Why western philosophy can only teach us so much

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Illustration: Christophe Gowans

25 September 2018 | | The Guardian

One of the great unexplained wonders of human history is that written philosophy first flowered entirely separately in different parts of the globe at more or less the same time.

The origins of Indian, Chinese and ancient Greek philosophy, as well as Buddhism, can all be traced back to a period of roughly 300 years, beginning in the 8th century BC.

These early philosophies have shaped the different ways people worship, live and think about the big questions that concern us all. Most people do not consciously articulate the philosophical assumptions they have absorbed and are often not even aware that they have any, but assumptions about the nature of self, ethics, sources of knowledge and the goals of life are deeply embedded in our cultures and frame our thinking without our being aware of them.

Yet, for all the varied and rich philosophical traditions across the world, the western philosophy I have studied for more than 30 years – based entirely on canonical western texts – is presented as the universal philosophy, the ultimate inquiry into human understanding.

Comparative philosophy – study in two or more philosophical traditions – is left almost entirely to people working in anthropology or cultural studies. This abdication of interest assumes that comparative philosophy might help us to understand the intellectual cultures of India, China or the Muslim world, but not the human condition.

This has become something of an embarrassment for me. Until a few years ago, I knew virtually nothing about anything other than western philosophy, a tradition that stretches from the ancient Greeks to the great universities of Europe and the US.

Yet, if you look at my PhD certificate or the names of the university departments where I studied, there is only one, unqualified, word: philosophy. Recently and belatedly, I have been exploring the great classical philosophies of the rest of the world, travelling across continents to encounter them first-hand. It has been the most rewarding intellectual journey of my life.

My philosophical journey has convinced me that we cannot understand ourselves if we do not understand others. Getting to know others requires avoiding the twin dangers of overestimating either how much we have in common or how much divides us.

Our shared humanity and the perennial problems of life mean that we can always learn from and identify with the thoughts and practices of others, no matter how alien they might at first appear. At the same time, differences in ways of thinking can be both deep and subtle. If we assume too readily that we can see things from others’ points of view, we end up seeing them from merely a variation of our own.

To travel around the world’s philosophies is an opportunity to challenge the beliefs and ways of thinking we take for granted. By gaining greater knowledge of how others think, we can become less certain of the knowledge we think we have, which is always the first step to greater understanding.

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Original Link: About time: why western philosophy can only teach us so much

 

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