Eurocentrism and Philosophy: Expanding the Canon is Not Enough

Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden’s opinion piece in New York Time’s The Stone If Philosophy Won’t Diversity, Let’s Call It What It Is” makes a modest suggestion: philosophy departments, if they continue to resist expanding the canon, should rename themselves the Departments of European and American Philosophy. Responses to this suggestion have ranged from thoughtful (When Someone Suggests Expanding the Canon, Pursuing the Truth in and about the Philosophy Canon, Philosophy’s Gatekeepers, and Diversity, Neutrality, Philosophy) to the predictably dismissive (Anglophone departments aren’t “Departments of European and American Philosophy”…).
Garfield and Norden’s piece points to a deeper concern about the discipline’s ongoing attempts to define itself. Perhaps there was a time in which philosophy departments could take their activities and status for granted.  This is no longer the case: nobody really knows what Philosophy is. Or to put it another way, what counts as philosophy varies depending on whom one asks.
Philosophy is defined by the practices of the people who are part of the discipline. The problem is that in most departments, colleagues working in different areas can’t really talk to each other about their research. This isn’t just the result of specialization. Philosophers of mind may be more at home with cognitive scientists and neuroscientists. Ancient philosophers often have more in common with their colleagues in classics (insofar as these departments still exist). Social and political philosophers hobnob with the theory people in political science. Logicians hang out with mathematicians.
Moreover, people in other departments are engaged in activities that look something like philosophy. I interact at least as much with political theorists as people who identify as social and political philosophers (indeed, despite the attempts of some colleagues to explain the difference to me, I’m not exactly sure what sets us apart). My students who are looking for a fix of recent continental European social theory visit the English Department. Much of what goes on in women’s studies and in departments such as African American studies and Latinx studies is philosophy. On so on.
Philosophy Departments should expand the range of texts that they teach, but this cannot simply be a matter of adding some authors and texts from regions outside of Europe. To do this would be ad hoc and come with the accompanying risk of reading these texts in terms of how they answer questions deemed important by Eurocentric philosophy. (The response that non-European figures are not asking the same types of questions – insofar as it is not simply bluster – misses one of the major activities of the discipline: helping determine what sorts of questions one should ask.)
Rather, we need to ask what a non-Eurocentric philosophy curriculum would look like. In short, we need to reconceptualize the discipline. Philosophy is the result of a number of efforts at self-identification that invariably involved distortion of the thought and activities of past philosophers. The 17th and 18th century philosophers defined themselves against the scholastic education of their youth, 20thcentury logical positivists sought to salvage philosophy by following the best practices of the empirical scientists, Aquinas created a haven for philosophy by reconciling the genius of Aristotle with the church, and Plato wrote polemics against the Sophists. Every definition of philosophy distorts what went before. In each case, a canon was formed, partially preserving previous iterations of the canon, but also eliminating some figures and emphasizing the importance of others.
The accusation that Philosophy is Eurocentric is cogent and the discipline’s parochial focus will increasingly marginalize it. In the coming decades, philosophy departments face the threat of obliteration as independent units within the university, partly from economic and administrative pressures, but also from their precarious position in the intellectual zeitgeist. Philosophy as an activity will survive, but likely interspersed throughout disciplines or – in some cases – outside of the academy.
The only way to maintain philosophy as an area of study is to rethink the discipline. Nobody knows exactly what this involves, but in part it will require understanding how our field is in part a product of Eurocentric and nationalist ideologies. Moving philosophy into the twenty-first century will involve expanding the canon, but we need a vision to guide us. We need to know what philosophy seeks to do when its authority can no longer be taken for granted. Its future depends on this.


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