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  • Some Opening Remarks on the Exclusionary Tendency in Western Philosophy
  • Ron Bontekoe (bio)

There is a serious danger involved in taking the idea of the "philosophical tradition" too narrowly. Many readers of this journal will be familiar with the dangers of cultural exclusion—in particular with the long-standing tendency of many Western philosophers to reject out of hand the legitimacy of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese philosophy, on the grounds that these Asian modes of thinking do not appear to address the same problems that Western philosophers are interested in, in the same kind of way that Western philosophers prefer to approach these problems. This culturally myopic view of what is entitled to be called "philosophy" is deplorable, and needs to be resisted, but it probably helps to remember in this regard that the Asian philosophical traditions have not been the only victims of this attitude. It was not that long ago, no more than fifty or sixty years, in fact, that many Anglo-American analytic philosophers were adopting a similarly exclusionary attitude toward European Continental philosophy—declaring that Nietzsche and Heidegger, for example, were "not philosophers." This, it turned out, meant little more than that coming to understand these alien thinkers required more effort than the deniers of their philosophical bona fides were willing to put in. In time influential thinkers emerged—William Barrett and Walter Kauffman come immediately to mind—who were willing to put in the effort required to understand what these seminal Continental figures were saying, and to explain their messages in terms that more typical Anglo-American analytic philosophers could grasp. And thus the legitimacy of the phenomenological and existential approaches to philosophy came gradually to be accepted even in the most die-hard analytical departments.

Today, a similar service is being performed for the various Asian philosophical traditions by, to name just a few, people like Roger Ames, Arindam Chakrabarti, and Thomas Kasulis. We can hope that, in due time, their efforts will bear similar fruit, and that figures like Xunzi, Śaṅkara, and Dōgen will come to be recognized in Western philosophy departments as being as "mainstream" as Heidegger and Nietzsche are now understood to be. [End Page 957]

But it is not cultural exclusion and myopia that worries me most, and which I want to address first in this introductory piece. Rather, it is disciplinary myopia. Philosophy began historically, and begins for each budding young future philosopher, in wonder: wonder at what the fact of our existence means, if anything; wonder at the astonishingly intricate structure of the natural world; and wonder about how best we should live our lives within this astonishing world. Thus, philosophy has always been, and remains, bound up with the search for meaning and direction. But so, too, right from the outset, it was bound up with the effort to understand more clearly the precise nature of that world the meaning of which we were trying to penetrate. Thus, metaphysics is as old a component of philosophy as is ethics, and epistemology—or the effort to explain to ourselves why our metaphysical and ethical claims deserve to be taken seriously—is almost as old as either of the other two major branches of philosophy.

In the West, philosophy is sometimes referred to as "the mother of the sciences," and this is a far less metaphorical claim than it might appear to be. The early philosophers simply were the early scientists, as the examples of Thales, Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and, in particular, Aristotle make abundantly clear. The basic question that generated the various sciences—what is the precise nature of the world, and how does it work?—is a question that the early philosophers were intensely interested in as well. But it has been a recurrent feature of the history of philosophy that, as inquiry into one or another of the various dimensions of the natural world has matured to the point of developing its own distinct methodology, it has hived off from philosophy and established its own distinct identity as a new science. We see a steady progression of these new sciences emerging, and leaving philosophy permanently behind, from about the sixteenth century on. Astronomy...


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