On 4 February 2020, a rumor was circulating in Washington about a potential executive order that, if implemented, would profoundly affect the future of federal architecture. The Architectural Record obtained what appears to be a preliminary draft of the order, under which the White House would require rewriting the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, issued in 1962, to ensure that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings. In response, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) issued a statement opposing the neoclassical uniformity of style and emphasized instead that “architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates.”
As I read more commentaries about the symbolic impact of such a choice for neo-classical architecture and the way in which it has been embraced by white supremacists to purports a view of the US past as “white only,” I am reminded of a striking fact that impressed me ever since I moved to the United States: the peculiar American obsession with that style, as well as the way it specifically reverberates in my discipline, philosophy. In the following remarks, I would like to interrogate the nexus between philosophy and what Anibal Quijano called the “coloniality of power.” That is, the specific pattern of power generated by colonialism but still reverberating today, even in contexts where colonialism is formally over.
Let me begin with an anecdote. In fall 2017, I was invited to a give a talk at Bard College, a private liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Upon my arrival, I followed my host for a routine tour of the campus: I was tired, and in the semi-light of the foggy, vanishing day, all the buildings looked more or less the same. I kept strolling around, gazing at buildings we passed by until, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in front of a huge Ionic temple. “A Greek temple in the middle of the forest?” I asked in astonishment. I was born and raised in a place where we usually observe that type of building within the Mediterranean landscape. But my guide had no hesitation: “Yes, it is the old library! It was, however, too small, so they recently built another library, just next to it, and they devoted the Greek temple to hold the books that belonged to Hannah Arendt.”
I spent the entire evening thinking about the image of the white phallic Greek building containing the books of a German philosopher and standing out in the surrounding landscape. The marriage between German philosophers and the Greek temples follows an old path: German intellectuals indeed played a central role in constructing the narrative of Ancient Greece as the cradle of European civilization. When Western European intellectuals, archaeologists, writers, philologists and philosophers, started to follow the path of this supposed Ancient Greek civilization, most contemporary Greeks perceived themselves as members of the Eastern Orthodox church and thus as “Romans” (Romoioi) within the Ottoman empire: they had little awareness that they had invented philosophy, democracy and all the other values that came to be associated with Western secular modernity. Within the general Hellenophilia that flourished in nineteenth century Europe, partly as a consequence of the fascination with ancient myths and cultures, but also because of the European Enlightenment’s attempt to find an alternative European identity to the Christian one, German intellectuals played such a central role that it does not appear as an exaggeration to claim, along with the German writer and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, that it is largely the Germans who invented the Greeks — or at least the image of the Greeks we are now so accustomed to.
Having worked for quite some time on the role that German intellectuals played in the construction of the myth of a specifically Western road “From myth to logos,” I was not surprised to see that the Bard Greek temple had become the container of the books of a German philosopher. What troubled my imagination, and perhaps that of anyone used to seeing Greek temples within the Mediterranean landscape, was the presence of such a building in the middle of a forest along the Hudson River. Yet, Bard College is certainly not the only place where references to classical Greek architecture are present: you just need to walk through the historical neighborhoods of New York City and you will find Ionic, Doric, Corinthian columns in abundance. There are probably more Greek columns in New York City than in Athens. Even the president of this country lives in what, to me at least, looks like a Greek temple, and yet it is perceived by most American as specifically “American.” So, why is there this specifically Anglo-American obsession with the Greeks?
With this question in mind, I started to ask people on campus what they thought about such a building. They associated it with ideals of culture, freedom and democracy, for which Ancient Greece came to be a symbol. Their views are aptly summarized by a New York Times article devoted to the new library designed by post-modern architect Robert Venturi (the one next to the Greek temple). Here is a passage from the article, which is significantly titled “Democratic Decorations at Bard”:
The strength of the design is due partly to Venturi’s smart solution to a complex problem, but it also owes much to the context he found there. A small school with a progressive reputation, Bard sits high on a bluff above the Hudson River in Annandale, commanding views that have scarcely changed since the days of the Hudson River painters. Its original library, a perfectly proportioned Ionic temple built in 1893, is the ideal architectural accent for this American arcadia [sic]. Of ivory brick surrounded by weathered stone columns, this Greek Revival gem stands for the idea of America as a natural paradise where democracy could take root.
Venturi has designed additions to classical buildings in the past […]. But the purity of Bard’s picture-perfect Parthenon clearly sparked his historical imagination. Bard’s temple exemplifies more than a style. It is the supreme architectural symbol of European civilization as the 19th century imagined it, a building that speaks less of the Greeks than of the Victorians who rediscovered Ancient Athens and declared it their ancestral home. Venturi’s library is his contribution to the Great Books debate. It says that the best way to honor the classical canon is to show that it retains the power to inspire.
We see in this quotation how the narrative of Greece as the cradle of European civilization originally inspired the European settlers who built the temple, but also how the building itself, in its physical presence, more recently inspired the post-modern architect who built the new library. By emphasizing how the temple exemplifies “more than style” in its honoring the “classical canon,” the article reminds us of the association between the “classics” and “classy,” which reinforce the idea that “honoring the classical canon” is also a way to attain “class status.” It is indeed significant, yet all too often forgotten, that “classics” and “class” derive from the same word “classis,” a Latin term initially denoting simply any class, but, progressively, and particularly through the French term classique, denoting whatever belongs to the class par excellence. By following the historian Pierre Nora, we can call the Bard Greek temple a lieu de mémoire (a place, or site of memory), a building that contains a certain view of the past (Ancient Greece as the European settlers’ “ancestral home”) and thus, by dint of repetition through its own sheer physical presence, works as a monumental reminder of such a view.
I would like to further explore how the “classical Europe” narrative fused with the above-mentioned fantasy of an “American Arcadia,” which, as the New York Times article reminds us, “stands for the idea of America as a natural paradise where democracy could take root.” And, in particular, I would like to raise the questions: How is philosophy contributing to this narrative? What is the function that such a narrative was performing at the time the Bard Parthenon was built, and what is its function now? How is the physical presence of such “built space” shaping the way we remember the past, by gluing together the myth of an “American Arcadia” with that of “The Great Books” we need to honor?
The idea of an “American Arcadia,” that is, of a natural paradise where no culture existed, of an empty space that settlers had to fill by importing their civilization, is a central building block of the founding myth of US settler colonialism. In the United States, the colonizers imported the European Hellenophilia, but also adapted it to different specific contexts. While the pilgrims who first moved there imagined the “New World” through the narrative of the Promised Land, of a New Jerusalem, the nineteenth century democrats thought of it as the New Athens. Although the Founding Fathers preferred the reference to the Romans because they did not adopt the Greek ideals of direct democracy, nor find the example of small city-states congenial to their task, references to Greece abound in the nineteenth century history of the United States: from that time on, Greek Revival style began to flourish in architecture, while the teaching of ancient Greek texts became, and still is, part of the university curriculum. We can see here a good example of how the mythologem of Ancient Greece as cradle of European civilization is able to provide significance in different contexts, and the specific way in which it does so is by re-adapting its founding elements to changing circumstances. Among the most important of them is the series of dichotomies that have supported European colonialism since 1492 and that we find defined in different ways in the different contexts but always through a basic narrative plot that reinforces the superiority of the European colonizers: culture versus state of nature, civilized people versus savages, modern versus traditional.
When, on the way back to New York City, I asked the philosophy student who gave me a ride what he thought about the Ionic temple in the middle of the campus, his answer was pretty straightforward: “Yes, a Greek temple! That is where everything began!” Starting to get a bit nervous, I replied: “So how about the Wappinger people who lived in that land before the Europeans arrived? Did they have no philosophy?” Unfortunately, he did not know who the Wappingers were, because, so he said, he was from Texas. Despite not knowing anything about the Wappinger, he still insisted that philosophy began in Ancient Greece and that Native Americans had no philosophy because “philosophy” is a Greek word: “philo–sophia,” he added, by pausing on the break between the two Greek words, as if his knowledge of Ancient Greek would be a further guarantee of the soundness of the argument. I tried to reply that this would amount to saying that al-gebra then must be specifically Arab because the Arabs invented the word: does that mean there can be no algebra outside of Arab-speaking countries? He did not reply to the question but, after a period of silence, he shifted the discussion towards another aspect: “Isn’t it great that the Greek temple is hosting the books of Hannah Arendt? A woman philosopher,” he added. “We are very inclusive at Bard.”
That was the end of the conversation; the car ride had come to a stop, but as soon as I arrived home, I checked the Bard College website. Unfortunately, Bard is no exception to the trend in US Philosophy Departments, because, despite Arendt’s inclusion in the temple and on their website, there was not a single woman listed as full-time faculty at that time (one has since been added). One could even be tempted to say that, having a dead German woman philosopher enthroned in the Greek temple, has the function of foreclosing the perception of this conspicuous absence in their actual Philosophy Department. But we can try to interrogate this conspicuous absence further and ask: although a white German philosopher, who, like many German intellectuals, glorified the Greeks in her political philosophy, could be enthroned in the temple, can we even possibly think of something similar happening with a Wappinger woman or a woman of color of the same generation? Maybe they did not publish books, texts written in the European format of the philosophical treatise, but does that mean that they had no philosophical thinking? Even if one accepts the Eurocentric account that philosophy is a discipline that began in Ancient Greece with Thales and Anaximander, why is it the case that pre-Socratic philosophy, which was also performed and transmitted orally, is regularly taught in philosophy departments, whereas native American oral philosophical traditions rarely are?
One may dismiss the views of a young philosophy student as just anecdotal, but unfortunately, they are just the tip of an iceberg. Nobody would ever argue that sociology is Roman because the Romans invented the word societas, but very often one hears a similar argument for philosophy: that it belongs to the people who invented the term and then, by extension, to the European civilization that continued that heritage. In his The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936), Edmund Husserl suggested that it was in Ancient Greece that the typical theoretical gaze that defines the shape of Europe began, while Martin Heidegger, in his very influential What is Philosophy (1956) claimed that the expression “Western-European philosophy” is a tautology, because philosophy is specifically Greek, thus implicitly reinforcing the underlying mythology of ancient Greece as part of the West, and not of the orthodox East, as Greeks perceived themselves at the time. Besides the historicist and substantialist fallacy of believing that something has to belong to the place that invented it, or even worse, to the language that gave rise to its name, what is most interesting for us here is that this narrative has not always been there. We are now so accustomed to the idea that the first philosophers who set up the Western path “from mythos to logos” were Greeks that we have a hard time remembering that, actually, the so-called first “Greek philosophers” lived in Miletus, and thus in what corresponds to current Turkey. Why is Thales never called the first Turkish philosopher?
More importantly, we tend to forget that until the nineteenth century, no European would have ever claimed that the Greeks “invented” philosophy. As Peter K.J. Park showed in his Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon (2014), the only options taken seriously by most scholars until the eighteenth century were that philosophy began in India, that philosophy began in Africa, or that both India and Africa gave philosophy to Greece. According to Park, Africa and Asia were excluded because the defenders of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant consciously re-wrote the history of philosophy to present his “critical philosophy” as the culmination of what philosophy had always been before him, but also because, beginning with the nineteenth century, European intellectuals increasingly merged this account with the racial classification of peoples around the globe, leading up to the idea that non-Caucasian “races” never developed any philosophy. The exclusion of non-European philosophy from the canon of “philosophy” is therefore a relatively recent European phenomena, and most importantly, one that is imbricated with the racial thinking that accompanied European colonialism.
The narrative of Ancient Greece as “absolute beginning” reflects the attempt of European intellectuals to supplant the competing narrative of Christianity as the source of a distinctive European identity with that of the classical civilization, but it also came to justify the European imperialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: By vindicating the superiority of European modernity, which had supposedly inherited the Greek philosophical spirit, the narrative of the Greek birth of philosophy worked as a tool to justify the supremacy of Europeans as those who continued to carry the torch of logos (and modernity), while other cultures still lived at the level of mythos (and tradition).
But what is striking in this regard is contemporary philosophy’s peculiar role within this process of identity building. Whereas other disciplines have been “provincializing Europe” for a while now, philosophy seems to be particularly reluctant to do so. Why? Is there something peculiar to philosophy, besides the Greek origin of the term, that makes it recalcitrant to embark on such a critique? Is this recalcitrance somehow linked to philosophy’s well-known gender troubles and the role of the woman question within it?
To read part two 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.