What counts as philosophy?

On the normative disguised as descriptive (SECOND UPDATE)

As a scholar of Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā I am well aware of how the normative is often disguised as descriptive. “It is seven o’ clock” says the mother, but what she means is rather “Get up! You have to go to school”.

Similarly, complex discourses about the nature of philosophy, how it was born, e.g., in Greece or in Plato’s Republic, and how it developed in (Latin), German, (French) and English, are only meant to say “We are not going to welcome colleagues working on things we do not care for in our departments”. Why so? Because as soon as one tries to reason with the authors of the allegedly descriptive statements (as done here by Ethan Mills and here by Amod Lele), one gets answers such as “the universality of philosophy”, “the primacy of logical argumentation”, “the importance of debate”, “the supremacy of reason over tradition” etc. All of them can be easily found at least in some Indian schools. I am not saying that they are not found in African, Chinese, Mesoamerican philosophy, I am just saying that no matter how restrictive your definition of philosophy, Navya Nyāya, etc., will fit in. Conversely, Thomas the Aquinas, Augustine, Nietzsche etc. will end up being excluded by such definitions. Thus, the argument is in fact overtly not descriptive.

Does it mean that we should try to make philosophers accept at least Navya Nyāya etc? Or should we rather uncover the normativity of the discourse and call for a broader definition of the enterprise of philosophy?

UPDATE: An insightful discussion of the same issue, with extensive quotes and critical reflections about them can be read in Malcolm Keating’s blog, here.
Eric Schwitzgebel offers further interesting reflections on the issue in his blog (be sure to check the comments and his accurate replies to the “ignorance justifying ignorance” argument, as well as the labels for the “not really philosophy” and “low quality” arguments).
SECOND UPDATE: “Prof Manners” has an interesting post here explaining that articles trying to say that Confucius is not “philosophical” because philosophy is x, y, z in fact only list “generally desirable and admiration-worthy qualities”.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 thoughts on “What counts as philosophy?

  1. I may answer that “philosophy” is a cultural concept (it’s tempting to suggest that there is no such a thing as a “non-cultural” concept, but maths at least – mostly – stands out here) but if there is (and obviously there is) any pretense of universality, in our globalized culture the concept needs to be redefined. Indeed, India is a good test-case: any definition of “philosophy” that does not imply a cultural genealogy (and a narrow one at that) would have to include Indian thought. After having read Léon-Portilla, it’s actually hard not to make a similar case for Mesoamerica, but I admit that “logic” is not there.
    However, the cultural normative dimension emerges really with all its strength in my field, where there is absolutely no question about the pertinence of Arabic philosophy to the “Western” tradition historically, and STILL it is sometimes treated as “other” (and accordingly taught in Oriental departments or similar, not Philosophy departments).
    (In my university we have an odd situation of “chinese philosophy” being, and rightly so, a subject to be taught, in the Languages (not Philosophy, at least not until very recently) curriculum, while the corresponding subject for Arabic students is “Islamic studies”. I don’t complain very much about this actually, it’s better than a lot of other places).

    • Right, Marco. The exclusion of Arabic philosophy is a clear evidence that the exclusion is based only on a very strict genealogical account, which does not start with Plato and Aristotle (otherwise, Avicenna etc. would need to be included), but rather is reconstructed by looking backwards from oneself to one’s philosophical teachers and so on.

      • Well, to be fair, the exclusion of Arabic philosophy is not nearly as total as the exclusion of the Indian one is, for its historical relevance to the “West’s” own tradition is too major to be ignored (the same is partly true for Jewish philosophy as well, not mention Eastern Christianities).
        However, this exclusion probably points to a cultural bias in the inclusion/exclusion dynamic that is not even historically valid (I once mentioned a passage in Bertrand Russell’s History of Philosophy that is particularly striking in this regard – and while what he wrote about Arabic Philosophy is seriously embarassing, the way he treats Christian Medieval thought is little better – he argues that the Aquinas was no philosopher, which at least goes to his credit in consistency). If you really trace back the intellectual genealogies of some modern Western thinkers far back enough, you are likely to find more Averroes and Avicenna than it would be politic to admit, while indeed it would be harder to trace direct lines to any Indian thinker outside some rare cases (I am including known textual transmission, not only direct teaching – in the latter case, the lines would be a lot thinner and harder to see).

  2. A comparative philosopher sent me this comment:

    “Well, what you say: ‘Or should we rather uncover the normativity of the discourse and call for a broader definition of the enterprise of philosophy?’ is what I think our job as cross-cultural philosophers is.
    Unfortunately, for large stretches of time, many of us our caught up emulating what the mainstream understanding of philosophy tells us to do.”