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December 6, 2009


Mike M

Wonderful essay, as usual. I was wondering if you had considered the importance of Buddhist thought in your discussion of "Indian" philosophy. If not, this book might be helpful:

David Kosofsky

I always read your essays with delight, and come away with feelings of admiration. Both particularly strong for this essay, which addresses a topic of particular interest to me.

Coincidentally, something you'd written in an earlier essay had me wanting to commend Wendy Doniger's Hindus book to your attention, so I was pleased to learn from this essay that no recommendation was needed. I'm eager to follow your future exploration of her analogy between the role of grammar in Indian philosophy and the role of theology in European. Like you, I found it intriguing.

One matter... `quibble' is probably the word. I note the following in your essay:

"...there are of course some exceptions, including the work of Georges Dumézil, and even more so the work of Russian Indologists such as Tatyana Elizarenkova, who, perhaps because of their own relatively Eastern situation, do not seem to have stopped thinking of Indo-Aryan civilization as something all that other in relation to their own Slavic world)."

I'm wondering if you didn't accidentally let one extra negation slip in.... maybe a word-processing oversight? My understanding of your point is that the Russian Indologists you cite DO seem to have stopped (thinking of Indo-Aryan civilization as all that other... etc.).

As I read your blog, I find myself envying your students. Thanks for your generosity in sharing with a wider audience.


I wrote the following in an email, and Mr. Smith asked that I post it here for him to reply to.

I have made one minor correction (I wrote Eurasia originally, intending to write Europe) and have slightly changed a few of the sentences in construction but not in meaning.


Dear Mr. Smith,

I read with some dismay your essay "What is Non-Western-Philosophy (Part One)" and felt compelled to write you.

For the sake of your time, I will limit myself to two general complaints, and even then briefly as I can. The first concerns your paragraph on Cree philosophy, where I believe three of the four points in the essay are either not pertinent to the argument made or are mistaken. I believe the second complaint is more substantial, so you may wish to skim until there.

Your essay states:

"The possible reasons to think they did not and could not have had a separate-but-equal philosophy are, I think, four. First, the tradition was entirely oral, so that there could be no body of texts on which to build from generation to generation. Second, as Dewey notes, they were limited in the range of subject matter at their command. Third, as I've already mentioned, and as Radin's chosen example shows, the sort of philosophical questioning that motivated the discussions seems to have been devoted to the fine-tuning, rather than to the clearing away, of myths: there was no radical pursuit of the reality masked by conventions, as there clearly was among the Greeks. Finally, there does not seem to have been the sort of sociocultural complexity to give rise to multiple ways of being within the same community (classes, specialized labor, and so on), and as Aristotle himself noted, it is this sort of social complexity that makes possible a niche for philosophers, who in turn reflect back upon the diversity of their society and take an interest in discovering the unity behind it."

On the essay's first point--that an oral tradition could not constitute a body of texts on which to build from generation to generation, I believe that this is both incorrect and misconceived. (I will deal with misconceived further on.) As a blanket statement, I can think of three extant examples of a body of texts which built through generations and yet were transmitted solely orally: the Hebrew Torah, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. (It is likely true of the lost Telemachiad/Telemachia as well--and the generally supposed synthesis of the Iliad and the Telemachiad to make the current Odyssey--serves only to strengthen this argument.) The Torah alone seems to me to disprove this first contention as a general rule.

On the second point, I have no particular contention. (I have no specialization in pre-contact Cree one way or another.)

On the third point, a lack of written history does not indicate that radical changes of thought did not take place. Indeed, I believe it is deeply misguided to assert that the ontologies of thought were static over (say) a thousand years simply because there are no recorded changes. However, if we are to approach the issue as whether there is a current, extant Cree philosophy, the third point should better read: "Current Cree 'philosophy' does not do what I believe philosophy does, namely clear away myths a la a tradition which follows from classical Greece." This is a much different point from the stated one, and I will address it below.

Fourth, the social complexity argument is, to me, deeply flawed in ways that implicate points one and three. First, it is a presumption that one cannot be a philosopher without being a professional philosopher--a position which seems to strike out Boethius and Marcus Aurelius from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, among many others. In strong form it would also strike out Wittgenstein's Tractatus itself, written when Wittgenstein was simply living off his father's fortune, before he came to Cambridge and threatened Popper with a hot poker. But say we are willing to rewrite our knowledge of what philosophy is to fit this: are we willing to say that the only people capable of philosophy are academics? What if an academic takes a job outside of academia, as a farmer--does she immediately stop being capable of philosophy? It strikes me most of all that to tie philosophy to a profession is nonsensical, and elitist.

Unfair! you say. The essay talks about social complexity, and moving from academic to farmer shows social complexity. Indeed. The Cree would have had numerous contacts with other tribes, which would each have had a different ethos and world view. They would not have had a unified world made solely of their myths (in the Barthesian sense), but would certainly have had contact with many others, all with their own myths. Likewise, I believe it is mistaken to believe that there would have been unity of discourse solely because the Cree lived in small tribes--that is not a view that can simply be asserted because Aristotle said so, but must be argued from actual synthesis or analysis. I believe that current anthropology will not support the Aristotelian conclusion.

(As a general statement about the Americas and Native American philosophy, I will here note Mann's 1491 and point out that for most of recorded history the Americas were more populous, not less, than Europe. Even to follow Aristotle about social complexity seems not to apply to the Americas, then.)

In sum, the generalizing to the particular does not appear to follow these points in the argument as written.


My second major point is, in fact, the tenor of the essay.

I will start by noting that the number of professional, academic linguists who are prescriptivists is so small as to be essentially nil. (Languagehat, whom you link to, is one such example.) I say this not as an appeal to authority as much as something worth contemplating. I bring up prescriptivism because in those four points you suggest, in essence, a platonic form of philosophy. This is a poor way to conceive of things, and I hope to explain why both in (small-p) pragmatic and in normative terms.

Language is dialogic, as are words. That is, language depends on shared meanings between two speakers. More precisely, however, it depends on shared meaning constraint.

Let me give an example of meaning constraint: I have a cup in my hand. What does this mean?

When I write the word cup, for instance, it doesn't tell you definitely what it is (this ceramic mug from the coffee chain Second Cup that's in my hand, made cheaply in China; an ochre plastic sippy-cup with a protruding spout; etc.) but what it is not: cup isn't something that you push open to go into a room or a building (that's a door), not a thing you put on to protect your hands (a glove), and so on. Is a mug a cup? Does the set of mugs fall into the set of cups, like squares into rectangles? Are mugs and cups two completely separate things with meanings that do not overlap? The point is not that there is or isn't a correct answer, but that you know when I say cup I have not necessarily constrained mug, even while constraining door.

So. The essay written is concerned with constraining a meaning of philosophy, by arguing that it does not mean what everyone thinks it means, but that it means what a very small group of privileged people have decided that it means. When your acquaintance tells you that he studies Cree philosophy, you do in fact know what he means--something regarding speculation into the metaphysical, epistemological, and/or ethical aspects of human existence.

This is, in fact, a common understanding of philosophy, which as a native-level speaker you share with the hundreds of millions of other native speakers out there. What we are talking about, then, is not a coherency of discourse--you and your acquaintance have created dialogic understanding together--but a legitimacy of discourse. You, as a philosopher, as an expert, as a professor and so forth, are in the position of imparting or denying legitimacy to what he is saying. In fact, the entire essay is about legitimizing or denying legitimacy to a cultural discourse of non-western philosophy. In contrast, you share a role as legitimizer with a low-thousands number of other professors and scholars.

I find it a difficult argument that even though the term philosophy is widely used, its "correct" meaning is held by a group of people, to whom one might gain access necessarily by subscribing to their view of the meaning. This obviously points to issues of privilege and democracy, especially when constructed along strongly socially mediated lines, as in point one above. (Again, there is no platonic form of philosophy, which should be obvious alone from what constituted "philosophy" to Aristotle, Descartes, and Wittgenstein.) Further, the idea of special-philosophy creates a special status for "philosophers" that simply does not apply to everyone else. Poetry doesn't seem to be constrained by written texts, nor music, nor religion, nor history, and it is unclear why philosophy should be when those are not.

To subscribe to correct meanings in general, I contend, is to have a platonic form of what each and every word means, a position I think is not defensible historically nor cross-culturally. But more than that, this essay presumes to tell a native speaker that he is speaking his native language wrong. Think about this. And it is doing so in discourses that are specific to race and ethnicity, geography, privilege and status. It is to tell someone--a Cree, over whom you and I have enormous amounts of privilege--that his way of viewing the world must be subsumed into ours, or at the very least delegitimized.



You seem to be a very intelligent and well-read person. Unfortunately, your comment hasn't put that erudition to good use, mostly because it says next to nothing.

At the end of the day, is Sarah Palin just as much a "philosopher" as was Wittgenstein? I should hope not, but I know many people, perhaps a healthy majority of US Americans who would affirm that sentiment.

Or, take George W. Bush's declaration that "Jesus Christ" was his favorite political philosopher. Again, millions of English-speaking people agreed that he had correctly (or at least not incorrectly) used the term 'philosopher' in making that statement. Of course, the results of that folly have been horrendous and are visible for all the world to see.

Instead of setting up a straw man to attack the argument in this essay ("there is no platonic form of philosophy"), perhaps we should step back and ask whether there's a middle ground between the typically-deconstructivist approach that you seem to be arguing for and the cartoon Platonism of which you accuse the above essay.

Would a family resemblance notion of 'philosophy' not hold enough water to satisfy a measured consideration of the linguistic information that you cite? And, given this notion of 'philosophy', should we not begin with what is (presumably) best known to the writer and audience of the essay ('Western philosophy', 'footnotes to Plato', etc.).

As for your remarks extolling democratization of language usage, surely you are not then claiming the legacy of Socrates while making such statements? In 'Western philosophy', at least, the primary aim has been to point out that the crowd has gone wrong, that it is perpetually walking off a cliff, especially when it is most convinced of its rightness.

While one might quibble about the relative virtues and vices of democracy, surely we would agree that the professionalization of brain surgery has been, on the whole, a positive development. And isn't the development of the mind by philosophy (not to make a statement about what a 'mind' is) at least as important such that it should not be fully handed over to "the masses?"

Finally, I would submit that we should always privilege discourses inasmuch as they have a better grasp of truth than do others.



I am sorry that you find my points meaningless (that "it says next to nothing"). I meant to point out a normative aspect of Mr. Smith's essay that I find problematic--for it is not on essay on "How are Western and Non-Western Philosophy different?" or even "In what ways are we talking about the same thing and different things when we talk about Western and Non-Western Philosophy?" but on whether there is such a thing as Non-Western philosophy. You are free not to think it is problematic.

I find it interesting that you place your thesis at the end of your comment ("we should always privilege discourses inasmuch as they have a better grasp of truth than do others"). This is easily defensible for the sciences, but less so for social ontologies like the meanings of words. I currently think very similarly to John Searle in this regard, and if you are more interested you can read his paper "Social Ontology: Some Basic Principles" here: http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~jsearle/AnthropologicalTheoryFNLversion.doc. In short, something like the idea of philosophy only exists because we all think it does; there is a social ontology that gives those phonemes meaning, something that in fact cannot be measured scientifically, and so "truth" is more slippery than it seems.

(I am fudging here important differences between Searle's conception of social ontologies, Kuhn's paradigms, and Foucault's epistemes; in this particular case the subtleties do not strike me as important.)

The "platonic form" line is an expression of my belief that there is little difference if any between asserting a single legitimate definition of something and the notion of platonic forms as a concept. I believe that Mr. Smith's essay is taking something in the world and holding up to an idealized conception of what that thing ought to be. (He may well defend himself on this.) The first part of my letter points out what I see as problems in his definition, but that could always be reconfigured; the second (the part you object to most) I intended to have point out a specific power relation that so doing calls up.

I have a problem with that power relation, and you do not, from your thesis. We differ, and that is okay. My most crucial point is that the essay tells a lot of native-English speakers that they are speaking their native language wrong--the vast majority, in fact. One can get to that point without the circuitous foray into language prescriptivism that I took.

I believe it is important to admit to this perpetuation of certain power relations, because it implicates a host of issues related to privilege: class, race, national origin, geography, sexuality, gender, colonial status, and so forth. For example, by the same type of argument one could likewise have told a group of men in the 50s that "gay" only means cheerful and that there was no such stable class as "gay men," only "homosexuals." "Gay men" and "homosexuals" are not terms of synonymy, even outside of gender specificity; "homosexuality" was not completely removed entirely from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders--far and away the most widely used text--until DSM-IV in 1994.

In general, I find it valuable and necessary to look at the results of our arguments and hold them up to our intuitions; and when they do not align question equally whether this is because of a poor argument or a poor belief. Here, I believe the argument falters.



Thank you for your response. I didn't mean for that opening to sound so harsh, and I do apologize if you took it as such. You definitely did say something, but I'm enough of a platonist that anything less (i.e., nominalism of any sort) strikes me as a bit weak.

I definitely agree that we should be attentive to power relations and to the ways that normative discourses are used as tools for the colonization of spaces, bodies, and minds. Still, like I mentioned, I'm a enough of a platonist that I do think there is at least some sort of necessary correspondence between given words and ideas even in the midst of their obvious contingency. And I believe that there are, as I alluded to before, potential negative political consequences to your stance as well. Normativity is a two-edged sword.

Thank you as well for the Searle link; I will be sure to check that out.

(I'm sorry to post using my wordpress account, but I wasn't able to do so otherwise when I tried for some reason.)



It's painful reading about how you've twisted yourself into a pretzel rationalizing these "non-Western philosophies". There is a simpler way. Define "philosophy" narrowly enough, and avoid having to confront ingrained cultural prejudices.

Ahhh! Much better! And yes, you're welcome!

Bert McCall

"At the end of the day, is Sarah Palin just as much a "philosopher" as was Wittgenstein? I should hope not, but I know many people, perhaps a healthy majority of US Americans who would affirm that sentiment."

I'd like to hear your explanation of the nature and purpose of the Sarah Palin comment before I declare it just a cheap shot.


Some good points touched on - but feel these could have been elaborated. Just wondered whether you had read any of Sri Aurobindo's writing on Eastern/Western philosophical approaches?

Chris L.

"In strong form it would also strike out Wittgenstein's Tractatus itself, written when Wittgenstein was simply living off his father's fortune, before he came to Cambridge and threatened Popper with a hot poker." - Mario

I just wanted to point out that the Tractatus was written after Wittgenstein's first venture to Cambridge, after meeting Russel and Moore. Indeed, it was written before he joined the faculty there, and before he got his degree there (With the Tractatus as his dissertation!), but it came after his true personal exposure to Russel! And to talk about his fortune in that way, at least in that tone, is quite unfair; he didn't want it at all, and lived a very, very modest lifestyle in spite of it.

Not that it's important to the discussion at hand. It was just something I wanted to mention.

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