Why shouldn’t white supremacy be taught in academic philosophy?

Below is an audio recording of this essay:

From the title of this essay, one might be under the impression that I am making an apologist position to teach Neo-Nazi while supremacist ideology, in academic philosophy departments in the US.  Not quite, but then it’s not so far removed from the reality of how academic philosophy is currently being taught in the US (and Europe as well), where the focus is on teaching the philosophy of predominantly dead white males from the Greek, Roman, French, German and US traditions.  In other words, the philosophy departments are thoroughly Eurocentric, which basically promotes the white male supremacy of philosophical ideas.  Is this a bad thing?  Given the prominence of multiculturalism in academia today, this focus has been and continues to be challenged.  Let’s see what the fuss is all about.

As this article from Aeon titled, “The lack of diversity in philosophy is blocking its progress” published on June 28, 2016 notes:

Philosophy is a remarkably un-diverse discipline. Compared with other scholars who read, interpret and assign texts, philosophers in the United States typically choose a much higher percentage of their sources (often, 100 per cent) from Europe and countries settled by Europeans. Philosophy teachers, too, look homogeneous: 86 per cent of new PhD researchers in philosophy are white, and 72 per cent are male. In the whole country, only about 30 African-American women work as philosophy professors.

The author of the article, Peter Levine, argues quite convincingly for more diversity in the curriculum of US academic philosophy departments since “different people happen to see the world differently and we ought to understand everyone… the Buddha or the Gita might be correct. The best way to find out is to engage with their arguments critically – while taking into account their local contexts, because everyone thinks in a context. To ignore such sources is to practice philosophy poorly.”

In this op-ed column in the New York Times titled, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is” published May 11, 2016 written by Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden, who are both professors with a specialty in Eastern thought that inspired the Aeon article, they have an even stronger position and are very critical of the lack of diversity in US colleges and universities:

Many philosophers and many departments simply ignore arguments for greater diversity; others respond with arguments for Eurocentrism that we and many others have refuted elsewhere.  The profession as a whole remains resolutely Eurocentric.  It therefore seems futile to rehearse arguments for greater diversity one more time, however compelling we find them.  Instead, we ask those who sincerely believe that it does make sense to organize our discipline entirely around European and American figures and texts to pursue this agenda with honesty and openness.  We therefore suggest that any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself “Department of European and American Philosophy.”  This simple change would make the domain and mission of these departments clear, and would signal their true intellectual commitments to students and colleagues. We see no justification for resisting this minor rebranding, particularly for those who endorse, implicitly or explicitly, this Eurocentric orientation.

While I can understand their position, I’m not so sure about creating yet another subdivision in the philosophy department that segments European and American philosophy into their own distinct category.  One of the main rationales for this website is my strongly held belief that academic departments and the knowledge they are to impart have become far to compartmentalized, over specialized and siloed.  This not only impacts educational institutions, but has far reaching impacts to the rest of the world, especially the modern, developed Western portion like the US where everything is so specialized that you need to see multiple medical specialist for example, to give you a diagnosis or where companies have people (whom they often call “Subject Matter Experts” or SMEs) who are so focused and specialized in a functional role, that doing something like getting a project done, requires having a bunch of SMEs on your project, who often times have no idea of what the other SMEs do, nor care for that matter.

The problem with this is that these specialist do not see the connection between things, cannot give a holistic picture and often give a diagnosis in isolation to the overall problem to be solved and give a wrong and in some cases, a erroneous and life-threatening assessment, like in the medical field.  This also causes people’s skills to stagnate and to know a whole lot of shit about some very narrow area, to the point of oblivion!  This is a big problem and if educational institutions were to incorporate multicultural studies, it would require more segmentation in an already overly segmented curriculum.

And speaking of the narrowness of philosophical academia, when I transferred to UC Irvine’s philosophy program as an undergraduate back in 1993, my exposure to philosophy was an introductory course I took at a local community college prior to transferring and it piqued my interest greatly, since it seemed to ask the “big” questions I always had in life and  ways of answering them.  So it was quite a shock when the first few classes I took at UC Irvine seemed to be entirely focused on reducing English sentences (or what they referred to as “propositions”) to logical symbols and whether they had contradictions or not.  Even courses on political philosophy were mostly reducing political propositions to logic and ensuring they were not contradictory.

When I would even ask my professors and grad students (who were mostly the ones who graded papers and you interacted with, since the professors were too busy with “research”) what the significance of this logical reductionism was, I never got a satisfactory answer or that this is how one just does “analytic philosophy”.  It wasn’t till years later and on my own study, that I discovered that this was a tradition inherited from Britain, that was influenced by the logical positivism of the Vienna circle and the philosophers Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein.  Ironically, I am now a big fan of Wittgenstein, but I never got to take a class on him while at UC Irvine, but I probably would have been disappointed anyway.

Fortunately, I did have a few good professors, but I was pretty disappointed with the narrowness of the curriculum.  UC Irvine also had a critical theory department in the literature department that seem to do more of the “big” questions type philosophy, so I added a comparative literature major (Also, I wasn’t so keen to graduate and start working, so I convinced my parents that I needed to attend college a year more and furthermore, as the stats in the beginning of this essay attest, there were not many women in my philosophy classes, whereas there were lots in the literature classes!  A big plus back then and something I will write about later in regard to the growing impact of gender imbalance in education and work).

I was even more disappointed, for they were just as narrow, but in addition, were totally political correct and infested with bleeding heart liberal professors.  You could not read a work of literature without a reading of the underlying racism, colonialism, sexism and any other “ism” and the Marxist or psychoanalytic power struggles and interplay that was at work.  Don’t even get me started on the worshiping of “deconstructionism” as it was lead by some French academic named Derrida who was a visiting professor back then, who’s penchant for obscurity and academic bullshit was legendary!

From my research and readings, it seems things have not gotten any better in academia and the word “crisis” is used a lot to describe the state of the humanities as well as the social sciences.  The hard sciences and engineering disciplines have probably an even bigger problem with narrow specialization, but at least some of their research leads to tangible technologies and medical breakthroughs, while the same cannot be said for the humanities and social sciences.  In reality through, it is what we value as humans as well as the political, economic, sociological and cultural environments that we occupy, that determine which technologies, medical breakthroughs, and engineering projects are deemed valuable and worthy of pursuit.  That is why it is even more important that subjects like philosophy be pursued, rather than subdued.

But unless academia in the humanities departments changes radically, I don’t foresee the problems just discussed going away.  And in relation to the question of whether there needs to be more diversity in the philosophical curriculum, I say that would be fine, but please do a better job of teaching Eurocentric philosophy first!  While at UC Irvine, I longed to read, discuss and write about the great philosophers and their works in the Western tradition, and to do so in a broad minded, freethinking and holistic perspective, rather than reducing it to an analytic tradition or from the hermeneutic agenda of critical theory.  Get this right first, then think about how to incorporate diversity such as Eastern philosophical thought.

As much as I’m into Eastern philosophy with my innate bias being an Korean American who longs to extend, integrate and promote Eastern thought, the fact of the matter is that Europe and America are the countries that dominated the development of science, technology and industries for the past couple thousands years and laid the foundation for free market capitalism, liberal democracy and technological progress.  While other countries like China and ethic religious cultures like Islam during their golden age, made progress ahead of the Europeans, it was the Europeans and Americans and specifically the ones who were white and male, that broke the barriers, separated philosophy from religion and were able to develop a level of sophisticated philosophical thought no one else did.  These thinkers are too important to ignore or minimize for some politically correct agenda.  To do so goes against the freedom of thought these men were prominent in establishing and is the basis of liberal education that colleges are supposed to represent.

Honestly though, I think we’re past the point of no return and I don’t anticipate further growth or positive prospects for academia in the humanities.  Education today is pursued solely as a means to gain employment and I don’t see how the average prospective student is going to be interested in a discipline where the focus will be on idealism, phenomenology, metaphysics and other abstract topics.  Conversely, to make this more appealing would require excellent instructors who can take the central and everlasting motifs in past great philosophies and to reinterpret them, bias free, in the modern world that inspires students and shows them how to apply them in their lives in both practical and enlightening ways.  This is a tall order and impossible in the current environment to accomplish.

It’s not all bad news though, because as much as the Internet has produced junk, it has and continues to produce intellectual content from individuals, profit and non-profit groups and even elite educational institutions through online classes (which interestingly, only the best or popular by student content is made available), on niche topics like philosophy and forums where people all over the world can exchange ideas, for which I am a part.  In an odd twist of fate, a subject like philosophy was done in an open area like the marketplace in ancient Greece, where a character like Socrates would discuss with anyone who would listen, all sorts of interesting philosophical ideas.

This discipline slowly become institutionalized and in the West, Immanuel Kant was the starting point of the “professional philosopher” (an oxymoronic anachronism if I ever heard one!), where one would have to spend years in an academic institution to learn the jargon, conventions and specialized knowledge to understand modern philosophy that led us to the current state.  Don’t get me wrong, as I highly appreciate the work that academic scholars do and Jay L. Garfield, who was one of the co-author of the New York Times op-ed piece mentioned earlier, is an academic I am very grateful of, as his definitive work in translating Nāgārjuna‘s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (or “Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”) which is one of the most important works in Buddhist philosophy, would be inaccessible for me without his effort.

By and large, I feel philosophy is now back in the hands of the people on a global scale that would have been unimaginable even a few decades ago.  Let’s hope that this positive trend of open global access does not stop, as it did in ancient Greece, when Socrates was tired for corrupting the youth, condemned to death and executed.  Such is the fate of free ideas in human history.

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