I received yet another unsolicited intro-to-philosophy textbook in the mail today. I was puzzled to see that it had a single section for 'Eastern and Postcolonial Voices'. Are we really supposed to believe, I thought, that there is something Avicenna and bell hooks share, but that Avicenna and, say, Aristotle do not?
I think the invitation this book makes to us to believe such a thing is an example of the enduring idealism and crypto-Hegelianism, which is to say the implicit racism, of the pedagogy and the historiography of philosophy, which take the history of philosophy as first and foremost the unfolding of a distinctly European spirit, and place everything else, no matter the continent or the millennium, in a residual class on the sole grounds that it is non-European. This is an approach that would be considered grossly, embarrassingly out of date in the historiography of any other topic (technology, agriculture, etc.), where diffusion is now taken as the most likely hypothesis for the explanation of cultural attainments. Yet it manages to slip through in the very discipline that often claims to care most about breaking the deadlock of the hegemonic white male perspective on things.
Ironically, this perspective is not only not broken down, but indeed is reinforced, by feeble, p.c. efforts at inclusiveness such as the one we see in this book, which would have us believe that there is something that binds Confucian authors of the Han dynasty, Yājñavalkya, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and so on (I'll leave to the side for now the even more problematic inclusion of medieval Islamic thinkers in this list, who were working neither in ignorance of, nor against, the tradition of classical European antiquity, but rather as direct and willing heirs of this tradition: with respect to range of interests, personal identification with a tradition, and even geography, Averroes, for example, was in no way any more 'Eastern' than Plato). So what could this bond possibly be other than the negative trait of not being European? If we project onto these sundry personalities any more commonality than this, then we are forced to ignore that fundamental fact that underlies everything we know --and have known for centuries now-- about ancient Asian history: that members of ancient civilizations in Asia could not have cared less that they were not Europeans, did not feel threatened by Europe, did not feel the need to define themselves against Europe, but saw Europe, if at all, as a mere peninsula of their own continent.
This means that there is nothing with respect to content or context that binds 'Eastern' thinkers to postcolonial ones, whose work, for better or worse, is fundamentally defined by the respects in which it contrasts with the work of Europeans. To group 'Eastern' thinkers together with postcolonial ones is to suppose that non-Europeans could never think of themselves as anything other than non-European, that is, that world history has always been European history by default.
You might protest that this is a benign editorial decision, made for a low-level textbook that inevitably must simplify its subject in order to make it teachable at all. But the problem is that this fiction presented to undergrads is never corrected, and most professional philosophers go right on believing --without ever being called to articulate how they could actually believe such an unlikely thing-- that there is a single cohesive thing called 'Western philosophy' that unfolds through the centuries, and that this is something altogether unique in human history, passed down as a gift from the gods.
On an older version of this very old myth, it is not the gods in general, but one particular god, the ibis-headed Thoth, who passed his wisdom on to Hermes (with whom he was perhaps identical), and eventually from there to Pythagoras, Plato, and so on down the line. With or without explicit invocation of a theriomorphic deity, I hope you will agree with me that Sonderweg thinking of this sort at least does not accord with our best scientific accounts of the emergence and evolution of human civilizations.