Wednesday, June 20, 2018

On Unlearning “Western” Philosophy

by Joshua Harris

This post is part of the series "Human Rights and Human Wrongs," an attempt to create a space for authentic dialogue about justice and injustice.

Ibn Sina

Recently ICS hosted Matt Bernico for a great conversation about curricula and pedagogy in Christian higher education, made available here and here via ICS podcast Critical Faith. Typical ICS vibrancy and dynamism aside, I was a grateful listener on account of a headspace I’ve acquired over the course of my last year as an adjunct professor in Providence College’s “Development of Western Civilization” program. Without going into the exhausting details, suffice it to say that this program is, well, controversial.

The following intervention might seem like a “response” to Matt’s talk. It is not. For all I know, he may agree (or disagree) with everything I say. Yet it is certainly occasioned by the concerns he raises—concerns about curricula in Christian higher education, especially insofar as they are dominated by texts written by white, Western authors. Any serious decolonial project, says Matt following several contemporary decolonial theorists, must involve a systemic “unlearning” of what Ramón Grosfoguel provocatively calls this status quo of “Euro-North American ethnic studies,” which happens to masquerade as universal standards of knowledge in the interest of justifying or at least furthering existing systems of Western power and exploitation.

It is this process of unlearning that I want to explore here with respect to philosophical canons specifically, albeit (perhaps) with a slightly different orienting question: namely, “What is the “Western” philosophy that we are called to unlearn, in the first place?” It seems to me that the answer to this logically prior question matters a great deal for anyone interested in a more epistemically just university.

Arabic or Islamic Philosophy? The Case of the Falsafa Tradition

It is not particularly enlightening to point out that racial and ethnic lines are “blurry.” There are obviously people, traditions, and ideas whose respective originative identities resist ready categorization. So (I hope) when I ask the question of whether Ibn Sina is Western, the insight behind the question is not ultimately reducible to a cheap attitude of racial anti-realism (i.e., “See, race doesn’t really matter in philosophy!”). Clearly race and ethnicity do matter—in “real life” and in the practice of philosophy. One must demand only as much precision as the subject matter allows, as another ambiguously white philosopher is famous for pointing out. Yet there is such a thing as systematic ambiguity, and to indulge ourselves in such terms is to run important risks.

I am nowhere near an expert on the impressive diversity of philosophical traditions of falsafa in the “classical” period of the medieval Islamic intellectual culture. Nevertheless, in one of the more intellectually stimulating turns of my dissertation research, it became clear to me that I had to study the work of the (great) Ibn Sina of 10th and 11th century Persia at some level of detail if I was going to complete my project on Thomas Aquinas. It was during this time that I was made aware of a question that is annoyingly familiar to any scholar who is even vaguely familiar with the period: exactly what “kind” of philosophy lives in the works of figures such as Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Al-Ghazali, etc.?[1]

Sometimes anthologizers label the period as “Arabic” philosophy—even tagging the aforementioned figures as “Arabs.” This is sensible, since the major philosophers in the Near East did write almost exclusively in the Arabic language. Yet, of course, it is well-known that most were not ethnically Arabs—that is, to the (limited) extent that their ethnic identities are even discernible for us today.

Others prefer “Islamic” philosophy. At least this differentia marks off a more discernible identity. It is also somewhat faithful to the majority of relevant practitioners, since virtually all major epicentres of falsafa did operate under imperial Islamic power. Still, there are problems here, since it is impossible to understand the period adequately without the many contributions of Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians.

Great Books

In any case, we get the point: this crucial period in the history of philosophy is a nightmare to classify. But permit me one more anthologizer question: are the works of these falasifa “Western”? If institutional standards in North America are any indication, then probably not. On the philosophy job site philjobs, for example, advertisements for positions specializing in the falsafa tradition are usually classified as a branch of “Non-Western” philosophy. This is understandable, since, for example, many of the major texts written by the abovementioned figures have only recently been translated into English, thereby indicating (both as symptom and cause, perhaps) their neglect in undergraduate courses in the West. They certainly do not make the cut for Mortimer Adler’s influential Great Books of the Western World series, which scandalously moves from selected works of Augustine (Vol. 18) to Aquinas (Vol. 19). And precisely this sort of conclusion is evident in the common trope that the works of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle were “lost” somewhere between (roughly) the 6th to the 12th centuries.

In another sense, however, the texts are about as “Western” as Aristotle himself—not only in terms of direct influence, but even in terms of the very letter of the texts themselves. To cite an admittedly non-representative, egregious (though very convenient, for my current point) example, Ibn Rushd penned more than thirty commentaries on various works of Aristotle, including ‘short’, ‘middle’, and ‘long’ commentaries on single works. In a well-known passage of his autobiography, Ibn Sina reports that he read Aristotle’s Metaphysics “forty times” without understanding it. In fact, before he was “The Philosopher” (philosophus) in the Latin medieval tradition, Aristotle was “The First Teacher” (al-muʿallim al-awwal).

Again, fuzzy borders. Yet—as Lucy Allais has pointed out recently—when it comes to the majority of the “Great Books” we hold dear in Western canons of philosophy, the relentless ambiguity of the falasifa is not some one-off, quirky exception. On the contrary, if anything, the radically “mixed” heritage of ideas and people in this tradition seems to be the rule in the history of what is normally called “Western” philosophy. Indeed, the place of Plato and Aristotle in the history of philosophy as they understood themselves is just as crucially “Asian” and “African” as it is “Western.” In other words, a formally identical blog post could have been written about ancient Greek philosophy. This is not because Plato and Aristotle somehow anticipated some sort of 21st century multiculturalism as a legitimate ideology (quite the opposite, of course), but because there was simply no such thing as being “Western” in the way that we tend to think of the matter today—that is, in terms of the identities borne by the agents of modern European colonial expansion.

Whose “Western” Philosophy?

Finally, to sum up what I hope has been a somewhat intelligible set of ramblings, I want to suggest that we need to be careful with the term “Western.” As Allais remarks (I think cogently), “accepting [even the ancient Greek] tradition as somehow essentially Western would involve wrongly accepting the West’s claiming for itself an ancient Mediterranean tradition which was not obvious[ly] Western.”[2] To the extent that the term is tied up with the abovementioned colonial projects—even and especially for those interested in de-colonizing our curricula—there is a real danger of ceding precious semantic ground to dubious stories about the past and their bad faith narrators.[3]

These books really are great. And the fact that they have been and continue to be used by intellectual, cultural, and political members of elite classes to legitimize violent practices and institutional arrangements does not change this. Indeed, this is probably more common than not, given that things like personal safety and free time are often both (a) necessary conditions for serious study; and (b) afforded at the cost of others’ labour and/or suffering. But we should be clear that there is no shortage of examples of brilliant, faithful people who have taken their inspiration from the same materials.


[1] For a brief, accessible introduction to the peculiarities of this question, see Jon McGinnis and David C. Reisman (eds. and trans.), Classical Arabic Philosophy: An Anthology of Sources (Hackett, 2007), xiv.

[2] Lucy Allais, “Problematising Western philosophy as one part of Africanising the curriculum,” South African Journal of Philosophy 35.4 (2016): 542.

[3] On this point, see Peter Park, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon 1790-1830 (SUNY Press, 2013).

Joshua Harris is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies, and will begin as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the King's University in Edmonton this fall. Joshua's research interests include questions in metaphysics, medieval philosophy, and philosophy of religion.