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Nov
12th
Sat
permalink

Non-Western Philosophy. The Ladder, the Museum, and the Web

           

"In philosophy today, (…) though everyone officially abjures the ladder model of human cultures, it continues to determine much of our reasoning about what counts as philosophy and what does not.

It is worth pointing out that all societies that have produced anything that we are able to easily recognize as philosophy are ladder societies. We might in fact argue, if not here, that philosophy as a discrete domain of activity in a society is itself a side-effect of inequality. The overwhelming authority of the church in medieval Europe, the caste system in ancient India, the control of intellectual life by the mandarin class in ancient China (meritocratically produced by the Confucian examination system, but still elite) present themselves as three compelling examples of the sort of social nexus that has left us with significant philosophical works. (…)

Imagine, for comparison, an archaeologist who has spent a career working on Bronze Age Scandinavia, and then switches to the Mayan or the Indus Valley civilization. Would anyone think to suggest that this scientist is moving from a myopic Eurocentrism to an appreciation for minority cultures and their achievements? Of course not! The archaeologist studies human material culture on the presumption that, within certain parameters, human beings may be found to do more or less the same sorts of thing wherever they reside and whatever phenotype they may have, and moreover that wherever they are found, human cultures have always been linked in complicated, constitutive ways to other cultures, so that in fact the process of ‘globalization’ is coeval with the earliest out-of-Africa migrations. (…)

It seems to me that the progress of the study of the history of material culture might serve as a model for the study of the history of intellectual culture, which in certain times and places has been written down and distilled into what we are able to recognize as ‘philosophy’.

And here we come to the third possible model for thinking about non-Western philosophy: beyond the ladder and the museum, there is the web. This is the same web that has always linked the material cultures of at least Eurasia to one another, whatever distinctive regional flavors might also be discerned. The possibility of approaching the history of intellectual culture in the same way seems particularly auspicious right now, given the recent, very promising results of the so-called cognitive turn in the study of material culture, that is, the turn to the study of cultural artifacts as traces of distributed or exosomatic cognition, as material and intentional at once. So material-cultural history already is intellectual history of a sort, even if it is not the kind that interests philosophers: there is a great gap between stone tools and, say, medieval logic treatises, and different skills are required for studying the one than for the other. But both are material traces of human intention, and both emerge out of particular kinds of societies only. To know them fully is to know what kind of societies are able to produce them.

When we accept this final point – surely the most heterodox, from the point of view of most philosophers– we are for the first time in a position to study and to teach Indian, Chinese, European, and Arabic philosophy alongside one another in a serious and adequate way. When we accept, for example, that all of the great Axial Age civilizations, to use Karl Jaspers’s helpful label, are the product of a single suite of broad historical changes that swept the Eurasian continent, and thus that Chinese, Indian, and Greek thought-worlds are not aboriginal in any meaningful sense (neither are Cree or Huron or Inuit, for that matter, but this can be dealt with another time), then all of a sudden it becomes possible to study, say, the Buddha and his followers not as an expression of some absolutely other Eastern ‘wisdom’, but instead as a local expression of global developments, or as a node in a web. (…)

What makes it so hard to see that this might be the proper approach to the study of the history of philosophy as a global phenomenon is that philosophy is not supposed to work in the same way as folk beliefs. It is supposed to be a pursuit of culture-independent truth. Yet this article of faith has had the awkward and unintended consequence of making the available defenses of the de-Eurocentrization of philosophy –something most in the field hold to be desirable for political reasons– quaint at best and incoherent at worst. If philosophy is independent of culture, then we cannot go, so to speak, underneath the philosophy and examine the broader social dynamics that sustain it. But we need to look at these dynamics in order to see the connections between one tradition and another.

There are, so to speak, tunnels in the basement between India and Greece, but we’re afraid to go down there. And so the result is that we are not so much liberating philosophy from culture, as we are making each culture’s philosophy irreducibly and incomparably its own, just as if it were a matter of displaying folk costumes in some Soviet ethnographic museum, or in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. This is unscientific, unrigorous, and unacceptable in any other academic discipline.”

Justin E. H. Smith, Ph.D. in Philosophy at Columbia University, he teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, and is currently a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

To read full essay click What Is ‘Non-Western’ Philosophy?, Berfrois, Nov 10, 2011.