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  • Writer's pictureBrian Black

Decolonising Philosophy

I fell in love with philosophy when, as an undergraduate at UC San Diego, I read Plato’s dialogues for the first time. I was intrigued by the types of questions put forth by Socrates and his interlocutors about the soul, justice, friendship, and love. I was equally captivated by the literary style, which conveys the excitement and drama of debating some of life’s deepest and most enriching questions. When I wanted to expand my interest in philosophy beyond Plato, I was very naturally drawn towards other philosophers from the same historical period, who were interested in similar sorts of issues and who articulated their philosophies in comparable ways. In my case, this led me towards the Upanishads and dialogues of the Buddha from India, and to the Analects of Confucius and the Zhuangzi from China. But when I wanted to learn more about them, I was disappointed to hear that my department did not offer any modules on philosophy beyond Europe and North America. I then went to India for a year and studied Indian Philosophy at the University of Delhi.

Years later, when I decided to go to graduate school, I became aware that the exclusion of non-Western philosophy from North American philosophy departments was widespread. But I was relieved to find that I could pursue the study of Indian philosophy in some Religious Studies departments. The programme that excited me the most was at SOAS in London because the entire school was focused on studying about Asia and Africa. I ended up doing my PhD there on one of my earliest philosophical interests, the Upanishads. As I was finishing, and beginning to apply for jobs, I once again was confronted with the paucity of positions in Indian or any other non-Western philosophy in Philosophy departments across the UK and North America. While I got several interviews for jobs in Religious Studies, my application never made it to a short-list for any Philosophy positions.

Why is it that philosophy programmes in the UK, Europe, and North America rarely include Indian, Chinese, Islamic, Africana, or other non-Western philosophies in their programmes? One of the main reasons is a historical Western bias against cultures that Europeans considered to be inferior. The accepted Western philosophical canon was largely formed during the colonial period and many European philosophers, such as Kant and Hume, explicitly claimed that peoples from outside of Europe were not capable of doing philosophy. Although most philosophers today would reject this view, there nevertheless is scarcely more inclusion of non-Western philosophy now than when I was an undergraduate.

non-Western philosophies should not be treated like mere artefacts, but rather be engaged with as sources that discuss philosophical issues that matter

Considering the lack of representation of non-Western philosophies in universities in the UK, Europe, and North America, it is not surprising that recent student-led movements, such as ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’ and ‘Why Is My Curriculum White’ have demanded that Philosophy programmes include more philosophy from other parts of the world. Importantly, however, the process of de-colonising philosophy is not only about inclusion. Just as important is challenging and subverting philosophy’s Western-centric hegemonic concepts, including the concept of philosophy itself. Moreover, non-Western philosophies should not be treated like mere artefacts, but rather be engaged with as sources that discuss philosophical issues that matter. This is how I approached Indian philosophy in my recent book In Dialogue with the Mahābhārata, which examines the text’s philosophical implications by paying attention to the centrality of dialogue. My book argues that by paying attention to how characters make arguments and how their debates with their interlocutors unfold, we can better appreciate the Mahābhārata’s philosophical significance and its potential contribution to debates in comparative philosophy today.

As we expand our curriculum, however, we cannot expect philosophies from other parts of the world and different historical contexts to look like Analytic or Continental philosophy. Rather, as we include a wider range of sources, we also have to broaden our understanding of what philosophy is and expand our methodologies for how to engage with philosophical material. De-colonising philosophy, then, is not the mere inclusion of non-Western sources, but also requires an ongoing commitment to questioning what philosophy is, how it is practiced, and who is included and not included. These are some of the issues I hope to address next year in my new 2nd year module Decolonising Philosophy. Two other modules I hope to develop in the coming years are Women and Philosophy in the Ancient World and Philosophy and Literature in the Ancient World. All three of these modules are part of an ongoing attempt to approach global philosophy with a critical and comparative perspective. In addition to analysing concepts, this approach examines the modalities of philosophy, paying attention to topics such as genre, gender, embodied practices, and institutions. Such modalities, I would argue, are less Western-centric starting points for critical-comparative analyses and can foster a more dialogic engagement between different philosophical traditions.

Brian Black

Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University


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