the provincialism of the philosophers

Anglo-American philosophers don’t know anything about non-Western philosophy, complains Bryan W. Van Norden in his new book.  He’s probably right.  Norden’s solution is to cry racism and demand multiculturalism.  Even the book’s reviewer, Jonardon Ganeri, is skeptical of this.  I come at the issue from a different perspective, as a Catholic having long heard the scholastics on my team whine about how these same philosophers ignore or disrespect them.  I suspect the provincialism of the philosophers is less geographical and cultural than chronological.  The classics of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese philosophy were written a long time ago, and while often not theistic in the Western sense will no doubt strike contemporary philosophers (a very materialistic bunch) as tainted with religious and mystical concerns.  In other words, “just like those Thomists we hate, but even weirder”.

So the non-Western schools have a tough job ahead of them, since they are not despised like the schoolman but are completely ignored, which may be a worse hole to climb out of.  They can be encouraged by the recognition  neo-Aristotelianism is winning.  The scholastics didn’t get this by complaining.  They got it the old-fashioned way:  by attacking the materialistic consensus, giving arguments why that consensus must be flawed and why Aristotelian ideas fix the problem.

If the non-Westerners take this tack, there is the downside that each different non-Western canon will have to make its case separately.  If somebody proves that Indian philosophy has tools we need, that doesn’t prove we should study Chinese philosophy too.  Multiculturalism, trying to guilt Anglo-Americans into reading non-Westerners, works for everybody at once, although I would prefer that it not work at all.  Norden is an expert on Chinese philosophy, and reviewer Ganeri is an expert on Indian philosophy, and I don’t doubt that China and India have formidable philosophical traditions.  They claim that we Westerners are missing incredible riches by ignoring “philosophical texts and voices from India, Africa, China, Mesoamerica, and Indigenous worlds”.  I know it’s mean to say it, but I suspect these five sources to be of unequal value.

3 Responses

  1. It’s not just secularists who are close-minded, of course. In Jacques Maritain’s Introduction To Philosophy he makes a point of dismissing first the Chinese, then the Indians, and so on. The impression I got from him wasn’t just that the Greeks are superior, but that everybody else is a waste of time.

    I keep wondering if his provincialism is somehow connected to his political mistakes.

  2. That’s a good point. Most democrats share a distinct Whig provincialism. I suspect that Maritain was over-promoted because of his political mistakes. When I finally got around to reading some of his metaphysical and epistemological works, I was disappointed. He seemed to regard challenges to Aristotelian physics as minor quantitative or logical quibbles with no force for those who enjoyed his metaphysical intuition of Being.

  3. The Western academic mind shields itself from numerous kinds of experience, particularly the numinous.

    The philosophy of India is a threat to the analytic disposition of dispossession.

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