Manuel R. Vargas is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and (through the Spring 2017) Professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of San Francisco. Sometimes, he writes about the moral, psychological, and legal issues concerning human agency and freedom. He also writes about issues within Latin American and Latinx philosophy. His book, Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility won the APA Book Prize in 2015. He was also a winner of the inaugural APA Prize in Latin American Thought.
If Anglo-American philosophy is so great, where is its Las Casas?
Manuel R. Vargas
Many of my philosophical friends are puzzled by my interest in Anglo-American philosophy. In occasional moments of conspiratorial earnestness, they ask me why I spend my time studying issues within a tradition that has produced no Platos, no Descartes, no Las Casases, no Sor Juanas, no Villoros? If Anglophone philosophers—especially those who have studied in the U.S.—have done anything important, anything that matters, they tell me, surely there would be evidence in the other humanities, in the architecture and ambitions of the great universities, or in the visible structure of the political world. Unlike philosophy’s obviously important achievements, there is no trace of specifically U.S. Anglophone philosophical work in the symbols of state, in (for example) the mottos of universities, or in the political discourse of the day. Instead, the tradition relies on its European heritage for anything of world-historical importance, and it seems to produce barrenly scholastic irrelevancies that are of no interest to anyone outside their cloistered world.
When my friends working in Latin American, Asian, Africanist, Indigenous, and comparativist philosophy press me in this way, I protest their parochialism. I tell them that there is a great deal of interest, potential, and even payoff in the work of my colleagues in Anglophone philosophy. But to see how and why there is something of value there requires some work. You can’t expect to be familiar with the value and virtues of Anglophone philosophy without actually studying it. At the very least, before we condemn it we should have some serious study of it.
This response is usually met with some skepticism, and mutterings that from what they’ve heard, it is all derivative dreck, not particularly good, and generally irrelevant to anything that matters for real philosophy. I then hasten to acknowledge that some Anglophone work is derivative dreck, uninspired, or of little real importance. I go on to insist that other Anglophone work is wonderful, inspiring, and about things that genuinely matter.
When my friends in Latin American philosophy and beyond learn that a good deal of Anglophone philosophy has not been translated into their locally preferred philosophical languages, their interest in reading it wanes. The idea that a scholar should have to study another language in order to read material not already in their own tongue(s) strikes them as vaguely repellent, given how much good philosophy is already available to them. I sometimes detect a whiff of dismissiveness about the philosophical potential of the English language.
I suppose I could attribute their attitudes to racism or ethnocentrisms of various sorts, but that seems unlikely. After all, like philosophy elsewhere, Anglophone philosophers are of a wide and diverse set of races and ethnicities, and the neglect of Anglophone philosophy seems unlikely to be explained by something so simple and crass.
Sometimes, friends will tell me that Anglophone philosophy is just “me-studies.” My response is sometimes ill advisedly strident. I would have hoped that others would readily grant that reflections on the nature, interests, and challenges of the groups with which I affiliate might be worth some reflection, at the very least by those of us who are members of those communities. Even though Anglophone moral psychologists and metaphysicians are mostly members of a particular and easily identified social identity group this does not mean that our work fails to aspire to universality, or that it does not speak to more-than-parochial interests.
That my Anglo-American philosophical colleagues self-identify as, for example, “analytic” philosophers, and tend to overwhelmingly restrict their attention to other self-described “analytic” philosophers and their colleagues, does not mean that they are doing “me-studies.” And just because those who occupy the social position of analytic philosophers overwhelmingly fit particular demographic categories does not mean that their interest in that work is merely narcissistic interest in themselves and the ideas produced by that ilk. They—we!—earnestly think the work is good, worth reading, and genuinely valuable. Moreover, the widespread symptom of not reading outside this literature is not necessarily a judgment about other work, I tell them. It is only a reflection of their communities of discourse, their personal interests, and how they have been habituated by their local metrics of value.
At this point in the conversation, I am sometimes met with a vaguely skeptical silence, as though my other-than-Anglophone friends are too polite to voice the thought that the only reason I’m interested in Anglophone philosophy is because I was raised in a context where English was widely spoken, and that I identify in various ways with the culture and circumstances that produced this work. I believe there is nothing wrong with wanting to study issues and topics that are familiar, valorized by one’s idiosyncratic and local culture, or that one finds personally interesting. Moreover, it isn’t as though Anglo-American philosophy is one thing. There is a considerable diversity of topics, orientations, and methods in philosophy in the Anglophone world.
When I say these things, my other-than-Anglophone philosophy friends tend to get a bemused look on their face. They tend to gently press me on the hard question: why it is so hard to find work in my tradition with actual evidence of importance? Why aren’t your philosophers culturally significant figures, architects of culture and policy, or involved in the major national issues of the day, they ask? Anglophone philosophers seem exclusively concerned with the narrow topics of interest only to members of their own tribes.
I gesture at the possibility of different metrics of interestingness. This does little to alter their dissatisfaction.
In older surveys of Anglophone philosophy, written for those outside of the Anglophone world, I sometimes come across a suggestive but now impolitic idea. The idea is this: maybe there is a cultural defect in the spirit or character of Anglophone people, especially in the former colonies, that undercuts the possibility of any real philosophical value to their thought. The idea is, roughly, that the particular legacy of colonialism in much of the English-speaking world has left Anglophone philosophers in those countries inclined to flee from reality and the central challenges of human existence. So, Anglophone philosophers fixate on and regard as prestigious work on metaphysics and theoretical epistemology because these subjects are the purest escape from what is unavoidably immediate and real—ethics, politics, culture. Many but not all of my non-analytic friends think this reflects a disorder of merit. Metaphysics and epistemology have their place, of course, but it is manifestly not at the center of what matters, they say. So, they read the Anglophone preoccupation with metaphysics and epistemology as a kind of pathological cultural neurosis (helped along, perhaps, by the evident irrationalism of the English language). As one author has put it, if philosophy can be done without personal risk, then it is not worth the name.
Fortunately, diagnoses of cultural pathologies are—like satires—less commonly proposed than they once were.
I’ll close by noting that sometimes my Anglophone philosophical friends express puzzlement about my interest in Latin American philosophy. In occasional moments of conspiratorial earnestness, they ask me why I spend time studying issues within a tradition that has produced no Platos, no Descartes, no Humes and so on. The ensuing conversation is oddly familiar.