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19 Nov 2019 5:16
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  •   Home > News > International

    Racist attitudes 'whitewashed' modern philosophy. What can be done to change it?

    Racist attitudes prevent universities from taking non-Western philosophers seriously, some acadmics say, and an expanded curriculum is needed to combat baked-in ideology.


    Contemporary academic philosophy is supposed to be about inclusive, open-minded inquiry. But has it outgrown the shadow of its colonialist past?

    Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was one of the great moral philosophers.

    For more than two centuries, his work has been rightly praised as offering a brilliant, ground-breaking analysis of exactly how and why one might seek to live a just and virtuous life.

    Today, justice and virtue admit no room for racism. And this makes the following quotes from Kant a little confounding:

    "The white race possesses all incentives and talents in itself... The race of Negroes can be educated, but only as slaves... The [indigenous] Americans cannot be educated, they care about nothing and are lazy."

    It's no coincidence that Kant wrote these notes in 1781, a time when European colonialism was in full flourish.

    In the same year, British forces were fighting the French over territories in the West Indies, the Spanish were crushing Inca rebellions in Peru.

    The first uprising against the British East India Company took place on the Indian subcontinent and English traders in the Caribbean Sea threw 142 Ghanaian slaves overboard in order to conserve supplies for the remainder of their human cargo.

    With all this in mind, Kant's race-based hierarchical account of human capacities seems shocking.

    But it also perfectly reflects 18th century colonial assumptions about the natural fitness of some races (one race, really) to rule and others to be ruled.

    To be fair, in his later work Kant expresses horror at the cruelties inflicted on colonial subjects, calling their conquerors "European savages" whose excesses far surpass the supposed barbarism of the natives.

    And a key pillar of Kant's famous "categorical imperative" is the notion that humans should never be viewed solely as means, but always as ends in themselves.

    Kantian scholars today tend to view his statements on race as being of marginal significance.

    But there's a troubling sense in which those colonialist assumptions are still sedimented deep within the practices of contemporary philosophy.

    Western philosophy 'unimaginative, even xenophobic'

    These assumptions are certainly still prevalent, according to Bryan Van Norden, Professor of Philosophy at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

    In his book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, he writes, "mainstream philosophy in the so-called West is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic."

    It's a statement unlikely to endear him to many of his academic colleagues, but it has some solid facts behind it.

    "It's amazing how hard it is to study anything other than Anglo-European philosophy in the English-speaking world or in Europe," says Dr Van Norden.

    "In the United States, less than ten per cent of doctoral programs in philosophy have anyone on staff who teaches Chinese philosophy.

    "Less than five per cent have anyone who teaches Indian or African philosophy. And only two doctoral programs in in the USA have anyone who teaches the philosophy of the indigenous people of the Americas. So it's pretty whitewashed".

    But is this just a matter of benign academic oversight? Or would Dr Van Norden go so far as to utter the R-word?

    "It definitely is due to racism," he says.

    "When Europeans first encountered philosophy in China and India, they immediately recognised it as philosophical and were fascinated by it."

    Beginning with Kant, he says, Western philosophers "started to assume that people in India and China were racially incapable of doing philosophy.

    "Kant's claims about white racial superiority were accepted by generations of students, and Kant's own disciples rewrote the philosophy textbooks."

    "They wrote India and Africa out of the history of philosophy, presenting all of Western philosophy as a linear progression from the ancient Greeks leading up to Kant," Dr Van Norden says.

    "As a result, today people take it for granted without argument that there is no philosophy in China or Africa or India.

    "And when I ask them, 'which philosophical thinkers in these traditions have you read?', you'd be amazed how often people say 'Oh, I've never read any Chinese philosophy, I've never read any Indian or African philosophy — because there isn't any, right?'"

    Even in today's notionally post-colonial world, this mindset carries the residue of empire.

    When European colonists encountered local traditions of thought in Africa, India and Asia, part of the process of cultural subjugation involved relegating these traditions to the sphere of religion or "traditional wisdom" rather than philosophy.

    Philosophy vs 'wisdom literature'

    Confucius offers an interesting illustration of this shift.

    Philosophy in the early European Enlightenment was concerned with trying to find answers to questions that had previously been covered by theology and the church.

    Christian Wolff — a German contemporary of Kant — was interested in Confucian thought, as he saw it offered a means of understanding morality without belief in God.

    In other words, a project in close sympathy with Enlightenment philosophy.

    "But then people started to denigrate non-Western philosophy," says Dr Van Norden.

    "They said, 'well, these things really aren't philosophy. They're local religions, or they're wisdom literature.' And you still get that account today."

    Confucius' demotion from Serious Philosopher to Desk Calendar Epigrammatist was recently confirmed by no less an authority than the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

    In 2015, when the Court ruled in favour of same-sex marriage, Confucius was quoted in the decision.

    This prompted Justice Antonin Scalia to respond that the Court had descended from "disciplined legal reasoning" to "the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie."

    And if you think that the notoriously leftist, progressive sympathies of Humanities academics might keep this sort of prejudice out of university philosophy departments, prepare to be disappointed.

    "Academic philosophy is a colonialist project from the ground up," says Serene Khader, Associate Professor in the Philosophy of Culture at City University of New York.

    "There are infinite questions that we could ask about the world — and we say 'part of what's so great about philosophy is that you can ask about anything,'" she says.

    Dr Khader recognises that a small group of people — elite, white, cisgender, Western men — have prioritised the direction of academic philosophy.

    She says we need to recognise other "really robust" traditions — but that this is difficult because to make a career in academic philosophy, the conversation must include things "that are easily intelligible to people who are already in those debates."

    The mainstream structure doesn't have many people who can listen to the toolset of Africana philosophy, she explains.

    "We need to change this norm that says, 'if something's not immediately clear to analytic philosophers, it must not be worth talking about.'"

    Decolonising philosophy

    But how to challenge the norm? According to Dr Van Norden, the answer lies in the hands of students.

    "In the long run, I think change will come from the grassroots. I would encourage students to ask their professors why they haven't hired someone who teaches in [non-Western] philosophical traditions," he says.

    "As we get more and more demand from students — and as those students become professors themselves — we're going to see more and more changes in the field."

    A common objection to this proposal is that expanding the curriculum would result in diminishing the existing canon.

    There are only so many philosophers a curriculum can accommodate, so bringing in new names would inevitably mean jettisoning old ones.

    But this is far from being a contemporary matter of "woke" students undermining the intellectual foundations of the West with their boutique demands for multicultural inclusion.

    It's a problem as old as academic philosophy itself.

    "The canon has never been fixed," says Dr Van Norden.

    "There was a time when if you studied philosophy, you absolutely had to read Cicero. Now, almost nobody reads Cicero, and frankly I don't think we've lost anything."

    Dr Van Norden likes to tell a story about a "renegade young upstart philosopher" who tried to get a new thinker incorporated into the curriculum at the University of Paris, "a few years back."

    People were horrified at the potential inclusion, accusing the young man of watering down the curriculum.

    This was in the 13th century, that man was Thomas Aquinas and he was arguing for the inclusion of Aristotle.

    "People tried to reject Aristotle on the same grounds that they now try to reject Confucius or the Bhagavad Gita [an ancient Indian and Hindu text]. But Aquinas won, and the European philosophical tradition was much richer because of it.

    "So the canon of philosophical thinkers has always been subject to dispute. Thinkers come into the canon, thinkers go out of the canon — this is not an issue the likes of which we've never seen before."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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