The publication of Van Norden and Garfield’s provocative New York Times op-ed, inviting us to rename all the US philosophy departments as more accurately “Western philosophy” departments, ignited a long awaited debate about the relationship between philosophy as a discipline and the coloniality of power. How indeed is the philosophical canon reproducing a certain image of the philosophy that privileges its white components, while discouraging curiosity for other philosophical traditions? Furthermore, if it is true that institutions, and even buildings, can fundamentally shape the way we remember, how can philosophical practices contribute to such a process of remembering the past? Can we look at philosophical practices themselves as potential sites of remembrance and, if so, what is the view of the past that they convey?
Prima facie, it would seem that so-called “continental philosophy,” that is, the practice of doing philosophy by engaging in a conversation with authors of the past in the humanities style, is much better situated to convey an accurate image of the past than so-called analytic philosophy, which focuses instead on problems, in a style more akin to scientific inquiry.
To begin with, one may argue that analytic philosophy, given its emphasis on the analysis of propositions and concepts, as opposed to authors and historical figures, can free us from a very burdensome European historical heritage. Indeed, the practice of doing philosophy via discussion of other philosophers, this sort of academic ventriloquism, where one always needs to speak through the voice of somebody else, could indeed be perceived as a Eurocentric residuum of the European scholastic tradition. Whereas non-academic philosophy, even in Europe, has taken multiple formats (from dialogues to philosophical novellas, fragments, poems, and so on) scholastic philosophy introduced the practice of systematically doing philosophy via commentary on auctoritates, that is, on the authorities of the time. This turned-back gaze of scholastic philosophy tended to reproduce not only a certain image of the past, but also a certain identity in the present. In particular, it seems hard to deny that the very practice of commenting on other “authors” cannot but implicitly consolidate certain “authorities”, that is, once again, an idea of who are the auctoritates worth commenting on versus those who can be left to oblivion. This, in its turn, helps shape the identity of the ideal philosophers, as most of the time the authors we read in Philosophy university curricula are white men.
It is very well documented, for instance, how this image of the ideal (male) philosophers has worked as a tool to silence women philosophers, who, for a long time, were not admitted to academia and, even now that they formally and consciously are, are still systematically marginalized, as they currently count for a bare 16.6% of the total of full time positions. But the same has been documented in terms of the geopolitics of knowledge. If we look at the number of countries represented in most teaching offerings in continental departments, for instance, we rarely go beyond just a handful: most of the philosophical knowledge currently being commented on and thus (re)produced has originated in the UK, Germany, France, perhaps Italy, and other settler colonial states such as the United States, Canada and Australia. In that respect, we cannot simply speak of philosophy’s “Eurocentrism,” because it is not the various European countries that are represented, but a striking minority of them: it is mainly Western and Northern European countries that are represented in US philosophical practices. Eastern European countries, as well southern European countries, such as Italy, and Spain, do not score very well.
One could therefore believe that so-called analytic philosophy is better equipped to escape the deep prejudices of our colonial past: by severing the link with its past and embracing a philosophical practice that tackles conceptual problems for the way they present themselves here and now, it would seem to be less prone to reproduce the biases accumulated throughout centuries of patriarchy and racial discrimination. But is that really the case? If we look at publications in the field, we see that writings considered to belong to “analytic philosophy” also takes the form of a discussion of ideas that are referenced and footnoted. The difference is just that ideas are discussed without analysing the historical context that produced them and thus the authors who are cited tend to be more recent ones. But is the geopolitics of knowledge a fundamentally different one? Analytic philosophy performs the gesture of getting rid of the past, and there is indeed a writing style that embodies the pathos of a new beginning, but there are reasons to be suspicious of such a gesture.
If we bring to the fore the imaginal dimension of the analysis and look not simply at what is said and practiced at the conscious level, but also at what is unconsciously transmitted, things get even more complicated. Take as an example a work in analytic political philosophy such as John Rawls’ The Law of Peoples (2001). This work is concerned with questions of global justice and is meant to propose an ideal model for the current “society of peoples” and not to engage with past theories. Yet, in one single word, and specifically the one Rawls chooses to name his imaginary example of a “non-liberal” people, “Kazanistan,” the unconscious leaks in and speaks by itself. As a fusion between “Afghanistan” and “Kazakhstan,” two Muslim majority countries, the term cannot but evoke to the American readers a whole series of myths and stereotypes about Arabs as backwards and savages. But, why should an imaginary example of a “non-liberal” country have a name that fuses together two Muslim majority countries (Afghanistan and Kazakhstan)? Why, in the end, should this be the case, if not because of centuries of orientalist biases that have consistently depicted the Orient as the other of the Occident? Notice also how by simply using that single word, Rawls manages to reinforce the idea that the West is, by contrast, and by definition, liberal. As it has been argued, the narrative of “brown women in need of being saved from barbarous brown men” works very well as an unconscious mechanism to help us forget the US situation, including the fact that, as we have seen, it is still possible to build an entire philosophy department by excluding women from its full-time faculty. So, the women being oppressed are not only in those faraway lands, as an orientalist gaze would lead us to believe. There is more to Rawls’ book that carries orientalist biases, but I have chosen this example to show how even just one word can potentially invite through the window a millennial past that had previously been thrown out of the front door: in this case, not only an image of the past but also a racially charged one. Can we think of Rawls’ Kazanistan as an example of the imaginal past coming back in the form of the return of the repressed? Are works that try to get rid of the past by voluntarily ignoring it, actually paving the road for the possibility of its return in the most pernicious, because un-acknowledged, form?
If we look at the very format of writing, analytic philosophy books do reproduce the European tradition of philosophical treatises, that is, of a systematic treatment of a subject via a discussion of the current state of the art and thus of the “author-ities” in the field. The only difference is that books such as John Rawls’ The Law of Peoples quotes works produced more recently and more clearly geographically situated in Anglophone world, thereby reproducing the very same Eurocentric geopolitics of knowledge, just with a marked Anglophone bent. Rawls’ work is not unique in that respect, but very much reflects the state of the discipline.
More generally, notice how the very practice of quoting scholarship produced in the Eurocentric format of the philosophical treatise (or its mini-format: the article) implicitly excludes all types of knowledge that have not traditionally taken that format. This is particularly striking of we consider that the hegemony of the philosophical treatise is a relatively recent phenomenon: even in Europe, not to speak about Africa and the Americas, philosophy has traditionally taken different forms, including, but not limited to, storytelling, poetry, prayers, songs, and oral performances. Even the so-called first Greek philosophers did not write philosophical treatises, but they orally performed poems and recitation in the open. The hegemony of the philosophical monograph went hand in hand with the emergence of the current university system, which privileges the treatise, the monograph, because, despite all emphasis on active learning, it privileges the reproduction of a certain body of knowledge which, in turns, justifies its own existence.
We are now starting to see why it is possible to enthrone a white German woman philosopher in the Bard Greek temple, whereas the same could not happen to a woman of color. As Patricia Collins, among others, argued, women of color have been excluded from academia for too long, so they have developed alternative ways of doing philosophy, and theory more generally. As a result, their writings remain marginalized even within feminist philosophy. One must find their philosophies in other texts such as short stories, novels, and even songs. Things have started to change recently, thanks to works such as Collins’, but most of the philosophy produced by women of color is still not taught in philosophy departments. Instead, their works are located in Gender Studies, Area Studies, Ethnic Studies or in Literature departments.
Despite the freedom that this placement has allowed, there are also downsides. Knowledge produced in Areas Studies departments can still be dismissed as pertaining just to that “area,” whereas knowledge coming from Literature departments is easily subsumed within the dichotomy between myth and reason, which, as we have previously mentioned, played such a crucial role in the self-understanding of white Europeans as carrying the torch of the logos. These institutional placements generate allochronic and allotropic mechanisms, that is, unconscious mechanisms that perpetrate the exclusion of the knowledge produced by certain people as belonging to “another time” (allos–chronos) or “another space” (allos–topos). Notice here, for instance, how the term “ethnic” has replaced the now politically incorrect term “savage” in the opposition between “state of nature” versus “civil society,” but how it also continues to work by triggering the same mechanism: non-white philosophies are placed, once again, in a pre-modern time-space, a state of nature, that can be dreamed about and perhaps even longed for, but remains sealed in “another time” and “another space”. In the same way in which the category of “savages” worked to prop up people of European descent as the “civilized” by default, so the categories of “ethnic” reiterates the idea that white people of European origins are not “ethnic” but rather the norm for standards of civilization.
These mechanisms are a formidable tool for perpetrating discrimination against some people, even while apparently invoking inclusiveness. As Nelson Maldonado-Torres has argued, the creation of Ethnic Studies departments in 1960s has been a crucial move to give visibility to Native American Studies, Black Studies, Chicano Studies, among several others. The creation of such departments may appear to be a gesture of reparative justice for the (epistemic) genocide of Native Americans and other minorities, whose knowledge is systematically excluded by all other academic departments in the US universities. Besides their almost complete absence from Philosophy Departments, consider for instance how rarely knowledge produced by Native Americans is included in Politics, Sociology, Economics, Psychology, not to mention the Natural Sciences. By relegating their knowledge inside departments of Ethnic or Native Studies, they are given visibility, but with the high price of their ghettoization. This placement outside of the normal circuit of knowledge cannot but ultimately suggest that the knowledge produced by the settlers is the norm, while that produced by natives is an exception, a remnant of the past which is destined to be superseded. Once again, natives, when acknowledged at all, are frozen into that other time or that other space that is the exception to the norm of (white) knowledge.
Within the current settler-colonial context of American universities, a context that systematically marginalizes the knowledge produced by native Americans and people of color as merely “ethnic,” the very distinction between analytic versus continental philosophy becomes itself a further tool of exclusion and perpetration of the myth of the American arcadia. The distinction between “continental” and “analytic” works indeed as a dichotomy, that is, a couple that is mutually exclusive but also exhaustive of its field of operation: if you do not do “continental,” then you must be doing “analytic” philosophy, because there are no other options available. But this amounts to saying that the only way to do an historically informed type of philosophy is the European one (“continental”), as if nobody had ever philosophized in the Americas before the arrival of the European colonizers: again, a terra nullius. By remaining inside of this dichotomy, we are put in front of a false alternative: if in avoiding the Scylla of a potentially Eurocentric continental philosophy, we end up with the Charybdis of doing only analysis of concepts in the form of the Anglo-American tradition, then there is really no alternative. Either you do it the European way, or you do it the Anglo-Saxon way, that is — again — in the way of the settlers of European descent. Far from being only a way to distinguish between two different philosophical practices, the very dichotomy between “analytic” and “continental” is in itself an imaginal tool to reproduce Eurocentrism and the settlers founding myth of a terra nullius. If we were looking for a ladder at the top of which we could abandon that distinction, I think we may have reached it.
To read the first part of this post please click here.
Chiara Bottici is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research.
*Image courtesy of Author.