Book Note: Bryan Van Norden’s “Taking Back Philosophy”

Bryan Van Norden, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (New York: CUP, 2017) (Amazon; Bookshop)

While this book wasn’t completely what I expected it was excellent nonetheless and I think I prefer what it is in actuality to what I imagined it would be. When I bought it, I was under the impression that the entire book would be a defense of the basic thesis: a thesis Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield put forth first in a May 11th, 2016 entry to “The Stone column of the New York Times blog” titled “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is” (p. xxiii). Van Norden and Garfield argued that philosophy departments should “rename themselves ‘departments of Anglo-European philosophy'” if they weren’t willing to expand their departments to include the study of philosophy from non-“western” perspectives (p. xxiii). As you can imagine, this provocative claim provoked many responses and those responses led to Van Norden writing Taking Back Philosophy.

The first couple chapters of the book are what I expected and I found them entirely convincing. In chapter 1, “A Manifesto for Multicultural Philosophy” he “names names” and “brings the receipts” as the kids say, showing how the assumption that philosophy is only a “western” thing is ethnocentric and structurally racist, even when unintended. He makes the case that if philosophy is to survive and not kill itself off, it needs to adapt to and embrace a diversifying and pluralistic world. But this isn’t just an attempt to be PC or cosmopolitan: it’s because Van Norden is right in that Indian and Chinese thought, to name two branches, are deeply philosophical! For example, I’ve been (slowly) reading Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics and as I encounter his monism I keep thinking, “Didn’t India reach these conclusions centuries, millennia prior to Spinoza?!” Now, they framed it differently but that doesn’t make it less philosophical.

Now, I’m prone to agree with Van Norden. As far back as the early 2010’s when I read Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, I’ve been convinced that Jewish and Christian sacred texts can be read as rational, philosophical works just as easily as the Pre-Socratics or Plato. I teach them with an eye to their philosophical claims. For example, in past versions of my class “The Hebrew Scriptures” (when I covered a lot more ground pre-pandemic), I would juxtapose the political philosophy and ethical paradigms of the Book of Daniel over against the Book of Esther. I’m supervising independent research by a student right now who is investigating these matters and soon we’ll discuss topics like trauma in the Book of Lamentations and theodicy in the Book of Job. (For a great discussion on how this can work, listen to Dru Johnson’s interview with Van Norden on Johnson’s podcast.)

Chapter 2, “Traditions in Dialogue” was another chapter I expected. In this part of the book, Van Norden does what I imagined he’d do throughout: he juxtaposes Chinese philosophy (his expertise) with “western” counterparts (e.g. the metaphysics of Descartes and Nāgasena; the political philosophy of Hobbes and Kongzi and Mengzi). Anyone with an open mind should recognize not only that China has had philosophy (unless we assume some oddly misplaced concreteness that claims “philosophy” because of its etymological roots in Greek must be “European” or “western” only) but that Chinese philosophy stands its ground quite well!

Chapter 3, “Trump’s Philosophers” looks at the move by personalities like Donald J. Trump and Xi Jinping to build “walls” (metaphorical and literal) that divide. In a sense, this chapter serves as a mirror for those who want to keep philosophy ethnocentric and “western”. Van Norten doesn’t fall into the trap of denegrating “western” philosophy, culture, and traditions but instead advocates something like a “more is more” approach: let’s celebrate the thought that has come from places like Germany, France, England, and the United States but in doing so let’s not close ourselves off to what we can learn from China, India, Japan or from broader groupings like African and Indigenous forms of philosophy.

In chapter 4, “Welders and Philosophers,” Van Norten challenges people like Marco Rubio who use rhetoric that (being generous here) may intend to dignify the working class (“We need more welders and less philosophers.”) at the expense of the academic “elites” but instead is disparaging toward both the welder who could and should want to read philosophy, the philosophy major who can actually do quite well for themselves with their humanities degree, and all citizens of a democracy who have the right to be informed and develop their thinking as members of society. This chapter defends the value of the humanities and the usefulness of a college education. My only complaint is that while showing how an undergraduate degree can raise someone’s earning power, Van Norten doesn’t deal with higher ed’s cost inflation that essentially saddles college graduates with a “tax” (student loan repayment) for getting that education.

Finally, in chapter 5, “The Way of Confucius and Socrates,” Van Norten reminds us of why philosophy is valuable, for everyone. His definition of philosophy is similar to the one I’ve shared with my students and members of our school’s “Philosophy Club” (p. 151): “philosophy is a dialogue about problems that we agree are important, but don’t agree about the method of solving, where ‘importance’ ultimately gets its sense from the question of the way one should live.” The target isn’t just Rubio or others like Ted Cruz, who while allowing themselves to receive a liberal arts education speak to others as if its a waste of their time, but also to members of the cult of scientism, like Neil deGrasse Tyson or the late Stephen Hawking, who think that philosophy is outdated just because certain branches of the sciences have developed a method that helps them solve or begin to solve important questions. Van Norten reminds readers that prior to a field’s emergence, it must be created by philosophy. Once a field has a generally shared methodology, it “grows up” and can go out on its own as “astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics,” to name a few examples (p. 143). Hawking and deGrasse Tyson wouldn’t have their fields of study if it weren’t for the “natural philosophers” who preceded them!

The broader defense of philosophy wasn’t what I expected when I bought to book but it didn’t detract from the book at all. It made it better. It reminded philosophers that what they’re doing is important but that it philosophy can be improved by expanding the conversation to include the many voices that are often ignored.

2 Replies to “Book Note: Bryan Van Norden’s “Taking Back Philosophy””

  1. Thanks. This is interesting!

    I’m wondering if Process-relational philosophy comes up at all? Though “marginal” in academia, it really shouldn’t be. And in his apparent context, it may well speak to some of his key points… it has been feminist and ecologically oriented for around 50 years, has many female and some minority authors, promoted Christain-Buddhist dialog significantly, among other East-West encounters. VERY little known is the respect and actual promulgation of its perspectives in China in the last decade particularly… under the rubric of constructive postmodernism (tho I consider it post-postmodern). And in China, it has the vital tie to broader “ecological civilization” via eco-villages and sustainability efforts.

    At least 25 universities in China have programs in “constructive postmodernism” (under John Cobb’s influence both directly and indirectly), and it is widely viewed as in harmony with Confucian thought, particularly.

    To get more info and/or connected for ongoing great weekly open Zoom calls of the Cobb Institute, see (no .com, etc.).


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