Monday, 13 May 2013

Jay Garfield on Buddhist Philosophy in the West

Dead White Males

take precedence over

Dead Brown Males

A year ago I blogged on whether Buddhist philosophy is neglected and discriminated against in the West.

Jay Garfield has recently given an interview including this topic at 3am Magazine

Here are a few excerpts:
3:AM: What attracted you to Madhyamika philosophy in the first place and what are the distinctive positions of this philosophy?

JLG: Well, just as I fell in love with Hume and Wittgenstein as an undergraduate, I fell in love with Nāgārjuna when I encountered his work. The clarity of philosophical vision, the rigour of analysis and the profound exploration of the most fundamental questions of metaphysics impressed me enormously. The radical attack on essence and on foundations resonated with ideas from Hume, Wittgenstein and Sellars, and the rich commentarial tradition provided a hermeneutical device for explicating those ideas. I also, I must say, found my new Tibetan colleagues to be such wonderful teachers and collaborators that the sheer joy of working in that milieu was attractive.

3:AM: You say that at the time of moving to Buddhist philosophy many of the philosophers and cognitive scientists working in philosophy of mind and so forth were dubious about the merits of your doing this. Has this attitude changed over the years so that it is no longer seen as an aberration, or is it still a problem?

JLG: It has. I have been gratified to see how many Western philosophers now at least take non-Western philosophy, including Buddhist philosophy, seriously. An increasing number are reading and discussing non-Western philosophy; the APA now often includes a few panels on non-Western philosophy – again, including Buddhist philosophy – on its program; an increasing number of departments seek philosophers who can teach non-Western philosophy in their departments, or cross-list courses in Religion departments on Buddhist or other non-Western philosophical traditions. Just a few months ago. Christian Coseru, Evan Thompson and I directed an NEH summer institute on ‘Consciousness in a Cross-Cultural Perspective’ in which we integrated Buddhist and Western perspectives. That institute attracted as participants and as faculty a number of philosophers whose work is almost entirely in the Western tradition who were happy to take seriously Buddhist material.

So there has been a lot of progress. But there is also a long way to go. People in our profession are still happy to treat Western philosophy as the “core” of the discipline, and as the umarked case. So, for instance, a course that addresses only classical Greek philosophy can be comfortably titled “Ancient Philosophy,” not “Ancient Western Philosophy,” and a course in metaphysics can be counted on to ignore all non-Western metaphysics. A course in Indian philosophy is not another course in the history of PHILOSOPHY, but is part of the non-Western curriculum. And many of the major journals in our field will not even seriously consider submissions that address non-Western literature. Until the literature, curriculum, professional meetings and mode of engagement with the literature is as diverse as the world of philosophy itself, there is a lot of work to do. And that work is a matter of both intellectual and moral imperative. It is simply irrational to ignore most of world philosophy in the pursuit of truth, and immoral to relegate any literature not written by Europeans as somehow beneath our dignity to read....

Jay Garfield

 "...I think that comparative philosophy was a very important enterprise. The philosopher who coined that phrase in 1899 was Bajendranath Seal of Calcutta University, who argued that to compare two philosophical systems was to “treat them as of coordinate rank.” That was a major step, inviting Western philosophers to take Indian and other non-Western traditions seriously as philosophy, as opposed to “native religious traditions.” Western philosophers gained access to Asian and African traditions initially by noting similarities and differences. But that, as A.C. Mukerji, of Allahabad, was to note in 1932, is not to do philosophy, but is at best a preparation. To take philosophy seriously is to engage with it philosophically. We take Aristotle seriously not when we write about his ideas, but when we take his ideas as part of our discussions. Similarly, we take Nāgārjuna seriously not when we talk about how similar his ideas are to Hume’s, but when we take him as an interlocutor.

So, to take one of the examples you suggest, Buddhist philosophers in both the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra traditions argue that the nature of reality is in the end inexpressible. The question of whether or not the nature of reality is ineffible is, of course, a matter of debate in Western philosophy. But some of the arguments offered in the Buddhist world are different from those offered in the West, for instance those that rely on the engagement of language and thought with universals, which in turn, are argued to be unreal and deceptive.

3:AM: One of the issues you raise is the ethics of approaches to intellectual and cultural traditions less powerful and less respected than the Western ones. How should we think about this?

JLG: Easy. Suppose that someone argued that the philosophical curriculum in their college could not include any texts by women, because there are just so many important books by men, and not enough time to address all of them, let alone to go on to read stuff by women, or that the faculty is not expert in women’s philosophy. He would be howled down not on the grounds that there are indeed not too many books by guys, but that given a history of sexism, it is immoral as well as irrational to ignore the contributions of women in the curriculum. But people get away with saying that their department can’t offer courses that address non-Western philosophy because they are struggling to cover the “core,” that students have so much Western philosophy to learn that they don’t have time to read the non-Western stuff, and that there are no specialists in non-Western philosophy in the department. In the wake of colonialism and in the context of racism, the only legitimate response is to howl them down...

"... I think that parochialism is built into many kinds of nationalism and educational institutions in which children are brought up to treat their own culture as the unmarked case, and to mark the products of other culture. In the USA, we learn “art history” as Western art history, and the history of Asian, or African art is a special case; we learn politics by examining our own government system, and consider other systems special cases, and the same is true of philosophy. And that parochialism is matched by similar parochialisms every place else. It is a bad idea. Each of us ends up thinking that we grow up at the Middle Pole, and that while there is diversity in the world, it is all deviations from normal – our way or doing things. The goal of education should be to dismantle the Middle Pole view, not to reinforce it in the name of the need for a grounding in one’s own civilisation..."

Read the full article here

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