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  • The Conversation of Philosophy:A Polemical Response to Carine Defoort
  • Tim Heysse (bio)

In "'Chinese Philosophy' at European Universities," Professor Defoort criticizes the institutional "place" of Chinese and "non-Western" studies at European universities. In order to demonstrate the problem, she describes the situation at the KU Leuven Department of History and its Institute of Philosophy (of which I am proud to be a staff member). Regarding many of the important issues Defoort raises, I do not feel sufficiently competent to respond. For I am caught in Schwitzgebel's vicious circle (see Defoort's endnote 14): completely ignorant about non-Western philosophy and lacking the required language skills, I cannot engage, as a philosopher, with non-Western texts. At the end of her article, however, Defoort makes a number of recommendations to remedy the situation that touch upon broader issues, including the relation between philosophy and politics. After some preliminary remarks, I briefly query Defoort's view of this relation1 and steer the discussion toward the sorts of arguments in favor of Chinese or non-Western philosophy that I expect may have cogency.

Professor Defoort's general complaint is that there is too deep an institutional divide in Europe between area- and language-focused studies of the "non-West" on the one hand and the social sciences or other humanities on the other. She illustrates this divide with a description of the prevailing situation at the History department. Predictably, the uneasy institutional location in-between disciplines places scholars of non-Western sources at a disadvantage (when it comes to obtaining funding or being accepted by prestigious journals or publishers). However, Defoort's main concern pertains to education. Students interested in Chinese sociology, economics, politics, or history are perfectly capable of completing their university education without ever acquiring either the language skills or the methodological expertise that are essential to doing interesting work on these topics.

I cannot judge whether this divide is real, although I have no reason to doubt it. Nevertheless, I would have thought that acquiring the language skills and local knowledge required to interpret non-Western sources was a daunting enough assignment as it is for a three-year bachelor's program. At any rate, KU Leuven offers various so-called "bridging" programs2 that allow students with a Bachelor's degree in Chinese or Japanese to enroll directly in a Master's program in political science or to obtain, after only one additional year, a second Bachelor's degree, for example in philosophy.

Professor Defoort's main concern is indeed with the situation at philosophy departments such as KU Leuven's Institute of Philosophy. Her incisive conclusions are undisputable. The Institute of Philosophy offers electives on non-Western philosophy, but students can graduate without having taken any of these courses. A student [End Page 1081] can certainly write a Master's thesis on non-Western philosophy. However, she will be very much on her own, for the topical expertise required to guarantee detailed supervision is barely available.

Nevertheless, the Institute has begun to implement some of the changes Professor Defoort proposes. For example, a scholar of Arabic philosophy holds an admittedly very minimal appointment (10 percent). And we have begun adapting our rhetoric. Adroitly, Defoort confronts us with some of our blurbs advertising a "comprehensive" program covering "a large field of philosophy." Although the intention of these phrases was to publicize that we teach both Continental and analytical philosophy, coming from an institute that offers very little non-Western philosophy it could be interpreted to suggest that we exclude non-Western sources from our conception of what constitutes "philosophy." So, in our 2016 Facultaire beleidsvisie Onderwijs (our "Education Mission Statement"), we explicitly acknowledge that our programs are overwhelmingly restricted to Western philosophy (without denying the input or significance of other sources).3

Supporters of non-Western philosophy will no doubt view these hesitant changes as too little, too late. They will see the ignorance to which I confessed in the first paragraph as being only too typical of the Institute's staff. And they will be right. But let me add two remarks to this confession. First, I by no means believe that what I...


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