Taking Back Philosophy

A Multicultural Manifesto

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Bryan W. Van Norden
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many contemporary Anglophone philosophers, according to Bryan W. Van Norden, believe that real philosophy originates with Socrates, develops in the seminal works of the ancient Greeks, and continues today in the work of Western philosophers (and those non-Westerners who received their philosophical education in Europe or the United States). Van Norden, along with Jay Garfield, decided to challenge that belief. They did so in fine philosophical fashion, setting out their arguments in a post for The Stone, the philosophy blog of the New York Times. Besides arguments for broadening the philosophical curriculum to include non-Western traditions, they made the sassy proposition that departments organized exclusively around the Western tradition should replace “Department of Philosophy” with “Department of Anglo-European Philosophical Studies.” As Garfield recounts in the foreword, he and Van Norden fully expected their blog post to be ignored. But that was not what happened.

Garfield and Van Norden were stunned by the tone of the responses. Many replies strongly denied that “philosophy” existed outside of the West because (in the words of one respondent) philosophy is “conducted by the use of logical reasoning, where possible informed by empirical science,” and that for this reason, “Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and so forth are not philosophical in nature because they do not attempt to argue for a position by using logic and evidence” (13). Thinkers such as Confucius are not real philosophers but rather “sages on mountain tops” (xv). More risible replies included the assertions that Western philosophy “won’t require decades of meditation staring at a wall” and that its conclusions do not resemble “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie” (13, 12).

Besides the Trumpish tone, Garfield and Van Norden found these wave-of-the-hand dismissals disappointing because none possessed familiarity with what Van Nordan calls less commonly taught philosophies (LCTP). While the Western tradition is upheld as real philosophy in large part because of its insistence on evidence and good reasoning, its defenders in this instance felt free to toss off one harrumphing claim after another without much in the way of rational justification. The claim that LCTP are not real philosophies turns out to be something like the emperor’s new clothes. How can we describe the position that we are free to ignore arguments and perspectives that can help us better engage questions we consider important simply because these arguments and perspectives are flippantly dismissed as fake philosophy? The two words Garfield comes up with are reprehensible (on epistemological and moral grounds) and racist. These are strong charges, to be sure, but Taking Back Philosophy teems with strong supporting arguments.

Van Norden’s critique—that restricting real philosophy to the Greek tradition and its influences illegitimately narrows the field of philosophy—is the subject of the first three chapters. In chapter 1, Van Norden reviews the response to his and Garfield’s post in The Stone. Besides the unwarranted dismissal of non-Western texts and thinkers, a number of commentators seemed to presume that Western philosophy possesses some rare or singular quality—a Grecian exceptionalism, we could call it. This sort of essentialist reading of the tradition functions as a wall: it attempts to preserve the eau de Grecian tincture of Western philosophy by excluding all foreign contaminants. Such efforts are not unique to Anglophone philosophers. In chapter 3 Van Norden offers an interesting cross-cultural discussion on the ways that philosophical works such as The Republic and The Analects can be used to build cultural walls in an essentially political effort to create and preserve “our” tradition (no doubt this is the first instance in which Xi Jinping and Allan Bloom have been linked together as erstwhile comrades in arms).

Chapter 2 demonstrates the benefits of the multicultural approach to philosophy Van Norden is recommending. If the defining metaphor of the eau de Grecian essentialist position is a wall, then Van Norden’s multicultural approach can be envisioned symbolically as open doorways: it is a way for different philosophical arguments and perspectives to engage and enrich multiple traditions. Van Norden provides examples drawn from core areas of the Western tradition—metaphysics, political philosophy, and ethics—that put Western thinkers such as Descartes, Hobbes, and Aristotle in constructive dialogue with the Chinese philosophers Fazang, Confucius, Mengzi, and Zhu Xi. One consequence of Van Norden’s proposal, I would argue, is that expanding the scope of philosophy beyond the Anglo-European tradition will bring to the fore the concerns and methodologies of comparative philosophy. Good comparatives, like good hosts at a dinner party, are able to promote conversation without having one side or the other dominate the discussion and make it all about them.

In chapters 4 and 5 Van Norden argues passionately for the importance of philosophy as a practice. He describes philosophy as “dialogue about problems that we agree are important, but don’t agree about the method for solving, where ‘importance’ ultimately gets its sense from the question of the way one should live” (151). In chapter 4 he rebukes the anti-intellectual view that philosophy is a frivolous activity that serves no practical purpose; that college students, for example, should study welding or business administration, not philosophy. Van Norden pushes back against this position, arguing for the importance of philosophy in a liberal arts education and the value of a liberal arts education for citizens in a democracy—welders, business administrators, and philosophers alike.

In the final chapter Van Norden mines the biographies of Bertrand Russell and John Rawls, among others, to show how deeply meaningful life experiences often drive someone to study philosophy; studying philosophy, in turn, can also prepare one to face challenging life experiences. Learning from philosophy is transformative. It is the outcome of a commitment to dialogue, a commitment that brings with it a singular ethical requirement: open-mindedness. Lovers of wisdom must be open to new voices, alternative solutions, fresh vocabulary, and different formulations of the same or similar problems from outside the Anglo-European tradition. Intellectual provincialism is contrary to the Socratic insistence on following the argument wherever it might lead.

Bryan Van Norden does not make the foolish Manichean argument that contemporary Anglo-American philosophy is bad or non-Western philosophy is good. Rather, he argues that good philosophy lacks cultural essence and so we are terribly misguided if we construct barriers of bias and call it the pursuit of wisdom. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto is an important book. Philosophers working within and outside departments of philosophy should read and reflect thoughtfully on its arguments.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Dawson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lynchburg College.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bryan W. Van Norden is Chair Professor in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and professor of philosophy at Vassar College. His books include Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (2007) and Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy(2011).


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