29 January 2008

Dominant Culture as a Guide to Philosophy?

I spent a day in Montana's capital city of Helena, working with other philosophy faculty to solve the "transferability problem" faced by students as they move from one college to another. The group consisted of me, three other old white guys (I think I was the youngest, though!), two younger women (one a Montana native, that is, Blackfoot), and a younger Filipino-American guy.

It's a noble effort. Bring together philosophy profs from the various units of the Montana University System. They then develop a list of universal course outcomes and come up with standard course names & numbers. The idea is to help students that transfer from one college to another in their quest for an undergraduate degree. General education requirements always contain some sort of philosophy courses such as "Introduction to Philosophy" and "Introduction to Ethics." Allegedly, when students transfer schools, they frequently lose credit for courses they have already completed, and then have to take (and pay for) additional courses that are substantially the same as what they've already taken...

It's a a noble effort, yes. Something like the search for a universal or world language.

Remember Esperanto? You know, the universal language that was to foster international peace & understanding. Esperanto was truly universal--that is, if your universe consisted of western culture. And if your ideal for a "real" language was based on experience with French, German, Polish, and Russian. Never mind those non-western languages. Forget Chinese. Forget Arabic. Siksika'? Forget it.

And that is, in part, how the first session of the Montana Philosopher Kings transpired. "Philosopher King?" As in Plato's Republic? That's the problem: dominant culture provides us a ready answer to what is "universal:" white, male, and western.

Suprisingly, we made remarkable progress in developing common course outcomes for "Introduction to Ethics."

For some reason, however, we tumbled like the Tower of Babel when it came to "Introduction to Philosophy."

Turns out "Introduction to Philosophy" means (to some, anyway) "Introduction to Western Philosophy." If the course is not about the specific philosophical problems and if it does not provide some historical overview of Plato, Descartes, Hume, Kant, etc. then it does not count as an Intro Philosophy course. By this measure, an introductory course called "Blackfeet Philosophy" certainly does not qualify.

This, it seems to me, is very wrong. Philosophy, even in its most narrow western definition as the Greek "love of wisdom" seems to be a universal phenomenon among human cultures.

The epistemological, ontological, and other problems raised by western philosophy are certainly interesting. But does western philosophy have a lock on these things? I cannot answer that question in a definitive, comprehensive way, since my knowledge of non-western philosophy is very limited. Sure, I have your educated person's token knowledge of Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and so forth. But from what I do know, any of these approaches would raise all the important questions and provide a basis for all the fruitful discussion that I believe is central to an "Introduction to Philosophy" course.

I recall my own Introduction to Philosophy course with the amazing Professor Martha Montgomery at Drexel University. Plato's Socratic Dialogues was our text. Socrates lived through that class, and so far as we students were concerned, Martha had sat with the old man on his deathbed when he drank the hemlock. There was little mention of Descartes or Hume or Quine, or of traditional names for philosophical "problems" such as Moore's disbelief, a priori knowledge, or mind-body dualism. Guided by Martha's talent for elenchus, however, the course left its mark on me and was instrumental in shifting my career away from engineering.

More recently, Thomas Nagel has taken a similar approach with his little book, What Does It All Mean?" Like Martha Montgomery, Nagel leads us through the process of philosophical inquiry without making it a lesson in the history of western philosophy or a laundry list of technical terms.

As a course fulfilling the general education requirement for "Introduction to Philosophy," I believe that "Blackfeet Philosophy" would serve perfectly well.

3 comments:

Hoss said...

This article might be of interest, regarding the frequent criticism that Esperanto is "too European."

Esperanto: European or Asiatic Language?

Anonymous said...

I too would like to comment on the paragraph about Esperanto:
>Remember Esperanto? You know, the universal language that was to foster international peace & understanding. Esperanto was truly universal--that is, if your universe consisted of western culture. And if your ideal for a "real" language was based on experience with French, German, Polish, and Russian. Never mind those non-western languages. Forget Chinese. Forget Arabic. Siksika'? Forget it.

The word-stock of Esperanto was selected on the basis of 'maximum internationality', that is roots appearing in the largest number of languages. More than 50% of the world speaks an Indo-European language natively, so that is why this group is so heavily represented. This does not mean that there are nowadays no roots from non-IE languages. [See Cherpillod's Konciza Etimologia Vortaro, 2003, for details]. Making up a language with 20% Chinese, 5% Armenian, 1% Gaelic, .5% Cheyenne roots etc. etc. does not make a language international.

The expression 'universal language' means different things to different people. To me it means 'universal bilingualism' [i.e. YOUR language + Esperanto, for everyone, including English-speakers]. It does NOT mean 'one language for the world', which proponents of destructive World English hegemony seems to be aiming for.

The goals of Esperanto are best summarized in the 7 points of the Prague Manifesto:
http://lingvo.org/xx/2/3
not some vague 'international peace & understanding'. Tonight's homework: assemble some basic facts about Esperanto.

Pat Munday said...

Thanks Hoss and Anonymouse for pointing out my misconceptions regarding Esperanto. The linked articles also proved very intersting. I'll need to find another example for my argument against the hegemonic view of Western philosophy.