Alexus McLeod is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Asian/Asian-American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He works in Comparative Philosophy broadly, with specific interests in the Chinese, Indian, and Mesoamerican philosophical traditions. Recent publications include Philosophy of the Ancient Maya: Lords of Time (Lexington), Theories of Truth in Chinese Philosophy: A Comparative Approach (Rowman and Littlefield International), Astronomy in the Ancient World (Springer) and Understanding Asian Philosophy (Bloomsbury). He is also editor of the Critical Inquries in Comparative Philosophy book series (Rowman and Littlefield International). He is currently working on a book on madness and self-cultivation in early China, and a project on truth in Indian Philosophy. He considers himself a philosophical explorer, in the spirit of his favorite fictional explorer (pictured on the tie in this photo).
Comparative Philosophy in an Age of Cultural Chauvinism (or “The Art of Traveling Without Traveling”)
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
-Mark Twain, from The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress
My philosophical work is, to put it mildly, all over the map. I work on numerous different philosophical traditions (most recently the Chinese, Mesoamerican, Greek, and Indian traditions), and on numerous different philosophical issues within those traditions. I don’t think any of my books has covered philosophical terrain anywhere close to that of any of the others, and I don’t anticipate this changing anytime soon. In a field like our own that rewards (relatively) narrow specialization, it has been difficult to make my way like this, but somehow I have. I keep writing this stuff and people keep publishing it, and by the grace of God, I have a job as well. What I’ve never offered in any of my work yet, however, is an explanation of why I insist on working this way, hopping over so many area and disciplinary boundaries. There is purpose behind my philosophical wandering. I’d like to explain at least a little of this here, and why I think the field needs at least a few of us doing this kind of thing.
I am a huge fan of travel shows. I love watching others travel between continents, seeing historic sites, meeting people, and learning about different cultures across the globe. Indeed, I discovered the first part of the Mark Twain quote that opens this post though my favorite travel show, Joseph Rosendo’s Travelscope, which closes each episode with the quote. It is a powerful statement of the importance of travel. Though Mark Twain was talking specifically about the kind of physical travel that requires long journeys over many miles, travel can happen in a variety of ways. It does not need to be the kind of physical “get up and go” trekking that requires enough free time and either a job that provides it or a large enough bank account. Anyone can travel. The key is that it involves leaving one’s “little corner,” as Mark Twain called it, and wandering into unfamiliar places. In fact, even though I personally tend to physically travel very little these days (at least in comparison to most philosophers I know), in part because I loathe transit, I engage in different kind of travel, from the armchair. Call it the art of traveling without traveling (I have a soft spot for Daoist descriptions).
Much about my own background makes this kind of travel natural for me. Even though I grew up within a pretty small range, I had the good fortune of growing up in one of the most international and cosmopolitan cities in the world, Washington, DC. One could walk a mile in any direction and find people who spoke many different languages, from all over the world. You didn’t have to globetrot to see the world, because everyone was already there. My own background is relatively diverse—I am the son of a mainly Irish-American woman from the Northeast and an African-American man from the Deep South. I married the daughter of a diplomat from India, who has herself lived in various places around the globe. It was in fact she who first got me interested in Chinese, as she’d lived in Beijing for some time and convinced me to take a course in Mandarin with her when we were undergrads. Cultural diversity has always been a central part of my own life, even though, like Socrates, I tend to stick close to home.
Travel, to me, happens through exploring different places, whether those are the physical surroundings of a different nation on a different continent, or the intellectual heritage of a culture—its language, literature, and history. I studied a number of languages and cultures as an undergraduate, all without stepping foot in the lands of their origin. I studied Mandarin Chinese and then Classical Chinese long before I ever visited China, diving into the classic philosophical, religious, and historical texts. I did the same thing with a number of other languages and cultures. This study opened my eyes to all kinds of ways of thinking about the world that differed from those I knew. Some of them I found implausible, but the longer I have reflected on these texts and traditions, the more plausible I have come to find them. And not only that, I’ve found that they have shaped the ways I think and act. My “travel” through the world’s traditions has not only enriched my life as a whole, but has made me a better philosopher than I would have been without it.
The multiculturalism I discuss (if you want to call it that) was for me never associated with elitism or any other class consideration. I was never part of the “jet set.” I come from about as typical a “middle class” an American family as one can imagine, and most of the people I knew from around the world were not much different in terms of economic class. This is part of why it pains me today to hear the enemies of multiculturalism today proclaim that it is an ideology of a so-called “Davos class”, as if the rich and powerful are trying to force cultural diversity on the unwilling masses. This was never my experience. And part of what I aim to do with my work is create the conditions in philosophy for others to travel, to have the same kind of experiences I had growing up living in the midst of diversity, and then intellectually traveling.
The kind of intellectual travel I engaged in is easier today than it has ever been. One of the unique advantages we have today is the sheer wealth of information we have at our fingertips, and all around us. The world is more interconnected today than it has ever been. It is far easier to travel intellectually, in the sense of immersion in the cultural products of a distant people, than it was when I was starting out (and it was easy then!). Travel has never been easier, even for the physical travel-averse homebody like me. There are of course deep advantages of living in a cosmopolitan city like DC or NYC, but such travel is available to people living in less diverse areas as well.
Nonetheless, in recent years visceral and even violent reaction against the kind of multiculturalism I prize has arisen at home in my country and around the world. The reasons for this are complex, having partly to do with the association in the minds of some of cultural diversity with a certain rapacious economic ideology. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the kind of rhetoric that props up such reaction against multiculturalism can only be effective in the absence of widespread travel—whether physical or intellectual travel. Echoes of this broader cultural resistance to diversity can be found even in our own discipline of philosophy. Thus, when we ask why the world is sinking into the mire of nationalism, xenophobia, and bigotry, we should also look to ourselves. Haven’t we understood Non-Western thought as an “optional other” through the years? And even now, don’t we still tend to consider the philosophical value of these traditions in terms of what they can do to advance the projects we are already engaged in?
I think the questions of whether a historical thinker or text from a Non-Western tradition is “interesting” or “important” or can “help us solve problems” are the wrong questions to be asking. What, after all, determines whether a philosopher is interesting? Part of the problem is that when we are provincial, our provinciality does not limit itself to the content we choose to engage with, but seeps into the very ways that we reason, and shapes our conceptions of what we find valuable. Are Mengzi, Dharmakirti, and Nezahualcoyotl important because they deal with problems we’re already inclined to think are important? This strikes me as similar to a person who says that he’s only going to go try the Salvadorean food cart if they have good food. It will be completely unsurprising when the insular non-Salvadorean concludes that it’s not good food because it doesn’t taste right, because they don’t have pizza and hamburgers and fries. One’s view of what counts as good food will be shaped by the communities one moves in, by what one is exposed to. Likewise, what one understands as a good argument, an apt intuition, or an important point, has much (but not everything of course) to do with what one is exposed to, with where one stands. We are deluding ourselves if we think there is some kind of universal and culturally transcendent standard for what is “important”, or even of proper reasoning. This is not to say that we should accept a radical postmodernist stance toward reasoning itself, but reasoning itself is always half-formed. There are no arguments without assumptions, intuitions, implicit valuations—including shared assumptions about just what constitutes good argument. One of the things I have been most struck by in my years of studying various philosophical traditions is just how different assumptions can be concerning all of the aspects of philosophical reasoning mentioned above. Even if we are right that there is One True Method (although, like Zhuangzi, I think we should run for the hills when anyone starts pontificating about the One True Anything), we cannot simply assume that we have it, when there are so many other alternatives out there.
Ultimately, my hope is that through intellectual travel we will form new ways of living, thinking, and speaking. My own aim is to contribute to the development of global philosophy, which is part of a larger project we might call “globalization”. Not the kind of globalization that looks to impose a single cultural standard on everyone, but the kind of globalization that involves mutual exchange and true fusion. True fusion does not involve the “land grab” of using parts of some traditions to achieve the purposes of another, rather it involves the transformation of multiple traditions into a new tradition that shares features of each. True fusion is not philosophical appropriation. Rather, it involves being open to the transformation of oneself in light of a mutual exchange. When a true fusion happens, there can no longer be an “us” and “them”, because “they” become “us”.
So when I’m asked (as I occasionally am), “is this all just about inclusion? Is it diversity just for the sake of diversity?” I answer emphatically—“yes!” Inclusion is critical. What we include as part of ourselves shapes how we view and reason about the world and our lives. It is no accident that those whose communities are most restrictive also have the most insular and impoverished worldviews. It is simply impossible to spend much time with others without being influenced by the ways they think and act, and without developing more expansive (and ultimately more adequate) worldviews. If we aim to understand universal concepts like truth, being, morality, and others, we can’t sit still in our “little corner of the earth.” We have to travel. We have to explore. Sic itur ad astra!