I recently had the opportunity to review Bryan W. Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto for the LSE Review of Books.
I am very sympathetic to Van Norden’s project. Philosophers need to reassess our discipline for a changing world where many of the assumptions that were part of our professional training (e.g., about which figures are central to the discipline and what is necessary to know) are no longer self-evident. Nonetheless, I suggest that Taking Back Philosophy has some significant limitations:
Taking Back Philosophy … doesn’t really make a case for a multicultural approach to philosophy. It is understandable that Van Norden chooses to focus on Chinese philosophy given that it is his area of specialisation (149), but beyond a link to his website with a reading list of ‘Less Commonly Taught Philosophers’, he does very little to advocate for philosophy outside of China and India.
This is connected to a more serious concern. Taking Back Philosophy largely advocates an ‘add and stir’ approach to diversity. Philosophy, in Van Norden’s conception, is defined as a set of important problems about how one should live today (151). Since philosophers from around the world have important insights into how to address these problems, they can be brought into fruitful dialogue. Van Norden insists it is possible to isolate the racist origins of the discipline from its central problems.
This may be true to some extent, but I suspect he underestimates the effects of a critical reading of the canon. As John E. Drabinski observes, the discipline takes on a quite different meaning if one reads the Western philosophical tradition in the context of colonial and imperialist histories in which it played a role in fostering and upholding an ideology of white supremacy (for example, through the construction of the ‘West’ itself). When this history is revealed, it becomes very hard to conceive what is needed to reconstruct the discipline so that it is no longer defined by its Eurocentrism.
My full review is available here.
This is also a theme I’ve explored on this blog, including immediately after the publication of Jay L. Garfield and Van Norden’s article in the Stone If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is
Other blog posts:
Eurocentrism and Philosophy: Expanding the Canon is Not Enough (on Garfield and Van Norden’s Stone article)
Against Liberal Democracy (as a Methodological Presupposition for Political Philosophy)
Charles W. Mills on Rejecting Rawls and Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy