The Possibility of Global Philosophy

What is global philosophy? How does one get a grip on it?

I am all for global philosophy. I even left academia partly in its name, feeling stultified by its eurocentrism. But what is this thing global philosophy that I am so captivated by?

It isn’t based on my knowledge of all, or even many, of the philosophical traditions of the world. I don’t know much about Islamic philosophy. Or Latin American or African philosophy. Or Chinese and Japanese philosophy. I have read some introductory books on these topics, but not much beyond that. I have a cultural sense for Indian philosophy, but have no deep knowledge of even the philosophers who meant a lot to me emotionally like Shankara or Aurobindo. The tradition I know the best is Western philosophy, since that is what I studied. But even within that, I don’t know much about Medieval Christian philosophy, or about Marxist thought or African-American philosophy or feminism, or Spanish philosophy or Jewish philosophy, or formal epistemology and on and on.

Usually the conservative who worries about diversifying the curriculum expresses his concern in terms of relativism. That if we give up the standards of western philosophy as we are used to it, anything will go about what counts as philosophy and what is good philosophy.

But relativism doesn’t capture the root anxiety, which is something even more disconcerting than relativism.

Relativism presupposes that even if you know tradition A and tradition B, you nor any one can determine which is right or better or more insightful, etc. But how do you even wrap your mind around getting to comparing traditions when they are too many to even first read, let alone understand and then evaluate?

Suppose I only read Hume and was convinced his view of causation is right. Then someone says, “But what about Kant’s response to Hume?” Once that question is raised and I know Kant might justifiably undermine my confidence in Hume’s argument, I am internally propelled to read Kant and see if my siding with Hume holds up. I might just peruse Kant and conclude it’s crap. But I atleast have to take a look at it to quell my own inner doubt.

Now what if someone says, “But what about the Buddha’s view, which is a better articulation of Hume’s idea?” Or “What about the feminist critique of Hume’s method of inquiry?” Or “What about the Mayan view of causation?” And on and on.

Global philosophy is not a threat just to eurocentism, or even western philosophy. It is a threat to the very idea that one can have any justified philosophical belief, for the set of contrasting or relevant alternate philosophical views has been expanded to include all of human history and all of the current cultures and traditions.

The anxiety then isn’t that everyone might be right. It’s that no one can know who is right, since no one will be able to go through the conceptual space required to feel, let alone to be, justified in one’s view.

Hence the conservative wants to cut off this slippery slope by declaring most of the alternatives he doesn’t know as being irrelevant to the conceptual space of his views. Lo and behold, on the conservative view, the revelant conceptual space maps on to just the space that he already knows for the most part – and so his claim to be justified remains in tact. To defend his Humean view, sure he has to read Kant and Aristotle and David Lewis, but not Nagarjuna or Charles Mills or Nishida Kitaro.

The progressive academic philosopher sees the conservative defensiveness as motivated by racism – by the sense that Kant is a superior philosopher to Nagarjuna, and so Kant is relevant while Nagarjuna isn’t.

But what is motivating the conservative isn’t a sense of superiority but a sense of insecurity. If Nagarjuna is relevant to evaluating Hume’s view of causation, then B.K. Matilal, who knows Kant and Nagarjuna, is just in virtue of that better placed to evaluate Hume’s argument than Western philosophers like Strawson or David Lewis, who only know Kant but not Nagarjuna.

What motivates the conservative’s resistance to changing the “rules” to include Nagarjuna is the feeling that if the expanded conceptual space is accepted, then he falls behind those who can play by the new rules better. This is not racism as traditionally conceived in terms of believing one’s race is better than the other races. To the contrary, it is a resistance to being told that according to the new rules one is inferior.

The conservative actually sees deeper into the anxiety concerning global philosophy than the progressive.

The progressive has a misplaced confidence that if only we gave up immoral views such as racism, all will be well and we will be bonded as a species. But the expansion of the conceptual scheme which first devours the conservative will soon devour the unsuspecting progressive as well. After all, the progressive knows a couple of traditions more than the conservative: Indian and western philosophy, or traditional philosophy and feminism, or maybe even Indian, Western, African and feminism if one is really lucky and skilled. But still, there will always be more traditions or frameworks that even such a progressive might not know: Native American views of causation, or quantum mechanics, or Japanese philosophy, and so on.

The conservative is moved by the idea of the pantheon I already know. That is, the set of positions, authors, texts which gives one a sense of knowing the history and conceptual space of philosophy – in effect, what one learned in undergrad and grad school which qualifies one to speak as an expert on the subject generally speaking. Within which one feels grounded and which makes even what one doesn’t know fall within the scope of the conceptual space one feels comfortable with.

The progressive is moved by the idea of the expanded pantheon. That is, the set of positions, authors, texts which includes western philosophy and all other global philosophical traditions and all the topics of concern to minorities and those previously underprivileged. What does this expanded pantheon look like? The progressive answer: “Just like the one with Plato, Kant and Russell, expect including all the greats from all the philosophical traditions.” The conservative rightly looks with suspicion on this idea of the expanded, complete pantheon.

The progressive is committed to three claims – which are not consistent. 1) The normative claim that in order to be justified in holding a philosophical belief, one has to justify it in the conceptual space involving all traditions (so no hand wavying away traditions one doesn’t know). 2) The psychological claim that no one know can master a conceptual space involving all traditions (so there will always be some traditions one doesn’t know). 3) The confident claim that it is only by expanding the curriculum and the conceptual space that we can have true philosophical knowledge.

Progressives famously are angry with the injustice of the traditional institutions. Sally Haslanger begins her well known paper, “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy” this way: “There is a deep well of rage inside of me. Rage about how I as an individual have been treated in philosophy; rage about how others I know have been treated; and rage about the conditions that I’m sure affect many women and minorities in philosophy, and have caused many others to leave.”

I know this rage. As one who left academic philosophy, I identified with Haslanger’s rage when I first read her essay. And was grateful for her writing it.

But over time I have come to think that the rage – Haslanger’s or mine or of those who deplatform speakers – perhaps has another cause. It’s not just because of how the institution has been. It’s also because there is no clear picture that the progressive has on offer of how philosophical knowledge can be possible. The progressive is surely right that – contra the conservative – one cannot only know one tradition and yet claim knowledge. That is as absurd as remaining confident Hume is right while refusing to read Kant. But unlike the traditional pantheon of a few dozen white men, the progressives’ pantheon consists of hundreds of thinkers from hundreds of traditions. No chance any one can ever know all of that.

In fact, it’s conceptually impossible that one can know all of the progressive’s pantheon. For on the progressive’s reasoning, anyone left out of the pantheon is thereby marginalized and so they have to be included in the pantheon, since the pantheon includes the voices and perspectives of all the marginalized peoples.

Something has gone wrong here. It can’t be that the just and inspiring aim of an inclusive philosophical pantheon renders philosophical knowledge and expertise impossible. Or can it be? The frustration of this conceptual quagmire – of noble ideals leading to a seeming dead end – can quicken the blood and fuel the rage. And when the conservative mocks the progressive’s conceptual stumble and acts as if the conservative’s more limited perspective has retained the ability to have philosophical knowledge (lending the conservative the look of the hyper rational devoid of the wooly emotions of the progressive), the progressive, feeling pushed into a corner, lashes out with rage.

Neither the conservative nor the progressive is winning here. Both are wrong. Contra the conservative, one can’t ignore other traditions and claim philosophical knowledge – for without the contrast case, belief is rendered mere belief. But contra the progressive, one can’t embrace all traditions and claim philosophical knowledge – for if the standard for justification is so vastly beyond the scope of any person, one is again left with mere belief.

This dilemma of finding a middle ground between the conservative and the progressive positions is the conceptual challenge confronting global philosophy.

The greatest obstacle to global philosophy is not that conservatives are racists. Nor that progressives are snow flakes. The greatest obstacle is knowing what philosophy knowledge means once we make the conceptual space of philosophy more global.

This means that global philosophy requires not just knowledge of other traditions. There is a prior type of knowledge that is needed, which concerns what philosophical knowledge means when it is abstracted from debates internal to, and already articulated within, western philosophy or Indian philosophy or feminism or African-American philosophy and so on.

To make progress on this prior type of knowledge doesn’t require any particular expertise within philosophy. One doesn’t need to be well versed in non-Western philosophy or feminism or analytic philosophy, etc. One can think about it just from where one is, given what one already knows.

That space of puzzlement unites all of us.

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