 I show that the flawed mythos-logos narrative underlies a much larger story still current in general historiographical literature: namely, the supposed birth of a ‘Western Philosophy’ in ancient Greece.
In §2 I consider three interconnected defences of the idea that philosophy originated among the Greeks which have been exploited by authors of histories of ‘Western Philosophy’. The first is the claim that the early Greek philosophers (i) ‘invented’ or ‘discovered’ rationality; the second is that they supposedly (ii) abandoned their predecessors’ mythologies and religious assumptions in favour of a strictly philosophical or scientific mode of reasoning; the third is that they (iii) were secular or even anti-religious. I consider these claims in turn, and argue they are baseless.
In §3 I consider whether the mythos-logos narrative can be salvaged based on a weaker conceptual distinction between mythos and logos, whereby the emergence of Greek philosophy is conceived as the endpoint of a gradual shift from mythos towards logos. Versions of this revised framework are sometimes endorsed in specialist work on Greek philosophy. I argue however that this framework’s teleological implication of progressive rationalization, naturalization or even secularization risks over-determining or running afoul of the evidence, just as the cruder framework does.
Catherine König-Pralong (Professor of Philosophy, EHESS Paris, FR)
Mapping (the History of) the Mind. Europe’s Self-Colonization
In the nineteenth century, the philosophical historiography achieved a process that can be described as Europe’s self-colonization. Historians of philosophy and culture constructed an imagined Europe—a cultural area—by mapping knowledge and the mind on a global scale. They described Europe as the region of science, philosophy and abstract, critical and reflexive thought. This learned situation of Europe as a “philosophical colony” has had probably more effect on European societies and knowledge than on the rest of the world. Then the question is whether European mind should be decolonized, why and how. In my contribution, I will reconstruct this process and address some of its effects.
Jonathan Egid (Doctoral Student, King's College London, UK)
The category of 'Western Philosophy': reflections from connected history
This paper aims to tackle a philosophical problem in the historiography of philosophy, namely how to understand the relations between thinkers of quite different philosophical traditions. To this end, I sketch three related methodological approaches, providing a case study in the comparison of two 17th century thinkers Descartes and Zera Yacob.
The first approach is that of ‘comparative philosophy’, usefully defined by Wong as “bringing together philosophical traditions that have developed in relative isolation from one another and that are defined quite broadly along cultural and regional lines”. A second approach is that of examining philosophical parallels grounded in parallel socio-economic developments: most famously in Jaspers’ notion of the ‘Axial Age’, but more recently in much greater detail in Seaford’s examination of ‘the Origins of Philosophy in Ancient Greece and India’. A third approach is what we might call, following Subrahmanyam, a ‘connected’ history of philosophy. This approach emphasises the diffusion of the same patterns in different places with a focus on common material circumstances, viewing these patterns not as isolated developments but rather as connected to each other by some particular material-causal process.
In the final section I provide a sketch of how a ‘connected’ approach can inform a critique of traditional ‘geopolitical’ definitions of historical traditions – in particular ‘Western Philosophy’, but also how it can help us to build up a positive conception of the global context of philosophical thought in the 17th century. I suggest that the construction of materially-grounded connected histories of particular ideas, texts or discursive contexts can form a promising starting point for global histories of philosophy, and outline two examples of how this might work.
Lin Ma (Professor of Philosophy, Renmin University, Beijing, CN)
Heidegger on the Abendland and the abendländische Philosophie
From the early 1940s onward, Heidegger started to emphasize that there is no philosophy other than Western (abendländisch) philosophy. This view has helped enhancing the hegemony of the so-called Western philosophy, which is a not only parochial but also vague label. In this talk, I examine the way in which Heidegger transformed the word “Abendland” (West) from an ordinary geographico-historiological term into a Being-historical notion. From this perspective, we can better understand his insistence on Western philosophy as philosophy propre, as the only form of philosophy.
Saloni de Souza (Associate Lecturer, Philosophy, UCL, UK)
On Top of the World: Garcia de Orta on the Problems With “Western Philosophy”
Garcia de Orta was a sixteenth century, Jewish doctor, most famous for detailing a number of tropical diseases, notably Asiatic cholera. Fleeing persecution in Europe, he left his home in Portugal and travelled around Asia, eventually settling in Portuguese India. There, he wrote Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (Conversations on the simples, drugs and medical matters of India), which has received virtually no philosophical attention.
In this paper, I will emphasise just one aspect of de Orta’s rich philosophical thought. I show that de Orta challenges so-called “Western Philosophy” in two important and interesting ways. Firstly, he shows that we cannot clearly separate off “Western” philosophy from philosophy more generally. This is because, as de Orta himself shows, thinkers from different traditions are not always engaged in radically different philosophical endeavours or working independently of one another. Secondly, he argues that privileging the views of thinkers from one’s own cultural or geographical background make attaining the very object of philosophy, truth, impossible. The tendency of philosophers to regard “Western Philosophy” as somehow better or to ignore ideas from elsewhere is therefore philosophically damaging.
Instead, I will argue, de Orta proposes a promising model on which philosophy is a global endeavour and ought to be regarded as such, if we really want to attain truth. Nonetheless, he acknowledges obstacles to this. Practising philosophy in a culturally and geographically holistic way requires extensive travel, global cooperation and mutual respect, irrespective of cultural, educational, geographical, political or religious background. These conditions are difficult to meet. For example, there are substantive language barriers to overcome, knowledge of local practices is required. Moreover, it is difficult to see how the kind of mutual respect that this method demands is possible with any kind of bias in play or with the unequal power relationships between the coloniser and the colonised, which are clearly in the background of de Orta’s dialogue.
De Orta then provides an interesting example of a historical challenge to the idea of “Western Philosophy”, questioning both its coherence and its value. He also proposes a philosophical methodology that is more promising, albeit problematic. However, in doing so, he also provides food for thought for the contemporary reader: are there ever any circumstances in which it is makes sense to think of “Western Philosophy” independent of other traditions, e.g. where views are radically different? Is it true that looking solely at thinkers from a particular cultural, religious and geographical background inhibits epistemic progress? Is de Orta’s model something we could adopt with favourable outcomes?
Lilith W. Lee (Assistant Professor, Faculty of Humanities, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, NL)
Peter Adamson (Professor of Ancient & Medieval Philosophy, LMU, Munich, DE / King's College London, UK)
Is Philosophy in the Islamic World “Western”?
This paper will begin with a brief methodological reflection on the use of geography in dividing the history of philosophy, before diving into its main topic: philosophy in the Islamic world. While philosophy from this part of the world is often treated as belonging to “global philosophy” it is fundamentally unlike classical Chinese, classical Indian, pre-colonial African and Mesoamerican philosophy (and so on) by having a clear and extensive connection to the history of philosophy in pre-modern Europe. As is well known, philosophers working in the Islamic world were not only powerfully influenced by Greek philosophy, but in turn exerted a powerful influence on Latin medieval philosophy. Furthermore, much philosophy was produced in the Iberian Peninsula while it was under Islamic dominion. These well-known facts make it difficult to classify philosophy in the Islamic world as either “Western” or “non-Western.” Less commonly appreciated is another complicating factor: the contrast between philosophy in the Eastern Islamic world and in the Western Islamic world (maghrib) in the pre-modern era. After explaining this contrast and its relevance to the question of “Western philosophy,” I will close by asking whether we have a different situation with more recent philosophy in the Islamic world, that is, in the colonial and post-colonial era.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Professor of Philosophy and French; Director, Institute of African Studies, Columbia University, US)
Translation and African philosophy
I will argue that translation, or what I call thinking from language to language is an important dimension of African philosophy. It has been in the past, it will be in the future of African philosophy.
Concerning the past, or the intellectual history of West Africa (the region known as Sudan in Arab chronicles) I will present the field of Timbuktu studies as an aspect of translatio studii, the transmission/translation of Greek philosophy. And concerning the present and future of African philosophy I will discuss the opposition between Alexis Kagame and Kwasi Wiredu’s approaches, the first being differentialist while the latter is translational.
Dmitri Levitin (Fellow, All Souls College & Faculty of History, University of Oxford, UK)
The Strange Scholarly Origins of ‘Western Philosophy’, and an Uncomfortable Question
I begin with what I take to be a consensus: that the idea of ‘Western philosophy’ was first systematically propagated in the decades around 1800, above all in Germany (Park 2013; Cantor 2022; Levitin 2022). I then turn to the fact that merely a century earlier, the idea was not simply controversial, but unthinkable. No-one - without exception - would have taken seriously the claim that the Greeks were the only people to philosophise. I debunk some myths about this consensus: it had nothing to do with ‘Renaissance Neoplatonism’ or anything called ‘prisca theologia’ (which is a fantasy of 20th-century historians); quite simply, it was a basic historical-anthropological presupposition. I then ask how Europeans got from here to the philosophical Philhellenism of 1800, even before the concept of ‘race’ started to make its nefarious impact. I point to the role of ecclesiastical history and theological debate, including the development of what has been called ’Early Theological Antisemitism’, in which Pauline (Greek) Christianity was first separated from a Jewish-‘oriental’ counterpart, with philosophical genealogies supplied for both.
This forms the historical part of my talk. At the end, I shall broach an uncomfortable question that will probably alienate most of my audience. The racialisation of philosophical historiography by Kant was part of a desperate attempt to re-assert a place for speculative philosophy in the European system of knowledge, a place it had almost entirely lost over the previous 150 years. Kant and his followers were successful, to such an extent that the possession of 'philosophy’ came to be taken as a maker of ‘civilisation’. Might the modern quest to 'grant’ other cultures a place in the philosophical pantheon be just another neo-Kantian attempt to equate philosophising with civilisation? If we really want to abandon the last vestiges of Philhellenism, perhaps we might do better to congratulate other societies for not wasting so much of their time on philosophy?
Yoko Arisaka (Research fellow, Institute for Philosophy, University of Hildesheim, DE)
Hermeneutics of Exclusion: Historiographies of the Histories of Philosophies
History of Western Philosophy, as we know it, took its familiar form after the 19th Century. It is a result of centuries-long processes of exclusion and inclusion. Western history of philosophy is understood to be the universal history of philosophy, but If we re-focus our attention to linguistic diversities and how philosophies had been conceived and practiced in different languages, we see that the history of Western philosophy represents only a particular history - that of Europe - that is deeply entangled in racism, colonialism, misogyny, and scientism. In this presentation the results of the research project on the "Histories of Philosophy in a Global Perspective" at the University of Hildesheim will be presented to discuss these observations.
Daniel J. Smith (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Memphis, US)
A Kantian Conspiracy in the Historiography of Philosophy
Recent scholarship has drawn attention to the importance of the post-Kantian period in determining a particular narrative of “Western philosophy” that has been dominant for at least the last century, and which this conference is calling into question. Though earlier figures like Brucker had made important contributions to the history and historiography of philosophy in the modern period, Kantians and postKantians saw themselves as carrying out a radical break with all previous traditions of writing the history of philosophy. Reinhold calls prior histories a “useless waste of time” (Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie), Tennemann sees them as a series of “failed attempts” (Grundriss), and Hegel takes them to be no more than a “disorderly heap of opinions” (Lectures on the History of Philosophy). When one reads the histories of philosophy written before and after this break, it quickly becomes clear that this postKantian project to revolutionise both the method and the content of the history of philosophy was largely successful: the canon of Brucker’s Historia Critica Philosophiae is virtually unrecognizable today, whereas the story told by Tennemann and Hegel is not that different to what was taught to many of us as undergraduates. If it is a major task of contemporary philosophy to challenge a certain hegemonic idea of “Western philosophy”, then we would do well to understand the details of how a recognizable version of its canon first came about.
Catherine König-Pralong, Robert Bernasconi, Peter Park, Sabrina Ebbersmeyer and others have done essential work bringing out various dimensions of the emergence of the standard canon of philosophy in this period. Building on their work, this paper examines the role played by Reinhold. I introduce his account of the history of philosophy through his text “On the Concept of the History of Philosophy: An Academic Lecture”, and argue that he was the key figure in bringing about this extraordinary transformation in the history and historiography of philosophy, whose consequences we are still dealing with today. Though he did not write a new history of philosophy himself, his historicizing recasting of Kant’s philosophy provided the main philosophical impetus for those who did, and his missionary zeal led others to enthusiastically embrace his mission of spreading the “gospel of pure reason”. I also situate Reinhold’s lecture in the context of his distinctive conception of “Enlightenment”, which assigns a major role not only to major theorists and philosophers, but also to popularisers who make these ideas accessible to the public, including secret societies.
Sarah Bernard-Granger (Doctoral Student, Philosophy, ENS de Lyon, FR)
Western philosophy, or the national construction of a universal philosophy
The late 18th century and the 19th century are the theatre of the creation, by philosophers and historians of philosophy, of a common Western rationality that tends to impose itself as philosophical rationality (König-Pralong, 2019). Yet, this philosophical rationality that claims to be universal is the result of a Franco-German collaboration, in which two philosophers has played a significant role: Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) in Germany and Victor Cousin (1792-1867) in France. Their philosophical collaboration consisted of a double dynamic: on the one hand, the two philosophers participated in the elaboration of a common philosophical rationality. On the other hand, they proceeded to a national specification of philosophy. From this point of view, the construction, in Europe, of a philosophical universality is inherently connected with the elaboration of national philosophical particularities. That is to say that while working on the creation of a Western philosophical universality, the French and German philosophers tried to justify that only their particular and national philosophies can satisfy the requirement of universality of the philosophy. From then on, they faced a paradox: how to articulate nationality, meaning particularities or even partiality, to an object that claims universality like philosophy? Schelling and Cousin were confronted with this difficulty and their exchanges attested their efforts to reconcile philosophical universality with national particularities. Cousin works then on the conscious elaboration of a French and universal philosophy, emancipated from the other European philosophies but which joins them all "in the center of a vast and powerful eclecticism" (Cousin, 1847, p. 289).
From a particular case, the philosophical collaboration of Cousin and Schelling, the aim of this contribution is to question the joint processes of elaboration of a Western philosophical identity and a national philosophical identity, here French. To do so, this contribution will study how the two authors elaborate and define philosophical universality. From this requirement of shared universality, it will identify how Cousin proceeds to the justification and nationalization of French philosophy as the only one able to satisfy the requirement of philosophical universality. We can expect three types of not-exclusive results. First, this work will allow us to have a better understanding of the origin of the idea of Western philosophy, of its characteristics and its popularization by Cousin and Schelling. Secondly, it will allow to question the link between Western philosophy and philosophical nationalism and thus to question its philosophical legitimacy, insofar as its elaboration creates at the same time the conditions of possibility of its deconstruction by annexing universality to national particularities. Thirdly, it will question the impact of these constructions on how we understand philosophy and its history today, as well as its impact on the practice of philosophy in France. This contribution is thus at the crossroads of different issues related to the construction of Western philosophy: conceptual, historical and historiographical.
Lerato Posholi (SNSF Fellow, Institute for European Global Studies, University of Basel, CH)
Demarcating ‘Western philosophy’: beyond origins?
The idea of ‘Western’ thought, and the divide between ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ thought it kindles, is prominent in discussions about the politics of global knowledge production. Most recently, the notion finds expression in scholarship and public discussions about decolonization of knowledge. This paper considers whether the use of the term ‘Western philosophy’ is appropriate for advancing the concerns of proponents of decolonization. Various scholars have argued that the use of this notion is problematic because the term cannot be clearly defined and that attempts to demarcate ‘Western philosophy’ could perpetuate certain problematic exclusions and omissions that unduly appropriate nonWestern contributions for Western philosophy. This could self-underminingly reinforce some of the concerns expressed by calls for decolonization. Heeding these arguments while also taking caution not to undermine the legitimate concerns often articulated with the use of the label ‘Western philosophy’, I propose delineating ‘Western philosophy’ in terms of its framing assumptions and categories instead of delineating it in terms of geographical or cultural origins. This way of defining Western philosophy, I suggest, gets around the challenges faced by the geographical/cultural delineation and captures the target of calls for decolonization, which is not the origins of philosophy (or ideas) in Europe and North America but the systematic ways in which philosophy excludes, omits and ignores.
Lewis Gordon (Professor and Philosophy Department Head, University of Connecticut, US)
Before ‘the West’ and Beyond: Ancient African and Contemporary Africana Philosophy
‘The West’ as a constellation of people and thought that transformed Western Asia into ‘Europe’ is an idea that rewrote the history of thought into an erasure of its history before 500 BCE. The consequence includes a presupposition of not needing to look for intellectual history earlier because there was supposedly nothing to be found. The empirical reality of philosophical writings from philosophers on the African continent from at least two millennia earlier through to various subsequent stages of African and then African diasporic thought not only challenges the not-out-of-Africa thesis but also raises important questions of the connectedness and transformation of philosophical thought and its capacity to address challenges of its times, which, in our age, include the integrity of thought, value, and welfare of life on our planet. After summarizing some fallacies in the construction of ‘the West’, including ‘Western philosophy’, this talk would then connect them to problems in the study of intellectual history in African philosophical contexts and then summarize some elements of ancient African philosophy that have survived not only in contemporary Africana philosophy but also with an understanding of their relevance to philosophy as a global, humanly shared enterprise.
Kadir Filiz (PhD candidate, Philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen, NL)
Must Phenomenology Remain European?
In my presentation, I want to focus on Edmund Husserl’s understanding of “Western philosophy” that was developed in the name of “Europe”. Although Husserl does not often refer to notions of “the West” and “Western philosophy” in his corpus, he puts forward a strong idea of Europe in a philosophical sense and creates a history for European philosophy. In his last work The Crisis and famous Vienna Lecture where he analyses the crisis of Europe and gives a recipe to overcome this crisis, he claims that the “European ‘world’ was born out of ideas of reason, i.e., out of the spirit of philosophy”. In his proposal of saving Europe by the universal absolute rationality of Europe, he assigns this task as “the West’s mission for humanity” to “good Europeans”. Husserl uses the notions of “Europe” and “European” in a broad and limited meaning in which the United States or British dominions in India find a place but “Gypsies vagabonding around Europe” do not belong to the spiritual essence of Europe. In this sense, Husserl’s account of the idea of Europe mirrors the very idea of the “Western philosophy” that in a problematic manner excludes the rest of non-European philosophies. For Husserl, European rationality was born in Ancient Greece as a telos and then this telos was forgotten by certain philosophical movements up until his time. His invention of the idea of Europe from Ancient Greek heritage as an ideal and spirit leads him to give priority to a particular kind of rationality in the name of universal-scientific phenomenological rationality. However, other cultures and non-European philosophies, that is to say, non-European life-worlds in his words, represent only “empirical”, “anthropological”, “mythic-magic” ways of thinking which are only associated with “relativity” and “factual history”. For him, non-European “philosophies” do not signify a proper sense of philosophy, rather they remain “practical” or as “world-knowledge”. Moreover, in his account of Europe, Husserl does not only propose “to rescue the honour of rationalism,” but makes some controversial analogies between non-European cultures and people according to his phenomenological project of rationality and history.
In my presentation, I will first deal with the meaning of Husserl’s concept of Europe as an ideal, telos and spirit and examine how he characterises this notion in his phenomenology. This shall bring us closer to discussing his conceptualisation of phenomenological rationality, history and life-world which are central themes and presuppositions in his later work. Drawing on these notions, I want to raise the critical question of how phenomenology can be thought in a nonEuropean, perhaps in a “de-europeanised” way, in order to displace the superiority of Europe. Such an attempt can be instrumental to contemplate on the possibility of a “provincialized” Europe for phenomenology. This would also help overcome its hierarchies created by Eurocentrism of phenomenology from the outset. Although Eurocentrism has been thoroughly criticised and has been tried to be overcome in decolonial studies, it seems that phenomenologists have not paid enough attention to this problematic legacy of phenomenology. I believe that the future of phenomenology requires not only the reinterpretation of its basic motives and concepts but also a critical examination of its Eurocentric claims.
Kimberly Ann Harris (Assistant Prof. of Philosophy, University of Virginia, US)
The Relationship between African-American Philosophy and 'Western Philosophy'
Philosophers have minimal consensus about the nature of philosophy despite the vague idea of a 'Western Philosophy' being pervasive among them. Nonetheless, there is doubt whether African-American philosophy is philosophy based on an indefinite notion. This essay answers the question about the possibility of a western philosophical model for the black experience. In addition, it addresses three further considerations of the arguments against the legitimacy and necessity of African-American philosophy that concern diverging views about the nature of philosophy.
Josh Platzky Miller (Lecturer in Sociology, University of the Free State, ZA)
Shirking Knowledge: Forms of Ignorance and the idea of ‘Western Philosophy’
In this presentation, I draw on the work of Ben Kies (1917-1979), a South African public intellectual, schoolteacher, trade unionist, and activist-theorist. In his 1953 lecture, The Contribution of the Non-European Peoples to World Civilisation, Kies argues that the idea of ‘Western Philosophy’ is the product of a legitimation project for European colonialism, through white supremacist projects to post-second world war Pan-European identity formation. In so doing, Kies became one of the first people to argue that ‘Western Philosophy’ is a myth.
Despite Kies’ arguments, and many similar critiques from around the world over the last century, there remains a stubborn reluctance in many academic philosophy departments to question the idea of ‘Western Philosophy’, or to countenance the possibility of philosophy from around the world. I therefore introduce several approaches from social epistemology to explore this reluctance, arguing that multiple forms of ignorance have shaped our understanding of the philosophical canon, and indeed how ignorance shapes the history of philosophy in general. The result of these forms of ignorance is a framework for the history of philosophy that remains trapped by Eurocentrism, unable to deal adequately with philosophy globally.
Allan M. Hillani (PhD Candidate, Philosophy, The New School for Social Research, US)
Savage Hobbes: Anthropological Philosophy Against Philosophical Anthropology
Despite the universalist claims of philosophical anthropology, philosophers tend to be ignorant of social practices and forms of thought outside of what is called “the West.” Recent attempts to change this picture involve proposing a more inclusive canon, based on a plural and multiculturalist understanding of philosophical endeavors. However, a danger in this effort is the exoticization of non-Western “others,” simply adding their conceptions as new artifacts in the Western museum of ideas. This form of inclusion ends up producing a pluralism of untainted views that is unable to truly address the discipline’s eurocentrism, not only because it reinforces an inaccurate and whitewashed history of philosophy—which, since its origins, has been influenced, preserved, and transformed by African, Arab, Asian, and Latin American thinkers—but also because it fails to grasp how the encounter with other forms of thought should fundamentally alter one’s own. Instead of just making the philosophical canon more inclusive, we should fundamentally change it. Crucial for this task is what the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has termed anthropological philosophy, an attempt to question the centrifugal universalization of Western standards through a comparative stance that, contrariwise, finds in other forms of thought the grounds for questioning one’s own. The idea of an anthropological philosophy is based on Amerindian perspectivism, the metaphysical conception found in Amazonia and elsewhere that the world is inhabited by many kinds of “subjects,” human and non-human, but that in order to access the perspectives of others one must not just imagine being in their place, but see oneself through the point of view of the other—really become other to oneself. The perspectivist problem of anthropological philosophy inquires what becomes of Western philosophy after the encounter with forms of thought that question its basic assumptions— not how our philosophical ideas can interpret different realities, but how different realities should change our philosophical ideas. I propose that anthropological philosophy can become a method for doing academic philosophy. My case study is an author we tend to think we know well: Thomas Hobbes. I show how an approach that takes seriously anthropological theory, ethnographic data, and comparative metaphysics can produce a transformative interpretation of Hobbes, one that sees in the myth of the social contract an articulation of contradiction typical of mythical thought; that finds in the generalized hostility of the state of nature a reconceptualization of enmity and a form of warding off the centralization of power; and that sees in the colossal Leviathan something akin to a predator or an evil spirit with which one must learn how to engage. At stake in anthropological philosophy is then the decolonization of thought, as Viveiros de Castro puts it—the questioning of what philosophy was, is, and could be. Instead of a philosophical anthropology that tries to include others into its framework, anthropological philosophy is open to be changed by these others.
Linda Martín Alcoff (Professor of Philosophy, Hunter College/Graduate Center, CUNY, US)
What comes after Eurocentrism?
One of the biggest worries about the critique of Eurocentrism is what is meant to replace it? This is a question that can only be answered by the form that the critique itself takes, that is, the way in which “Eurocentrism” is itself defined and the ways in which its problems are described. In this talk I will argue that the key problem of Eurocentrism is not the geographical origin question but the relationship question: how has the legacy of modern European philosophy, or what has been presented as ‘Western Philosophy’, understood itself to be in relation to other traditions of thought that might be defined as philosophical? How can a robust critical intellectual relationship be created across differences of philosophical orientation? What needs to change in our processes and starting assumptions to make relations possible as well as productive?