The duty to do philosophy interculturally

“Is the debate on global justice a global one?”—asks Anke Graness at the beginning of an article (available OA here) in which she analyses the more common positions on global justice held in Western academia and confronts them with the perspective on justice of two contemporary African philosophers (the Kenyan Henry Odera Oruka and the Ethiopian Theodros Kiros) and with the reinterpretation of the traditional African concept of ubuntu (yes, it is not only an IT system!).

This cross-cultural comparison is generally neglected by Western academics, who rather debate among their peers, who tend to be other Western academics. This lack of inclusion is particularly ironic in the case of the debate on global justice, since:

Astonishingly, even though the goal of the debate is to find and justify universally valid principles of global justice, the concepts, norms, and values of regions of the world other than Europe and North America are rarely taken into account. While the possibility for discourse and exchange […] was and is available […] the lack of a truly intercultural exchange reveals the injustice of the academic discourse. (p. 127)

Apart from the interesting topic of global justice, Graness makes some points which could be applied to potentially any philosophical enterprise. First, she notes the risk of

‘othering’, namely the belief that every culture or region has to develop by default ideas essentially different from European theory to be worth consideration. (p. 131)

I have discussed this risk on this blog and especially on the Indian Philosophy Blog while speaking about possible strategies to make Western scholars aware of Indian philosophy. Readers might remember that I expressed the concern that a strategy like Matilal’s could have meant leading people to consider that Indian philosophy is so similar, that it does not deserve separate consideration. Now I know how to call this risk.

The risk of “othering” quickly leads to another risk, which I would call of “exoticisation“, so that the West is considered the norm and other views are welcome as exotic additions to the norm. Graness points it out when she writes:

Here we are confronted with biased expectations which shape our perception of theories from different regions of the world, namely that ‘Western’ scholars formulate universal theories, whereas scholars from all other regions formulate regional theories. (p. 132)

This is what happens, I believe, when a book on topic X discusses Western views of X for 23 out of 24 contributions and then adds a chapter on “Non-Western views on X”.* To put it plainly, a discussion of X which welcomes challenges, answers and ideas from wherever they come appears to me to be more likely to be fruitful of new stimuli.

Further, Graness discusses the causes of the lack of inclusion of non-Western (and, I would add, non-mainstream) ideas in the mainstream philosophical discourse:

  1. “Even though the academy claims to be free of politico-economical and ideological constraints, it cannot avoid being affected by the structural imbalance of power relations in our world” (p. 135)
  2. “The canon-forming power of the universities” (ibid.). This point reminds me of Eric Schwitzgebel’s acute formula: “Because the dominant academic culture in the U.S. traces back to Europe, the ancient Chinese philosophers were not taught to, and thus not read by, the succeeding generations. Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy. Because they have little impact on our philosophy, we believe we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.” (for a fuller discussion with further links, see here).
  3. “An author’s ability to choose a publisher has an enormous influence on which audience a publication will reach” (p. 135.)
  4. Financial resources
  5. Language: “a lingua franca clearly gives native speakers an advantage over non-native speakers” and one risks to assume that “what is not translated into English is irrelevant” (p. 136)

The result of all these factors, concludes Graness, is that

Euro-American-dominated philosophical discourse is in its majority unawre of concepts and arguments beyond its narrow discursive boundaries (p. 136).

Graness is however not content with the exposition of the problem and tries to suggest solutions:

First, philosophers have to be aware of their own contextuality and how it influences their thinking. (p. 137)

A point which could be enlarged as to encompass the scrutine of one’s prejudices as the constant duty of a philosopher qua philosopher (see this post).

Second, […] this means undertaking the often-difficult, time-consuming search for voices and sources from other regions of the world to start a comprehensive discussion This is not the easy way, but choosing the easy way keeps one at the navel-gazing stage. (ibid., emphasis added)

Graness works on cross-cultural and on African philosophy. Would we, as scholars of Sanskrit and/or Indian philosophy, share her views? What would we say differently?

*Full disclosure: I have myself contributed a chapter on “Indian Philosophers” to the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Action edited by Timothy O’Connor and Constantine Sandis. It is possibly the most read thing I have ever written and I enjoyed writing and discussing it, but I sense the risk of ghettisation that these enterprises carry with them.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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