I am schooled in the traditions of Continental and American philosophy. I have also read for an analytic philosophical MA, and all are philosophically insulated in their own right. Indeed, you can make a career out of teaching and researching in any of them, though to be honest you’ll teach more than you ever specialize (I say this for the youngsters who might be reading this). Now, while I prefer Continental and American philosophy precisely because there’s something about paying attention to lived-experience that’s at the heart of how I choose to philosophize in these traditions, there’s still a dearth of women and minorities represented in the typical canon of all these traditions. There are a few exceptions to be sure. Fritz Fanon and Simone de Beauvoir in Continental and W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary Whiton Calkins might make the secondary reading lists in existentialism and American philosophy surveys, but they are still not the “core” and about a dozen more examples are possible. Be that as it may, Continental, Anglophone-analytic, and American philosophers all have to take stock of both the questions they’re asking and the canon of what thinkers make it on our reading lists in classes. I am a firm believer in students finding their own concerns mirrored in the reading lists of classes. Part of my thoughts here are pedagogical, but they are also offered and motivated by connecting to the larger world we find ourselves existing within.
I think we should teach philosophy as a type of world literature with as much width and breadth as we find in our literary brothers and sisters. This isn’t a call for emulation. Instead, we should consider that philosophy is truly the appreciation of wisdom. There are prudent reasons for adopting this strategy. During my career, the United States will be more diverse by the time I end my career. Young people will be more diverse than now from the influx of Asian and Hispanic immigration. The questions persons of color are asking of themselves and their concerns they’re calling into question reflect the ways in which society is organized politically, socially, and economically currently. These questions should be given a fair hearing. In this climate of ever-growing population complexity, questions about pluralism and liberation have been dominant themes in my thinking as I have become invested in the future of my HBCU students. These concerns are also concerns internal to the identities of many persons of color including Black and African philosophers I’ve come to know over the course of the last two years. They’ve been saying these same things for years for good reasons.
The professionalization of Western philosophy tries often to avoid asking these questions and sometimes not even taking up the lived-experience of others. For this reason, philosophers should be reading widely and outside one’s cultural frame of reference. The status quo of our disciplines comes across as not seriously taking up the experience of others into consideration. In fact, I honestly feel that one could read the Anglophone analytic tradition as taking up and holding up every philosophical problem through the epistemic subject, an abstraction that never truly obtains in the concrete experience of our lives. If you might concede that as a methodological point, then it’s understandable both why pragmatism and phenomenology interrogated that viewpoint that comes almost straight out of the positivism of the Vienna circle. Still, none of these traditions has moved the needle to take seriously, for example, Africana philosophy.
To suggest that philosophy takes its cue from world literature is a way to be more inclusive for the needs of the future. It also means that our students will need a more global, more multicultural understanding of the world than the range of questions that currently exist. If the world they live in becomes fundamentally different, then the philosophical problems will change in relation to those differences. These differences will have an affect on us today. How many philosophy departments right now just do not require any history of philosophy courses and simply take up the same old questions of their predecessors and doctoral supervisors? Ask yourself are you just another metaethicist, political philosophers interested in Rawls and/or game theory, another naturalist philosopher of mind, formal epistemologist, or philosophy of science scholar? In another vain, are you another Dewey or Heidegger scholar?
It’s easy to pick on the insularity of analytics. What’s more, how many in American philosophy read beyond their primary dissertation figure on James or Dewey. The same problem can well persist. How many young Continental Ph.D.s are minted from the Heidegger factory? Or write on Derrida and Deleuze, but never lift a finger to think outside the internal Western-ness of the Continental tradition? Yes, you can take pride that some have taken their methodological cues from the Continentals and the Pragmatists. In these traditions, we have a place for the experience of others. It’s easier, but it doesn’t follow that simply because you are aware of some other voices or took a French feminism seminar that you’re even close or read in these traditions enough to push others to be so moved in appreciating other sources of wisdom. In these schools it’s all too easy to think that you’ve done enough or applied some thinker to think through some social problem. Oftentimes, it’s just programmatic that some work gets repeated ad nauseam. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the program to SPEP to find some graduate student whose written the Levinas + gender/sexuality or Levinas + race paper.
Now, I know that many will not heed this call. Many have decided that philosophy is about something else than the lived-experience of others (true beliefs, thinking through the implications of a current scientific findings or proposing a naturalist ontology for thought’s representational content or whatever it may be). I really don’t have a response to those with a different meta-philosophy yet except to push the reasons further that lived-experience of others means appreciating wisdom, learning from other civilizations, and reading as widely as we can about other sources of wisdom other than what we are used to—all to the effect of making us more capable of connecting to the populations we teach. It’s the teaching answer that rarely ever finds a home in discussions of graduate committees and comprehensive exams. The way we are taught philosophy in graduate school oftentimes reflects what we are comfortable to teach, and then people never change after they graduate.
The takeaway from discussing these things is simply that there’s wisdom in being conversant in Tao Te Ching, Wiredu, Ortega y Gasset, or Al Farabi. It makes one better. The argument for reading wider is that it enhances our ability to be transformed by sources of wisdom as we should be moved by great works of literature (or as geeks might be moved by science fiction). Some great works have guided other theaters of civilization. Who could really understand the United States without reading John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government? The same is true of China and Confucius’s Analects. I anticipate the objection that someone might claim that they just don’t have time. They must continue the research of their dissertation and teach, striving ever more to unlock the secrets of their overspecialization in professionalized philosophy. Yes, you were trained on the metaethical problem of the twin moral Earth problem or Arendt and political plurlaism, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pick up a copy of the Dhammapada. Given that we are more interconnected than ever before, the duties incumbent to understand each other as scholars is one I’d argue we all possess. When world leaders are vying for economic supremacy between the US and China, scholars are meeting across borders irrespective of their home country’s politics. Scholars have unique minds that yearn to understand the world, and we are more fit to demonstrate this understanding than others. If we read another culture’s sources of wisdom, we may even improve the impressions of our brothers and sisters in far off countries. Through our scholarly actions, understanding floats between borders because of a disposition to appreciate wisdom, not to produce the most accurate account of what is true.
There will be pushback against the idea that we should read widely or read texts in languages other than English. The American geopolitical position is one of extreme privilege and hegemony. With that position and privilege comes the fact that other people learn our language before we are called to do the same with others. Where else can you find young people (American citizens) majoring in international business who cannot speak another language? Many Anglophone philosophy departments also allow for logic or scientific methods of inquiry to substitute for the methods requirement to study another language. In effect, these philosophy departments in the United States are awarding doctorate degrees without an eye to reading wider than our own language, let alone just reading just ourselves. This breeds an insularity that gets habituated to the point that we don’t even want to read any wider than the comfort of what we find acceptable. Acceptable often means comfortable, but not necessarily better. Western philosophers can do better.