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Why Study Racist Philosophers but Not Philosophers of Other Races?

Tacking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto by Bryan W. Van Norden

Confucius (551-479 BC)

In January 2017, students from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) launched a campaign called "Decolonise our minds" with the aim of drawing attention to the fact that a school focused in African and Asian studies holds a Philosophy Curriculum formed almost exclusively by white European authors. Although the intention was simply to make a call for the diversification of the study program, the reception in the British media was hostile and biased, accusing the students of wanting to remove all white thinkers from the program and of questioning philosophers that laid the foundations of our society. SOAS was originally created in 1916 to teach to future colonizers the language, history, laws, and customs of the countries to which they were being posted by the colonial enterprise, as a means to strengthen Britain’s presence in these colonies. According to the results of the aforesaid enterprise, it would be said that we do not know if, for lack of enthusiasm of the students or the poor preparation of the teaching staff, this attempt was not very satisfactory. Obviously (and fortunately) the circumstances have changed and today SOAS has an international and multiracial student body, and its mindset and objectives are very different. However, the radical rejection found in the press and in many academics throughout the UK seems to show an intellectual racism that we would like to believe was eradicated. 

The claim of the students was obviously not to remove white philosophers from the syllabi but to make room for more thinkers from Asia, Islam, and Africa, something that sounds quite unquestionable considering the kind of institution that SOAS represents. At the same time, the students aim to discuss white canonical authors with a different approach that situates them in a particular historical and social background and reflects the colonial legacy. It is evident that due to the socio-historical context we must remain open to accept and understand certain characteristics of each epoch. For instance, it would be useless to try to re-read the philosophy or history of Greece and Rome pretending that there were no radical differences between the situation of both sexes. When Plato or Aristotle talk about citizens they refer only to free men, neither women nor slaves nor children are included in the lot. Does this undermine the idea of democracy as the government of the people? Possibly not, but still it is convenient to keep in mind the context in which the ideas are formulated. The same can apply to authors rooted in the religious tradition, or those for whom only Europe deserved the qualification of civilization and the rest were simply savages. Within this group, we find one of the most important Philosophers, Immanuel Kant. In Friedrich Christian Starke’s edition of Kant’s Menschenkunde oder philosophische Anthropologie from 1831, Kant speaks of four “races” as follows:

1) The people of America are ineducable. They have no motivation; because they lack emotion and passion. They are not amorous and, therefore, are not fecund. They rarely speak, do not caress one another, they don’t plan ahead, and are lazy. 

2) The Negro race, one could say, is exactly the opposite from the Americans; they are completely emotional and passionate, extremely lively, talk incessantly, and are vain. They are educable but only as servants (i.e., they accept training). They have much motivation, are also sensitive, fear snakes, and do many things out of honor. 

3) Hindus have motivation, but they have a high degree of serenity, and they all look like philosophers. Nevertheless, they tend both to great rage and to love. They are educable to a high degree, but only in the arts, not in the sciences. They are incapable of abstraction. A great Hindu is one who has achieved much through deception and has lots of money. The Hindus have reached their potential; they will never achieve anything more even though they have begun to achieve much through education. 

4) The White race possesses all motivations and talents …[1]

Reading the words of Kant discloses a much broader and deeper debate, one beyond the geographical origin of the thinkers, but related to their ethical stances. What do we do with the work of authors who showed deeply problematic ethical or political positions on fundamental issues? In philosophy, it is difficult not to think of Heidegger and his indiscriminate flirtations with Nazism, but Sartre himself remained loyal to the Stalinist dictatorship in Russia far beyond what could be considered reasonable and excused first Stalin and then Mao’s purges. Knut Hamsun showed clear support to the Nazis, Louis-Ferdinand Celine demonstrated her anti-Semitism in both his writing and his life, Henry Miller was a misogynist and Truman Capote terribly nasty, Alfred Hitchcock used to behave cruelly with actresses, Roman Polanski is involved in some dark cases that took him to court, and lately Woody Allen is in the center of a turmoil of accusations and judgments. The list is never-ending and we may ask how ethical it is to appreciate the artistic work or the intellectual legacy of an author when his behavior is at least questionable?

If reflecting on the value system or the personal attitudes of a certain artist or public figure can strongly condition the way you see his or her work, this is still more accentuated when the character in question is a philosopher who works with ideas, values ​​and ethical and moral positions. It is difficult to separate private and public works in such cases, and that is why it is fundamental that the study approach is always critical and guarantees complete and detailed information, as well as opinions that contrast the considered as the most canonical ones. The study of philosophy should not be based merely on studying authors and memorizing and understanding their ideas, but should mainly be the construction of a theoretical grounds that allows us to refute these authors, if necessary, to study them and against them, discuss and filter, creating our own thinking system. That is why I reject the idea of ​​censoring books, authors, or ideas, however controversial they may be and I rather believe in education as the tool to navigate and choose for ourselves. Having said that, I find the demand to study Asian, African, Native American, Islamic authors perfectly legitimate and to eliminate all traces of thought that originated civilizations such as Egyptian, Chinese, Arabic, or Indian utterly absurd in a discipline like Philosophy that seeks to understand the world. 

In this context, Bryan W. Van Norden’s book Taking back philosophy: A multicultural Manifesto (Columbia University Press, 2018) is a relevant contribution to the debate. The origin of the book was in an article that James L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden wrote for The New York Times after a conference in minorities in Philosophy hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and organized by graduate students was boycotted by the Philosophy Department showing a profound disinterest for non-Western Philosophy. The intention of Garfield and Van Norden was always to provoke and to stimulate debate, and thus, their main proposal was to change the name of the Philosophy Departments that do not include any of the considered least taught philosophies for Department of Anglo-European Philosophy, affirming that this name would be infinitely more adjusted and describes more accurately what is taught in them. The high number of comments received and the content of them, highly defensive and self-exculpatory, made Van Norden, professor of oriental philosophies and renowned expert in Chinese philosophy initiate the writing of the book.

In the book, different parts are distinguished: the first part is dedicated to analyse why the philosophy of Asia, Africa, or Native American has no place in the curriculum of the departments of philosophy. Curiously, trying to eliminate all traces of Asian and African philosophy is, in fact, impossible, since the origin of philosophy in Greece is only a convention, very convenient to classify Philosophy as something exclusively European but false nonetheless. It is not possible to ignore the reality that the first philosophical currents emerged much earlier in Africa and India, and complex texts on Ontology and Metaphysics were written in India while in Europe we were chasing each other with a big wooden club. Van Norden blames modern philosophers of kantcentrism and hegelcentrism,  both tendencies that inevitably conduct to Eurocentrism. Before Enlightenment and despite the enormity of distances, the difficulties to travel, and the lack of mediums to disseminate knowledge, it is easier to find influences of non-European schools of thought and observe some sort of exchange. However, the Kantian revolution originated a current of navel-gazing and intellectual white supremacism. Probably the most radical assertion in the book is the one that connects the exclusion of non-Western philosophies not with intellectual issues but with racist postures. Van Norden clarifies that one does not need to be racist to help to perpetuate racist positions. Thus, assuming that practically all the Philosophy professors would declare themselves as non-racist their rejection to open the debate about curriculums has a racist outcome. This is closely connected with the widespread belief that not committing wrongdoing means living a just life, but on multiple occasions, the omission, the lack of action about something unfair, the washing of Pontius Pilate's hands are the source of many injustices 

The second part focuses on what are the merits that make these philosophies deserve a place and be considered worthy of, at least, the same treatment and study as their Anglo-European sisters. Also, different mechanisms are offered to make this incorporation possible, even if it is a gradual one. Van Norden uses many examples from Chinese Philosophy since that is his field of expertise, those in which he understands Chinese thinkers contributions are probably more lucid than Western ideas. In the last part of the book, Van Norden offers a general reflection of Philosophy as a subject and why is necessary to include it in any kind of studies. He defends a philosophy that works as a framework to all types of knowledge and that helps to analyze texts, and write our own and uses multiples examples to explain why not only philosophers need philosophy. 

One of the methods that Van Norden uses to demonstrate the rigidity and mustiness of the Western academy is to question ideas that modern European Philosophy takes for granted by comparing them with the unprejudiced acumen of other philosophies. For example, the assumption that the universe is composed of distinct individual entities accepted as an axiom and claimed by both Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes is usually considered as the orthodoxy of Western Philosophy. However, Buddhist metaphysics and particularly Nagarsena (150 BCE) describes the world as formed of transitory states and properties which depend on other state and properties. So the individual distinction is something we accept as given but it is not in the substances themselves but they are only mere designations or names that simplify our lives and no being is there to be found behind them. 

Likewise, Thomas Hobbes considered the father of political philosophy, see human beings as egoist and self-interested. This characteristic leads to confrontations and so people become enemies and the natural conclusion is a permanent state of war. This situation is for Hobbes ideal for the creation of governments that provide the coercive power that maintains the status quo under the fear of punishment. Citizens give up their rights to the government in exchange for protection. Unlike Hobbes, Confucius endorses a philosophy of Virtue instead of one of punish. He relies more purely on human nature and gives people the benefit of choosing their actions and trying to pursue a life of virtue. For Confucius punishment and repression only conduces to new forms of avoiding to evade the laws but convincing citizens of pursuing a life of Virtue is a nobler path which does not recurr to fear or repression to guarantee order. Other thinkers like Mengzi or Mencius (372–289 BC), Cheng Yi (1033–1107), or Zhu Xi (1130–1200), are also studied comparing their ideas with important thinkers from the West in fields such as ethics, metaphysics, or ontology.

The book offers a remarkable set of examples of the East-West philosophical debate and even finds time to discuss Trump and his passion for big walls, as seems inevitable in any book published in the US in the last months. In my opinion, the book makes a notable vindication of diversity in the academic world and also of Philosophy as a field that can not be dismissed as an old discipline, but on the contrary can be more relevant and decisive than ever. In addition, the book serves as a bridge to access other books that are generally found outside mainstream thought circuits, which is always well received. The request to incorporate more philosophers from different latitudes in the curriculum does not respond to a simple question of quotas, for the simple fact of having thinkers representing all continents, rather is based on the value of these philosopher's work and the relevant contribution they can do in the formation of students.  From universities and centers of learning, the call to study more broadly and deeply should never be questioned but celebrated with joy and that is exactly what Bryan W. Van Norden and the campaign Decolonise our minds in SOAS are doing.

[1] Menschenkunde oder philosophische Anthropologie. Friedrich Christian Starke, hrsg. Leipzig: Die Expedition des europäischen Aufssehers, 1831.

I received a copy for a review from Columbia University Press through Net Galley.

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