I write this as someone who is largely a consumer rather than producer of the sort of work I am going to critique. I am confident that what I say will sound obvious in theory and is no doubt something people training to comparative philosophers are quite aware of - but since I am a frequent consumer I am also confident that it is frequently violated in practice even if theoretically people know better. As ever, I don't like to link to negative exemplars, so if you don't believe me on that point I am happy for us to just disagree about the existence of the tendency I here bemoan.
So here is a thing I see a lot of in articles introducing English speakers to some form of philosophy that is not typically studied by English speaking philosophy students. (I am going to say "non-mainstream-Western" philosophy, but only because I don't know a better way of referring to the class I have in mind, that's not a great term either.) Maybe it's philosophy in pre-modern Japan, maybe it is contemporary philosophy among either a particular Canadian indigenous group or an interrelated set thereof, maybe it is Maya philosophy across the ages... whatever. I see a lot of this because I actively seek such work out - I think it is great, under-appreciated, and has immeasurably enriched my philosophical and personal life. So naturally I am going to complain about it.
Well, a particular tendency therein! Because such works frequently lead with or place greatest emphasis upon what I at this point think of as the stereotyped non-Western-philosophy list: people in <school or group under study> reject(ed) strict mind body dualism, and in particular they understand/ood knowledge in a more engaged or embodied fashion, they thought/think that some sort of communal validation processes were very important for a person to be said to know. Now, I don't doubt that indeed people around the world in various schools of thought hold all these positions. In fact, I hold all these positions, so suits me very well to learn that I am part of a vast global majority. But I am suspicious none the less of the role the stereotyped non-Western philosophy list plays in this genre. This blog post is about why.
I think that the high prevalence of this list is evidence of two sorts of Eurocentrism which are pervasive even among people who are striving earnestly to avoid it. The first sort comes from considering the question: why are these things highlighted in particular? After all, there are usually distinctive beliefs about God or gods, about what happens upon death, about what exactly one's moral duties are, about exactly what things are made of... which might be thought to be just as significant and occupy as or more central a role in the belief systems under question.
I think, instead, the stereotyped non-Western philosophy list is given pride of place exactly because: the widespread elite Protestant uptake of something like Cartesianism is distinctive of the West, so its a marker of being generally not Western that nothing like that viewpoint really gained traction therein. That is to say, its pride of place in so many different works on non-mainstream-Western philosophy in fact reflects a fact about the West, namely that this bizarre doctrine of us as tenuously connected ghosts in a machine engaged in dispassionate private ratiocination ever gained any traction among an influential section of society here. And like a Derridean trace, those people are somehow still setting the agenda even when we try and look away to see what other people have been up to.
Why do I think this? Well I don't really have good evidence for it, that's why I am putting it on my blog post and avoiding peer review with its pesky requirement that I do actual scholarship. But basically what makes me think it is just how many different pieces of non-mainstream-Western philosophy make such a point of saying this ain't them - which of course is circular in this context. But still, this is how it now seems to me. It is, apparently, normal, the globally done thing, to reject the quasi-Cartesian idea - that the rejection still seems remarkable enough for everyone to place such great weight upon it reflects the fact that they are tethering their sense of what is normal or remarkable against the intellectual habits of a small elite section of mainstream Western thinkers.
The second thing I think is behind this is a filter somewhat introduced by me. Namely, that I am reading things in English and aimed at English speakers. This places a kind of filter on the educational path of those I read; they need to have had at least some training in philosophy in English, yet they have decided to focus on non-(mainstream-Western) philosophy. My sense is that it just so happens that the kind of person who does this (far from always, but in proportions far out of line with their prevalence in the philosophical community) has some sympathy for a kind of neo-Romantic viewpoint. They are closer to being heirs to the tradition of Herder and Heidegger than Condorcet and Carnap. This is in and of itself fine (I like Herder a lot!) but means that one of the bad things about the principle of charity is especially salient in the case.
The principle of charity homogenises in cases where interpreters agree about what would be good. It tells one to interpret texts in such a way as to make their claims plausible and coherent so far as is consistent with what is made explicit, maybe conditional on what evidence or information would have been available to the text author. But if we all agree on what would be plausible it thereby introduces a constraint on interpretation which "pulls in the same direction" for all those involved. The principle of charity might be hermeneutically necessary to at least some degree, and in cases where the type of philosophy is marginalised and one seeks to gain an audience for it, or one identifies with it and feels it hasn't been given a fair shot, it is even more tempting to be particularly charitable. So this is hard to avoid.
But then I look at the stereotyped Non-Western philosophy list and I can't help but notice another thing - it's a rejection of things that contemporary heirs to the Romantic tradition hate. Fair enough, they are trying to draw out what seems to them best in the texts they are interpreting, and its my linguistic inadequacies which introduced the filter. But still, in the end, this focus, that this seems like the most salient positive achievement of the school or group under study - it still seems to me to be a reflection of disputes in contemporary mainstream Western philosophy. (Or at least recent contemporary, at this point I think they are somewhat caricaturing their opponents.) I am not fully persuaded the focus reflects the priority or agenda of those either being studied or whose worldview is being represented, rather than the schedule of priorities of those in contemporary academia. It just seems like too much of a coincidence.
So in at least two ways I think that elite mainstream-Western philosophers are subtly driving the agenda of works of philosophy that aren't meant to be focussed on them. What do I think is the upshot of this? It surely can't be that people should stop taking note of the fact that people in <school or group under study> reject(ed) strict mind body dualism, and in particular they understand/ood knowledge in a more engaged or embodied fashion, they thought/think that some sort of communal validation processes were very important for a person to be said to know. If only because it is apparently just demonstrably true that people around the world and across time tend to do this, and that is surely a very strong constraint on what interpreters can say!
Rather, I have this much more diffuse and useless plea. (Well ok one useful plea: get your hands on Wiredu's "How Not to Compare African Thought With Western Thought" and give it a read!) Somehow we must do better at setting our own agenda. The vast majority of us are not in the very narrow band of people who ever found the thing being reacted against that tempting. Sure they were a disproportionately politically and intellectually influential group, and once we needed to prove ourselves against them. But we're here now, we have at least enough of a foothold in places where we have the time and resources to do our own intellectual work without needing to constantly prove ourselves against this obsolete idea. It's high time we take charge of our own intellectual lives.