Canon Wars, Round 2: The Multi-Culti Critique of Western Philosophy.
Mainstream contemporary professional academic philosophy is seriously under attack, and not just by APP.
In a recent edgy essay, “Taking Down Descartes: The Canon Wars,” I critically analyzed and historically contextualized Christia Mercer’s very interesting New York Times article from 25 September 2017, “Descartes Is Not Our Father,” and drew two main conclusions:
It’s … a plain fact that professional academic philosophy’s power elite, sometimes encouraged from above by administrations, and sometimes encouraged from below by students, but always also on their own initiative, has decreed that the philosophical canon of The History of Modern Philosophy must be changed in order to conform to the elite’s dictates.
The enterprise of the conventional history of philosophy, insofar as it is committed to (i) the very idea of philosophical canons and also to (ii) obedience to the dictates of contemporary professional academic philosophy’s power elite, is based on two mistakes; and not only does it rest on a feeble inquisitiveness about the past, it also rests on feeble philosophy, period.
Now, a month or so later, there’s another very interesting, forcefully-written, and even downright shit-stirring sortie in the philosophical Canon Wars out there, this time published in Aeon, Bryan W. Van Norden’s “Western Philosophy is Racist.”
It’s worth noting from the outset, that the Aeon URL for the article labels it under the more accurate (and presumably Van Norden’s original?) title, “Why the Western Philosophical Canon is Xenophobic and Racist.”
The distinction between xenophobia and racism is significant.
Xenophobes, for rationally unjustifiable reasons, intensely fear and hate foreigners and different nationalities, but racists, for rationally unjustifiable reasons, intensely fear and hate people of different races and different ethnic backgrounds: therefore it’s possible to be a xenophobe but not a racist, and also possible to be a racist but not a xenophobe.
For example, some Americans might be favorably disposed towards all other Americans, of any race or ethnicity, but also intensely fear and hate all non-Americans; and some Americans might intensely fear and hate all people of non-white races or different ethnicity who live in the USA, but also be profoundly ignorant of and simply indifferent to all foreigners, neither favoring them nor disfavoring them.
Obviously xenophobia and racism are mutually consistent–think, e.g., of So-Called POTUS Donald Trump–but they’re also significantly different.
So it’s significant that Van Norden is saying that Western philosophy is both xenophobic and racist.
It’s also worth noticing from the outset, although Van Norden himself does not draw this distinction, that there’s a further significant difference between
(i) national, racial, or ethnic bias,and
(ii) phobia about other nationalities, races, or ethnicities.
National, racial, or ethnic bias is a rationally unjustifiable favorable stance towards some people (say, star-bellied Sneetches) and/or a rationally unjustifiable unfavorable stance towards others (say, Sneetches without stars on their bellies), of any degree of intensity whatsoever, from mild to intense.
By sharp contrast, national, racial, or ethnic phobia is rationally unjustifiable intense fear and hatred of other people of different nationalities, races, or ethnicities.
Therefore, it’s possible to be mildly or even moderately unselfconsciously and unintentionally nationally, racially, or ethnically biased, without being in any way nationally, racially, or ethnically phobic.
Moreover, the common Culture Wars fallacy of identifying national, racial, or ethnic (or for that matter, religion-based, gender-based, sexual orientation-based, economic class-based, or ability-based) bias with national, racial, or ethnic (or religion-based, gender-based, sexual-orientation-based, economic class-based, or ability-based) phobia has produced moral and political confusion, misunderstanding, and bad blood between otherwise fairly reasonable people, in amounts and to a degree that passeth all telling.
Similarly, and in a parallel way, the common Culture Wars fallacy of identifying so-called “micro-aggressions” (roughly, unselfconscious and unintentional behavioral and physiological indicators of bias) with aggressions (roughly, overt, self-conscious, violent acts of coercion) has also produced vast amounts and intense degrees of moral and political confusion, misunderstanding, and bad blood between otherwise fairly reasonable people.
In any case, because Van Norden’s argument begins with multiculturalist premises and also ends with multiculturalist conclusions, I’ll call it The Multi-Culti Critique of Western Philosophy.
Here’s the main line of Van Norden’s argument, step-by-step–
(i) “[T]he rich philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are completely ignored by almost all philosophy departments in both Europe and the English-speaking world.”
(ii) “Western philosophy used to be more open-minded and cosmopolitan,” especially including Leibniz, Wolff, and Francois Quesnay, a leading reformer at the court of Louis XV, aka “the Confucius of Europe,” all of whom took Chinese philosophy seriously.
(iii) Kant, who was a Eurocentric xenophobe and racist, is the most important figure in Western philosophy since the 18th century, and therefore his work has had a formative influence on all Western philosophy since then.
(iv) Apparent Implicit Intermediate Conclusion 1: So Kant’s, Kantian, and post-Kantian Western philosophy are all Eurocentric, xenophobic, racist, and bad.
(v) Heidegger was a Eurocentric xenophobe and racist (not to mention, a Nazi), and Heidegger was a leading existential phenomenologist.
(vi) Apparent Implicit Intermediate Conclusion 2: So existential phenomenology is Eurocentric, xenophobic, racist, and bad.
(vii) Derrida was a Eurocentric xenophobe and racist, and Derrida was a leading Deconstructionist in particular and a Post-Structuralist more generally.
(viii) Apparent Implicit Intermediate Conclusion 3: So Deconstruction in particular and Post-Structuralism in general are Eurocentric, xenophobic, racist, and bad.
(ix) G.E. Moore was a Eurocentric xenophobe and racist, and G.E. Moore was a leading mainstream Anglo-American analytic philosopher.
(x) Apparent Implicit Intermediate Conclusion 4: So analytic philosophy in the mainstream Anglo-American tradition is Eurocentric, xenophobic, racist, and bad.
(xi) Main Conclusion 1: Therefore, “mainstream philosophy in the so-called West is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic.”
(xii) But “I am not saying that mainstream Anglo-European philosophy is bad and all other philosophy is good. There are people who succumb to this sort of cultural Manicheanism, but I am not one of them. My goal is to broaden philosophy by tearing down barriers, not to narrow it by building new ones. To do this is to be more faithful to the ideals that motivate the best philosophy in every culture. When the ancient philosopher Diogenes was asked what city he came from, he replied: ‘I am a citizen of the world.’ Contemporary philosophy in the West has lost this perspective. In order to grow intellectually, to attract an increasingly diverse student body, and to remain culturally relevant, philosophy must recover its original cosmopolitan ideal.”
(xiii) Not only are Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, African philosophy, and Indigenous philosophy ignored in mainstream contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, but “[m]any forms of philosophy that are deeply influenced by the Greco-Roman tradition (and hence particularly easy to incorporate into the curriculum) are also ignored in mainstream departments, including African-American, Christian, feminist, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American, and LGBTQ philosophies.”
(xiv) Main Conclusion 2: Therefore, “[a]dding coverage of any of [these philosophies] to the curriculum would be a positive step toward greater diversity.”
OK. Let’s look more closely and critically at the argument.
Step (i) is uncontroversially true.
Step (ii) is uncontroversially true.
Step (iii) is more controversial, but also, I think, true.
In addition to the claims made in (iii), Kant has also been widely accused of being what, during the 70s, they used to call “a male chauvinist pig,” or as they say nowadays–another excellent example of the bias=phobia fallacy–a “misogynist.”
Nevertheless, there is good evidence supporting at least the claim that Kant was biased against women.[i]
I might also add that for god only knows what reason, Kant was biased against blind people, so he was also an ableist.[ii]
Bad, bad, old Kant.
Now here’s where the argument starts to get problematic.
For many readers of Van Norden’s article, step (iv) would seem to follow from step (iii), just as step (vi) would seem to follow from step (v), step (viii) would seem to follow from step (vii), and step (x) would step (ix)–as Van Norden himself explicitly notes in step (xii).
But step (iv), just like steps (vi), (viii) and (x), not only contains a crucially ambiguous term, “bad,” but also is a serious non sequitur under either interpretation of “bad.”
Here’s what I mean.
“Bad,” as it occurs in steps (iv), (vi), (viii), (x), and indeed also in step (xii), is crucially ambiguous as between meaning
on the one hand, (i) morally bad
or on the other, (ii) philosophically bad.
But, clearly, something’s being morally bad, i.e., being in violation of well-justified moral principles, either objectively speaking or relativistically speaking (I mean: by our contemporary, community-based, historically-contextualized, lights alone), does not entail its being philosophically bad, that is, incoherent, fallaciously-argued, internally inconsistent, otherwise false, dogmatic, rote and conformist, superficial, or trite philosophy, and someone’s being morally bad does not entail that s/he is a bad philosopher, i.e., someone who produces bad philosophy; conversely, something’s or someone’s being bad philosophy or a bad philosopher does not entail its or that person’s being morally bad.
Now from step (iii)–and also from Kant’s bias against women and his ableism–it follows that Kant was a morally bad person, either objectively speaking or relativistically speaking.
But it does NOT follow from step (iii), that any or all of Kant’s philosophy (other than his specific claims about other nationalities, other races, or women, that is), Kantian, or post-Kantian philosophy are morally bad, NOR does it follow from (iii) that any of those kinds of philosophy are philosophically bad, NOR does it follow that Kant was a bad philosopher.
All of those claims would have to be proved on entirely independent grounds.
For example, (iii) entails nothing whatsoever about Kant’s critique of classical rationalist metaphysics and classical empiricism, his own metaphysics–i.e., transcendental idealism–his theory of cognition, his ethics, his political philosophy, his philosophy of science, his aesthetics, or his philosophy of religion.
Similarly, it follows from steps (v), (vii), and (ix), that Heidegger, Derrida, and Moore were morally bad people, either objectively or relativistically, but it does NOT follow from them that existential phenomenology, Deconstruction in particular, Post-Structuralism more generally, or analytic philosophy are morally bad, NOR does it follow that they’re philosophically bad, NOR does it follow that either Heidegger, Derrida, or Moore was a bad philosopher.
Again, all of those would have to be proved on entirely independent grounds.
More generally, the purportedly valid inferences from (iii) to (iv), (v) to (vi), (vii) to (viii), and (viii) to (x), all in fact express an interesting and characteristically multiculturalist version of the classical informal fallacy of the ad hominem argument, namely, the invalid inference from facts about individual persons to facts about the views (i.e., the beliefs or opinions, theses, arguments, or theories) held by those people.
So, invalidly arguing from the fact that (i) some philosopher is a bad person by virtue of sinning against morally correct multicultural principles, to (ii) the moral badness or philosophical badness of their views, or the philosophical badness of that philosopher, is what I’ll call The Multi-Culti Ad Hominem Fallacy.
So for those reasons, the guaranteed truth of steps (iv), (vi), (viii), and (x), on either interpretation of “bad,” are all rationally ruled out.
But given the ambiguity of “bad,” it’s very easy to see how someone could come away from Van Norden’s argument mistakenly thinking that (iv), (vi), (viii), and (x) all follow from earlier true premises in the argument and thus are all true, thereby committing The Multi-Culti Ad Hominem Fallacy.
Now what about the Main Conclusion 1, in step (xi)?
In view of what I’ve already argued, and by virtue of its resting on a generalized application of The Multi-Culti Ad Hominem Fallacy to Western philosophy as a whole, step (xi) does NOT follow from the earlier steps, and therefore the first Main Conclusion of Van Norden’s argument has NOT been shown to be true.
All that follows from the earlier steps is that some Western philosophers, namely, Kant, Heidegger, Derrida, and Moore, and perhaps quite a few others, were morally bad people, either objectively or relativistically speaking, by virtue of their being, in terms of morally correct multicultural principles, “narrow, unimaginative, and even xenophobic” people.
Actually, the bias=phobia fallacy also casts serious doubt on the inference from good evidence of Kant’s, Heidegger’s, Derrida’s, Moore’s, and perhaps quite a few other Western philosophers’ being biased people, to their being phobic people.
And the significant distinction between xenophobia and racism also casts serious doubt on the immediate inference from anyone’s being a xenophobic person to their also being a racist person.
But for the larger purposes of my argument, I’ll let those stand.
The crucial point is that The Multi-Culti Critique of Western philosophy fails.
Now step (xii) seems fine to me.
And step (xiii) also seems fine to me.
But what about Main Conclusion 2, in step (xiv)?
Well, I think it’s uncontroversially true that adding any or all of those philosophies to the professional academic philosophy curriculum “would be a positive step toward greater diversity.”
In other words, the multicultural aims of professional academic philosophy’s power elite would indeed be thereby promoted.
But forcing professional academic philosophers to add these philosophies to their curricula, by coercive administrative, department-level, or profession-wide means, is itself rationally unjustified and immoral.
Moreover, although I completely agree with the idea that all philosophers should be absolutely free to critically explore, think about, write about, discuss, and teach all different kinds and styles of philosophy, including Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, African philosophy, Indigenous philosophy, African-American philosophy, Christian philosophy, feminist philosophy, Islamic philosophy, Jewish philosophy, Latin American philosophy, and LGBTQ philosophy, this does NOT imply that anyone who wants to explore, think about, write about, discuss, and teach, for example, Kant’s philosophy, Kantian philosophy, post-Kantian philosophy, existential phenomenology, Deconstruction or Post-Structuralism more generally, or analytic philosophy, either exclusively or in tandem with any other kind of philosophy, should be in any way administratively, departmentally, or professionally discouraged from doing so, constrained in their doing so, criticized for their doing so, publicly shamed for doing so, or punished for their doing so.
So I’m talking about absolute critical cosmopolitan freedom in philosophy.
But since Van Norden’s use of the term “diversity,” in this context, clearly means coerced diversity in professional academic philosophy, which, as coercive, is rationally unjustified and immoral, then we had better find another term for the kind of absolute critical cosmopolitan philosophical freedom that I’m talking about, namely, just the kind of philosophical freedom that bad, bad, old Kant’s famous injunction in “What is Enlightenment” to dare to think for yourself! directly implies.
–And this is also just the kind of philosophical freedom that good old Diogenes would have emphatically endorsed.
I propose that we call it “borderlessness in philosophy,” and also that it lines up perfectly with what I’ve called “borderless philosophy.”
Therefore, as I noted above, The Multi-Culti Critique of Western philosophy fails; and coerced diversity in professional academic philosophy is rationally unjustified and immoral; but borderlessness in philosophy and borderless philosophy are both rationally justified and “good” in all the relevant senses of that term.
[i] See, e.g., P. Kleingeld, “The Problematic Status of Gender-Neutral Language in the History of Philosophy: The Case of Kant,” Philosophical Forum 25 (1993): 134-150, available online at URL = <http://www.rug.nl/research/portal/files/3316343/Problematic_status.pdf>.
[ii] See M. Kuehn, Kant: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001), p. 213.