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  • A Comparative Feminist Reflection on Race and Gender
  • Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee (bio)

Bryan W. Van Norden's Taking Back Philosophy is a long-awaited and much-needed manifesto on multicultural curricula in the academic discipline of philosophy, which has up to now been stubbornly persistent in its monolithic approach to the teaching of its own self-defined genealogy, its origin, its methodology, and its very essence. As Van Norden points out, philosophy has a serious diversity problem. Only a handful of graduate programs have full-time faculty teaching non-Western philosophy.1 No other discipline in the humanities or social sciences, other than those specifically designated as Anglo-European area studies, has been so lopsided in its curricula and student makeup as the resolutely and decisively Anglo-Europecentered discipline of philosophy. Eighty-six percent of its Ph.D.s are granted to non-Hispanic whites.2 Compounding this Anglo-European identity is philosophy's phallic-centrism: among all the Humanities disciplines, philosophy has the lowest percentage of female doctoral students. Philosophy manages to graduate even fewer female Ph.D.s than math, chemistry, or economics—a stunning revelation that the academic discipline of philosophy has a problem not only of cultural inclusion but also of gender inclusion to a much greater degree than other academic disciplines that are perceived as inherently "masculine."3

Faculty-wise, philosophy has not fared much better either; only about 20 percent of full professors are women, a figure that has hardly changed since the 1990s.4 Thus, to say that philosophy is in crisis is hardly an overstatement or feminist hyperbole. But the problem goes beyond that of just recruiting more minority students, hiring more female professors, or adding more non-Western philosophy courses. The problem is methodological and structural. With Van Norden's long-awaited manifesto, hopefully this is the time of reckoning for philosophy to take a critical turn.

The claim that the practice of philosophy is specifically Western and Greek in origin and culture might sound intuitively correct to many, not just [End Page 627] to those who specialize in Anglo-European philosophy or who are of Anglo-European descent. Even in the small handful of graduate programs that have non-Western components, non-Western philosophy has been more tolerated than celebrated in its own right; it is almost like an adopted child waiting to be accepted into a large and disfunctional family whose members are constantly bickering among themselves about who they are, what they do, or what counts as a family business. But at the same time it is quite resolutely excluded as one of those who have no family resemblance that would allow it to get a foot in the door of philosophy.

This analogy was first proposed by Carine Defoort in 2001 in her provocative essay "Is There Such a Thing as Chinese Philosophy: Arguments of an Implicit Debate." There, Defoort argues that the name "Chinese Philosophy" is a misnomer, a label retrospectively applied to Chinese thought in the nineteenth century as a result of Western influence, since philosophy is an "exclusively Western discipline," a "Western cultural product," and is "founded in Greek soil"; it is an "irrefutable fact that philosophy is a well-defined discipline that came into existence in Greece."5 Now, in light of today's discussion on Van Norden's manifesto, Defoort's assertion might sound outrageous, seemingly an ignorant comment made by those who have no linguistic or philosophical skills to navigate Chinese philosophy. But surprisingly, Defoort herself is a sinologist, and her article was published in the journal Philosophy East and West, whose audience is composed mostly of scholars in the field of Asian and Comparative Philosophy. Even more surprising is that Defoort received her M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, one of the few institutions that have a compulsory requirement of non-Western philosophy. It is mind-boggling to know that Defoort's claim went unchallenged until 2006 by Rein Raud in his short rebuttal published also in PEW.

As much as this stuns us, Defoort, a sinologist, was not alone in her intuitive claim that philosophy is Western in practice and Greek in...


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