Monday, July 17, 2017

Whiteness and the philosophy of the history of philosophy

It's taken me much longer than it should have, but I sent off today (the deadline) a response to a discussion of an important recent book which demonstrates that it was only about 200 years ago that western philosophers started thinking of philosophy as a western thing, as having been "born" in Greece rather than in Egypt or "the East."

The book was published in 2013, and an author-meets-critics session was dedicated to it at an American Philosophical Association meeting last year. Texts from that session, including a response from the author, are being published by the Journal of World Philosophies, and I've been asked to write a reflection on their conversation. (Other may have been asked to, too.) For me it was a chance to get to know the interesting work of three scholars I didn't know, and to weigh in on some of the issues they discussed when they came together.

I was asked, I think, because the book refers a few times to my work on Kant's contributions to the modern idea of race, so, as an erstwhile expert on the subject, I pontificated on it for two paragraphs; here are their rather incendiary final sentences;

The Popularphilosophie of Christoph Meiners, the main rival to Kant’s anthropological project, was anathema because it didn’t realize the possibility, and the moral necessity, of being truly philosophical in the practice of one’s prejudices. ... 
Kant’s philosophical accounts of “race” were an invitation to history, a call to his “white” readers and students to take up their indispensable place in what one enthusiastic follower would call the “free middle” of otherwise determined human history.

Most of my reflections were more measured, making suggestions for how one might use the historicity of the Greeks-created-philosophy story to "decolonize" philosophy (the term one of the respondents used). The two respondents, both comparative philosophers, pointed towards expanding the canon beyond western philosophers, even as they lamented how rare it is to find courses offered in non-western philosophy, and rarer still for non-western philosophy to be presented as more than an optional add-on to a degree.

Reconnected with my past work in the history of philosophy, I wound up arguing for that also marginal field. The book in question includes fascinating accounts of the often strange histories written for philosophy before the Greek story took over, as well as of debates about whether a history of philosophy was even possible. These meta-questions about the history of philosophy are not only exciting but can connect with the often existential questions that bring students to philosophy classes.

The history of the history of philosophy in fact brings us face to face with the philosophy of history. ...Why should not a history of philosophy class also be, or at least spend some time with, philosophy of history? And why should not an education in philosophy involve reflection on what it means that philosophizing happens in time, across cultures, in languages, and in concert and tension with other forms of human endeavor, enquiry and theory? This would be the most natural point at which to integrate “comparative philosophy” into our curricula. Imagine if our introduction to philosophizing included accounts of the life and times of thinking framed by Nahuatl philosophy, Zhuangzian irony or David Loy’s “studies in lack”!...

As the histories he unpacks for us show, the question of the history of philosophy is not just academic but existential. [These] late eighteenth and early nineteenth century historians of philosophy give voice to an experience of feeling the pulse of history in their own thinking – and, for some but not all, that of other people who think they are white. Our students, too, seek that pulse, especially in our time, when the past no longer seems as securely past and the future seems to have come unmoored. They seek to understand the possibility of freedom, including freedom from prejudice... 

In a way I wasn't doing much more than proposing for the history of philosophy what folks in the field of the history of the academic study of religion do, but I quite like the way it came out sounding. Perhaps, in this discussion, the ideas will be found new and helpful.

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