Western knowledge systems have recently been coming under intense scrutiny from both within and without. Academic movements have emerged around the world, mostly in the global south, calling out the Eurocentrism embedded in works and approaches that operate under the guise of ‘universalism’. Meanwhile, decolonial scholars have dispensed with the use of the word ‘universal’ and instead prefer ‘pluriversal’ to give greater space to non-Western voices.
In Pakistan, too, the approach that connects knowledge to its geopolitical origins is gaining ground and forms of Western intellectual imperialism are being questioned (the university where I work has already set up a faculty discussion forum, called the Indigenising Knowledge Forum, which attempts to decolonise knowledge formations prevalent in the country since colonial times).
In such a decolonial context, Bryan W. Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto becomes a significant landmark on the road to exposing philosophy’s Euro-American bias. The book makes a case for the inclusion of the least commonly taught philosophies and enumerates the reasons for their non-inclusion in the Euro-American philosophical canon.
Bryan W. Van Norden’s book is a significant landmark on the road to exposing philosophy’s Euro-American bias
The book came out of an opinion piece, ‘If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call it What it Really Is’, which was published on the philosophy blog of the New York Times (NYT) in May 2016. Written by Van Norden and Jay L. Garfield, both professors of philosophy at prestigious American universities, the article garnered hostile responses from philosophy professionals — nearly 800 on the first day, a record for the blog. In the article, Van Norden and Garfield called the profession of philosophy Eurocentric and suggested that any philosophy department that did not teach Chinese, African, Islamic or Indian philosophies should change its name to “department of European and American philosophy” in honest acknowledgement of its limitations.
In his book, which includes a foreword by Garfield, Van Norden addresses the hostile responses that the NYT article had teased out and strengthens his case to emancipate philosophy from its Euro-American bias.
He does so by tracing the history of philosophy’s parochialism by identifying Immanuel Kant’s racism and hints at the prevalence of Kant’s legacy in contemporary philosophy. He offers examples from Kant’s lectures in which the German philosopher says that the race of whites contains all talents and motives in itself; the Hindus will never achieve abstract concepts; the negroes can only be educated as servants; and the indigenous American people are “uneducable”, care for nothing and are lazy. Van Norden then connects Kant’s racism — that is, his belief that the Chinese, Indians, Africans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas are congenitally incapable of philosophy — with that of contemporary philosophers who take it for granted that there is no Chinese, or Indian, African, Native American philosophy.
Taking Back Philosophy, which is divided into five chapters, is a delightful book that sustains readers’ interest throughout as it is written for those interested in philosophy, but not necessarily trained in it. It offers a ‘cheesy’ read, hence the quite inviting titles of some chapters: ‘Trump’s Philosophers’, for example, deals with the obsession of “building walls.” The chapter connects American president Donald Trump’s infatuation with building a wall on America’s southern border with the philosophers’ propensity to build a wall around Western philosophy. The fourth chapter, titled ‘Welders and Philosophers’, is a consideration and debunking of the remarks United States’ presidential candidate Marco Rubio made during one of 2016’s presidential debates: “We need more welders and less philosophers.” This chapter, in an attempt to philosophise the matter, presents hard, statistical facts regarding the ability of philosophy graduates to earn more than welders and highlights why the US (in particular) and the world (in general) need more philosophers because of their contribution to democratic citizenship and to the civilisation at large.
Readers will also find the book’s juxtaposition of Western and non-Western philosophers very compelling. Epigraphs at the beginning of the last chapter, for instance, reiterate the original thesis of the book by comparing two statements. One is by the Greek philosopher Socrates: “For our discussion is not about some ordinary matter, but the way one should live” and the other is by the Chinese thinker Confucius: “Set your heart upon the Way.”
There is much in the book that would enable those unfamiliar with philosophy to understand its basics. For example, in one section Van Norden attempts to offer a definition of philosophy by taking a cue from game theory’s notion of a solved game, and defines it in the following words: ‘Philosophy is dialogue about important unsolved problems.’
There is much in the book that would enable those unfamiliar with philosophy to understand its basics. For example, in one section Van Norden attempts to offer a definition of philosophy by taking a cue from game theory’s notion of a ‘solved game’, and defines it in the following words: “Philosophy is dialogue about important unsolved problems.” He then goes on to explain that once philosophers agree about the method for solving a problem, the problem gets kicked out of the realm of philosophy and into its own discipline. Consequently, astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics began as parts of philosophy, but are now separate fields because in each case there is (generally) an agreement about what counts as reliable evidence, good arguments and well-established conclusions. The author then asserts that in non-Western cultures, one finds “important unsolved problems in ethics, metaphysics, political philosophy, logic and the philosophy of language” that Western philosophers still wrestle with and thus there is a need to bring them into dialogue.
Van Norden has written a most accessible and highly readable book and in promoting the broadening of philosophy in the manner it is practised in America, he proposes tearing down biased barriers so that one may “bask in the lunar glow of [Greek] Plato’s genius” while at the same time “follow the path of questioning and learning” with the Chinese thinker Zhu Xi and discuss the “middle way” of the Hindu sage Buddha.
The reviewer is an assistant professor at the University of Punjab
Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural
By Bryan W. Van Norden
Columbia University Press, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 15th, 2018