by Josh Platzky Miller and Lea Cantor
From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 (“Where is Philosophy Going?“).
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One way to scry the future of philosophy is to look at its past. However, the history of philosophy – both as a field of academic study and in more popular literature – tends to tell a rather narrow and parochial story. This story predominantly focuses on Europe to the exclusion of almost everywhere else. The shift away from such a bias has already begun, especially in the specialist history of philosophy literature, but there are still deeply Eurocentric assumptions built into the most influential general histories of philosophy available today. One invisible assumption, still widely adopted, is that there is such a thing as “Western Philosophy”. As we will argue, the history of philosophy – both in Europe and globally – would be better understood if we abandoned the idea of a “Western Philosophy”. To see why, we start with the most widespread narratives about philosophy’s past.
Mainstream histories of philosophy contain what we might call a “Standard Narrative”: that philosophy begins in ancient Greece, usually starting with Thales; that it is continuous to the present day (the “Plato to NATO” picture); and that it is a largely self-standing European achievement with minimal influence from elsewhere. Some form of this picture is present in most influential histories of philosophy, from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (1945) to more recent works like Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy (2000), Anthony Kenny’s New History of Western Philosophy (2010), James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom’s The Story of Philosophy: a History of Western Thought (2012), and A.C. Grayling’s History of Philosophy (2019). In these histories, the Standard Narrative tends to be equated to the history of “Western Philosophy”, although it is sometimes used interchangeably with philosophy as such, for instance in Philip Stokes’ Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers (2016).
So far, so familiar. But there are real problems with the Standard Narrative. Most obviously, for a supposedly continuous tradition, we might have some questions about a glaring c. 600-year gap (about 450-1050 CE). The gap seems to suggest that there weren’t really any philosophers for over half a millennium – or, as Brian Magee presents it, “for a long time scarcely any new intellectual work of lasting importance was done.”
We might further wonder about a history of philosophy that tells a story of almost entirely men boasting an age-old European lineage. How have the Ancient Greeks become equated to Western Europeans when their main interactions were with the Eastern Mediterranean, and they themselves often hailed from the Levant and North Africa? What of the “canonical” thinkers in the Graeco-Roman world who were actually from contemporary Turkey (e.g., Thales), Egypt (e.g., Plotinus), and Algeria (e.g., Augustine)? And that’s just the start of it: what about philosophers prior to the Greeks, or altogether excluded from the ambit of Ancient Philosophy, who wrote in languages other than Greek or Latin, such as Sanskrit or classical Chinese?
The Standard Narrative is presented by historians of philosophy in Europe as having been passed down since antiquity. Yet, one of its most striking features is how recently it was fabricated. Even until the late 1700s, many European histories of philosophy offered a significantly different picture. For instance, Gilles Ménage in France published a History of Women Philosophers (1690), while in Germany, Johann Jakob Brucker’s 1742 Critical History of Philosophy contained hundreds of pages on philosophy prior to the Greeks and beyond Europe.
The Standard Narrative is presented by historians of philosophy in Europe as having been passed down since antiquity. Yet, one of its most striking features is how recently it was fabricated.
How, then, did we arrive at the Standard Narrative? The story of a Greek origin of philosophy became common in late-18th century Eurocentric historiography. It was used to cement the exclusion of non-European traditions from the mainstream canon of philosophy in the 19th century. Echoing Peter Park’s important 2013 book, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy, Yoko Arisaka recently emphasised that the broader Standard Narrative “is in fact a particular post-19th century construction arising out of the German tradition and establishing itself as the canonical Eurocentric history of philosophy”. It emerged from a long history of exclusion and marginalisation that is tied up with a host of extra-philosophical concerns, including European colonial expansion, slavery, pseudoscientific racial theorising, gendered social restructuring, academic disciplinary specialisation, religious sectarianism, and political expediency. Prominent European philosophers increasingly made a lot of noise about ancient Greece having inaugurated an unprecedented era of logic and reason, of logos, freed from superstition and murky mythos.
By the early 20th century, the Standard Narrative had largely assumed its contemporary form in specialist texts. Amongst Anglophones, it then became popularised through best-selling books like Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (1926) – the most sold book in the United States that year, with some four million copies sold overall – and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which has sold an estimated two million copies since first publication in 1945 and made the Standard Narrative widely known under the label of “Western Philosophy”. The Standard Narrative has since spread to become globally influential, especially in former European settler-colonies.
Contemporary, 21st-century histories of philosophy have an ambivalent relationship to the Standard Narrative. There is usually some recognition of its inadequacy and parochialism, especially amongst feminist historians of philosophy such as Mary Ellen Waithe and Eileen O’Neill. This is also true amongst figures working on less Eurocentric, more global histories (or histories “without any gaps”), such as Hajime Nakamura, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, and Peter Adamson. However, many continue to replicate the Standard Narrative as the basis for a specifically “Western Philosophy”, and hence remain wedded to its basic premises (Greek origins, insularity, and continuity with contemporary Europe). In so doing, even contemporary histories of philosophy set up a false dichotomy between so-called “Western” and “non-Western” philosophy, trapped by the Eurocentric biases that birthed it, and are thus unable to offer a truly global history of philosophy.
If the future of the history of philosophy is global rather than Eurocentric, how do we get there? One lesson is from feminist critiques of male-dominated history of philosophy: simply adding [excluded group XX] and stirring is inadequate; genuine integration in the history of philosophy might mean reimagining what counts as philosophy. The same is likely to be true for rewriting the history of philosophy from a non-Eurocentric or global perspective. This will require much painstaking work, from historiographical challenges (that is, how to write such history) to exploring how philosophising itself has been conceptualised beyond Europe.
Meanwhile, however, there is a major hurdle to address: the idea of a “Western Philosophy” itself. The idea of “Western Philosophy” is largely taken for granted: few authors have attempted to define what the term picks out, mostly leaving it implicit and equivalent to the Standard Narrative (noteworthy exceptions include Ben Kies in the 1950s, and Lucy Allais and Christoph Schuringa more recently). When explanations are attempted, these turn out to be implausible, unstable or nonspecific to this supposed “tradition”: from a purely geographical descriptor, to supposed characteristics like “secular” or “scientific” thinking, “rational inquiry” or “concern with argumentation”, to simply a “legacy of the Greeks”.
If “Western Philosophy” is defined by a commitment to secular thinking, then most Greek philosophers probably wouldn’t qualify.
The idea of “Western Philosophy” cannot be purely geographical, since “west” is a relational term. Does it rule out “any sources east of Suez”, as Antony Flew put it in his Introduction to Western Philosophy (1971)? If so, this would exclude Australia and New Zealand while including indigenous thinkers from the Americas. Nor is “Western Philosophy” easily defined by putative characteristics. Take secular thinking: as Grayling puts it in his recent History of Philosophy, “this is a history of philosophy, not of theology and religion”. But if “Western Philosophy” is defined by a commitment to secular thinking, then most Greek philosophers probably wouldn’t qualify (interest in the nature of the divine and theological concepts underpinned many of their philosophical theories and scientific explanations), let alone Medieval Christian thinkers in the “Latin West”. In Europe, you would have to wait until about the 18th or even 19th century before finding widespread secular theorisations in metaphysics, ethics, and so on. On the other hand, you can find plenty of evidence of “secular thinking” amongst, say, ancient Indian Cārvāka/Lokāyata thinkers, but nobody sees Cārvāka as part of “Western Philosophy”.
What about the “legacy of the Greeks” idea? On this conception, philosophy in the Islamic world (as Peter Adamson frames it) would be a much stronger contender for being characteristic of “Western Philosophy” than anything happening across medieval Latin Christendom in Europe for, roughly, 600 years. As it happens, this is precisely the issue with the 600-year-gap in the continuity story. If there is any continuity in philosophising with Greek sources in or around Europe, the story predominantly runs through scholars east and south of Greece, in Byzantium and the Islamic world. In this period, translations of Greek texts proliferated in numerous languages, including Syriac, Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Armenian, Coptic, and Ge’ez.
The incoherence of the idea of “Western Philosophy” doesn’t stop at the 600-year gap: one exemplar is Ibn Rushd (Latinised as Averroes, 1126-1198), a rationalist scholar working between Al-Andalus – contemporary Spain, one of the westernmost regions of Europe, no less – and northwest Africa, especially contemporary Morocco. Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on Aristotle and distinctive philosophical views were hugely influential in Europe up to the 16th century. If we wanted to tell a story that was continuous, Greek-responding, and in a geographical “West” (of Europe), then Ibn Rushd would appear to be an essential part of such a narrative. However, he is rarely foregrounded in Histories of “Western Philosophy”, and sometimes excluded entirely. Often, he is presented in passing as having merely “preserved” and “transmitted” Aristotle.
“Western Philosophy” is presented as a purely European phenomenon (at most, perhaps, extending to North America and Australasia), hermetically sealed from outside influence.
This leads us to the final major problem with the idea of “Western Philosophy”: insularity. It is presented as a purely European phenomenon (at most, perhaps, extending to North America and Australasia), hermetically sealed from outside influence. Even some of the “global” histories of philosophy, such as Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks (2018), recreate the narrative of hermetically sealed traditions in isolation from one another. Despite being written out of histories of “Western Philosophy”, however, there is increasing scholarly interest in the histories of exchange, connection, and conversation (or even outright theft of ideas) between canonically “Western” philosophers and the rest of the world. Some examples are well known, such as the influence of Indian and East Asian philosophy on Schopenhauer and Heidegger, while others have been the subject of more recent scholarly work, such as Leibniz’s interest in China.
This trend also holds within the ancient periodisation of “Western Philosophy”, which downplays the exchanges between ancient Greece and much of Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, and India, as well as between the Roman Empire and much of North Africa and Eurasia. In fact, some scholars have argued that quintessential periods in so-called “Western” history, such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, are in fact the product of European learning from Islamic and, later, indigenous American, African, Indian, and Chinese thinkers.
Historical entanglement is, perhaps, the key problem with the narrative of “Western Philosophy”: if philosophers in Europe have, throughout history, been in conversation with those outside of Europe, then it becomes difficult to justify sectioning off a “Western Philosophy” that is distinctive from all others (much less holding “Western Philosophy” as unique and equivalent to philosophy proper). This is precisely the argument raised by Ben Kies (1917-1979), a South African school teacher, anti-colonial activist, and public intellectual – and perhaps the first person to challenge the idea of a “Western Philosophy”. As Kies argued in 1953, the formation of this narrative is primarily “a matter of myth and political metaphysics”. Moreover, as Kies argues, the project of “Western Civilisation”, with an attendant “Western Philosophy”, only becomes widespread in post-World War II attempts to recuperate a racial category of “white civilisation”. If Kies is right, then “Western Philosophy” is fundamentally an ideological construction, tied to forms of political dominance. This would explain why none of its explanations can coherently track the cast of characters and intellectual movements associated with it.
The idea of a “Western Philosophy” is a recent invention: a political project that masks its origins in, to no small degree, racial and imperialist thinking. Indeed, the very idea itself is the productof a fabricated history that does not fit the facts, and inhibits our understanding of both philosophy and its history. As a result, we should abandon the idea of a “Western Philosophy” and re-examine the history of philosophy without its distorting effects. In doing so, we have much to learn from the past. Throughout history, thinkers around the world have engaged in philosophy that is “cross-cultural”, even globally entangled, but today their insights and methods are largely missing in historiographical and metaphilosophical debates. We suggest that a crucial step to rectify this situation is to draw these approaches into the history and historiography of philosophy, without reusing and reinforcing the Eurocentric category of “Western Philosophy”.
If you are interested in reading more about these issues, we recommend:
Ben Kies (1953) “The Contribution of the Non-European Peoples to World Civilisation”.
Lucy Allais (2016) “Problematising Western philosophy as one part of Africanising the curriculum”.
Christoph Schuringa (2020) “On the very idea of ‘Western’ philosophy”.
Josh Platzky Miller (2023) “From the ‘History of Western Philosophy’ to Entangled Histories of Philosophy: The Contribution of Ben Kies”.
Josh Platzky Miller is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the Free State (South Africa), with a PhD from the University of Cambridge. Josh’s primary research interests are social movements, African and Latin American politics and political thought, social epistemology and the imagination, and the global history and historiography of philosophy.
(Not really on) Twitter: @jplatzkymiller
Lea Cantor is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Worcester College, University of Oxford, and a British Society for the History of Philosophy Postgraduate Fellow (2022-2023). Lea’s primary research interests are in classical Chinese philosophy, early Greek philosophy, the reception of ancient Chinese and Greek philosophy in European philosophy, comparative methodology, and the global history and historiography of philosophy.
Josh and Lea are organising a conference addressing these themes in April 2023.
From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 (“Where is Philosophy Going?“).
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This article is shared from The Philosopher – Published since 1923.
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