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Alien Ideas

by Rick Lewis

A few years ago I went to a Summer music festival. The organisers had brought together bands from all over the planet. One feature of the festival was the interest in bands which mixed musical traditions in unexpected combinations. Afro-Celtic music was particularly popular; I remember a band from Ghana singing in Scots Gaelic and playing their traditional instruments in a way which did indeed seem to mix African and Celtic rhythms. It was a good sound. Whether it is possible to fuse different philosophical traditions in an equally fruitful way is more questionable, but surely a rudimentary knowledge of how the world’s non-Western philosophical traditions work should be part of the mindset of every welleducated philosopher.

Indian and Chinese philosophy are almost unknown in the philosophy departments of the Western world. Philosophers in India, China, Africa are as a general rule wellinformed about Western philosophy, but Western philosophers usually know only about Western philosophy. From a Western perspective we tend to think that modernisation means Westernisation – and infected by our unshakeable confidence, people in other cultures have come to believe this too. But in all those parts of the world there are also counterreactions. Intellectuals believe that they should focus on and develop a better understanding of their own traditions of thought. That is when it gets interesting for us, philosophically. These thinkers are not just doing this out of cultural pride: they are convinced that they can make valuable contributions to philosophy today on the basis of their traditions.

The millennium approacheth, and the skies are full of portents. The fifth horseman of the apocalypse rideth a multicoloured horse and calleth himself Globalisation. We are coming more and more into daily contact with individuals with mindsets rather different from those we are used to. For all these reasons we thought it was time to devote some space to the planet’s other philosophical traditions. Therefore we have put together a special issue on philosophy around the world. As well as philosophy of the more familiar sort, this issue includes articles either about, or from, most of the other major traditions; Indian, African, Islamic, Chinese.

Why do other philosophical traditions get so little attention in the West? Islamic philosophy has respect and recognition because of the achievements of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) but is mainly thought of as a historical phenomenon. The situation for the other traditions is even worse. The Bluffer’s Guide to Philosophy, which regular readers will remember is my most-consulted reference work, advises us to be suitably dismissive of Eastern philosophy as being the domain of “people in grubby yellow robes and other social menaces”, and to explain loftily that whatever they are doing certainly isn’t philosophy as we understand the word. It may be the case that outside the West, philosophy is generally more intertwined with religion and other aspects of culture, but does this make it less philosophical? What does makes a philosophical tradition a philosophical tradition? It asks the most fundamental questions about knowledge and about our lives. It relies on reasoning and criticism rather than revelation or the uncritical acceptance of ancestral wisdom. Even a cursory glance at the articles in this issue should convince you that the intellectual traditions of the East have produced philosophical thinking of the highest order.

Some of you may say that with British and American warplanes bombing Serb towns and refugees streaming back and forth across borders, there are pressing matters to discuss in these pages which they can’t find in the table of contents. I can only agree. These developments are deeply troubling and I feel strongly that this is a subject which philosophers should address. Sorry it hasn’t been possible to assemble anything on this at short notice. I hope, without confidence, that by the time this magazine hits the news-stands the war will be only a disturbing memory.

People have occasionally pointed out to me that among my other shortcomings as editor, I am a man. This accusation cannot be levelled at Anja Steinbauer, our newest editor. She is bringing her ideas to fire up editorial discussions and her knowledge of both Chinese and Continental philosophy to bring a little balance to a publication previously run exclusively by demented analyticals, logical positivist throwbacks and other undesireables. A thousand welcomes to her, and also to Derrick Farnham of Ontario, who in a mad moment volunteered to edit our news pages.

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