The Book!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

There is No Western Civilization


Botheration. The students at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies have proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” should be from Africa and Asia. This has caused a backlash in the press.

Powerline comments

“This is so pathetically stupid that it doesn’t really deserve a response. I take it that these people claim to be studying philosophy, right? So that means they need to study philosophers. What we call philosophy is a Western invention. I remember when Paul and I were taking a Greek philosophy class from Professor Duggan at Dartmouth. At one point in a lecture, he referred to ‘Western philosophy,’ then paused and said: ‘as if there were any other kind.’”


Here is an interesting case where I think both sides are wrong. It is an old problem, one that I have cared deeply about since undergrad days, and it seems we are never going to resolve it. The truth seems to have no voice. I majored in Comparative Religions, and went on to do grad work in the field, very largely because it was the only place in the academy where one might study the vast domain of non-European thought. Perhaps two thirds of the world’s knowledge, and all untouched elsewhere.

In principle, it seems to me that the students are absolutely right. What was the name of the school again? If you study philosophy at the School of Oriental and African Studies, you have every reason to expect that the philosophers you study will be primarily Oriental and African. Otherwise, your degree is a fraud.

As to the claim that the only philosophy worth studying is Western philosophy, that is simply extreme chauvinism. It is pig ignorant. I tell you with some conviction, anyone who has not studied Buddhist philosophy, Ngarjuna, Hui Neng, the Tao Te-Ching, Confucius, Mencius, Chuang Tzu, Shankara, Ramakrishna, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Arabi, Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali, has missed important parts of the human argument and experience. He or she is only half-educated.

And they are understudied. If you are not going to find them in the School of Oriental and African Studies, then where?

Ibn Sina

One can argue, technically, that philosophy is a purely Western invention. But only technically. In the sense that the word is Greek. Yes, Eastern thinkers often dwell on different issues than the classic ones that have preoccupied the West. But that only reveals an artificial limitation on our viewpoint—a good reason in itself to study Eastern philosophy. One could similarly argue, and I have heard it argued, that comedy and tragedy are a Western invention, and there is no comedy outside Europe. This is true in the same sense: our definitions of the two genres come from Aristotle and the Greek ritual tradition. Nevertheless, it is absurd to suggest that we cannot find funny plays or sad plays in other cultures, and more absurd to suggest that non-Western drama is not worth studying because it does not fit into our categories. What in the end, is wrong with learning something? Why would we want to exclude it from a university?

This sort of chauvinism implies cultural relativism. Truth does not have a skin colour or an ethnicity. There is no “Western civilization.” There is only civilization. It is the human duty to seek truth and to seek the best. Wherever we find it, regardless of the “culture” that spawned it. Is something that is true in Toronto not true in Mumbai?


That is, incipiently, what American culture and English-speaking culture is: taking the best wherever we find it. That is its genius. And, moreover, that is what Christian culture is. Might I point out that Jesus was Asian? St. Augustine, though, was African. We are building the world culture, those of us who are with the program. Take the best music, whether from Ireland or Africa; the best food, whether from Italy or China; and so forth. That is our project.

Unfortunately, while those who object to the student union proposal seem hopelessly misguided on this, this is in fact not what the students want either.

Here is the relevant portion of their “Educational Priorities”:

Decolonising SOAS: Confronting the White Institution: 
Decolonising SOAS is a campaign that aims to address the structural and epistemological legacy of colonialism within our university. We believe that SOAS should take a lead on such questions given its unique history within British colonialism. In light of the centenary and SOAS’ aims of curating a vision for itself for the next 100 years, this conversation is pivotal for its future direction.
Our aims are a continuation of the campaign last year:

To hold events that will engage in a wider discussion about expressions of racial and economic inequality at the university, focussing on SOAS.

To address histories of erasure prevalent in the curriculum with a particular focus on SOAS’ colonial origins and present alternative ways of knowing.

To interrogate SOAS’ self-image as progressive and diverse.

To use the centenary year as a point of intervention to discuss how the university must move forward and demand that we, as students of colour, are involved in the curriculum review process.

To review 10 first year courses, working with academics to discuss points of revamp, reform and in some cases overhaul.

To make sure that the majority of the philosophers on our courses are from the Global South or it’s diaspora. SOAS’s focus is on Asia and Africa and therefore the foundations of its theories should be presented by Asian or African philosophers (or the diaspora).

If white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint. For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so called “Enlightenment” philosophers wrote within.

Lao Tzu heading west 

In other words, their problem is that SOAS is not racist enough.

“ a wider discussion about expressions of racial and economic inequality”? It is hard to shoehorn either European or Asian philosophers into a discussion of economics or race. Not an issue most of them have been interested in. It is a good excuse to avoid having to deal with any of them. And not even really about politics, either. It is an excuse for saying “you owe me a degree without working for it.” Because oppression.

“present alternative ways of knowing.” Thank you, Carlos Castenada. As any proper philosopher, East or West, North or South, could inform them, there are no “alternative ways of knowing.” Epistemology 101. By definition—or it is not knowledge. If such cultural relativism is true, we are indeed wasting our time studying Oriental or African thought. This is just a way to reject any criticism of your own thinking. “It’s just my way of knowing.” How dare you mark me! Oppression!

“ we, as students of colour” This is presented by the Student’s Union. Are all students at SOAS really “students of colour”? If so, the school should be defunded. It is just an academic ghetto. Or is it that only students of colour are worth mentioning? Then we have extreme discrimination against whites. Either way, it further assumes that Oriental and African thought is of interest only to students of Oriental and African background. If so, again, studying it is a waste of time. And why should any Europeans be asked to fund it?

“SOAS’s focus is on Asia and Africa and therefore the foundations of its theories should be presented by Asian or African philosophers (or the diaspora).” I almost bought it, it almost was true, until that first parenthesis. “Or the diaspora”? That is, people of African or Asian ancestry living in Europe or North America? Outside of African Americans, there would be few of those more than a couple of generations back; among Africans in the US, only a few centuries. A small pool in which to find some of the world’s greatest thinkers. No; this is a fairly obvious claim by the “students of colour” that they themselves are, due to their ancestry, already authorities on Oriental and African thought. It I impertinent of their professors to suppose they know better. So stop annoying them with questions and give them their degrees. Racists.


“ acknowledging the colonial context in which so called ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers wrote within.” Pardon the bad grammar; its probably correct in African or Oriental Diaspora thought. Again, there is a point here. The Age of Discovery was deeply influential in European thought. You could do a lot with that premise. But has it been generally unacknowledged? If so, congratulations! You just found a thesis topic!

One gets the feeling the authors never thought of that. That in itself is a chilling reflection on the state of the academic project. This is something the professors are supposed to do for them?

“Culture studies,” which is something we vitally need, has been co-opted everywhere. Instead of studying culture, they simply award unearned degrees on grounds of race or sex or sexual orientation.

I propose a rule: harsh, but perhaps necessary. If you are going to have a department of “women’s studies,” only men should be permitted to enroll. If you have a department of “queer studies,” only straight people should be allowed to enroll. If you have a department of African or Oriental Studies, they can accept nobody of African or Oriental parentage.

If such studies are of any value, they must be of value to those who are not themselves from the culture. On the other hand, follow the implied logic of the SOAS proposal. Students of the African or Asian Diaspora already know all this stuff. They are wasting their time pretending to study it.

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