On Pasnau’s “parochialism of philosophy”

At one point early in grad school, I had a conversation with another grad student about which — if any — philosophers have had a significant impact on world history. He eventually accepted the example of Marx, but we didn’t wind up agreeing on anybody else. In hindsight, the fact that my colleague was an Aristotle scholar makes me unsure of just what it was that we were thinking at the time.

This Robert Pasnau interview has been receiving some discussion for its claim that the history of philosophy — as practiced within Anglo-American philosophy departments and journals — is excessively narrow, insofar as it focuses heavily upon nine canonical figures (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant). In receiving this type of attention, these figures not only drive discussion in the history of philosophy, but help shape the broader image of what actually constitutes the history of philosophy (and who counts as an historian thereof). Anyone with a passing familiarity with the names on this list can note that they are all Greek and European men who either lived in Classical Athens or early modern Europe (Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, to be more precise). As such, the list excludes figures from outside of these times and places —including, for instance philosophers who have legitimately marked the course of world history like Confucius, Augustine, or Hegel — as well as, well, every female philosopher who has ever lived.

As someone whose historical research is focused on Leibniz, I do find myself in a potentially awkward position in light of what Pasnau has to say. I want us to do more to study under-recognized figures and globalize the philosophical canon, and focusing all of our attention on these figures surely gets in the way of these goals. In this way, I might very well be contributing this problem. However, to the degree that I have managed to make my own contributions to the project of “deprovincializing” the history of philosophy, my approach has in large part grown out of an interest in Leibniz, who, more than any of the other modern figure in the “canonical nine”, viewed philosophy as a global phenomenon. The best illustration of this dimension of Leibniz’s thought is his well-known interest in Chinese philosophy. Further, as Franklin Perkins has shown in his excellent book Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light, we need not see Leibniz’s interest in other cultures as independent of his philosophical interests. Rather, Perkins argues that Leibniz’s interest in cross-cultural study and understanding is fully consistent with such Leibnizian metaphysical claims as the existence of harmony and unity within diversity. In my own case, I try to follow Leibniz’s rejection of intellectual sectarianism: philosophical truth is not the exclusive possession of one philosophical school or tradition. The Leibnizian in me thus thinks that it would be a mistake to hastily reject study of the “canonical nine” in the interest of “deprovincializing philosophy.” Such study can indeed aid the critique of provincialism; it might, for example, show that Leibniz would have found our discipline just as provincial as Pasnau.

My real worry, however, is in the way that we as philosophers may tend to overlook the way that the history of philosophy (and hence philosophy itself) is embedded within the wider sweep of world history itself. Though most working philosophers — even many of those historically-attuned philosophers who are willing to recognize, say, the significance of Leibniz’s contributions to metaphysics, logic, and mathematics — might not think Leibniz’s interest in Chinese intellectual and philosophical history is of much significance, or, for that matter, of any relevance to their philosophical interests today, the picture may change when we situate Leibniz’s interest in China (or Locke’s theory of property, or Kant’s views on race) within the larger European project of global domination. I do not have an considered answer as to whether or not Leibniz himself had a “significant” impact when it comes to these types of geopolitical questions, but I do think that he wanted to, and that this desire was of a piece with his broader intellectual projects, including the metaphysics that we have spilled so much ink in analyzing. I will have more to say about this in a follow up post, but If we are serious about the overcoming the problem of the provinciality of the study of the history of philosophy, we need to ask ourselves how we conceive of the relations both between philosophy and its history, as well as between the history of philosophy and history more broadly construed.

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