Guest post by Christian Coseru
One may be forgiven for thinking, on reading Brian Leiter's diatribe against identity politics and the danger it poses for academic philosophy, that there is a swell in 'consumer demand' for expanding the philosophy curriculum in questionable directions and for the wrong reasons. To clarify: the 'consumer' in this case is graduate students dissatisfied with the lack on engagement on the part of Anglo-American philosophers with non-Western philosophical traditions. Or so the story goes.
So Leiter asks: "should we really add East Asian philosophers to the curriculum to satisfy the consumer demands of Asian students rather than because these philosophers are interesting and important in their own right?"
The reality is that there is no such large-scale demand, certainly not in top graduate programs, because one could not have gotten in by announcing one's intention of working in Indian or Chinese philosophy. That is not to deny that there hasn't been talk of opening up the discipline to non-Western traditions and perspectives (more on this below). But even the advocates don't think it can be that easily accomplished (not, at least, through curricular reform alone). Rather, the sense is that some change in the demographics of philosophy departments would have to take place for cross-cultural philosophical reflection to become the norm. Alas, we are a long way from that.
This recent ruckus comes from a former PhD student in philosophy at Indiana University, Bloomington, Eugene Park. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Park blamed his departure from academic philosophy on the lack of representation for non-Western philosophy in the curriculum and the expectation that, in order to have a chance at a career, one must write a dissertation "in one of the 'core areas' of philosophy" (where 'philosophy' here stands exclusively for Western philosophy). This charge of parochialism leveled against academic philosophy is hardly news (see Justin Smith in the NYT, the recent inteviews with Jay Garfield and Jonardon Ganeri at 3AM, an early discussion here at New APPS spurred by David Chalmers, and the occasional APA Newsletter). Nor is there any secret that members of the profession, whether individually or as a group, have very strong views about what counts as real philosophy, who does and does not belong in the canon, and which areas and topics one ought to work on in order to have a chance at a career in the discipline.
What then makes this particular complaint stand out? The allegation that lack of engagement with non-Western philosophy is not just a case of ignorance, unfamiliarity, or the unfortunate outcome of the need to cover the core. Rather, as our former PhD student puts it, the real reason is willful ignorance: "professional philosophers today often perceive non-Western thinkers as inferior" even though, as he adds, "few would say this explicitly."
I think the notion that professional philosophers have any view whatsoever about things outside their specific purview is very charitable. Leiter is probably right that when it comes to non-Western philosophy, plain old ignorance is the norm. But he is wrong to think that anyone is terribly upset about it. My own impression is that few regret their ignorance. And even those few, when pressed, find it excusable: one can only master so much, the argument goes, and it is always easier to go with what one knows best.
As for the question whether Asian philosophers should be part of the core if found to be interesting and important, one cannot but ask: by whom? Who is to decide? The APA already has a committee for Asian and Asian American Philosophers and Philosophies. But, as we all know, non-Western philosophy ranks dismally on the PGR, just above Feminist Philosophy and Philosophy of Race, and that too only includes Chinese philosophy. No rankings, for instance, for Indian or Buddhist philosophy.
What can be done about it? Expand the category of non-Western philosophy and rank it higher on the PGR? That might be one way, though inevitably as a category, "non-Western" ends up being treated as fundamentally "the other". A better proposal takes into account the fact that so many of those who work in Indian, Chinese, or Buddhist philosophy already have as their AOS metaphysics and epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, or value theory. So, in that case, one way to proceed is by changing the language in the ads. You want to hire in metaphysics or philosophy of mind, and would like to broaden the curriculum a little? Mention in your ad that you would prefer a candidate who also has expertise in a non-Western philosophical tradition. Of course, there is the problem of being able to assess work in an area one has no knowledge of, but there are enough reliable metrics to make up for that: letters of reference, publications in top journals, pedigree, etc.
Of course, one would want these candidates to come from top programs, and those typically lack the requisite expertise in non-Western philosophy to guarantee adequate supervision. But we must start somewhere, and engaging with those philosophers that are already accomplished scholars of Indian, Chinese, or Buddhist philosophy might be a first step.