Philosophy and Orientalism
About your statement: I have never been (and never harboured sympathy for) someone inclined to hippie-like celebrations of ‘eastern wisdom’ (the most repellent form of orientalism)
I’ve run into this anti-orientalism before recently and while I suppose it reacts to a certain superficiality about “eastern wisdom” I’m suspicious of the dismissive attitude I’ve noticed among philosphy bloggers towards those who appreciate eastern traditions. Are proponents of this attitude saying that it’s inauthentic for a westerner to become a Buddhist or Taoist? Was Emerson a douchebag when he had Hafiz translated into English? Isn’t there a hint of cultural miscegation in this occidental anti-orientalism? Is there something wrong with appreciating diverse traditions, not simpely because of the exoticism and novelty but because something beautiful is being offered? Help here. Most likely I have it all wrong.
Funny, the last person who I came across launching accusations of orientalism at another philospher just set sail for Thailand. Good for him. Mix it up.
I promised the detailed answer this question requires, as it touches themes that are dear to me, so here we go.
The issue at stake is to be able to approach non-Western philosophy avoiding both kind of Orientalism: the ‘romantic’ one that idealizes the ‘intellectual beauty’, the ‘gracious wisdom’ and serenity of these systems and the ‘rationalist’ one on the other, which –after having ascertained the excessive connivance of these systems with concerns of a ‘religious’ nature– dismisses them as uninteresting for serious philosophy.
Why is this so hard to do in the first place? The reasons are historical.
First reason: the 19th-century orientalists (those scholars that called themselves so) in the Anglophone tradition that studied and translated texts into European languages were rarely philosophers (this was not the case with German scholars who adopted a more romantic form of orientalism): until very recently someone dealing with, say, Chinese philosophy in a University was primarily a historian and a philologist, and did not, therefore, approach these texts qua philosophical texts to be brought into dialogue with western thought. Comparisons were frequent (Nagarjuna is a good example, who, in the history of secondary literature, has been compared with thinkers and currents as different from each other as Kant, Kant again, Wittgenstein , Pragmatism, and Derrida) but work of good comparative philosophy has been lacking.
Second, many of those ‘native informants’ that since the late 1800s started to bring their traditions to the West (as in the case of the famous first Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 — note, of religions, not of philosophies), have often done so according to a precise political agenda, coming mostly from countries under colonial rule and desiring to –at the same time– package their tradition in a way that would be comprehensible and acceptable by the Westerners and to present it as a noble carrier of a meaning and wisdom that the West lacked, hence accepting the role of ‘eastern sages’ as a weapon in the struggle against political subalternity (see for example the whole ‘Buddhism is congruent with [quantum] physics’ issue, which arose between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the same period when quantum physics was dawning and taking over the classical picture. For an acutely skeptical take on this topic see Lopez’s excellent recent book, and on the general modernization of Buddhism see McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism). Alternatively, others desired to promote and, in the same movement, renew a philosophical tradition because of ideological reasons of nationalistic pride and reform, as in the case of D.T.Suzuki, perhaps the greatest popularizer of Zen in the west, and whose work effectively caused the whole fusion between the Beat Generation and Eastern Wisdom (for a sharp critical assessment of Suzuki’s work and political agenda, check out a dedicated chapter in Bernard Faure‘s Chan Insights and Oversights)
Third: that pervasive presupposition that only the West had operated an efficient division between theology and philosophy, so that only in the West (as opposed to ‘eastern’ countries) rational speculation was decoupled from ‘religious’ concerns, such as soteriological ones (to what degree this is actually the case, is an excellent question, and one that I intend to try and answer using Latour in a near future). How many departments of Philosophy in the West have experts in –say– Indian Philosophy? Not so many at all. If you were looking for someone like that, you’d look in a department of Study of Religions. (Here, another question could be ‘so are “religious” themes universal?’ I have spent some time on this issue, and that will also come back to it in my paper on Latour/Philosophy/Religion).
So what is the situation now? There are a small number of scholars that are engaged in proper comparative work (that is, not merely exegetical, but aimed at bringing non-western systems to bear a relevance on contemporary western philosophy) notably Mark Siderits (with his insistence on the analytic tradition, a great primer on Buddhist Philosophy for an analytically minded philosopher is this one), the aforementioned Bernard Faure (see in particular this book) and Jay Garfield (whose work of translation and interpretation is aimed at injecting classical Sanskrit and Tibetan texts with a terminology familiar to Western philosophers, without doing violence to the text itself. His translation and comment to Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamikakarika is just fantastic). Also, let me mention the wonderful work that the logician Graham Priest did with Garfield on Nagarjuna’s paradoxes, in the last chapter of this neat book of his. And there are some others (Robert Magliola) that keep uttering complete nonsense like ‘without Derrida it is difficult for a “moderner” to understand Nagarjuna!’. These are all Westerners (I don’t even try to touch here the issue of the representation of non-western scholars in the academia) that, mostly, started by studying the Eastern traditions and who are now attempting the extremely delicate task of bringing them into contemporary philosophical debate, avoiding the two orientalisms that I mentioned above. It is a recent enterprise, not more than 30 or 40 years old, and so it is only natural that we are only at a larval stage.
What is almost completely lacking –as indeed Amarilla noted– is the will (or even interest perhaps) from American and European philosophers (analytics and continentals alike) to engage with non-western thought. To confront the arguments of a Greek philosopher who lived 2500 years ago is ok (because he ostensibly belongs to our ‘own’ tradition), but to read and comment a Nagarjuna, a Dignaga or a Dogen would, to be a bit brutal, slightly ridiculous. Imagine Badiou (just to name a very popular thinker nowadays) publishing, next year, a book either dedicated to (like the St.Paul one), –or even only partially dealing with– a Chinese or Tibetan 6th-century logician, or metaphysician. Most people would start thinking of the guy having become senile, or jumping on the ‘spiritual’ bandwagon. These are prejudices that are hard to erase. And even to plan a way to do so, one fully conscious of the implicit political meaning of this work of cultural translation (which after Said’s work and after postcolonial theory we just cannot ignore), is a difficult enterprise.
I am not sure if I have fully answered the question, but I think that the issue of finding a dimension for ‘comparative philosophy’ in today’s academia is historically complex, intellectually problematic and politically delicate. And yet (or, for this very reasons) extremely timely and important.