"What is Philosophy?" The Status of Non-Western Philosophy in the Profession
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"What Is Philosophy?"
The Status of World Philosophy in the Profession

The question "What is philosophy?" is both one of the most virtuously self-effacing and one of the most obnoxious that philosophers today tend to ask. It is virtuously self-effacing insofar as it questions, with some misgivings, its own behavior, the worth of the questions it asks, and the significance of the enterprise itself. It is obnoxious when it refuses to question its own behavior but instead takes that same behavior as the exclusive standard to delegitimize any other activity that dares to call itself "philosophy." Thus, for most of this century, Anglo-American and most European philosophers have simply ignored the rich philosophical traditions of Africa, Asia, Latin and Native America, and the rest of the world. Some leading African American and African European philosophers have dismissed "ethnophilosophy" as "not philosophy," presumably to protect their own analytic credentials. Universities as far flung as Singapore, Sierra Leone, and New Delhi have prided themselves on their fidelity to Oxbridge philosophy. It seems that the globalization of free market economics goes with the globalization of one brief moment in philosophy, with similarly devastating effects on local cultures and the rich varieties of human experience.

Philosophy might be thought of as made up of two components: critical thinking and passionate vision. But "critical thinking" does not necessarily imply the hermeneutics of suspicion, skepticism, or intellectual paranoia—all too often the trademarks of the bright young professional philosopher. One can be "critical," that is, reflective, while at the same time be committed, even devoted, to an idea or a way of thinking. The emphasis on passionate vision, however, is just as essential, and any philosophy that doesn't include both components just isn't worthy of the name. Without passionate vision, we get that utterly eviscerated focus on forms of argumentation—philosophia minimalia—devoid of "empirical" content (that is to say, content) and, as far as most people are concerned, devoid of any interest. Without critical reflection, we get gullibility and the worst of New Age philosophy, accepting of any kind of nonsense, just because it stirs the passions. But simply to assume that philosophy must be as rigorously self-questioning as modern European and Anglo-American philosophy is a subtle form of ethnic chauvinism. It eliminates from the realm of philosophy not only African ethnophilosophy and Latin and Native American and South Pacific mythology but a good deal of the philosophy of religion, the basis (for better or worse) of the development of Western philosophy over much of the past two thousand years. [End Page 100]

I have just withdrawn from a recent dispute, in a respectable and supposedly eclectic philosophy journal, in which my worst fears in this regard were rather bluntly confirmed. I had made the point mentioned above—rather matter-of-factly, I thought—that if (analytic) philosophy dismisses or ignores modes of thinking that are not obviously self-critical and are presented poetically instead of by way of positions to be argued for, then a good deal of the world's philosophy, including a good deal of Western philosophy, would be left out of the arena. The journal's board reacted indignantly, to put it mildly, to the suggestion that anything should count as "philosophy" that was not sufficiently self-critical in just this sense. But what about the millennium or so of religious philosophy in the West? Does anyone believe that thinkers like Anselm, or Alvin Plantiga for that matter, are seriously skeptical of the truth of Christianity, as they go through their admittedly brilliant argumentative routines? For that matter, to what extent is the emphasis on logical form and argument subjected to scrutiny in contemporary analytic philosophy? (As one of the foremost practitioners of that art commented, "Metaphilosophy makes me sick.")

Some of the hostility to world philosophy, to be sure, turns on the conflict between philosophy and religion, which may have its origins in ancient and medieval philosophy but emerges full-blown with the Enlightenment and its campaign against "superstition." But many people and a good many cultures do not distinguish between philosophy and religion. If we consider the word "philosophy...


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