Diversity in Philosophy

Pages from Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (China's Philosopher Confucius) , a translated and annotated edition of three out of four Confucian

Pages from Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (China’s Philosopher Confucius) , a translated and annotated edition of three out of four Confucian “Four Books”, by Prospero Intorcetta, Philip Couplet, Rougemont, and Herdtrich. Paris, 1687.

Eugene Sun Park, a former doctoral candidate in philosophy “at a well-respected department in the Midwest [of the United States]”, recently wrote about his motivation for leaving the academy.

“Philosophy is predominantly white and predominantly male,” reads the opening line.

Being quite familiar with both whiteness and maleness (and recently diving head-first into a philosophy department from the battlements of the sciences), I thought I’d compare notes with Eugene, and add a few thoughts.

Please, when and if you read this, Eugene, don’t for a moment think I don’t sympathise with your cause. In fact, I too want philosophy enriched by non-Western thought. (Interestingly, whenever I have had reason to go looking for classical views on philosophical issues, I’ve always made a point of searching specifically for Eastern thought first, and then Western thought.)

The closest tome of philosophical meanderings to me at the time of my writing this little piece is The Oxford Textbook of Clinical Research Ethics. A weighty thing, but an excellent and unique resource – it comes highly recommended. The first page of the contributors’ list bears six names – all are male, all but one have an Anglo-Saxon name, and all hail from either US or British universities. A cursory glance through the following five pages confirms the trend.

Though since women and minorities have been significantly oppressed, this should come as no great surprise to us. Do academics truly look at a mirror of themselves in the lecture hall, however? A quick count of the students who gave presentations at the seminar I attended today put white males in the minority (despite our white male faculty member). So perhaps times are changing  – at least where I am.

While Eugene would presumably welcome such diversity, I think he’d still call it superficial to some extent. He rightly takes issue with the traditional Western focus of modern philosophical thought; there’s no denying we currently focus on Socrates more than Confucius. But maybe we only do so because of those who teach us, and those who taught them. In the student presentations today, Kant came up once, and some Islamic philosophy came up at another point, but outside of those two references, we spoke exclusively in terms of principles, duties, rights, and so on.

Such discourse – that centred on arguments and ideas, not the people who presented them or their respective cultural background – affords the young philosopher room to explore any and all ideas she can find or that she knows of, whether they be Western in origin or not.

Perhaps all this points to the relative progressiveness of ethics as a sub-discipline more than it points to a larger shift within philosophy, or maybe that’s a lie and all this is just wishful thinking. In any case, we’ve got a ways to go, and it’s sad that we won’t have people like Eugene with us. We ought to take note and learn from his departure.