Vassar’s Philosophy Department features courses on the birth of Western philosophy, on Neo-Confucianism and on Hegel and Taoism. However, the bulk of upper-level classes still focus on European and American philosophers and are taught by professors who specialize in Western philosophy. Despite efforts to increase the representation of non-Western perspectives through classes cross-listed with the Chinese and Japanese Department and Women’s Studies Department, Vassar’s Philosophy Department remains typical of many American departments in that its studies are tilted more toward the West than the universal title of “philosophy” might imply.
In the pushback against the Eurocentricity of many curricula in higher education, professors in American colleges and universities, including from Vassar’s Philosophy Department, are calling for either a restructuring of the program, or even a different label for the philosophy major more broadly. Professor of Philosophy Bryan W. Van Norden states in an article he co-wrote in the New York Times titled “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is,” “No other humanities discipline demonstrates this systematic neglect of most of the civilizations in its domain. The present situation is hard to justify morally, politically, epistemically or as good educational and research training practice.” He asks readers to consider works such as the “Bhagavad Gita” and the writings of scholars like Frantz Fanon tantamount to those of the Western canon, and reminds his audience that no other humanities discipline underrepresents Chinese, Africana, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American, Native American or other non-European cultures to the degree that philosophy does.
Within the department, Vassar only has two courses in the this academic year specific to non-Western teachings, and this lack of diversity extends to colleges and universities nationwide. Van Norden notes, “Of the 118 doctoral programs in philosophy in the United States and Canada, only 10 percent have a specialist in Chinese philosophy as part of their regular faculty … Indeed, 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.” Norden and his co-writer, Professor of Humanities at Yale-NUS College in Singapore Jay L. Garfield continue in their article to urge college philosophy departments to diversify their staff and offerings.
Yifan Wang ’17 [full disclosure: Yifan Wang is a contributing editor on the Miscellany News] is a senior philosophy major who is writing a thesis that focuses on Confucianism. She said, “As a philosophy major from China, I think the offerings in Asian philosophies at Vassar are definitely not enough to meet my interests. We are really fortunate to have Professor Van Norden here, who’s a great scholar in Chinese philosophy, especially Confucianism. Without him I wouldn’t even be able to write about my thesis topic. But there are still many thinkers not covered, and the diversity of approaches for studying non-Western traditions could be limited at times. Not to mention all the things not regularly offered in the department, such as Indian philosophy, Latin-American thoughts and many others.”
Philosophy major Diego Encarnacion ’18 responds directly to Van Norden’s sentiments saying, “Many smaller liberal arts schools tend not to have any faculty dedicated to Eastern philosophy at all. In most institutionalized academic settings, it’s heavily emphasized, Western philosophy–especially European and American–so I guess [non-Western philosophy] is underrepresented. But Vassar does a better job than a lot of schools in representing non-Western philosophy.” While some colleges relegate non-Western philosophy study to other departments like Asian Studies or Chinese, others attempt to integrate non-Western perspectives into their existing course structures. Wesleyan University, for example, offers one course in classical Chinese philosophy to balance its two courses in Western classics.
Wang pointed out that a lot of smaller colleges run into this problem in part because of the restricted nature of their faculty, course offerings and student bodies. She said, “I think the direct impact for me is that because there aren’t that many course offerings and not that many fellow students focusing on non-Western philosophies, it can be hard to find peers to exchange thoughts and have conversations on the topic. While I have many friends with whom I can talk about Plato or Marx, it’s much harder for me to find someone to talk about Zhuangzi in depth. But that is not the case with my friends at larger universities, where there are significantly more course options and more students working on the subject.”
Asprey Liu ’17 acknowledges the Western orientation of the classes offered, making a critical distinction between the courses’ subjects and the content of classroom attitudes and discussion. She states, “It’s true, the philosophers taught in our department are mostly (but by no means entirely) white, Western men who lived either in ancient times or some time in the past 400 years…it misrepresents philosophy as a method of inquiry only practiced in the West, presents Western theories and concepts as universally applicable, fails to expose students to alternative, marginalized perspectives, and so on. Just because the department’s curriculum is Eurocentric, however, doesn’t mean every class unquestioningly accepts the hegemony of the Western tradition. While analytic classes tend to look for universal philosophical truths by abstracting from the intuitions of Western-trained philosophers, continental classes are more sensitive to cultural difference, historical contingency and the ways in which power structures shape how we live and think.”
Liu went on to describe a particular class that gave her the chance to engage with more diverse philosophical traditions. She said, “For example, Giovanna Borradori, who teaches continental philosophy, includes Aimé Césaire and Franz Fanon in her Phenomenology and Existential Thought class to show how those philosophical methods can open up powerful anti-colonial critiques of European powers. Her class helped me understand the radical, globally-oriented political potential of certain modes of philosophical thought, which I’ve continued to pursue in departments like Political Science, Africana Studies, Women’s Studies and Jewish Studies, as well as the Philosophy Department.”
Liu also underscores her belief that a department representative of a plurality of cultural views isn’t necessarily one free of imperialist, Westernized rhetoric. “I think the fact that I’ve had to look to other departments to continue studying subaltern political philosophies–and the fact that the Philosophy Department isn’t very receptive to counting outside courses as Philosophy–speaks to its problem with Eurocentricity. However, I want to stress that this problem isn’t just about the absence of, say, ancient Islamic philosophy … It’s about the failure in many (but not all) classes to problematize European philosophy’s discursive dominance and make explicit the political forces that exclude other voices from the conversation. If the Philosophy Department wants to engage its Eurocentricity problem, it needs to go further than offer more classes on Eastern philosophical traditions, and opening itself to collaboration with other departments is a good place to start. A diverse department is not the same as a decolonized one; even a department with a broad array of Eastern and Western classes could run into problems if it presented Western ideas as universal ideals and Eastern ideas as cultural curiosities.”