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date: 13 August 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This article begins by rejecting the widespread belief that one's own culture is the only one in which philosophical thought has or even could emerge, and discusses the long history of intercultural philosophical influence. It presents the reasons why serious students of philosophy and professional philosophers should expand their gaze beyond a single culture. It also sets out the purpose of the book, which is to make salient the diversity of the world's philosophical traditions as well as the real possibility of increased interaction. Readers are urged to take seriously the possibility of fruitful philosophical engagement across cultural boundaries.

Keywords: philosophy, philosophical influence, cultural influence, cultural exchange

Philosophy—the aim, as Wilfrid Sellars puts it, “to understand how things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of that term”—has been a significant activity in many cultures for several millennia at least, even when we restrict that mode of understanding to something like rational, analytic understanding. It seems to be a natural development in all literate societies, and in many nonliterate societies as well, to ask difficult questions about the fundamental nature of reality, about what it is to be human, about what constitutes a good life, about the nature of beauty, and about how we can know any of these things. Any reasonably impartial view that surveys the world's cultures finds this kind of reasoned inquiry into who we are, our experience, and the nature of reality widely distributed. And not surprisingly, one finds both broad commonalities in the answers provided to these questions and important intercultural differences, commonalities and differences that are manifest in the following pages.

Curiously, the tendency to believe that one's own culture is the only one in which philosophical thought has or even could emerge is also widespread. Those readers who have come of philosophical age in Euro-American or Australasian contexts will be aware that this conceit is still alive and well in their own cultures, though now far less universally endorsed than it was only a few years ago. Western philosophers are not the only ones to have held such parochial views; there have been times when non-Chinese ideas were regarded as barbarian in China, and philosophy in India was taken to be exhausted by the six great systems. Many now still doubt the possibility of philosophical thought in cultures deemed to be too “primitive” simply because they did not employ writing.

This widespread prejudice regarding the unique ability of one's own culture to develop philosophical thought or insight was generally presupposed, or else justified (p. 4) in ways that seem naïve and misguided, at best, today. These views belie the long history of intercultural philosophical influence. Communication between Greek, Persian, and Indian philosophical communities was commonplace. Early European philosophy owes much to Islamic philosophy, as it does to Roman and Greek philosophy, traditions in turn influenced by Persia and India. East Asian philosophy is informed by Buddhism, Confucianism, and other views that spread along the Silk Road; and goods brought from china to the Middle East and Europe were surely accompanied by diverse ideas and cultural practices. So even the notion of hermetically sealed traditions in parallel development is largely a historical fiction. To understand the history of world philosophy is at least in part to understand the history of philosophical dialogue between, and not only within, the world's cultural traditions.

However tempting—and misleading—the view of philosophy as culturally sealed or as unique to any one particular culture may have been in the past, today there are both compelling moral and intellectual reasons for serious students of philosophy and professional philosophers to expand their gaze beyond a single culture—whether their own or that of some other. We live today in the aftermath of a long period of colonialism. One effect of colonialism has been to reinforce prejudices regarding the intellectual or cultural superiority of certain nations over others; another has been to impoverish and to disempower those who have been both colonized and disparaged. This is a serious, pervasive moral wrong.

One aspect of this disempowerment and disparagement is the neglect of the philosophical traditions of subaltern cultures. There have been attempts to justify this neglect. For example, some have insisted that non-Western intellectual traditions lack rational argument, a claim readily dismissed by anyone with knowledge of the traditions represented in the pages that follow. (Curiously, this view was never advanced by those Western philosophers actually familiar with non-Western traditions, but frequently by those ignorant of them, a fact that raises its own questions about rational argument.) Or, it was argued, that even if non-Western traditions did possess rational inquiry, this did not constitute philosophy because the inquiry took place within a religious, soteriological framework. Properly speaking, it was claimed, this was a form of religious practice and not philosophy, which is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Such a narrow view, based perhaps on certain forms of recent Western philosophical practice, is blind to the varied philosophical styles and approaches that constitute the Western philosophical tradition, and would exclude from “philosophy” much of what is generally considered philosophy from the Greeks to the Early Moderns and even some contemporary philosophers.

Instead of grounding their arguments in descriptive accounts of non-Western philosophy, some Western thinkers have simply argued that “philosophy” is by definition a Greek-European project and is only mistakenly applied as a universal category to the intellectual traditions of other cultures. On this view, there may indeed be wisdom in the classic texts of other traditions, but again, these texts are not, strictly speaking, philosophical; rather, they are best approached through the methodologies of other disciplines, such as religious studies, intellectual history, (p. 5) anthropology, or cultural studies. Such views marginalize non-Western intellectual traditions, making them objects of cultural study, limited by their cultural particularity, and excluded from the realm of philosophy (that is, Western philosophy, not taken for granted as the unmarked case), which is thought to transcend cultural location in its pursuit of universal truth. We are left, on the one hand, with an often explicit claim of universal reason, and on the other, with the implicit claim that access to this universality is restricted to particular geographic locations.

Another aspect, and a curious reflection of the first, is that philosophers in subaltern cultures are encouraged, in order to work internationally, to attend primarily to the philosophical ideas, texts, and figures of dominant cultures, thus simultaneously alienating themselves from their own cultural context and reinforcing the view that there is not much there worthy of attention in the first place. However, the current global dominance of Western discourse in philosophical debates is due in no small part to the Western dominance of non-Western peoples over the last four centuries; political, military, economic, and technological power have as much to do with the framework of contemporary philosophical discourse as any alleged universal truths of Western philosophy that are unique in their transcendence of cultural and historical location. In today's multicultural world, the neglect and occlusion of non-Western thought hence constitute a kind of neocolonialism. Complicity in this occlusion of a wide range of philosophical traditions—which itself could be regarded as constituting and legitimizing violence by suppressing the perspectives of others—even if it is passive complicity, is morally unacceptable.

But even if one is not compelled by moral arguments, there are good intellectual reasons for studying a broad range of the world's philosophical traditions. One reason is completeness. As philosophers we should care to seek problems, solutions to problems, ideas, refutations, and arguments wherever they are to be found. People are smart and creative the world over, and there is no more reason to believe that good ideas only come from the European world, or from Australia, or from China than to believe that good ideas are only published on Thursdays, or in a Palatino font. In short, to restrict one's gaze culturally is epistemically as well as morally irresponsible.

Moreover, even if all one cares about is to understand the ideas of a single tradition (perhaps one is a specialist in the history of ideas, just as one might specialize in English literature, as opposed to being a comparativist), there is still good reason to attend to philosophy from other traditions. Hermeneutical distance is often a precondition of understanding. We can come to understand the prejudices that animate our own philosophical projects and arguments better by seeing them from the standpoint of those who do not share them. What may be mere horizon given as an unacknowledged framework can come to be seen as an object of study, and can then be subject to more reflective scrutiny.

The Western philosopher may problematize her own commitment to essence or to an antinomy between freedom and determinism by encountering a tradition in which these are absent; an Indian philosopher may suddenly see the assumption that knowledge entails certainty as called into question by Western commitments to (p. 6) probabilistic reasoning. Other traditions may have ontological categories, by which they divide up the things in the world, or moral intuitions that differ considerably from one's own; the study of other traditions can therefore raise important questions regarding what one takes for granted. By engaging in serious intercultural dialogue, we can provide each other with mirrors and lenses through which we may see ourselves reflected and refracted in new and philosophically fertile ways.

The occlusion of non-Western philosophy, then, is both morally and intellectual problematic. How, one might ask, ought one approach texts from other traditions? To read texts, whether in one's own tradition or in that of another, is always a historical affair. Even when the subject matter of a philosophical text is neither explicitly historical nor referential to specific past texts, the language, the problematic, and the assumptions that constitute its textual horizon derive from the tradition in the context of which it is composed. For this reason, to read cross-culturally requires one to read historically—not to read texts in isolation, but to work to understand their contexts and intertextual relations, contexts and relations that are often obscured when one reads in one's own tradition as air disappears to us, and water to a fish. For this reason, many of the articles in this volume are historical in character.

This need to attend to textual history, however, conceals its own hermeneutical danger: one might in virtue of this necessary historical orientation unwittingly succumb to a curatorial vision of the tradition with which one hopes to engage, thereby, in the very act of good-faith engagement, rendering genuine openness and communication impossible. That is, one takes the tradition that one examines to be dead, a mere historical curiosity, one that can be mined for ideas, perhaps even mourned, but not a possible dialogical partner. For this reason, we have tried in this volume not only to emphasize the history of the world's philosophical traditions, but also to indicate the current state of play, and the fact that today's philosophical world is polyglot.

This volume does not—indeed no volume could—completely cover “world philosophy.” Most obviously, perhaps, there is no Western philosophy here. It is not that we forgot that there is European (in the broad sense of that term) philosophy. How could one? But we have taken it as obvious that most contemporary academic philosophers in the world are well acquainted with the European tradition, and so take “world philosophy” to be like “world music”—everything but European. There will, we hope, come a time when the European case is so unmarked that this would be an inexcusable omission. But that time has yet to come. Other lacunae are more subtle; there are important philosophical traditions that are not represented (e.g., Polynesian and Australian aboriginal traditions) and others that are underrepresented (e.g., the many Native American traditions). The bibliographies and suggested readings that follow each chapter, however, provide guidance for readers seeking further resources in any of the areas addressed here.

We present this volume in the hope that it will make salient the diversity of the world's philosophical traditions as well as the real possibility of increased interaction. We urge the reader to take seriously the possibility of fruitful philosophical engagement across cultural boundaries. Only good can come of it.