Issues of inclusiveness and cultural identity are at the center of contemporary debates in fields from politics to entertainment. Many educators have been accused of succumbing to “political correctness” for teaching a multicultural curriculum. However, Western philosophers overwhelmingly insist on teaching only the philosophical traditions that grow out of Greece and Rome. Are they right to dismiss the thought of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous People of the Americas as “not really philosophy?” No! In Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, I show that contemporary Western philosophers are wrong to ignore philosophy that is outside of the Anglo-European canon.
Western philosophers didn’t always have such a narrow-minded perspective. During the early Enlightenment (17th century), European philosophers took for granted that philosophy originated in either India or Africa, not Greece. When the sayings of Confucius were first translated into a European language, he was hailed as a great philosopher. However, influential philosophers like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that the racial characteristics of Chinese, Indians, Africans, and Indigenous Americans made them incapable of producing philosophy. “The race of the whites contains all talents and motives in itself,” Kant proclaimed. Although almost no contemporary philosopher would explicitly endorse such views, their influence lingers in structural racism.
The structural racism of philosophy is evident in the fact that only 15% of doctoral programs in philosophy in the US teach any philosophy outside the Anglo-European mainstream. Contrast this with China, where every philosophy department teaches both Chinese and Western philosophy. A further indication of structural racism is the shocking willingness of leading philosophers to state that there is no philosophy outside the West—even when they admit that they have never read any of it!
Readers will reasonably want evidence that there is vibrant philosophy outside the Anglo-European mainstream. I provide detailed but easily understandable examples of how Buddhist philosophers can be brought into dialogue with the seminal French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) on the nature of the self, and how Confucian philosophers can productively engage with Western political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).
My book is not just about academic curriculum, though. It shows how these issues tie into broader topics in politics and culture. I discuss how Trump’s desire to build a literal wall between the US and Mexico is part of a larger political movement to build metaphorical walls between races, religions, and cultures. Something similar is happening in China, where President Xi Jinping has appropriated Confucianism as the basis for a nationalistic revival of “Chineseness.” (This is one of the reasons we in the US need to learn about what Confucianism is!) US philosophers, including ones who consider themselves politically progressive, are unwittingly allying themselves with these same forces of ethnocentrism and xenophobia that they abhor in politics.
Finally, I address the anti-intellectualism that claims philosophy is a waste of time. I illustrate with numerous examples the contributions that philosophy has made to the development of civilization. I also show that the study of philosophy contributes significantly to solid vocational goals. Finally, I argue that, in an era of “fake news,” we need the skills of careful reasoning and civil argumentation more than ever before.
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once dismissed the teachings of Confucius as “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.” In doing so, he was expressing the perspective of a long line of conservative thinkers who think that “so-called philosophy” outside the West is nothing but shallow platitudes. For example, in his bestselling The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom claimed that contemporary colleges and universities were corrupting the morals of their students by undermining their faith in the classic texts of Western civilization.
In contrast, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto argues that education must become multicultural in order to maintain its contemporary relevance. China is an increasingly important geopolitical power, and President Xi Jinping routinely praises Confucian philosophers. In India, the dominant political party espouses a version of Hindu nationalism, grounded in classical Vedanta philosophy. The US population is increasingly ethnically diverse, and within a few decades whites of European descent will be a minority. Can we afford not to learn about philosophy outside the European tradition?
I got a PhD in Chinese philosophy from Stanford University in 1991. Since then, I have been fighting to convince my colleagues to teach Chinese and other non-European philosophies. I have given carefully argued examples of the sophistication of Chinese philosophy. I have provided model course guides and reading lists. I have run informational sessions at conferences. A handful of institutions, like Vassar College, where I have taught for 20 years, and Yale-NUS College in Singapore, where I am currently teaching, have been open to multicultural philosophy. However, most have not. The vast majority of philosophers have simply ignored the irrefutable evidence for the existence and high quality of Chinese, Indian, African, and Indigenous American philosophy. I hope that my fellow philosophers will read my book and finally be convinced. But if they are not, I think it is time for students and the general public to demand a multicultural approach to philosophy.
There is much to interest readers in my book beyond a debate about narrow academic curriculum. In one chapter, “Trump’s Philosophers,” I explore how educational demands to “preserve our Western heritage” are intimately connected to explosive political issues. We live in a political environment in which Rep. Steve King (R, IA), can ask during a nationally televised interview, “Where did any other subgroups of people contribute more to civilization” than whites of European descent? Only by teaching people about the contributions of diverse civilizations can we eliminate this sort of arrogance and ignorance.
On a more personal level, I provide examples in my book of how philosophy has inspired people to face real-life challenges. For example, Admiral James Stockdale, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism while a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam, said that reading the philosophy of the Stoic Epictetus (55-135) was what allowed him to make it through the war with his dignity and honor intact. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded his audience in a famous speech that African-Americans W. E. B. Dubois and Alain Locke are serious philosophers that our young people should learn about. However, he also said that his favorite book after the Bible is Plato’s Republic. He even uses the language and metaphors of Plato’s philosophy in his own famous philosophical essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
For those who’d like to get a taste of the book, an excerpt has been published in Aeon Magazine.
I hope readers of my book will enjoy my take-no-prisoners attack on intellectual parochialism. However, my book also gives people a chance to learn about philosophy (particularly Chinese and Western) in a fun and accessible way. I give a tour of some of the great issues that philosophers discuss, explain why they are important to all of our lives, and show how engaging in a cross-cultural dialogue on these issues is valuable and productive. If you are a Western philosophy “purist,” parts of this book will enrage you, but other parts will help you see more deeply why philosophy has been around for more than two millennia, and will never go away.
My book is not claiming that all Western philosophy is bad and all non-Western philosophy is good. There are people who talk like that, but my book is about tearing down walls, not building new ones. As I say in the book’s conclusion:
I too desire to bask in the lunar glow of Plato’s genius, and walk side by side with Aristotle through the sacred grounds of the Lyceum. But I also want to “follow the path of questioning and learning” with Zhu Xi, and discuss the “Middle Way” of the Buddha. I’m sure you and I will not agree about which is the best way for one to live.
Let’s discuss it…
Bryan W. Van Norden lives in Singapore, where he is Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor at Yale-NUS College. He is also Chair Professor in Philosophy in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University (PRC) and Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College (USA). A recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, and a Mellon Fellowship, Van Norden has been honored as one of The Best 300 Professors in the US by The Princeton Review. Professor Van Norden has published nine books on Chinese and comparative philosophy, including Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy and (with Justin Tiwald) Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy. Professor Van Norden is also a frequent contributor of opinion pieces as a public intellectual, and has written about US politics, public policy, and international relations for The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Straits Times, and 联合早报, among other publications.