Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto

Philosophy has been a favorite whipping boy in the culture wars since 399 BCE, when an Athenian jury sentenced Socrates to death. However, philosophers nowadays are seldom accused of “corrupting the youth.” Instead, a surprisingly wide range of pundits—from celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson (majoring in philosophy “can really mess you up”) to Senator Marco Rubio (“Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers”)—assert that philosophy is pointless or impractical. Tyson’s comment is ironic, since he is a PhD, a doctor of philosophy, reflecting the historical fact that natural science developed out of the field he denigrates. Moreover, truly great scientists recognize the continuing importance of philosophy. Einstein even remarked that the “independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” Rubio’s claim is simply inaccurate. Not only do philosophy majors earn more than welders, but they also earn more on average than political science majors like Rubio. In addition, those who study philosophy score at or near the top in admission tests for law school, medical school, and even business school. One businessperson who majored in philosophy was even on the stage when Rubio made his dismissive comment: former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina majored in philosophy.

 Taking Back Philosophy by Bryan W. Van NordenAlthough the critics of academic philosophy are mistaken about where the problem is, departments are failing their students in a crucial way: they are not teaching the profound, fascinating, and increasingly relevant philosophy that is outside the traditional Anglo-European canon.

Among the top fifty philosophy departments in the United States that grant a PhD, only six have a member of their regu- lar faculty who teaches Chinese philosophy. There are only three additional doctoral programs in the United States outside the top fifty that have strong faculty in Chinese philosophy. I am focusing here (and in the remainder of this book) on Chinese philosophy, because it is my own area of expertise. However, Chinese philosophy is only one of a substantial number of less commonly taught philosophies (LCTP) that fall outside the Anglo-European mainstream. For example, only six doctoral programs in philosophy in the United States have specialists on Indian philosophy, and only two of those departments are ranked among the top fifty. Only two US doctoral programs in philosophy regularly teach the philosophies of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Most US philosophy departments have no regular faculty who teach courses on African philosophy. Even some major forms of philosophy deeply influenced by the Greco-Roman philosophical traditions are largely ignored by US philosophy departments, including African American, Christian, Continental, feminist, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American, and LGBTQ philosophy.

What are these departments teaching instead? Every one of the top fifty schools has at least one (and often more than one) faculty member who can lecture competently on the ancient Greek Parmenides. There is only one surviving work by Parmenides. It is a philosophical poem, and includes gems like “It is right both to say and to think that what-is is: for it can be, / but nothing is not: these things I bid you ponder.” If we turn to contemporary philosophy, we find that almost every leading US philosophy department has a specialist in the philosophy of language, someone prepared to heatedly debate whether the sentence “The present king of France is bald” is false (as the Bertrand Russell camp claims) or neither true nor false (as the Peter Straw- son wing asserts). It appears that contemporary philosophers are more likely to be accused of boring the youth to death with their sentences than they are of being sentenced to death for corrupting the youth!


In order to appreciate why the narrowness of philosophy departments is so problematic, let’s consider one example of a less commonly taught philosophy (LCTP). Chinese philosophy deserves greater coverage by US universities for at least three reasons. First, China is an increasingly important world power, both economically and geopolitically—and traditional philosophy is of continuing relevance. Chinese businessmen pay for lessons from Buddhist monks, Daoism appeals both to peasants (for whom it is part of tradition) and to many intellectuals (who look to it for a less authoritarian approach to government), and China’s current President, Xi Jinping, has repeatedly praised Confucius.

What should we make of the Chinese government’s support of Confucius? At the beginning of the twentieth century, Chi- nese modernizers of the May Fourth Movement claimed that Confucianism was authoritarian and dogmatic at its core, so that China must “overturn the shop of Confucius” in order to become a strong, democratic nation. Many contemporary Chinese intellectuals agree. (One Chinese professor told me that the US NBA is more relevant to the lives of contemporary Chinese than Confucianism.) In response to this critique, “New Confucians” claim that Confucianism can and should be made compatible with Western democracy, but can also contribute to Western philosophy insights about communitarian modes of political organization and the cultivation of individual virtues. Other commentators suggest that Confucian meritocracy is actually superior to the mob rule of Western democracy. (After watching the last US election, it is tempting to agree with them.) Still others would argue that President Xi’s invocation of Confucius is simply a tool in the service of a chauvinistic nationalism.

Having an informed opinion about issues like the preceding is important for understanding China’s present and future. How will the next generation of diplomats, senators, representatives, and presidents (not to mention informed citizens) learn about Confucius and his role in Chinese thought if philosophers refuse to teach him? Some of my philosophical colleagues would reply that students can learn about Confucianism from religious studies or area studies departments. I would remind them how vociferously they would complain if their dean told them they don’t need to hire a Kant specialist, because the German department can teach him, and they don’t need to hire a political philosopher, because the political science department has someone who covers “that sort of thing.” Philosophers ask certain questions of texts and use certain methods for discussing them that are not necessarily practiced in other humanities or social science disciplines. Other disciplines have equally valuable methodologies, but there is no substitute for reading a text philosophically.

A second reason that Chinese philosophy should be studied in US philosophy departments is that it simply has much to offer as philosophy. Consider the revelations in just a few of the seminal works about Chinese philosophy in the English-speaking world. Lee H. Yearley started a minor revolution in comparative philosophy with his book Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage, which shows how the concepts of Western virtue ethics can be applied to the study of Confucianism. Yearley argues that the two traditions are similar enough for comparisons to be legitimate, but different enough for both traditions to learn from each other. For example, both the Thomistic tradition and the Confucian tradition have lists of “cardinal virtues” (the major virtues that encompass all the lesser ones); however, the lists overlap only partially. The Confucian cardinal virtues are benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom, while the Thomistic list of natural virtues is wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Thinking about different conceptions of the cardinal virtues gives us a broader range of possible answers to the question: What is it to live well?

ConfuciusConfucius, from Half Portraits of the Great Sage and Virtuous Men of Old 至聖先賢半身像 by Anonymous.Credit: WikimediaMany philosophers are doing fascinating work on other aspects of Confucian philosophy: comparing Confucian and Western conceptions of justice, discussing how Confucian views of filial piety and childhood education can inform specific public policy recommendations, bringing seminal Western philosophers like Hobbes and Rousseau into productive dialogue with Mengzi and Xunzi, examining the similarities and differences between Christian and Confucian views of ethical cultivation, and combining insights from Chinese philosophy with contemporary psychology and metaethics to for- mulate powerful alternatives to conventional Western ethics. Some leading mainstream philosophers have also been openminded enough to engage in dialogue with Confucian thought, including Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum.

Asian philosophy can also make important contributions to the philosophy of language and logic. For example, most Western philosophers (going back to Aristotle) have argued that no contradiction can be true. However, there are a surprisingly large number of statements that seem to be both true and false. Some are sentences in ordinary language (like the Liar Paradox, “This sentence is false,” which is false if it is true, and true if it is false), while others are generated by formal logico-mathematical systems (like Russell’s Paradox, “There is a set that has as a member every set that is not a member of itself,” which both does and does not have itself as a member). Asian philosophers have been more willing to entertain the possibility that some statements might be both true and false. Consequently, some contemporary philosophers are attempting to synthesize Buddhist and Daoist insights about paradoxes with “paraconsistent logic” to defend dialetheism, the claim that some contradictions are true. This is not the only technical topic on which Asian philosophy anticipates Western philosophy by millennia: the ancient Mohist philosophers recognized that “opaque contexts” block the substitutivity of coreferential terms, something not fully appreciated in the West until the twentieth century.

The third reason that it is important to add Chinese philosophy to the curriculum has to do with the fact that philosophy faces a serious diversity problem. As researchers Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel pointed out recently,

Women still receive only about 28% of philosophy PhDs in the United States, and are still only about 20% of full professors of philosophy—numbers that have hardly budged since the 1990s. And among U.S. citizens and permanent residents receiving philosophy PhDs in this country, 86% are non-Hispanic white. The only comparably-sized disciplines that are more white are the ones that explicitly focus on the European tradition, such as English literature. Black people are especially difficult to find in academic philosophy. Black people or African Americans constitute 13% of the U.S. population, 7% of PhD recipients across all fields, 2% of PhD recipients in philosophy, and less than 0.5% of authors in the most prominent philosophy journals.

Least well represented among PhDs in philosophy are Native Americans, of whom there are estimated to be twenty individuals, in total, working in higher education. Both my own experience and that of many of my colleagues suggest that part of the reason for homogeneity among philosophers is that students of color are confronted with a curriculum that is almost monolithically white. As Cherry and Schwitzgebel note, white male students “see faces like their own in front of the classroom and hear voices like their own coming from professors’ mouths. In the philosophy classroom, they see almost exclusively white men as examples of great philosophers. They think ‘that’s me’ and they step into it.” Students of philosophy are ill served by a narrow, ethnocentric education. Fixing the problem of philosophy’s homogeneity is a matter of justice, but it is also about the very survival of philosophy as an academic discipline. Women and students of color are an increasing percentage of college students, and by 2045 whites will be a minority in the United States. Philosophy must diversify or die.

For all the geopolitical, philosophical, and demographic reasons I have given, philosophy departments in the United States need to increase offerings in not just Chinese philosophy, but other LCTP. So how is philosophy doing in the process of diversifying the curriculum? A decade ago, among the top fifty doctoral programs in philosophy in the United States, four offered courses in Chinese philosophy. We are now up to eight, if we include departments that cross-list courses by faculty in other departments. It would be a mistake to infer from this that we will continue to see slow but regular growth in coverage of Chinese philosophy. Some departments that previously had faculty specializing in Chinese philosophy lost them. In addition, some departments that currently have faculty in this area are not committed to replacing them when they retire. Can’t we do better than this?



Excerpted from Taking Back Philosophy by Bryan W. Van Norden. Copyright(c) 2017 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

B.W. Van Norden is a professor in the Philosophy Department, and regularly teaches in the Department of Chinese and Japanese, at Vassar College.