Four Meanings of “Global Philosophy”

In philosophy the 21st century will be a century of global philosophy. This is a change in consciousness of how to think of philosophy, and we are seeing in academic philosophy the birth pangs of this transformation. But we are also seeing the birth pangs in our broader cultural transformations.

What does “global philosophy” mean? It’s worth distinguishing four different meanings of the term.

1) Decolonizing philosophy. Here global philosophy is contrasted with Modern-European philosophy. In the last 400 years, and especially since Kant and Hegel 200 years ago, philosophy was identified in Europe with European philosophy – with the explicit implication that no other civilization was capable of philosophy. This colonial idea permeated through the academic institution and society more broadly. One sense of global philosophy is negating the effects of this colonial vision of philosophy.

2) Comparative philosophy. Here the focus isn’t necessarily on decolonization, but on simply getting different traditions into dialogue with each other. Connecting European philosophy with Chinese philosophy, or Latin American philosophy with African or American philosophy, and so on.

3) Philosophical anthropology. This is the project of explaining the origins of philosophy in human culture. In individual traditions, such as those starting with the Greeks or the Indians or the Chinese, the origin of that tradition is seen as a magical beginning – of a first great thinker or groups of thinkers emerging from the haze of superstition. From a global perspective, this is extremely simplistic. 200,000 years separate the beginning of homo sapiens from the sages of the axial age 2,500 years ago such as Socrates, the Buddha and Confucius. And prior to that 200,000 years, there is several million years of homonid life with the advent of tools, fire, burials and so on. So there is a global explanation waiting to be discovered for how transformations of human life from hunter gatherers (100,000 years ago) to the agricultural revolution (10,000 years ago) to the dawn of mass civilizations (5,000 years ago) led to the forms of life of Socrates, the Buddha and others around the world.

4) Existential globalism. While philosophical anthropology tells us how we got to the present, we are still left with the existential questions of: What now? What do we want to do? What should we do? How should an understanding of (1)-(3) guide our decisions and practices of what we want philosophy to become?

In academic philosophy right now there is a lot of focus on decolonizing philosophy because for those who are attuned to it, they can see the effects of the colonizing framework everywhere around them. This naturally makes this sense of global philosophy highly contentious and emotionally laden.

It is worth remembering that decolonizing philosophy is not an end in itself. Some of its proponents sometimes talk as if decolonizing philosophy will create or unveil a beautiful global framework of how all traditions can intersect. This is pure fantasy, akin to that of the noble savage. Counteracting white supremacy in philosophy is a step in the direction of respecting and seeing the importance of all the world’s philosophical traditions. We are then still left with the task of making sense of whether, how and how best those traditions can intersect. Decolonizing philosophy is a step, at first, towards comparative philosophy.

But comparative philosophy itself is not the end of global philosophy. The more we know about different traditions, the more the question becomes pressing: what connects these traditions? Philosophical traditions are not unitary blocs moving along separately from each other (the Greeks here, the Indians there, etc.). In Eurasia, the axial age philosophical traditions are an outgrowth of already by then thousands of years of cultural, economic and intellectual cross currents.

We don’t recognize this for a simple reason: we think of the dawn of philosophy in terms of how the axial thinkers themselves thought of what they were doing, and they didn’t consciously realize the global, cultural underpinnings of their thought. That is, we think the philosophical originators must be taken as guides to what philosophy is since, after all, they created it! But this is as strange an assumption with Socrates as it is with Christ, as simplistic to grant such self-knowledge to the Buddha as it is to grant it to Ashoka.

The power of philosophical anthropology is that it separates the origins of philosophy from the stories the axial thinkers told about themselves. Philosophical anthropology situates the origin stories themselves in a broader context – one which none of the great philosophers of the last 2,500 years themselves knew or could have known. That has the potential to radically reorient our understanding of those philosophers – and of ourselves.

But again, philosophical anthropology is not the end of global philosophy. For we are left with the existential question of what (1)-(3) mean for us now. To address the future without taking into account (1)-(3) is like walking into a hurricane without any protection. (1)-(3) are our gear for how to confront the changing times we face. But as with any gear, (1)-(3) are only the tools, the knowledge we carry. What we do with it is up to us and how we can forge a global consciousness.

Decolonizing philosophy is one point of entry into global philosophy. But I predict that in a couple of decades, after its insights are absorbed, it will run its course, and give way to the broader projects of global philosophy. Comparative philosophy will become more prevalent, and it will be partly soothing because it can be interpreted as “we each just need to appreciate the other, while retaining our own tradition.”

But the great challenge will come as philosophical anthropology gains steam. It will be to the 21st century what the new physics was to the 17th century. The new physics challenged our sense of the world around us – that the physical world was vaster than how we move in it and how we experience it. Philosophical anthropology will do the same for our sense of our narratives about ourselves – that our cultural practices are themselves vaster and more subtle and more integrated than how we experience them. People will resist this with fury, as if the new global philosophical frameworks were trying to rob them of their very identifies and histories – their own agency to tell the stories they like best about themselves. This will be a great part of the cultural fights of the 21st century, and it has already begun.

I have hope we will come through it better and more self-aware as we did in previous ages of tumult, as in the axial age and the enlightenment.

4 thoughts on “Four Meanings of “Global Philosophy””

  1. What you say about philosophical anthropology is very intriguing. Can you suggest any books on the subject for a novice?

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    1. I wish I could. With regard to philosophy I am not aware of such works yet. With regard to religion, there is Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, which is a great book. It sets a big history framework for understanding the origins of religion. Something similar for philosophy is waiting to be done as philosophy grew out of religion. There is some work on the interconnections between the origins of philosophy in Greece and India, such as McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought. Another book that is interesting is Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies. This book isn’t about pre-axial age history, but a sociological analysis of European and Asian philosophy from the axial age to the present. It’s framework is illuminating: using historical and sociological analysis to find patterns among what seem at first like just disparate traditions.

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      1. Thanks for the bibliography.

        It would be very interesting for someone to study pre-axial age philosophy since there’s an implicit philosophy in every human project and to tie that in to pre-axial age cultural interactions through trade or conquest.

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