Leiden Islam Blog

Out of Europe

Out of Europe Averroes and Porphyry

The diversification of philosophy in the West is only reluctantly gaining traction, due to the ubiquitous Eurocentrism within departments. Unjustly so, argues Peter Adamson, researcher of Islamic thought. He suggests we rethink what counts as philosophy.

Some months ago Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, entitled “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is." They argued that departments unwilling or unable to devote attention to philosophy from other cultures may as well just rename themselves “Department of European and American Philosophy.” I do research in Islamic philosophy and am covering non-European traditions, starting with India, in my podcast on the history of philosophy. So I am much in sympathy with their provocative plea for truth in advertising. But, along with other recent developments having to do with the limits of Europe, I did get to wondering: what exactly do we, or could we, mean by the phrase “European and American philosophy”?

An obvious answer might be, “philosophy that has been produced on the soil of Europe or America.” But that doesn’t seem to be what Garfield and Van Norden mean. They explicitly mention Latin American and Native American philosophy as unjustly excluded traditions, and also refer to Islamic and Jewish philosophy. Some of the greatest Muslim and Jewish philosophers hailed from Europe: Averroes and Ibn Bajja, Ibn Gabriol and Maimonides, were all born in Spain. In fact, when I tried in my podcast to provide a comprehensive overview of philosophy in the Islamic world, a third of that overview dealt with Andalusian philosophers.

So if Jewish and Muslim thinkers of medieval Spain are ignored by “Eurocentric” philosophers, then it is apparently not because Eurocentrism is driven by geography. “European philosophy” must surely refer to a distinctive European philosophical culture. What could define such a culture? Evidently not any particular philosophical idea or theory. European philosophers have been monists and pluralists, skeptics and dogmatists, theologians and atheists. Rather “European philosophy,” if there is any such thing, must presumably be defined historically.

Perhaps even defined by historical accident? We might, rather circularly, say that American and European philosophy is the philosophy that tends to be done nowadays in philosophy departments in Europe and the United States. But this seems wrong too. Clearly, if the blessed day were to come when most British philosophy students were asked to read the Bhagavad Gita, that would not make the Gita count as European philosophy. A more plausible historical definition would be this: we are talking here of the philosophical traditions that can be traced back to the Greeks. Even analytic philosophers with little interest in history are at least dimly conscious of the link between their own inquiries and those of Plato and Aristotle. This is one reason the works of Plato and Aristotle are indeed required reading for students. Here it is almost obligatory to recall Whitehead’s celebrated remark that philosophy is a set of footnotes to Plato. Notice: not a set of footnotes to the Upanisads, or to the Tao Te Ching.

But if this is what we mean, then we have a remarkable result. It will turn out that Islamic and Jewish philosophy are part of the “European” tradition, a largely unknown tributary of the otherwise familiar flow of philosophy from Greek sources. Sometimes philosophy of the Islamic world is even presented as little more than a set of footnotes to Aristotle. This is a gross exaggeration. Indigenous concerns were crucial from the very beginning of the medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophical traditions. These included the need to make intellectual sense of the Torah and Quran, the pressure of competition from speculative theologians, and the project of forging a new philosophical vocabulary in Arabic.

Still, there is no doubting that philosophy in the Islamic world was intimately engaged with Hellenic thought. One of the Arabic words for “philosophy” is falsafa, taken directly from Greek, just like the Latin philosophia, and several of the better-known thinkers wrote commentaries on Aristotle or other Greek works in Arabic translation. Averroes, honored as “the Commentator” on Aristotle, is thus a sterling example of a “European.” So is the central Asian thinker Avicenna. His “flying man” thought experiment is rightly praised by Garfield and Van Norden as an argument worth our attention. And as it happens, that thought experiment is presented at the beginning of Avicenna’s work on psychology precisely to motivate a correction to Aristotle’s definition of the soul.

So I have a provocative proposal of my own: intellectually speaking, the more valid distinction is not between “European” and “non-European” philosophy, but between philosophical cultures that respond to Greek thought, however indirectly, and other philosophical cultures that do not. Philosophers of the Islamic world (Jews, Muslims and also Christians writing in Arabic or Syriac) belong to the former category, as do Latin American thinkers. Philosophers of pre-modern Asia – India, China Korea, Japan, etc. – as well as thinkers of the pre-colonial Americas and Africa, belong to the latter. Of course some believe that there may have been exchange of ideas between the Greeks and India, but if so the influence was not determinative as in the case of the Islamic world, and is in any case more usually thought to have traveled from India to the Mediterranean rather than the other way around.

By this circuitous route, we reach another possible critique to add to the polemic of Garfield and Van Norden: “Eurocentric” philosophy doesn’t even manage to be Eurocentric! It fails to cover its own supposed cultural domain comprehensively, by omitting world-class thinkers who lived and worked in Europe as well as those who lived and worked elsewhere. Much the same, by the way, can be said of other intellectual labels, like “Western” philosophy. Averroes, after all, lived further West than Aquinas.

A more historically adequate approach would also bring home to us that philosophical inquiry did reach astounding levels of sophistication outside of “Europe” in the broader sense. Vedic theories of the self, Buddhist skepticism, and the practical philosophy of Confucianism developed without inspiration from the Greeks. That philosophical traditions emerged independently in numerous cultures strikes me as an important fact about the nature of philosophy. It suggests, in fact, that only once philosophy diversifies, will we be able to call it what it really is.

Peter Adamson is the author of Philosophy in the Islamic World: a Very Short Introduction.

This blog was previously published at Philosophy Now. 

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