Western philosophy is racist

Academic philosophy in ‘the West’ ignores and disdains the thought traditions of China, India and Africa. This must change

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Illustration detail of Zu Luo, one of China's 24 paragons of filial piety and a disciple of Confucius. Private collection.Photo by Corbis /Getty

Bryan W Van Norden

is Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, professor of philosophy at Vassar College in New York, and chair professor at Wuhan University in China. His latest book is Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (2017), with a foreword by Jay L Garfield. 

2,900 words

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?

Western philosophy used to be more open-minded and cosmopolitan. The first major translation into a European language of the Analects, the saying of Confucius (551-479 BCE), was done by Jesuits, who had extensive exposure to the Aristotelian tradition as part of their rigorous training. They titled their translation Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, or Confucius, the Chinese Philosopher (1687).

One of the major Western philosophers who read with fascination Jesuit accounts of Chinese philosophy was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). He was stunned by the apparent correspondence between binary arithmetic (which he invented, and which became the mathematical basis for all computers) and the I Ching, or Book of Changes, the Chinese classic that symbolically represents the structure of the Universe via sets of broken and unbroken lines, essentially 0s and 1s. (In the 20th century, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung was so impressed with the I Ching that he wrote a philosophical foreword to a translation of it.) Leibniz also said that, while the West has the advantage of having received Christian revelation, and is superior to China in the natural sciences, ‘certainly they surpass us (though it is almost shameful to confess this) in practical philosophy, that is, in the precepts of ethics and politics adapted to the present life and the use of mortals’.

The German philosopher Christian Wolff echoed Leibniz in the title of his public lecture Oratio de Sinarum Philosophia Practica, or Discourse on the Practical Philosophy of the Chinese (1721). Wolff argued that Confucius showed that it was possible to have a system of morality without basing it on either divine revelation or natural religion. Because it proposed that ethics can be completely separated from belief in God, the lecture caused a scandal among conservative Christians, who had Wolff relieved of his duties and exiled from Prussia. However, his lecture made him a hero of the German Enlightenment, and he immediately obtained a prestigious position elsewhere. In 1730, he delivered a second public lecture, De Rege Philosophante et Philosopho Regnante, or On the Philosopher King and the Ruling Philosopher, which praised the Chinese for consulting ‘philosophers’ such as Confucius and his later follower Mengzi (fourth century BCE) about important matters of state.

Chinese philosophy was also taken very seriously in France. One of the leading reformers at the court of Louis XV was François Quesnay (1694-1774). He praised Chinese governmental institutions and philosophy so lavishly in his work Despotisme de la China (1767) that he became known as ‘the Confucius of Europe’. Quesnay was one of the originators of the concept of laissez-faire economics, and he saw a model for this in the sage-king Shun, who was known for governing by wúwéi (non-interference in natural processes). The connection between the ideology of laissez-faire economics and wúwéi continues to the present day. In his State of the Union address in 1988, the US president Ronald Reagan quoted a line describing wúwéi from the Daodejing, which he interpreted as a warning against government regulation of business. (Well, I didn’t say that every Chinese philosophical idea was a good idea.)

Leibniz, Wolff and Quesnay are illustrations of what was once a common view in European philosophy. In fact, as Peter K J Park notes in Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon (2014), the only options taken seriously by most scholars in the 18th century were that philosophy began in India, that philosophy began in Africa, or that both India and Africa gave philosophy to Greece. 

So why did things change? As Park convincingly argues, Africa and Asia were excluded from the philosophical canon by the confluence of two interrelated factors. On the one hand, defenders of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) consciously rewrote the history of philosophy to make it appear that his critical idealism was the culmination toward which all earlier philosophy was groping, more or less successfully.

On the other hand, European intellectuals increasingly accepted and systematised views of white racial superiority that entailed that no non-Caucasian group could develop philosophy. (Even St Augustine, who was born in northern Africa, is typically depicted in European art as a pasty white guy.) So the exclusion of non-European philosophy from the canon was a decision, not something that people have always believed, and it was a decision based not on a reasoned argument, but rather on polemical considerations involving the pro-Kantian faction in European philosophy, as well as views about race that are both scientifically unsound and morally heinous.

Kant himself was notoriously racist. He treated race as a scientific category (which it is not), correlated it with the ability for abstract thought, and – theorising on the destiny of races in lectures to students – arranged them in a hierarchical order:

1. ‘The race of the whites contains all talents and motives in itself.’
2. ‘The Hindus … have a strong degree of calm, and all look like philosophers. That notwithstanding, they are much inclined to anger and love. They thus are educable in the highest degree, but only to the arts and not to the sciences. They will never achieve abstract concepts. [Kant ranks the Chinese with East Indians, and claims that they are] static … for their history books show that they do not know more now than they have long known.’
3. ‘The race of Negroes … [is] full of affect and passion, very lively, chatty and vain. It can be educated, but only to the education of servants, ie, they can be trained.’
4. ‘The [Indigenous] American people are uneducable; for they lack affect and passion. They are not amorous, and so are not fertile. They speak hardly at all, … care for nothing and are lazy.’

Those of us who are specialists on Chinese philosophy are particularly aware of Kant’s disdain for Confucius: ‘Philosophy is not to be found in the whole Orient. … Their teacher Confucius teaches in his writings nothing outside a moral doctrine designed for the princes … and offers examples of former Chinese princes. … But a concept of virtue and morality never entered the heads of the Chinese.’

Kant is easily one of the four or five most influential philosophers in the Western tradition. He asserted that the Chinese, Indians, Africans and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are congenitally incapable of philosophy. And contemporary Western philosophers take it for granted that there is no Chinese, Indian, African or Native American philosophy. If this is a coincidence, it is a stunning one.

If philosophy starts with Plato’s Republic, then I guess the inventor of the Socratic method was not a philosopher

One might argue that, while Kant’s racist premises are indefensible, his conclusion is correct, because the essence of philosophy is to be a part of one specific Western intellectual lineage. This is the position defended by D Kyle Peone in the conservative journal The Weekly Standard. Peone, a postgraduate in philosophy at Emory University in Georgia, argued that, because ‘philosophy’ is a word of Greek origin, it refers only to the tradition that grows out of the ancient Greek thinkers. A similar line of argument was given here in Aeon by Nicholas Tampio, who pronounced that ‘Philosophy originates in Plato’s Republic.’

These are transparently bad arguments (as both Jay Garfield and Amy Olberding have pointed out). For one thing, if the etymology of a term determines which culture ‘owns’ that subject, then there is no algebra in Europe, since we got that term from Arabic. In addition, if philosophy starts with Plato’s Republic, then I guess the inventor of the Socratic method was not a philosopher. My colleagues who teach and write books on pre-Socratic ‘philosophers’ such as Heraclitus and Parmenides are also out of jobs.

Peone and Tampio are part of a long line of thinkers who have tried to simply define non-European philosophy out of existence. In What is Philosophy (1956), Martin Heidegger claimed that:

The often-heard expression ‘Western-European philosophy’ is, in truth, a tautology. Why? Because philosophy is Greek in its nature; … the nature of philosophy is of such a kind that it first appropriated the Greek world, and only it, in order to unfold.

Similarly, on a visit to China in 2001, Jacques Derrida stunned his hosts (who teach in Chinese philosophy departments) by announcing that ‘China does not have any philosophy, only thought.’ In response to the obvious shock of his audience, Derrida insisted that ‘Philosophy is related to some sort of particular history, some languages, and some ancient Greek invention. … It is something of European form.’

The statements of Derrida and Heidegger might have the appearance of complimenting non-Western philosophy for avoiding the entanglements of Western metaphysics. In actuality, their comments are as condescending as talk of ‘noble savages’, who are untainted by the corrupting influences of the West, but are for that very reason barred from participation in higher culture.

It is not only philosophers in the so-called Continental tradition who are dismissive of philosophy outside the Anglo-European canon. The British philosopher G E Moore (1873-1958) was one of the founders of analytic philosophy, the tradition that has become dominant in the English-speaking world. When the Indian philosopher Surendra Nath Dasgupta read a paper on the epistemology of Vedanta to a session of the Aristotelian Society in London, Moore’s only comment was: ‘I have nothing to offer myself. But I am sure that whatever Dasgupta says is absolutely false.’ The audience of British philosophers in attendance roared with laughter at the devastating ‘argument’ Moore had levelled against this Indian philosophical system.

It might be tempting to dismiss this as just a joke between colleagues, but we have to keep in mind that Indian philosophy was already marginalised in Moore’s era. His joke would have had an exclusionary effect similar to sexist jokes made in professional contexts today.

The case of Eugene Sun Park illustrates how Moore’s intellectual descendants are equally narrow-minded. When Sun Park was a student in a mainstream philosophy department in the US Midwest, he tried to encourage a more diverse approach to philosophy by advocating the hiring of faculty who specialise in Chinese philosophy or one other of the less commonly taught philosophies. He reports that he found himself ‘repeatedly confounded by ignorance and, at times, thinly veiled racism’. One member of the faculty basically told him: ‘This is the intellectual tradition we work in. Take it or leave it.’ When Sun Park tried to at least refer to non-Western philosophy in his own dissertation, he was advised to ‘transfer to the Religious Studies Department or some other department where “ethnic studies” would be more welcome’.

Sun Park eventually dropped out of his doctoral programme, and is now a filmmaker. How many other students – particularly students who might have brought greater diversity to the profession – have been turned off from the beginning, or have dropped out along the way, because philosophy seems like nothing but a temple to the achievement of white males?

Those who say that Chinese philosophy is irrational do not bother to read it, and simply dismiss it in ignorance

Some philosophers will grant (grudgingly) that there might be philosophy in China or India, for example, but then assume that it somehow isn’t as good as European philosophy. Most contemporary Western intellectuals gingerly dance around this issue. The late Justice Antonin Scalia was an exception, saying in print what many people actually think, or whisper to like-minded colleagues over drinks at the club. He referred to the thought of Confucius as ‘the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie’.

To anyone who asserts that there is no philosophy outside the Anglo-European tradition, or who admits that there is philosophy outside the West but thinks that it simply isn’t any good, I ask the following. Why does he think that the Mohist state-of-nature argument to justify government authority is not philosophy? What does he make of Mengzi’s reductio ad absurdum against the claim that human nature is reducible to desires for food and sex? Why does he dismiss Zhuangzi’s version of the infinite regress argument for skepticism? What is his opinion of Han Feizi’s argument that political institutions must be designed so that they do not depend upon the virtue of political agents? What does he think of Zongmi’s argument that reality must fundamentally be mental, because it is inexplicable how consciousness could arise from matter that is non-conscious? Why does he regard the Platonic dialogues as philosophical, yet dismiss Fazang’s dialogue in which he argues for, and responds to, objections against the claim that individuals are defined by their relationships to others? What is his opinion of Wang Yangming’s arguments for the claim that it is impossible to know what is good yet fail to do what is good? Does he find convincing Dai Zhen’s effort to produce a naturalistic foundation for ethics in the universalisability of our natural motivations? What does he make of Mou Zongsan’s critique of Kant, or Liu Shaoqi’s argument that Marxism is incoherent unless supplemented with a theory of individual ethical transformation? Does he prefer the formulation of the argument for the equality of women given in the Vimalakirti Sutra, or the one given by the Neo-Confucian Li Zhi, or the one given by the Marxist Li Dazhao? Of course, the answer to each question is that those who suggest that Chinese philosophy is irrational have never heard of any of these arguments because they do not bother to read Chinese philosophy and simply dismiss it in ignorance.

The sad reality is that comments such as those by Kant, Heidegger, Derrida, Moore, Scalia and the professors that Sun Park encountered are manifestations of what Edward W Said labelled ‘Orientalism’ in his eponymous book of 1979: the view that everything from Egypt to Japan is essentially the same, and is the polar opposite of the West: ‘The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, “different”; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, “normal”.’ Those under the influence of Orientalism do not need to really read Chinese (or other non-European) texts or take their arguments seriously, because they come pre-interpreted: ‘“Orientals” for all practical purposes were a Platonic essence, which any Orientalist (or ruler of Orientals) might examine, understand, and expose.’ And this essence guarantees that what Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern or other non-European thinkers have to say is, at best, quaint, at worst – fatuous.

Readers of this essay might be disappointed that my examples (both positive and negative) have focused on Chinese philosophy. This is simply because Chinese philosophy is the area in non-Western philosophy that I know best. To advocate that we teach more philosophy outside the Anglo-European mainstream is not to suggest the unrealistic goal that each of us should be equally adept at lecturing on all of them. However, we should not forget that Chinese philosophy is only one of a substantial number of less commonly taught philosophies (LCTP) that are largely ignored by US philosophy departments, including African, Indian, and Indigenous philosophies. Although I am far from an expert in any of these traditions, I do know enough about them to recognise that they have much to offer as philosophy.

Just read An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (1987) by Kwame Gyekye, or Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) by Kwasi Wiredu, or Philosophy in Classical India (2001) by Jonardon Ganeri, or Buddhism as Philosophy (2007) by Mark Siderits, or Aztec Philosophy (2014) by James Maffie, or the writings of Kyle Powys Whyte at Michigan State University on Indigenous environmentalism. Many forms of philosophy that are deeply influenced by the Greco-Roman tradition (and hence particularly easy to incorporate into the curriculum) are also ignored in mainstream departments, including African-American, Christian, feminist, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American, and LGBTQ philosophies. Adding coverage of any of them to the curriculum would be a positive step toward greater diversity.

I am not saying that mainstream Anglo-European philosophy is bad and all other philosophy is good. There are people who succumb to this sort of cultural Manicheanism, but I am not one of them. My goal is to broaden philosophy by tearing down barriers, not to narrow it by building new ones. To do this is to be more faithful to the ideals that motivate the best philosophy in every culture. When the ancient philosopher Diogenes was asked what city he came from, he replied: ‘I am a citizen of the world.’ Contemporary philosophy in the West has lost this perspective. In order to grow intellectually, to attract an increasingly diverse student body, and to remain culturally relevant, philosophy must recover its original cosmopolitan ideal.

This article is an edited excerpt from Bryan W Van Norden’s ‘Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto’ (2017), with a foreword by Jay L Garfield, published by Columbia University Press.

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