VC wants diversified courses

The Vassar philosophy department, which is housed in Rockefeller Hall, has worked recently to include more diverse philosophical traditions in its program and courses. Courtesy of The Miscellany News


The Vassar philosophy department, which is housed in Rockefeller Hall, has worked recently to include more diverse philosophical traditions in its program and courses. Courtesy of The Miscellany News
The Vassar philosophy department, which is housed in Rockefeller Hall, has worked recently to include more diverse philosophical traditions in its program and courses. Courtesy of The Miscellany News

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.”


  1. This timely article by Emily Sayer makes many excellent points. However, it hints that continental philosophy may be more receptive to diversity than is analytic philosophy. A famous philosopher once observed that dividing philosophy into “analytic” and “continental” is like dividing cars into “blue ones” and “those made in Japan.” In both cases, the purported distinction is less than useful. Part of what is distinctive about the Vassar philosophy Department is its pluralism, which eschews such binary divisions.

    My personal experience as a comparative philosopher has been that one cannot predict whether a “mainstream” philosopher is open to a genuinely multicultural approach based on his or her area of interest in Western philosophy. Jay Garfield was trained as an analytic epistemolgist, and is now a leading advocate of Buddhist philosophy. In contrast, when he was a guest of philosophers in China, Jacques Derrida informed his hosts that there is no philosophy in China, because philosophy is a distinctively Western activity. In saying this, he was essentially repeating Heidegger.

    I have fought opposition to multiculturalism from philosophers and non-philosophers, from analytic and continental thinkers. However, I am thankful for the many colleagues at Vassar who have supported me and my work, both analytic and continental. They are my colleagues, friends, and allies in this fight.

    For those who would like to read more, here is a link to the New York Times op-ed referred to in the article:

  2. It would be nice to have more diverse offerings in the philosophy department, but what could the department do about it? The philosophy program needs to equip students with the skill and knowledge sets required to go on to graduate school if students want to, and Anglo-American graduate schools are overwhelmingly focused on a particular kind of philosophy that, pace Professor Van Norden, is accurately characterized as analytic. Our tenured professors, products of Anglo-American graduate schools, are mostly experts in areas of analytic or otherwise European philosophy. They teach what they know, and I think it’s good that they teach us what we need to know if we want to go on with philosophy. I doubt that expertise in Fanon will help aspiring philosophers in such an abysmal academic job market.

    Sure, you could disagree that the department should value enabling future graduate study at the price of diversity. But then should we require the current professors to bone up on their non-Western knowledge and start teaching new classes? What would problematizing the discursive dominance of European philosophy look like in an epistemology or philosophy of language course? Expanding the unit on X-phil? Maybe a survey course on epistemology should survey all strains of thinking in world history, but then we’d really be sacrificing depth for breadth, which is a tough sacrifice to make as well.

    Hiring more professors would be a nice solution, but it seems like the philosophy department is a low priority of Vassar’s spending.

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