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August 6, 2010


Leon  Garcia G.

Mi estimado Justin,
In his conference "Word music and translation", JL Borges pronounced the following words:

"One of the thorns in the flesh of Europeans who write or have written histories of Indian philosophy is that all philosophy is seen as contemporary by the Indians. That is to say, they are interested in the problems themselves, not in the mere biographical fact or historical, chronological fact. That So-and-So was What's-His-Name's master, that he came before, that he wrote under that influence --all those things are nothing to them. They care about the riddle of the universe."

I appreciate the fact that where Borges uses the metaphor of the riddle, you prefer the more sculptural one of "carving up the world."

As you know, my focus right now is on Mesoamerican --and particularly Nahua-- history, so your piece reminded me that some decades ago, in his celebrated doctoral thesis, Miguel León-Portilla argued that the Aztecs' ¨Tlamatiniliztli¨("That which endures-has foundation") rises to the status of "Philosophy."

Of course, I am still thinking about that.

Since it appears that our problem is largely semantic, perhaps a good way to start the "comprehensive comparative study" that you propose will be by defining our terms, viz: "Tlamatiniliztli", "Dárshana", "Philosophy", etc.

And focus always on carving up the riddle.

Stephen Menn

You seem to be assuming that when people talk about "African philosophy" they always mean "implicit ontological and moral commitments that can be extracted from other spheres of cultural activity," oral traditions and the like. Well, often that's what people mean, but not always. I strongly recommend Paulin Hountondji, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality. (I don't mean I endorse everything he says, but it's very stimulating and generally very sensible, and a welcome change from much of the field.) Hountondji is sharply against what he calls "ethnophilosophy," the project of finding implicit philosophy in oral traditions: for him, philosophy must be put in writing and made available for criticism and comparison with other views. African philosophy, as he understands it, is simply philosophy done by Africans (well, really he means black Africans, or sub-Saharan Africans, or something like that), and is to be judged by the same standards as philosophy done by anyone else, and it doesn't have to have connections with folk wisdom or indeed with any distinctively African background. So, as he says, a Sorbonne dissertation on Malebranche by a Congolese Jesuit counts as African philosophy. A centerpiece of his approach is his essay on Antonius Guilelmus Amo, trying to wrest him away from the pan-Africanists around Nkrumah, and showing that understanding Christian Wolff and the German philosophical controversies about him is much more relevant background for understanding Amo than Ghanaian tribal wisdom. (At the same time, the fact that Amo was a black African in Europe is certainly relevant for understanding his work, most obviously his law dissertation on the rights of blacks in Europe, arguing against the legality of the modern slave-trade.) I find some of what Hountondji says about Amo unconvincing--he tries to find implicit critiques of dualism or of Christianity that I don't think are there--but he admits that he isn't an expert in 17th-18th century European philosophy and is offering his interpretation only exempli gratia, and his methodological point is very well taken. So: while for some purposes it may be appropriate to define "philosophy" more broadly than usual, we can accept the existence of African philosophy without doing that, and without accepting a double standard. And a false assumption that Africans can't (until very recently) have written philosophy in the strict sense has led scholars to rush too quickly over people like Amo, whose work definitely would repay more study, even from people who think of themselves as just studying early modern European philosophy and no more.

Leon  Garcia G.

Confining philosophy to the empire of the Written Word manifests above all a clear will to power, whether this purported imperative be true or false. (I don't know that part yet, but I suspect the latter).
In any case, if we are to assert the primacy of writing to define philosophy, how do we approach the "philosophies" produced by "other" literary systems and traditions? The Indian, Chinese, Mesoamerican, etc.
The provincialism of Western philosophy is particularly evident in the geographical schema that Justin so justly mocks. This model schema reflects at once a sort of cultural condescension, and intellectual laziness.
As a student of Mesoamerica, I am particularly baffled by the strange categorization of the Americas: "Philosophy of nature", '"environmental' philosophy expressed through practical wisdom and (in contrast with South Asia) transparently meaningful mythology." (¿...?)
Mexican tlamatiniliztli certainly lies way beyond such facile and prejudiced categorizations!
Also, I am very interested in your thoughts about the concept of Dárshana and its relationship to Philosophy.
Un saludo cordial.


Here is what I take to be the basic form of your argument.

1) Western philosophy generally understands itself to produce propositional content the validity of which can be tested anywhere at any time.

2) Non-Western cultures generally don’t admit of the extraction of such propositional content from their wider sets of practices and beliefs.

3) This difference complicates the inclusion of non-Western philosophy in the curriculum – it inevitably relegates non-Western philosophy to an inferior status.

4) Thus, since we think the study of something like non-Western philosophy is desirable, in order to correct the imbalance in 3 we need to reject 1. That is, Western philosophy needs a new self-understanding whereby its content is seen as mirroring the concrete circumstances in which it has been produced, and from which it cannot be extracted and made to claim any kind of global validity.

(4) is seen as a feasible solution because “[t]he minds of non-literate pastoral peoples are exactly the same as those of seminarians mastering Thomistic doctrine; the difference is that the pastoral people's minds have different prostheses to support and to mirror their thoughts.” I wouldn’t deny that minds are the same across the map, but I think by equating environmental conditions (broadly construed) that get reflected in whatever myth underlies a particular myth-based culture, and on the other hand the role of writing technologies in Western cultures, our appreciation of the role of those writing technologies becomes decidedly one-dimensional. An important thing to recognize in the way writing (and the reception of textual traditions) has shaped philosophy in the West is the incredible differentiation of intellectual viewpoints that are its consequence. That is, technologies of writing (potentially) unencumber thought from concrete circumstance, which I take to be very different from producing universally valid propositional content.

For Charles Taylor in 'The Secular Age' the very possibility of a secular society rests on the multiplication of diverse alternatives to a once dominant religious worldview. We can see this alternate space for understanding nature, the self, etc., as largely a phenomenon emergent from the role played by technologies of writing in the West (thus - rightly - invalidating proposition 1), and as a phenomenon without parallel in myth-based cultures (thus invalidating 4). Taylor’s Hegelianism is a moot point if you accept that the more a culture fosters the multiplication of intellectual positions the less easily identifiable those positions (or that propositional content) are with the concrete circumstances of their production.

I think this leaves me to hold something like Hountondji's position as outlined above by Stephen Menn: he does away with proposition 4 by rejecting the desirability of scrounging 'philosophy' from that which was not conceived as such.


(I'm not so sure my Taylor reference is as clear as it should have been. My point is that the space opened up for admissible, alternative viewpoints sustains philosophy just as it does secularity. For him, this space is above all the result of a moral (or spiritual) reorientation, one to which scientific or technological developments are merely consequent. We might be inclined to think the opposite is the case - technological and scientific developments promote moral change - but this is beside the point: namely, that we can explain the existence of a diversity of intellectual positions within a culture by looking to the diffusion of technologies of writing within it, but that diffusion does not simultaneously explain the substance of those views. Compare this situation with, e.g., Ya̧nomamö culture, whose four-layered cosmos mirrors the stratification of the forest canopy in which they live. Here, the environment goes a lot further in explaining the actual substance of the cosmology, such that whatever propositional content is to be had is literally bound up in the forest. It’s precisely this difference that undermines collapsing philosophy into a wider set of beliefs and practices in order to dissolve the inequality in (3), but at the same time I don’t think acknowledging such a difference commits us to the self-understanding of (1).)

edward rackley

nice piece on a subject that continues to confound my attempts to find a satisfying, accommodating position. congratulations on the 3QD prize as well. sad to learn the fate of Eze, with whom i used to work but am now so out of touch with philosophy that i didnt know he'd passed.

i am left wondering why then we or anyone would continue to call this enterprise 'philosophy'? if i read you right it's just a cultural affectation or form of expression that may or may not find its echo across the globe's many different cultures.

your points about writing as prosthesis of mind and as external storage are helpful too. while reading this, i was waiting for teleology to raise its head -- is there something 'developmental' that the practice of philosophy, as you describe it, represents?

working as i do in countries that are, by all objective standards of measurement, under-developed and regressing further with every new bullet fired or rape committed, the burning question about writing and literacy is whether its absence has something to do with the prevalence of barbarity and the inability of these countries to turn themselves around.

of course, much barbarity has been and will continue to be practiced by highly literate, industrialized countries, so one cannot jump to conclusions. but more than any other factor, i tend to see a country's grave under-development as largely due to the fact that despite its artificial appendage of 'modern statehood' (forced upon it post-independence -- there are no severely under-developed countries that are not former colonies), the country remains lodged in its oral, non-literate mode of organizing people and resources.

without documents -- the external storage you mentioned -- a country can only be as organized as far as its leaders can shout or make themselves heard. otherwise they have to lapse into barbarity to control their territory, its people and resources. congo, somalia etc are basically this: oral societies stuck with the pretense of modern statehood but refusing to adopt the basic instruments of modern statehood, the most fundamental of which is documentation.

any thoughts?


Congratulations on the 3QD prize!

A couple of questions:

1. What is the evidence for your claims that _writing_ is the key causal factor in allowing (Western) philosophy to develop? (Don't lots of societies have writing but no western philosophy?)

2. Do you think science is more of an invention or motif? Why or why not? (Should we study 21st C Western cosmology in the same way we study Yoruba cosmology too? (Well, of course we could do a HISTORY of modern cosmology, but most people think there is something more to study there too.))


You know you're a jackass when you say "expectorated" instead of "spat".

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