Western philosophy is racist

Bryan W Van Norden writes: 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. [Continue reading…]

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