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.