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Philosophy Then

Out of Europe

Peter Adamson wants us to recategorise philosophies.

Recently Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled ‘If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is’ (May 11, 2016). They argued that philosophy departments unwilling or unable to devote attention to philosophy from other cultures may as well just rename themselves ‘Department of European and American Philosophy’. I do research in Islamic philosophy, and am covering non-European traditions, starting with India, in my podcast on the history of philosophy, so I am much in sympathy with their provocative plea for truth in advertising. But along with other recent developments having to do with the limits of Europe, I did get to wondering: what exactly do they mean by the phrase ‘European and American philosophy’?

An obvious answer might be, ‘philosophy that has been produced on the soil of Europe or America.’ But that doesn’t seem to be what Garfield and Van Norden mean. They explicitly mention Latin American and Native American philosophy as unjustly excluded traditions, and also refer to Islamic and Jewish philosophy. Some of the greatest Muslim and Jewish philosophers hailed from Europe: Averroes, Ibn Bajja, Ibn Gabriol and Maimonides were all born in Spain. In fact, when I tried in my podcast to provide a comprehensive overview of philosophy in the Islamic world, a third of that overview dealt with Andalusian philosophers. So if Jewish and Muslim thinkers of medieval Spain are ignored by ‘Eurocentric’ philosophers, then their Eurocentrism is not driven by geography. ‘European philosophy’ must surely refer to a distinctive European philosophical culture.

What could define such a culture? Evidently not any particular philosophical idea or theory. European philosophers have been monists and pluralists, skeptics and dogmatists, theologians and atheists. We might, rather circularly, say that American and European philosophy is the philosophy that tends to be done nowadays in philosophy departments in Europe and the United States. But this seems wrong too. Clearly, if the blessed day were to come when most British philosophy students were asked to read the Bhagavad Gita, that would not make the Gita count as European philosophy. Rather ‘European philosophy’, if there is any such thing, must presumably be defined historically. A plausible historical definition would be, ‘philosophical traditions that can be traced back to the Greeks’. Even analytic philosophers with little interest in history are at least dimly conscious of the link between their own inquiries and those of Plato and Aristotle. This is one reason the works of Plato and Aristotle are indeed required reading for European students. Here it is almost obligatory to recall Whitehead’s celebrated remark that philosophy is a set of footnotes to Plato. Notice: not a set of footnotes to the Upanisads, or to the Dao De Ching.

But if this is what we mean, then we have a remarkable result. It will turn out that Islamic and Jewish philosophy are part of the ‘European’ tradition, a largely unknown tributary of the otherwise familiar flow of philosophy from Greek sources. Sometimes Islamic philosophy is even presented as little more than a set of footnotes to Aristotle. This is a gross exaggeration. Indigenous concerns were crucial from the very beginning of the medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophical traditions, including the need to make intellectual sense of the Torah and the Quran, the pressure of competition from speculative theologians, and the project of forging a new philosophical vocabulary in Arabic. Still, there is no doubting that philosophy in the Islamic world was intimately engaged with Hellenic thought: one of the Arabic words for ‘philosophy’ is falsafa, taken directly from Greek, just like the Latin philosophia, and several of the better-known thinkers wrote commentaries on Aristotle or other Greek works in Arabic translation. Averroes, honored in medieval Europe as ‘the Commentator’ on Aristotle, is thus a sterling example of a European. So is the central Asian thinker Avicenna. His ‘flying man’ thought experiment is rightly praised by Garfield and Van Norden as worth our attention. And as it happens, that thought experiment is presented at the beginning of Avicenna’s work on psychology precisely to motivate a correction to Aristotle’s definition of the soul.

So I have a provocative proposal of my own: intellectually speaking, the more valid distinction is not between ‘European’ and ‘non-European’ philosophy, but between philosophical cultures that respond to Greek thought (however indirectly), and those that do not. Philosophers of the Islamic world – Jews, Muslims, and Christians writing in Arabic or Syriac – belong to the former category, as do Latin American thinkers. Philosophers of pre-modern Asia – India, China Korea, Japan, etc – as well as thinkers of the pre-colonial Americas and Africa, belong to the latter. Of course some believe that there may have been an exchange of ideas between the Greeks and India, but if so the influence was not determinative as it was in the case of the Islamic world, and in any case the influence is more usually thought to have traveled from India to the Mediterranean rather than the other way around.

So we reach another possible critique to add to Garfield and Van Norden’s polemic: ‘Eurocentric’ philosophy doesn’t even manage to be Eurocentric! It fails to cover its own supposed cultural domain, by omitting world-class thinkers who lived and worked in Europe, as well as those who lived and worked elsewhere. Much the same, by the way, can be said of other intellectual labels, such as ‘Western philosophy’. Averroes, after all, lived further west than Aquinas. A more historically adequate approach would also bring home to us that philosophical inquiry did reach astounding levels of sophistication outside of Europe in the broader sense. Vedic theories of the self, Buddhist skepticism, and the practical philosophy of Confucianism, developed without inspiration from the Greeks. That philosophical traditions emerged independently in numerous cultures strikes me as an important fact about the nature of philosophy. It suggests, in fact, that only once philosophy diversifies will we be able to call it what it really is.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2016

Peter Adamson is the author of Philosophy in the Islamic World: A Very Short Introduction. He would like to thank Chike Jeffers for discussion of the points raised in this article.

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