A opinion piece at the New York Times took aim at professional philosophy departments for the "systematic neglect of most of the civilizations in its domain". According to authors Garfield and Van Norden: "of the top 50 philosophy doctoral programs in the English-speaking world, only 15 percent have any regular faculty members who teach any non-Western philosophy". They conclude: "Some of our colleagues defend this orientation on the grounds that non-European philosophy belongs only in “area studies” departments, like Asian Studies, African Studies or Latin American Studies. We ask that those who hold this view be consistent, and locate their own departments in “area studies” as well, in this case, Anglo-European Philosophical Studies...any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself “Department of European and American Philosophy.” This simple change would make the domain and mission of these departments clear, and would signal their true intellectual commitments to students and colleagues."
Glorious shade aside, this piece is also notable for the flurry of responses it encourages. Eric Schliesser, John Protevi, Leigh Johnson, John Drabinski, and PhilPercs' own J. Edward Hackett, wrote responses very much worth reading, and there are a score of others that I've been meaning to read. These responses engaged various points of Van Norden and Garfield's arguments, sometimes as friendly amendments and other times in disagreement, but tending towards advancing the discussion in provocative directions. Particularly instructive was Amy Olberding's round up of typical responses of philosophers who defend the status quo (church!).
But the fact that no one will defend the worthlessness of non-"Western" philosophies doesn't mean that people are not committed to it, and the commitment of some to that worthlessness thesis (conscious or not) would go some distance to explaining the behavior Garfield and Van Norden object to.
That's why I was grateful to stumble upon another great contribution to the discussion: Amod Lele's "Why Philosophy Departments Have Focused on the West". Lele seems to tackle the problem head on:
"But ascertain this worth one must, when one is making the difficult decisions of what to teach and what not to teach. Not everything is philosophy, and not everything has the same value. We do not teach the aphorisms of Forrest Gump as philosophy, nor should we. The most dangerous thing I see in Garfield’s and Van Norden’s article is that they do not ask what makes philosophy a worthwhile activity in the first place, why one would study philosophy rather than anything else. It leaves the impression that the selection of which philosophy to study is essentially arbitrary – that in terms of what a student can get out of studying them, there’s no real difference between Rāmānuja and Nietzsche except that one is Indian and one isn’t....They should be teaching far more non-Western works than they do. But they should do it because of the content of those works: the fact that Mencius’s ideas on partiality or the epistemology of pramāṇas are ideas worthy of consideration in their own right, as judged from the preexisting starting point of the students and instructors who might learn them. The instructors might not know that those ideas are worthy from such a standpoint, but they are – and as advocates of Asian philosophy it is our job to show them that fact.
While I don't think Garfield and Van Norden could resolve a question like "Why is philosophy worthwhile?" in the space of a newspaper article, I agree with Lele that to call out the discipline in this way is to break radically from the existing ways of appraising the value and relevance of philosophical work. It's counterproductive for a critique so motivated to remain a negative project, rather than taking the opportunity to articulate alternative ways of deciding what to research and to teach.
That said, here's a strand of thought I would invite Lele to say more about:
The study of philosophy comes to matter most at those moments where our existing beliefs come into question – but those now-questioned beliefs still form the starting point from which we are able to move somewhere else. And a great deal of what forms us is Western. When we argue for political change on the basis of human rights, we are arguing from within a Western history centred on William of Ockham and others. When we claim that observation of the empirical world is always fallible and could potentially be overturned, we are thinking in ways made possible by Western thinkers like David Hume. (And Muslims of the Golden Age before him, I would argue, but that is because they are themselves part of the history of Western thought in a way that the Indians and Chinese are not.)...I share Garfield’s and Van Norden’s hope “that American philosophy departments will someday teach Confucius as routinely as they now teach Kant, that philosophy students will eventually have as many opportunities to study the Bhagavad Gītā as they do the Republic…” But this will and should happen only when Confucius and the Gītā inform the background of everyday American thought as much as Kant and the Republic do.
There's a lot to say about this, but I'll just make two points for now.
(1) If you ask me, Lele is right to point out that we start somewhere, and also right to point out the salience of the "West" in the formation of that starting point. What I find perplexing is the focus on "thinkers" in the determination of that starting place. For example: when we argue for political change on the basis of human rights, we argue from the space of ideas that those in power (broadly construed) will countenance, even while perhaps having differently bounded conversations in different circumstances. Thus, If I wanted to explain why we're using human rights discourse rather than attempting to create political change using terms that refer to orishas, I would tell you which people use which of these terms and then I would tell you which of those groups of people have the money and guns. That is a story about power in the present tense, not about historical intellectual trajectories. And if I were to give the history that shaped that, the main characters would be colonizers like Christopher Columbus and Cecil Rhodes, and King Leopold II, not thinkers like Hume and Kant.
(2) Following up on that. Given a) the suspicion "money and guns"-type considerations are the sort of things that determine which of the multitude of intellectual histories will be picked out by any given society as "the" tradition of a field, and b) the further suspicion that this historical moment is no exception to that general rule... what's going on here? Lele writes:
The instructors might not know that those ideas are worthy from such a standpoint, but they are – and as advocates of Asian philosophy it is our job to show them that fact.
If Lele just means to say that the value of any tradition of scholarship must be communicable to others, rather than assumed, then cool. But it's not clear to me that they take it that it is the job of current scholars to show advocates of other philosophies the value of their approaches. Lele has already made the argument that history largely sets the terms of intellectual engagement, but the connection between that and the value of the scholarship produced after it is undermined by 1. Secondly, that sort of consideration at best justifies that a scholarship must be one of the ones that intersects with our "starting point" - one of the many actual and hypothetical "Western" influenced ones - and is no argument at all that the philosophical canon as currently conceived by professional philosophers is better than all of its alternatives. If they have such an argument, or if I've misunderstood the position, I hope they're up for elaborating.