It appears that universities in developed countries are teaching western philosophy without giving equal status to the philosophical teachings of Indian, Chinese, Islamic or Native American scholars.
In a recent New York Times broadside, Jay L. Garfield, a professor of humanities at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and Bryan W. Van Norden, professor of philosophy at Vassar College, laid out the damming evidence: “. . . of the 118 doctoral programs in philosophy in the United States and Canada, only 10 per cent have a specialist in Chinese philosophy as part of their regular faculty.”
According to Garfield and Van Norden, changing demographics are being ignored. “Philosophy as a discipline has a serious diversity problem, with women and minorities under-represented at all levels . . . no other humanities discipline demonstrates this systematic neglect.”
Take that, you bigoted First World university administrators!
As someone who has studied philosophy (albeit a while ago), I have to admit that my training was very traditional. In those far-off days we only studied the European canon, starting with early western philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and then ranging through Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant, up to and including Friedrich Nietzsche. These intellectual giants were all males of European descent.
Why would philosophers – of all people – resist the general movement to greater diversity? What’s stopping them from introducing more representative non-western ideas into their field of study?
It could be that philosophy professors are resisting because ideas matter and (no disrespect to non-western thinkers) what is unique about the west is – in part – a function of the ideas that emerged from the writings of these philosophers and other key individuals.
So, what’s so special about the west that its ideas deserve to be singled out for special treatment by philosophers?
It’s impolite today to talk about the ‘rise of the west’ in historical terms, but over the last millennium the western parts of Europe (including the New World) and its institutions have emerged from nearly the bottom of the civilizational pile to unprecedented success. In the process, Western values have become the global standard; in many respects they underpin the institutional norms of the modern world.
None of this was expected. At the turn of the first millennium, a betting person would not have placed their money on Europe to rise as it did. The smart money would have been on Islam (at the time the most tolerant and scientifically advanced civilization) or China, a timeless eastern civilization deeply rooted in ancient wisdom.
It should be noted that over the past 1,000 years, the west has experienced a lot of violence but the larger pattern of European history is clear. Western civilization emerged out of poverty and the morass of feudal despotism through a series of ideologically-driven reforms and/or revolutions to become the prosperous, (relatively) inclusive, democratic nations they are today.
And what drove these violent breakdowns in the ancient social order? A democratizing sense of social justice. Working its societal magic over many centuries, an evolving sense of what is just and ‘right’ has challenged established authority and elevated the individual in society to unprecedented levels of importance. So, yes, ideas matter — they’re one of the key drivers of western history.
Whatever you may say about the other great civilizations (ancient and modern), they did not champion the idea of individual liberty. Nor did they elevate the concept of social justice and the law above the diktats of their pharaos, khans and other absolutist rulers.
Garfield and Van Norden believe that “philosophy has always become richer as it becomes increasingly diverse and pluralistic.” And it is true that there is much wisdom in non-western thought, particularly in Islamic and Oriental philosophy. They deserve to be elevated to the highest levels of study.
But the reason so many students and migrants from around the world are drawn to the west is our humanistic values, rooted in the importance westerners place on the individual. White men have dominated western philosophy, but the ideas that emerged from those men continue to underpin our civilization. They deserve a special place in the highest institutions of learning.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.