Philosophy and Multiculturalism






Sandra LaFave

Spring 1993

Revised August 2015





In spring 1993, West Valley College granted me a sabbatical in order to develop a plan for infusing multiculturalism into the philosophy department curriculum. This document began as my sabbatical compliance report. There are six chapters:


1.   The first chapter presents arguments on some fundamental questions of multiculturalism and philosophy. This is by far the longest chapter, and the most philosophically oriented.


2.   The second chapter discusses African philosophy.


3.   The third chapter concerns philosophy and women.


4.   The fourth chapter describes recommendations on Central and East Asian thought.


5.   The fifth chapter concerns Islamic philosophy.


6.   The sixth chapter describes Native North American philosophy and primal religion.






Naturally, as a philosopher, I could not approach the task of infusing “multiculturalism” into the curriculum without first clarifying to myself exactly what the task was. Even the most fundamental components of the job — e.g., defining “multiculturalism” or clarifying its goals — are not at all straightforward. People around the country are asking the same questions I have heard debated at West Valley over the past few years: what constitutes multicultural education? what are its goals? who is qualified to teach multicultural classes? can people of different cultural backgrounds ever hope to come to rational agreement about how to live? is a world community possible or must we settle merely for mutual tolerance and non-interference?

Proponents of multiculturalism do not seem to agree among themselves about these issues. So I will begin this work by making clear where I stand on these (and other) fundamental questions.

Thus, this “Fundamental Questions” chapter has five subsections, which explain my views on:

  1. The place of cultural diversity within advanced capitalism and consumer culture (“Cultural Diversity within Advanced Capitalism”);


  2. Who is qualified to teach multicultural classes (“Who Speaks for Whom?”);


  3. The appropriate use of the term “philosophy” (“What is Philosophy?”);


  4. Deconstructionist arguments for multiculturalism (“Is Philosophy Just for Aristocratic Men?”);


  5. The use of the term “Western” (“What is Western?”).



I.1 Cultural Diversity within Advanced Capitalism

Louis Menand claims that “two notions inform the current enthusiasm for the “recognition” of America’s cultural diversity. The first is that for 200 years or so the idea of unum dominated official versions of the national story, and it is now time to emphasize the plures.” [1]  The second notion is that the United States “is becoming increasingly diversified ethnically and culturally, so that where there was once a common culture (although it depended, perhaps, on a good deal of exclusion and suppression), there is now a mass of subcultures.”


Menand argues that while the first notion is true and, indeed,  “unexceptionable” (and I agree), the second notion is actually false. In other words, while the stories of women and non-white people must be told, for obvious reasons of both fairness and good scholarship, the culture is nevertheless not becoming more diverse. While it is often claimed that the United States is “becoming more racially and culturally diversified, more like a mosaic and less like a can of mixed paint”, actually the demographic data point to a quite different conclusion.[2]


“A much smaller percentage of the population is foreign-born than was the case sixty or seventy years ago; the rate of interracial marriage has increased dramatically; the Census Bureau projects that the country will maintain its present racial proportions (about 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as “white”) well into the next century; 93 percent of the Americans who say they are religious are Christians (and 90 percent of Americans say they are religious).”


Menand bases his claim — that America (and the developed world generally) is becoming less rather than more culturally diverse — on observations about advanced capitalism as well as demographic data. According to Menand, echoing a line of thought familiar to Marxists, capitalism tends to bring cultures together, and to make everyone culturally similar, not different — but (and here’s the rub) without thereby making society more just or improving people’s lives.


I think this last point is much underrated, and has important implications for multicultural education. Menand argues that people who advocate multiculturalism often do not give sufficient emphasis to issues of social class and distribution of wealth. His view is that the most important issues are economic — issues of class, not culture. So-called “mainstream”American culture reflects the relative affluence and power of white, straight, men of property, while female and minority cultures mirror the relative poverty and powerlessness of these “other” Americans.[3] The truth is, I think, that America is becoming more divided in terms of economic class, and the class differences seem intractable and growing. But class isn’t the same thing as culture. So advocating cultural diversity isn’t going to halt the class war; it is a red herring.         


“The real change in the United States in the past twenty years has been economic: the gap in income between the top and bottom fifths of the population (measured by wealth) now resembles a canyon. This financial difference fragments a society like the United States, with its worship of the privileges of private ownership, far more effectively than any cultural difference. Since members of racial minorities are more likely to be in the lowest quantile economically, the result has been a great deal of demographic distortion: the populations of many large cities, for example, are now non-white in hugely disproportionate numbers.


“It seems to me to be pure obfuscation to try to explain this economic ghettoizing in the language of “diversity”. It is the consequence of many years of bad public policy, and has nothing to do with whether or not non-Europeans are acculturated to “linear thinking” or respect for the nuclear family.”


Menand continues: “Insofar as “multiculturalism” means genuine diversity — insofar as it refers to functionally autonomous subcultures within a dominant culture, or to conflicting tastes and values specifically associated with ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference — the United States is becoming not more multicultural but less.”


I shall argue here, then, that issues of economics are as important, if not more important, than attitudes of racism or sexism, to a deep understanding of the import of multiculturalism; and that too often, these economic factors are overlooked or underestimated. I hope now to clarify the economic factors that seem relevant to me, and give voice to some of my consequent concerns about multicultural education in general, where the current debates seem to be situated, and where I think they ought to be situated. I agree with Menand that consumer culture tends to make people culturally alike, and at the same time maintain unjust class divisions, i.e., consumer culture leaves the real problems intact. Nobody escapes the incessant influence of consumer culture. And so I wonder, what exactly will be accomplished by emphasizing cultural differences — “multicultural education” as it is often construed — in the absence of any deep analysis of the “natural history” of culture itself?


Marx says that culture is the “superstructure” of society; it is a manifestation of a substructure that is essentially economic. Those who own the means of production control the culture. Commerce determines customs, art, religion, morality, philosophy. (I think this is an oversimplification — as I shall argue below, I think culture also reflects “human nature” — but it is undeniable that economic realities have an enormous effect on culture.)  Marxists say that “mainstream” American culture today is the one defined by capitalism to advance its interests. Thus we find “mainstream” morality centered on the family (because the family is the main unit of consumption of big-ticket, high-profit items), organized religion (which urges alienated workers to be passive and resigned to their fate), and nationalism (because war is extremely profitable). According to Marxists, the commercial media (radio, TV, newspapers, films) are instrumental in maintaining these values, since the media are financed by corporate America. 


Capitalism is basically a system in which some people win and others lose; the hope is that a free market will improve goods and services enough overall that no one is hurt very much by losing.[4] The culture of women (if there is such a thing) is, on the feminist analysis, a culture of persons artificially and unfairly constrained and limited by their biological role. If women had been permitted full participation in cultural and economic life, they would have no reason to complain. As it is, they do. (I am not saying that capitalism is the only oppressor of women, because women were and are oppressed in non-capitalist societies, too; but capitalism, in its alliance with religion, is what we’re dealing with nowadays.) The history of African-Americans has been a history of heinous oppression and exploitation, fueled by economic motives, particularly the desire for cheap labor, unscrupulously attained. African-American culture is marked indelibly by that history.[5] The many cultures of Hispanic Americans and Native Americans share a similar theme of unfair constraint and limitation. The cultures we emphasize in multiculturalism are the cultures of historically oppressed peoples. Everyone on both sides of the multicultural education issue seems to agree about this fact.


Thus, the “mainstream” culture does not serve the economic interests of many people; indeed, it has historically been extremely unjust to large groups, especially non-whites and women. People who maintain the importance of cultural diversity are, it seems to me, motivated by laudable impulses toward social justice. They argue that people of the mainstream culture must understand and accept those on the outside, because lack of understanding and acceptance fosters irrational and unfair prejudices, such as racism and sexism, and these prejudices do harm to those outside the mainstream. The harm is multi-pronged — economic, social, and psychological. In addition, the mainstream culture, in maintaining irrational prejudice, deprives itself of many excellent benefits that it might derive from more intimate interaction with non-mainstream cultures. So far, so good; there is no question about any of this. Proponents of multicultural education thus propose that non-mainstream cultures be valued and, whenever possible and desirable, their traditions preserved.


But if social justice is the goal, then let’s not lose sight of it. Economic justice is fundamental to the attainment of social justice. Multiculturalists acknowledge that capitalism has historically profited from racism and sexism; they are aware of imperialism and how it encouraged racist and sexist attitudes and practices for the sake of continued profit. But their analysis stops there; they do not include an account of contemporary capitalist consumer culture and its effect on the struggle. If the Marxists are right, racism and sexism are simply ideologies grounded in economic realities; as such, they can flourish or diminish through the operation of economic forces.


Times have changed, and so has capitalism. Nowadays, most corporate executives oppose racism and sexism, at least in public pronouncements. They talk in moral terms, defending equality and universal human rights. And while some of this morality talk may be sincere, there is little reason to suppose capitalists’ profit motive has changed. The world has gotten smaller, everyone knows about the ideals of equality and human rights, and no corporation will make the fatal public relations mistake of espousing racism or sexism. Besides, the executives are telling the truth, in a way. Capitalism itself (and the consumer culture it has created) isn’t inherently racist or sexist. If racism and sexism will make profit, then they’re fine; if not, they’re bad. If women make better managers than men (and thus help make the corporation more profitable), then capitalists will promote women to management. If creating an image of racial and cultural homogeneity makes more profit, then corporations will sponsor Father Knows Best; but if more profit can be made by emphasizing racial and cultural diversity, they sponsor In Living Color.


It is seldom appreciated that capitalism tends to exploit cultural differences for profit, and by doing so, tends to dilute, neutralize, and negate non-mainstream cultures. Capitalist consumer culture cares about profit; it cares about creating and maintaining markets for “new”products, so that people will feel dissatisfied with their current stuff, throw it out, and buy new stuff. Capitalism doesn’t care about race or ethnicity or gender or sexual preference; in fact, it exploits both the attractive and unattractive aspects of underclass or minority culture for novelty in the marketplace. It feeds on minority and underclass culture, glamorizing it, ingesting its exotic flavors, dissolving all its potentially threatening aspects. As a matter of standard practice, it co-opts and usurps the exotic, marginal, and even threatening aspects of minority culture in order to make profit; the exotic becomes the “new”, i.e., new products, new fashions, new teen idols. “Nothing takes the edge off a challenge to the established order than making it the premise of a situation comedy.”


Even more significant is that capitalism can do all this while enlisting the voluntary cooperation of the very cultures being exploited. Inasmuch as capitalism influences style and corrupts desire, minority culture, desiring what capitalism has to offer, often offers itself up to be consumed. These observations are nothing new to sociologists or Marxists; Marxists call the process “cultural imperialism”. Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is the classic recent expression of this line of analysis.


What is new is the unprecedented influence of professional image-makers on popular culture. Contemporary consumer culture features the systematic construction of images of all kinds; “advertising” or “commercials”are only a small part of the package. Practically all of mainstream television is advertising in one form or another: what the characters wear, eat, and drive, as well as how their houses are furnished, are all carefully chosen, and certainly send as many messages as what the characters say.[6] The fashion and cosmetics industries iconize images of beauty, which change regularly in response to market forces (as they lose their power to arouse), and which serve to encourage the contemplation of more exotic objects of desire, encouraging the intermarriage that further dilutes racial diversity. It seemed that every young man in America was in love with Asian women after Shogun. Think of the images that flood magazines and television and political advertisements nowadays. It seems clear, to me, that great care is taken to include representatives of diverse races and ethnic groups, i.e., capitalist consumer culture wants to sell to everyone.  


Members of minority cultures, and disaffected youth of the mainstream culture, can buy rap CDs, manufactured by the pop music establishment, that urge them to kill white policemen. Capitalism has found the ideal way to “neutralize” the legitimate rage of these youth. Ice T now speaks for them (they do not need to speak for themselves[7]). They can dress like him, thus supportingthe fashion establishment. They can drink his brand of beer, and wear his brand of athletic shoes. They can wear Malcolm X caps. They voluntarily spend their money in ways guaranteed to make profit for someone else, thus impoverishing themselves and reinforcing the gap between the economic classes. Capitalism, meanwhile, doesn’t have to worry that Ice T will say anything really radical (like “Let’s get rid of consumer culture”), because Ice T is becoming rich within the system. Madonna plays at being a “sexually liberated woman”; she co-opts the language of the women’s movement and gay liberation to make money for herself and for Time-Warner (the giant communications conglomerate to whom she is under contract for movies, CDs, and books). At the same time she reinforces the traditional fantasy of woman as sex object, thus making it more difficult in the long run for women, especially older women, to be heard. Benetton ads show homosexual AIDS victims dying in the arms of their parents. The scandalous music of 25 years ago (the Doors’ “Light My Fire”, the Beatles “Revolution”) now sells cars. Malcolm X becomes a Hollywood icon. Coca-Cola co-opts the religious language of universal brotherhood and sisterhood (people of all ages, colors, and costumes holding hands, walking forward through the meadow into the future together sharing Cokes) while making huge profits from the sale of sugared water that rots the teeth of children in countries where there is no dental care. And no one is forcing them to buy Coke.


As minority cultures of all kinds are mainstreamed, the majority culture itself changes, which in turn fertilizes changes in minority tastes and buying habits. Marketing strategies are narrowed to maximize profits, which often means maintaining and perpetuating economic class  differences, now chosen more or less voluntarily by the economically already-oppressed, who willingly fork over  their hard-earned money for Nikes and Coke and Madonna CDs. No really radical statements are ever widely heard or, if heard, understood[8];and we can hardly expect to hear any enlightenment from the mainstream media[9]. Who are the sponsors after all? “The more the marginal, the exotic, and the new   become central to the culture, the more everything begins to send the same messages.” Even de Tocqueville noticed this. Given capitalism’s tendency to overwhelm indigenous cultures, the more I emphasize my difference, the more my difference is liable to be either marginalized or co-opted for profit. And the more my difference is exploited for profit — the more fashionable it becomes to be “different” — the more culturally alike we all become. Class distinctions, however, are maintained.


Capitalism has a stake in the maintenance of minority cultures’ difference as long as minority cultures can (safely, unthreateningly)furnish the exotic and new for sale, and as long as minorities furnish markets.This is how advanced capitalism works.But as minority cultures are assimilated, the majority culture becomes more and more like a can of mixed paint and lesslike a mosaic. Capitalism does not care whether or not consumers are uniform, as long as they are docile — since as long as they are docile, they will   eventually become more and more uniform.


Thus, I am skeptical of the claim that West Valley students need classes in multiculturalism in order to combat attitudes of racism and sexism which are thought to perpetuate injustice. I want to be very clear about this: racism and sexism do help perpetuate injustice, and we should certainly strive to eradicate these attitudes wherever they exist. But they are perhaps merely symptoms of forces so large and all-pervasive that they become   invisible, like air. Our students are, as we all know, TV children; and that exposure to TV images has both good and bad sides. One of the good elements is that TV and other media, as well as the K-12 classrooms themselves, have been much more diverse since the 1970s than previously. As a result, my students do not appear to harbor any serious racism or sexism.


I may be completely wrong; my students, after all, wouldn’t be likely to express racist or sexist views in front of me, since I am critical of such attitudes in class. On the other hand, I encourage my students to express controversial views, if only for the sake of argument. I have observed that my students are bored by racism and sexism as ethical issues; they are far more interested in talking about the environment.[10] They consider racism and sexism to be utterly uncontroversial — the “old-fashioned” ethical issues of their parents’ generation. They are “beyond all that”. And they have reason to feel that way: my students are already racially and ethnically diverse, and many have been in similarly diverse classrooms their whole lives. They already work (and fall in love) with people of other races and cultures.


On the whole, my students seem to be placidly cheerful children who try very hard to be fair and above all avoid saying anything negative about anybody (to a fault, I think). Very occasionally I hear an earnest well-intentioned comment like “My best friend in sixth grade was (white or black or Vietnamese or Hispanic) but it seemed like we couldn’t be friends anymore in high school”.


My students do complain about high school cliques, but the complaints seem to have more to do the nature of cliques themselves than with any racial or ethnic nature of cliques. (Cliques seem a generic high-school problem.) A few students (whites and Asians particularly) also complain bitterly about affirmative action programs, which they perceive as working against them. But the complaints do not seem motivated by racism as much as by simple self-interest. These students are not stupid: like most people, they can see that affirmative action programs arefraught with ethical and practical dilemmas. So the students are always careful to preface their criticisms with caveats like, “Sure, everybody deserves an equal chance”. 


My students’ sexism seems to be more ingrained than racism —not surprising since TV sponsors rely on exploitative images of women to attract viewers and sell products; MTV is particularly repellent. But I think TV culture has done a good job teaching our students that racism, at least, is a bad thing.


The bad side of TV culture is that our students tend not to think critically about any of the images they absorb (worthy or unworthy), and particularly do not think critically about issues of class, or about values. Their world-views do not seem formed or coherent enough to harbor strong opinions of any kind, let alone attitudes of racism. Indeed, they do not appear to have “world-views” at all; ideas and attitudes do not appear to “stick”.[11]  Although if you ask them, they will say that TV is “all lies”, they nevertheless tend to accept unreflectively the TV picture of the world, in which mostly young, bland, physically attractive people with no serious commitments to religion, politics, or the life of the mind are all reasonably well-off. The primary goal of most of my students is to make enough money to buy the things those TV people all have, effortlessly, in the TV fantasy world. My students seem too busyto be seriously racist or sexist (or indeed to think much about anything at all). Their first loyalty is to the mall.


Furthermore, even if our students were both racist and viciously sexist, and a satisfactory multicultural curriculum were implemented, and that curriculum were completely successful in eradicating their racism and sexism, I am not sure that as long as consumerism rules, anybody would necessarily be any better off economically, socially, or psychologically. I also doubt that getting rid of racism and sexism would necessarily help create respect for indigenous cultures, or help them be preserved. As long as capitalism continues to operate as it does, cultural differences will disappear while unjust class differences remain. So like Menand, I am skeptical that economic justice (which I consider the absolutely fundamental pre-requisite for the attainment of social and psychological liberation) will be won simply by focusing on cultural diversity. 


I have been describing racism and sexism as both the particular causes and long-term effects of economic forces, which are themselves morally indifferent.  Powerful men of every race have feared, exploited, and belittled the less powerful — the most cursory analysis of world history reveals that exploitation was not invented, and was not solely perpetrated, by white men. And I think the less powerful are always feared not because they are of a different race or sex, but precisely because they are less powerful. Now that capitalism rules the world, and the former underclasses have buying power, the overt exploitation and belittling ceases. Most people at least pay lip service to ideals of equality and human rights. But the influence of persuasive images is stronger than it ever was.


I explain these matters in order to make clear my own perspective on the issue of cultural diversity in academia. It is vital to recognize the plures. But social justice and improved quality of life for all will not necessarily be achieved (or even helped) merely by emphasizing changes in personal attitudes, or by noting the exotic features of non-mainstream cultures. We must also ask how these attitudes and features came to be— for example, how racism and sexism serve to perpetuate the current economic status quo, or how the images put forth by corporate advertising, with their double messages (poverty is a shame, buy our product and stay poor), can be unmasked.


Perhaps proponents of multicultural education take for granted that the appropriate economic analysis will accompany instruction in multiculturalism; multiculturalists tend to be politically left of center, after all. Multiculturalism could be a powerful instrument in the indictment of consumer culture. But too often, I think, the case for multiculturalism is presented trivially, in the paranoid, oversimplified language of inflammatory accusation or reverse stereotyping (e.g., Elijah Mohammed’s “white devils” or Leonard Jeffries’ “people of ice”) or the off-putting, often baffling rhetoric of victimization. Too often multiculturalism is defended with ethically and logically suspicious arguments like relativism and deconstructionism (more on these presently). Too often, inconvenient arguments and conclusions — e.g., that there may be a biological basis for xenophobia and sexism — are ignored, countered with simplistic name-calling (the sociobiologists must be “racist” or “sexist”), or uncritically embraced. More on this below.


I have given a critique, based on economics, of some presentations of multiculturalism. But I would like to make it clear that I am not advocating any particular alternative political or economic arrangement. I am not saying that the basic ideas of capitalism are all bad. If some people, by working harder or more thoughtfully, deserve to win, there is nothing inherently unjust about a market economy or social stratification — indeed, as both blacks and whites have argued, justice requires (other things being equal) that people get what they deserve, so it is unjust for people to be denied what they deserve. Besides, capitalism and contemporary consumer culture sometimes work to improve the general well-being of everyone. And not just in obvious material ways, e.g., by rewarding people who genuinely do good (inventors of life-saving products, for example).  Less obvious benefits but even more important long-term benefits include the  generation and promulgation of worthwhile ideal images of freedom and human rights, with the implicit invitation to think critically about one’s own culture.

Slavery, foot-binding, clitoridectomy, genocide, etc. have been enthusiastically sanctioned in many cultures, both Western and non-Western. But cultures that are systematically unjust or cruel don't  necessarily deserve to be cherished and preserved. The more people are exposed to the ideals of freedom and universal human rights, the better.

A market economy might give at least some persons the freedom to achieve all they can. It gives to all but the most disadvantaged citizens the ability to vote with their pocketbooks for corporations that are socially and ecologically responsible. And it provides worthwhile ideals of freedom and human rights that invite people to think critically about more repressive systems. For that reason, the more ardent defenders of capitalism argue that capitalism itself fights the good fight against racism and sexism: although capitalism inevitably produces winners and losers, at least the winners are chosen fairly, on the basis of their diligence, cleverness, etc., and not because of race or sex.


That is the ideal, of course. But  in practice, capitalism is essentially conservative: the rich, once they are rich, tend to be immune from the forces of the market. They stay rich; it is well-known that “the rich get richer”. So, fair-minded people argue, we must make a “more level playing field”. And I am simply arguing here that the more level playing field isn’t necessarily going to be created as long as people (men, women, white, non-white) keep mindlessly shopping. In fact, shopping keeps the field stratified.


The "Human Nature" Argument Against the Ideals of Cultural Diversity


I would like to mention an argument that, if successful, qualifies my conclusion somewhat. I sometimes hear that racism and sexism are far more important factors than a purely economic analysis (such as I have given) would indicate; even if we could fix the world economically, we would still find ourselves struggling with racism and sexism, because unfortunately those nasty traits are simply built in to human nature. So you can argue and fight all you want for equality and universal human rights and social justice, but racism and sexism will always be with us, because they are have a genetic basis.


For example, ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz argue that aggression and conflict are natural, especially among young males, who fight to impress females; in the process, evolution weeds out weaker males (thereby improving the gene pool) and ensures that couples, and later families, have sufficient living space. E. O. Wilson, in Sociobiology, points out that social animals who live in clans (like humans) are naturally xenophobic, preferring to consort with animals who bear a family resemblance to themselves, since they are more likely to find safety among their own kin. His theory of kin selection says that individual animals are far more likely to be altruistic on behalf of their kin than on behalf of unrelated animals. Kin selection makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view. If the overriding evolutionary goal is to get one’s genes passed on to the next generation, one might achieve that goal by simply having offspring oneself; but one might also achieve it by ensuring the safety of kin, who share one’s genes. So humans (of all races) will naturally feel safer among people who look like themselves, and will feel somewhat less secure among strangers. Hence there is nothing surprising about racism; as long as the races do not intermarry (blurring and blending the distinctive racial characteristics in the offspring), some xenophobia (of which racism is an example) is perfectly natural.


Furthermore, since evolution, for the sake of efficiency in some habitats, fosters division of labor in the rearing of offspring, and since females almost invariably are the primary care-givers, evolution equips females with a set of built-in interests and satisfactions quite different from those of males. Females are typically weaker than males, and by nature less interested in social power and position. Hence, the argument goes, human societies would probably run a lot better if we adhered to nature’s division of labor. Women should find  satisfactions primarily in child-rearing, both for society’s sake and for their own sakes, since they will never be truly happy in any other role. And Wilson’s views give empirical support to the “natural law” style of moral argument, which is still defended vigorously by the Catholic Church and is enjoying a new popularity in theories of jurisprudence (Clarence Thomas is a famous recent adherent). According to Wilson, human behavior is heavily influenced by instincts — which express the natural law or “human nature” — whether we like it or not.


Biological-determinist arguments cannot be dismissed as easily as you might think.[12] In the 1960s and 1970s, the ideas of Lorenz and Wilson were considered merely speculative. Although the ideas were very controversial in academia, the controversy was mostly “academic” and theoretical (philosophers participated in the discussion!). However plausible and elegant the theories might have appeared, technology did not yet exist to test them empirically. However, biotechnology exploded in the 1980s, and Wilson’s views on kin selection have apparently been widely confirmed. They certainly appear to throw cold water on liberal ideals of human perfectibility. I will not attempt to refute these ideas here. The usual dismissal takes the line that “Humans are different from animals, and you can’t make a generalization about humans on the basis of animal studies.” But this response is less and less convincing to me, as I learn more about developments in sociobiology, genetics, psycho-pharmacology, and cognitive science.


There is a difficult philosophical question beneath the controversy about biological determination of behavior, namely, is there such a thing as “human nature” in the first place? Right-wing thinkers tend to see human nature as relatively fixed and dangerous; while the left has tended to view people as plastic, capable of being molded by society and environment, and morally perfectible. Humans are clearly not entirely plastic (at least at this point in the development of technology), so if there is such a thing as human nature, to what extent does human nature influence human behavior? What can we really expect from people? Where do we draw the line between determinism and personal responsibility? West Valley’s Philosophy 6 (Philosophy of the Person)treats these questions very seriously. The so-called “nature-nurture” problem in psychology is a modern formulation of the old philosophical question. I bring up the background philosophical and psychological question to illustrate that serious thinkers have given (and continue to give) strong arguments for some degree of biological determination of behavior. The opponent of racism and sexism cannot simply dismiss the arguments with ad hominem rhetoric.


I bring up these arguments to indicate the complexity of the issues we face: there are economic forces, which I have been emphasizing, but there may also be other, even more basic forces, and multiculturalists must demonstrate that they have thought seriously about these biological arguments. I think that multiculturalists must participate in the discussion and analysis of the biological arguments, and the deep philosophical questions they raise.


I think that multiculturalists are often justifiably wary of biological arguments because Nazis and other white racists have used them to justify racism. So some multiculturalists simply reject the arguments out of hand, refusing even to consider them. They offer no counter-argument, only name-calling. I think it would be better to acknowledge the arguments themselves without resorting to name-calling; for what do the biological arguments really show after all? Not that the goal of equality and universal human rights is impossible, but that the task is perhaps even more daunting than anyone had imagined.


On the other hand, some separatist feminists and multiculturalists seem to embrace the biological arguments. The separatists would like us to believe that the sexes or the races can never get along; that there is a “natural” warfare between the sexes and/or the races, so that the best solution is simply to stay away from one another. I hear undertones of this sort of biological determinism in the often-heard claim that all white people are racist (and all men are sexist) no matter what they say or do. Spokespersons for minorities or feminists often say this in liberal media like National Public Radio’s call-in program Talk of the Nation or our local equivalent Forum. I find this claim tiresome and absurd. Let me explain why.


I will first describe the typical radio exchange. The spokesperson claims that all whites are racist (or all men are sexist). A caller brings forward counterexamples — instances of white or male persons who evidence no racism or sexism, who in fact demonstrate exemplary, heroic adherence to principles of universal brother(sister)hood. The caller says, “Look at Mother Teresa, look at Wes Cummins, look at the white civil-rights workers murdered in the 60s, look at John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and all those white Union men who died in the Civil War. Surely these counterexamples prove that not all white people are racist.” But the spokespersons invariably discount every supposed counterexample. They reply, “Of course Wes (or Lincoln or whoever) is racist; he can’t help it, he’s a white man. Maybe he’s better than most, but he is racist in his heart of hearts, perhaps even subconsciously. Perhaps he doesn’t even know it.” 


There is a logical problem here. The spokespersons accept nocounterexamples to the claim that all whites are racist. Any apparent counterexamples are automatically judged bogus, so the claim that all whites are racist becomes completely irrefutable. Philosophers always think twice (or three or four times) about claims that cannot be supported or refuted by any evidence whatsoever; they always ask whether anything substantive is really being asserted at all. Let’s not forget that no overt, empirical, intersubjective evidence whatsoever exists to support that claim that Wes is racist; all the overt empirical, intersubjectively verifiable evidence in fact points to the conclusion that he is not. Surely it is far more rational to assume Wes is not racist than that he is!


The defender of the “all white people are racist” line might now reply that a person does not have to exhibit racist behavior in order to be racist, i.e., a person might be racist even if s/he never behaves in a racist manner. For example, a white man might “feel uncomfortable” with non-whites (and vice-versa), even if his behavior is scrupulously fair.  But surely any definition of “racism” that relies on speculation about subjective events is suspicious. Surely racism proper is a matter of behavior and thought, not feeling. And surely “feeling uncomfortable” is not the same thing as racism. Mere diffidence is not racism; perhaps I am simply shy. If I feel uncomfortable in a room full of non-white strangers, it doesn’t follow that I’d feel any more comfortable in a room full of white strangers.[13] If I feel offended, I might simply be a victim of “equal opportunity” rudeness (some people are rude to everyone). “Feeling uncomfortable”, “feeling offended”, “feeling hurt” are not necessarily indications that a racial incident is occurring.


More importantly, if the definition of racism allows for a person to be racist even in the absence of any racist behavior, then there is no way to distinguish racist white people from non-racist ones. That is exactly the point, the separatist might reply triumphantly: all white people areracist, even if they never show it — that’s why there are no counterexamples. But the circularity of the definition should now be obvious. Why do you say all whites are racist? Because there are no counterexamples. And why are there no counterexamples? Because all whites are racist.


I think, then, that we ought to treat biological determinist arguments with some caution, since there are problems both with rejecting them outright and with embracing them uncritically.


Values Talk


Finally, as a moral philosopher, I would like to talk about values. Obviously capitalism, the biological arguments I have mentioned, and superficial “Christian values” are connected in interesting ways. All three world-views — capitalism, Darwinism and its children (ethology, sociobiology), and superficial Christianity — have historically been employed to reinforce each other, and to collectively mount an attack on naive egalitarianism. For example, a certain amount of aggression is supposed to help you succeed in capitalism, and what do you know, according to ethology, it’s natural too. According to ethology and sociobiology, male primates are “naturally” more aggressive than females, and that’s why according to naive Christianity, men should be the breadwinners.  Men are “by nature” morally tougher and more emotionally stable than women, so only men should be priests. “Family values”are best, and what do you know, it’s also natural for a woman to want to take care of children, and it’s natural for people to prefer their own families over any other people. Evolution’s imperative is to produce as many offspring as possible, and what do you know, Catholics agree that birth control is “unnatural”. Wars are “natural”, of course, and can also be “holy”. Territoriality (imperialism) is natural, profit-making, “civilizing”, and soul-saving.


The bottom line in all these views is that there are winners and losers. Some people lose in capitalism, some individuals and species lose in evolution, and some people go to hell. Not everybody can win. Even if people start at the same gate (which is doubtful), they simply do not end up “equal”at the finish line. 


Here is where I want to say something in defense of my cherished liberal ideals of “equal humanity”, equal opportunity, and human perfectability given the right social conditions. I reject facile generalizations about human hierarchy: surely it is false that men are by nature superior to women, or that white people are by nature superior to non-whites or vice-versa.


But I cannot help thinking that intelligence is better than stupidity, beauty better than ugliness, able-bodiedness better than disability, strength better than weakness, virtue better than wickedness. And I can’t help but think people who exemplify excellences, especially moral excellences, “better” than people who don’t. Clearly, such an attitude — a “natural”attitude, I would say — is a denial of equality. Such an attitude is not “fair”; many people cannot help being ugly or ill, people are not responsible for their genes. Some people are luckier than others, in wealth or beauty or love or temperament. I even think there is such a thing as moral luck. Some people seem to experience fewer moral challenges, fewer temptations than others. People who have faced poverty, emotional deprivation, or abuse are often morally unlucky, because they are especially vulnerable to temptations to dishonesty, self-deception, and self-pity.[14] Kant, Aristotle, and Sartre all argue this point at length.


Fair or not, all this seems true. Life is unfair. Beautiful people are worshipped, in all societies. Stronger, more cunning people win races and society’s prizes. So here is where I find myself stuck, and tending more and more to political incorrectness. For I find myself thinking that there is something to the notion of human hierarchy, too. The hierarchy isn’t based on race or sex; it seems based mostly on the luck of the evolutionary draw. The fact that some people are almost bound to lose is, I think, part of what people mean by intractable imperfectable “human nature”.


Let me explain my position by a historical analogy. The main insight of Martin Luther was his claim that humans are sinful by nature and simply cannot ever become good enough to deserve heaven by their own efforts;they must trust entirely in God’s grace. Thus the fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the degree of importance given to “works” (good actions in the world). Catholics never stopped valuing works and continued to stress the importance of successfulcharacter-formation — the life of virtue achieved by one’s efforts of will, or, in a word, sainthood. Catholics do not views saints as people especially helped by God; the idea of sainthood is much more democratic — anyone can become a saint by striving hard enough. I think this is why Catholics tend to support more liberal solutions to social problems; Catholics are fundamentally more optimistic than Protestants about what humans can achieve through efforts of the will. In contrast, Protestantism of Luther’s type is fundamentally skeptical about what humans can achieve without grace. Protestants don’t have saints. Hence for Protestants of the Lutheran tradition, works and success in character-formation assume a secondary role to “faith” or “grace” (what I would call “luck”).


In a way, what I am saying here is that I have become more “Protestant” in my skepticism about what humans can achieve through efforts of the will. (This is not to say I have converted to Lutheranism, just that I agree with Luther’s observations about “human nature”.) The notion of fixed, corruptible human nature — unfair and unequal, just as the Hindus say — makes me skeptical about my old utopian ideals. I simply no longer believe in the possibility of universal sainthood.


I find myself acknowledging more and more that life is unfair. We do seem to be born unequal. We don’t start from the same blocks, and we don’t all wear the same fetters.


Now, what follows from this? For me, not the Hindu or Platonic line about knowing one’s place and performing the duties of one’s station in life. I don’t think we can know someone else’s place. Free will — conditioned to be sure, but still something —is the wild card. People’s excellences often take me by surprise, and they are unrelated to race, sex, or social class. You simply can’t tell what a person might achieve, so you ought to give everyone a chance. So, I conclude we ought to try to level the material, economic playing field; after all, it’s the one we have most control over. We ought to fight for social justice. Maybe someday we can level the genetic playing field as well.


Yet suppose we’d done that. Would the game now be a tie? I don’t think so, not necessarily. Genes are only the beginning, equal opportunity is only the beginning. People might still choose not to flourish. I am more and more of the view that in spite of material inequalities or inequalities of self-esteem (a much over-rated virtue, in my opinion), humans are equal in a large moral sense, over the span of a life. I think mature people are responsible for how they have played their hand morally and spiritually. I say this because of the common observation that after some point in life (and I don’t think we need to know exactly when), most people can’t convincingly blame anyone else for their failure to thrive as human beings.Acknowledging that humans mostly contend with more or less fixed tendencies to “sin”[15] means that as long as there’s freedom, the moralplaying field is going to be pretty level. Human nature being what it is, the race isn’t going to be a tie — we aren’t going to end up equal in virtue or happiness.


This is not to deny very real oppression and injustice. I am certainly not saying that oppressed people should necessarily take the route of resignation, passivity, and forgiveness. I am saying, however, that that route makes some sense for some people; and the older one becomes, the more sense it makes. Economic justice is vital; we can never lose sight of it. But, unfortunately, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for what I consider true human liberation; and if I have learned anything on this sabbatical, it is that older civilizations, such as those of the Third World and even Europe, are far more skeptical than Americans about the importance of possessions or social position or legal rights for making a person happy or free or good. All the great world religions, including Christianity, are about coming to terms with limits. They are about realizing that the world is not what you might like, that life is often unfair, that the evil prosper and the good suffer, that striving is often in vain, that you die, etc. Hindu women, for example, commonly insist that they are free in spite of their obviously inferior and unequal status; they do not understand women’s liberation. It is taken for granted in Hinduism that some people will always be exploited and on the bottom of the social heap. Hinduism, Confucianism, and Platonism see the ideal society as radically unequal — one’s social or economic role has little if any relation to personal happiness or the worth of one’s life.


The insight of old civilizations is that human existence is always conditioned; no one escapes biology or some form of indoctrination. Freud (a deep thinker in spite of the many ways in which we might disagree with him) adds that no one escapes humiliation: the price of civilization is damaged self-esteem.[16] Humiliation is the inevitable result of the trauma of learning we are not the center of the universe. We may never fully recover from this; but if we do, it is by giving up our infantile desire to have everything we want and identifying ourselves with some set of moral rules or principles — choosing those rules as our rules. (Freud calls this the development of a super-ego.) Freud notes our ambivalence here. He observes that some people deal with the humiliation by making it their primary source of psycho-sexual pleasure. The existence of masochists (people who delight in enslavement) of both sexes, masochists of all races and social classes, people who apparently have no desire to be “equal”, is another disquieting reality for liberals. At best, Freud says, we make an uneasy and failed compromise with our infantile selves; hence, the inevitable “discontent” of civilized people.


I agree with Freud that civilized people’s self-esteem is inevitably curtailed — if not by parents or school, then by love, work, or simply aging. We escape and become free, as Freud and Kant say, by choosing to do the right thing without considering the consequences for our little selves —by setting status and self-interest aside, to the extent that this is possible, given “human nature”. If society were just, personal liberation wouldn’t be so much a matter of moral and material luck. But even if society were just, not everyone would choose to be free.


I do not want to say these are my settled views on the question of human nature, but this is where I currently sit. These views lead me inevitably to ponder the moral challenges of contemporary American society. As I have indicated, I do not think those challenges are really racism or sexism. And I think much is lost when public discourse becomes polarized along racial or sexual lines, as the debate over multiculturalism reveals it to be. We cannot endlessly emphasize our membership in victimized groups. We cannot endlessly obsess about how as children we didn’t get what richer, better-loved, better-treated white boys got. That was last week, last year, five or ten or thirty or fifty years ago. That’s the past. Multiculturalism and feminism today won’t get me a quinceañera. Affirmative action in 1993 won’t get me into medical school in 1967.


Consumer culture offers the consolation of money and possessions. Yet like Marcuse, I am profoundly suspicious of it, and oppressed people should be particularly wary. It can perpetuate unjust social stratification and in the paradise of “stuff”, people do not necessarily seem better or happier. Quite the contrary. In consumer culture, you can express yourself intelligibly only through your consumption, through your purchases;your identity is tied up in the products you buy; your very self is merely another “package” on display. (No wonder students resist the self-promotion required to obtain a “real” job; it is nothing but “grooming for the camera”, which they understand.) Not excellence, but the appearance of excellence counts. Not honesty and diligence, but the show. (It’s always show time.) The goal of life is to become an image, a shadow self — to be seen a certain way, but never to see. But that goal is perverse: a life of passivity, consuming prepackaged images and being consumed by them. Only the image-makers profit; but more importantly, we lose sight of our active, whole-hearted, authentic, best selves.


It is my job as a philosopher to try to think things through. Thus I cannot help bringing up philosophical matters that seem to me obviously essential but usually overlooked in the multiculturalism debate. I suppose that at bottom, I do not even think most people’s problems are “essentially” economic; they are spiritual, moral, philosophical (surprise!). And they are not new or particularly modern (though I think they are characteristically Western because of the Western tradition of individuality[17]). The lure of “stuff” makes mostAmericans (rich and poor) voluntarily surrender their cultural and spiritual identities in favor of passive consumerism — at least for a time.[18]


Thus, like Menand, I am skeptical about the usual rather superficial arguments given for multiculturalism. I think these arguments obscure the real underlying issues of economic power, social justice, quality of life, and spiritual and ethical priorities. Achieving the goals of multicultural education won’t necessarily eliminate economic class divisions;it may actually help perpetuate them by simply creating more diverse persuasive images (as it is realized, e.g., that images of African-Americans can sell athletic shoes, that images of Asian-Americans can sell milk, that non-white fashion models can sell clothes and cosmetics and novel hairstyles, etc.). But personal liberation is more than “self-expression” through consuming; the wants I can satisfy at the mall aren’t necessarily my best self’s desires.[19] A citizen is more than a consumer. A good person is more than a good shopper. Although people (both rich and poor) might feel better in the short run by making purchases (which are most often merely symbolic), they are no closer to genuine personal liberation.


I begin to understand myself and my life by understanding my culture or my race or my sex’s history and position; multicultural education is essential. But much of what passes for education demands only passivity from students. The struggle to finally become my best self is active, difficult, and potentially lonely, as Richard Rodriguez argues eloquently in Hunger of Memory. That struggle might well alienate me from my family, my community, my race, my sex, my culture itself; many authentic lives are scandalous. Seeking one’s truest and best self, immune to “consuming images”[20], requires great courage, because from the perspective of consumer culture, it is a downright subversive quest.



I. 2  Who Speaks for Whom?

Contemporary feminist scholarship features a miniature version of a debate central to multicultural education. The debate within feminism centers on the question: who speaks for non-white, non-Anglo women? The more general question is: who speaks for any cultural or racial group? Who is qualified to teach classes that focus on the experiences of a particular group? Must one be a member of the group in question to “really understand” and thus convey the experience? Can an outsider ever do the job well enough?


As I said, one version of the debate is heard in feminist and women’s studies journals. Non-white or non-Anglo women sometimes say their unique experience of double or triple oppression on account of sex and race or ethnicity and class cannot possibly be adequately represented or even understood by white, middle-class women. They conclude that white middle-class feminists cannot speak for them. 


Two reasons are given to support the claim that white middle-class feminists are not qualified to address the situation of non-white, non-Anglo women: (1) white women can’t possibly understand what it is like to suffer multiple forms of oppression; and (2)non-white women are more closely aligned to their communities, and thus have “divided loyalties”, which white women do not have. I disagree strongly with both these claims, but will deal here only with the first, and will take up the second claim in Section III. 9 below.


The first claim is in effect that in order to speak reliably about the situation of non-white females, one must be a non-white female, since only a non-white female can really understand another non-white female. My point here is that this claim is an instance of a more general principle that you often hear in the debate surrounding multicultural education, in connection with the question of who is qualified to teach specialized multicultural classes. Academia appears to have imposed on itself the same “categorical representation” policy of the Democratic Party. The principle is that only persons who have had the relevant specificexperience of oppression are truly qualified to testify about it. Whites cannot represent non-whites (and, presumably, non-whites cannot represent whites). We often hear, for example, that only a black person can really teach black history, only a native American can speak to native-American issues, only a woman can really understand another woman, etc.[21], since only a member of a specific oppressed group can really understand that group’s specific experience of oppression.


I do not understand why this should be necessarily so. For one thing, I think that I myself am a white woman who has experienced poverty and sexism and discrimination because of her appearance, i.e., multiple forms of oppression — by class, sex, and appearance. I think I can understand the situation of, say, a poor black woman. This is because the two fundamental facts of my own childhood were poverty and a disfiguring skin disease. My family was poor enough that we sometimes went hungry, had only emergency medical care (Medicaid didn’t exist yet), had no dental care at all (just look inside my mouth!), and in general were subject to all the humiliations of poverty — fear of the landlord and the grocer and the doctor and the boss, fear of getting sick, fear of getting robbed, fear that the heat would be shut off in the New York winter, gifts from the church at Christmas, cheap food, obsession with money and possessions, second-hand everything, etc. I was utterly at home watching bugs crawl up the wall after the lights were turned off at night; it was fun to let them crawl on me. My father was an alcoholic;he was seldom at home, which was just as well as far as we children were concerned, because he was prone to fits of violent anger. I had a severe case of eczema (which resembles impetigo) from infancy and throughout childhood; at one point I was even hospitalized for it. Because of our poverty, however, the eczema mostly went untreated. My face and body were covered with ugly sores, which also itched terribly. Scratching made the sores worse. Because of my sores, I was not much cuddled as a baby or as a child. Most neighborhood mothers would not let their children play with me. I was refused admittance to the local swimming pool, and avoided and taunted by other children. As a girl in the 1950s, I was, of course, also subject to all the usual forms of sexism, which were particularly onerous for me, because I hardly thought of myself as a girl at all — I never could imagine an ordinary girl’s future for myself, given my appearance. At the time (the 1950s and early 1960s), eczema was treatable only with what was then an new expensive drug (cortisone). However, my parents could not afford to buy it for me; once or twice we were given doctors’ samples, but they ran out in a few days.


I went to college and graduate school entirely on scholarships. I lived in dangerous neighborhoods throughout college; my apartment was robbed three times.


Physical deprivation and discomfort, and involuntary isolation because of my appearance were facts of life for me. Note that I am not talking here about one or two traumatic experiences; I am talking about everyday events for the first third  of my life.


Now, I certainly realize that many people routinely experience incomparably worse. I am not a Holocaust victim or a cancer patient or a starving Third World child. I bring up my own experiences just to emphasize that it’s not impossible, and maybe even not uncommon, for a white person, especially a poor white woman-child, to experience multiple forms of the same sort of everyday “oppression” that non-whites suffer.    


And I’d like you to imagine how I feel when people automatically label me “middle-class” or “yuppie witch from hell”. They assume I cannot possibly understand what it’s like to be poor and treated differently because of some unchangeable aspect of one’s physical appearance that’s irrelevant to one’s identity or worth as a person, like race. Can I “relate to” racial discrimination although I am not black? Can I relate to poverty although I am currently not poor? I think so.


Autobiographical counterexample aside, there are cogent arguments against the view that “nobody can understand me except someone just like me”. 


For example, even if an instructor hasn’t ever been poor or shunned because of his appearance, I think he might still bring to life in the classroom the experience of oppression — not, of course, by oppressing his students, but through the use of the relevant texts. A white man, like anyone else, might be an educated person; he might have a contribution to make. In my own life, white college boys urged me to read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and James Baldwin, not to mention Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, and Marcuse. Later I found Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Rodriguez, Alice Walker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Amy Tan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Saiichi Maruya, and others. I was changed by these writers. I think they speak for themselves.[22] And I don’t intend to stop learning world literature; I feel I have only begun.


In addition, the argument that nobody can understand me except somebody just like me is impossibly vague. It is fraught with fundamental difficulties:


1.   It assumes that there is some clearly-identifiable property (or set of properties) that constitutes “me” — as if each person has one absolute or essential identity, as female, black, disabled, black-female, female-disabled, etc.


2.   It assumes that it’s possible to determine the degree to which one has the property.


3.   It assumes that people who share the property will automatically think alike and understand one another. Other differences are irrelevant.


All three of these assumptions are highly problematic.


First, nobody is just like me. There is a tendency nowadays for people to see their personal lives mainly as instances of sociological or political stereotypes, e.g., “I am a middle-aged, white, female, college-educated baby boomer.” A life is taken to be no more than an instance of one or more cultural stereotypes. Now I agree that the personal is political, but I do not think the personal is only political. People are more than cultural stereotypes; everyone has her unique story. What do we say about, e.g., the aristocratic black African who has never experienced much racism? the African who is a devout Muslim and does not consider herself oppressed? the black conservative? the gay Republican? It is often forgotten that not all African-Americans think alike;not all women think alike; not all gay people think alike.


There is, furthermore, a tendency for others to think they know you if they know the cultural stereotype. But since no one is really just like me, there is no such automatic knowledge. In fact, if nobody can understand me except someone just like me, then since I am the only person just like me, nobody elsecan understand me at all. The best I can do is understand myself, and even if I can do that (no easy task), I can never convey my self-understanding to others, since, not being just like me, they can’t understand me. Obviously, this attitude makes communication and resolution of conflict impossible; it is really, I think, another manifestation of the sterility and pessimism of deconstructionism (see section I. 4).


Enormous problems surround the question of who, if anyone, is enoughlike me to speak to my experience. How alike is “alike enough”? Because each individual’s circumstances are unique, facile assumptions and labels seem not to work well; they oversimplify. For example, Ynestra King has “a mobility impairment that is only minorly disfiguring” as a result of childhood polio;she can walk, climb stairs, drive a car, swim, hike in the wilderness, dress and feed herself, etc. King relates how a “politically correct” friend once “dragged her across the room” at a party to meet another disabled woman, on the assumption that the two disabled women would automatically have much in common. 


King comments: “Rather than argue —what would I say? “I’m not interested in other disabled people,” or “This is my night off”? (The truth in that moment was like the truth of this experience in every other moment, complicated and difficult to explain) — I went along to find myself standing before someone strapped in a wheelchair she propels by blowing into a tube with a respirator permanently fastened to the back of the chair.”It is absurd, King says, to suggest “that our relative experience of disability is something we could casually compare (as other people stand by!). ... So much for disability solidarity!”[23]


As King points out, every person is, with respect to disability, “somewhere on a continuum between total bodily dysfunction ... and complete physical wholeness.” Few people fit neatly at one or the other end of this continuum. I think race and ethnicity in America constitute continua also. There are few “pure” racial or ethnic specimens;rather, most people are more or less assimilated both genetically and culturally — some more than others, of course, but most everyone to some extent. Think of Malcolm X’s reddish hair. Even I have a little Native American blood. Furthermore, the cultural influences, if not the genetic ones, expand all the time as a result of mass culture. Think of those “United Colors of Benneton”ads again. We are becoming more the can of mixed paint, and less the mosaic.


So, how alike is “alike enough”? It will not do to answer simply “I’ll know it when it see it”; in the academic job market, for example, people’s livelihoods are often at stake. How do we measure if one understands another person or culture “enough”? Consider the following (unlikely) scenario. Suppose I decide to get out of philosophy and devote the rest of my academic career to, say, ethnic studies. Surely the fact that I am white does not affect my basic brain-power, and I should not be assumed incapable of doing good work in that field. Now suppose I were to buy the argument that I do not “really understand” ethnic studies, because I am not “ethnic enough”; I acknowledge that I have been made blind to essential aspects of ethnic experience by my supposed membership in the dominant culture. Well, I tell myself, surely my blindness is not permanent. So I try to improve my prospects by making myself more ethnic, by, say, embracing a completely different culture, learning its language and customs, marrying a native, etc. Several years pass. Have I become more qualified? I can certainly imagine proponents of the “just like me” argument saying “no”: I am now just a white woman who embraced a different culture: a curiosity, like Margaret Mead among the Samoans.[24] What exactly must I do so I can “really understand”? Well, my teachers regretfully reply, there may be nothing you can do; but if and when you’ve become enough like us, we’ll know. This scenario might be specious; perhaps clear criteria exist for measuring the degree to which one “really understands”. If clear criteria exist, I withdraw this argument. But I am not aware of such criteria.


The attitude that nobody can understand me except someone just like me is, in addition to being impossibly vague, both illogical and prejudicial. The non-white woman might say: “No one can really understand me except someone just like me.” But the white middle-class feminist now has no possiblecontribution to make to the dialog, since anything she says is automatically judged inaccurate and off the mark, simply because she is white — not because of the content of anything she says, but simply because she is not the sort of person who is allowed to participate in the discussion. But discounting the white woman’s opinion just because she is white is flagrantly ad hominem. Indeed, it is exactly an instance of the sort of treatment which the non-white woman would legitimately complain of, if it were done to her.[25]


The argument that only people like me can teach about people like me leads, finally, I think, to unacceptable consequences. Surely if European men are more or less automatically disqualified from teaching women’s studies or ethnic studies — on the grounds that they are “unable really to understand” female or ethnic experience — we are implicitly granting legitimacy to the principle that one’s academic qualifications are at least partially determined by sex or race or ethnicity. But if that’s true — if there really are classes European men simply can’t teach — then conversely, there must also be classes non-Europeans simply can’t teach, no? Adopting the principle that qualifications are determined by sex or race or ethnicity opens the door for exclusion in both directions; the door swings both ways. (“I’m sorry, but you non-Europeans can’t really understandShakespeare.”)


It is usually taken for granted that a person of color can use his or her experiences of oppression to enhance and broaden the analysis of, say, English literature, e.g., by noting that the life of the playful aristocrats in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is financed by sugar plantations in the New World — i.e., by slavery. It is taken for granted that a feminist can do the same, e.g., by critically analyzing the double standard regarding virginity in Much Ado About Nothing. Certainly a white European man could learn from such analyses and advocate these very persuasive ideas also — and not just in English literature classes. Why not, exactly?


Only one additional argument comes to mind in favor of the view that you can’t understand me unless you’re just like me. I have heard the claim that the non-white’s or women’s experience of oppression is psychologically devastating to a degree unimaginable by anyone who has not shared it; and this is why white men, who presumably live uniformly unperturbed lives (!), cannot ever “really understand” non-white or female experience. Non-whites’ and women’s experience of everyday oppression is claimed to be emotionally catastrophic; it is said to damage them in the same deep and comprehensive ways as childhood sexual abuse.[26] Phyllis Chesler, in Women and Madness, argues, for example, that ordinary women’s lives make them clinically insane. The black psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, even claims that violence by oppressed Third World people is justifiable, as a means to recover their dignity and mental health.


According to Fanon, rational arguments are relatively useless to people who have suffered from intense oppression; these people really need therapy in order to recover their psychological stability and self-esteem. They need emotional release. They literally cannot think straight while in the throes of suffering. Ordinary educational methods will not help them, for their rage and pain are too all-consuming. They need to participate in a support group of persons with similar experiences, led by a sympathetic facilitator (one who has shared the experience). They need a safe, non-judgmental environment in which they can share their turbulent and crippling feelings and become healed. Or they need a classroom environment where they can act out their rage by excluding and demeaning representatives of the oppressor group; for example, Angela Davis does not permit white students to speak in her classes. In any case, they need special classes with special faculty. Only people who have gone through what they’ve experienced can really understand and be effective in teaching them.


I have several very serious objections to this line of argument. First, I object strongly to the characterization of women and non-white people as emotional cripples incapable of rational thought or moral behavior. Surely that characterization in the West in our time is simply false of the vast majority of non-whites and women. Indeed, I would think that many women and non-whites would find it insulting and alarming to be characterized as “damaged” by oppression and in need of what amounts to therapy in the classroom; for this just invites another, more insidious form of racism. The oppressor can say, with a great show of sincerity and humility, his head hung down low, that “Yes, it’s unfortunate but true, they really can’t compete because they’ve been hurt so badly by our oppression — and we’re really, really sorry, we feel sooo bad about it (wink wink) — but gee, this means that by their own admission, they’re really not ready for positions of power or authority where they’d be forced to interact with us — that bothers them too much, don’t you know. Better keep them in those neighborhoods and schools and classrooms and pink-ghetto jobs with their own kind where they feel comfortable.”


The oppressor is only too happy to allow racially and sexually self-segregated ethnic studies and women’s studies departments in the university. Such departments are a relatively cheap way to give non-whites and women the illusion of power, while at the same time marginalizing them.


Camille Paglia, Allan Bloom, Arthur Schlesinger[27], Page Smith[28], Diane Ravitch[29], and others also have serious reservations about the quality of scholarship in such departments. The fields are not well-defined: why is ethnic studies not a specialty within sociology or anthropology, for example? Does women’s studies have a characteristic methodology distinct from other disciplines in the social sciences or the arts? Ethnic studies and women’s studies have few scholars to begin with, so there is not much competition to get published in dedicated journals. Furthermore, scholars in these fields frequently read and quote one another, i.e., the fields are both insulated and isolated. There is virtually no cross-disciplinary criticism, since scholars within these fields often assume that outsiders can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be non-white or female, and thus outsiders are automatically thought incompetent to render judgment about their work. This is a perilous situation, and strikes at the heart of the idea of the university, which assumes an interdisciplinary community of scholars.


In my opinion, the insular nature of disciplines like ethnic and women’s studies do not serve their own scholars; the insularity makes it difficult for them to be taken seriously no matter how competent they are. It is not surprising that traditional academic departments, with few exceptions, publicly ignore and privately disparage ethnic studies and women’s studies. It is common for traditional academics to suspect that the “top” scholars in these fields might merely be giants among pygmies, and sometimes with reason.[30] Patently false notions seem to flourish in these fields (e.g., the use of the word “African” to denote a racial or cultural group, as if the huge African continent is racially or culturally homogeneous — obviously false to anyone who knows even a little about the history of Islam[31];or the absurd notion that the American Founders were influenced “equally” by the Iroquois Confederation and the ideas of the European Enlightenment; or the extremely widespread notion that the ancient Egyptians were black[32]).  Wacky ideas receive rapt attention (e.g., that all of Greek culture was “stolen” from Africa). Odd decisions are made about curricula (e.g., that Hispanic children in Southern California should study Mayan history and culture, but not the history and culture of Spain[33]). Even in philosophy, there is far less prestige attached to publishing in the feminist journal Hypatia than in a mainstream journal like the Journal of Philosophy; and it is also true that the quality of work in Hypatia is simply not as good.


The self-segregated classroom leads many black intellectuals such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Marian Wright Edelman to be concerned that the “victim” for whom special allowance is made is after all not playing on the “level playing field” with the rest of society. The “victim” whose education has been segregated is playing on a different field altogether, never able to pit her skills against most of the competition — her situation is quite similar to, and no better than, what it would have been in the days of enforced segregation. The victim knows this, too; she is no fool. She may wonder if she is “really” as good as her teachers tell her. Even if she appears to win in the larger world, she may be undermined by her own self-doubt.


The victim role is morally treacherous, too, since the victim often finds she can successfully appeal to the pity of others both when she needs help and when she doesn’t (when, say, she is merely feeling frightened or lazy). She knows her victim status is a powerful tool for getting what she wants, and she faces the special temptation to over-use that tool. She is tempted to identify with the role of victim— to believe that that is what she is. (Sartre calls this “bad faith”.) Her situation is analogous to the pretty woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate men; by using men whenever she is afraid, the pretty woman remains infantile and dependent. But who can blame her for using what may be  the only tool at her disposal? The strategy works, at least as long as she is young and pretty.


But it doesn’t work forever, and it exacts a price. Unaware of their own strengths (not having used them), both the pretty woman and the person who identifies with the victim role are likely to become even more fearful and dependent. They do not gain self-respect by their too-easy manipulation of others; they lose it, and can become caught in a downward spiral of fear, dependence, and self-contempt.


Analogously, children frequently use their actual lack of power, money, etc. to manipulate their elders; and the well-brought-up child doesn’t usually get away with it. But the victim often has no one who will speak plainly to her; misfortune and weakness frighten the fortunate — but she knows that too.


Finally, I am concerned about the underlying view that the classroom is primarily a place where people share their feelings and learn psychological wholeness and self-esteem. Surely if people need therapy they should get it. But while therapy can be educational, education is not therapy. Many people seem to think that everyday classroom practice should be primarily expressive, not analytical: they think students should be encouraged to express their feelings, all are entitled to their feelings, feelings can never be criticized, and one’s opinions — even if supported by evidence and argument —are never anything more than feelings. I have called this the trendy “group therapy” model of education[34]. Many of my students have experienced this sort of classroom; they will admit to no serious views (because someone might object and they don’t want to commit the faux pas of “putting down”someone). Because the students have not been encouraged to think things through, they are completely unanchored intellectually. At the same time, they will passionately defend their “right”to believe whatever they like, and sometimes become quite heated when I claim some arguments are better than others.


But some arguments arebetter than others. There is an obvious difference between feeling and truth. The university is not the clinic. The clinic has its place; and of course we all sometimes might like to sit in a circle and share our feelings. But feelings are not always interesting, enlightening, or worthy of expression; as both Christians and Freudians know, feelings are frequently shameful, half-baked, and juvenile. They do not necessarily reveal our best selves; quite the contrary. The thing we desire is not necessarily the thing we ought to desire. We do not show respect for others or for ourselves when we insist that all feelings be shared; part of dignity is keeping some feelings to yourself. I bring this up because, as I will discuss below, many proponents of multicultural education seem also to advocate the group-therapy (“no hierarchies”) classroom model; and I suspect they do so at least partly because of some version of the argument that non-whites and women are especially damaged.


Thus, I have argued that the claim “no one can understand me except someone like me” is imprecise and logically flawed. If we argue the claim with the premise that women and non-whites are damaged, the argument becomes positively treacherous because of its potential use as justification for more comprehensive forms of racism.


Another popular rationale for the group-therapy classroom model is deconstructionist philosophy, which I shall discuss in section I.4.  Before analyzing deconstructionism, I need to say a few things about the nature of philosophy and philosophical method. I think those remarks will lay the groundwork for a better understanding of why philosophers usually find deconstructionism shallow and tedious. 



I. 3 What is Philosophy?

Logical argumentation is the hallmark of philosophy. Philosophy is characteristically dialectical;it consists of reasoned arguments for philosophical views, as well as presentation and consideration of possible opposing arguments (counterarguments). Even when a philosopher such as Thomas Aquinas advocates religious belief, he does so on the basis of reason.


People unfamiliar with philosophy often misunderstand what philosophy is.  They confuse philosophy with literature, “wisdom writing”, anthropology, mythology, folklore, and even psychology and sociology.


Determining what distinguishes world philosophy from world literature “raises, in an acute form, the question of what philosophy is.”[35] This is because some classics of non-Western so-called “philosophy”, such as the Mahabharata, are frequently not dialectical; they do not use reasoning and argumentation as the primary method of arriving at conclusions. In fact, they sometimes eschew discursive reason altogether in favor of story-telling. 


Are such writings philosophy, then? The question becomes particularly complicated in the area of ethics. Most literate cultures have “classics of practical wisdom” — works containing popular proverbs or maxims of practical advice, or important and beautiful allegories or parables of the good life, but no argument. Such works may ground their conclusions in individual feelings and individual religious experiences, both of which are viewed skeptically by most Western philosophy. Or such works may simply be tracts of “advice” — pamphlets describing what is prudent. (The analogues in the Western tradition are the works of Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Montaigne, LaRochefoucauld, etc.) “Where should we draw the line between philosophical ethics and literature with moral dimensions ...?” [36]


Most philosophers, Western and non-Western alike, see literature with moral dimensions as literature only, but a few ethics texts include selections from them nonetheless. The majority opinion in philosophy seems to be that works lacking dialectic are not philosophy, but that a primarily literary work might have parts that are philosophy because it discusses philosophical issues in a systematic, analytical way, e.g., the Bhagavad-Gita section of the Mahabharata, or the Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov. “Wisdom writings”(collections of maxims or proverbs) tend to be excluded from ethics texts, in my experience, because they lack argument.


People uneducated in academic philosophy often have trouble distinguishing philosophy from anthropology, mythology, or folklore, which all have as a primary objective to report, catalog, and compare what people believe. The common misunderstanding is that philosophy is just “what you believe”.[37] On this view, philosophy is a kind of natural event, like weather; people’s beliefs just are, though they also change over time. Anthropology, mythology, and folklore are like weather reporting. But academic philosophers are much more like meteorologists than weather reporters. Philosophy never takes beliefs at face value. Many people believe patently false and irrational things. Philosophy’s task, rather, is to put beliefs to the test of critical analysis, to determine which beliefs are well-supported by reason and which are not.Thus, while philosophers are as interested as anybody else in what people happen to believe, they are not like pollsters who simply report people’s beliefs “objectively”, without critical analysis.


Philosophers are certainly interested in comparative religion and social science, but philosophy is not exactly an empirical discipline; it is more “applied logic”. It analyzes the arguments in support of belief; the analysis checks for ambiguity, inconsistency, invalidity and unsoundness of argument, as well as plausibility and consistency of logical consequences. I enumerate these things because I find much misunderstanding about what it means to “analyze” a belief philosophically. My students (and others) often think “analysis of belief” is providing a psychological or sociological account of it. They think they have satisfactorily refuted a belief if they can “explain it away”  by uncovering its psychological or sociological origin (E.g., “So-and-so only says X because so-and-so is a member of such-and-such race or sex or class or ethnic group”). But philosophers would disagree. For philosophers, “explaining away”someone’s beliefs by psychological or sociological analysis without addressing the content of the belief itself is a paradigm example of the ad hominem fallacy. Psychological or sociological analysis of this kind does not address whether or not X is well-supported by reason, regardless of what race or sex or class or ethnic group its advocates belong to. The philosopher’s question is: is it rational to believe X?


Folklorists are anthropologists or sociologists who study the traditional customs, tales, and sayings preserved among a people, usually transmitted by oral tradition. Folklore is a comparative science (naturally I mean a social science here); it reports and compares.  It conceives of itself as primarily data-gathering, and like social sciences generally, is non-judgmental and non-critical.  It does not ask if the beliefs of a people are true or well-supported; that is not its job.


I am bringing up the question of distinguishing philosophy from anthropology, folklore, and other social sciences because much of the information we have about the beliefs of some non-European cultures, particularly African and native American cultures, has been gathered by anthropologists and folklorists. Most of Africa did not have writing until well into the modern period, so much of the information gathered by anthropologists is within the province of folklore. It is important to note that this information by itself is not philosophy. Nor is reporting it. A simple uncritical inventory of beliefs is not a statement of philosophyin the academic sense. Philosophy develops; later philosophical views typically modify, criticize, and enrich earlier views. Oral traditions characteristically do not develop; in an oral tradition, the argument (if any) for a belief does not accompany it, since transmitting the argument along with the belief would make the whole process too time-consuming and the whole package too difficult for most people to understand, let alone remember. In an oral culture, it is a sufficient justification for X to say “We believe X because our ancestors believed it”.  Only with the introduction of writing in a culture do we find sustained, continuous development of argumentation about traditional beliefs (what academic philosophers would call philosophy).


The foregoing has been an attempt to convey some idea of the methodology of philosophy. Now, what about the content of the beliefs analyzed? Philosophy can’t be merely a method, since that definition would be too broad. Scientists, for example, analyze beliefs (about the natural world) using the methods of logic, but nobody (nowadays[38])would say they are doing philosophy. There is more to philosophy than logical analysis; there are standard topics to which philosophers apply their tools:topics like the existence of God, the nature of reality, the relation between mind and matter, what it means to be a person, the fate of a person after death, and the “law of the deed” (the connection, if any, between one’s conduct now and one’s destiny). But note that in order to count as philosophy, the approach to these topics must be critical as well as speculative. Joseph Campbell’s work is often (wrongly) thought to be academic philosophy because it describes and compares beliefs about these topics; but description and comparison are not critical analysis. Religious beliefs are commonly conflated with philosophy, but the religious approach is generally grounded in faith, which is quite different from critical analysis.[39]


These misunderstandings lead to a vexing result for philosophers around the world today (more on this presently). Since most people do not understand philosophical method — i.e., since they think philosophy is “just what you believe” — they conclude (wrongly) that any culture that simply has beliefs about any of these topicshas “philosophy”, whether or not it has a sustained tradition of dialectic. Furthermore, the naive argument goes, since everyculture has beliefs about these things, every culture has “philosophy”. And so there is no impediment to a philosophy department’s offering courses in the philosophy of any culture, in order to embrace multiculturalism. The material “is there”.


This naive view rests on the same equivocation about what “philosophy” is that I described above. People often use the word “philosophy”to mean just “a set of beliefs” or “a set of beliefs about a certain list of topics”; but that usage is not the more restricted, academic one. The equivocation on “philosophy” reminds me of a similar common equivocation on “history”. History in the proper sense is the narrative of events, but the word “history” is often conflated with “past events” generally. So historians are urged to embrace multiculturalism by studying and teaching the “history” of every culture; the assumption is that every culture has a history. But the assumption is true only of history in the conflated sense: every culture has a past, but not every culture necessarily has a history in the more restricted sense of a narrative. In the same way, every culture has beliefs, but not every culture has philosophy in the sense of a sustained tradition of dialectic.


African philosopher Kwasi Wiredu makes exactly the distinction that is called for here: he distinguishes “folk philosophy”(African philosopher Paulin Hountondji calls it “ethno-philosophy” (Wright 3))from philosophy proper. Folk philosophy or ethno-philosophy is the set of beliefs about traditional philosophical issues (God, freedom, souls, immortality, morality etc.) held by members of a community. Such beliefs systems may be quite sophisticated, coherent, and elaborate. But they are not philosophy without a written tradition of critical analysis.


“[I]n Africa, where we do not have even a written traditional philosophy, anthropologists have fastened on our folk world-views and elevated them to the status of a continental philosophy” (Wright, 157)  But, Wiredu continues, philosophy proper comprises those beliefs plus critical analysis and argumentation. Folk philosophy “is not the creation of any specifiable set of philosophers; it is the common property of all and sundry, thinker and non-thinker alike, and is called philosophy at all only by a quite liberal acceptation of the term.Folk thought, as a rule, consists of bald assertions without argumentative justification, but philosophy in the narrower sense must contain not just theses. Without argumentation and clarification, there is, strictly, no philosophy.” (Wright 156)


Thus I would agree that every culture has folk philosophy;but I do not think every culture has philosophy in the academic sense.  And folk philosophy is not the province of academic philosophers; it belongs to anthropologists or folklorists or students of comparative religion. Thus I recommend that philosophy classes study only philosophy proper, not folk philosophy. Furthermore, I recommend that other disciplines such as anthropology and sociology incorporate folk philosophies of non-Western cultures where appropriate.


I conclude also that philosophy proper requires a continuous, sustained tradition of dialectic, for which writing seems a necessary though not sufficient condition.



I. 4   Is Philosophy Just for Aristocratic Men?

Of course, even if a culture is literate and has a tradition of academic philosophy, it may still systematically exclude some of its members from participation in the tradition; for example, in ancient Greece and Rome, only aristocrats could read and write. In India, only upper-caste Brahmins could be members of the priesthood, and thus privy to the more esoteric speculations. After the Upanishad period (800-500 BCE), Indian women were subjugated by the laws of Manu, and no longer seen as fit for education. The laws of Manu are the orthodox Hindu code to this day. They specify that “a woman is never fit for independence”, and that “a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife” even if the husband is “destitute of virtue or seeking pleasure (elsewhere) or devoid of good qualities”.[40]  Hinduism still adheres to the notion that it is pretty low to be reborn as a woman. Even today, in much of the Third World, women are excluded from education altogether, or excluded from higher education.


In medieval and pre-modern Europe, women of the aristocracy often could read and write, but were not permitted even to read (let alone write) literature, science, or philosophy. They were considered less intellectually capable and morally weaker than men, and thus were allowed to study only the most trivial of the medieval trivium  (grammar); they were permitted to read only the Bible and morally uplifting tracts. It is not surprising that women and people of lower socio-economic classes have been conspicuously absent from all philosophy, both Western and non-Western. Happily, this is changing, though very slowly.


Nowadays in the journals of the intelligentsia one often hears references to postmodernism or deconstructionism, and its sweeping critique of twentieth-century “ideologies” such as Marxism, feminism, existentialism, and psychoanalysis (its arguments apply equally to older “ideologies” such as Christianity). Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida are the founders of the movement. Deconstructionist criticism is the rage in literature departments[41];  most philosophers have not embraced deconstruction, and in fact find it rather tiresome, since its major claims were dismissed in philosophy in ancient times (see Plato’s Protagoras or Gorgias, for example).


The deconstructionist argument (Protagoras’ argument dressed up in modern clothes) is at bottom a denial of the concepts of truth and objectivity. It claims that ideologies such as Marxism, Freudianism, feminism, etc., are no more than “discourses” in terms of which people order their experience. There is only the text. All discourse is “situated” in a particular time and place and social context with a particular set of power-relations (e.g., capitalist vs. proletarian, priest vs. layperson, man vs. woman, teacher vs. student, rich man vs. poor man, white man vs. man of color) which cannot be ignored. At any point in civilization, some discourses are “privileged”; they are the ones we “valorize”, or call “better” (more “objective”, “rational”, “truthful”). Our task as intellectuals must therefore be to “deconstruct” these texts and “dislocate” the “privileged signifiers”, in order to realize our own reading, never forgetting that our reading, too, will be situated. Deconstruction takes for granted that there are no “objective” criteria for adjudicating disputes over what have optimistically been called matters of “fact”, let alone matters of philosophy. There are no facts, since there is only the text.


The badge of honor in some deconstructionist “lit-crit”circles nowadays is to reject “hierarchy” in all forms, including the forms implicit in the traditional student-teacher relationship. Thus some deconstructionists reject assumptions such as: the teacher usually knows more than the student about the subject-matter at hand, the teacher is conveying ideas that are worth studying, some ideas are more worthy of study than others, the student must accept correction, some work is better than others, etc. —  because according to deconstruction, all these notions are bankrupt. They “valorize” a particular arbitrary power relationship


As Camille Paglia and Dinesh D’Souza point out, there is an important connection between deconstruction and the cultural diversity movement: many of the important theoreticians of cultural diversity explicitly ground their position in deconstructionist ideas. Proponents of multiculturalism often even adopt the esoteric deconstructionist patois. D’Souza cites a typical call to arms: “Instead of “valorizing old power relations,” universities should listen to the “voices of newly emerging peoples” who are challenging “Western hegemonic arrangements of knowledge”.[42]


Now, as we have seen, deconstruction takes for granted that conflict, perhaps mortal conflict, over fundamental assumptions, is inevitable;the notion of stable community, and the ideals of universal brotherhood and sisterhood, are naive illusions. No disputes can be settled “objectively”; all we can hope for is an uneasy truce. We must open our eyes to the “fact”, depressing as it may be, that we are inevitably caught up in power relations and potentially at each other’s throats. The best we can hope for is that people will respectfully share and tolerate each other’s views. So trendy radio talk show therapists claim that it’s “immature” to assume that interpersonal agreement is possible. “Mature” people accept the “fact” that “people just don’t think alike”.


Joan Wallach Scott’s essay “The New University: Beyond Political Correctness”[43]  is a good example of a theoretical defense of multiculturalism that presupposes these deconstructionist ideas. Scott says, “Community is a strategically organized set of relationships.... Differences may be what we have most in common. Differences are often irreconcilable and must be accepted as such. Differences are relational and these relationships are hierarchical. The differentials of power on which they are based are constantly contested. Consensus, if it is achieved, is not enduring. Conflict and contest are therefore inherent in communities of difference.” There are no “norms” in terms of which rational people may reconcile differences. (I am particularly struck by Scott’s use of military terminology — “strategy”, “conflict”, “power”, “contest”.) Scott says we must come to “believe in the possibility of a variety of experiences, a variety of ways of understanding the world, a variety of frameworks of operation without imposing consciously or unconsciously the notion of the norm.”[44] Scott thus urges that teachers “achieve this kind of opening to human differences in our teaching.” Universities must become “the place where communities of difference — irreducible and irreconcilable difference — are conceptualized and exemplified.” (Scott, 18)


People like D’Souza, Alan Bloom, Page Smith, Paglia, John Searle, and most philosophers are appalled (rightly, I think) by deconstructionist arguments that propose abandonment of ideals of objectivity, rationality, and community. Thus D’Souza et al. criticize the sort of multiculturalism that is grounded in deconstructionist arguments. I think that much of the emotional excess of the multiculturalism debate springs from ignorance of the underlying issues. Most feminists can’t stand Camille Paglia (I like her a lot). People of good will brand D’Souza and Bloom and Searle racist and elitist, although their arguments are really directed primarily against deconstruction, which most people don’t know anything about and would probably not accept if they did know. And throughout this debate, it is forgotten that many people, including most philosophers, while rejecting deconstructionism, nevertheless espouse multicultural education because they are convinced by ethical arguments that appeal to justice and fairness[45].


Clouds of noxious ad hominem argument engulf debate over cultural diversity. People (such as myself) who defend “standards” are often accused of defending the inequalities in the socio-political status quo. People who argue for the traditional liberal humanities curriculum or for that old bogey “truth”[46] are racist or elitist. The battle lines are drawn: you’re either for diversity (no hierarchies, i.e., no truth, all cultures equally important and worthy of study) or you’re for the maintenance of the Eurocentric, phallocentric, homophobic, hierarchical status quo. As Molefi Kete Asante puts it: “The real division on the question of multiculturalism is between those who truly seek to maintain a Eurocentric hegemony over the curriculum and those who truly believe in cultural pluralism without hierarchy.” (Bonevac, Today’s Moral Issues, 180) But surely Asante sets up a false dichotomy. A neo-Marxist feminist (like Shulamith Firestone, for example) would oppose a Eurocentric hegemony over the curriculum because the traditional curriculum excludes the experiences of women, children, and people of lower classes generally. She would, however, also maintain that some cultures are more progressive, more civilized, more worth emulating and studying, than others. In other words, she would advocate multiculturalism in the curriculum, and also “hierarchy”. My own views are, of course, along these same lines. 


I also agree with D’Souza and Bloom and Paglia and Searle on the philosophical point: the deconstructionist arguments are truly terrible. (Paglia calls them the “junk bonds” of the late twentieth-century academy.)Consider just one problem: the deconstructionist arguments are ultimately self-refuting. No possible evidence or line of reasoning could count against them, since any counterargument is immediately construed as situated and thus “just your opinion”. Thus, epistemologically, anything goes. Thus deconstructionism, too, is situated and thus just a matter of opinion.


Now, I bring up deconstruction in order to “situate” an argument that has probably occurred to many of you by now. The argument goes: since philosophers of all cultures have tended to be aristocratic males, surely they have defined philosophy itself on their own terms; they made the distinction between “real” philosophy and folk philosophy on the basis of what they do as opposed to what women and ordinary people do. Thus the distinction between philosophy proper and folk philosophy is itself the result of self-interest and bias — an arbitrary “valorization” of an entrenched and unequal power relationship.


Naturally I disagree with this line of argument. I think the whole argument is an ad hominem. Consider one of the most widely-recognized phenomena in the sociology of religion: in most cultures, both Western and non-Western, where there are distinct social classes, the educated upper classes reject the religious world-views of the lower classes. There are “higher” (esoteric) and “lower”(popular) forms of all the major world religions — Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The popular forms of all these religions tend to be expressive and emotional, and to feature strong belief in ghosts, miracles, magic, witches, demons, and a plurality of gods and demi-gods — what the educated would call superstition. The more esoteric, upper-class forms, on the other hand, tend toward skepticism, monotheism, and in the case of Theravada Buddhism, Jainism, and Purva Mimansa Hinduism, even atheism.


For example, “In ancient Chinese folk religion, people sacrificed to a variety of spirits, including the spirits of the dead, of the mountains, and of rivers. Of these spirits the higher were called shen (often translated “god”) and the lower were called gui (kuei in Wade-Giles and often translated “ghost”).  Much religious ceremony was focused on the cult of the ancestors (deceased members of one’s family).  There were elaborate funeral rituals and sacrifices to the departed. Many believed that if these ceremonies were not performed correctly, the gui of the dead would come back and do them harm.


“As is the case in many cultures, the educated class did not share the beliefs of the common folk. Confucius, for example, while strongly supporting the correct performance of all the required rituals, believed religious ceremony is important for social reasons, not because the spirits need or require it.  He never denies the existence of gods and ghosts, but he thinks it is a waste of time to speculate about such matters. Xunzi, a later Confucian, states that the ancestors are dead and gone. The purpose of the rites of the dead is to help the living with their grief.”[47] 


Now, it is certainly no accident that thinking people of all major cultures have rejected popular supernatural beliefs, since from the point of view of reason such beliefs are extremely problematic. That is, thinking people of all cultures (who happened also for the most part to be the people who were permitted to think, i.e., male aristocrats) are not simply expressing personal bias or hypocrisy when they reject these folk beliefs; they are submitting to the demands of reason.


But, a deconstructionist might counter, why do the rich and powerful “submit to reason” while poorer folk don’t? Surely because the rich and powerful define the very concept of reason! The definition of rationality itself must depend on cultural and economic forces; some feminists argue that this is why women, who are less powerful than men, are in most cultures also considered less rational. Logic is the powerful man’s invention; to be logical is to play the powerful man’s game. So, some feminists urge, don’t be a sucker. Free yourself of the constraints of logic and rationality, share your “feelings”, and get your autobiographical sludge published in third-rate women’s studies journals or women-only anthologies.


But I’m afraid it’s a bit more complicated than that. First, note that people who argue (i.e., use reasoning) about the nature and possible limitations of reason itself are implicitly acknowledging exactly the point at issue, the hegemony of reason, at least in some contexts. (If you didn’t agree that people should have reasons to support their beliefs, then why are you giving me reasons to reject the powerful man’s notion of “reason”?) Deconstructionists who use reason to demonstrate that reason is merely a “free-floating signifier” are contradicting themselves.


Note secondly that appealing to reason is not the same as parroting Eurocentric bias. Anyone who has taken logic knows that at least some fundamental principles of rationality are mathematical, and even the most ardent multiculturalists agree that mathematics, if anything, is “objective”, in the sense that there is no inter-cultural disagreement about its results.


Note further that rejection of superstition by the educated upper classes is not an exclusively European phenomenon; the same rational methods are used, and the same conclusions (e.g., rejection of supernaturalism) are drawn, by intellectuals in every culture that has a continuing intellectual tradition. A cross-cultural “society of mind” seems really to exist. Science is a good contemporary example.


Note that advocating reason does not imply that all rationally-drawn conclusions are true. Truth is a separate and complex issue. The point is not which claims are true or false, since we may never know that. The issue is what to believe now, in our admitted ignorance of all the facts: the question is, which claims are more likely to be true, those asserted for good reason or those with no rational foundation? 


Finally, the charge that upper-class males have defined reason itself on their own terms implies that there has been agreement among philosophers about the nature, source, and limits of reason. Only someone completely ignorant of the history of philosophy could think this; in fact, male upper-class philosophers themselves have been the ones most critical of the concept of rationality. One major area of philosophy (epistemology) is dedicated to whole question of the nature, source, and limits of knowledge. One of the most fundamental questions of epistemology is: what, if anything, can we know through reason alone? A philosopher (Marx) came up with the very notion that rationality itself owes its definition to power relations. Philosophers are the very people who have argued that reason is not necessarily the sole method of attaining knowledge, and that we need a broader definition of knowledge. In other words, if white upper-class men have defined what is rational, they have also subjected that definition to the most rigorous criticism. 


For example, in Western philosophy alone, William James argued that emotion plays a far more important role in knowing than has traditionally been acknowledged by Western epistemology. Descartes and G. E. Moore urged intuition, Nietzsche argued for evolutionary processes, Marx stressed economic conditions, Dan Dennett argues for brain processes, and of course, Anselm and Aquinas urge faith. Much of Plato’s philosophy has been read as mystical. The philosophy of Immanuel Kant has as its major goal the rejection of rational methods for certain significant areas of life, notably religion. The later Wittgenstein comes to mind in this connection as well. In fact, the great philosophers are invariably great epistemologists, so much so that there has been no hegemonic conception of the scope of rationality at all in Western philosophy. 



I. 5  What is Western?

Distinguishing “Western” from “non-Western” works isn’t as easy as you might think. Sometimes there is no problem at all; some traditions, e.g., those of South and East Asia, are long-standing, continuous, written, and obviously different.  But distinguishing Western from non-Western works is not simply a matter of geography — it is not simply a matter of where the work was composed or arose, since a writer in the Western tradition might well happen to reside in what is usually considered a non-Western culture (and vice-versa).  St. Augustine, a Christian (Western) philosopher, lived in north Africa, for example. It is not simply a matter of the author’s ethnic background, either. The works of the eminent Latin-American philosophers such as George Santayana (a defender of metaphysical naturalism), Joaquin Xirau Palau (a phenomenologist), and Ortega y Gasset (a neo-Kantian) are squarely within the Western tradition, and are read as a matter of course by students of Western philosophy. There is nothing distinctively “Latin-American” about them. “With the exception of the traditional forms of neo-Thomism, Marxism, and to some degree neo-Kantianism and Mexican existentialism ..., one cannot speak of philosophical schools in Latin America.”[48] That is why philosophers do not consider philosophy written by Latin-Americans to be non-Western. “Latin-American philosophers refer primarily to Western European sources and see themselves as participants in the European philosophical tradition."" (Bonevac vi)


Do we say that a philosopher’s specialty is determined by his or her race or gender then? This seems artificially limiting, not to mention insulting, and creates additional confusions. If Alberto Fujimora, the President of Peru, wrote philosophy, would it be Western or Asian? Frantz Fanon was a black male psychiatrist from the Caribbean who spoke French and was educated in European universities — Western or (as some anthologies say)African? What if Fanon had been female?


I will argue below that these problem emerge very clearly in trying to determine what, if anything, ought to count as “African philosophy”or “women’s philosophy”. There is persistent and widespread muddle about both these areas.


The term “Native American” is also vague, since there are two American continents (North and South America). I will follow what seems to be standard usage in the multiculturalist writings, and restrict my focus to native North America, though I see no very clear reason for doing this: if the term “Latin-American” refers to both North and South America, why should “Native American” be different?


Thus, in summary, I have tried to make clear what counts as philosophy (distinct from literature, comparative religion, anthropology, and folklore) and what distinguishes Western from non-Western philosophy. I will follow current practice in my field and distinguish between philosophy and non-philosophy by reference to the existence of an ongoing philosophical tradition, in which beliefs are systematically analyzed over time in a culture, and there are clearly-recognized authoritative documents. Cultures without writing, then, are unlikely to have philosophy in this sense, since, as we have seen, oral traditions do not tend to develop systematic argumentation.


I will also follow Bonevac et al. in using the concept of an ongoing philosophical tradition to distinguish between Western and non-Western philosophy.  “In general, we have tried to characterize works as Western or non-Western by appealing to the author’s conception of the work as a continuation of an ongoing philosophical tradition. To whom does the author refer?” (Bonevac, vi)  Works that refer to non-Western sources and documents will be “non-Western”; works that refer to Western sources will be considered “Western”.


Thus, for the purposes of this project


1.   Latin American philosophy will be considered Western.


2.   “Native American” will mean native North American.


3.   Folklore will not count as philosophy. Philosophy will emerge in a culture to the extent that the cultures develop literacy. Literacy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for philosophy.


4.   I will take for granted that in cultures where academic philosophy is practiced, philosophers prior to the 20th-century in every culture have almost universally been male and aristocratic, and thus that traditional academic philosophy has systematically excluded the perspectives of women and persons of lower socio-economic status. This exclusion has called into question, but has not overthrown, the definition of philosophical questions and philosophical method.






Two questions discussed at length in Chapter I — what is to count as philosophy? how do we distinguish Western from non-Western philosophy? — come to the fore when we consider Africa. Although African cultures feature many beliefs about God, immortality, what it means to be a person, and how to live (see section VI.1), there hasn’t been an indigenous, continuous, systematic, written philosophical tradition there, independent of Islamic (see section V) and European influences.[49]  As African philosopher Kwame Wiredu says “The African philosopher writing today has no tradition of written philosophy in his continent to draw on. In this respect, his plight is very much unlike that of, say, the contemporary Indian philosopher. The latter can advert his mind to any insights that might be contained in a long-standing Indian heritage of written philosophical meditations; he has what he might legitimately call classical Indian philosophers to investigate and profit by.”[50]


Traditional African thought is transmitted orally, though proverbs and folktales. Traditional African thought is thus primarily what we have called folk-philosophy or ethno-philosophy. But, as we have seen, “folk conceptions tend not to develop with time. Please note that this is as true in the West and elsewhere as it is in Africa.” (Wiredu, in Wright, 157) Thus folk philosophy is not philosophy in the academic sense.


As Wiredu puts it, “the crucial difference [between traditional African folk philosophy and philosophy proper] is that the Western philosopher tries to argue for his thesis, clarifying his meaning and answering objections, known or anticipated; whereas the transmitter of folk conceptions merely says “This is what our ancestors said.”” (Wiredu, in Wright, 157)  


All anthologies I have seen purporting to be traditional “African philosophy” consist largely of either wisdom writing or anthropology or folklore; i.e., calling these works “philosophy” in the academic sense is problematic, either because of the absence of dialectic and/or a continuing tradition.  Simply stating, without analysis or argument, that the Yoruba “reckon time in blocks of various lengths and relative to the issues under discussion” (John A. A. Ayoade, in Wright, 107); every educated Akwapin Akan nonetheless believes in witchcraft (Helaine K. Minkus, in Wright, 128); the Akan believe in a 4-part soul (Wiredu, in Wright, 157), etc. is anthropology.


So what is African philosophy then? This question is much debated in the literature. The debate is occurring partly for sociological reasons. The situation of the African public university is similar to the American public university: funding for education is inadequate, and the schools must compete with public health and public works programs for money. Further, both systems promote ethnic studies, and thus funding is more readily available for programs and disciplines labeled “African” than for traditional “European” curricula. Philosophy departments in African universities are under institutional pressure, just as in America, to come up with courses in African philosophy. And, just as in America, they come up empty-handed. So there are numerous papers by African philosophers themselves attempting to explain this situation. 


Non-philosopher colleagues and administrators are usually shocked and offended that African philosophers don’t seem interested in teaching African philosophy. But, like most non-academics, non-philosophers do not really understand the difference between ethno-philosophy (the province of anthropology) and academic philosophy.African philosopher P. O. Bodunrin, in his essay “The Question of African Philosophy”, writes, “It is natural for the nationalist non-philosopher colleague on a university curriculum committee to wonder why a philosophy department in an African university is not offering courses in African philosophy while there are courses on British philosophy, American philosophy, European philosophy, etc. He would simply argue that if these other people have philosophies, the African too must have a philosophy. Unacquainted with what is taught in these other courses and fully acquainted with the many rich “philosophical” and witty sayings and religious practices of his own people, the nationalist cannot understand why African philosophers do not teach African philosophy. To fail to teach African philosophy is almost tantamount to crime and unpatriotic omission.” (Bodunrin, in Wright, 5-6)


Wiredu also mentions the same unpleasant political climate:“African militants and our Afro-American brothers are often disappointed with the sort of philosophy syllabus that is taught at a typical modern department of philosophy in Africa.  They find such a department mainly immersed in the study of Logic, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics, Political Philosophy, etc., as these have been developed in the West.”(Wright, 158)


Bodunrin elaborates, “Africans who study the intellectual history of other peoples ... are naturally curious to find out if there are African opposite numbers to the philosophers they have studied, say, in Western intellectual history, or at least whether there are equivalent concepts to the ones they have come across in Western philosophy.... This point has become immensely important because of the honorific way in which philosophy has come to be seen. Philosophy has become a value-laden expression such that for a people not to have philosophy is for them to be considered intellectually inferior to others who have.” (Wright, 5) 


The problem, of course, is that a contemporary African or African-American philosopher simply doesn’t do traditional “African philosophy”any more than an African-American physician does African medicine.  As Bodunrin says, “no one laments the lack of African physics. African mathematicians have, as far as I know, not been asked to produce African mathematics. No one has asked that our increasing number of express-ways (sic) be built the African way.” (Bodunrin in Wright, 5) As a matter of fact, “present-day African philosophers have been trained in the Western tradition, in the continental or Anglo-American style, depending on their colonial history. Their thinking, therefore, is unlikely to hold many peculiarly African novelties for anyone knowledgeable in Western philosophy.” (Wright, 158)


Of course, throughout humanity’s past, there have been individuals, perhaps even illiterate individuals, in African (and all) cultures who have been excellent critical thinkers attempting to justify beliefs through argument. Some logical principles (e.g., non-contradiction) seem built-in to humans, so it would be surprising if humans never used them. But if there is no institutionalized tradition of dialectic, the reasoners must be relatively isolated “wise people”; their views are not necessarily ever elaborated or enriched or criticized in turn by subsequent thinkers.


And of course, non-literate cultures may be rich and interesting and sophisticated in many ways. Philosophers do not live in the clouds; they travel and read anthropology, too. They also think critically about their own assumptions. As I mentioned above, throughout Western philosophy, there have been skeptics, mystics, structuralists, Marxists, feminists, etc. who have critically analyzed philosophy’s own methods; they have given reasons to doubt the hegemony of reason. Some recent writers have even used the data of anthropology: for example, the 20th-century French philosophers Lucien Levi-Bruhl and Claude Levi-Strauss, who praise intuition, mysticism, and “the savage mind”. But obviously, a philosopher who gives reasons to doubt reason is still doing philosophy.


I stress the difference between folk philosophy and philosophy proper primarily because I don’t think we can overlook the fact that much of traditional African folk-thought (like folk-thought in any culture) is, in Wiredu’s words, “primitive”, “superstitious”, and “backward”.Even educated Africans frequently believe in animism, witches, fetishes, the legitimacy of slavery, the inferiority of women, and the “insatiable”female sexual urge, requiring clitoridectomy. I refuse to report such beliefs uncritically, since, as I argued above, I think the “all cultures are equal”umbrella is full of holes.


I agree with Wiredu that “The ideal way to reform backward customs in Africa must, surely, be to undermine their superstitious belief-foundations by fostering in the people — at all events, in the new generation of educated Africans [and African-Americans!] — the spirit of rational inquiry in all spheres of thought and belief.  Even if the backward beliefs in question were peculiarly African, it would be necessary to work for their eradication.But my point is that they are not African in any intrinsic, inseparable sense; and the least that African philosophers and foreign well-wishers can do in this connection is to refrain, in this day and age, from serving up the usual congeries of unargued conceptions about gods, ghosts, and witches in the name of African philosophy.” (Wright, 155)


Bodunrin concurs: “The African philosopher cannot deliberately ignore the study of the traditional belief system of his people. Philosophical problems arise out of real-life situations.  In Africa, more than in many other parts of the modern world, traditional culture and beliefs still exercise a great influence on the thinking and actions of men.At a time when many people in the West believe that philosophy has become impoverished and needs redirection, a philosophical study of traditional societies may be the answer.  The point, however, is that the philosopher’s approach to this study must be one of criticism.”(Wright 13)


I would like now to make this whole argument clearer by enumerating what documents, if any, might be candidates for African philosophy in the academic sense. If academic philosophy requires documents, some indigenous African documents do exist. These documents are all controversial in ways I have mentioned: either (1) because the documents are primarily mythology, literature, or wisdom writing, and thus their status as philosophy is unclear, or (2) because the documents that are unquestionably philosophy aren’t in any clear sense distinctively “African philosophy”. I shall outline the documents and the difficulties.


1.   From the ancient Egyptian period, “wisdom writings” survive, along with autobiographies,royal installation speeches and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The status of wisdom writings in philosophy is unclear, as described above. The Book of the Dead is “a compilation of spells for resurrecting people in the afterlife” (Bonevac, 9) — a work that therefore does not address, but rather takes for granted answers to philosophical questions, and thus much more a religious document than a philosophical one.[51]


2.   There are compilations of Ewe and Swahili proverbs and folktales of various tribes (Ewe, Akan) and language groups (Swahili). These are “wisdom writings”; again, the status of wisdom writings in philosophy is unclear.


3.   There are some writings of the 16th and 17th centuries (by ’Abba Mika’el, Zera Yacob, Walda Heywat). Christian missionaries had brought the Bible to Africa during the Roman Empire, and missionary activity in Africa has continued ever since. The missionaries brought European traditions and, after the Reformation, literacy (Protestants emphasize literacy because of their view that each person is capable of reading and interpreting Scripture unaided by external authority). Thus a few African philosophical documents emerge in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in Ethiopia, but they are, not surprisingly, rather cosmopolitan in flavor, treating the same themes (such as the role of reason vis-à-visrevelation, and the use of reason to analyze and compare the doctrines of various religions) as their late Renaissance, post-Reformation counterparts in Europe. I wonder what is distinctively “African” about this work.


4.   There are contemporary writings by Africans and Europeans and Americans of African descent. These fall into two groups:


  • Nationalist-ideological philosophers such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Leopold Senghor.  These writers attempt to create “a new and, if possible unique political theory based on traditional African socialism and familyhood.  It is argued that a true and meaningful freedom must be accompanied by a true mental liberation and a return, whenever possible and desirable, to genuine and authentic African humanism.” (Bodunrin in Wright, 2)


  • Professional philosophers such as Wiredu, Bodunrin, Hountondji, Kwame Gyekye, Odera Oruka, and Benjamin Ewuku Oguah. These “take a universalist view of philosophy.” They hold that “philosophy must have the same meaning in all cultures. ... According to this school, African philosophy is the philosophy done by African philosophers whether it be in the area of logic, metaphysics, ethics, or history of philosophy. It is desirable that the works be set in some African context, but it is not necessary that they be so.  Thus, if African philosophers were to engage in debates on Plato’s epistemology, or on theoretical identities, their works would qualify as African philosophy. It is the view of this school that debate among African philosophers is only just beginning and that the tradition of philosophy in the strict sense of the word is just now being established.” (Bodunrin, in Wright 3)


Only the latter two groups (post 16th century) are clearly philosophy; the others fail either because of the absence of dialectic or the absence of a continuing tradition. And of the work that clearly counts as philosophy, there is considerable debate over whether it should be called “non-Western” or distinctively African.


Let me first point out that philosophers do not categorize any philosophy of any sort written by a woman as “women’s philosophy”. A woman who does phenomenology is called a phenomenologist, not a “woman phenomenologist”. Gender is irrelevant. Ethnicity is irrelevant also. A Latin-American (like Santayana) who does metaphysics is called a metaphysician. We do not categorize philosophers’ specialties according to their gender or ethnicity. So to say that “African philosophy is the philosophy done by African philosophers whether it be in the area of logic, metaphysics, ethics, or history of philosophy” is at the very least a departure from common practice. It is to say that race or ethnicity determines the sort of work a philosopher can do. Now, I would be insulted if someone said I could do only women’s philosophy because I am a woman; in the same way, I would think that an African philosopher would be insulted by the claim that she or he can do only African philosophy.


Also, a philosopher trained in Western philosophy is most likely to refer primarily to Western philosophy in his or her work. In general, the philosophical writings of twentieth-century Africans and persons of African descent are Western in flavor, as Wiredu noted. This is not surprising, given that, as Wiredu noted above, “Present-day African philosophers have been trained in the Western tradition, in the continental or Anglo-American style, depending on their colonial history. Their thinking, therefore, is unlikely to hold many peculiarly African novelties for anyone knowledgeable in Western philosophy.” Recall that earlier, I made the distinction between Western and non-Western philosophy by asking the question: to whom does the writer refer? I have indicated this problem briefly with respect to the writings of  ’Abba Mika’el, Zera Yacob, and Walda Heywat.  A good 20th-century example is Frantz Fanon.


Some anthologies, e.g., Bonevac, discuss the 20th-century French-trained psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, a man of color from Martinique (not Africa), in their modules on “African philosophy”.  Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), advocates violence as an acceptable method for Third World liberation movements. In fact, speaking as a psychiatrist, he thinks such violence is essential for Third World men (sic) to achieve psychological liberation and wholeness after their years of de-humanizing oppression. Fanon’s advocacy of violent revolution made him a hero to radical student groups in the 1960s. I read Fanon as dutifully as the rest of my comrades in SDS. Fanon was thought to be an original voice. Jean-Paul Sartre (another hero) said of Fanon that “the Third World finds itself and speaks to itself through his voice.”(Bonevac 45) Now, I wonder if a man trained in psychiatry and steeped in the writings of Marx, a German (who was of course the first to advocate violent revolution) can really be said to be outside the Western tradition. Undoubtedly, Fanon offers a new, psychoanalytic justification for Marxist views; and his perspective on the issues is certainly not that of the imperialist oppressor.  So it makes some sense to classify Fanon as “non-Western”. But if Fanon is non-Western because he advocates the liberation of the wretched of the earth, then so is Marx, no? Why not say, as my professors did, that Fanon is an important 20th-century Marxist?  It seems arbitrary to classify Fanon’s work as non-Western simply because he is a black man. It seems even stranger to group Fanon’s work under African philosophy;this implies, to me, either that Fanon’s ideas apply in some special sense to Africans, or originate  in some sense from an indigenous African tradition, or do not apply equally to oppressed people in South America or Asia.


The puzzles about how to classify Fanon are not unique. A number of anthologized contemporary articles compare and contrast traditional African beliefs with Western philosophical doctrines. For example, Oguah’s “African and Western Philosophy: A Comparative Study” compares the views of the Fanti tribes with Western philosophers: the Fanti on personhood with Descartes, on religion with Anselm and Aquinas, on epistemology with rationalism, etc. I am not sure what to call papers of this sort, but I think they are closer to intellectual history than philosophy. Is it philosophy to note that the Fanti seem to have reached some of the same conclusions as some Western philosophers? The properly philosophical question seems to be: What about those conclusions? Are they warranted?


There is no question that excellent philosophy is being done by contemporary African philosophers and persons of African descent on other continents; but is it African philosophy? To give you an idea how problematic an issue this is, note that about one-third of the articles  in Richard Wright’s anthology of contemporary writing, African Philosophy, concern whether or not there is such a thing as “African philosophy” at all (the rest are what I have called ethno-philosophy);interestingly, the Africancontributors Wiredu and Bodunrin are some of the ones who say “no”. Bodunrin speaks of Africans getting “a late start” in philosophy; Henri Maurier, a French Africanist,  says “The real enterprise [of African philosophy] has not yet gotten off the ground”. (Wright 25)


In view of all these issues, I offer the following recommendations:


1.   Another department, probably Anthropology or Sociology, should undertake the study of traditional African thought.  I agree with Wiredu in his essay “How Not to Compare African Thought with Western Thought” when he says, “African traditional thought should in the first place only be compared with Western folk thought.” (Wright, 157) The same recommendation will be made with respect to Native American “philosophy”.


2.   Philosophy classes should be upfront about how some Western philosophers, especially before 1800, took for granted attitudes toward Africans which were universally rejected by 19th- and 20th-century philosophers.  Plato and Aristotle, for example, took slavery for granted.  Hume thought “Negroes” inferior to whites.


3.   Philosophy classes should note, however, that despite its lamentable history of slavery, intolerance, imperialism, and impoverishment of the spirit, Western culture has eliminated slavery (unlike some African cultures), and, more than any other culture, has instituted religious tolerance, progressive attitudes toward women, and the most widespread institutionalization of equal rights for all.  Christianity and Marxism weren’t all bad.


4.   Philosophy classes should study African wisdom writings at the same time they study Western wisdom writings, i.e., in ethics classes.


5.   Philosophy classes may choose to read the African philosophers of the 16th and 17th centuries as representatives of various views of modern philosophy. For example, a selection from The Treatise of Zera Yacob could be read along with Descartes’ Meditations to illustrate the mistrust of traditional authority and the reliance on reason characteristic of the 17th century.


6.   African nationalist writings, particularly on the African “tradition of socialism”, should be included in any classes in political and social philosophy.


7.   The writings of contemporary African philosophers in all areas of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, etc.) should be read whenever they are relevant.




Every student at Fordham, my undergraduate school, had to take at least two full years of philosophy, so philosophy was one of the largest departments on campus, with at least 20 full-timers. When I started in philosophy in 1966, there were no women on the regular philosophy faculty (there was a single female TA who later dropped out of the philosophy graduate program). With the rise of feminism, the increased numbers of college-educated women, and affirmative action, all this changed. Women have earned about 25% of the doctorates in philosophy in the last twenty or so years; nowadays a large all-male department would be unthinkable.


The vast majority of women philosophers are very sympathetic to the goals of feminism. Many of us (the older ones) were told as undergraduates that we wouldn’t or couldn’t make it in philosophy because women didn’t think logically enough (I was told this). Before affirmative action, we were systematically discriminated against in the awarding of fellowships and academic prizes, and in admission to graduate schools. For example, at Fordham in 1970 (the year I graduated), a senior man who wanted to attend graduate school was automatically nominated for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship if he had a GPA of 3.7 or higher; for women, the cut-off was 3.9. The rationale given for this policy was that the fellowship would be “wasted” on a woman, since we “were just going to have babies anyway”.


Women are well-represented and active on the contemporary philosophical scene. There are still comparatively few women logicians, but there are prominent women in most other fields of philosophy, especially ethics, philosophy of science, feminist theory, and epistemology. It is a false stereotype that all women philosophers specialize in feminist theory. Most contemporary women philosophers have a standard area of specialization:metaphysics, epistemology, ancient philosophy, philosophy of science, etc.  Only a small number have concentrated primarily on feminist theory (Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Sheila Rowbowtham, Juliet Mitchell, and the French poststructuralists Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous, among others). Some of these women have done indispensable work in laying the philosophical foundations for feminism, e.g., de Beauvoir;the significance of the work of Irigaray and Cixous is in dispute. Camille Paglia may deserve a place in this group as a critic of contemporary American feminism; Paglia is not an academic philosopher, but her work, like Freud’s, may have great importance for philosophy. (She, at least, thinks so.)


Feminist concerns inform the writings of most women philosophers, whether or not they are explicitly writing about feminism. For example, as I will discuss below, Genevieve Lloyd’s study of the early rationalists reveals their latent bias in favor of attitudes that we usually consider masculine. Sandra Harding and Helen Longino do philosophy of science from a critical perspective that takes feminism for granted. The same goes for the work of Mary Daly and others in philosophy of religion.


But women have not played a major role in the development of Western or non-Western philosophy. Before this century, there have been no important women philosophers — none.[52] On the subject of women, most philosophers have been simply silent. At best, a few have allowed women exactly the same rights and duties as men (Plato, J. S. Mill). At worst, a few have been virulently misogynistic (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche).


Some influential philosophers (such as Aristotle) have at least treated the issue of women’s abilities seriously, going so far as to give arguments in support of the view that women were physically, intellectually, and morally inferior to men. Aristotle’s view happened to coincide nicely with the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, and the Christian tradition of woman as “the weaker vessel”, so that throughout the Middle Ages, the views of Church and academy went hand in hand.


Women fared no better in non-Western systems. We have already briefly seen the Hindu laws of Manu: “a woman is never fit for independence;” “a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife” even if the husband is “destitute of virtue or seeking pleasure (elsewhere)or devoid of good qualities”. Consider the Bhavagad-Gita:the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna takes place on a battlefield, with the god Krishna essentially pumping up the man Arjuna so the latter won’t be afraid to die in battle -- not exactly a scenario women can identify with. Confucius said, “Women and servants are the most difficult to deal with.  If you are familiar with them, they cease to be humble. If you keep a distance from them, they resent it.” (Cited in Chan, 47) This is the only reference to women I have found in the Analects! Chan comments, “From Confucius down, Confucianists have always considered women inferior.”[53] (ibid)Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, permanently abandoned his wife and five-year-old child when he went to seek enlightenment; and this action is never criticized, or even questioned, in any of the literature I have seen. Indeed, Gautama is praised: he “accepted his mission without regard for personal cost” and thereby “won the hearts” of India[54]. I doubt that a woman could have won India’s heart by abandoning her child. Some role model! Taoism and the ancient Egyptian religions are less sexist, preserving the ancient metaphor of two principles of being, male and female.


III. 1  The Modern Period

Nothing changed much in the modern period in the West. Genevieve Lloyd, in her book The Man of Reason, points out how in the 16th- and especially the 17th centuries, rationalist philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza put together systems of thought in terms of which reason rules. A “strong man” of reason sees, through the use of reason, that the universe is laid out rationally by a God many of whose ways are incomprehensible to us. Passions are simply not rational; for example, we can see clearly if we think about it that there’s no reason to hate, that hate is irrational — God permits the wicked to exist, which shows that in God’s mind, there’s sufficient reason for wickedness, and we can neither understand nor do anything about it. And by the same token, there’s no reasonto love one individual more than another, since a rational God wouldn’t love one “man” more than another. The “strong man” of reason will thus not be moved by sentiment, or by particular attachments, e.g., to wife or children. (Philosophers have overwhelmingly been bachelors.) The ideal man of reason will be completely impartial and unemotional, like the Vulcans on Star Trek. The ultimate horror for the 16th- and 17th-century men of reason was to be, in Spinoza’s term, “womanish” —to be moved by passion or particular attachments.


The first important philosophical writing on the subject of women was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women in the latter half of the 18th century. Wollstonecraft’s work gives voice to many themes that have become fundamental in feminism: disenchantment with an idealized view of marriage and family (her mother and sister were both victims of domestic violence); criticism of traditional “women’s virtues” such as docility and dependence as virtues arising only from weakness; and the view that women were as capable as men of excellence in wisdom and rationality, and should thus be educated just as men were.


III. 2  Utilitarian and Marxist Influence

The nineteenth century saw some continuation of Wollstonecraft’s work in the early suffragette movement. John Stuart Mill, the most influential British philosopher of the century, urged equal legal rights for women, including the right to vote, own property, and divorce. By his own admission, his ideas were shaped and influenced by his long-time friend (and later wife)Harriet Taylor. The exact extent of Taylor’s contribution to Mill’s work is unknown but suspected to be great: “Their writings were always published under Mill’s name, partly because a man’s name gave the work more legitimacy within a sexist culture.” (Ellen Fox, in Moore and Bruder, 352)


Just as influential to contemporary feminism were the writings of Marx and Engels, especially Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.


Engels argues that women are second-class citizens because of the institution of private property.Men in all societies, taking advantage of their superior physical strength, restrict women’s activities basically in order to restrict women’s sexuality, to ensure that all a woman’s children really belong to her husband, so his property isn’t inherited by a bastard. Simone de Beauvoir cites this argument with approval in The Second Sex. According to Engels, in the utopia of communism, when private property has ceased to exist, the oppression of women is guaranteed to cease, since there is no longer any economic reason for it.


III. 3  Feminism and the Family

Marx and Engels also criticize the family within capitalism as an essentially oppressive institution: bourgeois boss oppresses husband, who takes it out on wife, who takes it out on children. Twentieth-century Marxists see the family as the basic unit of consumption in advanced capitalism:families make big purchases (houses, cars, large appliances, etc.), weddings and babies require large outlays of money, etc. Capitalist-controlled media, aided by religion, present marriage and family in a positive light in order to keep up demand for big-ticket items: hence, according to Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone, and others, the pervasive “myth of romance”.


It is thus no accident that contemporary feminist philosophers are very frequently quite radical in their politics, since much of their theoretical substructure comes from Marx and Engels. Influenced by Marx and Engels and de Beauvoir on one hand and Wollstonecraft on the other, they are suspicious of the usual myths and traditions about love, marriage, and family.


Thus today, a very interesting debate rages among feminists regarding familial obligations. Some feminist philosophers, such as the late Jane English and Judith Thomson, argue for what Christina Sommers, in her article “Philosophers Against the Family”, calls a “volunteer theory of obligation”, in terms of which no person has any moral obligation to any specific individual except in so far as the obligation has been voluntarily accepted.  Obligations to specific persons are  opposed to general duties, which are owed to all persons equally. For example, I have a general duty to refrain from killing anyone; thus I have no special obligation to refrain from killing my parents, since not killing my parents is already forbidden by the general rule. No one is exempt from general duties. But I don’t have a general duty to keep a promise to a specific person; I am obligated to keep my promise only to the specific person I made the promise to, not to everyone in the world. And if I don’t want to be bound by this promise-keeping obligation, I can refrain from making promises. The idea is that I don’t have an obligation to any specific person if I don’t agree or “volunteer” to have it: hence the term “volunteer theory of obligation”. Thus, in Sommers’ rather odd usage, “duties” are general, “obligations” specific; and while I volunteer for obligations, I simply have duties. The volunteer theory of obligation is commonly held in contemporary philosophy; however, it has been used by some feminist philosophers to support positions that Sommers finds counter-intuitive, e.g., overzealous support of abortion, and a skewed view of morality in parent-child relations.


The volunteer theory would say, for example, that a person is not morally obligated to keep a promise she was forced to make (so far so good). But Thomson and English extend the volunteer theory to parent-child relations and abortion. Thus according to English’s version of the volunteer theory, a child is not morally obligated to support her aged parent any more than she is morally obligated to support any elderly person (since she did not agree to be born). And according to Thomson, a woman is not morally obligated to carry through a pregnancy caused e.g., by rape or birth-control failure, that she did not volunteer to undertake.


Sommers argues in opposition to the volunteer theory but in agreement with Confucianism and Islam. She says that contemporary feminist philosophers do not properly appreciate the significance of what she calls “special duties” — binding duties we owe to specific individuals whether we or not we agree to be bound by them. Familial duties are paradigms of special duties. Sommers says, for example, that there are special duties towards one’s parents, just because they are one’s parents, whether one likes it or not. The question of whether or not you wantor agree to have those duties simply doesn’t arise. Sommers acknowledges that her theory might strike some people as “unfair”, since obviously some people end up with a heavier moral burden than others — some people’s parents are especially inconvenient (impoverished, in poor health, psychologically abusive, etc.). But as a general rule, one has duties to parents. Life is seldom fair;some people are just unlucky and moral theories can’t fix that. Sommers also argues, as an extension of her view, that a woman might have special duties to a fetus, just because it is in one’s body, no matter how it got there.


Many philosophers attack Sommers for her alleged defense of repressive and reactionary “family values”.[55] I think she has interesting arguments. She has few defenders in philosophy journals, though she has been lionized by the political right wing. 


III. 4   Feminism and Freud

Freud and his followers, although not philosophers, added “scientific” justification to claims of female inferiority. Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex, explains that for Freud, moral development follows a different path for males than for females. According to Freud, boys between the ages of 4 and 6 undergo an extremely traumatic “Oedipal period”, when their most passionate desire is to have sex with their mothers and kill their rival fathers. Successful passage through this period requires that the boy give up the desire for his mother and submit to his powerful father. This submission is so humiliating for the boy that then, to “save face” psychologically, he repudiates his incestuous desire altogether and identifies with his father. The identification with the powerful father cements the internalization of the boy’s Super-Ego, or conscience. The little boy learns that some things are absolutely forbidden, and that in order to be psychologically at ease, he must think of these prohibitions as rules of his own making. This process is what enables the boy subsequently to live a moral, rule-following life. Successful passage through the Oedipal period also cements the appropriate sex-role identification for the boy. Failure to identify completely with Dad results in sociopathy, excessive attachment to Mother, and/or homosexuality later in life.


Little girls, however, according to Freud, do not undergo an Oedipal phase of nearly the same intensity or drama. They want to have sex with their fathers and get rid of their rival mothers. But when a little girl flirts with Dad, there are usually no strong objections from either Mom or Dad, because the girl is displaying appropriate sex-role behavior, and besides, it’s cute. A daughter can be “Daddy’s girl” throughout her life, whereas a son must stop being Mama’s boy around kindergarten. Thus the little girl never gets the message very strongly that Dad is unavailable to her.[56]  Because she never learns even the most primal taboo (incest), the little girl remains morally infantile throughout her life. Her Super-Ego never really develops. Absolute, rigid rules of morality never mean much to her. Note that for Freud this is not only “how  things are” but how they must be; Freud thinks he is describing “human nature”, which if it is changeable at all, is changeable only very slowly, through processes of evolution that take millions of years.


Although Freud’s Oedipal theory is currently out of fashion in psychology, it exerted an enormous influence on 20th-century thought and even on 20th-century popular culture.[57] The renowned psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, for example, studied the moral development of children with an obviously Freudian bias.  He concluded that females were “stuck” in “lower” levels of moral development, because in experiments they consistently refused to apply the most general moral rules, favoring analyses that highlighted the specific situations and personalities and relationships.


Freud and Kohlberg were observant scientists, and their observations about the distinctive ways men and women approach moral problems are important. No one disputes their findings: males tend to apply and argue about moral rules, females tend not to. Psychologist Carol Gilligan’s influential book In a Different Voice(1982) takes on Kohlberg and the whole psychology establishment on the issue of the significance of these findings: she asks, does the fact that women solve moral problems in a different way necessarily establish women’s moral inferiority? Gilligan’s work is widely cited by philosophers such as Nel Noddings in the new feminist ethical systems that have emerged in the last ten years.



III. 5  Feminist Philosophy of Religion

In Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology and philosophy of religion, God is, of course, usually spoken of as masculine. Christians (but, interestingly, not Jews or Muslims) use paternal imagery: “He” is our “Father”. Freud makes much of this.


A spiritual Supreme Being (if there is one) would certainly have no physical characteristics. Thus such a being would necessarily lack sexual organs, which are physical. It is therefore absurd to assign any gender to such a being.


Theologians and mystics of every major world faith have always recognized the absurdity of assigning a sex to God, and there have always been alternative conceptions of the Supreme Being, some of which emphasize a feminine aspect. There are female goddesses in popular Hinduism and female bodhisattvas (Buddhist saints). The major Shinto deity, Amaterasu, is female. But mainstream Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have stood by the masculine model. Contemporary feminist theologians and philosophers of religion have led the way in exploring alternative conceptions of the divine.[58]


Note also that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God lays down rules for our conduct. He punishes us if we disobey the rules. Feminist theologians and philosophers of religion such as Mary Daly link this rule-based concept of God with the typically masculine approach to morality noted by Gilligan.


III. 6   Epistemology

In epistemology (theory of knowledge) and philosophy of science, contemporary women philosophers have asked interesting questions. They began by asking the usual question — what can we know? Most feminist philosophers answer this question in the usual way — we know what is supported by our senses and reason.


A few vocal contemporary feminist philosophers appear to have bought the usual gender stereotypes (men are dispassionate and rational, women are intuitive and emotional) and as a last resort, begun to defend “female” emotion and intuition as sources of knowledge. They have even gone so far as to claim that women have radically different understandings of physical reality, so that a “women’s science” or a “women’s mathematics” would be far different from their “masculinist” counterparts.


Most contemporary female philosophers find these moves incoherent and dispiriting. Questions about what is so, or whether a claim is well-supported, or reasonable to believe, can often be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. The notion of a distinctinctively female epistemological standpoint flies in the face of that fact. Most female philosophers do not even bother to address the notion of “female epistemology.” As eminent epistemologist Susan Haack puts it, the notion of female epistemology makes about as much sense as Republican epistemology or senior citizens’epistemology. If oppression by itself confers knowledge -- if oppressed people just “know better” than non-oppressed people, why don’t they just use that knowledge to liberate themselves from their oppression? Where is the female science and mathematics? (The feminist visionaries say, conveniently, that these disciplines are “currently unimaginable.”) Furthermore, the female theorists who argue that oppression confers an advantage seem not to be oppressed themselves; they are usually comfortable middle- or upper-class white professional academics. For an excellent and well-documented overview of this issue, see Christina Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism?, Chapter 4.


Is there really such a thing as “dispassionate observation”? Is the ideal of the Man of Reason an essentially masculine ideal? Does the bellicose and divisive language we use about knowledge and morality reflect masculine rather than feminine experience (truth and goodness “win” or “are victorious”, they must be “defended”, one position “defeats” or “is stronger than” another, etc.)? Is another model possible? These are important questions. They deserve careful analysis. However, feminist pedagogy” often spurns careful analysis as “masculinist”; instead, it encourages “taking action.” Unfortunately, “taking action,” e.g., by imposing arbitrary rules for “politically correct” classroom discourse (“ovular” for “seminar”) is no substitute for rational analysis.



III. 7   Ethics

Ethics has seen even more influential work by women and feminist philosophers (naturally, not all feminists are women).[59] Some of the new work, the so-called “ethics of caring”, centered on the work of Nel Noddings, is rapidly becoming a standard chapter in introductory ethics texts.


Much traditional theory in social ethics has been contractualist. The idea is that human relations are based on exchange agreements, whereby each party gives and gets something of equivalent value in return. The “social contract” between the sovereign and the people is an example.  So are legal contracts, and, of course, the marriage contract. But women philosophers have pointed out that motherhood, a major and uniquely female experience, hardly fits this model. A mother’s day-to-day relationship with a child can hardly be based on a contract with the child, whereby the mother agrees to provide care in exchange for something of equivalent value from the child. Some feminist philosophers such as Sara Ruddick and Virginia Held have proposed that motherhood is a model of virtue superior to the traditional contractualist view. Ruddick and Held are widely anthologized.


Contemporary women philosophers have written extensively on ethical issues that are of particular interest to women, e.g., abortion, the rights of children, pornography, sexism in language, sexuality and sex roles, discrimination in hiring, and the ethics of reproductive technologies such as surrogate motherhood and embryonic gender-selection. Indeed, the most widely-anthologized and influential articles on the ethics of abortion are by the philosophers Judith Jarvis Thomsom (“A Defense of Abortion”, 1971) and Mary Anne Warren (“On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion”, 1973).


Also, women philosophers such as Karen J. Warren, Val Plumwood, and others have helped formulate a distinctive approach to environmental ethics called eco-feminism. According to Warren, “ecofeminists insist that the sort of logic of domination used to justify the domination of humans by gender, racial or ethnic, or class status is also used to justify the domination of nature. Because eliminating a logic of domination is part of a feminist critique — whether a critique of patriarchy, white supremacist culture, or imperialism — ecofeminists insist that naturism is properly viewed as an integral part of any feminist solidarity movement to end sexist oppression and the logic of domination which conceptually grounds it.”[60]



III. 9   The “Conflicting Loyalties” Argument

Feminist writers have been predominantly white and middle-class. They are almost invariably political liberals or radicals, who argue and vote and act for the interests of oppressed persons generally, both women and men. That is, white, middle-class feminists, in arguing against political and social oppression generally, almost invariably support the interests of both non-white women and non-white men, as well as the interests of children, LGBT and disabled people. They support affirmative action, cultural diversity, universal medical care, adequate public funding for education and job training, and even welfare. 


However, as I mentioned in Section I. 2, non-white or non-Anglo women sometimes say their unique experience of double or triple oppression on account of sex and race or ethnicity andclass cannot possibly be adequately represented or even understood by white, middle-class women.[61]  They conclude that white middle-class feminists cannot speak for them. Non-white women often see their primary allegiance to their community — their race or ethnic group. They say that allegiance forces them occasionally to take what appear to be anti-feminist positions. For example, some black women oppose abortion because they see that it is most used by black women to abort potential black persons, i.e., they see current abortion policy as genocidal. Many black women (a majority, as I recall) based their support for Clarence Thomas more on the basis of black solidarity than the evidence.


We hear two reasons to support the claim that white middle-class feminists are not qualified to address the situation of non-white, non-Anglo women: (1) white women can’t possibly understand what it is like to suffer multiple forms of oppression; and (2) non-white women are members of multiple supportive and nurturing racial, ethnic, and gender communities. Thus, when it comes to complex issues that involve both race and gender, non-white women find themselves with “divided loyalties”.

I disagree  with both these claims. My argument against the first claim is contained in Section I.2, in the chapter on fundamental issues, because the argument that “you can’t possibly understand me unless you’ve had my experience” is given not only by feminists, but by victims generally, of child abuse, rape, persecution, racism, etc. So here I will confine my attention to the second claim, the  “conflicting loyalties” argument.


The non-white woman says that the white middle-class feminist does not speak for her because the non-white woman has uniquely “conflicting loyalties”, to her race and ethnic group and to her white sisters. The white middle-class feminist is assumed to have no such conflicting loyalties. I think this is a pretty silly argument.


There is a lack of symmetry in the relation between white and non-white women. I would locate it not in race or class, however, since I think oppression of women cuts across race and class boundaries, i.e., it's not that white women necessarily have more money or power. "White privilege" does not apply . I do not think that non-white women are, or have ever been, necessarily more oppressed than poor white women. [62]  I would say the never-mentioned asymmetry lies in the fact that white middle-class feminists, as I noted above, almost invariably take progressive positions across the board, including support for non-white men, whereas non-white and non-Anglo women typically do not fight for the legitimate interests of white men.


Who, then, is entitled to have divided loyalties? Obviously — or so it seems to me — the white middle-class feminist. She is far more likely to feel ambivalent about affirmative action, for example, since her husband or son or brother is most likely to lose out.[63]


Now for the unscientific sociological analysis; I am interested in the social and ideological fall-out of the non-white woman’s claim of divided loyalties — the “public relations” effect, if you will. It seems to me that the “conflicting loyalties” argument, when given by non-white or non-Anglo women, in fact serves to shore up the most reactionary female role models, as well the media stereotype of white middle-class feminists as “lesbians and man-haters”.[64]  It seems to me that the non-white, non-Anglo woman often says she has divided loyalties in order to distance herself from those nasty, shrill, pathetic, unnatural, frigid, pathologically serious, child-hating, man-hating middle-class white feminists. (Maria Lugones, for example, prides herself on her “playfulness”.[65]  Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, says, “No Latina woman would be called Ms. —that’s an invention of middle-class Anglo women. Latina women are proud to be called Mrs. That simply means we have a family.”[66])Like anti-feminists of the Phyllis Schlafly and Mirabel Morgan stripe, the non-white or non-Anglo woman can play the role of the “real woman”, the “natural woman”, the “playful woman”. She possesses the secret of joy. Unlike the white man-hating monster feminist, she is sensitive to the feelings of her man and her community.  She respects those ties; she respects her traditions; she does not want to threaten solidarity or give offense. She works for change from within the group, not by attacking it from without. All things considered, she feels more compelled to stand by her men and her traditions, even if they oppress her. Hence her divided loyalty. (It is hardly necessary to point out that, while this “natural woman” stereotype might enhance some women’s self-esteem, it is nevertheless just as unfounded as the stereotype of the warped white feminist.)


As I indicated above, the persona of the non-white woman here has much in common with that of some right-wing white women[67]  or feminist nuns within the Catholic church[68]. And I think it’s clear that most women (even academics) have something to gain by disparaging white middle-class feminists. They flatter their men and their communities. They feel spiritually and morally and psychologically superior to those neurotic white feminists. They stand on the moral high ground; they stand for true femininity, loyalty, community. They preserve what little power they have. They don’t rock the boat. But I wonder if these advantages are worth the price, because I can hardly imagine a more traditional and damaging and exploitable view of proper women’s role.


I am not saying that non-white women, especially non-white feminists, want or intend to convey these reactionary ideas. I do think, however, that the “conflicting loyalties”argument should be used with care. It cuts both ways, since white feminists have divided loyalties too. Furthermore, it fosters absurd stereotypes that make it harder for any of us to be taken seriously. 



III. 10  Recommendations

I thus recommend the following:


1.   We should note that a similar problem arises with respect to women’s philosophy as with philosophy written by Africans or persons of African descent: namely, it is difficult to distinguish “women’s philosophy” from standard philosophy that happens to be done by women. Women educated in philosophy learn standard Western philosophy. (Non-Western women are by and large simply not trained in philosophy.) There is not much tradition of “women’s philosophy”. It is possible, I think, for a woman to do standard Western philosophy, with no distinctively female overtones, just as it is possible for an African or African-American to do standard Western philosophy with no distinctively African overtones.


2.   While women’s rights and activities are restricted in almost all cultures, it seems reasonable to ask whether feminism itself might not be primarily a Western phenomenon, becoming popular in other cultures as Western ideas spread. Can feminist philosophers really be viewed as independent of the Western tradition? While I am tempted to make the distinction between “women’s philosophy” and “Western philosophy” on the basis of feminist theory — feminist theory implied or expressed would count as the distinctively “women’s philosophy” — I cannot help but recall that, as Marx and Engels point out, the notion of equal rights for all persons, independently of sex or class or race, is associated primarily with the modern period in the West, with the rise of capitalism. The notion of equal rights for all persons, male and female, simply did not exist in Confucian China, and still does not exist in traditional Hinduism, traditional Islam, or traditional Christianity.[69]  Naturally, the fact that the concept of equal rights is foreign to some cultures does not thereby make the notion “relative” or less important.


3.   It is impossible to open a book on contemporary ethics without encountering essays by women. But it is very possible to open a book on the history of philosophy, or introductory philosophy, and find nothing at all by or about women. Thus it is not necessary to take any special measures to ensure that women philosophers are read in ethics classes. But the absence of women and persons of lower socio-economic classes in the history of philosophy must be addressed in introductory philosophy classes; we must at least discuss the historical reasons for it.


4.   I do not recommend that we seek out and publish and force our students to read the writings of every obscure woman who happened to say things that might, with some imagination, be interpreted as original philosophical material in tracts on home management or etiquette, as some introductory texts do (e.g., Soccio’s Archetypes of Reason). I think these selections are there purely for political reasons, to sell more textbooks. They are of such poor quality as compared to the other selections that if anything, they reinforce students’ preconceptions that women can’t do philosophy.


5.   The contemporary debate about the nature of objectivity and the contribution of emotion to knowledge should certainly be explored in modules on epistemology in introductory philosophy. The role of women philosophers in this debate should be highlighted.


6.   Firestone’s critical analysis of Freud should be required in the module on Freud in Philosophy 6 (Philosophy of the Person). It should also be covered in Philosophy 3 (Ethics), as part of the module on whether or not, or to what extent, males and females have different approaches to ethics.


7.   The rule-based and care-based approaches to ethics should be emphasized in Philosophy 3, especially with respect to the question of “special duties”.


8.   An entire section of Philosophy 3(Introduction to Ethics) could be dedicated to ethical issues of special concern to women.


9.   Discussion of philosophy of religion should mention alternative conceptions of God and Goddess.  The Gaia model of the divine should be mentioned in environmental ethics.


10. Environmental ethics should discuss eco-feminism.







Central and East Asian thought has several well-known, well-documented, and well-understood mainstream traditions of dialectic, most of which are extremely rich and complex. Most are also “religious” traditions, but they are so different from Western religions that fundamentalist Christians might not consider Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc., to be religions at all. I will not attempt to explain this extremely voluminous material in detail here. For each tradition, I will summarize some particularly interesting points and compare to Western systems. Many of these traditions are grounded in religions; Hinduism, especially, is often referred to as a “theosophy” — in the sense of an amalgam of theology and philosophy — but I think that word is also appropriate for the majority of these systems.


Some broad characterizations of Central and East Asian thought vis-à-vis West Asian (Islamic) and Western thought can be made:


1.   Western thought (I include Islamic thought with Western thought) is far more focused on individual persons. For example, Western thinkers argue over whether individuals achieve personal immortality, whereas the whole point of the cycle ofkarma-samsara in Hinduism is to lose one’s individuality altogether. Individuality permeates Western thought, especially in the modern period with the rise of the concept of individual rights.


2.   The ethical and religious role model is quite different in West and East. Western religions tend to view humans as “hearing”the word of God through a prophet. Humans require this hearing; by themselves, they are irretrievably ignorant. Thus, humans are conceived of as essentially passive in the search for ultimate truth; they cannot find the answers inside themselves.


3.   The prophet — an individual man chosen by God, conveying an unfamiliar, often unpopular message and thus often finding himself at odds with authority — is the archetypal ethical and religious model in Western religions. The prophet is active, even aggressive, and often rather young. Elijah, Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed come to mind. Thus, Western ethical systems that are influenced by Western religion tend to be activist; one must do specific things in the world in order to be considered a good person.[70]  And it is always a struggle to be good; you can’t be good if you just let go or let be, because you’ll fall into forgetfulness (Islam) or sin (Christianity). You have to “watch yourself”. Asian ethical systems, in theory, tend not to be so focused on self-conscious action, because they are much more ambivalent about the nature of the self. They are also far less rule-oriented, at least in theory, although popular forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are full of rules and ritual. The point is, an Eastern moral exemplar, like a Christian contemplative, might well adopt an attitude of passivity and withdrawal from the world; s/he might not do much for the world or other people. This is hard for many Westerners to comprehend, and contributes, along with the other elements above, to the typical Western notion that Eastern people “don’t care”about the quality of life, or life itself.


4.   The model of time is rather different in some Asian systems. Hindu thought, for example, has had a cyclic notion of time;Buddhists think time is an illusion; Western time is linear. The different conceptions of time lead to very different basic attitudes about change and death, which are reflected in the art works of Eastern and Western cultures. For example, it’s hard to feel really tragic about death when you think you’re coming back, and so Hinduism has no concept of “tragedy” in the Western sense.


5.   Christianity and Islam are eschatological religions; that is, they posit that God created the universe from nothingness, and will end it all someday. Hutchison calls the eschatological perspective the “linear-dramatic view of history”. (478) There is a beginning and end of time itself, and there are “last things” — a last judgment, heaven, and hell. The eschatological perspective is absent from most Eastern thought. There is no concept of a last judgment (or indeed any judgment per se), and thus Eastern religions either lack a concept of “sin” altogether, or have a much more vague and untroubled conception of it and its consequences. 


6.   Much Asian thought is monist; there is really only a single reality, e.g., the Tao or Brahman. The typical Western notion that there are lots of separate thingsis an illusion, from the Asian point of view. Interesting philosophical and practical consequences follow. For example, if you think everything is one (Brahman), then it’s hard to worry too much about the relation between mind and body, or free will. Similarly, it’s hard to feel too indignant about evil if you believe God is “trans-moral”(equally present in good and evil) or if you believe in karma. Furthermore, monism leads to rather different concepts of the relation between humans and the natural world, and different conceptions of sexuality.


7.   “Holy wars” (e.g., Crusades, jihads) are particularly prevalent in the West.


8.   Asian thought is by and large not interested in providing naturalistic causal accounts of the natural world or social phenomena.


9.   Issues of social and economic justice are not very important in traditional Asian thought, which tends to view one’s economic or social status as unimportant in the struggle for personal liberation. Some systems, e.g., Hinduism and Confucianism) even advocate rigid social hierarchies.



IV. 1  Hinduism

Most striking in Hinduism is the complete acceptance of unity in diversity. Hindus recognize different human spiritual types, distinct stages of each individual life, distinct stages of lives, distinct gods, but the differences are seen as part of an unfolding unitary process. For example, Hindus, at least in theory, do not look down on people who pursue pleasure or worldly success; these pursuits are natural stages in soul-development, just as childhood is a natural stage in the individual life. Since different souls are at different stages of soul-development, and since there are different spiritual types (thinker, lover, doer, scientist), different spiritual paths are appropriate for the different types. There is no single “right” path, and thus no dogmatism. Many alternative lifestyles are acceptable (for men).


In Vedanta, the leading Hindu school, each soul or self (Atman) is seen as identical to God (Brahman). Everything is part of Brahman. Brahman can be viewed personally or transpersonally. So Hindus do not object to praying to other or lesser gods, since all gods are part of Brahman. Thus there is general religious tolerance.


Hinduism describes appropriate activities for different stages of life. It is especially striking that in Hinduism, retirement (the period of life after the birth of the first grandchild) is an extremely important time of life, one that promises far more spiritual reward than youth (the period of maximum bodily pleasure) or middle-age (the period of maximum worldly power). The retired person is a “forest-seeker”; he or she gives up all worldly interests, and undertakes deliberate poverty and solitude to find the true Self. The Hindu view of one’s later years contrasts greatly with the view portrayed in popular Western culture, where an older person, especially an older woman, is often thought to have nothing more to look forward to. Older people in the West often try in vain to re-enact the sorts of activities that brought them happiness earlier in life; they continue to acquire things or power, or get plastic surgery in vain attempts to retain a youthful appearance, etc. — activities that they themselves may find somewhat ridiculous. Like Confucianism, Hinduism confers acceptance, dignity and respect to older people that is often absent in the “youth culture” of the West.


A soul at death can transmigrate to many levels of being. It is a common misunderstanding that a soul must go to another body (the word “reincarnation” suggests this, so it’s not the best word). A soul can become a demi-god also. Mormonism has a similar concept.


The concept of caste is problematic for many Westerners. It has also been criticized in India itself for centuries. Buddha (563-483 BCE), for example, was a major critic. Philosophy classes dealing with Hinduism should address the caste system and its religious foundation in connection with the theme of “class”. I think, for critical thinking purposes, we should analyze the many arguments orthodox Hindus give (even today) in favor of the caste system. Their arguments are in line with the Hindu acceptance of diversity: Hindus have absolutely no problem saying people are unequal, since the inequalities are due to karma and the stage one’s soul has reached in previous lifetimes of spiritual development. Some people — those whose souls are young or undeveloped —belong in the lowest social classes. There is no shame in it, because everyone starts as a spiritual child. Furthermore, there is equality in the long run, over many lives; the child usually grows up. Such child-like people are capable of devoted service under supervision, but it would be folly to grant them the same civic responsibilities as more capable people. People in the lowest class (shudras) “are better off, and actually happier, working for others than being on their own.” (Smith 56) Smith comments, “We, with our democratic and egalitarian sentiments, do not like to admit that there are such people, to which the orthodox Hindu replies: What you would like is not the point. The question is what people actually are.” (ibid)


This is certainly a sensitive issue, and one we should think carefully about. The argument that some people should be segregated or controlled because they are not “on our level” (or because the common good is thereby enhanced) can easily be abused. Women in most societies have been considered “the other”,  “not quite fully human”, etc., and their mistreatment thus justified. Southern slave-owners said their African slaves could endure beatings because “they don’t feel pain like us”. Jews have been similarly slandered. The argument clearly can be an instrument of oppression. Obviously the argument should not be used as a rationale for injustice.


Nevertheless, Hindus think it obvious that people are different, that different people have different abilities, and that a well-ordered society must take these different abilities into account. Whether we like it or not, there seem to be people who are chronically irresponsible, short-sighted, shiftless, and generally incapable of doing good work without supervision. (Since my husband and I have recently remodeled our house, we call them “contractors”.) Even Marx, the champion of egalitarianism, recognized such people: he called them the lumpenproletariat, and declared them useless for the revolution. Now, how exactly do we reconcile the apparent fact of the existence of such people with our desire to treat all persons “equally” and to grant all persons equal rights and dignity? I would like our students to ponder these issues, and appreciate the enormous cleverness of the Hindu solution. Naturally, the Hindu solution rests on the concept of reincarnation; death is not “the deadline” for Hindus. There is room for a bit more philosophical maneuvering if you change fundamental assumptions about human lifetimes.


Both these unusual and problematic concepts — reincarnation and a rigid system of social classes — appear in Plato. The arguments in the Republic are much like those in Hinduism. Note that there has been speculation of Indian influence on Plato.


Another area of great interest and contrast is the problem of evil. It is a grave problem for Christianity to reconcile God’s supposed total goodness, omnipotence, and the existence of evil. The Hindu notion of reincarnation together with the law of karmasolve this problem in a far more satisfying way than Christianity provides. For Hinduism, people cannot escape karma; and if their misdeeds are not punished in this life, they will be punished in the next — another example of a Western philosophical problem solved easily by simply altering basic assumptions about time.


IV. 2  Skepticism and Naturalism

Westerners often think Asian thought is all religious. They are unaware that there have been several naturalist, scientific, logical, and atheist schools of Indian and Chinese thought, although these schools never became deeply-rooted. These include the unorthodox darshanas of India, (Jainism, Carvaka), and the philosophies of Wang Ch’ung, and Wang Fu-chih.


IV. 3  Confucianism and neo-Confucianism

Confucianism, like Buddhism, is arguably not a religion, but rather a moral philosophy, since Confucius himself spoke agnostically about gods and afterlife. Confucianism features little discussion and no doctrine regarding personal immortality, for example. (Confucianism is like Judaism in this respect.) Most Confucian thinkers construe the divine as impersonal; some (e.g., Wang Ch’ung) even see divine as hostile to humans.


The most distinctive feature of the Confucian way of life is respect for authority and for elders, especially one’s ancestors. There is much emphasis on diligent performance of rituals and duties (“good form in all things”); little attention is paid to human emotions (I am reminded of Kantian ethics, springing from a similar rule-oriented society, eighteenth-century Lutheran Prussia). The rule-oriented nature of Confucianism spawned two famous reactions: one emphasizing spontaneity (Taoism), and the other emphasizing compassion (Buddhism).


Confucianism is unascetic and this-worldly, while Buddhism is relatively ascetic (actually Buddha thought of his as a “Middle Way” between extreme asceticism and worldliness). Confucians emphasize specific duties to one’s parents, for example, that involve furnishing them with the comforts of life. The aged parent has the warmest place by the fire, the best food, the softest bed, etc. Confucians accuse Buddhists of being unfilial because their asceticism denies the importance of these things.


The view of human nature expressed in Confucius and Mencius is much like that of David Hume: human nature is basically good. People have a natural impulse towards compassion, although that impulse can be diverted or corrupted by bad moral training. Thus, like Aristotle, Confucians emphasize the importance of good upbringing for a happy individual life and a happy society. Discipline and practice in virtue are necessary for formation of good character.


Fundamental to Confucianism is the notion of Tao (way, nature). Tao is thought to consist of elements of yin (passive, dark, cold, wet, feminine) and yang (active, bright, warm, dry, masculine). The I Ching (Book of Changes) elaborates and interprets the various permutations of yin, represented by a broken line, and yang, represented by a straight line. Confucianism claims that yang elements are superior to yin. A good person is one who is active in the world, performing one’s duties faithfully and conscientiously, without regard for one’s personal inclinations. Taoism diverges from Confucianism in emphasizing the interdependency and equality of yin and yang.


“Great Learning” — investigating the world, doing science —is a worthwhile and important human activity in Confucianism. Confucians emphasize calling things by their correct names. Learning makes one see rational patterns in everything, and this insight into the order of the universe is thought to lead to good order in heart, home, and society. It is thought to make one more “sincere”, i.e., truthful and honest and humble.


Social relations in Confucian society are built on inequality (very unlike modern West and a good springboard for discussion of this issue). Social duties are not necessarily reciprocal, and not based on implicit contracts. The son has duties to the father (but not vice-versa), the wife is not equal to the husband, the younger brother is not equal to the older brother. Thus, “Confucius’ ethic is that of a well-ordered feudal hierarchy, where goodness consists in finding one’s station and doing its duties.” (Hutchison, 224)


Mencius has a kind of social contract theory in terms of which people may rebel against a bad king (one who has lost the mandate of heaven) — a view similar to Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes.



IV. 4  Taoism

Huston Smith says Confucianism is “classical”, Buddhism “spiritual”, and Taoism “romantic”. Taoism developed against the backdrop of Confucianism. Taoism emphasizes yin, passivity, spontaneity, wu-wei (“action without action”), and cooperation with nature (Tao). In its emphasis on feeling and spontaneity, it is a “romantic” reaction to urbane, rule-oriented, duty-oriented, activist, yang Confucianism.


Taoism’s supposed founder was Lao-Tzu, born between 600 and 400 BCE, one of the great figures of the Axis Age. Many legends evolved concerning him. According to legend, he did not preach or write or organize, though Taoism grew into a full-fledged church with a priesthood, sacred documents, and sacred authorities. According to legend, he did not try to “found” a faith, and did not think of himself as anyone important. Unlike Buddha and Jesus, Lao-Tzu had no conception of himself as a “world-redeemer. But interestingly, a historical individual named Lao-Tzu may in fact never have existed. The name just means “Old Fellow” or “Old Master”.


One legend is that Lao-Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching, the basic text of Taoist thought, at the request of the gatekeeper when he was leaving his native land to abandon civilization altogether. The book has fascinated people throughout history. There are currently over 40 translations in English alone[71]), and it has been translated more frequently than any work except the Bible.


Like Zen, which it influenced heavily, Taoism encourages wit and laughter. It is solemn without being serious. I’m sure Taoists find it funny that Lao-Tzu might be altogether legendary. Good contemporary examples of Taoist-influenced writers and the Taoist “voice” include Benjamin Hoff, the storyteller of The Tao of Pooh, and Raymond Smullyan, a philosopher-magician-mathematician who does logic and loves tales and paradox and jokes. Some of Smullyan’s books have amusing self-referential titles like What Is the Name of This Book? and This Book Needs No Title. Smullyan is a rarity, I think, among contemporary American philosophers, because he writes entertainingly for ordinary people about profound subjects. There are no comparable Christian writers that I know of; I love C. S. Lewis but I would not say he is funny.


According to Archie Baum, Tao is the most fundamental concept of Chinese thought, but it is a concept that is almost untranslatable because it is similar, but not identical to, concepts found in all cultures. “When one first encounters a foreign word with unfamiliar conceptual overtones, he immediately looks for analogues in his own culture”, but for Tao, “nothing quite fits”. Tao is not “God” or “Jahweh” or “Allah” or the Stoics’ “Logos” or Plato’s Form of the Good or the Hegelian “Absolute” or the Emersonian “Oversoul”, etc. It is something like “ultimate reality”, and Baum also would allow “way” or “path”, though these are misleading because they give the impression that it is something to be trod upon. Baum himself chooses “Nature”.[72]


The 25th chapter of the Tao Te Ching, as translated by K. L. Reichelt (in Smith, 218), explains Tao this way:


There is a being, wonderful, perfect;

It existed before heaven and earth.

How quiet it is!

How spiritual it is!

It stands alone and it does not change.

It moves around and around, but does not on this account suffer.

All life comes from it.

It wraps everything with its love as in a garment, and yet it claims no honor, it does not demand to be Lord.

I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao, the Way, and I rejoice in its power.


Baum’s translation of the same verses is rather less poetic (Baum, 29):


There exists something which is prior to all beginnings and endings,

Which, unmoved and unmanifest, itself neither begins nor ends.

All-pervasive and inexhaustible, it is the perpetual source of everything else.

For want of a better name, I call it “Nature”.


Gia-Fu Feng provides yet another version (Feng and English[73]):


Something mysteriously formed,

Born before heaven and earth.

In the silence and the void,

Standing alone and unchanging,

Ever present and in motion.

Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.

I do not know its name.

Call it Tao.


Two other interesting concepts of Taoism, which seem to have affected much New Age thought and pop-psych and deconstructionist rhetoric, emphasize power: ch’i, the individually-felt power or vital energy of the Tao; and te, the power of Tao generally. Philosophical Taoism gives advice for managing and maximizing one’s personal supply of ch’i through wu-wei, the non-effort or inaction that is actually pure effectiveness; religious and other forms of Taoism try to amplify te and ch’i overall.


Versions of Taosim called “vitalizing Taoisms” or “energizing Taoisms” employ a variety of practices to maximize ch’i. These practices are very familiar to us: diet, programs of bodily movement such as t’ai chi chuan, and acupuncture. The objective in all these practices is to remove blockages to the free flow of ch’i.


Like Native Americans, Taoists respect nature. “On the whole, the modern Western attitude has been to regard nature as an antagonist, an object to be squared off against, dominated, controlled, conquered. Taoism’s attitude is the opposite of this. There is a profound naturalism in Taoist thought, but it is the naturalism of a Rousseau, a Wordsworth, a Thoreau, not that of a Galileo or Bacon. ... Nature is to be befriended. Taoism seeks attunement with nature, not dominance.” The emphasis on effortlessness in Taoism influenced Chinese painting, while “the ecological approach of Taoism has inspired many Western architects, most notably Frank Lloyd Wright. Taoist temples do not stand out from their surroundings. They nestle against the hills, back under the trees, blending in with the environment. At best, human beings do likewise. Their highest achievement is to identify themselves with the Tao and let it work its magic through them.” (Smith, 212 f.) 


Like the Western Romantics, Taoism emphasizes the “natural”, and identifies civilization as the source of human alienation and unease; the primitive and simple are idealized, while artifice, ceremony, and calculation are rejected.


In social philosophy, Taoism rejects the Confucian hierarchy of social classes; however, Taoism retains the Confucian love of peace and harmony in society, and emphasizes peaceful and orderly resolution of conflict. Both Confucianism and Taoism rank the life of the soldier low, unlike, say, Islam or some forms of Japanese Buddhism. Taoists favor leaders who “rule with stillness”, doing their job and inspiring obedience effortlessly. Government should not be large and relatively laissez-faire, according to the famous line from the Tao Te Ching that “Ruling a big country is like cooking a small fish”(too much handling spoils it).


Taoism is especially interesting philosophically, because it rejects absolutes: there is no absolute certainty in any judgment about reality or moral values. For Taoists, the important truths of life are represented in the well-known yin/yang symbol (the circle within a circle with light and dark halves separated by a wavy line, and dots of the opposite color embedded in each side). “This polarity sums up all of life’s basic oppositions: good/evil, active/passive, positive/negative. light/dark, summer/winter, male/female. But though the halves are in tension, they are not flatly opposed: they complement and balance each other. Each invades the other’s hemisphere and takes up its abode in the deepest recess of its partner’s domain. And in the end both find themselves resolved by the circle which surrounds them, the Taoin its eternal wholeness. In the context of that wholeness, the opposites appear as no more than phases in an endless cycling process, for each turns incessantly into its opposite, exchanging places with it. Life does not move onward and upward toward a fixed pinnacle or pole. It bends backward upon itself to come, full circle, to the realization that all is one, and all is well.” (Smith, 214-215)  Thus, Taoism rejects sharp dichotomies. Even good and evil, life and death, are not opposites, but complementary parts of a single whole.



IV. 5  Buddhism

Like Islam, Buddhism is named after the characteristic it most enjoins in its followers.[74]  The Sanskrit root budh means “to awaken” or “to know”. Buddhists strive to be awakened.


Like Islam and Christianity and Jainism, and unlike Hinduism, Buddhism has a personal founder. Legends about Buddha (“the awakened one”) resemble those about Jesus and Osiris — the supposedly miraculous birth, and miracles worked through his influence. Buddha’s mother, according to legend, was impregnated by a heavenly white elephant with a lotus flower in its trunk. Like Osiris, and unlike Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama was rich, well-born, married, a father, destined for a life of power and influence. Like Jesus, Buddha was thought to be a “world-redeemer”.


Buddhism must be understood against backdrop of Hinduism. Buddha was from Nepal, and took his first spiritual education from Hindu masters. In fact, he was so immersed in Hinduism that although Hindus considered him a heretic, they also “claim him as their own, holding that his criticisms of the religion of his day were in the order of reforms and were less important than his agreement.” (Smith, 85) By 1000 CE, Mahayana (popular) Buddhism had been pretty much swallowed up into Hinduism in India; this is why in India today there are few Buddhists, but many Buddhist beliefs.


Buddhism is a “middle way”, neither ascetic nor hedonistic. The biggest human problem, according to Buddha, is ignorant craving, not sin. The goal is extinction of desire (nirvana), which can be achieved in this life. Smith equates nirvana with “God-head”, in the sense that both are simple and beyond definition. Buddha is said to have achieved nirvana himself in his great awakening under the Bo tree. The great division of Buddhism into Mahayana and Hinayana (Theravada) forms results from the question of what one should do if one does happen to achieve nirvana in this life. Should one just repose in it (on the theory that undifferentiated reality imposes no ethical obligations), or should one leave it to return to the world and enlighten others, as Buddha did? The Hinayana school says nirvana itself is the highest goal; the Mahayana school urges the life of the bodhisattva. The difference is one of emphasis: on detachment (Hinayana) or compassion (Mahayana). Buddha in his life achieved a synthesis of both.


Most distinctive about Buddhism from a Western philosophical perspective is the absence of the sort of metaphysical speculation that usually accompanies religion. Buddha simply refuses to answer questions about the existence of God or gods, miracles, immaterial souls, and personal immortality. “When his disciples asked him whether the world was eternal or not, whether there exists a substantial soul independent of the body or not, whether this soul exists after death, and whether there are gods or not — questions, be it noted, which others have regarded of religious significance — he replied that these were questions “which do not edify”.” (Hutchison, 123) In fact, Buddha denies the existence of a personal creator God, since “personality requires definition, which nirvana excludes”(Smith, 114). Buddha’s approach is, in Smith’s phraseology, always more psychological than philosophical, and can hardly be called religious at all. Buddha is a kind of physician or scientist; he simply sees human suffering and attempts to cure it using a definite method (the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path).


Nevertheless, there are controversial metaphysical assumptions in Buddha’s teaching: for example, dharma (the way), and karma-samsara (a version of the law of the deed). Even more fundamentally, human craving is ignorant craving; but ignorance of what? Two quite specific and controversial metaphysical assumptions: anatta (no soul) and anicca (no substance).


Anatta, or no-soul, is the denial of what Hindus at the time called Atman (atta is Pali for Atman).[75]  Ignorance of anatta leads people to place too much importance on the self and its cravings. Atman at the time signified a spiritual substance that retains its separate identity forever. For Buddha, the self is a temporary combination of five elements (skandas, or threads), which disperse at death. Buddha’s views thus have much in common with those of Hume in the West. However, Buddha nevertheless maintains a notion of reincarnation according to the laws of karma. Later lives are to preceding lives as the flame that is passed from candle to candle. Is the flame on the final candle the same as the original flame? Yes and no. The specific desires and spiritual challenges that I face in each new life are not accidental; they are the result of my choices in previous lives.


Buddha’s notion of life after death, although vague, clearly differs from Hinduism. “The standard Hindu doctrine attributed rebirth to karma, the consequences of actions set in motion during previous lives. As these actions were innumerable, innumerable lives were assumed to be needed to work off these consequences. Characteristically, the Buddha took a more psychological view. Rebirth, he maintained, was due not to karma but to tanha. As long as the wish to be a separate self persisted, that wish would be granted. It follows that since desire is the key, it is possible to step permanently out of the cycle of rebirth whenever one wishes wholeheartedly to do so.” (Smith, 151)


The notion of anicca(no substance) also is intended to liberate people from ignorant craving. Anicca has the sense of “transitoriness”. Anicca doesn’t mean idealism in Berkeley’s sense (the complete denial of material substance). I.e., it doesn’t mean there isn’t anything at all, but rather that everything is changing all the time. The view can be compared to that of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heracleitus in the West. For Buddha, reality is radically impermanent, and “we are freed from the pain of clutching for permanence only if the acceptance of change is driven into our very marrow” (Smith 117).


Here we find perhaps the most fundamental difference between Buddhism and the Western tradition: Buddhism sees change as embedded into the very nature of things, a fact that must be accepted “in our bones” in order to achieve personal liberation. The Western tradition. by contrast, encourages attitudes of resentment and scorn toward change. The Platonic-Aristotelian-Christian tradition rejects the Heracleitean picture. It sees change as a sign of imperfection, something bad by its very nature; in the Western tradition, the best and most real entities are unchanging (e.g., Plato’s Forms, the Aristotelian and Christian Gods). Western thinkers hold this position because of an argument dating from the Greeks: if a perfect being changes, then presumably it gets better, which contradicts the original supposition that the being was already perfect (i.e., as good as it could be). Thus a perfect being that is subject to change isn’t really perfect (i.e., is a contradiction and thus impossible). And thus perfect beings (such as Forms or God) must be immutable.


Like Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), Buddha espouses egalitarianism, and criticizes orthodox Hinduism for the caste system. Buddha “parted company from the hardening lines of Indian orthodoxy in his teaching that a person of any caste can experience an awakening of heart so complete as to destroy karma and thus effectively, at one stroke, eliminate future rebirth.” (Hutchison, 123)






I have noticed that Arab students at West Valley, when asked where they are from, usually say “Persia”, no matter where they are actually from (even if they are not from Iran). I find it sad that they don’t feel comfortable saying “Iran” or “Iraq” or whatever, names that would be understood. I also find it funny, because they know they can usually get away with saying “Persia”; they can pretty much rely on our students’ ignorance of world geography.


I find that our students will usually not give voice to overtly discriminatory attitudes towards people of other races or religions;but when it comes to Arabs, all bets are off. Encouraged by the American media, students will say Muslims are different; they are fair game. However, when I ask my non-Arab students what they know of Muslim religion or culture or history, the answer is almost invariably “nothing”. They simply parrot horror stories they have heard in the media.[76]


Indeed, philosopher of religion John Hutchison says that “throughout its history to the present moment, Islam has suffered what can only be called a “bad press” in the western world.” (439) It will be important in discussing Islam at West Valley to dispel some of that bad press.


V. 1 Common Misunderstandings About Islam

We can begin by dispelling the following cultural and historical misunderstandings, some of which spring from ignorance of Islamic religion and philosophy.


1.   We must note that the association of “Muslim”with “Arab” is misleading. Islamic people are scattered all over the world. According to Smith, there are 50 to 70 million Chinese Muslims[77], and some 30 million in black Africa, in addition to those in the “Islamic belt”from Morocco all the way east to Indonesia and the Philippines. There are more Muslims in Indonesia alone than in the entire Arab world. (Smith, 258)  “Mohammed” is the most common male name in the world. (Smith, 224) Not all Muslims oppose Israel, and not all Muslims cloister women.


2.   Christians and Jews often do not realize that Muslims have far more in common with them than with Central and East Asian religions. Like Christianity, Islam is dualist, monotheist, supposes a transcendent, creator God, has a book and a prophet, and views humans as unique individuals (human individuality is not an illusion, as it is in Hinduism and Buddhism). For Muslims as for Christians, human life is serious, because you get only one chance. The early Muslims were persecuted for their faith, just like the early Christians.


3.   Indeed, Islam views itself as the culmination of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Hebrew prophet Abraham was married to Sarah, who had no son, so Abraham took up with Hagar, a black woman. Hagar conceived and bore Abraham a son, Ishmael. Meanwhile, Sarah became pregnant with Isaac, and insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be banished. Muslims say Ishmael went to the place that was to become Mecca, and thus Muslims see themselves as the descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. Muslims honor Abraham as the ultimate moral model of submission to God’s will, the central Islamic virtue, because Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac. Muslims also honor Jesus, Moses, Adam, and Noah, and consider Alexander the Great to be a prophet.


4.   Non-Muslims tend to think of Islam as monolithic. In fact, there are numerous sects of Islam, just as there are numerous sects of Christianity, with widely differing beliefs. For example, one extreme Muslim sect, the Kharijites, view holy war as a duty (the “sixth pillar of Islam”), and claim that God commands the killing of infidels. The Sufis, by contrast, are Muslim mystics who stress the unity of God and believer.


5.   Islam has the reputation of a world-view that tolerates slavery and enslaves women. In fact, the Koran stresses the equality of all men, and accords women no less honor and respect than other Western systems, i.e., not much but not any worse than the rest. In some respects, the Koran is even rather progressive: for example, it forbids primogeniture and stipulates that daughters inherit as well as sons (though not equally). The Koran does not command that women be veiled and secluded. It says only “Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks closely round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed.” (33:59) “Extremes that have evolved from this ruling are matters of local custom and are not religiously binding.”(Smith, 253) The Koran does not mandate or even mention clitoridectomy.


6.   People in the non-Muslim West do not realize that like Christianity, Islam has an active “social gospel”. It is seldom realized that Saddam Hussein is a socialist, and that revolutionary Marxism finds many sympathizers in Islamic lands. One of the five pillars of Islam is charity, and Muslims have a religious duty to give a portion of their wealth to aid the less fortunate. Muslim societies claim not to have problems with desperately poor or homeless people, since charity is mandated.


7.   Christians and Jews often do not know that Islam has a much better record than they do on racism. Islam is not at all racist, and in fact, stresses racial equality, which accounts for much of its success in Africa, China, and Southeast Asia. “The ultimate test in this area is willingness to intermarry, and Muslims see Abraham as modeling this willingness in marrying Hagar, a black woman whom they regard as his second wife rather than a concubine.” (Smith 254)


8.   Americans think Black Muslims have the same beliefs as other Muslims. This is false. As far as orthodox Islam is concerned, Black Muslims are heretics because they proclaim the racial superiority of blacks. (As is well-known, Malcolm X left the Black Muslims when he discovered that there was no historical precedent for their racism in Islam.) In fact, the doctrines of the Black Muslims are so bizarre they are hardly recognizable as Muslim at all. Robert Poole, who was to become Elijah Mohammed, the self-proclaimed “Messenger of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America”, claimed to have received the following revelation in 1931. The story is a kind of “racial theological history, which [Malcolm X] earnestly subscribed to until almost the last year of his life. It was a kind of intellectual “Fantasia” that rivaled, in its fabulous loopiness, the racial anthropology of “Mein Kampf”. Original humankind was black, appearing about seventy trillion years ago. A sublime civilization, which founded the city of Mecca, and even exercised dominion over Mars, it was presided over by twenty-four wizards, or “wise scientists,” who created the animals and made the mountains, and even “deported” the moon from the earth. One of the wizards, a malcontent named Mr. Yacub, born about sixty-six hundred years ago and known as the “big-head scientist,” because he had an oversized cranium, learned how to breed races scientifically. When, for his seditious agitation, he was exiled from Mecca to the Isle of Patmos — later famed for the Book of Revelation — he contrived as revenge ... a means of creating a “bleached-out white race of devils.” Mr. Yacub knew that black men contained two germs, black and brown, the lighter being the weaker. Through an eight-hundred-year process of genocidal cunning — by means of needles inserted into the brains of unsuitably darker infants — that progressed from the black race to a brown, a red, and then a yellow race, the project at last produced a blond, pale-skinned, blue-eyed devil race, which wound up in the caves of Europe. In time ... Moses was chosen by Allah to “civilize” these devils, the first with whom he succeeded being the Jews. But all the pallid devil race eventually gained ascendancy, through “tricknology,” and finally seized into slavery a portion of the Original People, the tribe of Shabazz, who had been led into Africa fifty thousand years earlier to harden and toughen them for their pre-destined ordeal.” (Marshall Frady, “The Children of Malcolm”, The New Yorker, October 12, 1992, p. 68)   


9.   Muslims have an undeserved reputation for sexual licentiousness. True, the Koran explicitly sanctions polygyny, and Mohammed himself practiced it. But polygyny is rare in Islamic countries, except in Africa. The Koran also enjoins a man to have only one wife if he cannot deal “justly and equitably” with multiple wives. Since love and esteem must be distributed equally among all wives, and since this ideal is usually unrealizable, most contemporary Muslim jurists agree that the import of all the koranic passages taken together is that monogamy is the ideal.


10. Islam in theory is somewhat more tolerant of other faiths and ethical views than is often supposed. This is partly because Islam sees Christianity and Judaism as forerunners of its own religious tradition. The Koran says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:257) and later, “To every one have We given a law and a way. ... And if God had pleased, he would have made [all humankind] one people [people of one religion]. But he hath done otherwise.” (5:48) The principle of religious toleration was incorporated into the charter of Mohammed’s city Medina, at least for Jews and Christians. They were permitted to practice their religions freely, and had equal civil rights with Muslims.[78]  In fact, Muslims have much to be proud of in the area of religious tolerance. In India, Spain, and the Near East, Christians and Jews lived peacefully under Muslim rule, practicing their religion freely and even holding positions of power in the state, for centuries. Christians, not Muslims, expelled the Jews and the Moors from Spain; the Jews had enjoyed a golden age there under Muslim rule. By contrast, although Turkey has been Muslim for centuries, the seat of the Eastern Orthodox church remains Istanbul to this day.


11. Islam has a reputation for religious frenzy resulting in holy wars. This view is understandable in view of the amazing fact that within one hundred years of the founding of Islam, Muslims ruled an empire two or three times the size of the Roman empire. War and intrigue were the major occupations of the first three caliphs (successors) after Mohammed (two of whom were killed by poison daggers). But according to Smith, Islam has not spread by the sword any more than Christianity. Smith says the Koran, like the New Testament, deprecates war and violence. He cites the following verse of the Koran in support of this claim: “Defend yourself against enemies, but do not attack them first: God hates the aggressor.” (2:190)


The Koran does not appear to be unequivocally clear on this point, however. Hutchison cites the very same verse in full context to support the exactly opposite conclusion: “holy war is repeatedly enjoined by the Qur’an” (455). The verse in full says: “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors. And stay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out ... and fight then until persecution is no more and religion is for Allah.” (455, my emphasis) The last clause could be read to enjoin both war in self-defense against persecution and war to spread Islam aggressively even when it is not being persecuted (“fight then until ... religion is for Allah”).


However this issue is resolved, it is clear that both Islam and Christianity have much innocent blood on their hands. “Indeed, if comparisons are what we want, Muslims consider Christianity’s record as the darker of the two. Who was it, they ask, who preached the Crusades in the name of the Prince of Peace? Who instituted the Inquisition, invented the rack and the stake as instruments of religion, and plunged Europe into its devastating religious wars? Objective historians are of one mind in their verdict that, to put the matter minimally, Islam’s record on the use of force is no darker than that of Christianity.” (Smith, 256f) Many Muslims, like many Christians, are ashamed of the acts of violent aggression that have been undertaken by corrupt individuals in the name of their religion. 


Finally, a word about jihad (Islamic holy war). “To Westerners, it conjures scenes of screaming fanatics being egged into war by promises that they will be instantly transported to heaven if they are slain.”(Smith, 257) Yet it is often forgotten that Christianity, too, promises salvation to those who die in Christian holy wars.


V. 2  Unique Features of Islam

Thus, we see many common misunderstandings of Islam. But Islam isn’t much like Christianity or Hinduism or Buddhism. Islam has several distinctive features.  Some of these follow.


1.   Human nature is not seen as “fallen” or “corrupt” in Islam; there is no concept of original sin, as in Christianity. According to Islam, humans do wrong because they “forget themselves”.


2.   Islam prescribes rules for behavior for its adherents in much more detail than any other major world religion. Muslims know exactly how they are supposed to behave. “Every major type of action is classified on a sliding scale from the “forbidden”, through the “indifferent”, to the “obligatory”.” (Smith, 243)


3.   Mohammed was a military leader, unlike any other founder of a major religion, so the detailed discipline of Muslim life is perhaps not surprising; it is simply military in flavor. Once he assumed leadership in Medina, Mohammed made alliances with neighboring peoples and organized an army to conquer Mecca, which had rejected him and his teachings. (Mecca was seized in 630 CE). Mohammed was the first Arab to use trench defenses. “In the last ten years of his life he personally led no less than twenty-seven military campaigns and planned thirty-eight others.” (Hutchison, 446) Muslim writers claim that these military campaigns were defensive.


4.   Many Muslim scholars insist the Koran cannot be translated, and that converts learn to read Arabic. Translations of the Koran to other languages have been failures, in the sense that they have not conveyed what Muslims find interesting about it. Carlyle and Gibbon both complained that it was dull and frustrating to read.[79]  Hutchison is struck by “the miscellaneous character of the Qur’an, where lofty speculations or somber reflections on the last judgment lie side by side with directions on how to enter a house and other equally homely details.” (450) But Muslims memorize and recite the Koran more than they read it. It apparently sounds compelling in Arabic — perhaps only in Arabic. As Smith says, “Crowds in Cairo, Damascus, or Baghdad can be stirred to the highest emotional pitch by statements that, when translated, seem banal. The rhythm, melodic cadence, the rhyme produce a powerful hypnotic effect. Thus the power of the koranic revelation lies not only in the literal meaning of its words but also in the language in which this meaning incorporated, including its sound. The Koran was from the first a vocal phenomenon: we remember that we are to “recite” in the name of the Lord!Because content and container are here inseparably fused, translations cannot possibly convey the emotion, the fervor, and the mystery that the Koran holds in the original. This is why, in sharp contrast to Christians, who have translated their Bible into every known script, Muslims have preferred to teach others the language in which they believe God spoke finally with incomparable force and directness.” (Smith, 234) These phenomena pose extremely interesting questions for linguists and philosophers of language!


5.   Most religions are extremely vague in their descriptions of life beyond this one. Not so Islam. Descriptions of heaven and hell is Islam are more concrete and worldly than in any other major religion. In Muslim heaven, for example, people (souls?) recline on couches inlaid with jewels, surrounded by “immortal celestial youths” and “large-eyed celestial damsels” (houris). They drink “with goblets and ewers and a cup from a flowing spring, from which they will suffer no headache nor will they become intoxicated.” They also eat whatever they like (“such fruits as they may choose, and such flesh of fowl as they may desire”), and presumably never get fat.(As cited by Hutchison, 449)


V. 3  Islamic Philosophy

The religious similarities between Islam and Christianity, and the fact that both the Middle East and the West valued and cultivated the study of the ancient Greek philosophers, make for many philosophical similarities, particularly in philosophy of religion. All of the standard problems in Western philosophy of religion arise as much for Islam as for Christianity, particularly the problem of evil, the problem of creation ex nihilo, the problem of predication of an infinite being, the problem of personal identity in a disembodied state (the afterlife), the problem of miracles, and the “predestination” version of the free will problem. Even much of the actual philosophical argument is the same. Because of the similar concepts of God, similar arguments for the existence of God are found in Islam and Christianity, e.g., the teleological and cosmological arguments. Finally, Islam and Christianity both see the world as God’s creation and thus interesting and worthy of study. Hence both value  reason and scientific investigation, and thinkers in both religions strive to reconcile their world-views with science as much as possible.


Islam has produced a few great philosophers — al-Farabi (875-950 CE), Avicenna (Abu ali ibn Sina) (980-1037 CE), and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) (1126-1198). But “after Averroes, no philosopher of comparable stature emerged in Islam. Historians have no fully adequate explanation for this lack, but the fact is clear.” (Hutchison, 470) The writings of both Avicenna and Averroes were bitterly attacked as heresy by fellow Muslims. There may be no such thing as “orthodox” Muslim philosophy, as opposed to theology.


All three of the great Muslim philosophers are already studied in classes in Medieval Philosophy in Western philosophy curricula. Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes made important contributions to the topic of the reconciliation of faith and reason, the basic topic for philosophers of the Western medieval world. Avicenna, the greatest of the three, formulated the distinction between necessary and contingent being, and this distinction was of great importance through the modern period in the West. Nevertheless, the Islamic philosophers are still not very well-known. The reason is simple: most professional philosophers don’t pay much attention to the Western Medieval period. They may have had a general upper-division survey course, but few philosophers make Medieval Philosophy their specialty, since the problem of justifying faith by reason isn’t exactly a hot issue anymore (Kant is usually thought to have made it obsolete). Aside from the famous “proofs” for the existence of God by Anselm and Aquinas, the Christian medieval philosophers aren’t any better known than the Islamic ones. Medieval philosophy is a rather esoteric specialty. There are very few job openings for it, mostly in Catholic universities, and the Catholic universities are usually not looking for Islamic specialists.


V. 4  Recommendations

1.   I have no substantive recommendations to make regarding how we teach about Islam in our comparative religion classes in the philosophy department, because we are already doing what I consider the right things: emphasizing common misunderstandings about it, reading selections from the Koran and distinguishing between what the Koran says and how it is interpreted in various sects and cultures, distinguishing between “folk” and esoteric versions of Islam, noting the heretical nature of the Black Muslim movement, etc. 


2.   Most Philosophy 1 textbooks already mention Avicenna and his influence. Most mention also the contribution of Arab scholars in preserving ancient Greek texts during the Dark Ages in Western Europe. We could be sure to mention this in class also.


3.   We would certainly study al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes in more depth if we offered a specialty class in Medieval Philosophy; but such a class is an upper-division philosophy elective.


4.   Arab contributions to mathematical logic should be noted in Philosophy 2 and Philosophy 9.





The same problems arise trying to locate native North American philosophy as African philosophy. We find ethno-philosophy or folk philosophy, but not philosophy in the academic sense (centered on reason rather than religion, with a continuing written speculative tradition). Indeed, I know of no journals or books at all on the subject of native North American philosophy in the academic sense, though there are many interesting and valuable anthropological works on native North American beliefs, customs, religions, etc.[80] 


I know of no professional native North American philosophers at all, in any area of academic philosophy, though I am sure some must exist. Newer ethics texts usually discuss issues of environmental ethics, racism, and cultural imperialism, but the authors anthologized who supposedly represent the native North American point of view are not native North American philosophers;they are anthropologists, fiction writers, and journalists, like Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday and Eagle Man (Ed McGaa), whose essay, “We Are All Related”, appears in Gary Kessler’s Voices of Wisdom: A Multicultural Philosophy Reader. Even if these writers are not professional academic philosophers, they can still, of course, put together good arguments; but a tradition of written speculation by native North Americans seems to be only beginning.


Since I have found no academic philosophy of any kind to discuss here, I will turn to native North American religious traditions. Everything I say here about so-called “primal” religions applies equally to indigenous African religions.


VI. 1 Primal Religions

Huston Smith characterizes both African and native North and South American religions as “primal”, or alternatively, “tribal”.  These primal religions are far older than the so-called “historical religions” that have supplanted them in many parts of the world. Primal religion is “the religion of peoples who live in small communities, on subsistent economies that are the direct product of their own efforts, and without depending on writing”. (Smith 365) Primal religion is now found only in parts of  “Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Siberia, and among the Indians of North and South America.” (ibid)


The following are some important differences between primal and modern religions and world-views:


1.   Unlike modern societies, tribes feature relatively little division of labor. Tribes typically do differentiate between the tasks of men and women, but they don’t distinguish between clergy and laity, or between sacred and secular, human and animal, animate and inanimate. In that sense, the tribal world is unfragmented. Tribal people are embedded in the natural world around them, and that whole world partakes in the sacred. Because primal religions see humans at one with nature, and all nature as sacred, primal religions revere all aspects of the natural world. There is little distinction between the individual and the tribe, or between the tribe and its environment, or between the human and the non-human. There is no metaphysical hierarchy of being in terms of which humans are “higher” or “better”than animals or plants or even rocks; every individual thing is alive and important. Animals and plants are usually thought of as “people” too. Hence there is no distinction between religious and non-religious activities: every interaction with the world has religious significance. Primal religions celebrate nature in the cycle of the seasons, and often in totemism (the symbolic joining of a tribe or clan with an animal species).  


2.   Primal religions assume a single reality, which includes two kinds of being, and thus can be experienced in two different ways. One sort of being is temporal, and is the stuff of “normal” experience of the world. Temporal beings go in and out of being; the seasons change, people are born and die. The second sort of reality includes unchanging entities which are always potentially present in ordinary experience.[81]  Humans can partake in the immortal and give significance to their lives by ritually re-creating eternal archetypal patterns. For the Aborigines and Native Americans the normally unseen world is populated by eternal archetypes of not only things (the man, the woman, the fish, the wolf, the eagle, the bear, etc.)but also activities (hunting, lovemaking, war). An individual in the temporal world can partake of eternity by identifying completely with the archetypes in daily life: by “becoming” not a hunter or warrior but the Hunter or the Warrior. The Aborigines call these states of ritual identification “the Dreaming”; they are the closest thing to “worship” that we find in Aborigine culture. Primal religions frequently use natural hallucinogens and other drugs (alcohols, mushrooms, peyote, cannabis, mescaline, cocaine) to facilitate this identification with the archetypes. For example, Castaneda “becomes” The Crow only while tripping.[82]


3.   Primal cultures are oral cultures; they have no tradition of literacy. The “texts” of primitive religions are myths, which are transmitted orally. “Oral transmission” includes drama and spectacle in addition to simple storytelling. Since primal peoples cherish their ancestors (who are thought to be closer to the primal Source of being), they have the highest respect for the myths given to them by their ancestors, and they treat the myths with the utmost respect, memorizing them carefully, and repeating them often. The myths contain not only stories of archetypal heroes, but specific instructions for hunting, gathering, building houses and boats, cooking, preparing medicines, etc., so memorizing them correctly is important for the continued well-being of the tribe. According to Smith, orality is important for primal religion because it keeps primitive people focused on their own experience of the world. Sacred texts cannot assume undue importance;oral cultures can still “sense the sacred through nonverbal channels” (Smith 370). Orality ensures that primal peoples do not fill their heads with endless trivia; if something is learned, it is used or it is forgotten. Orality also protects primal people from over-valuing thought itself (a tendency of the lettered, according to Smith).


4.   Primal religions value individuality; they see the uniqueness of things and places. One bird is not interchangeable with another. One corner of the room might be more suitable for sitting in than another; and the same corner might not be suitable for me and for you. (Don Juan tells Castaneda to find the place in the room that feels right for him.)One man’s house is not interchangeable with another’s.[83]  You cannot uproot a person from one place and expect that she will necessarily thrive elsewhere. A human is not like a machine that needs only electricity to run well, that can be transported anywhere and just plugged in. A human is not like an angel, a pure intellect that can flourish no matter where it lives or what it is nourished by. Animals and humans are much more like plants[84];they thrive in some habitats but not in others.


5.   Primal nature rites focus mainly on maintaining the regular course of natural events. The rites do not try to force nature to do anything supernatural; rather, the tribe seeks merely that rainfall and temperature and local wildlife supply stay normal. This cooperative orientation toward nature makes primal peoples essentially conservative about making large-scale alterations to the natural world that would upset nature’s norms or damage individual plants and animals, e.g., dams, cities, highways, etc. Indeed, they are conservative about small alterations. Environmentalists often look to primal peoples as models of proper human interaction with nature.


6.   The natural world and the body are valued in primal religious thought, unlike in most historical religions. Thus there is little interest in escaping the body or despising the world. As Smith says, “Primal peoples are ... oriented to a single cosmos, which sustains them like a living womb. Because they assume that it exists to nurture them, they have no disposition to challenge it, defy it, refashion it, or escape from it. It is not a place of exile.... Its space is not homogeneous; the home has a number of rooms, we might say, some of which are normally invisible. But together they constitute a single domicile. Primal peoples are concerned with the maintenance of personal, social, and cosmic harmony, and with attaining specific goods — rain, harvest, children, health — as people always are. But the overriding goal of salvation that dominates historical religions is virtually absent from them, and life after death tends to be a shadowy semi-existence in some vaguely designated place in their single domain.” (377)


7.   Primal religions appear on the surface to be polytheistic, but in fact usually suppose one High God or Ultimate Power or Supreme Being. But the High God is often not named or even spoken of directly;it is assumed unknowable. Naming the High God would also conceptually separate that God from the world, thus draining some of the holiness from the ordinary world, since the conceptual separation makes clear that the world is not the High God (yet in the primal view, it is). The ordinary world is thought to be obviously a manifestation of the Great Power.[85]  Obviously, to the primal mind, the world of the senses is not the whole story. That sensible world signifies; it can be only if there is something More. Nothing is merely as it appears; rather, everything is symbolic, “transparent”to its divine source.


Western philosophers find the primal approach intriguing but problematic, especially in its rejection of ordinary metaphysical categories. But there lies its attraction for other Western minds. Curious reversals abound. In the American colonial times and through the 19th century, white Americans were fascinated with the natives. “Indian captivity narratives” were a popular literary form, e.g., James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. The popular captivity narratives usually pictured native Americans as cruel savages (e.g., Ethan Allen’s accounts) in order to build popular support for the expansionist goals of the young America. But in fact as early as the 16th century, captured Europeans often voluntarily rejected their culture to live with Native American tribes; Daniel Boone was the most famous example. The hero of the recent film Dances with Wolves is another. Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1753:“When white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and have lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay ... yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”[86]


Nowadays, as Richard Rodriguez points out, native Guatemalans embrace Mormonism while “blond animal-rights activists in Orange County are becoming the new pantheists, California’s new tribe of Indians —proclaiming the equality of all living things.”[87]


I will close on that note, because I seem to have come full circle. Rodriguez’s example illustrates exactly the same merging of cultures I described in Section I.1.




1.   Native American religious thought should be studied in the module on primal religions in Philosophy 4.


2.   Primal religious views on the proper human relationship to nature should be critically analyzed in Philosophy 12(Environmental Ethics). There are deep and difficult questions here.


3.   The primal world-view could be usefully employed in Philosophy 1 as an example of an “alternative” metaphysics.




[1]Louis Menand, from “Being an American”, originally published in the Times Literary Supplement (London);excerpted in Harper’s, March 1993. All quotes in this first section are from this article.

[2]Note Menand’s remarks concern America as a whole, not California or New York.

[3]This is by no means to suggest that “white, straight men of property” are necessarily morally inferior to non-white men or women. White men happen to be the current holders of the most power in America today. But, as Camille Paglia puts it, “the human record is virtually universally one of cruelty barely overcome by and restrained by civilization. Imperialism and slavery are no white male monopoly but are everywhere, from Egypt, Assyria, and Persia to India, China, and Japan.” (Sex, Art, and American Culture, p, 239)

[4]This is why “competition” and the “free market” are exactly the wrong models to use for national health care. The losers need health care too.

[5]Thus I find it odd to claim, as many do, that Africans and African-Americans share the same culture.

[6]I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw in the Mercury-News, June 5, 1993, that there is now an entire channel on the Home Shopping Network devoted exclusively to selling products seen on soap operas: you can now buy sweatshirts from the fictional universities attended by the soap opera characters, the furniture and appliances you see in their homes, and even framed portraits of the TV families to put on your own mantle or piano.

[7]Video and other primarily visual media convey messages far more quickly and efficiently than the printed word; human brains process visual information far more quickly than written symbols. Mere words, one person’s opinion simply stated or written, cannot possibly compete with media. Our students seem to know this in their bones. Thus many of our students, raised on images, seem to have given up on words; when we teachers try to elicit words from them, in speeches or in essays, the students are not merely tongue-tied — they are incoherent.

[8]When Sinead O’Connor tore up the photograph of the Pope on Saturday Night Live last year and said “Fight the real enemy”, no one in the supposedly hip audience seemed to have any idea what she was saying.

[9]TV newsreaders and writers have a carefully constructed veneer of “objectivity”about “serious” news — free-floating, without context, and unengaged — that is, by design, utterly boring. News stories all sound the same because they’re supposed to. Murphy Brown is a good illustration of this. The stories on the fictional news program FYI are all summarized in sound bites:Murphy’s “corrupt Administration official scandal” story, Frank’s “pollution story”, Corkie’s “Mary Kay Cosmetics story”. We don’t need to hear the stories themselves because we already know them. In order to keep the audience from changing channels (and thus miss the commercials), news programs must focus a disproportionate amount of attention on “human interest” stories, celebrities, and other trivialities. 

[10]Philosophy 12, Introduction to Environmental Ethics, fills faster than Introduction to Ethics.

[11]Their idea of deep thinking about values is to claim that it’s “bad” (!) to make value judgments.

[12]My dissertation The Concept of Instinct  was on this subject.

[13]It seems obvious to me that social class is by far the most important determinant of one’s social comfort level; one is uncomfortable with people of different class, not necessarily different race. For example, I’d feel much more comfortable with a group of black academics than with a group of Hell’s Angels.

[14]It does not help that in our society they are not encouraged to do the one thing that would help, namely, forgive.

[15]For want of a better word; substitute “anti-social behavior” if you like.

[16]See Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.

[17]A good discussion of this is in Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart.

[18]Of course, this is why most of the “consuming images” are directed at younger people; older people often have realized that happiness and stuff don’t necessarily go together.

[19]I am, of course, not talking here about the utter misery of people who really have nothing, as in Somalia. I mean people whose most intense desires center on having money and “nice things”. They are the perfect consumers, truly duped, truly at sea morally and spiritually.

[20]This excellent phrase comes from Bill Moyers.

[21]For example, my department was attacked in the Norsemana few years ago by what I presume was this argument. The speaker, a WVC counselor, claimed that  it is prima facie absurd to suppose that respect and appreciation for non-Western cultures could be taught in a philosophy class (she was referring to our Comparative Religions class). No reason was given for this claim, but from the context, I presume she meant that the faculty currently teaching the class (who all were white men) were unqualified because they were not members of the cultures being discussed.

[22]I will risk a little joke here and say that perhaps the most effective way to get students to read the works of these authors is not to assign them; as a college student, I read Wright, Malcolm, Cleaver, Fanon, and Baldwin (who influenced me most), but not one was “assigned reading” for any class. Neither were the classic works of feminism, which I also read.

[23]In Ms., Volume III, No. 5 (March-April 1993).

[24]What do you think would happen? This is the outcome I would expect, but I might be wrong.

[25]I hesitate to write any of this, incidentally, because I fear exactly this sort of ad hominem:  something along the lines of “The very fact that LaFave, a white woman, is presenting these arguments proves that she doesn’t really understand”. That focuses attention on an irrelevancy (my race);it attacks me, but does not constitute any kind of adequate rational counterargumentto my arguments. Please remember that I am a feminist and write in the spirit of sisterhood.

[26]Indeed, I have read a course outline for a philosophy class on “the black experience”in which the teacher made this comparison explicitly. He asked the white students in the class to share their experiences, if any, of childhood abuse, and then claimed that only those students could “really understand” the black experience.

[27]In the Wall Street Journal, June 25, 1991.

[28]In Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America, (Penguin, 1990).

[29]“Multiculturalism:E Pluribus Plures”, in Daniel Bonevac, Today’s Moral Issues (Mayfield, 1992).

[30]Indeed, according to The New Yorker, (June 7, 1993), the well-known chair of Black Studies at CCNY, Leonard Jeffries, has never published anything.  For more on Jeffries and the antics of the Afrocentric fringe, see Andrew Sullivan’s “Racism 101” in The New Republic, November 26, 1990.

[31]It cannot be said often enough that “African” is a geographical designation. There is no such thing as African culture, any more than there is “North American”culture. Urban Muslims in Cairo and Kikuyu tribesmen do not share a culture any more than Navajos and Wall Street investment bankers. 

[32]U.S. News and World Report journalist John Leo, reporting on Afrocentric curricula that assume the ancient Egyptians were black, says he “phoned seven Egyptologists at random around the country, and all seven said it is completely untrue, then asked that their names not be used. “It’s politically too hot to say this [in public],” said one.” (November 12, 1990)

[33]Ravitch mentions this in her article.

[34]See my letter in Harper’s, February 1991.

[35]Daniel Bonevac, William Boon, Stephen Phillips, Beyond the Western Tradition: Readings in Moral and Political Philosophy (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1992), p. v.

[36]  Ibid.

[37]Hand in hand with this misunderstanding is another one: if philosophy is just what you believe, then since everybody believes some things, every person and every culture has a “philosophy”.

[38]Science, of course, used to called “natural philosophy”.

[39]Degrees in philosophy, theology, and religious studies are not interchangeable. Because of the general misunderstanding about the nature of academic philosophy, the California community colleges conflate these fields, e.g., in the credentialing system, where a person with a degree in religious studies or theology was judged competent to teach philosophy, and vice-versa. Even today, the “minimum qualifications” for philosophy jobs in 2-year colleges include a master’s in philosophy or theology or religious studies. Thankfully, the conflation does not occur in CSU or UC, where philosophy and religious studies are always separate departments. Theology, the sectarian study of religion, is not taught in public universities.

[40]John Hutchison, Paths of Faith, 4th Edition (San Francisco: McGraw-Hill, 1991), p. 162.

[41]For an entertaining account of this (also some of the clearest explanations of deconstruction I have seen), see David Lodge’s novel Nice Work (1988).

[42]Dinesh D’Souza, “Illiberal Education”, exerpted in The Atlantic Monthly, March 1991, p. 53.

[43]In Perspectives, October 1992. The title of the essay is rather misleading; Wallach argues strongly in favor of “political correct” ideas (deconstruction, multiculturalism, rejection of the Western canon, etc.).

[44]Elsa Barkley Brown, as cited by Scott, op. cit., 18.

[45]These ethical arguments would of course by rejected by a consistent deconstructionist, since value judgments, like all others, are situated and thus simply opinions.

[46]Jokingly dismissed as the “truth fairy” by some deconstructionists.

[47]Gary Kessler, Voices of Wisdom: A Multicultural Philosophy Reader (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1992), p. 454.

[48]Jorge Gracia, ed., Latin American Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986), p. 22.

[49]The same can be said, by the way, for some European cultures, e.g., Russia and Scandinavia.

[50]As cited by Richard A. Wright, ed., African Philosophy, An Introduction, Third Edition (New York: University Press of America, 1984), p. 156.

[51]The Book of the Dead is primarily interesting as a document of comparative religion. It’s hard to think the same way about Jesus after reading the story of Osiris, an Egyptian god of at least three millennia before Christ, who also had an illegitimate birth, suffered and died, and whose followers attain eternal life “through his sufferings”.

[52]Stories survive of ancient women philosophers such as Hypatia, but we do not have their writings; they have either been lost or were minimal to begin with. So we can say only that perhaps great women philosophers existed in the ancient period.

[53]  Ibid.

[54]Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), p. 91.

[55]For example, some women philosophers I know will not use Sommers’ excellent ethics text (which I use).

[56]According to Jeffrey Masson, Freud himself could never imagine that a father would actually subject his daughter to sexual abuse, in spite of overwhelming testimonial evidence from his female patients. Freud dismissed all such reports as “female hysteria”, setting the pattern forpsychoanalytic practice for years. See Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson, The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory (1984).

[57]A particularly striking example is the character played by James Cagney in the 1933 film White Heat — a classic Freudian sociopath whose primary attachment, as portrayed in the film, is to his mother.

[58]For example, see Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

[59]For a summary, see Rosemarie Tong, Feminine and Feminist Ethics (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1993).

[60]Karen J. Warren, “The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism”, in Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler, Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence (San Francisco: McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 438.

[61]For example, Maria Lugones, who is Argentinean, writes about this issue, e.g., in “Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism, and the Demand for “The Women’s Voice”“, as cited in Moore and Bruder, 382 . Unfortunately, I find little in Lugones’ writing besides expression of personal feelings. She feels misunderstood, left out, not seen, but she does not give specific examples of how white/Anglo women abuse her, nor does she offer much in the way of suggestion for improving things. (She says we should love her better (in Garry and Pearsall, 275-290 passim).)

[62]The problem, as I argued in Chapter 1, is poverty, not sexism. I am willing to be convinced to the contrary, but I have never read or experienced anything to make me see this differently.  Marx says the oppression of women is the primary economic oppression, because their labor is seldom compensated. John Lennon and Yoko Ono once put it more colorfully, “Woman is the nigger of the world.” I think that even if there were no such thing as racism, there might still be sexism. (Just listen to most rap music, or look at  MTV.) If we take a truly multi-cultural perspective, it seems obvious that women and female children of all races and classes are routinely exploited economically and excluded from education, and in more extreme instances, abused, enslaved, raped, mutilated and secluded. It is certainly false that white women “have it made” anywhere except perhaps in lower levels of academia in America.

[63]One more autobiographical example: my former husband, a Jew, scored a 784 (of 800)on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). He had good undergraduate grades and a master’s degree in philosophy. He was not accepted into Boalt Hall (Berkeley’s law school). However, a Spanish-surnamed woman we knew rather well, who had only a BA, mediocre grades and an LSAT in the low 500s, did get into Boalt the same year. She happened to be one-eighth Hispanic. She knew next to nothing about Hispanic culture; indeed, she did not even speak Spanish. I remember feeling extremely conflicted about this.

[64]Of course a few white feminists areman-hating lesbians, but is it really necessary to point out that most white feminists love men?

[65]In Garry and Pearsall, Women, Knowledge, and Reality (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

[66]In The New York Times, February 28, 1993. Estes appears unfamiliar with the critiques of the family (mentioned above) that form the cornerstone of most feminist theory.

[67]See Andrea Dworkin’s Right-Wing Women(Perigee, 1982).

[68]I ruined my 1981 interview at Loyola-Marymount College in Los Angeles, when I said in the presence of a devout lay Catholic woman theologian searching for the “true meaning of womanhood” that feminism was “obviously” incompatible with Catholicism.

[69]Some people would trace the origin of the concept of equality in the West back further, to Christianity. Perhaps the concept comes from Christianity, but the concept was not seriously put into practice until the modern period, and not with respect to women until this century. Many religions give lip service to the idea that all persons are equal before God, but this religious idea is not necessarily reflected in social practices or laws. Islam, for example, says women are “equal” but different. Thus Islamic societies restrict women’s rights and activities. Most forms of Christianity do the same.

[70]Naturally, Christianity recognizes the contemplative path also; think of the New Testament story of Mary and Martha. Jesus even says Mary’s way is “the better path”.

[71]Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989), p. 112.

[72]Archie Baum, ed. Lao-Tzu’s Tao Teh King (sic), Interpreted as Nature and Intelligence, Second Edition (Albuquerque: World Books,1986), p. 73ff.

[73]Lao-Tsu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English ((New York: Random House, Vintage, 1972). This book has no page numbers.

[74]Islam is like this also. The Arabic root slmmeans both “peace” and “surrender”; thus the full connotation of “Islam” is “the peace that comes when one’s like is surrendered to God” (Smith, 222). Total surrender to God is the attribute Islam seeks to cultivate.

[75]Anatta is, however, consistent with the concept of Atman in Advaita-Vedanta, but that was a much later development of Hinduism.

[76]I once asked my students if they had heard of the war between Iran and Irag which raged throughout the 1970s and into the 80s. They all had heard of it, repeatedly, in the news. They were sick of hearing about it. I asked if anyone knew what the fight was about. Not a single non-Arab student had any idea. One joked, “It’s an ‘n’! No, it’s a ‘q’! No, it’s an ‘n’!” Let me point out that in my view, their ignorance is exactly what you’d expect, given what passes for “news coverage”; my students are no different from most people.

[77]Hutchison, however, says, “There is little reliable knowledge as to how Islam fares in contemporary China. Indeed, statistics vary widely concerning the number of Muslims in China.” (471)

[78]Christians and Jews were still considered heretics “who cling to partial truth when full truth is available” (Hutchison, 449). Pagans, however, were another matter;they had to convert or “be subject to attack as threats to Islam.” (Hutchison, 446)

[79]Carlyle said, “Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.”(As cited by Smith, 233)

[80]For example, Alvin Josephy’s The Indian Heritage of America (Houghton Mifflin 1968), Ake Hultkranz’s Native Religions of North America(Harper 1987), Nerburn and Mengelkoch, eds. Native American Wisdom (New World Library 1991), Tedlock and Tedlock, Teachings from the American Earth(Liveright, 1975) and Joseph Epes Brown’s The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian (Crossroad, 1989).

[81]This sounds a lot like ordinary Western dualism à la Plato, but without the de-valuing of the ordinary sensible world. Western dualism is really dual and intractably hierarchical, i.e., there are two completely different kinds of reality, and one kind is better — not one reality with two different kinds of aspects.

[82]Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (New York: Pocket Books, 1968), pp 164-167.

[83]Some Western writers have a primal sense of “place” also, e.g., E. M. Forster in Howards End.

[84]Aristotle uses the plant analogy for persons also.

[85]This is in interesting contrast to ordinary Western theology, in which the existence of God is viewed as not obvious, but something to be proved.

[86]As cited by Annette Kolodny, “Among the Indians: The Uses of Captivity” in The New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1993.

[87]“The Birth Pangs of a New L.A.”, in Harper’s, July 1993, p. 21.





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