- Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto by Bryan W. Van Norden
This is a long overdue book calling for a shake-up of Anglo-European Philosophy departments with their exclusive focus on European thought. Bryan W. Van Norden argues that less commonly taught philosophy (LCTP), such as Indian, Chinese, African, Native American etc., goes largely unrecognized by western academic philosophers, to the detriment of the field. Instead, specialists and interested students are forced to move into Area Studies, Religious Studies, or Anthropology departments. Van Norden argues for the recognition of non-western thought as serious philosophy and for its inclusion in Philosophy departments.
The book was prompted by the critical responses Van Norden received to a New York Times piece he co-wrote with Jay L. Garfield, wherein they argued that, in the interests of accuracy, Philosophy departments not including LCTP should be renamed as "Anglo-European Philosophy". Their critics insisted, however, that philosophy originated in ancient Greece where it developed a distinctive methodology of rigorous rational argumentation, and claimed that such rigour is not found anywhere else, thus bestowing on this tradition of European origin the right to be titled the one true "Philosophy".
Van Norden opens by responding to these claims, first showing how "western philosophy" is itself not a monolithic tradition but rather a diverse collection of thinkers, many of whom display the very attributes that supposedly disqualify non-western thought from serious consideration. He then illuminates the lack of knowledge, regarding non-western styles of philosophizing, on the part of most scholars who are critical of LCTP. The chapter concludes with a call to both students and faculty members to bring an end to this "intellectual imperialism" and demand the inclusion of LCTP (p. 29). He goes on in the second chapter to provide some concrete examples of parallels between eastern and western philosophy. He counters claims of the west's intellectual sophistication by highlighting various cases in which a western philosopher seems far less erudite than his non-western counterpart. In the following two chapters Van Norden develops a polemic aligning the exclusion of LCTP from Philosophy departments with Trump's proposed border wall. Both erect barriers in the [End Page 1] interests of protecting an illusory purity by excluding the alien and the unknown. He goes on to offer a defense against anti-intellectualism based on the value and the importance of philosophy. Van Norden concludes by presenting a holistic vision of philosophy--a practice which is intimately connected to the lives of humans as opposed to one detached from real human concerns, which is his estimate of much contemporary work in the field. We are thus instructed to "take back" philosophy. This vision of a philosophy where "we find the same values in the best philosophy of every era and every culture" is laudable (p. 159).
Van Norden's book is clear, concise and powerful. He uses persuasive argumentation to accurately highlight a major lacuna in academic philosophy. He presents an attractive path forward and demonstrates the sophistication of styles of eastern thought whilst drawing interesting comparisons with western philosophy. Moreover, the book is very readable and could be of interest to a wider audience beyond philosophers and perhaps even academia.
This last point, however, can also be a point of criticism: namely, who exactly is the intended audience for the book? It seems to shift between chapters for professional philosophers and students of philosophy to non-philosophers possibly with politically conservative leanings. Perhaps given the nature of h s enterprise, this wide range is not a major fault. He mentions that his publishers wanted a widely readable, even "cheeky" book (p. xxiii).
The problem of intended audience, however, extends beyond a few incongruous chapters. Perhaps because the book is not addressed to academics alone, its arguments are over-simplified. Van Norden erects a 'straw man' in arguing against politically conservative and often outright racist philosophers of which there are comparatively few left in academia. The more interesting conceptual...