Non-Western Philosophy, Part 2: the Ladder, the Museum, and the Web

by Justin E. H. Smith

More_info5997b719d65c13d8cbf6[For the first installment in this series, go here.]

The idea that there is a hierarchy or ladder of world cultures, with European culture at the top (often promoted to the status of 'civilization'), was a cornerstone of most Enlightenment philosophy. It was rejected in the era by a handful of counter-Enlightenment thinkers such as Herder, but it continued to reign in the burgeoning discipline of anthropology until the early-20th-century innovations of Franz Boas and others. It was only definitively displaced from anthropology in the decade or so after World War II. In philosophy today, by contrast, 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. The fact that philosophy always comes from the top rungs of ladder societies could have something to do with the difficulty, in spite of our best intentions, of de-Eurocentrizing the current academic discipline of philosophy: New York, London, and the idyllic campuses that are an easy commute from these metropolises are the true locus of philosophy today, in just the same way that royal courts were in ancient India. It is as hard for us to think of the intellectual activity of, say, some village sage in postcolonial, third-worldified India as 'philosophy', as it would have been for a high-caste member of the literate elite to think of the folk beliefs of some forest-dwelling ādivāsī in this way.

When philosophers try to get away from the ladder, as most agree for political reasons it is necessary to do, what they usually end up with is the museum, or perhaps, with apologies to André Malraux, the imaginary museum of philosophical multiculturalism. As the Soviets once did with the traditional costumes of their empire's ethnic minorities, those who aim to promote non-Western philosophy usually end up putting the Chinese and the Indians, and sometimes a slapped-together group they dub 'Africans' as well, in entirely separate, non-overlapping display cases, as if their philosophical traditions were just so many traditional costumes or pieces of pottery.

It is not just that ideas are harder to display in this way than are costumes or pottery, but rather that the display of national traditions in any aspect of life, whether it be material or intellectual culture, in a way that would have the observer or reader believe that this aspect is sui generis and, so to speak, aboriginal with the culture itself, is already a gross caricature of ethnic or national identity. It is a reduction of Herderianism, the proposition that each culture is irreducibly unique, to a sort of kitsch: a display of the different peoples of the world holding hands. Such display is characteristic of ulterior-motive-laden Socialist Bloc iconography of old, as well as of commercials for Coca Cola and McDonald's, along with only slightly less explicitly commercial pageants such as the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. I suppose for those purposes we can all find something heart-warming in the stylized image of an Eskimo holding hands with a Masai tribesman and a Swiss milkmaid. But when it comes to scholarship, one wants something more sophisticated.

And yet, nothing more sophisticated is on offer in the way different national or regional intellectual traditions are presented alongside one another. What has taken shape as 'identity politics' in North America in the past several decades gives us a version of Herderianism even more vulgar than Soviet ethnography. This is the social force that has largely dismantled disciplines like anthropology and sociology and left us nothing but various 'studies' departments in their wake. I know of at least one university that has a 'Canadian Irish Studies' department. Now Irish immigration to Canada is a perfectly good thing to, say, write a Ph.D. thesis about. But how can you claim to have received a liberal education if from the outset you specialized in something as narrow as a single ethnic community in a single country? What's worse, it is not infrequent that the student who specializes in this way is a member of that very community, and the implicit –and sometimes even explicit– purpose such a program serves is simply to reinforce the student's sense of belonging within that community.

Philosophy departments are increasingly seeking to reproduce at a smaller scale just this sort of zoological park. There is the worthy imperative to increase the representation of minority groups, a goal I entirely support at the level of proactive hiring policies that aim to attract members of historically disadvantaged communities. But where this imperative trails off in a direction I cannot follow is in the confused idea that this representation should also be effected through changes to the curriculum, and moreover that the addition of courses in non-Western philosophy is always a contribution to the recognition of minority groups. I myself was recently lauded for making such a contribution when I proposed to teach a course in ancient Indian philosophy.

But I was doing no such thing. Quite apart from the fact that the authors of the Upanishads were 'Aryans', and in the not-so-distant past have been seen as white par excellence, there is also this small hitch, that no one in ancient India cared in the slightest whether they were 'white' or not, or whether Europeans were imposing hegemonic discourses or not. There is nothing 'minority' about the Upanishads –other than that they were written by members of a privileged high-caste minority within ancient Indian society–, and it is a gross misrepresentation of the tradition these texts represent to pretend that the teaching of them is somehow advancing the representation of minorities in philosophy.

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.

Certainly, archaeology has not been free of infection from national myth-making, from the desire to cast ancient remains found on this-or-that country's soil as having something to do with that country's current identity. And certainly, Eurocentrism in archaeology did for a long time occlude from view what has more recently become indisputable: that for a number of the innovations in symbolic material culture associated with what Colin Renfrew and others have called the 'Human Revolution' of roughly 60,000-50,000 years ago, we need to be looking to sub-Saharan Africa. But still, archaeology moved out of its infancy some time ago; it now understands humanity to be a global phenomenon with sundry local inflections. 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.

I was recently wondering about the origins of the widespread folk figure of the antlered cuckold. It dawned on me that any scholarship I might find that really explains why men who have been betrayed by their wives are thought to sprout horns would probably be at least sixty years old. In more recent decades, a belief like this one might be mentioned in the course of some ideological critique or other, or it might come up in the description of the local and supposedly wholly particular beliefs of some ethnie or other whose lifeways are being paid tribute under the banner of scholarship. But what one will not find is a systematic treatment of the entire geographical space of a belief like this, a treatment of all its permutations and of the logic underlying these. There are some very notable exceptions, such as Carlo Ginzburg on folk beliefs about night-wandering from Friuli to the Baltic region. But Ginzburg's work stands out as exceptional in its scope, when, if one pauses to think for a moment, this really just is one of the things scholarship ought regularly to be seeking to do: making out the web behind the nodes.

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.

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