Letter to the Editor

I am a professor of Chinese philosophy who has fought for thirty years to overcome ethnocentrism and bring Chinese and West­ern philosophy into productive dialogue. Consequently, I can only applaud the spirit of The Miscellany News article, “VC Wants Diversified Courses,” by Emily Sayer ’18. I am also flattered that she chose to quote the editorial Jay Garfield and I wrote for the New York Times, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is.” Our editorial criticizes the majority of US philosophy departments, which (unlike Vas­sar’s) do not teach any philosophy outside the Anglo-European mainstream. However, I worry that the Miscellany article gives a misleading impression of Vassar’s Philoso­phy Department, which has been a leader in promoting intellectual diversity and in subverting dominant paradigms of thought.

For example, at Vassar, I regularly teach “Early Chinese Philosophy,” “Confucius,” “Daoism,” and “Neo-Confucianism and Chi­nese Buddhism.” In addition, Uma Narayan, a leading expert on postcolonial feminism, teaches “Feminist Theory,” “Philosophy and Contemporary Issues,” “Global Feminism,” and “Capitalism, Globalism, Economic Jus­tice, and Human Rights.” Of course, not all valuable courses are about non-Western philosophy or postcolonial studies. Vassar philosophy professors have taught a vari­ety of innovative courses seldom available at other liberal arts colleges, including “Marx’s Capital,” “Moral Psychology,” “Phi­losophy of Opera,” “Philosophy of Physics,” and “Philosophy of Law.” The Philosophy Department also has an extensive histo­ry of multidisciplinary cooperation, with Environmental Studies, Women’s Studies, Chinese & Japanese, Physics, Psychology, and Cognitive Science (among others). A reflection of the broad interests of the fac­ulty in the Philosophy Department is the reading group on Indian philosophy that de­partment faculty have been engaged in this semester.

The Miscellany article hints that conti­nental philosophy is more sensitive to cul­tural difference 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. Moreover, part of what is distinctive about the Vassar Philosophy Department is its long history of pluralism, which eschews such binary divisions. I myself teach a sem­inar on “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Hermeneutics,” with readings that bring into productive dialogue figures from a va­riety of schools of thought.

My personal experience as a compara­tive philosopher has been that one cannot predict whether a 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 epistemologist, and is now a leading advo­cate of Buddhist philosophy. Graham Priest of NYU is a mainstream analytic logician, but he has argued extensively that paracon­sistent logic and non-standard set theory can shed light on Huayan Buddhism.

In contrast, when he was invited to lec­ture in China in 2001, eminent continental philosopher Jacques Derrida informed his hosts that “China does not have any philoso­phy, only thought.” In saying this, he was es­sentially repeating the seminal continental philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who stated that the phrase “‘Western-European philos­ophy’ is, in truth, a tautology,” because phi­losophy is by definition European.

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

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