On the very idea of ‘Western’ philosophy

Christoph Schuringa
Jun 10, 2020 · 12 min read

‘Western’ philosophy is widely taught in universities throughout the world today. Its dominance is such that it is generally referred to simply as ‘philosophy’. It comes with a familiar historical narrative attached, beginning with Thales of Miletus, the first Greek philosopher, familiar to all those who have glanced at the opening pages of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy or any similar survey. As Russell flatly states, ‘philosophy begins with Thales’.

Philosophy as a discipline has a huge whiteness problem, and it is right that the hegemony of Western philosophy in the academy must be addressed if the curriculum is to be effectively decolonized. It is tempting to think that the way to achieve this is simply through the inclusion of more ‘non-Western’ philosophy. But if we take the full measure of the idea of the West itself, and the social, political and economic reality that it produces, we will see that acceptance of the Western/non-Western dichotomy itself brings with it the risk of replicating the very hegemony that Europe has established over philosophy.

Lucy Allais has argued that we ought to be wary of the very notion of Western philosophy. As she points out, ‘the account of Western philosophy that has, at least in the past few hundred years, been taken by European and North American philosophers as their tradition involves claiming for themselves ideas to which it is not obvious that they have proprietary rights’. Furthermore, ‘rejecting methodologies and topics as Western is in danger of wrongly recognising these wrongful claims.’

Benozzo Gozzoli: The Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

It is worth pausing to reflect on just what it is that the story that Western philosophy is a tradition beginning with the first Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, asks us to accept. We can accept Thales as Greek, even though Miletus was located in what is now Turkey. The reach of Greek colonization across the Mediterranean was wider than we might imagine, with Greek philosophers spaced as far apart as Sicily and Asia Minor. But even so, it is remarkable that Western philosophy should feel entitled to claim the tradition of ancient Greek philosophy as its property in the first place. After all, the chief figures of the Greek tradition, Plato and Aristotle, are just as much the philosophical ancestors of the Islamic tradition that includes Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). (In Benozzo Gozzoli’s painting The Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas note that the great 13th-century Christian philosopher is placed between Plato and Aristotle, but Ibn Rushd is made to lie at his feet.) The Islamic tradition is certainly never classed as ‘Western’, even though geographically it stretched much further west than the Greek world did, ranging from Córdoba in the west to Baghdad in the east. (It should be remembered not only that Islamic scholars played a significant role in the preservation of Greek texts, but that Aquinas worked in direct argumentative engagement with Ibn Rushd.)

But it is not just a matter of Western philosophy appropriating to itself an ancestral tradition to which others have at least as good a claim. Its arrogance is of a different order. As Allais says, ‘Western philosophy understands itself simply as philosophy’. This replicates the way in which, more generally, white Europeans have conceived of themselves as universal humanity. (For a particularly lucid exposition of the latter point, see Charles Mills’s The Racial Contract.) Western philosophy, Allais notes, ‘has not had much explicit preoccupation with what, in specific, makes it Western’, something she attributes to ‘the West’s having something like the whitely failure to see its own position as a position’.

What Allais’s argument points to is that the notion of the West operates in a way that transcends its apparent function as a geographical or culturally descriptive term. As Stuart Hall demonstrates in his 1992 essay ‘The West and the Rest’, the ‘discourse of the West and the Rest’ not only ostensibly reflects reality but generates it. Its chief function is not as a geographical designator. Of course there is originally a geographical basis to the idea of the West. The 5th-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus, for example, lent emphasis to a distinction between Europe, lying to the west of the river Phasis, and Asia to the east. But our notion of the West belongs in the modern world, in which Europe became not just the dominant power but through capitalism, which first arose in England and subsequently subjected Europe and then the whole world to its economic logic, held the whole world in thrall to its power. Accordingly the West is a concept signalling a certain kind of economic and technological advancement (as is reflected by the inclusion of Japan in the ‘West’, despite its lying as far east of the Greenwich Meridian as it’s possible to get).

As Hall also demonstrates, the West generates its own other: ‘the Rest’, which is in turn of crucial importance in defining the West. As he writes, ‘the so-called uniqueness of the West was, in part, produced by Europe’s contact and self-comparison with other, non-Western societies (the Rest), very different in their histories, ecologies, patterns of development, and cultures from the European model.’ In the process the West has fused the Rest into a homogeneous other, as instanced in what Edward Said has called ‘Orientalism’, which functions to lump together everything non-Western as sharing some set of properties (exotic passivity or luxuriance as it may be).

The beginning of the rise of the West as Hall conceives it can be dated fairly precisely to 1492, the year in which Columbus reached the West Indies and in which the expulsion of Arabs from Iberia began. From then on European self-confidence grew and the idea that Europeans are the natural masters of the world was solidified. It is not until remarkably late, however, in the 1890s, that the term ‘the West’ itself started to play an important role as capturing this phenomenon. It did so as European racism reached a new fever pitch.

The story of the construction of Western philosophy, with the Greeks as the pure original source, is part of the story of the systematization of European racism. Prior to the eighteenth century, the accepted story of the history of philosophy was that Greek philosophy had had a range of ancestors in non-Western cultures. Greek culture, including philosophy, had grown out of a number of different cultures (in particular those of the Egyptians and the Phoenicians). Thomas Hobbes wrote, for instance, in Leviathan (1651):

Where first were great and flourishing cities, there was first the study of philosophy. The Gymnosophists of India, the Magi of Persia, and the Priests of Chaldea and Egypt, are counted the most ancient philosophers; and those countries were the most ancient of kingdoms. Philosophy was not risen to the Grecians, and other people of the west, whose commonwealths (no greater perhaps than Lucca, or Geneva) had never peace, but when their fears of one another were equal; nor the leisure to observe anything but one another. At length, when war had united many of these Grecian lesser cities, into fewer, and greater; then began seven men, of several parts of Greece, to get the reputation of being wise; some of them for moral and politic sentences; and others for the learning of the Chaldeans and Egyptians, which was astronomy, and geometry. But we hear not yet of any schools of philosophy.

The same kind of account, as Dan Flory has shown, is found in the 17th- and 18th-century European philosophers Ralph Cudworth, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and George Berkeley.

It would be a mistake to think that this was an era in which there was entirely unprejudiced appreciation in Europe of the non-Western ancestors of Greek philosophy, or of contemporary philosophers in the ‘Orient’. But things were to take a dramatic turn toward an unprecedented systematic racialization in the latter half of the eighteenth century. In this period, at the newly founded University of Göttingen and elsewhere, a new ‘scientific’ theory of race was being developed that placed whites at the top of a hierarchy and that recast all of world history as a triumphalist story of the coming into their own of white people as the legitimate masters of the globe. A key figure in this was J. F. Blumenbach, who published the first ‘scientific’ study of race, Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, in 1775, in which the newly invented ‘Caucasian’ race came out superior to all others.

These developments had a direct and profound impact on the historiography of philosophy, as Peter K. J. Park has argued in Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy (2013). Kant operated with a crude theory of the hierarchy of races, as did historians of philosophy closely associated with him. Hegel, probably the single most important figure in the formation of the idea of the history of philosophy as a discipline, constructed a story in which ‘Oriental’ philosophy is merely a prelude to the ‘real’ beginning of philosophy with Thales. (It is ironic that Russell naively replicates the structure of Hegel’s story in his History of Western Philosophy, given his extreme intellectual animosity towards Hegelianism.) In the mid-eighteenth century it had still been standard to acknowledge the Egyptians and Phoenicians as ancestors of the Greeks. But in order to preserve the purity of Greek philosophy, Thales, the earliest known Greek philosopher, now had to be instituted as the founder of philosophy.

Park’s book makes a detailed case that in this period the historiography of philosophy became racialized, in a way that continues to shape how we understand the history of philosophy today. In building this case, he is essentially applying to the historiography of philosophy the thesis of Martin Bernal’s 3-volume work Black Athena (1987, 1991, 2006) that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians displaced what Bernal called an ‘Ancient Model’ (according to which the Greeks were inheritors of Egyptian and Phoenician culture, narrative favoured by the Greeks themselves) with an ‘Aryan Model’ (according to which Greek culture arrived miraculously from the north, untouched by Egyptian and Phoenician influence). Many of the etymological and archaeological arguments that Bernal offers are highly disputable, but there can be no doubt about his central claim that the European conception of Greek culture developed in the nineteenth century—the very conception that allowed appropriation of Greek culture to a ‘Western’ canon—was fuelled by anti-African racism (hence the resistance to the idea of Egyptian influence) and antisemitism (hence resistance to the idea of Phoenician influence).

Of course, Bernal and Park might be right that the exclusion of Egyptian and other influences on Greek thought is an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century intervention that served the purposes of European racism, and yet it still be the case that philosophy as we know it is distinctively Greek. It is a familiar theme that philosophy really starts with the Greeks, specifically Plato. Bernard Williams goes so far as to say that ‘Plato invented the subject of philosophy as we know it’, and tells us that he is

the first to have written on the full range of philosophical questions: knowledge, perception, politics, ethics, art; language and its relations to the world; death, immortality and the nature of the mind; necessity, change and the underlying order of things.

Williams concludes that ‘Western philosophy not only started with Plato, but has spent most of its life in his company.’

It is, of course, possible to insist that philosophy is specifically Greek, if the idea is to tie this to the Greeks’ own use of the word philosophia (after all, it was ‘their’ word). Martin Heidegger might appear to be doing this in his lecture What Is Philosophy? (1956). While Heidegger can certainly be indicted for Graecocentrism, what is problematic in this text is not a straightforward identification of philosophy with philosophia. In fact the lecture starts from a recognition of the impossibility of answering the question ‘what is philosophy?’ Heidegger notes that to ask this involves ‘taking a stand above and, therefore, outside of philosophy’, but there can be no such stand, he recognizes, since the question is itself philosophical. He therefore offers the following proposal for pursuing the question:

If, however, we use the word ‘philosophy’ no longer like a wornout title, if, instead, we hear the word ‘philosophy’ coming from its source, then it sounds thus: philosophia. Now the word ‘philosophy’ is speaking Greek. The word, as a Greek word, is a path.

Heidegger then proposes to get a handle on what philosophy is by following this ‘path’, a path along which philosophy shows up (conveniently for Heidegger’s purposes given the title of his lecture) as an inquiry driven by the question ‘what is it?’ (ti estin).

Heidegger’s view is, in the end, hard to make out, relying as it does on his notion that Greek philosophy has a special relationship to language in which language is not, as we might suppose, ‘an instrument of expression’ but is somehow the self-manifestation of logos (connected with legein, ‘to speak’) itself. Heidegger waxes lyrical about the Greeks’ talent for philosophy; but it is significant that the whole discussion takes place in the context of a recognition that to define philosophy as the Greeks do is to put limits on something essentially boundless. Heidegger is, as it turns out, rare among 20th-century European philosophers for attempting to engage with non-European philosophy at all. As Haitian Zhou relates in detail in a recent paper, in 1946 Heidegger met a Chinese scholar, Xiao Shiyi, in Freiburg and then spent the summer co-translating eight chapters of Tao Te Ching into German. Perhaps not surprisingly given Heidegger’s Graecocentrism, nothing significant came of this.

Jacques Derrida is noted for his opposition to the ‘logocentrism’ (to use Derrida’s term) that Heidegger imputes to Greek philosophy, but has been criticized for, again, remarks that have the appearance of equating philosophy with philosophia. Derrida shocked his Chinese hosts when he commented in Shanghai in 2001 that ‘China does not have any philosophy, only thought’. The intent of his remark becomes clear, however, from what he went on to say: ‘Philosophy is related to some sort of particular history, some languages, and some ancient Greek invention … It is something of European form.’ Derrida is not criticizing Chinese philosophy for failing to measure up to a European standard. He is doing something quite different. By supposing that the Chinese are not subject to the constriction inherent in the Greek notion of philosophia, he is imputing to the Chinese freedom from the logocentrism that he regards as problematic in Western thought.

The difficulty with the remarks of both Heidegger and Derrida is not (or not simply) that they denigrate non-Western philosophy at the expense of Western philosophy. It is their assumption of a univocal and determinate conception of philosophia on the part of the Greeks.

It is far less evident than Heidegger and Derrida suppose that the Greeks operated with anything like a univocal or well-defined conception of philosophia. As Heidegger rightly says in his lecture, use of the adjective philosophos precedes that of the noun philosophia. In fact, as Christopher Moore has argued in Calling Philosophers Names (2020), philosophos was at first used pejoratively. As philosophos gets appropriated and revalorized as a self-description, the cognate term philosophia gets established as designating an activity. But just what philosophia is remains a matter of discussion and debate. As Moore shows, in his Charmides, Phaedrus, Parmenides and Philebus Plato offers various versions of the idea that philosophy is ‘a conversational and mutually improving or benefiting group practice’. In Aristotle the conversation is extended to include those not present: those Aristotle constructs as his predecessors in philosophia, in the short histories with which he precedes his treatises. (Notably it is Aristotle who sets up Thales as the originator of one possible approach to philosophia, according to which the point is to find the principle or source (archē) of things.) It is in Aristotle’s works that we first find a clear conception of philosophia as a fundamental inquiry into reality that contains specialized branches of knowledge (epistēmai) within it. In so far as Plato in his dialogues had specified the remit of the activity of philosophia, what he had offered was (in Moore’s words) ‘coming into contact with the forms, orienting oneself toward virtue, coming out of the cave and looking toward the sun, driving one’s chariot high into the heavens, and preparing for death’. This sounds quite different from Williams’s modernizing conception of Plato as the founder of a range of interconnected philosophical subdisciplines.

There is little point in insisting on a monolithic conception of philosophia with which the Greeks operated. To do so is to miss out on a vital and fascinating process of philosophical contestation of the notion of philosophia itself among the Greeks. Nor should we conceive of the Greek tradition as hermetically sealed off from non-Greek influence. Diogenes Laertius, one of the few ancient sources on the lives of the philosophers, tells us that Plato went to Egypt in his youth. Democritus is said to have travelled widely, and to have met Gymnosophists (naked ascetics) in India. Again, there are striking parallels between the teachings of the sceptic Pyrrho of Elis and early Buddhists that may either have come about through direct contact (as Christopher I. Beckwith argues in Greek Buddha), or indirectly through other Greeks such as Democritus who made contact with the East.

What is clear is that the Greeks did not miraculously emerge, pristine and pure, in isolation from surrounding cultures in the Mediterranean. Other cultures played a formative role in the production of Greek philosophy as we know it. This in no way detracts from the remarkable and unique achievements of Greek philosophy. Plato and Aristotle have justifiably exerted tremendous influence, and they have done so through multiple routes, including the Islamic tradition. What we should learn from this is that the way to decolonize philosophy is not merely to favour inclusion of ‘alternatives’ to the dominant Western construction of the history of philosophy. The ‘Western’ tradition itself must be scrutinized (and not just its ostensible beginnings). Furthermore the whole idea of competing ‘traditions’ must be challenged: philosophy, wherever it thrives, does not think of itself as a ‘tradition’, and rightly so. What is required is a far-reaching critique of the discourse of the West and the way it bends everything to its project of cultural hegemony. Enough of the simulacrum of universality that Europe’s construction of the ‘West’ produces. It is time for philosophy that is genuinely the universal possession of humanity.

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Christoph Schuringa

Written by

write/teach philosophy • fight hostile environment and immigration detention • edit Hegel Bulletin https://twitter.com/chrisschuringa

Science and Philosophy

Medium’s center for scientifically-informed content.

Christoph Schuringa

Written by

write/teach philosophy • fight hostile environment and immigration detention • edit Hegel Bulletin https://twitter.com/chrisschuringa

Science and Philosophy

Medium’s center for scientifically-informed content.

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