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Dominant European Philosophers...

A friend questioned whether my recent blogs, while admirably wading into the fraught waters of race, were limited by their heavy reliance on dominant European thinkers. Her concern was that this may contribute to the narrowness of vision and respect that fuel racism. Or that, at the least, limiting ourselves to European perspectives is inherently inadequate when addressing racism toward persons of non-European descent.

I appreciate the nudge, and essentially agree. Although this blog has noted the vital tradition of African-American philosophy, and recently drew upon a contemporary Indian philosopher, it is true that my perspective could be regarded as largely European-American, or Western. I am keenly interested in learning from other traditions (and have been increasingly influenced by Eastern philosophy and spirituality in recent years, especially Buddhism). Acknowledging such limitations, I have argued that philosophy inherently involves reflecting on one’s own conditioning and vantage point, to consider how these color our perception and understanding. But I want to discourage us from too simply classifying thinkers as “European” or “dominant” (and in some cases, as “white”), or in associating them with a single, insular tradition.

Take Aristotle. Student of Plato, he founded his own rival school (which came to be known as the Peripatetics, given their fondness for strolling about campus during philosophical conversation), and exercised enormous intellectual influence for centuries. Aristotle made foundational contributions to human understanding, and is to some extent the founder of specific academic disciplines, such as political science, literary criticism, and biology. He is seen as a pillar in Western thought.

Yet when Aristotle wrote, “Europe” had not yet been formed. As a product of the Mediterranean, it’s not clear what his “race” would have been. Despite his extraordinary breadth and brilliance, and centuries of tremendous influence, he was eventually suppressed as a heretic by the Catholic Church, distrusted as “the Pagan Philosopher.” During centuries of European darkness, Aristotle’s light shined elsewhere, as his texts and ideas were treasured by Arab scholars, influencing philosophy in this civilization. After centuries of suppression in Europe, the 13C theologian, Thomas Aquinas, resurrected and redeemed Aristotle (apt terms, as it has been said that Aquinas’ interpretation “Christianized” Aristotle). Aristotle was restored to prominence, but remained subordinate to Christian theology.

In short, given that Aristotle lived before there was such a thing as Europe, and was rejected by Medieval Europe and cherished by Arabs, to what extent is he “European?” And given centuries of subordination to Christianity, to what extent has he been dominant? We might also add that, in 19C America, it would be difficult to graduate from college without studying Aristotle, whereas today it would be difficult to find a college that required studying him. Is he still dominant?

My point is not to be defensive, nor to diminish alternative traditions, nor to deny that certain thinkers and perspectives really have been dominant (even if often only intermittently, as we have seen). As I emphasized in my previous blog on “blinders,” it is essential - both in philosophy and in democracy - to seek diverse perspectives, to open our eyes and expand our imagination. Thus I believe that less traditional or dominant thinkers and perspectives should be actively sought in philosophy, certainly to address racism, but really to address anything. It is often through unfamiliar perspectives that we gain new concepts, allowing new insight. I wholly endorse such philosophical inclusion and strive to embody it myself, even as I fall short.

I also would like to note that it is often misleading to classify a thinker as simply Western or Eastern, European or American, colonial or post-colonial, and the like. Take the elite New England Unitarians, a liberal Christian sect descended from the illiberal Puritans, who went on to introduce Hinduism to an English-speaking American audience. One Unitarian was Henry David Thoreau (though he later rejected the church), whose eclectic Walden displays greater interest in Hinduism than in Christianity. Mahatmas Gandhi, a devout Hindu, was also greatly influenced by Anglo-American liberals, including Thoreau’s writings on civil disobedience. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who was grounded in Protestantism (and loved Plato) was profoundly influenced by Gandhi. King then personally influenced the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hahn. All of these thinkers have greatly influenced me. Exactly which insular tradition does the above represent?

Another friend countered that the concern regarding dominant European perspectives is not so easily resolved. She argued that myriad cultures that have been subordinated, especially through colonization, benefit more from appreciating the richness of their own traditions than from being asked to see that dominant Western thinkers really are valuable. Thus even if it is true that Gandhi was genuinely inspired by English liberals, it is more important that Indians come to see the strength of indigenous traditions, which have been violated and denigrated by colonialism.

I also appreciate this nudge, and do not disagree. I would never want to force John Stuart Mill on a post-colonial people who feel as if they have already heard enough about the English. They would likely be better served by starting with say Indian philosophy – and the rest of us also would be well served by learning more about it. Clearly there is more to say on these topics, and more people who need a chance to speak. Thank you, friends, for pressing me to not make matters too easy, and to make greater space.

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© 2019 by John Tambornino, Washington, DC, Larger Questions