Department of Euro-American mathematics?


Soviet 4 kopeck stamp in honor of Muhammad al-Khwarizmi

Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden have just published an opinion piece in the New York Times decrying the “systematic neglect” of non-European traditions in philosophy departments in the US and Canada.

…of the 118 doctoral programs in philosophy in the United States and Canada, only 10 percent have a specialist in Chinese philosophy as part of their regular faculty. Most philosophy departments also offer no courses on Africana, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American, Native American or other non-European traditions. Indeed, of the top 50 philosophy doctoral programs in the English-speaking world, only 15 percent have any regular faculty members who teach any non-Western philosophy.

Since they find it unlikely that the situation will change any time soon, they propose that most philosophy departments rename themselves Department of European and American Philosophy to reflect their “true intellectual commitments.”  I have a lot of sympathy with their position.  MWA quotes Garfield extensively as an authority on ancient Indian philosophy, specifically in regard to philosophy of mathematics.  I would only add Russian philosophy to the traditions that are generally absent from departments in North America; and I worry that the lack of diversity in philosophy departments appears to be much more severe than Garfield and Van Norden suggest.  For example, a colleague has told me that you can’t get a job in a Scandinavian philosophy department if you are a specialist on Kant, never mind Hegel or Derrida.  Whether or not this is an exaggeration, Department of European and American Philosophical Logic would be an accurate title for a great many departments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Garfield and Van Norden are not quite right, though, when they attempt to refute what they claim is a typical retort to their complaints about eurocentricity:

Others might argue against renaming on the grounds that it is unfair to single out philosophy: We do not have departments of Euro-American Mathematics or Physics. This is nothing but shabby sophistry. Non-European philosophical traditions offer distinctive solutions to problems discussed within European and American philosophy, raise or frame problems not addressed in the American and European tradition, or emphasize and discuss more deeply philosophical problems that are marginalized in Anglo-European philosophy. There are no comparable differences in how mathematics or physics are practiced in other contemporary cultures.

What is or is not “comparable” is in the eyes of the comparer, of course, and it’s no doubt true that cultural differences are no barrier to communication between contemporary mathematical practitioners in Asia and the rest of the world.  Historically, however, mathematics developed around the world in conjunction with a variety of metaphysical traditions, and this has inevitably affected the approaches to foundational matters.  I continue to believe what I have already written on this blog, namely that

I’m convinced that the most interesting problem currently facing philosophy of mathematics is to clarify how or whether Chinese and European mathematics differ and how or whether these differences reflect differences in the respective metaphysical traditions.

See also this earlier post for a discussion of how an abstract universalism tends to mask the persistence of privilege that very strongly aligns with the eurocentrism that Garfield and Van Norden rightly find objectionable.


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