Clickbaiting and the evils of Western philosophy

The title of this blog is Footnotes to Plato. This is not because I am inordinately fond of Plato (among the ancients I prefer the Stoics, as many readers know), nor because I literally believe the famous phrase by Alfred North Whitehead from which the blog title derives: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (Process and Reality, p. 39, Free Press, 1979). I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it seriously, or at least I hope so.

The quip, however, does hint at a historical reality: Plato is — for good and for ill —the single most influential Western philosopher, in good part because he touched on pretty much every major topic that subsequent philosophers have been preoccupied with. The reason for this, in turn, is arguably twofold: on the one hand, he truly was a towering figure, who had a lot to say about all sorts of things; on the other hand, he was one of the earliest philosophers, which means that the field was completely open and ripe with a bunch of low hanging fruits. This isn’t a thing peculiar to philosophy: Galileo made a huge number of discoveries, from the craters of the Moon to the rings of Saturn, simply because he was the first one to use a telescope.

[Yes, I’m aware that we still study Plato in philosophy, but we don’t study Galileo in science. There are good reasons for this, which have nothing to do with an alleged superiority of science and everything to do with the fact that science and philosophy are different kinds of disciplines, with different methods and concerns. So is mathematics. And literary criticism. See here for an entire book devoted to that topic.]

Back to Whitehead: notice that the phrase specifically refers to the European philosophical tradition. An obvious acknowledgment of the existence of several other traditions, over which Plato had little or no influence. Which brings me to the point of the current post. During the last several weeks I’ve been sparring on Twitter with Bryan van Norden, a self-described “leading scholar” of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, based in Singapore. He has written a book, just out, entitled Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, in support of which he has published a piece in Aeon magazine. It is that piece that has triggered our back and forth, which has, unfortunately, reached rare levels of unpleasantness.

The title of the Aeon article is “Why the Western Philosophical canon is xenophobic and racist,” a rare instance of vilification of an entire field and of an indiscriminate attack on every professional working within it. Is van Norden justified in his accusations? Is such an obvious clickbait the best way to foster a constructive dialogue about the problem? Let’s take a look.

First though, let me make clear that I agree with some of the substance of van Norden’s article (and, presumably, book). Philosophy departments the world over — not just in North America or Europe — should indeed be teaching as many of the varied philosophical traditions as logistically possible. Then again, that goes also for history departments, or literature, and so forth, I would think.

Second, the crucial kernel of truth in van Norden’s argument is the problem famously identified by Edward W. Said in his 1978 book, Orientalism. Said defined Orientalism as a patronizing attitude on the part of “the West” in its representations of “the East,” an attitude that is inextricably tied with Colonialism between the 16th and 19th centuries. Some of the victims, according to Said, have been complicit with the West, as for instance in the case of the romantic aura surrounding descriptions of Arab Culture, which originated with French, British, and American writers, but was then deployed by Arab elites for their own repressive purposes.

Said’s work is important and well known in Western departments, though it has to be noted that it targeted primarily literature (not philosophy), and that it has in turn been criticized in part because of its over-reliance on questionable poststructural methods of analysis. Be that as it may, I know of no one in contemporary philosophy or literature departments in the West who is not aware of Said’s work and very sensitive to potential charges of Orientalism. van Norden clearly disagrees, so let’s take a look at what he says in some detail.

He begins his article with a statement just as bald (and as false) as its title: “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?”

Of course, van Norden provides little empirical evidence for that gross generalization. He relies heavily on a survey of graduate programs in American departments, according to which 10% of those programs have a specialist in Chinese philosophy, and many don’t have courses on other non-Western philosophies. That’s not good, but note that it refers to graduate programs (which tend to be highly specialized), and that we are not given comparative numbers of how many Chinese, or African graduate programs feature specialists in Western philosophy. Many graduate programs in the US also lack specialists in philosophy of science, say, or in aesthetics, and so forth. Moreover, at the undergraduate level things are certainly better, with many departments featuring regular offerings in Chinese, Indian and African philosophy.

While the situation can and should be improved, this is hardly good evidence of racism and xenophobia. More likely, it is the result of lack of training (until recently) in those areas, as well as of budget cuts in the humanities in general, which makes it increasingly difficult to hire full time faculty, in any specialty. And of course, while American society is indeed culturally diverse, it is still made of mostly “Western” students (and faculty), which is the simplest explanation for why there are similar biases also in history and literature departments. Simply put, the charge of racism and xenophobia is vicious, smells of moral grandstanding, and is entirely counterproductive. I’m squarely on van Norden’s side when it comes to increasing multicultural courses, but my case is hardly going to be helped by indiscriminately accusing my colleagues of racism and xenophobia.

The bulk of the Aeon article, in facts, is a concession to the fact that Eastern philosophy has been taken seriously by a lot of authors in the Western tradition, from the translations of Confucius curated by the Jesuits to Leibniz’ interest in Chinese philosophy. Who, then, is the culprit for the current sorry state of affairs? Kant, of course. van Norden presents his own version of the recent history of Western philosophy, in which Kant is made to be a racist uber-villain. There is no doubt that Kant was “racist” from our standpoint, and racist comments are easy to find in the writings of Hume and Mill as well, to mention just a couple of other prominent figures of modern philosophy. This is not surprising because they were all products of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was the time when “scientific racism” was developed, the notion, allegedly based on the best science of the time, according to which most non-Western “races” were clearly intellectually inferior.

Now, I completely agree with van Norden that scientific racism was shameful, though many progressive thinkers endorsed it at the time, just like in the early 20th century it was mostly progressives who powered the eugenic movement. Moreover, I do think that race is not, in fact, a biological category (as I’ve written on several occasions, for instance here). I also certainly do not deny that there is racism in our society and I don’t think that individual philosophers are exceptional in that respect.

But it is like for van Norden time has stopped at the Enlightenment. The Romantic backlash never happened. Continental philosophy is ignored, even though many of its exponents have been influenced by Eastern writers. And the postmodern (mostly, but not entirely, unfortunate) uprising never took place either. Truly, it is only the analytic tradition that downplays non-Western (and Continental) contributions, and that’s largely because, in fact, those are hardly compatible styles of doing philosophy. But I for one fervently hope that analytic philosophy is on its way out so that we can get on with the business of doing relevant (as opposed to logic chopping) philosophy.

Back to Kant. van Norden writes: “Kant is easily one of the four or five most influential philosophers in the Western tradition. He asserted that the Chinese, Indians, Africans and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are congenitally incapable of philosophy. And contemporary Western philosophers take it for granted that there is no Chinese, Indian, African or Native American philosophy. If this is a coincidence, it is a stunning one.” It is not a coincidence because a crucial part of that statement is utterly false. Yes, Kant certainly is one of the most influential modern philosophers. But definitely not because of that sort of statements, which he did, unfortunately, make. That said, where on earth did van Norden get the idea that “contemporary Western philosophers take it for granted that there is no Chinese, Indian, African or Native American philosophy”? On what planet is he living in? Surely not the one in which the philosophers and departments I know of actually exist.

van Norden offers no evidence for that sweeping statement, of course, except a couple of anecdotes, one of which features Derrida going to China in 2001 and telling his stunned hosts that “China does not have any philosophy, only thought.” Well, I never had a high opinion of Derrida (to put it mildly), and this is one more confirmation that I was right. But so what? Why not focus instead on people like my CUNY colleague Graham Priest, one of the top logicians in the world, who has been blending Eastern and Western philosophy in his work on paraconsistent logic? Because that wouldn’t fit the clickbait narrative, of course.

Let’s analyze for a moment how the issue of, shall we call it “great men’s blunders” is treated outside of philosophy. Take physics, and in particular Newton, a figure that, ironically, strongly influenced Kant, who famously wanted to put moral philosophy on the same firm footing as the sort of natural philosophy that was being done by Newton. It turns out that Newton was a nasty little man, prone to vengeance and abuse of power, and that moreover he spent (wasted would be a better term) a larger portion of his life doing alchemy and Biblical criticism rather than physics. But nobody today focuses on Newton’s personal failures, nor do we read what he wrote about alchemy and the Old Testament. Why not? Because a healthy approach to people’s personal and professional failures is to acknowledge them while at the same time focus on whatever it is of good that they produced in their fields. I’m not about to discard Newtonian mechanics because of Newton’s failures in other respects. Similarly, we shouldn’t revise the history of (Western) philosophy and downplay the positive contributions of Hume, Kant and Mill, among others, because they also said things that by contemporary standards are racist.

Moreover, and this goes conveniently unmentioned in van Norden’s article, Kant was also an anti-colonialist and endorsed a general philosophy of cosmopolitanism. Similarly, Mill did make racist comments, and yet he wrote On Liberty, as well as — with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill — The Subjection of Women. Hume did utter racist remarks, but also wrote cogent, and very modern sounding, essays on moral and political philosophy. Go figure, people are complicated! (Want one more example? Plato did not question slavery, unlike, say, Zeno of Citium. But he advocated for the intellectual equality of women. Which part should we discard and which adopt, you think?)

Perhaps feeling a bit short in terms of overtly “Orientalist” philosophers, van Norden even mentions Antonin Scalia, who apparently referred to the thought of Confucius as “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.” I got news for van Norden, besides being a first class asshole, Scalia was not a philosopher, nor was his thought representative of philosophy departments.

van Norden ends his article by suggesting that we should add more coverage of non-Western philosophies in the curricula offered by American universities. Yes! And that is precisely what we are doing. But we also have to deal with the realities on the ground, meaning mostly that a lot of philosophy departments simply do not have the resources necessary to do a good job as it is, let alone to branch out in new directions. And yet, I don’t know a single colleague who is both not aware and unsympathetic to van Norden’s worry. If we really want to make progress, are clickbait titles along the lines of “the Western Philosophical canon is racist and xenophobic” going to be helpful? Do we really think that conversations get started and progress gets made that way?

In response to one of my tweets asking for hard data, van Norden replied by quoting an article in the LA Times that reports the following statistics: “African Americans constitute 13% of the US population, 7% of PhD recipients across fields, 2% of PhD recipients in philosophy, and less than 0.5% of authors in the most prominent philosophy journals.”

This is bad, obviously. But van Norden’s reading at face value of what the numbers mean is naive at best, willfully ignorant at worst. Let us set aside the obvious observation that correlation does not imply any particular causal scenario. (I mean, the ratio of female to male nurses in the US is a whopping 9.5:1. Surely nobody in his right mind is going to make an argument based on that figure that hospitals engage in reverse sexism and discriminate against male applicants, right?) The most likely explanation for the philosophy figures isn’t structural racism within the profession, but rather a combination of two other factors: structural racism at the pre-college levels, and culture. I have been on plenty of search committees hiring faculty, as well as on admission committees looking for graduate students. You have no idea how much at pains my colleagues and I have always been to look for minorities (and women). Every. Single. Time. The problem is that blacks and Hispanics are at a structural disadvantage from the very beginning, meaning from kindergarten, and things hardly get better in grade school. That’s a major reason why by the time we get to graduate school and tenure track positions the numbers are abysmal. The issue is not structural racism within the philosophical profession, it is structural racism in society at large.

The second reason for those numbers is culture, as in many of my minority students telling me that they experience strong pressure both from peers and from their families to drop philosophy and major instead in a “real” field, like engineering, pre-med, or pre-law. There are good reasons for this, having to do with the increasingly stratospheric cost of a college education, even in so-called public schools (which nowadays get only a fraction of their budget from States), and with the fact that many of these students are the first in their family to actually go to college. If I were one of their parents I would be concerned as well about “wasting” my tuition money on something as “useless” as philosophy. (Even though, turns out, majoring in philosophy is an excellent bet in terms of post-graduation employment.)

Does any of the above prove that philosophy, as a profession, does not have a problem with racism (and sexism)? No, it doesn’t. But van Norden has done very little to show that it does, relying on selected anecdotal evidence and hastily interpreted surveys to level what he himself recognizes as a “a serious charge.” As Hume would have put it — in his frequent non-racist moments — a wise person’s belief should be proportionate to the evidence, and van Norden’s most certainly is not.

By all means, let us fix whatever is wrong with the philosophical profession. But let’s do it by engaging in constructive and nuanced discourse, not in blatant clickbaiting for the sake of selling books. Let’s do it because we are genuinely concerned about future generations, avoiding the temptation of putting ourselves on a high moral pedestal. And above all let’s do it fairly, without tainting countless people with broad accusations of racism.

67 thoughts on “Clickbaiting and the evils of Western philosophy

  1. Massimo Post author


    “English is the new Latin…”

    Exactly, it’s the current lingua franca of the academy, that we like it or not.


    Interesting article in Aeon. The problem with “correcting history” is that history actually did not take notice of Zera Yacob. His book did not have any measurable influence. So, by all means, let’s give him credit for his early insight. But let’s not rewrite history books in order to give him a place that he did not actually have.

    The same happens in science. Several people had interesting ideas about evolution before Darwin. But it would be silly to argue that we should be teaching those precursors as anything than a footnote to the history of biology. Unfair? Maybe. But that’s just the way it is.


  2. brodix

    “The problem is that most people are not Stoic.”

    Maybe the problem is that most stoics don’t advertise it. Stoicism being the opposite of fanaticism. Maybe most people are stoics.


  3. couvent2104


    If the article in Aeon is accurate, it’s a bit cruel to call Yacob a “precursor”. It gives the impression that Descartes, Locke etc. actually were the precursors, although not in time but in thought and in liberty of thought.


  4. brodix

    “Stoicism being the opposite of fanaticism. ”

    To further that thought, stoicism is about the journey, while fanaticism is about the destination.
    In that stoicism is about being present, yet keeping an eye out. Picking oneself up when falls occur, helping those around you. Open mind, etc.
    With fanaticism, the purpose is in the goal. The ends justify the means. The present is immaterial, only the destination matters. Be it piles of money, reaching heaven, or some political ideal.


  5. wtc48

    Expanding on labnut’s comments on encountering unfamiliar ways of thinking, isn’t it the case that the first response is a sense of wrongness, followed (sometimes) with the discovery that the underlying ideas are what we also share? As with learning a foreign language, the first impression is of impenetrable babble (or Babel!), but when we get the hang of the grammar and vocabulary, it turns out that what is being said is entirely familiar. Perhaps the experience of “translation” should have a status comparable to the senses, in clarifying our understanding of the world around us.


  6. Philosopher Eric

    Regarding the Aeon article that iwwveeper put up, I don’t think we should be surprised that a non prominent Ethiopian could have beat theorists like Hume and Mill to some of their theories. Shouldn’t countless others have had similar musings from time to time to various extents? What I take from this is that in philosophy ideas are not important in and of themselves, but rather in relation to the powers that be. Descartes probably wouldn’t be known for much today as a disciple of atheism rather than Catholicism, of course. Apparently we naturally seek power for our own factions in order to promote our own perceived interests.

    Am I any different? No I’m quite the same. My faction accepts the metaphysical position of naturalism, or that all of reality has a causal connection with the rest. Thus we believe that philosophy could be something like an “art” that doesn’t seek to understand how reality functions, though this would mean that metaphysics, epistemology, and value would need a second home that is associated with the rest of reality study. Conversely the “philosophy” title could evolve to serve both cultural needs as well as have a side that’s about “destinations” rather than “journeys”, that is if each of them could learn to accept the other. As I mentioned earlier to Daniel, I’m currently pessimistic enough to advocate a split.


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