- Undoing Western Hegemony, Unpacking the Particulars:Taking Back PhilosophyA Review of Bryan Van Norden's Taking Back Philosophy A Multicultural Manifesto
As the title suggests, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto offers a critique of the profession of philosophy and an inclusive vision for its future. Importantly, unlike many philosophical critiques of philosophy, this book is not merely meta. It delivers a bona fide introduction to philosophy while exemplifying the kinds of conceptual sensitivities and skills that can help students see that philosophy is distinctively valuable. The author, Bryan Van Norden, provides compelling and learned articulations of these projects, all with a language that newcomers to philosophy will find accessible, witty, and polemically engaging. So I think this book is an impressive achievement and [End Page 619] an important voice to be added to the chorus that has for some decades been calling for a transformation of philosophy in the Western world.1
I largely agree with the aims and much of the content of this book, so after a brief overview of the book's claims, I offer two in-house or sympathetic critical considerations. They are less debunking criticisms and more invitations to the author to elaborate on unclarified but potentially controversial implications of his views. Specifically, I raise the question of what curricular configuration the inclusion of what he calls "Less Commonly Taught Philosophies" (LCTP, for short) should take. To some extent, I play the part of a policy analyst asking a political philosopher how her views would be applied in the real world, where the ensuing discussion could lead to a return to and revision of the original philosophical proposal. My second point expresses some worry that the notion of LCTP, as articulated by Van Norden, suggests that its instances are somewhat fungible and thus obscures some important differences in subsets of them. As I will discuss, there are real differences in the exclusionary dynamics of Chinese philosophy and, say, African American philosophy. I think Van Norden would be sympathetic to the concern I raise, and so I invite him to address it.
This book originates from a 2016 New York Times opinion piece co-written with Jay Garfield that critiqued the philosophical ethnocentrism of the Western philosophy profession and ignited something of an online furor. The book consists of a foreword from Jay Garfield that describes the content and impact of the piece and five chapters that expand upon the claims and vision of the original article. The first chapter lays out a compelling extended case for why philosophy in the United States must diversify, why it must incorporate LCTP, or, as a second-best option, explicitly rename itself to convey honestly the kind of provincialized philosophy that it is, namely "Anglo-European philosophy."
A crucial part of his case has to do with the tremendous value of LCTP as philosophy, and so the second chapter plays an important role in offering a rich account of what it would mean to bring disparate traditions, like Western and Chinese ones, into deep philosophical dialogue. In an accessible and philosophically illuminating manner, Van Norden polemically compares and contrasts broad features of Western and Chinese metaphysics and normative theory, using comparative tropes like the articulation, defense, and critique of individualism. For example, he offers an extended discussion of Descartes' cogito and its related Aristotelian-inspired bare substance concept of individuals, and juxtaposes this with the contrary anti-substantialist views that emerge in the Buddhist dialogues of Monk Nagasena and King Milinda, where humans are likened to a chariot, a mere assembly of parts that acquires a name for purely conventional purposes. In this connection, Van Norden also [End Page 620] explicates Fazang's case for the deep constitutive relationality of all things on the model of parts of a building, like rafters, that have their nature identified entirely by their relation to larger relational structures, which in turn are relationally identified by other relevant relational structures, and so on and so forth, without any recourse to a transcendent or Archimedean substance-making or essence-giving moment. Equally interesting is Van Norden's treatment of the Hobbesian warring individualized state of nature and...